Accusations of “reverse racism” haunt an American professor
START with this truth of American society: disparaging remarks about white people as a whole that would be simply impermissible for other sets of people are largely permissible and carry few repercussions. This fact seems to enthrall the left and enrage the right. Sarah Jeong, a newly hired editorial writer for the New York Times, found herself embroiled in a controversy of this sort after critics dredged up her old tweets on white people.
Ms Jeong wondered: “Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like grovelling goblins.” In another, she noted: “It’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men”. And she commented: “White people have stopped breeding. You’ll all go extinct soon. This was my plan all along.”
Right-wing pundits were outraged. The favourite thought experiment for this crowd is the substitution test—imagining the consequences of similar statements, with the word “black” replaced for “white”. Yet Ms Jeong kept her job (and the Times says it reviewed her previous social-media posts before she was hired). She would surely have never been offered the job if the target had been a minority.
Those on the left came up with different philosophies to explain her behaviour. One was that, as an Asian-American woman, she was incapable of racism altogether. Another was that it was really the critics who had excavated Ms Jeong’s public statements who were racists. For her part, Ms Jeong labelled her extreme statements as “counter-trolling” the deluge of sexist, racist and homophobic slurs directed at her. She expressed her regret and said she understood “how hurtful these posts are out of context”. This strains credulity, given that her posts span August 2013 to November 2015, but that is no matter.
The fundamental point that people on the left make is that stereotyping white people is not as bad as stereotyping blacks, Asians, Muslims, immigrants and so on because whites have dominated America since its founding. The question they prefer to debate is whether so-called “reverse racism” is as harmful as the more conventional sort of racism—which, of course, it is not. But the defeat of one false equivalence does not sanctify the practice. Belittling, totalising comments about a people based on their skin colour is still a facile, unhelpfully tribal and meaninglessly antagonistic practice, even if a shameful history of systemic oppression does not lurk behind it.
This is illustrated by another recent controversy, which has received less attention than Ms Jeong’s hiring by the Times. James Livingston, a professor of history at Rutgers University in New Jersey and living in Harlem, took to Facebook to register his disapproval of gentrification in colourful terms: “OK, officially, I now hate white people…I just went to Harlem Shake on 124 and Lenox for a Classic burger to go…and the place is overrun with little Caucasian assholes who know their parents will approve of anything they do,” he wrote in May. Mr Livingston, himself white, then added, “I hereby resign from my race. Fuck these people.”
When Facebook removed his post for violating “community standards on hate speech”, he protested further. “I just don’t want little Caucasians overrunning my life, as they did last night. Please God remand them to the suburbs where they and their parents can colonise every restaurant, all the while pretending that the idiotic indulgence of their privilege signifies cosmopolitan—you know, as in sophisticated ‘European’—commitments.”
Mr Livingston faced a barrage of criticism. His ravings overshadowed whatever point he was attempting to make about gentrification: he articulated no thought more sophisticated than white people should remain outside of Harlem. But did his remarks rise to the level of racism?
Rutgers, his employer, thinks so. It found that Mr Livingston violated university policy on harassment and discrimination because of racially-charged comments. The investigative report explicitly employs the substitution test—replacing the word “black” for “Caucasian” and “white”—and noting that it would be impermissible. “From a legal and policy perspective,” the memo says, “‘reverse racism’, to the extent it is defined as treating someone unfairly because they are white, is indeed possible and prohibited”.
Because Rutgers is a public institution, Mr Livingston has significant latitude under the First Amendment to make anti-gentrification broadsides in inflammatory terms. On these grounds, the university is probably unable to censure him. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group, has sent a strongly worded letter to the university president threatening legal action if the finding is not reversed.
But the broader question—whether Mr Livingston’s comments are racist or not—is trickier. In a post defending his comments, titled “Confessions of a Race Traitor”, Mr Livingston writes that he cannot be guilty of reverse racism because it does not exist. “Racism is the exclusive property of white, mostly European people in this part of the world (the Western hemisphere),” he writes. This seems an odd position—a kind of mandated racial blindspot that both the university left and left-leaning journalists have adopted. In America Latinos are quite capable of being racist towards blacks, and vice versa. In the rest of the world, discrimination based on skin colour can be found from sub-Saharan Africa to East Asia.
One journalist has suggested that all comments disparaging whites should be taken as satirical and non-literal, while those directed against minority groups should not. Straightforward advocacy for the genocide of white people—such as a tweet urging followers to “Kill all white people”—surely qualifies as racism, if the word is to retain its common meaning. Yet your correspondent’s informal poll of several left-leaning friends from university suggests that they are squeamish about labelling even such an extreme statement as anti-white racism. To admit that would trivialise traditional racism, they feared.
A much more sensible position would be to say that reverse racism can exist, but that it is rare in comparison to examples of racism against historically marginalised groups and almost always less harmful. That would allow for those on the left to continue in their project of calling out oppression without having to construct convoluted justifications for thoughtless statements like Mr Livingston’s.
This is more than an esoteric academic debate. The alt-right and white supremacists thrive on stories of anti-white racism—nothing makes for better propaganda than the sense of a conspiracy of oppressors. Already, 55% of white Americans believe that they suffer from discrimination according to a poll by NPR in October 2017.
Most of the policies that trigger such an attitude, like race-based affirmative action in university admissions and job hiring, obviously pale in comparison with what has been endured by Native Americans and by black slaves. One does not need to accept the concept of “reverse racism” to see why tolerance of extreme, generalising statements about whites—or whatever you wish to call them—are so dangerous. Such remarks are seized on by those who are nostalgic for a time in which America was supposedly great, but only for a single race.
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