In late August, Apple CEO Tim Cook took to Twitter to signal his support for police reform protests. He tweeted that we need to stand with those who “will not tolerate another Jacob Blake. Another Emmett Till.”
In those 37 words, Cook directly compared the recent shooting of Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to one of the most notorious racial murders in our country’s history. While Cook racked up likes and retweets for his declaration, it’s worth dissecting the differences between Blake and Till.
Till’s case has a hallowed place in civil rights history because the 14-year-old—whose flirtation with a white woman so angered her husband and brother that they murdered him—was above all else, innocent. There was no possible way to justify what happened to the poor child, which is why when his mother requested an open-casket funeral and an image of his body found its way to Jet magazine, the world was rightly outraged.
As of the time of this writing, government investigators are still poring over the details of exactly why police decided to shoot Blake, who survived the incident and is recovering in a Wisconsin hospital. But it is clear that, unlike Till, we have reason to suspect that Blake is not innocent of any crime. Blake had a restraining order prohibiting him from visiting the home of the woman he was at the day of the shooting; she alleges that he sexually assaulted her in front of one of her children. Police were at the home in the first place because she called 911, telling an operator that he was attempting to steal the keys to her car. He allegedly tussled with the police officers who tried to arrest him; the local police union claims he had a knife on him at the time of this quarrel. Had he gotten into the car with a knife and the kids he shared with the woman, and there was a possibility of a high-speed chase, which may very well have ended in a deadly crash.
I don’t write this to justify the shooting. If it turns out he didn’t pose any imminent threat to the officers or to the kids at the time of the shooting, it wasn’t justified. But there is no universe where it is legitimate to compare what is at worst an incompetent arrest and unjustified nonlethal shooting of someone wanted for an alleged violent crime to a brutal racist killing of an innocent child.
And yet such comparisons are now commonplace. Our contemporary political debates induce us to identify ourselves and those we view as sympathetic as first and foremost members of some group that has suffered historical victimhood. Then, after you have established that you or someone else is a member of this group, you can then use this status to plead for sympathy, prestige, or even power. Thus, Cook feels little compunction about comparing Blake and Till: They may share nothing but the color of their skin, but under these rules, that’s more than enough to equate their plights.
On some level, we all know this rhetorical technique doesn’t quite make sense. The brilliant Aaron McGruder demonstrated as much in his hit animated series, The Boondocks, back in 2005. In the episode “The Trial of R. Kelly,” the infamous rapper goes on trial for his indecent acts with a minor. In order to defend him in court, Kelly hires an uber-woke white lawyer who turns to the Black jurors and intones, “They don’t want R. Kelly to be free because they don’t want you to be free!” The implication is that Kelly was being prosecuted not for his crimes but for his race; defining him only by his race allows his defense attorney to shield him with the status of historical victimhood—even if he himself is not a victim at all, for his race or for any other reason. Eventually, series protagonist Huey Freeman, an adolescent Black nationalist, loses his cool, reminding the court room that every famous Black person who “gets arrested is not Nelson Mandela!”
Yet the idea of identifying yourself solely through the lens of these broad demographic groups is not new in American society. Everything from our system of laws to the U.S. Census constantly reinforces this idea that we are to be defined through these demographic categories. I, for instance, am expected to call myself “Asian,” even though I have nothing in common with say, a Hmong man working in a bakery in New York City or a Sikh woman employed as a fashion designer in Los Angeles. So maybe it’s not surprising that our public debates increasingly take the form of identifying strongly with ethnic, racial, and other often superficial characteristics and using them for rhetorical warfare.
By invoking the victimhood of an entire group you belong to—even if you have not experienced any victimization yourself—you hold a powerful weapon you can use to win debates and restructure society. One example can be found in the kerfuffle that ousted longtime New York Times opinion page editor James Bennett. Shortly after The New York Times published a piece by Sen. Tom Cotton calling for deploying active duty military to quell riots, the newspaper’s union claimed that the op-ed represented a “clear threat to the health and safety of the journalists we represent.” The union specifically complained that the senator’s words put “our Black staff members in danger.”
The idea that the op-ed put any of the newspaper’s staff in imminent danger is, of course, ridiculous. The New York Times is staffed by some of the nation’s most privileged people; one study I reported on in 2018 found that 52% of staff writers at the Times attended a small batch of elite colleges.
There has indeed been a surge of violence in New York City recently, but it is confined almost entirely to working-class, heavily African American and Latino neighborhoods. Indeed, the riots and looting the Times staff downplay and Cotton wanted to stop historically tends to hurt that same subset of poor minorities the most.
Another example can be found in The Washington Post’s global opinions editor, Karen Attiah. Attiah’s social media presence consistently features claims of victimization or underprivilege. In one tweet where she complains about the “white patriarchy,” Attiah notes that “Black women in particular find themselves pushed out of workplaces due to sexism and racism. They start their own ventures and rely on social media and branding to—*gasp* Self promote. Because we have to. To survive.”
The “we” is doing a fair bit of work here. Attiah holds a prestigious and secure position at one of the nation’s premier newspapers at a time when the industry is contracting and good reporters and editors are being laid off left and right. Yet by invoking her membership in the group “Black women,” she can situate herself in the same status as say, a housekeeper at a motel who lives a precarious existence.
This sense of victimhood even drew her to tweet in June about the “lies and tears of white women” producing the “1921 Tulsa massacre,” the aforementioned murder of Till, and the election of Donald Trump. “White women are lucky that we are calling them Karens,” she warned. “And not calling for revenge.” Although Attiah later deleted the tweet, it’s instructive that she felt comfortable she could walk right up to the line of implying racial violence would be justified—such is the power of this rhetorical tactic. What’s most revealing, however, is that Attiah’s ancestors had little relationship to the crimes she listed. She’s the daughter of immigrants from Ghana and is not descended from American slaves or people who were brutalized under the post-Civil War system of racial subjugation.
This very last example is illustrative of why I do my best to never play this rhetorical game. Because it’s a game that involves stealing valor.
The term “stolen valor” is used to describe military impostors—typically, people who exaggerated or lied about their military records. In 1998, investigative journalist Glenna Whitley and Vietnam veteran B.G. Burkett published a book by the same name, chronicling the stories of individuals who wore Vietnam War medals and ribbons who had not earned them. The pair used Freedom of Information Act requests to search the records of a host of individuals, finding that they often exaggerated the terms of their military service in their public statements. Over the years, Congress passed laws that made it illegal to “fraudulently hold oneself out to be a recipient of any of several specified military decorations or medals with the intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit.”
But this new form of stolen valor isn’t only legal, it is increasingly encouraged. But I refuse to partake in it, because it would be wrong to use my status as a racial and religious minority to get ahead because I know that I’m actually doing quite well. I’m a middle-class professional who lives in a safe community and rarely faces any type of discrimination. Yes, there are Muslims in the United States and across the world who are underprivileged. One of the most illuminating experiences in my life was meeting children in Karachi who couldn’t have been older than 8 or 9 getting up every day and working for a living.
In a world where some people who share the same ancestors as I do are literally engaged in child labor, I would feel ashamed to hop onto Twitter and complain about how underprivileged I am because of my ethnic background.
I’ve had my fair share of struggles in life, but if I were to start claiming that I am some sort of persecuted and impoverished subject of an oppressive regime, I would be worse than wrong—I would be stealing valor from people who really are in that situation. It wouldn’t be very different than pinning a medal on myself that I didn’t earn.
If we are to roll back our culture’s current tide of victimhood culture, we have to start recognizing it for what it is: stolen valor. The more time we spend claiming we’re victims when we’re not, the less time we can attend to the wounds of those who are truly among the afflicted.
Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who has previously worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress. He also writes a newsletter at inquire.substack.com. He is a graduate of the University of Georgia and received his master’s from Syracuse University. He is originally from the Atlanta area.