The Moment newsletter

Published — September 9, 2020

How do we move to meaningful acts that go beyond the moment?

Mark Anthony Neal from the documentary “Boss” (Twitter)


Welcome to The Moment. I’m Susan Smith Richardson, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.

Since the death of George Floyd earlier this summer, companies have rushed to pledge support for racial justice. From Amazon to Netflix, hundreds of companies have symbolically taken the knee by proclaiming, “Black Lives Matter.” The practice is called virtue signaling, and social media is a ready platform for sending the signal.

But is virtue signaling a symbolic gesture that taps into a moment of racial reckoning or is there a long-term benefit for a nation once again publicly grappling with anti-Black violence? Corporations and other institutions are cognizant of not landing on the wrong side of history, says Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African and African American Studies and chair of the department at Duke University. But there are also opportunities to turn symbolic acts into meaningful change through hard conversations and accountability, says Neal, whose work focuses on Black popular culture.

And now a moment with Mark Anthony Neal…

*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

What is virtue signaling and what is its significance in this moment?

My understanding of virtue signaling really has to do with the fact that we have these large corporations who, in response to everything that was going on, wanted to make sure to send a message to the public that suggested that they stood behind certain kinds of virtues. In the case of what happened with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, companies wanted to make sure folks understood them as anti-racist, understood them as supportive of Black Lives Matter. I will never forget June 2020 for the number of major corporations that felt the need to post “Black Lives Matter.”

I think so much of that has to do with the fact that these companies are reacting to the power of social media to cancel them at any given time. And as we know about corporations, their bottom line is always money and profit and not necessarily politics. …

Everyone felt a little bit on edge. So many folks were home because they couldn’t go to work. They’re watching all this play out. So, it’s a bunch of unique circumstances that creates this moment where the nation is watching what’s happening. And for the first time I really think since the civil rights movement, people had to grapple with the images that they were seeing on their televisions in relationship to anti-Black violence. And all these companies want to make sure that they were going to be on the right side of history.

How do we move from what I call performative acts to meaningful acts that go beyond the moment?

We affirm their desire to be on the right side of history, but we continue to hold them accountable. The difference now is that we get to hold them accountable against their own rhetoric about what they term as inclusiveness. Well, what exactly do your corporate suites look like? What does your leadership team look like? These [messages about inclusiveness] are all well and good, but if a dozen folks are part of your leadership team and they’re all white and 10 of them are men, again, you’re not really being as inclusive as your messages. …

Be honest about what pay equity looks like and what kind of things you’re going to do to reverse that.

You know, the irony of this moment where folks say, “Well, we’ve got to look at equity.” For instance, in our company now in the midst of a pandemic in which everyone is facing economic crises, we actually want to know do you, at this moment, have the political will. Because other than that, it’s just rhetoric. If you didn’t have the political will when you were more liquid, you had more access to resources, why should we expect you to have that political will now? I think this is one of the things that we’re hearing at colleges and universities. Yes, we need to diversify our faculty and hire more folks.  But if you weren’t willing to do that when you weren’t in a crisis, what does that look like now when you’re actually in an economic crisis?

Is there is any value in simply having some cultural images questioned?

Yeah, there’s no question about that. We’re looking at a moment that demands new language, a new way to see race going forward. I think for far too many white folks in this country, and it’s astounding on some level, what they saw with George Floyd, in particular, for them was a day one revelation. And it’s so stunning because it’s not day one for Black folks. Just in the last decade when we consider Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and so many other folks and Black Lives Matter, it’s like have you been tone deaf to what’s been happening in your country in just the last decade, let alone to extend that further 100 years and pass the 200 years of the past? So, we clearly have to find new ways to engage folks who are interested in learning in this moment and trying to find a pathway forward that allows for all of us to be able to live productive and sustainable lives.

But it’s also about hard conversations. You go through some of these neighborhoods and you realize a number of white families who have Black Lives Matter signs. And on the one hand, it’s like, wow, that’s a great thing. But then you look historically at those neighborhoods and realize that they’re living in those neighborhoods because they’re gentrifiers. And part of the reason why Black folks are disaffected in the place where you live is because you live where you live. The Black Lives Matter sign is not going to do anything about that. It’s not going to better enhance their lives. So, people have to take some sort of ownership of their privilege, even if they may not feel powerful.

Mark’s Must-Watch List:

Lovecraft Country” – The HBO series centers on a young Black man, his uncle and a friend on a road trip through America in the 1950s battling racism and monsters. Neal says the series takes the work of science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, who is “incredibly racist and embedded so much of his work with these racist tropes” and flips it on its head.

Yusuf Hawkins: Storm over Brooklyn” – The HBO documentary examines the 1989 murder of Black teenager Yusuf Hawkins by a group of young white men in Brooklyn. Neal, who had been out of college two years at the time, says Hawkins’ death politicized him and a generation of folks who went on to become writers and activists.  He compares the impact of Hawkins’ death on his generation to that of Trayvon Martin on a generation of activists who were inspired by his death at the hands of a vigilante.

Read part two of my interview with Mark Anthony Neal next week.

Journalism was in crisis well before COVID, the recent uprisings against racism and the deep recession. Now, we are facing a blank-slate moment. Join me for a series of conversations with Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where we tackle where journalism goes next. It’s a two-day symposium on Sept. 15 at 2 p.m. and Sept.16 at 4 p.m., where a panel of speakers of the most urgent voices in media discuss how we can hold our media institutions accountable. Register Now.

Thanks for reading The Moment. What questions do you want to explore? Send them to me at Until next time.

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