You might have seen that the New York Times is again being criticised for a hiring decision, although this time it’s coming from the right. Sarah Jeong, an IT journalist added to the Times editorial board, came under fire after a far-right website published old tweets in which she made various mean comments about white people.
This controversy, and others like it, draws two typical responses:
(a) Those on the left argue that this sort of thing can’t amount to racism, because racism necessarily involves a structural power imbalance; white people in societies like the US, as the dominant group, cannot be victims of racism.
(b) Those on the right argue that it must be racism, because if the same sort of things were said about black people we would immediately recognise it as racist, and the definition of racism should be neutral as to what race is involved.
My view is that both of these positions are wrong, and indeed obviously foolish.
The first is wrong because it assumes that all oppression is structural; that a member of a dominant group cannot, in a particular context, be a target of oppression. The second is wrong because while structural oppression is not everything, it is nonetheless very important, and to ignore history and context where race is concerned is to engage in a wilful moral blindness.
As Stanley Fish once put it, “while hostility and racial anger are unhappy facts wherever they are found, there is certainly a distinction to be made between the ideological hostility of the oppressor and the experience-based hostility of those who have been oppressed.”
As with the somewhat similar case of anti-fascist violence, we should be able to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time: both that racialised hostility is a bad thing, whoever is doing it, and that there is a large and important difference between targeting the oppressed and the oppressors.
But while (a) and (b) above are, to my mind, equally silly, they are not equally popular. Although the defenders of (b) have a self-image as a persecuted minority, their view is far more likely to be heard than (a).
And while the two are intellectually on a par, they are not morally equivalent. The typical defender of (a) is at least trying to do the right thing; they are enlisting to fight oppression, even if their means of doing it are mistaken and counter-productive.
But the typical proponent of (b), like those gleefully joining the attack on Jeong, is doing something less innocent. As Sarah Jones puts it in the New Republic, “by stripping racism of any meaning associated with structural injustice, they absolve themselves of any possible complicity in systemic oppression.”