Like white-collar professionals across the nation, I have had to fumble through my fair share of mind-numbing Zoom meetings over the past two and a half months. But last week, a friend and colleague put together what proved to be a particularly enjoyable and constructive meeting for black faculty.
The meeting began, as they often do, with a round of introductions. But because this was a check-in meeting, the organizer asked that attendees share a word that best described our feelings at the moment.
Unnerved by both the murder of George Floyd and the uncertainties COVID-19 has created for higher education, a number of my coworkers used words like “anxious” and “cynical” to describe their state of mind.
I shared my colleagues’ frustrations and anxieties; however, when it was my turn to take the virtual mic, the first word that came to mind was “validated.” Validation might seem an odd choice in a moment punctuated by yet another painful example of police brutality and President Donald Trump’s dictatorial posturing. But since this was a meeting of tenured and tenure-track black professors — a group that, by definition, works in a world of well-educated and purportedly enlightened people — I wasn’t reflecting on the brutal and senseless murder of George Floyd in that moment. My thoughts centered on black bird-watching enthusiast Christian Cooper’s recent encounter in New York City’s Central Park with white investment banker Amy Cooper (no relation).
Amy Cooper, as everyone knows at this point, attempted to have Christian Cooper arrested, if not “swatted” by the NYPD, because he had the temerity to insist that she leash her dog in compliance with park rules. If Mr Cooper had not recorded the incident on his smartphone, who knows what tragedy Amy Cooper’s despicable behavior might have wrought? But thanks to the video evidence, Ms Cooper has not only been fired from her job, but the New York City Commission on Human Rights has announced that it is launching a probe into her actions.
As a leftist, I can’t rejoice in the termination of workers — even a racist investment banker — who engage in off-the-clock behavior their employers frown upon, because of the chilling implications, for all of us, of granting our bosses this kind of power. Nevertheless, I have derived a sense of affirmation from this event as it has unfolded to date. Why?
Well, as an African American who is fortunate enough to have a fulfilling career, I have had many encounters with “Amy Coopers” over the years — one of which instantly came to mind when I saw the video.
My first year in a tenure-track academic job, I was ABD (all but dissertation) on an active tenure clock. For those who are not familiar with academia, this meant that I had yet to complete my doctoral thesis when I was hired. It also meant that there were simply not enough hours in the day during my first year on the job.
I loved my job. But after a few months, I started to pick up on an uncomfortable vibe from some in and around my department. Specifically, I was frequently subjected to questions about how I was spending my time away from the office. In fact, one coworker regularly greeted me with, “What are you doing here? You’re never around.”
I wasn’t sure what to make of the refrain, since I was always in the office when I needed to be. I taught my classes and held my office hours, but at the end of each workday, I went straight home to write the remaining chapter of my dissertation and a semester’s worth of lectures. So the characterization was not only perplexing, but the frequency of the claim made clear that something was amiss.
I eventually learned, at the start of my second year (think about how long this was going on), that a more senior colleague — a white woman with whom I had rarely spoken — had taken to telling colleagues I was “never around” the office because I was “too busy enjoying the single life.”
I was shocked and, frankly, deeply hurt that a colleague would have attempted to undermine me in this way. I had resisted the urge to confront her for a couple of weeks, until two of my students asked me one day after class, “Dr Reed [obviously, I finished my dissertation on schedule], are you okay?” Apparently, I seemed “so sad” and deflated that they thought I was in mourning.
Since the situation was beginning to undermine my job performance, I knew I had to speak with my coworker. But I was afraid to confront her. I was afraid because I had already witnessed this person successfully cast a colleague — who was also a man of color — as the aggressor in a conflict that she had not only initiated but in which she was actually the aggressor.
Simply put, my fear was rooted in the fact that I had already seen my colleague “Amy Cooper” a male colleague of color.
I spent days crafting and rehearsing a carefully constructed opening, as well as talking points that would discourage her from casting me as an aggressor. In the absence of witnesses — smartphones did not yet exist — only her account and mine would serve as the record of our exchange, and I knew from both recent and not-so-recent experiences which one of us was likely to get the benefit of the doubt in the trial of public opinion.
Thankfully, the situation resolved favorably. My now former colleague was contrite and, ultimately, dialed back. Still, she did damage to me in the workplace, as her characterization followed me even after my (tor)mentor left the university.
Although I am not a fan of the constant surveillance we live with today, I am grateful that Christian Cooper’s video has impressed upon many white Americans something that I, and other black people, have long known. Racists and racial opportunists come in many packages.
Indeed, Ms Cooper is the antithesis of what many people would think of as a racist. She is a well-educated, cosmopolitan, white-collar professional who supported President Barack Obama and the presidential ambitions of “Mayor Pete” Buttigeig. She is, moreover, polished enough that even at the height of her anger, she called the black man she falsely identified as a threat an “African American” rather than using a racial slur.
Since the incident went viral, Ms Cooper has indicated that she is both mortified by her actions and does not understand herself to be “a racist.” I have no reason to doubt either the sincerity of Ms Cooper’s apology or the depth of the shame that informs it. Still, I also know that when it comes to racism, people’s stated beliefs, attitudes, and behavior often occupy different planes.
Americans tend to think of racists as ignorant and/or hateful people. This is probably why so many equate non–college educated whites with racists. But since only the most self-loathing among us would describe ourselves as ignorant or hateful, even racists tend not to identify as such — hence the perennial paradoxical disclaimer: “I’m not a racist, but …” Ms Cooper is, of course, neither ignorant nor is there reason to presume her to be a fundamentally hateful person. Still, her treatment of Christian Cooper revealed her commitment, conscious or not, to a racialist understanding of the world — one in which black men are predators and white women are their prey.
There were no doubt many factors condensed in this encounter that Ms Cooper sought to use to her advantage. Women, of whatever race or class, can be subject to aggressive or dangerous male behavior in public settings. A class and cultural context that fosters a popular understanding of “microaggression” that can blur the distinction between hurt feelings and criminal assault may have also helped Ms Cooper convince herself — at least enough to sound persuasive to a 911 dispatcher — that her life was in danger. Finally, “broken windows” stress policing — normalized in the 1990s by the Giuliani administration — has long encouraged individuals of Ms Cooper’s race and class to expect the NYPD to protect them from generic threats, or even annoyances, posed by mainly black and brown social and economic inferiors.
This approach to law enforcement — which is common in cities characterized by neoliberalism’s stark inequities — has not only contributed to the militarization of municipal police forces, but it has likely reinforced the inclinations of police officers such as Derek Chauvin to take on the additional roles of judge, jury, and executioner.
Amy Cooper attempted to take advantage of a toxic, potentially deadly racial stereotype for an ephemeral gain (not being held accountable for her violation of park rules).
Worse yet, she knew — as evinced by the fact that she forewarned Christian Cooper of her intention to falsely accuse an “African American man of threatening her”— just how dangerous the possible outcome of her lie could have been.
If Ms Cooper’s actions represent an extreme example of racially informed and self-serving behavior, they also offer a window onto the quotidian experiences of black and brown men in the United States that not only makes plain the problems with characterizing African American men as a privileged class, but also highlights the enduring importance of affirmative action and other anti-discrimination policies.
As I have argued elsewhere, policies like affirmative action are important not as a form of reparations for past wrongs, but as a check on the prejudicial actions of individuals and the discriminatory effects of institutional practices in the present.
I stress this point because I am among a group of left black and brown scholars who are sometimes erroneously cast as “class reductionists” because we insist on following through on the full implications of the social constructiveness of race.
Race is not a useful biological category, if only because the continental groupings that comprise the races are far too large and fluid to share meaningful genetic commonalities. Instead, laws and customs — informed by demographic, political, and economic developments — determine the parameters of so-called racial groups. Simply, race is a two-centuries-old ideological project that insists on treating inequities that are the product of human endeavors — slavery, colonialism, and inequities organic to capital accumulation — as if they were hatched by natural processes.
Racism is thus not about ignorance or even hatred, though racists can be guilty of both, of course, but is, at its core, an attachment to the existence of biological or quasi-biological races.
If racism is an unambivalent or even vague belief in the existence of races, then to suggest that race is not real is not to deny the existence of racism. Since we are social animals, people’s commitment to a belief system ensures an ideology’s influence — its “realness” in the realm of social interactions.
For example, by definition, Christians believe that Christ was the son of God. The fact that billions of Jews, Muslims, and atheists necessarily reject this belief does not change the fact that billions of Christians embrace it. Likewise, the fact that more than half the world’s population rejects this fundamental tenet of Christianity is inconsequential to Christianity’s influence over political and social movements — ranging from colonialism to the modern civil rights movement.
To cut to the quick, racism — the belief in races — is unquestionably real, even if races are not.
By demonstrating the potential deadly implications of racial discourse that casts black men as dangerous predators, Christian Cooper’s video validates long-standing complaints about racism and shines harsh light on a chronic source of anxiety felt by African Americans across class lines. Indeed, Christian Cooper’s video amplifies the realness of racism and offers a glimpse onto its consequences.
Since racial discrimination can have a devastating effect on people’s lives, anti-discrimination policies are necessary. But to insist on the necessity of policies like affirmative action is not to imply that they are sufficient.
Anti-discrimination legislation such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 has mitigated racial inequities by opening pathways, principally, at this point, for well-educated blacks to the middle and upper classes. But these and other anti-discrimination policies have failed to eliminate disparities, because earning power for all but top wage earners has been on a fifty-year decline.
According to sociologist Robert Manduca, median black household income increased, between 1968 and 2016, from the 25th percentile to the 35th percentile, while median white household income moved from the 54th to the 57th percentile. Despite the relative gains blacks have made — with the aid of anti-discrimination policies — the wage and wealth gap has barely budged since 1968 because automation, the slow death of the union movement, and public-sector retrenchment have contributed to a decline in real income for the bottom 80 percent of American workers.
The good news is that the relative gains blacks have made over the past few decades have prevented the racial income gap from worsening. Indeed, according to Manduca, had blacks not made any relative progress over a period in which income gains have been confined to the top 20 percent of wage earners, the ratio of median black to white household income would have fallen from 57 percent to 44 percent between 1968 and 2016.
But had wages remained constant over the past fifty years, black-white family income ratio would have risen from 57 percent to 70 percent.
It’s not unreasonable to attribute neoliberalism’s disproportionate impact on blacks, in part, to the historic legacy of racism. But it is important to situate African Americans’ historic and contemporary experiences within the broader currents of American political economy.
The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were enacted more than a decade into what would eventually be known as deindustrialization. Practically, this meant that the pathways working-class whites had traveled from the tenements to the suburbs — a trail blazed by a strong union movement and robust public expenditures for housing and education — had already narrowed by the time the civil rights movement’s greatest legislative victories cleared the formal barriers to black upward mobility.
Had this legislation been passed a generation earlier, it is likely the racial wealth gap either would not exist or would be far less pronounced.
So those of us who insist that the elimination of racial disparities requires social-democratic policies — a right to a job at a living wage, taxpayer-funded (free) higher education, and national health care — are not denying the existence of racism, even if race is only about as real as the Easter Bunny. Nor are we suggesting that there is no longer a need for anti-discrimination policies — far from it. I may not know Amy Cooper personally, but I am very familiar with her modus operandi.
We do insist, however, that narrow demands for policies intended to redress disparities, at the expense of policies centered on downward redistribution of wealth, are the equivalent of demands for berths on a higher deck on a sinking ship.