In last week’s newsletter, I had a conversation with the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò about the nature of dissent in an era when almost every message, however revolutionary in origin, gets processed and then ultimately defanged through the practice of “elite capture.”
We touched on the question of “real” change and how it’s easy to see Black Lives Matter signs in wealthy neighborhoods or watch “woke” commercials from nefarious, multinational corporations and conclude that everything is fake virtue signaling and that nobody is invested in “real” change.
This brings up a deeper question: What is “real” versus “not real” change? We can probably all agree, for example, that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, it will represent “real” change in the reproductive health and rights of millions of people. But what about less concrete things like, say, equity measures in schools?
The dichotomy between “real” and “not real” can be found in an article by Adam Serwer last month in The Atlantic titled “The Amazon Union Exposes the Emptiness of ‘Woke Capital.’” The term “woke capital” is a bit amorphous, but it generally refers to attempts by corporate America and elite cultural institutions to gesture toward social justice movements without changing their stranglehold on resources. Chase Bank’s posting a picture of a rainbow flag to its Instagram account for New York’s Pride Week is an example of this kind of fake change. As Serwer writes, “‘Woke capital’ is just a partisan talking point masquerading as structural analysis. It does not truly exist. It is branding.”
By contrast, Serwer believes that the Amazon Labor Union’s improbable victory on Staten Island and its message of multiethnic, class-bound solidarity — one that was heard by warehouse workers who came from around the world — constituted “real” change. He rightfully credits the “egalitarian potential of the labor movement” as something that is “very real” and writes, “unions can unite workers across ethnic, racial, religious and linguistic barriers with a common interest in decent wages, safe working conditions and protection from exploitation.”
I wanted to talk to Táíwò about this after reading an interview with him in The Drift in which he expressed a more sympathetic opinion of woke capital:
Actually, I think woke capitalism represents a substantive victory of the left and the forces of justice. Especially in the U.S., we on the left are primed for failure and even obsessed with it, for good reason, because we usually lose. But in this case, we just get to take the win. Since the end of the Second World War, there have been substantive victories against very explicit, very codified forms of racial domination and apartheid and patriarchy and homophobia. Ultimately what this all adds up to is a new global, moral consensus on whether or not those things are OK. And today, even the people who own the most material resources have to hew — at least in their P.R., at least cosmetically — to this new consensus. That’s not a total victory against all of the forces of injustice, and it’s not indicative that there’s no fight left to be had. But it is a major ideological victory, and we should accept it as such.
There is a meaningful distinction between this stance and Serwer’s. Serwer is saying that “woke capital” is irrelevant or perhaps even anathema to “real” change, whereas Táíwò believes it actually is the evidence of it. More simply, Serwer is saying “this, not that” while Táíwò is saying “this and that.”
The binary between “real” and “not-real” change that Serwer sees has become quite common. In a recent tweet, Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley seems to be disappointed in the upshot of the nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd. Stanley writes: “The ask was to end mass incarceration and violent over-militarized policing. What resulted was D.E.I. workshops.”
Like Serwer, Stanley is drawing a line between “real” change to policing and incarceration and the “fake” change of diversity, equity and inclusion workshops. Both Serwer and Stanley seem to be suggesting that something has gone wrong with the payout for social justice — instead of “real” change, we are being fed a confectionary mix of slogans, ineffectual half-measures and workplace meetings where we are told to be kind to one another.
Readers of this newsletter will know that I am broadly sympathetic to the claim that our current discourse around social justice has been badly perverted. But I do wonder if this binary accurately describes what’s going on. Stanley, in particular, seems to be suggesting that there is little value to D.E.I. workshops and that instead of being seen, perhaps, as a step in a long process, they are distractions from more worthy goals.
But I don’t think this is how things work. If Chase Bank, for example, posts a photo of a rainbow flag, that does not mean that some other fight somewhere else gets squelched, diverted or changed in any way. Stanley and Serwer may be correct in saying that progressives shouldn’t accept “woke capital” or diversity initiatives as the end goal of social justice, but to reach their conclusions, they need to set up a “we” — the people demanding change — and a “they” — the powers who dole it out.
Social justice movements and the way the public responds to them are far more chaotic. Several years ago, I worked for an advertising agency. Much of our work for big brands was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt conflicted about this work — what, really, did it mean to make an ad about racial justice for the world’s biggest brands? — but I never really questioned the sincerity of the people who wrote and art-directed the ads. They were trying to make the most change they could in what they knew was a widely broadcast medium.
“Woke capital” might be annoying or feel inadequate, but I don’t see much value in drawing a bright line between the workers who produce it and the people who protest in the streets. They often are the same people. It might also be tempting to believe that the rich and powerful all got together to figure out a way to placate social unrest and collectively decided to institute a series of meaningless solutions that would calm everyone down, but I think Táíwò’s explanation — that corporations and elite institutions are responding to real pressure — is much more plausible.
In this way, the “this, not that” style of thinking profoundly underestimates the intelligence of the public. I have yet to meet a single person in this country who truly believes that Chase Bank’s pride flag actually means that homophobia is over. Nor have I met anyone who thinks that the low-level drug offenders in American prisons will suddenly be let out because some university expanded the size of its D.E.I. office.
“This, not that” also places a strange amount of blame on the “thats” who should be Stanley’s ideological allies. I am extremely skeptical of diversity initiatives in elite spaces, but I have met many hard-working, intelligent and thoughtful D.E.I. workers who are fully aware of the limitations of their practices but still try to make a more inclusive campus or workplace. It’s preposterous to believe they are somehow the enemies of progress because some cabal of elites has planted them in their positions to sate public outrage and placate the wokes, or whatever.
Does D.E.I. often signal the limit of what corporations and powerful cultural institutions are willing to do when they’re under pressure? Does the D.E.I. industry profit from this relationship? Do D.E.I. programs sometimes produce silly and indefensible controversies? You can answer “yes” to all three of these questions and still acknowledge that the products of their work is an advance from what these institutions offered up in the past: nothing.
Perhaps most important, “this, not that” detaches the dissenter from any personal responsibility. By endlessly gesturing toward “real” change and dismissing the smaller, but still hard-fought gains, it excuses people from taking part in any collective action and protest that does not fulfill their impossible demands. This offers a measure of self-protection, as well, for people to ignore the contradictions in their own lives. If Stanley, for example, really wants to challenge inequality on a large scale in a way that doesn’t get distracted by small victories, castigating the D.E.I. industry doesn’t seem productive. Perhaps he should argue instead that Yale, one of the flagship institutions of privilege, inequality and roughshod capitalism, should simply not exist.
This summer, there will be all manner of slogans and messages around abortion rights. Some will come from the most radical people in this country; others will come from the marketing departments of corporations. It is vital not to get caught up in the task of sorting these statements into buckets while questioning the sincerity of those that do not fit into a narrow vision of “real” change.
Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].
Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”
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