Sarah Jeong is almost certainly a deeply racist person. To treat that claim with scepticism is, at this point, mostly laughable. Her behaviour is so sustained, so unprovoked, and so toxic that it immediately disarms any defenders who might desperately claim she was being satirical or ironic.
Do not get me wrong, I am not about to launch into an extended diatribe and call for her to be fired or prevented from entering her new position at the New York Times. The Times has promised she will not be repeating any of her previous behaviour. As long as she meets the obligations set on her by her employer and their customers, that is where the conversation ends as far as I am concerned. I am not terribly interested in online lynchings for thought crimes.
It does seem, as far as I can tell, that she is a competent writer who keeps her private racism largely out of her work. I cannot be sure this is the case since I have not read her book—I am not wasting my hard earned money on a some racist crackpot’s work. Although, the irony is not lost on me that the book does focus on online harassment, and she is now under fire for her own online behaviour. In the end, there is unlikely to be any real change to the paper’s contents with her on the editorial board.
If you want to read an intelligent person’s thoughts on that wider side of the controversy, just go read Andrew Sullivan’s article on the matter. I have more specific interests.
What has alarmed me has been the repeated insistence by Jeong’s defenders that her behaviour does not warrant any controversy. It is not that her comments were somehow tame or reasonable—replacing the word “white” with “black” on her Twitter feed makes that fact self-evident. Rather, there is an increasingly mainstream notion among progressives that racial contempt and racial hatred are only truly bad things if you are “racist” in their own customised nomenclature. I had to specify the need to be racist in their exact definition because, depending on how much time you spend near university campuses, you may have a very different conception of racism than progressives.
The origins of this line of thought are straightforward. Sociologists often analyse racism not as an idea or belief, but as a phenomenon. They often define racism in institutional terms, and explain that racists are individuals who empower the institutions and social norms which support racist structures in society.
Progressives have taken this to mean that definitions of racism which are not based on analysis of power and social structures are inherently false.
This may seem like an odd leap to make from the perspective of the layman. How does the existence of racism in institutions alter the need to call out racism on the level of the individual? This is also bizarre from the perspective of sociologists, because the literature which originally used racism to explain and explore institutional power never intended their coinage of racism to replace all alternative uses of the word. Sociologists are perfectly capable of conceptualising racism as both an institutional power structure and a kind of ideology held by individuals. This is an intuitive idea, words can have multiple definitions, even multiple definitions concerned connected ideas. That’s how language works.
The popular implementation of this confused new definition—most often summarised as “racism equals prejudice plus power”—is a uniquely politicised phenomenon. And let’s be entirely clear about what it is that euphemistic coinage is implying: Among the modern hard left, it widely accepted that it is impossible to be racist toward white people. Therefore, it is not that Jeong was being tame or reasonable or that her comments were particularly justified. It is that Jeong is incapable of being immoral or reprehensible or wrong as long as she targets the particular race she did.
Ignoring for a moment if we can the irony that the definition used to gymnastically acquit Jeong of charges of racism is itself deeply racist in the classical sense: This entire framework fails on the face of it. It snobbishly presumes that, before the current framework was used to define the term racism, people have always meant racism in the modern progressive sense, and simply failed to articulate it that way. By applying their own vision of reality post hoc to the past, progressives are now forced to argue that the Allies didn’t object to Nazism on the basis that conducting politics to favour any race is morally wrong. But rather the Allies must have implicitly understood the Nazis were just empowering the wrong race in their genocidal policies, and if they invaded Europe for the benefit of the Jews at the cost of whites instead, it wouldn’t have been racist in intention.
Progressives would, and should, retort in response that they do not believe something that absurd, they simply believe the definition changed. Even if that were true, it is a butchery of the English language to imply that when a word changes its meaning it follows that the concept being originally described simply stops existing. If the old meaning of racism was morally wrong, it is still morally wrong once the word adopts a new meaning. Ethics and morality exist outside of the semantics of the language used to convey them.
It is perhaps a little too revealing to muse on how easily people let their perceptions of language change their perceptions of reality, rather than ensuring it remains the other way around. If we were forced to grant the absurd forced distinction between the conception of racism in the past and racism today, it is inescapable that Jeong is racist in the past sense.
In recognition of the repeated failure of the left to stick to consistent linguistic rules, I will now rephrase my original thesis: Sarah Jeong is a morally reprehensible ideologue that discriminates on the basis of ethnicity. She is a prejudiced pseudo-intellectual that does not deserve even our scornful interest. Sarah Jeong is a gross bigot and deserves bottomless contempt. If you wish to misuse this wonderful English language so as to paint her as not being racist, good for you. Just remember that during the American Civil War the word racist had not even been coined, and slaveholders were evil all the same without it. I wonder how defensible Jeong really is without this single, solitary word?