When I saw, in this Atlantic Wire piece, that Internet personality "Jay Smooth" was lecturing Radley Balko on his attitude towards people of color, I laughed out loud. It's like God decided, "I'm going to create the perfect possible example of cultural liberalism's preference for feelings over material conditions."
Jay Smooth makes videos on the Internet. So he's got that going for him. Radley Balko, meanwhile, has gotten actual black people out of actual jail. He has worked tirelessly against police abuse and corruption, the drug war, and mass incarceration, and specifically the mass incarceration of young black men. He's been cited in court cases where innocent people were freed. His journalism-- you know, the kind where you go out into the world and find out facts in order to create change, rather than sit in front of a webcam and use tired slang-- has helped to create material change in the world. That matters. You know what doesn't matter? Tweets about how offended you are by something. Your tweets do nothing. They accomplish nothing, make nothing happen. They do less than nothing: they are nothing that you mistake for something, and thus make it harder to actual apprise the actual situation. Let's check the percentages, please.
If you're a white person who thinks that "Jay Smooth" has the right to lecture Radley Balko about race in America, you care more about your social positioning than about the material conditions of the nonwhite people you claim to be speaking for. Period. But then that's true of white, web-enabled social liberalism in general: it is fodder for the endless cultural and social status competitions of the people undertaking it, and not for the productive purpose of ending racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or other ills. Online social liberalism is a cul de sac.
The joke here is that I think Balko is an asshole, and his economic politics a horror show. And while I doubt he's ever spent a spare moment thinking about me, I'm certain he'd find me an even bigger asshole than I find him. I hope he never gets what he wants economically. But none of that that matters in this context. You know why? Because getting people out of fucking jail transcends petty personal bullshit. Challenging racist laws and exposing police corruption and contributing to appeals of unjust verdicts is about something bigger than deciding who's cool. One day of Corey Maye's life as a free man is worth more than every scolding tweet that's ever been sent. If you think otherwise, please, never speak about racism again.
Nothing could be more indicative of the state of American social liberalism than the divide between the graduate classes I take and the undergraduate classes I teach. The students in the graduate classes are endlessly careful to check their privilege. That's good. Privilege is real, it's better to think about it than not to. But the obsessive focus on privilege checking is the epitome of how people misunderstand social change. People of the world, I implore you: what is privilege checking doing for anyone? Is anyone in the world going to materially benefit from someone in some grad seminar checking their privilege? Has all the privilege checking in every cultural studies class in the history of creation ever put clothes on someone's back or food in their belly? Ever stopped a single cop from beating a black man senseless? Don't mistake your purification rituals for progress, please.
Meanwhile, my undergrads are mostly good kids. But they are absolutely repulsed by what they take organized social liberalism to be. I talk about politics with them and they seem generally to be on the side of the angels. But you mention the word feminism, and they recoil. It's visceral. And the young women are even worse than the men. They aren't racist, mostly. But in large majorities, they are skeptical to outright hostile towards organized antiracism. Why? In part, because of ignorance and privilege and apathy. But in part, because they have grown into a world where social liberals are more interested in demonstrating their superiority over them than in educating them. Because they perceive, correctly, that white antiracism is dominated by people who are more interested in being right than in doing right.
I like the grad student attitude and actions more than the undergrads. But the undergrads vastly outnumber the grad students. And it's the undergrads that go out and rule the world. Don't believe me? Read the Tweets that aren't written by a small group of self-selected fellow travelers. Read the comments on websites that are writing about this controversy. Look outside of the castle of sanctimony you've built. Extend your perspective outside of the orgy of self-congratulation that you took part in today. There are more of them than there are of us. The people with the microphones make fun of Seth McFarlane. But the masses love him, love his show, and loved him last night. And as long as you are more interested in excluding them than in actually undertaking the work of reaching out to them, they will always outnumber you. I know you feel good about yourself and how righteous you are. But you are losing. Who do you think the median American is? A commenter at Jezebel? Or at ESPN.com?
If feelings were what mattered, when it came to racism or sexism or homophobia, we would have solved these problems long ago. But social inequalities are not about feelings. It is the structure of our society that renders black manhood criminal. It is the structure of our society that keeps women underpaid. These problems can't be solved with feelings. These problems are not in people's minds. They can only be solved structurally, through actual material change. And yet it is the self-same social liberals who raise all this controversy who concern troll real change, who refuse to stand for a reorganization of human society that could actually address these problems. Meanwhile, they spend all of their attention on soliciting apologies that do not one tangible bit of good for any human being. It's useless, but there's just more social percentage in it.
The fundamental conditions on the ground are a social liberalism that speaks to and for a smaller and smaller group of self-selected people, utterly unable to create material change, but endlessly self-congratulatory and aggressive, in a way that expels precisely the people who need to be educated. Those are the facts. The question is whether this is merely a failure of the infinitely self-satisfied class of prominent social liberals, or in fact their preference. After all, an ever-shrinking circle of those deemed righteous only serves to further burnish the righteousness of those within. Will they ever notice how little they're accomplishing, how their obsession with the personal is self-defeating? I doubt it. Social liberals can continue on forever this way, nor do I doubt that those within it will furiously enforce the marginalization of criticisms like this one. Personally, I don't much care who listens or agrees.
Hey guys: black people have 6% higher unemployment than the country at large, they have an incarceration rate six times the national average, and they make up 13% of this country's population but suffer half of its homicides. But the Onion apologized for a vulgar tweet! Truly, you are all that stands between us and a fallen world. Keep living the dream.