Jonathan Zhao is not alone

Some weeks ago, one of my classmates published an article of dubious merit. Jonathan Zhao purported to offer, in 1,700 words, “an accurate, forthright diagnosis of the problems that face black America.” This seemed an ambitious project, so I approached the piece with some skepticism.

To my surprise however, Mr. Zhao largely delivered on his promise. Though his diagnosis proved less than accurate, inclining many towards a second opinion, it was forthright. The article was a blunt summation of right-wing attitudes towards welfare, and economic stagnation among historically marginalized groups. According to this worldview, government operates by “paying people welfare subsidies to not work and punishing them for working with taxation.” The tension between black communities and law enforcement results from a “contempt for the rule of law,” which drives young black men to their “lifestyle of crime.” Programs intended to help desperate communities are necessarily ineffectual, serving only to discourage hard work. There are essentially two forces in the world: individual entrepreneurship and government oppression. And these are in perennial conflict, like the yin and the yang. Mr. Zhao generously added a gratis prescription: “true introspection,” combined with the immediate cessation of federal aid programs, will encourage black America to finally get its act together.

This is an unserious account of black America. It is too crude, too ideological – too easy. Serious accounts of group differences grapple with nuance. The plight of black America,” for its part, demonstrates a one-dimensional understanding of history, and an utter lack of imagination in its author. Anyone dismissing assisted-lunch programs as “Do-gooder legislation” should talk to the low-income children who learn to associate summertime with hunger. Lofty rhetoric about personal responsibility and entrepreneurship sounds impressive, if harder to deliver on an empty stomach. Anyone who believes that bankrupt inner-city schools just need a little urgency has evidently never visited one. Anyone who believes that a cursory, theoretical argument against the minimum wage will stump its advocates should do a little more research. And so on.

But this stunted understanding of the safety net concerns me less than the scathing reaction Mr. Zhao’s article provoked. Within days, a petition appeared demanding that he be removed from the Chronicle Editorial Board. When the Chronicle failed to meet this demand, another webpage demanded that students boycott or pressure those businesses currently “funding racist speech” (advertising in the local undergraduate newspaper, as they have for years). Most of these businesses found themselves complicit in a crime they knew nothing about, and were bewildered by the sudden influx of angry calls. The tone of the “Stopfundingracism” Tumblr grew Orwellian, denouncing and publicly listing the parties collaborating with forbidden thought. Movements that permit themselves such black-and-white thinking seldom end well. That a blog called #youknownothingjonzhao proved the most positive reaction to the article, speaks volumes about its opponents’ fervor. The great danger in zealotry is that it creeps softly, on the heels of good intentions. Someone makes assertions – inaccurate, hurtful ones, to be sure – about the black community. You first tell them to shut up. Then you get the publisher defunded. Suppose that does not work: do you hit them? Does it end at the whipping post?

Mr. Zhao is not stupid. He anticipated the reaction his piece would provoke, and published it regardless. Why, one wonders? Masochism? The joy of trolling? I do not think so. Look at the comment section underneath the article: to conservatives, it proved a light in the darkness. Amidst the outrage were scattered voices of approval, agreement, even gratitude. Numerous individuals applaud the piece for its supposed honesty, and Mr. Zhao for his bravery in expressing their ideas. The phrases “finally,” “for once,” and “someone said it,” are recurrent. They reveal the attendance of a community that is stifled in regular campus discourse. This community extends, needless to say, beyond Chronicle readers. My work this summer requires that I skim popular right-wing blogs, several times a week. The bitterness is palpable. Behind the overwrought and inflammatory headlines lies an unmistakable, deep-seated feeling of resentment. Many conservatives in this country feel disenfranchised from open discourse. They feel silenced by the kinds of reactions that Mr. Zhao provoked. “This is not a question of being “politically correct,” nor is it a matter of censorship,” the activists assured. They are wrong. When a large portion of the country bemoans that a “PC police” is silencing them, we must pay attention.

Why? Why should we engage with a few scattered bigots? Because, simply put, there are many of them, and they are politically active. People who share Mr. Zhao’s ideas about “wasteful federal spending” are numerous. They argue the same points that he does, but couch the ideas in vague references to “entitlement society,” “government handouts,” etc. Make no mistake: the ideas that Mr. Zhao articulated form the rough bedrock of today’s conservative political agenda. Conservatism treats behavior (and resulting material wealth) as the ultimate gauge of individual character. Black people, the implicit conservative narrative goes, are lazy (culturally, perhaps because of government programs) and are inflicting poverty on themselves. Republicans disguise these suggestions in terms of harmful government spending, but the fundamentals are there. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has failed to engage with white blue-collar conservatives, who have seen it working for every other group: black and Hispanic minorities, women, LGBT groups, etc.

Poor whites often cannot benefit from affirmative action programs that help historically marginalized groups, and grow deeply aggrieved. Whence the deliberate sabotage of social program expansions, across the South. Lingering racial resentments continue to live in the heart of our partisan disagreements. But conservatives now dismiss them out of hand: the “race card” has become a running joke in the right-wing media community. Commentators laugh and look at one another, knowingly, when race comes up. This is the result of conservatives’ unwillingness to challenge their own assumptions about race, and liberals’ tendency to dilute the accusation by shrieking racism in any context.

In this hyperpolarized era, candid debate is indispensable. I think that conservatives are mistaken about black America, and government programs. But I believe that silencing Mr. Zhao is ultimately destructive. For someone who believes them, by the way, articulating those ideas actually took guts. You can silence Mr. Zhao at Duke, but you cannot silence the ideas: many conservatives itch to say the things that he said. The further they delve into the right-wing echo chamber, insulated from levelheaded arguments, the harder it will become to change their views. Ironically, activists committed to a more inclusive society are, in practice, helping to drive an insurmountable wedge between groups that are already disconnected. A friend once made a profound observation about convincing people. “You do it by asking them questions,” she insisted, “and getting them to doubt themselves.” Progressives will convince no one by shouting them down. Telling people to ignore their stereotypical thinking is counterproductive. We must confront troublesome thoughts or ideas, not suppress them. If you are in the business of changing society, you must deal with the people you have today – not the ones you hope to meet in a more enlightened world.

DPU’s Burke & Paine is a biweekly column that will run this fall. Each column will feature a different writer and will cover a different topic related to political engagement. Trinity senior Nicolas Russell Pollack wrote this week’s column.


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