Profiting From Racism? Reflections on White Allyship and the Issue of Compensation

If there is one thing I’m sure of after about two years on Twitter it is that none of us, myself included, do a particularly good job of advancing persuasive ideological or philosophical points in 140 characters. In part, this sad fact owes to the simple truth that, given the platform, it’s just not possible. Twitter is pretty much tailor-made for folks who don’t see the value in compound words, prepositional phrases or substantive content. Which is why it was always the favored mode of communication for the late Andrew Breitbart, who couldn’t be bothered to think very deeply about subjects — and showed no desire to do so, by his own admission — but rather, preferred to just call people names like “cocksucker” followed by various invitations to #blowme or some such manner of vulgarity.

And so, given the perfectly imperfect nature of the medium, I try (though sadly sometimes fail) to cut slack to others when they make arguments that seem facile; after all facile is the nature of the Twitter beast, and any of my tweets could easily sound just as bad or worse than the ones I might criticize.

That said, there are some tweets which, because they don’t come close to the 140 character limit, suggest that their authors really think they have made a meaningful argument, perhaps even said something profound. I sense that such was the case today when someone tweeted something to the effect that white antiracists like myself should stop taking money for our work. The suggestion — and it’s been made plenty of times by others — is that if we were really sincere we’d do our writing, lectures, organizing or other forms of activism for free, and that by receiving income of any kind from the work, we show ourselves to be frauds.

I understand the argument. And on some level I can respect the impulse whence it comes. I’ll admit that at first blush, white folks getting paid to do antiracism work might seem odd. Perhaps it strikes one as even vesting the person being paid with a stake in actually maintaining racism, as a function of simple job security. It’s something I’ve thought about often over the years, and indeed gave serious consideration before I ever decided to throw myself into various forms of antiracism activism, full-time.

But upon close inspection, this argument really does fall apart, rather embarrassingly. Though there are very valid concerns about how we as white folks challenge racism in our professional capacities — issues of accountability, for instance, or making sure to hold up the work of persons of color in our own efforts, and to help empower black and brown voices whenever possible — the idea that it is unethical for whites to be paid for antiracism work is neither a philosophically nor practically logical position.

First, to suggest that white people should not be paid for antiracism work — in whatever realm and field of endeavor, be it writing, speaking, organizing, educating, etc. — implies that entire fields of work should be essentially off limits to a group of people based solely on their racial identity. To the extent few people can afford to work for free, such a prohibition, even if only theoretical (since such a thing can’t be enforced, but is being proposed more as a matter of moral suasion), would all but bar white folks from any kind of antiracism work. And if I really have to explain to people who claim to oppose racism that it is inherently wrong, and by definition racist, to say that certain work should be off limits to certain people solely because of their race, we’re in serious trouble.

But beyond the ethically challenged notion being advocated here, think about the practical implications of the stance. If you’re going to seriously make this argument as a matter of principle, you wouldn’t be able to limit it to persons like myself who speak or write about racism and receive income from those things. You’d have to apply it across-the-board in all areas of employment. Which means, for instance, that no whites would be able to ethically practice civil rights law or take discrimination cases, unless it was for free, perhaps when they weren’t practicing corporate law as their main gig for money. Which is just what we need: white tax attorneys representing clients who are the victims of racism. And no whites could be professors in sociology departments, unless they were willing to ignore matters of race on principle, so as to make sure they weren’t getting paid for challenging racism. No whites could work in non-profits that fight racism. No whites could produce films or other media addressing racism. No whites could write books about racism. We could blog, since blogging is normally not monetized, but the blog would need to look shitty because anything too fancy might lead to attention and that might lead to money. If we work as high school history teachers we wouldn’t be able to use an explicitly antiracist lens for the work, since this might strike some as “profiting” from racism, without which, such a lens would make no sense, after all.

In short, we would have to more or less leave all the antiracist lawyering, teaching, media, writing and organizing to people of color, thereby massively increasing their work load, stress, and responsibilities, and all in the name of solidarity. Some solidarity, that. We could continue to do voluntary antiracist work on the side, in all the free time we’d have after our 40-50 hour work week doing something else, like banking, or teaching geometry, or trading derivatives, or owning a restaurant, or working construction, or whatever. But we can only do these things as hobbies, in effect; sort of like woodworking or stamp collecting or skydiving.

That such a massive reduction in the amount of time one is able to openly challenge racism would not be beneficial to the overall fight against racism seems like it should be obvious, but apparently isn’t. Perhaps folks think that if whites would just stop writing, speaking, teaching, or lawyering against racism, suddenly their jobs and slots would open up for all the people of color out there who want them but are currently not getting them because of us. But how likely is this to be true?

For writers, there are only a handful of us who are white and write books on race with any regularity, and our combined sales wouldn’t amount to one genuine best seller. To think that we are crowding out folks of color from an otherwise eager market — either in publishers or readers — and supplanting the shelf or Kindle space that would otherwise be theirs for the taking is to indicate that one knows nothing about either the world of publishing or the reading habits of the American public. And certainly there is nothing to suggest that if we no longer wrote books on racism, the white readers whom we have long sought to expose to an antiracist analysis would suddenly flock to the works of bell hooks or Marimba Ani or James Baldwin instead. Perhaps they should, and perhaps if they start by reading white antiracist authors (because it’s apparently and sadly easier for them to hear these things from us first), they will then turn to those black and brown sources of wisdom. I certainly encourage all my readers and audiences to do that. But it won’t happen on its own just because we withdraw from the market.

Also note, following the logic of the critics who make these kinds of arguments, there is no substantive moral difference between the white person who writes blatantly racist books and the white person who writes books against racism. To the extent they both sell copies and thereby make any money, they would both be, according to this kind of thinking, “profiting from racism,” and therefore, equally morally objectionable. If anything, those who think there is something uniquely unbecoming about antiracist whites getting paid for our work would have to conclude that we were more morally objectionable than the blatantly racist white author, because at least the latter is consistent: they benefit from and advocate racism, whereas the antiracist profits from racism while supposedly opposing it, and is thus worse: an argument that should be immediately seen by rational people as intellectually bankrupt and morally fetid.

For attorneys, does anyone actually think civil rights law firms are unwilling to hire people of color because of all the white members of the bar who are clamoring to do that kind of work? Is there really some significant crowding out in that field, such that if whites just said, “no more anti-discrimination cases for us,” suddenly black and brown folks would start getting all the cases? Considering that people of color are already quite prevalent in civil rights and anti-discrimination legal work, having whites bow out of the field so as not to “make money off racism” would not do much to boost opportunity for people of color. Not to mention, the simple reduction in the number of attorneys available to take such cases would make it harder for victims to find representation in the first place. In other words, whites refusing to do anti-discrimination law in the name of “not profiting from racism,” would result in far worse outcomes for the actual victims of discrimination, who would either not be able to find an attorney to take their case, or would have to wait even longer for justice because the attorneys of color who now took all the cases would have an incredible backlog. How this would help actual victims of racial discrimination remains a mystery. So white folks interested in going into the legal profession would be limited to corporate law, or criminal law, perhaps; but in the latter case, they could never represent clients of color who may have been overcharged because of racism, or who came to the attention of police because of racial profiling, because to then represent them and get paid, even as a public defender, would be to “profit” from racism.

What this means, is that by the odd moral reasoning of those who claim whites should never be paid for fighting racism, the white attorney who prosecutes black people in a racist justice system is no different from the white attorney who defends a person of color caught up in that system, because they both “profit from racism.” Even though one is seeking to further it and one is fighting against it, it doesn’t matter. Both are equally implicated. Oh, and not just that, but the one who fights to maintain the system is actually more ethical in some ways, because at least they aren’t hypocrites: as white people they benefit from racism and their job actually helps them further racism, so they’re consistent, which is what matters. So the white attorney who represents the NYPD and the city of New York in the recent case against stop-and-frisk is no worse, and perhaps ethically superior to any white attorney who works with the Center for Constitutional Rights: the folks who worked with the plaintiffs who were fighting to end the practice.

As for teachers, if whites become professors, but are morally required not to teach about racism (or at least not too much), how could they teach any number of subjects with equanimity and in a way that was valuable? Anthropology, sociology, history, literature, political science, philosophy: all of these and more are subjects where matters of race can (and really should) figure quite prominently. But this moral code being proposed would tell whites in these fields: stay in your lane, don’t talk about those things, or at least, if you do, don’t take a paycheck for the hours you spend on subjects like that. Oh, and if you’re male don’t teach about sexism in class; and if you’re straight you need to ignore straight supremacy; and here’s the really big one: no professors can talk about economic inequality and poverty (at least not in a way that tries to convince students that such things are bad and to be opposed), because, after all, professors are not poor, so to teach about economic injustice — to raise consciousness around that subject — is to “profit off the oppression of others.” So the right-wingers in the Business School can keep getting big salaries because at least there’s no contradiction in their work: they praise the market system and make lots of money, so they — the business school shills for predatory capitalism — are ethical. But the white or male or straight educator who speaks about injustice is unethical, because it’s wrong to get paid for anti-oppression work if you’re a dominant group member. It’s OK, or at least ethically consistent to do oppression work, just not anti-oppression work. Yes, of course.

In my case, what might I have done had I not become an activist and organizer, and then a writer, lecturer and educator? Well, given my interests and particular skill sets I would have likely gone either to law school or graduate school in sociology. I considered at various points doing both of these. Had I become a lawyer, the only kind of law I would have been interested in practicing would have been civil rights law. But if being paid for fighting racism is morally wrong when one is white, then doing this would have been morally reprehensible. So instead of that kind of law, those who put forth this argument are basically saying that I should have had no choice but to work for some corporation, or do personal injury law, or perhaps even represent the white folks in the companies getting sued for discrimination, because then at least I would be ethically consistent. Much better for the struggle: defending racists from charges of racism.

And if I’d gone into sociology I would have been unable to actually teach using any progressive sociological theories known to the discipline, all of which involve analyzing class, race, gender and other identity-based power relationships and the way they shape the society in which we live. I wouldn’t have been able to talk about racism, because white!, or sexism, because male! or the class system because, hello!… professor, or heterosexism, because straight. In other words, for white folks who care deeply about oppression, and want to challenge it full-time as more than a hobby or thing we do on the weekend, too bad, there would be no outlet. And this is what some would call justice. Not because it would actually improve the conditions of life for a single person of color, but because it would worsen the conditions of life for certain white people, and for some, that is considered an adequate substitute for the former.

As for speakers like myself, who travel the country and lecture at colleges, high schools, and to professional associations and community groups, if we who are white stopped charging for our talks (either because we were independently wealthy and didn’t need money or because we decided to take a vow of poverty), would this free up space for speakers of color? No. In fact it would result in more crowding out of those voices. If a school or organization can bring me in and not even have to pay for it, because I’m trying to be all super-ethical by not “profiting from racism,” or, alternately, bring in a person of color who will actually charge them for their wisdom, guess who’s getting the gig? The free guy. People like free, and if you offer it to them, they will take it, over paying thousands of dollars to someone else.

And frankly, even the notion that by speaking on campuses, white antiracist scholars and educators bump people of color from speaking spots they could have and should have received is demonstrably false. First, there aren’t that many of us. Secondly, the vast majority of speakers on campuses addressing racism are, in fact, already people of color (as it should be), and they wouldn’t get the slots currently going to white speakers if we bowed out. Usually the schools that bring me in, for instance, have 3-4 such events throughout the year and I’m the only one of those speakers who’s white, and I was chosen specifically to fill the “white ally” slot, meaning that if I didn’t go, and if another white person didn’t, that slot just wouldn’t be filled. The event simply wouldn’t happen at all: it would just be one less antiracism event at that campus that year.

There’s also a simple math problem here. There are probably at least 1500 colleges and universities in the country which bring in speakers on race and racism in a given year. Some only do one such event, while many of them do multiple events. So it’s safe to say that there are probably at least 2500 such speeches on campuses nationwide, annually. In a good year, I might get 50. That leaves 2,450 over which I have no control, and upon which my presence in the work has no impact whatsoever. Even if you added together all the white folks speaking as guest lecturers on campuses about racism in a given year, the total number of events might reach, say, 300 (and this is probably a stretch). That 300 speeches by white folks cannot be the reason for any given person of color not getting one of the other 2200 should be so obvious as to not even need mentioning. But there it is.

As for the corollary argument that getting paid while doing antiracism work somehow creates an incentive to maintain the system, and so those who receive income from such work are really frauds who don’t want to see the system end, perhaps it would do us well to think about the implications of this argument. First, the argument would also apply to people of color who do the work. If compensation for fighting a system of oppression by definition means that one is vested in the maintenance of the problem, that logic would have to apply across the board. Is that what people believe? That’s certainly what right wingers and those who support racism have long said about the civil rights establishment: that they want to see racism continue so they’ll be able to keep their jobs and incomes. But if that argument is unfair and absurd when made about people of color in the work, why is it suddenly legitimate when applied to whites?

And by this logic, one could also say — and would have to, by necessity — that doctors “profit from illness” and as such want to see people remain unhealthy. And teachers, of any subject, “profit from ignorance,” and want to see people remain uneducated. And that grunt soldiers on the front lines “profit from war,” and really, deep down want to see war continue because getting shot at is so much fun, and anyway, what would they do if peace broke out? By this logic, the attorneys who fought Big Tobacco were “profiting off cancer” no less so than the attorneys who defended those companies and lied about the cancer-causing properties of cigarettes.

And by this logic, organizations that do advocacy against poverty and on behalf of poor people and communities — fighting for things like a living wage, or a more stable social safety net — should only hire poor people to do that work (which might be cool, actually), but then continue to pay them a sub-poverty wage, in violation of the very things they are fighting for, because the minute their incomes put the workers above the poverty line they would be, under this logic, “profiting from the misery of others,” and thus reveal themselves to be automatic hypocrites.

Seriously, there are legitimate discussions to be had about the level of compensation that people doing social justice work should receive (or any form of work, actually) and what their obligations are to give back, spread the opportunities and attention around — as well as some of the money — and especially to persons of color and efforts at the community level that seek to address these systemic issues. Those conversations are welcome ones, and I have discussed some of my own thinking about those matters elsewhere, notably here. But that discussion is one that will require a commitment to conversation and a depth of thought far greater than that which is required and rewarded on Twitter or Tumblr or wherever. And so far, most of the folks snarking on the latter haven’t shown themselves willing to engage that more complex discussion. But just because social networking platforms encourage us to limit our thinking to pithy little quips and hashtags and truncated thoughts, does not oblige us to think or converse in such a manner. I know that I could use a reminder of this from time to time, as could we all.

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