The Sitcom Roseanne

For example, in the spring of 2018, the TV network ABC cancelled the revival of the sitcom Roseanne, after the show’s eponymous lead actress, Roseanne Barr, tweeted a series of racist messages ending with one that directed racially coded slurs at Valerie Jarrett, former advisor to Barack Obama. Hashtags like #CancelRoseanne operate like a virtual public square in which response to racial insults are offered and debated. Memes, too, are an effective tool for dragging racism. One of the most creative and comedic depicts a White woman at Oakland’s Lake Merritt who called the police on a Black man who was barbecuing with the “wrong” type of grill. BBQBecky’s image from the video recording has been cut and pasted at the scene of many “crimes” – she is depicted calling the police on the 1963 March on Washington, on Rosa Parks sitting on the bus, on Michelle and Barack Obama getting sworn into office, and even on the Black Panther as he greets cheering crowds at the Wakanda waterfalls – among many other faux offenses.

In a context in which people are able to voice their discontent and expose the absurdity of everyday insults, the pervasiveness of race talk can serve as a proxy for more far-reaching social progress. Paradoxically, as platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube give more opportunities to put blatant acts of racism on trial, many of these same companies encode more insidious forms of inequity in the very design of their products and services. By drawing our attention to Roseanne-like slurs or BBQBecky-like citizen policing, dragging may obscure how the New Jim Code operates behind the scenes.

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Similarly, the hypervisibility of Black celebrities, athletes, and politicians can mask the widespread disenfranchisement of Black communities through de facto segregation and the punishment apparatus. How can a society filled with millions of people cheering for LeBron, singing along to Beyoncé, tuning in to Oprah, and pining for the presidency of Obama be … racist? But alas, “Black faces in high places” is not an aberration but a key feature of a society structured by White supremacy.58 In hindsight, we would not point to the prominence of Black performers and politicians in the early twentieth century as a sign that racism was on the decline. But it is common to hear that line of reasoning today.

Tokenism is not simply a distraction from systemic domination. Black celebrities are sometimes recruited to be the (Black) face of technologies that have the potential to deepen racial inequities. For example, in 2018 Microsoft launched a campaign featuring the rapper Common to promote AI:

Today, right now, you have more power at your fingertips than entire generations that came before you. Think about that. That’s what technology really is. It’s possibility. It’s adaptability. It’s capability. But in the end it’s only a tool. What’s a hammer without a person who swings it? It’s not about what technology can do, it’s about what you can do with it. You’re the voice, and it’s the microphone. When you’re the artist, it’s the paintbrush. We are living in the future we always dreamed of … AI empowering us to change the world we see … So here’s the question: What will you do with it?