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Racial Protest And ‘Collective Narcissism’

What the politically ineffective black protests and white grievance voting might have in common

The black scholar Shelby Steele dropped a bomb on the pages of the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Whether you agree with him or not, it took a lot of courage to write the piece, which is, unfortunately, behind a paywall. I’ll quote from it for you, though, and summarize.

In it, Steele reflects that black protest has lost its power to change minds in our culture. Steele says the self-defeating nature of the NFL kneeling protests — they have not only failed to change minds, but have ended up hurting the league. He says that unlike Martin Luther King and the civil rights protesters, these wealthy players took no serious risks. Nevertheless, because black protest has in the recent past been so incredibly effective, it makes sense that they would follow this model:

It is not surprising, then, that these black football players would don the mantle of protest. The surprise was that it didn’t work. They had misread the historical moment. They were not speaking truth to power. Rather, they were figures of pathos, mindlessly loyal to a black identity that had run its course.

What they missed is a simple truth that is both obvious and unutterable: The oppression of black people is over with. This is politically incorrect news, but it is true nonetheless. We blacks are, today, a free people. It is as if freedom sneaked up and caught us by surprise.

Of course this doe not mean there is no racism left in American life. Racism is endemic to the human condition, just as stupidity is. We will always have to be on guard against it. But now it is recognized as a scourge, as the crowning immorality of our age and our history.

Protest always tries to make a point. But what happens when that point has already been made — when, in this case, racism has become anathema and freedom has expanded?

Steele goes on to say that black Americans, victims of four centuries of grinding oppression, weren’t ready for freedom.

[F]reedom put blacks at the risk of being judged inferior, the very libel that had always been used against us.

To hear, for example, that more than 4,000 people were shot in Chicago in 2016 embarrasses us because this level of largely black-on-black crime cannot be blamed simply on white racism.

Steele makes the interesting and important point that freedom “is a condition, not an agent of change.” It doesn’t mean things get better for you automatically. It only means that one has the liberty to change one’s life. And with freedom comes responsibility.

That’s why, in the face of freedom’s unsparing judgmentalism, we reflexively claim that freedom is a lie. We conjure elaborate narratives that give white racism new life in the present: “systemic” and “structural” racism, racist “microaggressions,” “white privilege,” and so on. All these narratives insist that blacks are still victims of racism, and that freedom’s accountability is an injustice.

We end up giving victimization the charisma of black authenticity. Suffering, poverty and underdevelopment are the things that make you “truly black.” Success and achievement throw your authenticity into question.

The NFL protests were not really about injustice. Instead such protests are usually genuflections to today’s victim-focused black identity. Protest is the action arm of this identity. it is not seeking a new and better world; it merely wants documentation that the old racist world still exists. It wants an excuse.

He goes on to say:

Watching the antics of Black Lives Matter is like watching people literally aspiring to black victimization, longing for it as for a consummation.

Steele finishes by saying that the failure of the kneeling NFL protests has likely burst the bubble of black protest, revealing that the “victim-focused approach to racial inequality” no longer works.

I wish I could tell you to read the whole thing, but as I said, it’s behind a paywall. Still, it’s a very powerful essay.

I think Steele is probably right about the impotence of black protest in American life. If the point of it is to change white minds, then I have to ask: which whites, other than liberal whites who already agree with them, are they effectively challenging? I mean, whose minds are being changed (other than Max Boot’s)?

Let me localize this. In my city, 2017 was the most deadly ever recorded in terms of homicides. Baton Rouge had a proportionally higher number of murders than Chicago did last year. The local newspaper created a map of where each one occurred. The story, curiously, does not report the race of the victims, but the murders are heavily concentrated in the poor black part of the city. The story does quote a criminologist theorizing that many of the murders were part of the drug trade.

I bring this up because a lot of white people in this city read stories like that, and do not think, “It’s racism’s fault.” When the Alton Sterling shooting happened in that part of town in 2016, sparking protests, a lot of white folks in the city, whatever they thought of the Sterling shooting per se, wondered aloud (I know this; I heard them) why that particular killing was the one that spurred public protest from the black community, and not the scores of other killings that tore up the social fabric of black Baton Rouge. A white friend who works for the city in a poor black neighborhood told me that he has seen police brutality (including black cops mistreating black suspects), but that it is impossible to separate out police brutality from the endemic culture of violence there, which comes out of multigenerational poverty, drugs, boys raised without fathers, and other factors. He wasn’t making excuses for the cops — in our conversation, he condemned the brutal ones — only saying that the situation is very complex and tangled.

Still, I know that the response of more than a few white Baton Rougeans to the Sterling protests were along the lines of, “Y’all are straining at gnats but swallowing camels.” Meaning that you are focusing on one real but relatively small problem — police brutality — while ignoring much larger ones bedeviling local black society.

I bring all that up as an illustration of Steele’s thesis. If the point of these protests is to garner sympathy from whites and lead to real action to change things for blacks, they’re mostly pointless — and not, I believe, because all whites are cold racists who don’t care about what happens to blacks.

Steele’s piece brought to mind this one, sent in by a reader, about the political volatility of collective narcissism.  The author is Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, a social scientist. Here is the core of her thesis:

Research from my PrejudiceLab at Goldsmiths, University of London shows that people who score high on the collective narcissism scale are particularly sensitive to even the smallest offences to their group’s image. As opposed to individuals with narcissistic personality, who maintain inflated views of themselves, collective narcissists exaggerate offences to their group’s image, and respond to them aggressively. Collective narcissists believe that their group’s importance and worth are not sufficiently recognised by others. They feel that their group merits special treatment, and insist that it gets the recognition and respect it deserves. In other words, collective narcissism amounts to a belief in the exaggerated greatness of one’s group, and demands external validation.

Collective narcissists are not simply content to be members of a valuable group. They don’t devote their energy to contributing to the group’s betterment and value. Rather, they engage in monitoring whether everybody around, particularly other groups, recognise and acknowledge the great value and special worth of their group. To be sure, collective narcissists demand privileged treatment, not equal rights. And the need for continuous external validation of the group’s inflated image (a negative attribute) is what differentiates collective narcissists from those who simply hold positive feelings about their group.


In Turkey, collective narcissists enjoyed Europe’s economic crisis because they felt offended by their country being denied membership of the EU. In Portugal, collective narcissists rejoiced in the German economic crisis because they felt their country was slighted by Germany’s position in the EU. Stretching the definition of intergroup offence even further, collective narcissists in Poland targeted the makers of the Polish film Aftermath (2012) for telling the story of the Jedwabne massacre of 1941 in which villagers set fire to their Jewish neighbours, and then blamed the Nazis. Even a petty transgression such as the film’s lead actor joking about the country’s populist government (whom Polish collective narcissists support) was met with threats of physical punishment and online abuse.

When their own group is involved, collective narcissists have no sense of humour. They are disproportionately punitive in responding to what they perceive as an insult to their group, even when the insult is debatable, not perceived by others, or not intended by the other group. Unlike individual narcissists, collective narcissists cannot dissociate themselves from an unpopular or criticised group. Once their self-worth is invested in the greatness of their group, collective narcissists are motivated by enhancing their group rather than themselves.


My team researched collective narcissism as a characteristic that pertains to an individual. We believe that there will always be a proportion of people in any given population who meet the criteria. But collective narcissism can also seize an entire group, resulting in seemingly sudden and unprovoked outbursts of intergroup rage or prejudiced reactions towards minority groups. We believe that collective narcissism is most dangerous as a group syndrome – when the belief that the righteous group is not given its due acknowledgement becomes shared by the majority of group members and becomes a dominant narrative about the group’s past and present.

She goes on to say that her research team found that collective narcissism goes a long way to explain Donald Trump’s election.

The problem with this should be obvious: Just because a group — whites, blacks, Muslims, Poles, etc. — feels unfairly treated doesn’t mean they haven’t been. It’s easy to psychologize away valid grievances of People Not Like You. The author says her findings show that collective narcissism drove the Brexit vote too. Well, maybe the Trump voters, like the Brexit voters, feel that the overclass — including academics — have been ruling very much against their interests, and felt that voting for Trump/Brexit was the only way to strike back?

And, it’s only fair to ask the same about black protesters and their critics. What if “collective narcissism” is only a way to dismiss a group’s grievances by psychologizing them away? What if the “collective narcissism” of elites leads them to reach conclusions about the political behavior of outgroups?

That’s a possibility. Certainly there’s no question in my mind that collective narcissism drives most and probably all of the on-campus militant snowflakery. The examples the sociologist cited of outbursts in Turkey, Portugal, and other places might well be instances of collective narcissism. Remember when Muslim mobs torched Danish diplomatic sites in the Middle East to protest the Muhammad cartoon? Collective narcissism.

Let me ask, though: is it possible that both collective narcissism AND legitimate grievance is present in many of these cases?

Take a look at this excerpt from a 2016 interview J.D. Vance did with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross:

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, my guest is J.D. Vance, author of the new book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis.” He writes about the social isolation, poverty, drug use, as well as religious and political changes in his family and in Greater Appalachia.

You describe yourself as conservative, and you’ve written for The National Review, a conservative magazine. You’ve become kind of famous for an article or two in which you try to explain why, you know, a lot of poor people would be voting for Trump. And in your writing and in your discussions, you’ve called Trump’s promises the needle in America’s collective vein. You’ve described Trump as the new pain reliever, trying to make comparisons between, you know, narcotisizing (ph) pain and what Trump is trying to do in explaining things away, easy solutions. Do you know a lot of people who are going to be voting for Trump or – yeah.

VANCE: I do. A lot of people in my family are going to be voting for Trump, a lot of my neighbors and friends from back home. So it’s definitely a phenomenon I, I think, recognize and frankly saw coming pretty early. You know, it’s interesting that I don’t think the Trump phenomenon is exclusively about the white poor.

I think that it’s more about the white working-class folks who aren’t necessarily economically destitute but in some ways feel very culturally isolated and very pessimistic about the future. That’s one of the biggest predictors of whether someone will support Donald Trump – it may be the biggest predictor – is the belief that America is headed in the wrong direction, the belief that your kids are not going to have a better life than you did.

And that cynicism really breeds frustration at political elites, but, frankly, that frustration needs to find a better outlet than Donald Trump. And that’s why I’ve made some of the analogies that I have because I don’t think that he’s going to make the problem better. I think, like you said, he is in some ways a pain reliever. He’s someone who makes people feel a little bit better about their problems. But whether he’s elected president or not, those problems are still going to be there, and we’ve got to recognize that.

GROSS: So when you’re having a discussion about the presidential race with someone in your family, someone who’s going to be voting for Trump, what is that conversation like?

VANCE: It typically starts with me making a point that I just made, which is, look, maybe Trump is recognizing some legitimate problems. He’s talking about the opioid epidemic in a way that nobody else is. But he’s not going to fix the problem. You know, better trade deals is not going to make all of these problems just go away.

And typically my family actually recognizes that. That’s what I find so interesting. They don’t think that this guy is going to solve all their problems. They just think he’s at least trying and he’s saying things, primarily to the elites, that they wish they could say themselves. So it’s really interesting. There’s a recognition that Trump isn’t going to solve a lot of these problems, but he’s, at the end of the day, the only person really trying to tap into this frustration.

And it’s, you know, I – so my dad is a Trump supporter, and I love my dad, and I always say, Dad, you know, Trump is not going to actually make any of these problems better. And he says, well, that’s probably true, but at least he’s talking about them and nobody else is and at least he’s not Mitt Romney. At least he’s not George W. Bush. He’s at least trying to talk about these problems.

And I think it’s amazing how low the bar has been set by the political conversation we’ve had for the past 20 or 30 years that this guy, who many people don’t think is going to solve the problems, is still getting a lot of support from people who are blue-collar white folks.

Now, you tell me: is it the case that white poor and working-class people voted for Donald Trump because

a) they were trying to send a collective message to elites who have ignored their problems; or

b) they were trying to offload onto elites their own failure to be responsible for their own lives; or

c) both?

Explain your answer. Understand that whatever your answer is probably applies to the social psychology of black protests too. Though voting for a presidential candidate is a much different form of protest than kneeling at a pro football game, in these instances they will have the same real-world effect on the problems at hand: none. 

It is interesting to consider how Trump and the black football players feed off each other, and collective racial resentments — or, if you prefer, collective racial narcissisms. This, when the reaction from the other side appears wildly disproportionate to the offense.

But I’ve gone on too long.

What do you think?




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