On April 22, 1820, Thomas Jefferson captured the crux of America’s race problem in a letter to Maine politician John Holmes: “As it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Jefferson penned those words at a time when the frontier was still open, the market revolution was in its early stages, and the continent-wide, landed white yeoman independence he longed for still seemed possible, if not inevitable. In Charlottesville on August 11, 2017, nearly 200 years later and just 10 miles away from Monticello, throngs of white nationalists gathered at “Mr. Jefferson’s University” to tighten their grip on the wolf’s ear.
Chanting “We Will Not Be Replaced” and invoking the “Blut und Boden” (“Blood and Soil”) ideology popularized by nineteenth-century German nationalists, the intent of the marchers was clear: to tip the scale, yet again, in favor of the preservation of a system of white racial domination they claimed to be under siege. Living in Jefferson’s dystopian nightmare, these men, in their largely unchecked displays of lawlessness, seemed to have taken to heart words from President Donald J. Trump’s Warsaw speech. They were not going to allow “paperwork and regulations” to deny them their right to “chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.” Their march on Charlottesville symbolized their intention to make manifest those dreams and destinies.
Social media has played a central role in efforts to identify the rally’s participants and to notify their employers in the hopes of securing their termination. This drive to get rally attendees fired raises issues about the relationship between social media, social movements, and the market and helps to uncover the limitations of the market and its satellites (e.g., social media) as instruments in the Black freedom struggle. To be sure, the use of social media does not constitute or wholly characterize a social movement. It does, however, shape how the public perceives those movements. As such, its role in the Charlottesville rally and its aftermath are worthy of scrutiny.
Journalist Angela Helm recently wrote that there were “calls on social media to identify some of the men marching in the rally” in order to expose them “for the racists they are” and to see to it that they face, what she called, “the appropriate consequences.” Noting that a petition to have a University of Arkansas professor fired had been abandoned after it was discovered that he had been misidentified as one of the rally-goers, Helm urged anyone with “actual RECEIPTS” to do their “part and expose the racists today.” Helm’s call for social media users to come together in an effort to dole out their version of justice is not novel, and neither are the assumptions that undergird it.
The call to identify rally participants and to notify their employers relies on the notion that employers will find the views and actions of their employees to be sufficiently reprehensible and out of step with the goals and objectives of their companies so as to warrant their dismissal. It assumes, also, that the firing of these employees, and the subsequent destabilization of their places within the market, will hurt their cause rather than embolden it.
What we have come to is an antiracist war of attrition waged through pink slips that pivots on the idea that bigotry is bad for business. It is a war that tacitly accepts the logic governing what scholar Jodi Melamed has described as the “formally antiracist, liberal-capitalist modernity” of the postwar United States—a logic, she argues, that is better equipped to promote “U.S. global ascendancy and leadership of transnational capitalism” than it is to bring about the end to “Western domination and capitalist exploitation” that “antiracist and anticolonial social movements had envisioned.” If bigotry is bad for business now, there is no reason to believe that it will always be.
Just as social media and appeals to corporate bottom lines can serve antiracist objectives, they can also achieve other, less tolerant ones. The National Football League’s treatment of football player Colin Kaepernick is a case in point. In August 2016, instead of standing for the national anthem, Kaepernick, citing police shootings, chose to kneel in silent protest of a system that, as he put it, “oppresses black people and people of color.” A Rasmussen poll taken in October of that same year revealed that “nearly one-third (32%) of American Adults [said] they [were] less likely to watch an NFL game because of the growing number of Black Lives Matter protests by players on the field.” As journalist Mike Ozanian has reported, this drop in viewership, accompanied by calls on social media to #BoycottNFL, caused the NFL to lose significant revenue. In September 2016, Ozanian wrote that Kaepernick’s protest was accomplishing what “the concussions, domestic violence and Deflategate could not do—drive down television ratings for the National Football League.” It is unsurprising, then, that despite his talents on the field, Kaepernick has not yet found new employment in the league.
Kaepernick’s fate, it appears, has been determined by the same forces now being called upon to punish those who participated in the Charlottesville rally, revealing the Janus-faced nature of social media and the market vis-à-vis the struggle against racial injustice.
Are the men who gathered at Charlottesville victims? Yes. But they are not victims in the sense that they claim. They are victims, instead, of their own expectations—expectations born of their belief that white racial domination would last forever. There is no reason to believe that it will. That some in the Alt-Right have resorted to acts of terrorism is, perhaps, evidence of its decline. It is becoming more difficult, it seems, to hold the wolf by its ears.
What might be most unsettling, however, is that the end of white racial domination will not necessarily provide a remedy for the inequities produced by it. It could deepen them. One of the major challenges of our time, then, in the face of so much uncertainty, is to be unafraid and to refuse to surrender our sense of right and wrong to the cold calculus and machinery of the market. More often than not, the market has proven to be a poor and unreliable moral arbiter.