Online controversy erupted earlier this month when The New York Times announced that technology writer Sarah Jeong would be joining its editorial board. Almost immediately, old tweets from Jeong containing derogatory remarks about white people were being shared widely on twitter. The next day, The Times issued a statement defending Jeong’s tweets as a response to online harassment in which she was “imitating the rhetoric of her harassers,” reflecting Jeong’s own statement that she was “counter-trolling” and would not do it again. The Times further claimed it had reviewed Jeong’s social media history as part of the vetting process and affirmed that her hiring would not be affected by the controversy.
The following day, journalist Nick Monroe searched Jeong’s twitter history for the term “white” and found hundreds of tweets from 2013 to 2017. He posted the result in a long twitter thread, also widely shared. Some of the tweets were highly inflammatory, such as: “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men;” “Dumba** f***ing white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants;” and “Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically only being fit to live underground like grovelling goblins.” But there were also many tweets that were more casually derogatory, mixed in with apologies. (I suggest going through Monroe’s thread to get a feel for the rhetoric.)
Jeong’s anti-white rhetoric dates back to at least August 2013. pic.twitter.com/vaaO2TYIGp
— Nick Monroe (@nickmon1112) August 3, 2018
That day, New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan pointed out the implausibility of The Times’s defence of Jeong. Her tweets had occurred over a period of several years, Sullivan noted, and were mostly directed at whites as a group, not individual people. No one could reasonably believe this was all a response to trolls. Sullivan argued that The Times’s defence was just a façade, because the prevailing view on the political left is that it’s impossible to be racist to white people:
The editors of the Verge, where Jeong still works, described any assertion of racism in Jeong’s tweets as “dishonest and outrageous,” a function of bad faith and an attack on journalism itself. Scroll through left-Twitter and you find utter incredulity that demonizing white people could in any way be offensive. That’s the extent to which loathing of and contempt for “white people” is now background noise on the left.
In response, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp argued that Sullivan and fellow conservative David French, who also wrote an article critical of Jeong’s tweets, “misunderstand what racism is and how the so-called ‘social justice left’ approaches the world…”
What Andrew Sullivan and the conservative media get wrong about Sarah Jeong https://t.co/L4s9jvF4Ld
— Vox (@voxdotcom) August 3, 2018
While Beauchamp grants Sullivan’s contention that the social justice left considers institutional power an important component in how racism operates, his main argument is rather that Jeong and others in the social justice left shouldn’t be taken literally when they denigrate white people:
To anyone who’s even passingly familiar with the way the social justice left talks, this is just clearly untrue. “White people” is a shorthand in these communities, one that’s used to capture the way that many whites still act in clueless and/or racist ways. It’s typically used satirically and hyperbolically to emphasize how white people continue to benefit (even unknowingly) from their skin color, or to point out the ways in which a power structure that favors white people continues to exist.
Beauchamp selected a few tweets intended to demonstrate that the way Jeong talks about white people is common on the social justice left. This would be obvious to anyone who has spent time in these communities, he argued. In fact, one of the tweets he reprinted expressed disbelief that The Times didn’t know this. Beauchamp’s defence was echoed a few days later by Vox’s Ezra Klein, who noted that a very similar dynamic occurred on feminist twitter where the line #KillAllMen became popular a few years ago. It made Klein uncomfortable, he noted, but he understood it was satirical.
For someone following the story from the sidelines, this is quite a development. From the emergence of a history of seemingly bigoted tweets from a person hired to The New York Times’s editorial board, to the defence that she was counter-trolling, to the realisation that this type of rhetoric is prevalent on the social justice left, to the argument that—while it is indeed prevalent—it’s not to be taken literally but as clever satire and hyperbole.
Yet, there’s reason to look deeper. In an article in The Atlantic, Reihan Salam offered an alternative perspective to that of Beauchamp and Klein. Titled “The Utility of White-Bashing,” Salam aimed to “look beyond the particulars of Jeong’s remarks to better understand why anti-white rhetoric is, in some communities, so commonplace as to be banal.” While affirming the ubiquity of anti-white rhetoric in progressive communities, Salam suggested it’s driven by motives beyond the simple highlighting of power structures.
Most commonly, he noted, it’s used as a tool by upwardly-mobile white people who “pride themselves on their diverse social circles and their enlightened views,” to distinguish themselves from their racial identity:
It is almost as though we’re living through a strange sort of ethnogenesis, in which those who see themselves as (for lack of a better term) upper-whites are doing everything they can to disaffiliate themselves from those they’ve deemed lower-whites. Note that to be “upper” or “lower” isn’t just about class status, though of course that’s always hovering in the background. Rather, it is about the supposed nobility that flows from racial self-flagellation.
Salam has also seen the same rhetoric used by highly-educated and affluent Asian-American professionals. Ultimately, it’s connected to the same phenomenon, because the aforementioned whites are gatekeepers to academic and professional success:
Think about what it takes to claw your way into America’s elite strata. Unless you were born into the upper-middle class, your surest route is to pursue an elite education. To do that, it pays to be exquisitely sensitive to the beliefs and prejudices of the people who hold the power to grant you access to the social and cultural capital you badly want. By setting the standards for what counts as praiseworthy, elite universities have a powerful effect on youthful go-getters. Their admissions decisions represent powerful “nudges” towards certain attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, and I’ve known many first- and second-generation kids—I was one of them—who intuit this early on.
In other words, anti-white rhetoric, if done in a way that mirrors that of the “upper” whites, helps Asian-Americans prove themselves as part of the elite and distinguish themselves from less-elite Asian-Americans, who just don’t get it. As long as these incentives exist, anti-white rhetoric will continue, Salam argued. (There’s more to his article; I recommend reading it in full.)
Last year, William Deresiewicz wrote a long article about his experiences teaching a semester at an elite college and hearing similar accounts from other elite colleges and universities. His article touches on the same issues Salam’s does, as well as some surrounding context that helps explain them.
Selective private colleges, Deresiewicz argued, have “become religious schools:”
The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.
These schools possess a dogma, a set of beliefs that are understood to be settled and with which disagreement is not allowed. This dogma is enforced not just by faculty, but by students themselves, who have far more power than previous generations. The result is an environment where disagreement is rare and where students often keep quiet to avoid conflict. Part of the reason for this is that students mostly come from liber upper and upper-middle class homes, thus bringing their beliefs with them.
The dogma centres around issues of identity, especially pertaining to race, gender, and sexuality, and manifests as a fervent desire to protect those whose identities are viewed as marginalised and challenge those whose identities are viewed as dominant. However, there is one category of identity that is often ignored: class. In fact, focus on these other identities helps conceal it:
Altogether, lower-income whites make up about 40 percent of the country, yet they are almost entirely absent on elite college campuses, where they amount, at most, to a few percent and constitute, by a wide margin, the single most underrepresented group.
“Not coincidentally,” Deresiewicz argued, “lower-income whites belong disproportionately to precisely those groups whom it is acceptable and even desirable, in the religion of the colleges, to demonize: conservatives, Christians, people from red states.” (I recommend reading Deresiewicz’s article in full.)
Taken together, Salam’s and Deresiewicz’s view can be interpreted as this: anti-white rhetoric functions as a way for upper-class and upwardly mobile whites and select people of colour to distinguish themselves from less cosmopolitan whites, who also tend to be lower-income. Furthermore, many progressive environments encourage it, especially universities, and it conveniently helps obscure or rationalise their elitism—in part by shifting the focus away from class and in part by painting lower-income whites as immoral and thus unworthy.
(Note that this doesn’t preclude that anti-white rhetoric also functions as a way to satirically highlight racism and other bad behaviours of white people, as Beauchamp and Klein claim; these aren’t mutually exclusive.)
The function of anti-white rhetoric as a distinguisher is interesting. Psychiatrist and prominent blogger Scott Alexander explored this topic in a blog post a few years ago. Alexander argued that terms like “Americans” and “white people” are often used as code words by liberals for stereotypical Red State conservatives, who they consider an outgroup. Consequently, when white liberals use rhetoric critical of whites (and Americans) it seems to be self-critical—and therefore praiseworthy—while in fact just being the standard outgroup demonisation that all groups practice.
A tell-tale sign of genuine self-critique, Alexander noted, is that it’s very difficult to do:
You can bet some white guy on Gawker who week after week churns out “Why White People Are So Terrible” and “Here’s What Dumb White People Don’t Understand” is having fun and not sweating any blood at all. He’s not criticizing his in-group, he’s never even considered criticizing his in-group.
While insightful, I don’t think this is entirely true. In an article in The American Interest, linguist and social critic John McWhorter argued that white liberal discourse on race has become quasireligious, with “uncannily rich” parallels to Christianity: white liberals embrace accusations of racism and confess their white privilege (original sin); and they seek a forgiveness from black people that can never be fully earned (grace). There’s also a substantial element of self-debasement and self-flagellation, McWhorter noted.
It’s also highly performative:
I have seen whites owning up to their white privilege using the hand-in-the-air-palm-out gesture typically associated with testifying in church. After the event I have been describing, all concerned deemed it “wonderful” even though nothing new had been learned.
This contrasts with Alexander’s suggestion that anti-white rhetoric is outgroup demonisation—it’s clear that many white liberals are attempting to engage in self-critique, even self-flagellation. But I don’t think Alexander is entirely wrong either. Consider, as an analogy, a religious person writing an article on the sinfulness of humanity. It’s entirely possible for that article to be both a form of self-critique via acknowledgement of one’s own sins and an outgroup demonisation of nonbelievers, who are much greater sinners and don’t even acknowledge that they’re sinners.
Likewise, it’s possible for anti-white rhetoric to simultaneously be self-critical/-flagellatory and outgroup-demonising. After all, the whites engaging in this are acknowledging their own perceived flaws, but they’re also distinguishing themselves from other whites by doing so. This is well-captured, I think, in Salam’s phrase: “the supposed nobility that flows from racial self-flagellation.” In other words, the process of self-flagellation confers nobility on cosmopolitan whites, thus elevating them morally over other whites who become distinguishable as a lesser class. The more this process is ritualised, the more significant the distinction becomes.
A couple of months ago Andrew Yang, a moderate Democrat and Universal Basic Income proponent whose recent book I reviewed, tweeted out the following:
Deaths now outnumber births among white people in more than half the states in the country. Much of this is low birth rates and white men dying from substance abuse and suicide. Our life expectancy has declined for 2 years. We need to do much more. https://t.co/zFRAkFY7FU
— Andrew Yang (@AndrewYangVFA) June 22, 2018
These were some of the responses:
Yang’s tweet and the linked article are about actual people suffering and dying, many of them living in impoverished communities. These are not messages intended for a private community, they were posted in response to a public tweet. I wish I could say they’re uncommon, but I’ve seen ones like them often enough to know they are not.
In a Medium article last year, Keri Smith describes moving away from the social justice movement. Among the reasons for doing so, Smith writes: “I see seemingly reasonable people wishing death on others and laughing at escalating suicide and addiction rates of the white working class.” This has been going on for a while. And indeed, as Smith writes: “When you believe you are morally superior, when you have dehumanized those you disagree with, you can justify almost anything.”
This is part of the reason why I find it difficult to take Beauchamp’s and Klein’s defence seriously. Does some anti-white rhetoric satirically “capture the way that many whites still act in clueless and/or racist ways?” Sure. But there’s a significant portion of it that—like the above—is hateful and malicious. So when Jeong tweets about how much joy she gets out of being cruel to old white men, is it any wonder many people automatically associate it with the kind of tweets mentioned above, rather than read it as clever sarcasm?
Perhaps what critics of anti-white rhetoric find most distasteful is this: that it often comes from members of the academic and cultural elite, implicitly directed towards lower-income whites for the crime of not being sufficiently cosmopolitan, in a world that’s changing rapidly and where it’s a struggle just to find something to anchor oneself to. This is surely not what social justice is about.