You’ve almost made it halfway through 2020, which means that so far, you’ve witnessed and survived a global pandemic, a worldwide economic crash, riots, looting, the strike on Qasem Soleimani, and murder hornets. Oh, and the impeachment of the president, but that feels like so long ago I had to check to make sure it was this year.
On the menu today, some of the most powerful people in America have identified the root cause of the country’s inequities and discrimination, and it’s not them, it’s you.
The Convenience of Anti-Racism as a Corporate Brand Identity
New York Times columnist Charles Blow, discussing George Washington and all of the Founding Fathers who owned slaves: “I say that we need to reconsider public monuments in public spaces. No person’s honorifics can erase the horror he or she has inflicted on others. Slave owners should not be honored with monuments in public spaces. We have museums for that, which also provide better context. This is not an erasure of history, but rather a better appreciation of the horrible truth of it.”
That’s a pretty vivid display of our national political dysfunction right there. What started as a national consensus that the police should not kill those in their custody without due process has turned into a call to remove the Washington Monument.
Earlier this month I talked about how many people prefer symbolic gestures to actual problem-solving, because actual problem-solving is difficult.
We would like to see equal justice in the eyes of the law, which would require law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, juries, and the rest of the justice system to purge out any remaining conscious or subconscious sense that African Americans are not entitled to the presumption of innocence that everyone else is. But that would be difficult. So instead we get Hulu to remove an episode of The Golden Girls where characters are wearing mud masks that could be mistaken for blackface.
We would like to see equal opportunity, where African Americans and anyone born with disadvantages and challenges in life can overcome those disadvantages and challenges and thrive and live their own vision of the American dream — treated as equals in the workplace, in the marketplace, and in the eyes of their fellow citizens. But that would be difficult. So instead we get the makers of Dungeons and Dragons to remove the concept of “evil races” like Orcs or “Dark Elves” from the game.
We would like to see the full picture of American history taught to our children, including the sins and failures of our forefathers and ourselves, not to demonize those who came before us but to recognize where we have not lived up to our ideals so we can get closer to that ideal with each generation. We would like to see the portrait of what made America expanded to include the contributions of easily overlooked or forgotten Americans.
But that would be difficult. So instead we get a new name for “Eskimo Pies.” (The Inuit people have real problems in their lives, beyond what people are calling frozen desserts.)
All around us, we see denunciations of systemic racism permeating some of the most powerful institutions in America . . . from the people who have been running those institutions for at least a generation.
Vogue editor Anna Wintour declared her magazine “has not found enough ways to elevate or give space to Black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators. We have made mistakes too, publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant. I want to take full responsibility for those mistakes.” She’s still going to keep running the place with an iron fist, though.
Mercedes announced a new all-black car for the 2020 Formula One season as part of “a pledge to improve the diversity of our team and our sport, and a signal of the team’s commitment to fighting racism and discrimination in all its forms.” The company’s Formula One workforce is still only 3 percent minorities.
The CEO of WarnerMedia, Jason Kilar, declared that racism is a problem at his company, and that he heard from “people — whether they’d been at WarnerMedia for one year or 20 years — that in many ways they had never felt truly seen or heard.” He was a senior vice president at Amazon, founded Hulu, joined the board of directors for DreamWorks animation, and was on the board of directors of Univision. WarnerMedia, like many companies, gets less diverse the higher you look on the corporate ladder.
Back on June 9, Bill Gates declared on Twitter, “I am committed to listening and learning more about systemic racism and what I can do with my actions and words to help create a more equal and just future. Black lives matter.” This was the richest man in the world from 1995 to 2017. Microsoft’s worldwide staff is 4.4 percent black.
It’s a similar story at some of the corporate brands most associated with African-American athletes: “Neither Adidas’s six-person executive team nor its 16-person board of directors includes a black member. None of the 10 executives currently listed on Nike’s executive leadership website are people of color.”
At the end of May, Marvel Studios made a high-profile pledge — “We stand against racism. We stand for inclusion. We stand with our fellow Black employees, storytellers, creators and the entire black community. We must unite and speak out.” That pledge was complicated a few weeks later when actor Anthony Mackie, who plays Sam Wilson/The Falcon, observed, “I’ve done seven Marvel movies where every producer, every director, every stunt person, every costume designer, every PA, every single person has been white. We’ve had one black producer; his name was Nate Moore. He produced ‘Black Panther.’ But then when you do ‘Black Panther,’ you have a black director, black producer, a black costume designer, a black stunt choreographer. And I’m like, that’s more racist than anything else. Because if you only can hire the black people for the black movie, are you saying they’re not good enough when you have a mostly white cast?”
One of the most infuriating aspects of our national discussion of racism is the number of extremely powerful people who offer variations of the argument, “This is everyone’s problem, and all of us have been part of the problem.” Even if that’s true, some of us are a much bigger part of the problem than others! Chances are you haven’t had much say about who gets hired at Vogue, Mercedes, WarnerMedia or Microsoft, Nike, or Adidas. You haven’t been deciding which model goes on the cover of your magazine, greenlighting films and television shows, or hiring software engineers. Concepts such as “collective responsibility” and “systemic inequities” probably look really appealing to someone who wants to shift the blame from himself.
Over at Tablet, Kat Rosenfield offers an insightful piece comparing the way society’s most privileged women are approaching the current anti-racism movement to the way they approached women-focused self-help books. “Like any other luxury lifestyle choice, this one is an ongoing investment. As a marketing strategy, convincing women that social justice is best achieved through endless self-interrogation is brilliant. The savviest brands on offer turn the profitable allure of unattainability into a core part of their ethic.”
Empathetic leadership sure would do a lot of good right now. Unfortunately, we have a president who just this weekend retweeted a video of a supporter shouting “white power,” and his primary challenger decreed that any African American hesitant about supporting him over the incumbent “ain’t black.” Somehow, out of roughly 328 million Americans, we’ve managed to bring the presidential race down to the two white septuagenarians in public life who are most tone-deaf, oblivious, unjustifiably self-confident, and relentlessly cringe-inducing on issues of race.
Trump is just incapable to acknowledging racism in any way that could conceivably reflect badly on the police or his supporters — maybe that’s somewhat redundant — and Biden believes Trump is self-destructing and doesn’t want to make any waves. The idea of tearing down the Washington Monument as a gesture of anti-racism probably never crossed Joe Biden’s mind — but it’s unlikely he’s going to risk any political capital, four months away from Election Day, telling any woke activist or progressive columnist that they’ve gone too far and sound like a lunatic. If Biden ever does get asked about this — the former vice president’s last press conference was April 2 — he would probably reject the idea, but Biden is not going to bring it up, and he’s not going get into a fight with an African-American progressive New York Times columnist if he can help it.
(For Americans who still want to believe that President Trump understands and appreciates the conservative worldview, it is not encouraging that Trump instinctively defended former president Woodrow Wilson.)
ADDENDUM: For something much lighter and cheerier, I had another chance to talk about the New York Jets upcoming season with Scott Mason of TurnOnTheJets. I mean, Adam Gase is still around, so it’s not that much lighter and cheerier.