But I don’t think this is how things work. If Chase Bank, for example, posts a photo of a rainbow flag, that does not mean that some other fight somewhere else gets squelched, diverted or changed in any way. Stanley and Serwer may be correct in saying that progressives shouldn’t accept “woke capital” or diversity initiatives as the end goal of social justice, but to reach their conclusions, they need to set up a “we” — the people demanding change — and a “they” — the powers who dole it out.
Social justice movements and the way the public responds to them are far more chaotic. Several years ago, I worked for an advertising agency. Much of our work for big brands was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt conflicted about this work — what, really, did it mean to make an ad about racial justice for the world’s biggest brands? — but I never really questioned the sincerity of the people who wrote and art-directed the ads. They were trying to make the most change they could in what they knew was a widely broadcast medium.
“Woke capital” might be annoying or feel inadequate, but I don’t see much value in drawing a bright line between the workers who produce it and the people who protest in the streets. They often are the same people. It might also be tempting to believe that the rich and powerful all got together to figure out a way to placate social unrest and collectively decided to institute a series of meaningless solutions that would calm everyone down, but I think Táíwò’s explanation — that corporations and elite institutions are responding to real pressure — is much more plausible.
In this way, the “this, not that” style of thinking profoundly underestimates the intelligence of the public. I have yet to meet a single person in this country who truly believes that Chase Bank’s pride flag actually means that homophobia is over. Nor have I met anyone who thinks that the low-level drug offenders in American prisons will suddenly be let out because some university expanded the size of its D.E.I. office.
“This, not that” also places a strange amount of blame on the “thats” who should be Stanley’s ideological allies. I am extremely skeptical of diversity initiatives in elite spaces, but I have met many hard-working, intelligent and thoughtful D.E.I. workers who are fully aware of the limitations of their practices but still try to make a more inclusive campus or workplace. It’s preposterous to believe they are somehow the enemies of progress because some cabal of elites has planted them in their positions to sate public outrage and placate the wokes, or whatever.
Does D.E.I. often signal the limit of what corporations and powerful cultural institutions are willing to do when they’re under pressure? Does the D.E.I. industry profit from this relationship? Do D.E.I. programs sometimes produce silly and indefensible controversies? You can answer “yes” to all three of these questions and still acknowledge that the products of their work is an advance from what these institutions offered up in the past: nothing.
Perhaps most important, “this, not that” detaches the dissenter from any personal responsibility. By endlessly gesturing toward “real” change and dismissing the smaller, but still hard-fought gains, it excuses people from taking part in any collective action and protest that does not fulfill their impossible demands. This offers a measure of self-protection, as well, for people to ignore the contradictions in their own lives. If Stanley, for example, really wants to challenge inequality on a large scale in a way that doesn’t get distracted by small victories, castigating the D.E.I. industry doesn’t seem productive. Perhaps he should argue instead that Yale, one of the flagship institutions of privilege, inequality and roughshod capitalism, should simply not exist.
This summer, there will be all manner of slogans and messages around abortion rights. Some will come from the most radical people in this country; others will come from the marketing departments of corporations. It is vital not to get caught up in the task of sorting these statements into buckets while questioning the sincerity of those that do not fit into a narrow vision of “real” change.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”