Why Andrew Sullivan and the conservative media are wrong to call the New York Times’s latest hire “racist” for attacking white people.
Conservatives are up in arms over the New York Times’s latest hire: a tech writer named Sarah Jeong whom they allege to be racist against white people.
Jeong, who currently works at the Vox Media site The Verge, was hired by the Times editorial board to work on technology issues. On Thursday, shortly after the hire was announced, conservative publications dug up old tweets of hers containing statements like “white men are bullshit” and “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”
The campaign to use these tweets to get her fired seems to have failed. The Times issued a statement saying that Jeong had meant these tweets satirically — a parody of the hate she has received online as an Asian woman — and that they were standing by her.
But to some conservatives, like National Review’s David French and New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan, Jeong’s tweets are bigger than her: They reveal a rot in the progressive movement, that “social justice warriors” have become totally okay with racism so long as it’s directed at white people.
“The neo-Marxist analysis of society, in which we are all mere appendages of various groups of oppressors and oppressed, and in which the oppressed definitionally cannot be at fault, is now the governing philosophy of almost all liberal media,” Sullivan writes. “That’s how … the New York Times can hire and defend someone who expresses racial hatred.” (Note: The liberal media is not neo-Marxist.)
Both French and Sullivan singled out a tweet I had sent defending Jeong — “a lot of people on the internet today confusing the expressive way anti-racists and minorities talk about ‘white people’ with actual race-based hatred, for some unfathomable reason” — as an exemplar of the problem. Sullivan explains:
I don’t think the New York Times should fire her — in part because they largely share her views on race, gender, and oppression. Their entire hiring and editorial process is based on them. In their mind, Jeong was merely caught defending herself. As Vox writer Zack Beauchamp put it: “A lot of people on the internet today [are] confusing the expressive way antiracists and minorities talk about ‘white people’ with actual race-based hatred, for some unfathomable reason.” I have to say that word “expressive” made me chuckle out loud. (But would Beauchamp, I wonder, feel the same way if anti-racists talked about Jews in the same manner Jeong talks about whites? Aren’t Jews included in the category of whites?)
I have a lot of respect for Andrew — he gave me my first job in journalism, and I’ve been over to his DC condo more times than I can count — but I think he has a serious blind spot when it comes to race, and the analogy to Jews here helps reveal it. Both his piece and French’s misunderstand what racism is and how the so-called “social justice left” approaches the world — and the anti-Jeong vitriol you’ve seen from the right speaks more to its failings on race than it does anything about Jeong.
Why Sarah Jeong’s tweets weren’t racist
The basic thrust of both Sullivan and French’s argument is that if you subbed in any group other than “white people” for what Jeong wrote, then it would be obviously offensive. “#cancelblackpeople probably wouldn’t fly at the New York Times, would it?” Sullivan asks, rhetorically.
The only reason lefties aren’t offended by this obvious race-based hatred, the argument goes, is that they see the world entirely through the lens of power. Since whites as a class have it, minorities by definition cannot harbor racist attitudes toward them.
“It is simply false to excuse anti-white racism on the grounds that people of color lack power,” French writes. “But this argument confuses the gravity of an offense with the existence of the offense. A powerless person’s hate may not harm the powerful, but it is still hate.”
The problem here, though, is assuming that Jeong’s words were meant literally: that when Jeong wrote “#cancelwhitepeople,” for example, she was literally calling for white genocide. Or when she said “white men are bullshit,” she meant each and every white man is the human equivalent of bull feces. This is expressly Sullivan’s position: He calls her language “eliminationist,” a term most commonly used to describe Nazi rhetoric referring to Jews during the Holocaust.
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.
I get that white people who aren’t familiar might find this discomforting. Sullivan thinks it’s unacceptable on an “an open-forum website like Twitter.” But the reality is that Twitter is where these conversations between people of color are taking place, and (given the 280-character limit) it’s a lot easier to use the kind of “white people” shorthand rather than adding endless qualifications (“a certain kind of white person, definitely Not All White People,” is pretty lengthy).
What makes these quasi-satirical generalizations about “white people” different from actual racism is, yes, the underlying power structure in American society. There is no sense of threat associated with Jeong making a joke about how white people have dog-like opinions. But when white people have said the same about minorities, it has historically been a pretext for violence or justification for exclusionary politics.
This is why Sullivan’s use of “eliminationist” to describe Jeong’s words is, to my mind, particularly ill-chosen. Eliminationist language, in the way it’s used by scholars of genocide and racial oppression, is used as justification for concrete actions — the Holocaust is the textbook example, and the Rwandan genocide is another clear one. But the very idea that Sarah Jeong’s tweets reveal her desire to set up concentration camps for whites is laughable.
This is, incidentally, why you hear a lot of people on the social left say there’s no such thing as “reverse racism.” We interpret language through social context. Because of the way racial power structures are set up, the same set of words mean very different things when you swap out “white people” for “black people,” “Asians,” “Jews,” etc. The phrase might be racist in one context, in the sense of conveying actual racial animus, but not in another.
This meaning of the phrase “white people” is obvious to people who have been listening to these social media conversations, or even from even a cursory search of Twitter for the term. I’ve copied a few examples below:
I don’t see how Sarah’s tweets are much different than how a lot of influential younger POC have been talking on Twitter these last few years. It just seems like the standard here is that you can’t say it while working at the New York Times.
— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) August 2, 2018
White people finding out that we talk about white people as a means to vent about and survive the whiteness we’re forced to experience is, to put it one way, never boring.
— Studio Glibly (@NoTotally) August 3, 2018
The other thing I’d note is that if you’re a white person who’d never heard POC talk about white people before the advent of social media, it probably means that no POC, even your friends, have truly trusted you.
— Studio Glibly (@NoTotally) August 3, 2018
White people: comes to America, claims it, kicks out the natives forcibly which thousands of were killed in this process
White people: lets make immigrants illegal
— M (@mazymarvel) August 3, 2018
White people will shame you and then copy you and take credit. Wake up
— Resistance (@Sean_PA) August 3, 2018
Jeong’s tweets, in context, clearly fit this type of rhetoric. When she writes “dumbass fucking white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants,” she is not, as Sullivan accuses her of doing, “equat[ing whites] with animals.” Rather, she is commenting on the ubiquity of (often uniformed) white opinion on social media — a way of pointing out how nonwhite voices often don’t appear or get drowned out in social media discourse.
Again, this is obvious to people who are steeped in the kind of online communities Jeong spends time in. But what happened, as my colleague Aja Romano notes, is that a few alt-right websites pulled out Jeong’s tweets in a deliberate attempt to hurt her career and reputation. What’s actually happening here is a racist movement, the alt-right, trying to damage a left-wing woman of color — and mainstream conservatives are furthering their narrative.
I don’t necessarily blame Sullivan and French for not hanging out on Social Justice Twitter, where their views would be … unwelcome, to say the least. What I do blame them for is joining an alt-right pile-on without trying to understand where their left-wing intellectual opponents are coming from and what they’re talking about.
In his column, Sullivan challenges me, specifically, to explain how I would feel if Jeong were tweeting about Jews rather than whites. “Would Beauchamp, I wonder, feel the same way if anti-racists talked about Jews in the same manner Jeong talks about whites? Aren’t Jews included in the category of whites?” he asks.
The example, I assume, is chosen deliberately: Andrew knows I’m Jewish and sensitive to the real problem of anti-Semitism on the left. So this seems like it should be a hard example for me, as a Jeong defender. But it’s not at all. In fact, it makes the distinction between what Jeong is doing even stronger.
First of all, not all Jews are white. Second, even for those Jews who are, our inclusion in the category of whiteness is historically contingent. For the modern alt-right — the people going after Jeong — Jews don’t actually count as white. Leading alt-right thinker Richard Spencer has said that in his ideal world, Jews would be expelled from the United States.
Jews are not marginalized in the exact same way that other minority groups are — on average, Jews are wealthier while black people are poorer — but there is deep-seated anti-Semitism in the United States and (even more so) in other Western countries. When you talk about “Jews” as a group, you aren’t just talking about a specific kind of white person; you’re talking about a historically marginalized group, one that has experienced the consequences of actual eliminationist rhetoric firsthand.
And this is what the conservative critiques of Jeong — even the good-faith ones, like Sullivan’s and French’s — miss entirely. When you talk about race and identity, the context in which you’re operating is absolutely inescapable. The sentence “white people run America” may use most of the same words as “Jews run America,” but the former is mostly true while the latter is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
Historical structures of oppression, along race and other identity lines, shape the way Americans see the world deeply and profoundly. Everything that’s said about minority groups is interpreted through the weight of these expectations. One study found that children start thinking in racist terms when they’re about 8 years old. It’s absurd to pretend, given centuries of racialized oppression, that the phrases “white people” and “black people” can be swapped in a sentence without profoundly changing the meaning.
This is indicative of a broader failing in the conservative movement.
The weight of history is typically minimized, with the success or failure of minority groups being seen in colorblind, individualized terms. If black people aren’t as wealthy as whites, it’s not the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and redlining; it’s because they’re lazy, or addicted to welfare, or (as Sullivan has posited) simply genetically less likely to be intelligent. There has to be some explanation other than the fact that everything in our society is structured around a longstanding racial caste system, one that persists even after the laws have been made on-face colorblind.
This isn’t a mere matter of there being a power differential between whites and various minority groups, as French would have it. It’s about the reasons there’s a power differential, and how those reasons shape even the very meaning of the words we speak. A blindness to history, and the patterns set by people long dead, is a characteristic of conservative race thinking (and a somewhat ironic one, given conservative reverence for tradition).
I want to close on some more recent history: a similar debate that happened online in 2014.
The issue then was gender. A number of feminist writers had a habit of writing about “men” on social media without qualification like “most” or “the majority of.” This was partly for simplicity’s sake, and partly to point out how widespread a lot of sexist practices are. This led to a lot of responses from men they didn’t know, saying something along the lines of “not all men are sexist, and you’re the real sexist for saying they are.” National Review, French’s publication, published an entire column making a basically similar argument.
The feminist writers responded that this was a distraction. It was obvious they weren’t talking about literally every man in context, and it was clear these men were butting in on conversations about gender to derail them with a pointlessly persnickety objection rather than dealing with the substantive conversation about sexism. So the feminist writers responded by turning the phrase “not all men” into a point of mockery, using it as an example of men sidetracking feminist arguments that made them uncomfortable.
The feminists won this argument; today, feminists still complain about “men,” and “not all men” is mostly used as a punchline rather than a serious argument. But the conservative responses to Jeong boil down, essentially, to the same thing: They’re saying “not all white people” are bad and Jeong is a racist for implying that they are.
My guess is, a few years down the road, we’ll remember the Jeong episode in roughly the same way we remember the #NotAllMen controversy today.