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Not scars, but bleeding wounds: A response to Rebekah Adams ’21 of The Princeton Tory

<h6>GoToVan / Wikimedia Commons</h6>
GoToVan / Wikimedia Commons

Last month, Rebekah Adams ’21 argued in The Princeton Tory that “It’s Time For Communal Accountability” in the Black community. Through a shoddy line of reasoning, Adams concludes that racism no longer exists. Instead, she pins responsibility for racial inequality on Black culture. While Adams believes her “bold” call for accountability and individualism will finally “heal the scars from slavery and segregationist policies,” she fails (or maybe refuses) to remotely address the present-day ramifications of such oppression.

These ramifications do not just take the form of scars but also of fresh, still-bleeding wounds. Adams' decision to deny the existence of systemic racism unfortunately does not change this reality. Such efforts only supplant the necessary, albeit difficult, conversations that a progressive way forward necessitates.

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The aim of this article is not “cancellation” — instead, we are trying to hold members of our community accountable and discourage easy but dishonest “logical” shortcuts. (Also dishonest is The Princeton Tory’s decision to publish Adams’ piece with an uncaptioned photo of burning rubble taken in Indonesia, perhaps a low-effort attempt to prompt readers to associate chaos with Black Americans.)

Op-eds are not held to the rigorous source-gathering standards of academic papers. Even so, the numbers and stories Adams cites are used to veil — intentionally or unintentionally — the racist argument that there is something fundamentally wrong with Black people. And that is unacceptable.

Given space constraints, not all the flaws within Adams’ argument can be addressed here. However, its glaring conceptual error can be: Adams assembles a mishmash of cherry-picked statistics and isolated anecdotes devoid of context. Such techniques cannot be used to support a valid argument about any topic, especially when one aims to “debunk” something so well-evidenced and researched as systemic racism.

Numbers can be manipulated as easily as qualitative evidence. Recently, over 800 academics and researchers co-signed an article authored by Dean Knox and Jonathan Mummolo, the latter being a Princeton professor. This article confronts a study that misleadingly used statistics to claim that racial bias in policing does not exist when there is in fact overwhelming evidence that it does. Numbers never speak for themselves.

The percentages Adams cites to make her case reveal little more than her own failure to engage in good-faith with the topics she discusses. To demonstrate, take her brief discussion of the higher salary rates of some Asian Americans as “proof” that white privilege does not exist and that racism is merely a crutch used by low-income Black Americans to excuse their social circumstances. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

For one, lumping together distinct groups with distinct histories and distinct experiences under public policy in the United States implies a homogeneity of oppression that does not exist. In other words, Black Americans have been targeted by racist policies in different ways than Asian immigrants and Asian Americans, and vice versa.

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Additionally, Asian Americans are still affected by the historical legacies of public policy tailored to exclude them: take, for example, racialized assaults due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consider the model minority and perpetual foreigner stereotypes; the former is often weaponized against Black Americans to present a “proper” model of assimilation at the expense of both groups. Think about the rising levels of income inequality within the Asian American community, who are now the most economically divided group within the United States.

None of this is visible within the percentages Adams uses because percentages in and of themselves will never tell a full story. In case it is not apparent, the recent paragraphs do not capture the multiplicity of cultures and individual experiences within the Asian American community either. Two paragraphs in an op-ed cannot do that; they can only introduce the nuance that Adams’ piece desperately needs.

Adams similarly lacks sincerity in discussing the Black community. She consistently degrades low-income Black people by viewing them through the lens of shallow stereotypes, and her treatment of George Floyd is no different. Despite her claim that she is “not trying to vilify him,” that is exactly what she does. She calls him a “criminal,” a “man with a criminal record,” a “felon,” and a representative of “thuggery.” It seems she cannot fathom him as a person with a family and friends. Adams also fails to condemn Floyd’s killers, instead chastising society for “martyring criminals.”

Floyd is not remembered because of his criminal record or in spite of it. He is remembered because he was human. Nothing more, nothing less. Former police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes after Floyd’s hands were handcuffed behind his back, even after numerous bystanders and Floyd himself pleaded for him to stop. That is something no human being deserves, regardless of who they are or what they’ve done.

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Floyd is hardly a martyr as Adams claims: he did not die for a cause. He was killed because the officers responding to the call about a counterfeit bill saw him as lesser than themselves. Adams clearly views Floyd similarly. She promotes former police chief David Dorn as someone that society should “celebrate” instead. In early June, Dorn was killed while protecting a friend’s pawn shop from violent protests in St. Louis, Mo.

It is obvious that Adams would like to believe Dorn more human than Floyd, Black luminaries more human than low-income Black people, herself righteous enough to rescue Black people from accused moral failings. However, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, none of us are more human than another.

If Adams wanted to start thinking critically about white privilege and racism, she could simply turn on the news.

While we were working on this op-ed, an overwhelmingly white mob of Trump supporters, emboldened by our political leaders, stormed the U.S. Capitol Building in an attempt to undermine democracy. They were allowed to roam throughout the Capitol and later allowed by Capitol police to leave freely afterwards. This lenient treatment stands in stark contrast to events over the summer, when peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters were met with state violence and racially-charged rebuke (language that riddles Adams' article, i.e., “thuggery,“ “ghettos”).

You cannot ignore this glaring double standard on one hand, then claim ignorance to white privilege on the other, as Adams does. You cannot witness blatant white supremacy and then wonder why Black Americans have been perpetually stripped of hope.

That is not to say there should not be accountability in the Black community. Black voices such as our very own professors Eddie Glaude and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, consistently hold Black leaders to a high, progressive standard. It is the way that Adams approaches accountability that is toxic.

The last thing Black Americans need is one more successful individual to assume a paternalistic role, pointing fingers at the Black community’s faults without addressing why they exist. Being cognizant of discrimination has nothing to do with a “victimhood mentality” as Adams maintains. It has everything to do with breaking free from delusion.

Moreover, you don’t need to be a scientist like Dr. Mae Jemison — one of many names that Adams uses to gaslight disadvantaged Black people and accuse them of responsibility for their social circumstances — to see that change must be systematic. 400 years of evidence can tell you that much.

If it were true that “we can always take the steps to reform policy and add social programs,” why haven’t such steps been taken? That certainly is not because Black people have squandered their opportunity for structural equality. The era of slavery, Jim Crow, and Law and Order have not lent themselves to Adams’ “actionable” solutions. To justify calculated disparity with “broken culture” is to revel in arrogance and denial. Especially without once considering who broke said culture.

Furthermore, if individualism was the solution, the people Adams invokes, from Frederick Douglass to Toni Morrison, would have proven Black worth such that racism would no longer plague our country. Attempting to imagine racism away with individual examples of Black excellence — while not even heeding what those individuals had to say about racism — is simply not the solution. Rather, it promotes respectability politics and subjugates “many Black Americans” to a place of inferiority (Adams’ article being a solid case in point).

What the Black community really needs is a movement that acknowledges the intersections of race, class, and gender. We need anti-racist Black leaders to be a hope for all Black folk and tell our community that Blackness is not deleterious. For ultimately it is the system, and its many accomplices, that stifle equality. That is what desperately needs to change.

And just as Black voters have proven this election cycle, our community is far more effective when we work collectively — not as rugged individuals.

To heed the words of Frederick Douglass himself, “When men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression.”

Systemic racism is difficult to reckon with, especially for those who would like to believe the meritocratic myth of the American Dream. However, the blame for the system — which was created and is perpetuated by policy — is not on those put down by it.

Collin Riggins is a first-year student from Kansas City, MO. He can be reached at riggins@princeton.edu.

Brittani Telfair is a junior from Richmond, VA majoring in the School of Public and International Affairs and pursuing a certificate in African American Studies. She can be reached at btelfair@princeton.edu.

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