Or: On Snark and Solutions
Eds note: This is a guest post from Max Fitzpatrick of Central New Mexico Community College and the University of New Mexico.
Recently there has been a lot of righteous finger-wagging at racist comments uttered by older white personalities. When celebrity chef Paula Deene, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and rebellious rancher Cliven Bundy spoke bad words about black people, mainstream and social media pounced.
Deene and Sterling are economic elites who have made fortunes employing black labor and selling black culture. It is sadly ironic that they disparage the very group whose alienated labor they exploit and whose culture they have commodified. But the popular criticism of their racist statements has not approached such a systemic analysis—remaining instead at the surface level of the individual. The uproar chastises these people as racist celebrities, when the real danger is that they are authority figures presiding over economically powerful institutions with broad cultural influence. Racism matters most when it is combined with power. But the internet snarkfest has avoided that point almost entirely.
Ostensibly progressive white pundits, hipsters and intellectuals flaunted their antiracist bona fides by trashing the curmudgeonly old racists. These eager acts of reproach came fast and furious at the low hanging fruit of racist white people forged in an era of racist white supremacy (which itself shows that cultural change often comes at the pace of generational replacement).But the critical finger-pointing from the left seemed to be more about feeling good about ourselves than actually engaging in a meaningful conversation about race and racism.
Of course, we should call out racist statements from quarters both lofty and low. As classical sociologist Emile Durkheim might contend, punishing racist deviants in the court of public opinion is necessary for society to reaffirm its antiracist values, to create social cohesion based, in part, on social norms against racism.
However, we cannot content ourselves with cyber-tar-and-feathering the ancient miscreants. Indicting individuals alone leaves wholly unscathed the root of the problem.
Another classical sociologist, Karl Marx, made the point that people’s beliefs derive from the society in which they live and work. Changing people’s beliefs, then, cannot be accomplished by argument and shaming alone. You have to alter the base of society. In The German Ideology, Marx wrote:
all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism, by resolution into “self-consciousness” or transformation into “apparitions,” “spectres,” “fancies,” etc. but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history
Accordingly, we cannot end the ideological specter of racism by gleefully spewing snark in response to select individuals’ racist statements. To change beliefs, we have to change the system.Vociferous finger-wagging makes us feel good and righteous about ourselves, but it does nothing to change the material foundations of racism. Unequal group relations and institutional racism go unmentioned as the internet gangs up on a few old white racists. No matter how many poignant reprimands we make of racist individuals’ speech, the conditions black people face in this society will remain unchanged.
We jail blacks six times more than we jail whites. Blacks live four years fewer than whites. Black unemployment is more than double white unemployment. The high school dropout rate for black students is 40% higher than the rate for white students.
Instead of merely being what Marx sarcastically called “critical critics”—those who attempt social redress through words alone—we should take these opportunities to bring attention to—and to change—the poor social conditions and institutional discrimination disproportionately faced by people of color. Attacking the material foundations of the problem will be more effective than simply laughing at the wrinkled old symptoms of the problem.
And it will still make us feel good about ourselves.