Now that the Biden/Harris ticket has prevailed in the 2020 US presidential election, one can expect a boost in social justice, especially as it pertains to race. What’s more, one can expect social justice to continue to be a multicultural endeavor. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris symbolize the black activist/white ally partnership that is becoming the norm in both academic and activist circles. This partnership is widely lauded as necessary for bringing about social change, but it has created the problematic phenomenon I call virtue racism.
Rapper 50 Cent’s recent tweets implored his followers to vote for Trump—citing Joe Biden’s 62% tax rate. Comedian Chelsea Handler has interpreted this as a violation of black authenticity:
So he doesn’t want to pay 62 percent in taxes because he doesn’t want to go from ‘50 Cent’ to ‘20 Cent’ and I had to remind him that he was a black person, so he can’t vote for Donald Trump and that he shouldn’t be influencing an entire swath of people who may listen to him because he’s worried about his own personal pocketbook.
Handler and 50 Cent are old friends, so this may be partly good-natured ribbing. However, joke or not, this policing of black behavior is part of a burgeoning trend. Joe Biden himself has remarked, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.”
This is a kind of virtue signaling, in which white people publicly police black behavior to display their allegiance to wokeness.
The media also advances a particular brand of blackness it deems authentic, as we see in David Webb’s 2019 discussion with civil rights attorney Areva Martin. Webb comments that, in his professional life, “I never considered my color the issue; I considered my qualifications the issue.” Martin responds, “Well, David, that’s a whole other long conversation about white privilege, the things that you have the privilege of doing, that people of color don’t have the privilege of.” “Areva, I hate to break it to you,” Webb tells her, “but you should’ve been better prepped. I’m black.” Martin’s faux pas derives from her allegiance to a narrative that essentializes people based on race.
Scholar Jaqueline Jones Royster once gave a reading in which she reproduced the black voices of her home culture. The remarks of one white listener were telling:
One, very well-intentioned response to what I did that day was, “How wonderful it was that you were willing to share with us your ‘authentic’ voice!” I said, “My ‘authentic’ voice?” She said, “Oh yes! I’ve never heard you talk like that, you know, so relaxed … You weren’t so formal. You didn’t have to speak in an appropriated academic language. You sounded ‘natural.’ It was nice to hear you be yourself.” I said, “Oh, I see. Yes, I do have a range of voices, and I take quite a bit of pleasure actually in being able to use any of them at will.” Not understanding the point that I was trying to make gently, she said, “But this time, it was really you. Thank you.”
Frustrated, Royster writes, “I claim all my voices as my own very much authentic voices, even when it’s difficult for others to imagine a person like me having the capacity to do that.”
The policing of black behavior is nothing new. In this most recent guise, it looks like a softer re-emergence of an anti-black discrimination more common in the past. For example, as sociologist Stuart Buck has pointed out, white people used to accuse educated black people of acting white—a social violation that threatened the concept of white exceptionalism:
As historian Leon Litwack points out, nineteenth-century whites sometimes “equated black success with ‘uppityness,’ ‘impudence,’ ‘getting out of place,’ and pretensions toward racial equality. ‘He think he white’ was the expression whites sometimes used to convey that suspicion, or ‘He is too smart,’ ‘He wants to be white and act like white people,’ and ‘He think he somebody.’” A Northerner who had moved to Georgia after the Civil War noted that “in the days of Slavery, the masters ridiculed the negroes’ efforts to use good language, and become like the whites.” In the 1960s, a black plaintiff in a North Carolina desegregation case testified that she had received threatening telephone calls, many of which “asked me was I trying to get white.”
Perhaps most insidious is the fact that many instances of virtue racism either go unnoticed or even garner approval. I critique academic anti-racism, not because I am against anti-racism, but because some of its implementations disempower and infantilize marginalized people. The backlash I have experienced as a result has come as no surprise, but I wasn’t expecting white people to accuse me of being a white supremacist, even as I express my desire to protect and empower black people. To these white people, I am not being black correctly: I don’t demonize Eurocentricity outright; I have no desire to cancel anyone; I rarely mention microaggressions; I would rather engage in dialogue than silence people. I don’t embrace the us vs. them dynamics of Critical Race Theory. In any other context, a white person telling a black person how to be black would be anathema—or, at the very least, whitesplaining. But in woke America, it’s praised. Virtue racism is white supremacy in twenty-first-century attire.
In the eyes of both black and white anti-racists, I am suffering from a kind of Stockholm syndrome that has erased my black sensibility. Apparently, only white people are allowed to be individuals: black people have to abide by certain criteria that determine authenticity. Academics with the critical tools to know better are some of the loudest and most consistent offenders in this.
White people have heard a one-dimensional account of the black voice so often that they are perplexed by black people who don’t fit the media-driven, prefabricated model. Many activists are not pro-black: they are pro a particular kind of black. But more than one black voice exists. Virtue racism is real. Regardless of its intended effects, it is still essentialism, it is still the policing of black behavior and it is still white supremacy.
I’ve always had the feeling that woke white people like to keep black people as pets. They prefer the happy lap dog cuddlebug chihuahua type they can spoil, feed and bring to conformation shows to show their friends just how much they take care of and sacrifice for their pet. Sorry for the harsh metaphor, but the article is spot on in the sense that black people always are looked upon as, well, black. And seldom as individuals who happens to be black amongst many other traits. ”Othering” I think its also called.
Virtue racism is decimating the political Left in the United States. It has effectively crowded out any discussions of economic inequality and critiques of American interventionism abroad. Economic inequality is completely fine as long as wealth within the top one percent is “proportionally distributed” around categories of race and ethnicity. Drone strikes and endless wars are completely fine as long as the people carrying them out are people of color, women, LGBTQ people, et cetera. I am so glad that someone is calling this racism because that is exactly what it is – judging people on the basis of the color of their skin rather than on their ideas and the content of their character. Regardless of what your politics are, I’m glad that you are writing this, Erec.
This guy’s voice is as welcome as that of the magnificent Mr. Hughes.
Black people are doing this to other blacks even more than white people are. Ayanna Pressley’s comments about black and brown voices comes to mind, as does the incident Michelle Obama mentioned in her memoir.
Good food for thought, Erec. I think you are right that we will now see a boost in “social justice” (as narrowly defined by wokeness) and virtue racism (i.e., bullying blacks to stay in the lane wokes have assigned to them). But I think the same conditions may also facilitate a backlash against those things by many liberals (i.e., those who favor more free speech and less racialization of our judgments about others) who have silently tolerated wokeness (less free speech and increased racialization of our judgments about others) so long as Trump was in. If the backlash is to be productive, we will need voices like yours, because if just comes from whites like me it won’t get any traction — whether we like it or not, that’s the practical reality in today’s public sphere.