The G-File

Culture

Why Racism Begets More Racism

Sarah Jeong (Ars Technica/YouTube)
People are contorting themselves and their arguments in order to justify glib bigotry.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (Including those poor benighted souls who think hot dogs are sandwiches),

When I was a youngish teenager, I went to the bank one day. (This was pre-ATM machines, kids.) I stood in line behind a very old, very properly dressed white lady, complete with the sort of fancy hat that I still don’t know the proper name for. When she got to the teller, I didn’t pay attention at first but, very quickly, my ears perked up.

She earned my attention because this prim old woman was passionately raining racial epithets at the bank teller, who was an Asian-American woman. I have no idea what the bank teller’s specific ethnicity was. But the old lady seemed to roam the waterfront between “nips,” “gooks,” “slants,” etc.

“You damn gooks killed my husband and my son!” I distinctly remember her saying. The whole thing was shocking to me, and to everyone else at the bank. The teller handled it very well, as did the manager who ushered the obviously distraught woman out of the bank as quickly as possible.

What’s the point of this story?

The old lady was wrong to do what she did. She may have had plenty of rationalizations and explanations for why she tormented that young woman — but none of them added up to an excuse.

It’s Okay When We Do It

I haven’t thought of that incident in years, but it came back to me when I read this defense of Sarah Jeong in the Washington Post on Friday morning:

“Part of the reason it was so easy for the outrage to be manufactured in the first place was it was completely decontextualized and ahistorified,” said Nolan L. Cabrera, an associate professor at the University of Arizona who will publish a book in the fall about racial attitudes held by white college students. “Then it was easy to drum up anger and say it looks like she hates white people. That only makes sense if you are willfully ignorant of 400 to 500 years’ history and contemporary social context and also the context from which the tweets were sent.”

It seems to me that the old lady at the bank had more “reason” to hate Asians than Jeong has to hate white people. But the simple fact remains that the individual American of Asian descent that the old lady at the bank attacked didnt do anything wrong.

Bigotry for Thee, Justice for Me

Sometimes I am well and truly baffled about why this sort of thing is so complicated. I mean, it’s not that the Left doesn’t understand my point.

For instance, when an Islamic terrorist murders people, there’s an instant rush to fret over and condemn any sort of “anti-Muslim backlash.” Never mind that such backlashes have been vastly rarer than we’re usually told, the principle is correct: It is wrong to blame innocent Muslims for the things other Muslims did.

Or just think about how much ink has been spilled arguing that it is unfair and unjust to assume that one black youth is a criminal or a threat just because he resembles in some way a negative stereotype. I’m not mocking this argument; I am agreeing with it.

As I’ve been saying until I’m blue in the face on my book tour, one of the greatest things about this country is the ideal — always in tension with the lesser devils of our natures — that says we should take people as we find them. My objection to identity politics is that it reduces millions of people to a single attribute or grievance. It assumes that, simply by accident of birth, some people are more noble or more evil than others.

If you think that all you need to know about an African-American person to size up his character or humanity is his skin color, then you’re a racist. Imagine some guy named Joe emerges from a block of ice and is trying to catch up on the news by talking to the first person he meets, David.

Joe: Who is Barack Obama?

David: Oh, hes a black guy.

Joe: Whos Thomas Sowell?

David: Another black guy.

Joe: Whos O. J. Simpson?

David: Black guy.

Joe: And this Willie Horton fella?

David: Typical black guy.

It shouldn’t take a genius to see that David’s a pretty hardcore racist.

You can run similar thought experiments about virtually any group. If all you need to know about Oscar Wilde is that he was a gay dude, just like Richard Simmons or Milo what’s-his-name, you’re a bigot. If Meyer Lansky and Albert Einstein are merely two Jews to you, you’re an anti-Semite. If Margaret Thatcher, Joan of Arc, and Lizzie Borden are just three chicks, you’re a sexist.

And again, historically, this is mostly a left-wing or liberal (both in the classical and modern senses of the word) insight. But for some bizarre reason, for many people, this idea evaporates like water off a hot skillet when you replace any of these categories with “white” or, very often, “male.”

Suddenly fancy words and phrases fly like sawdust from a wood chipper: “structures of oppression!” “decontextualized!” “ahistoricized!” etc. It’s all so clever and complicated. The same people who take to the streets at the slightest suggestion that Muslims can be judged by the evil deeds of other Muslims will lecture and harangue you for hours, mob you on Twitter, or condescendingly dismiss you for not understanding that all white people have it coming.

I am not denying the history of white racism in America. I’m more than eager to acknowledge it. But what these people are basically saying is that you can say bigoted things about all white people based on things other white people have done. And spare me the argument that some 70-hour-a-week truck driver in Appalachia has it coming because he’s a grand beneficiary of white supremacy.

Again, the old lady at the bank had a historically grounded reason to be bigoted against people of Asian descent. If we take the gobbledygook about “personal truth” even remotely seriously — and I’m not saying we should — she has a better set of grievances against Asians than Sarah Jeong has against whites, including against the bigots who trolled her, or, for that matter, than Ta-Nehisi Coates has against whites. (Coates’s one example of personal grievance in his book boils down to a white woman being rude to his son in an elevator.)

The upshot of almost all the defenses of anti-white rhetoric boil down to an argument about power.

I don’t think all of these arguments are ridiculous. There is a serious argument that white racism is different contextually from, say, black racism. What I’m saying is that these people are ridiculously changing the argument in order to justify glib bigotry.

Back to the Washington Post:

It is likely true, as many have pointed out, that if any minority group were substituted in the place of white people into Jeong’s statements, she would not have kept her job. Some edited Jeong’s tweets to hammer home that idea, replacing the words “white people” in her tweets with “black people” and “Jewish people.”

But Cabrera said the idea was “a complete false equivalence,” noting that whiteness isn’t a cultural identity the way being black, Japanese American or Jewish is. . . .

“You hear that all the time: Substitute white and put in minority group x,” Cabrera said. “The term ‘racism’ is not the equivalence of prejudice or bigotry. It’s an analysis of social inequality along the color lines and an analysis of power dynamics and social oppression. None of which has ever been in the hands of people of color or communities of color: There’s never been the social structure to be able to oppress white people.”

Culture and history are indeed complicated and complex. We invest different values and frequencies in different historical narratives and events. For many Jews, the constant analogies to the Holocaust that proliferate in contemporary debates are grotesque, because they belittle the unique evil of the Holocaust (we’re not marching Central American children to gas chambers).

For instance, I have nothing but sympathy for Ukrainians who bemoan that the Holodomor doesn’t have a fraction of the cultural power of the Holocaust. But a couple of points need to be made. It’s an entirely valid view, certainly from a Jewish perspective, that the Holocaust was “worse” than the Holodomor (and vice versa). But arguing that the Holocaust was “worse” than the Holodomor is not an argument for saying that the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians (and the deliberate erasure of so much of their history) wasn’t profoundly evil, too. Family separation at the border can be really bad without rising to the level of Auschwitz.

If you want to say that white racism is worse than black, or Asian, or Hispanic anti-white racism, that’s a fine argument as far as I’m concerned. What I can’t get my head around is the supplemental argument: that anti-white racism is just fine, if not something to encourage.

Similarly, the conservative argument against double standards sometimes misses this point. The point needn’t be that all forms of racism or bigotry are equally bad. The point is that all forms of racism and bigotry are bad, even if some are worse than others.

Last, if you’re going to claim that racism is solely about power and structures of oppression, then you’re going to need to come up with another word for what most non-woke academics and social-justice warriors mean by racism. In other words, if black people can’t be racist, can we say that a black person can hate white people? No? Why not?

But identity-politics leftists don’t want to find that word. They want to have their cake and eat it too, claiming it’s always fine for them to be bigots because white people are just different. That is simply, structurally, historically, and logically a racist — sorry, “bigoted” — argument. “Oh, I’m very open-minded, I just think all Jews (or blacks, or Aborigines, or whatever) are different.”

Racism Begets Racism

But there’s a bigger problem. The social science is mounting every day that the more often people make these arguments, the more they are making white people think of themselves as white people. Please read this essay by Shari Berman, no screaming right-winger, in the Guardian. Berman writes:

Rather than being directly translated into behavior, psychologists tell us beliefs can remain latent until “triggered”. In a fascinating study, Karen Stenner shows in The Authoritarian Dynamic that while some individuals have “predispositions” towards intolerance, these predispositions require an external stimulus to be transformed into actions. Or, as another scholar puts it: “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group. . . . But when they perceive no such threat, their behavior is not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button.”

What pushes that button, Stenner and others find, is group-based threats. In experiments researchers easily shift individuals from indifference, even modest tolerance, to aggressive defenses of their own group by exposing them to such threats. Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, for example, found that simply making white Americans aware that they would soon be a minority increased their propensity to favor their own group and become wary of those outside it. (Similar effects were found among Canadians. Indeed, although this tendency is most dangerous among whites since they are the most powerful group in western societies, researchers have consistently found such propensities in all groups.)

Liberals despise any argument that claims that they are part of the reason we “got Trump.” But for decades now, numerous liberals have acted like members of a cult awaiting the fulfillment of a demographic prophecy that, one day soon, whites will be a minority in this country. When that happens, various versions of this prophecy foretell, white power and culture will be wiped away. This analysis has always been deeply flawed on a number of fronts, but that’s a topic for another day. My point here is that the rhetoric associated with this hope is profoundly dangerous because it flips the switch on whites to suddenly see themselves as white. As I discuss in my book, economic issues had far less to do with Trump’s success than feelings of cultural displacement. And Trump’s margin of victory stemmed in large part from triggering or activating many voters who invest large parts of their identity in being white.

You can come up with as many polysyllabic explanations as you like for why it’s okay for you to mock, demonize, or ridicule white people. You can prattle on to your Ph.D. adviser’s content about how whiteness is a social construct that needs to be dismantled. But maybe you should have the simple decency and common sense to understand that many people won’t see it that way, because the net effect of your “counter-trolling” is that it leads to the opposite of your stated goal: You are making white people feel threatened, and, as a result, you’re making at least some of them more racist. You are making whiteness a thing. And you are blaming today’s white people for things they never did. Just as the old lady at the bank did to that poor bank teller.

Various & Sundry

Canine Update: Nothing terribly exciting to report. Zoë continues to rule her ottoman empire, inviting border disputes with Gracie’s roaming kingdom. I’m taking sweet Pippa to the vet today because she clearly has an eye infection, no doubt acquired from recent bouts of rolling in muck and/or mud. Hopefully, she’ll just need some eye drops. Sadly this means she can’t go with the dogwalker on the mid-day adventure. In order to spare her the agony of seeing Zoë go off with Kirsten, I’ll be taking her out solo just before, which of course will make Zoë seethingly jealous, which will undoubtedly lead to more dingo pouting. The torrential rains have been a mixed blessing for the beasts. Zoë mutters, grumbles, and curses like Muttley whenever she’s caught in the storm. But she loves to explore the recently felled trees because she knows that there are fresh squirrel bases in them. Pippa, of course, just loves to splash and waddle in the wetness.

We’re all looking forward to our cross-country RV adventure in a couple of weeks. If anyone has any suggestions for dog-friendly fun (or good restaurants, etc.) off I-90 or I-94 around Montana, South Dakota, etc., please let me know.

ICYMI . . .

Last week’s G-File

This week’s Remnant, with Sonny Bunch

Steve Bannon’s hilarious criticism of the Koch brothers

Will Russia try to help the Democrats in the midterms?

Ron DeSantis’s painful Trump ad

Russian helter skelter

The truth about hot dogs

The Twitter-outrage mob

My appearance on Special Report this week

And on The Eric Metaxas Show

And now, the weird stuff.

The world’s oldest worms

The Bishop of the moon

How land is used across America

Smelly feet forced an emergency plane landing

A shark was smuggled out of an aquarium disguised as a baby

The man behind the sounds of Star Trek has passed away, RIP

Canadian man becomes a Canadian woman to get cheaper car insurance

Maybe the baby dingo ate your baby

A zebra can’t change its stripes, but a donkey can

This purchase is a head scratcher. And a head cutter

I’ll take a large coffee with cream and sugar and no cleaning fluid

What if Earth turned into a giant blueberry?

Guard pig foils robbery

The world’s largest cheeseboard

What zip codes stand for

A solid in-vest-ment

The Boston Typewriter Orchestra

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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