Is It OK to Be Scott Adams?
with John McWhorter
Why was Scott Adams canceled? The story that’s being spun out in the media is that Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist and author, went on a racist tirade in which he referred to African Americans as a “hate group” and urged white people to “get the hell away” from black people. This, the story goes, is a call for segregation, a clear indicator that Adams harbors anti-black beliefs and as such cannot be allowed to remain a part of polite society. Accordingly, his long-running comic strip must be dropped, his book deals must be voided, and he must be prevented from contaminating the culture with his noxious views.
But you could tell another story. Shocking as his statement is, it gives voice to a sentiment harbored by many, many other white people who feel similarly about African Americans as a group. Clearly, some white people feel there are reasons to “get the hell away” from black people. They don’t say it in words; they say it when they choose to move away from cities and neighborhoods where a high proportion of crimes are committed by black assailants. You can cancel as many comic strips as you want, but it’s not going to prevent white people who no longer want to live near predominately black neighborhoods from acting in what they see as their own best interests. All it will do is prevent all of us from talking about the larger forces that made Adams’s statements a cause for panic.
Abstract beliefs about race don’t make people uproot their lives, sell their houses, move to new neighborhoods, and find new schools for their kids. Material incentives do. Whacking down every outré statement made by a white person about a black person may serve the cause of “anti-racism,” but it won’t put an end to the underlying incentives that cause groups to segregate themselves. If we’re unable to discuss those incentives openly, we’ll hardly notice when more and more people start taking Scott Adams’s advice.
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GLENN LOURY: We still got Scott Adams to discuss, the cartoonist, the Dilbert creator who has been canceled. His publisher of his forthcoming book has dropped the book. I mean, his agent has dropped the agency relationship. The newspapers like the Washington Post and the LA Times and others, USA Today and others that carry his strip have decided to drop the strip.
Why? Let me see if I recall. Because he saw the results of a poll, I think Rasmussen, that asked the question, “Is it okay to be white?,” to which like 47% of the black respondents said either, no, it's not okay or they weren't sure that it was okay to be white. He characterized African Americans en masse as a hate group and said that he had once tried to be nice and be a part of the “help black people” brigade, but he has since decided that he was going to get as far away from black people and have as little to do with them as possible. And he recommended that—this is a paraphrase, not a quote—other white people as well get away from black people. What's your commentary on this whole brouhaha.
JOHN MCWHORTER: I'm gonna be very honest. I'm an armchair person, I'm a Montessori-trained nerd, and I don't know much about money and business. The idea here seems to be that all of those entities need to cut their ties with Adams, because it would be bad for business to be associated with somebody who has expressed racist views, to the extent that he's basically saying, “Screw these people's concerns,” and essentially saying, “I don't like them,” and he's applying it to a group.
Yes, this is racism. The case here is not whether or not he has said something racist. Or I don't think it's a very interesting discussion. But the idea is that every newspaper has to drop him because it'd be bad for business. Is it that they fear that a significant number of subscribers would drop the paper if they continue to see Dilbert in it? Is that the idea? Or is it that they feel that as moral representatives in society, they have to cut ties with Adams? Is it money or is it morals? And I guess the answer is both.
Well, okay. I think it's money. I think the money turns on what is assumed about the morals of the person who doesn't drop [Dilbert]. I think once this thing gets going, there's a sanction movement that gets going, your decision to join it or not join it becomes a statement about whether or not you affirm the value that the movement is meant to express, in this case, anti-racism. He said some things that are arguably racist. They're mild compared to a lot of things that are said about white people on a daily basis by black people.
But whites are empowered, right?
Yeah. I don't wanna parse the question of what is and isn't racist. I'll stipulate that it's racist. For many people, it's racist. That's not what I think is important.
Once papers start dropping, the question of why did you not drop him becomes one that a lot of organizations don't want to have to answer. And the reason is money. The reason is they'll lose readership. They'll weaken their position in the marketplace. I don't think corporations have morals. They say “our institutional values.” Okay. Whatever. It's all made up.
I think the canceling response to a disquieting intervention, such as Scott Adams's intervention, was, “Oh, that's what he thinks about black people. I wonder how many white people think that about black people. ‘Get as far away from them as you can.’ Oh, wow. That's promoting segregation.” Charles Blow makes a big deal out of this resegregation of America point. That's supposed to be anti-black. I think a lot of people think it.
That's why it becomes all the more important to cancel him. There's a thing that's trying to get out, and they're trying to keep the lid on it. They're trying to prevent it from breaking free. And that's why I so lament the racialization of the the crime and policing discussion. Because I think it has a dark side as well as this supposedly progressive side. They make a big deal out of the fact that it's a white police officer who abuses a black citizen. The dark side is that there are black criminals who are preying on white people on a daily basis. Lots of 'em.
Why would you get away from Chicago or Baltimore or certain parts of Atlanta or St. Louis or New Orleans, Detroit? Why? Why would you not want to live in that city? Because black criminals make living there dangerous, period. Carjackers, robbers, rapists, murderers. That's the ugly, dark side of a racialized discourse about crime, punishment, and policing in this country. The flip side of “mass incarceration is racist” is that too many black people are breaking the law. That's the unspeakable, terrifying specter that haunts comments such as those that Scott Adams made, and it's the reason why he must be canceled. Because otherwise we'd have to actually contemplate and deal with the fact that there's a real motivation. Not his bad, racist morality, like he's some kind of witch. He's a tip of an iceberg. You'd rather cancel him than actually talk about what he's talking about.
All of that is true. There's a part of me that can't completely wrap my head around this idea that you know people are thinking it, but they're not supposed to say it. I guess the idea is if they say it, it'll encourage more people to say it, and it'll also encourage more people to think it, I guess. And so you want to keep a lid on this.
Adams is responding to the idea that practically half of black people apparently think it's not okay to be white. And I think in this, he's kind of willfully disregarding a certain aspect of nuance. First of all, that there are power relations involved. Second, you can say that without meaning that you're gonna actively oppose white people or get in their way or try to hurt them. It's a philosophical position about what we call whiteness today. And there's also a history of that whole issue of “Is it okay to be white?” that he's completely ignoring. It's a set phrase. I don't know what was going through his head. I mean, talk about the livelihood he lost. We can assume that he's a millionaire many times over, and so he's not putting himself in any kind of danger. He clearly just tipped and decided to say something honest, is the idea.
They're trying to ward off a race war? Are they afraid that less temperate people than him are gonna rise up and start doing Dylann Roof type things? Maybe that makes a certain kind of sense, but I don't think that's what people are thinking. What people are thinking is: “This is wrong. We don't do this. He must be excommunicated.” A part of me feels like, are we that delicate? And I'm thinking, well, somebody would say, “You have to think about what happened in Buffalo at the supermarket.”
But I'm not sure that's what people are thinking. They're thinking about our feelings. And I don't know if I want to be catered to that extent. So we can't read his comic strip anymore because he said something that hurts our feelings. I don't quite get it. I think Dilbert is funny. I've got a few Dilbert books. I used to read Dilbert every day. I used to read Dilbert in a couple of other languages to keep my languages in trim, because it's clever language.
I'm not gonna abjure Dilbert. I don't care how the person who draws it and scripts it feels about black people. I can separate those two things. The strip has nothing to do with race. Or apparently the characters made some comments about reparations or something at some point. I missed those. I don't read the strip anymore. But I don't care. This is the whole issue about the artist versus the creation. I haven't written about this and I'm not going to, because I think we all have bigger fish to fry. But are we so delicate? That was my first thought.