On Tuesday, ABC canceled its “Roseanne” revival, the network’s first No. 1 show in 24 years, after its star Roseanne Barr referred to Valerie Jarrett, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, as the offspring of the “Muslim Brotherhood & Planet of the Apes.”
The decision prompted surprise, relief and schadenfreude from many on the left, who already regarded the sitcom — in which Barr’s character, like Barr herself, is a supporter of President Trump and his radical racist authoritarian ideology — as an alarming bellwether of Trumpism’s slide into normalcy.
Meanwhile, the right-wing backlash is unfolding as scripted: the usual cries of censorship, the usual recriminations about liberal celebrities who once said something mean, the usual lamentations about politically correct overreach, the usual free-market fetishists suddenly oppressed by the marketplace of ideas.
Barr attributed her gleeful antebellum-vintage racism to the sleep aid Ambien and played down her comment as a joke (yes, we know, a racist one). Trump — who himself referred to some immigrants as “animals” this month — predictably joined in, whining that Disney’s chief executive, Bob Iger, “never called President Donald J. Trump to apologize for the HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC.”
Right-wing Twitter (including Barr’s own feed) is now thick with similar sentiments: Here is Joy Behar saying something cutting about Trump. Here is Jimmy Kimmel. Here is Michelle Wolf. Why didn’t the outrage mob come for them? One important difference is that it is possible, or at least up for debate, for Trump’s decorum, health care plan, tax bill or hair to deserve mockery. It is not possible, and well beyond the realm of debate, for black people to deserve five centuries of racialized brutality and dehumanization.
Chattel slavery in America ended 153 years ago. I am only 36 years old, and when my father was born, there were black Americans alive who remembered being the property of white people. Slavery is not our distant past; it is yesterday. Descendants of slaves (again, only a few generations removed) have never been compensated for the hundreds of years of unpaid forced labor upon which white Americans built generational wealth and economic stability. The culturally and legislatively enforced poverty, subjugation and mass incarceration of black people continue to this day, while white supremacist violence saturates our news media, whether it’s identified as such or not.
The Parkland, Fla., high school gunman Nikolas Cruz “talked about killing Mexicans, keeping black people in chains and cutting their necks,” according to CNN. The gunman at Santa Fe High School in Texas, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, posted photos of himself in Nazi regalia. Alek Minassian, who drove his van into a crowded sidewalk in Toronto, killing 10, was a member of the “incel” (or “involuntarily celibate”) community, an online misogynist hate group with roots in white supremacist male entitlement.
Elliot Rodger, an incel hero who killed six people in a 2014 rampage, wrote repeatedly about his rage at the sight of white women socializing with black men. In Charlottesville, Va., last year, Heather Heyer was killed by the self-professed neo-Nazi James Alex Fields Jr., one of Trump’s “very fine people.” The stories of black people murdered by the police could fill a library.
Racism is America’s defining sickness, and comparing black and brown people to animals is one of its most pervasive pathogens — a rationalization that, even in 2018, kills people every day. Flint still doesn’t have clean water.
“Roseanne” was not canceled because it is mean or “HORRIBLE” to compare a black person to an ape (though it is both of those things). It was canceled because it carries the weight of both historic horrors and current atrocities — because comparing a black person to an ape nods to a historically rooted yet increasingly emboldened far-right hate movement whose chosen figurehead, Donald Trump, is the president of the United States. Because it is our collective responsibility to not let that movement win, to fight to be a better country, and right now cultural power is all we have.
Perhaps more significantly, “Roseanne” was canceled because it is bad for business (for now) when your prime-time family sitcom’s star sounds like David Duke — just as it will eventually become bad for the N.F.L.’s business to punish black players for protesting police brutality.
Disclosure: I had my own bizarre and unpleasant run-in with Barr in the summer of 2013. I’d appeared on a TV show to talk about political correctness (specifically rape jokes) in comedy, and Barr became convinced that I was the P.C. police. She tweeted a video I’d made about the online harassment that I was receiving (sample: “This big bitch is bitter that no one wants to rape her”) and described me as a “female advocating censorship of comedy.”
I tried to explain, it didn’t work, and things devolved from there in the way they typically do on Twitter. Eventually, in disbelief, I had to block Roseanne Barr. I loved Roseanne Barr. This was not how I’d imagined our first encounter. And she never forgot. Every once in a while, even five years later, she occasionally tweets, “Lindy West is a fat bitch.”
The term “political correctness” (much like the slimy “pro-life”) is a right-wing neologism, a tactical bending of reality, an attempt to colonize the playing field, a bluff to lure dupes into dignifying propaganda. True to form, the credulous left adopted it wholesale in the early ’90s, electively embroiling us in three decades of bad-faith “debate” over whether discouraging white people from using racial slurs constitutes government censorship. Of course it doesn’t. Debate over. Treating anti-P.C. arguments as anything but a shell game props up the lie that it is somehow unfair to identify and point out racism, let alone fight to eradicate it. Pointing out and fighting to eradicate racism is how we build the racism-free world that all but racists profess to want.
The anti-P.C. set deliberately frames political correctness as a sovereign entity, separate from real human beings — like an advisory board or a nutritional label or a silly after-school club that one can heed or ignore with no moral implications — as though if we simply reject political correctness we can still have “Roseanne.” But the reality is that there’s no such thing as political correctness — it’s a rhetorical device to depersonalize oppression.
What we have here, really, is a person, Roseanne Barr, who called a black person an animal, a comparison that directly refers to and reinforces our country’s genocidal past — a past that still hinders black life in devastating ways, and that good people have been fighting to not just leave behind but repair for generations. Understandably, many people (including the people who worked on the show and paid to make the show) did not like hearing this from Barr, so people at ABC decided to cancel the show.
Political correctness is just people reacting to other people; parents protecting their children; the oppressed and underserved advocating for themselves. Canceling “Roseanne” is not society regulating “mean” speech; it is us regulating our collective morality, so that we don’t atrophy into a moral vacuum. It is saying no, because we are more than animals.
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