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The Death of Dilbert and False Claims of White Victimhood

15 minute read
Janell Ross is the senior correspondent on race and identities for TIME.

It’s been said at this point so often that it’s a contender for a modern cliche: When you have had an exclusive stranglehold on the best of everything, anything that demands reconsideration, efforts to expand access, or insists on sharing feels like oppression rather than progress.

But, it bears, once again, making that plain.

That’s been clear to me for so long now that the news Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, was in the midst of a likely temporary cancellation did not register as significant. The fact that Adams’ comic-strip distributor and many of its subscriber newspapers dropped him following his declaration that Black Americans are a hate group he will not help and does not wish to be near barely rose to the level of things I thought it wise to read.

There are bigger, badder, quieter threats to equality and justice that haunt me. This was just the daily racist outrage. And it happened during Black History Month, a period during which it appears to have become a tradition for some people to do, say, and put into the public sphere the most offensive, dismissive, racist ideas that they can.

What’s more, Adam’s claims struck me as patently ridiculous.

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A hate group is defined by the U.S. Department of Justice as “people who share fears, prejudices, and a need for quick solutions and easy targets,” whose members “affirm their prejudices in uniting against people of a different race, religion, ethnic background, or sexual orientation.” Black Americans are the people who arrived here in chains then forced the country to begin the slow, long, ongoing work of making some of its foundational promises real. That which Black Americans have pushed, pulled, and shamed the United States to change has ultimately benefited millions of others. Black Americans are the group that, despite long-standing and once legal bans on our citizenship, our literacy, our liberty, and our dominion over the fate and location of our children, have in no large-scale, organized, or even disjointed way sought to exact group revenge. Black Americans have not marched through Southern college towns insisting that their nonexistent dominion remain unchallenged but marched to demand the right to live without fear of state-sanctioned abuse and summary execution.

Yes, there are Black groups that meet that Justice Department definition. But there’s simply no way – without twisting the meaning of activism and demands for equality into organized hate-group work – to claim 46.9 million Black people are hate-group participants. If Adams’ argument amounts to more than jumbled nonsense intended to offend, what have you to say about white America’s collective resume?

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Given Adams’ previous entirely unoriginal claims that his economic and creative opportunities had been curtailed because he is white, there was simply no reason for shock or anything like disappointment. Given what I’ve read about the content of Dilbert in recent years, Adams’ views have long been clear. Bigots sometimes have a sense of humor, a social media following, and a skilled drawing hand.

The only reason for some level of concern here is that Adams’ ideas do not, in fact, cast him into a remote and lonely zone. He is not simply one self-described rich white man pontificating on losses amid luxury. Adams is just one more white person who comforts himself in the face of a job loss, a denied school admission, or a promotion pass-over with the notion that his own shortcomings, an off day, bad luck, or the actual merit and superiority of other candidates could not possibly explain the outcome. He is one more person convinced that he is a victim of progress, pummeled by the very slow end of white America’s exclusive hold on the best of everything. But, a nation must grow more brutal and willingly out of touch with itself if it is to maintain a nearly all white and male power structure as its population grows more diverse. One need look no further than South Africa, home country of Adams defender, Elon Musk, for evidence.

Last week, Adams told his YouTube viewers that his conclusions – Black Americans are a hate group whom he would not “help” – were entirely logical ideas reached after his read of a poll conducted earlier this month. Then, three days ago, Adams appeared as a guest of Bryan Sharpe, a Black man, who serves as the host of Sharpe Conversations With Hotep Jesus, a YouTube show, to expound on this topic. He has repeatedly urged people to take a look at this conversation to understand the context of his remarks. Doing so does not help his case.

Adams begins by explaining that he’s realized he enjoys attention and describes himself as “an energy monster,” who does nothing for “clout” – meaning online influence, followers, and standing. He says he made none of his comments for financial gain – if anything, there would be losses because he’s spoken so freely. Instead, he says with a healthy dose of gaslighting, he is providing a service to those too afraid or otherwise unable to speak about the same things.

“I discovered that the price of free speech is really high and there are only a few people willing to pay it,” Adams says. “So I decided to pay it. So that I could extend the conversation to something that everybody needs to hear.”

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At Adams’ direction, the host plays a clip from the live stream on Adams’ own YouTube channel, the one that took Dilbert out of syndication:

“If nearly half of all Blacks are not OK with white people, according to this poll, not according to me, according to this poll,” Adams says calmly in the clip. “That’s a hate group. That’s a hate group and I don’t want anything to do with it. And I would say based on the current way things are going, the best advice I would give to white people is get the hell away from Black people. Just get the f-ck away. Wherever you have to go, just get away.”

The context, Adams tells Sharpe, for his comments had been lost. He declares himself a supporter of legal equality and reasonable treatment of other individuals along with the freedom to marry whomever one wants. But, for “career maximization or life maximization,” people should avoid those “who have a bad opinion of you.” And he’d suggest the same to Black people with some variations on the theme.

It was hyperbole, Adams claims. Sharpe then describes himself as a former “extreme Black nationalist” who immediately knew that Adams was engaging in comic overstatement but considers the “optics” of Adams’ comments dangerous.

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“But I think the bigger issue here is how large your voice is,” Sharpe says to Adams. “OK. And two groups of people have been particularly enraged …Black Americans, and maybe the diaspora, and this Neo-Nazi, white nationalist crowd. You are the new hero of white nationalists.”

“Let me say I disavow them completely for agreeing with me for all the wrong reasons,” Adams says.

Both men chuckle.

In the end, the whole thing is a journey into the low-grade intellectual engagement and grab-bag philosophy that passes for thoughtful inquiry on channels where the real bosses are the algorithm and advertising dollars that reward controversy over concrete facts.

But before it’s over, Adams says something truly revealing: “Part of what is allowing Black America to be winning, in my opinion, at the moment, is they have made a good argument for being victims.”

Leaving the YouTube interview aside, there are multiple problems with Adams’ analysis. First there’s Rasmussen’s work, which Adams says undergirded his claims. Adams’ arguments were based on his read of a Rasmussen Reports survey showing that of the 1,000 polled, 117 of which were Black, almost 50% of Black respondents disagreed with or or were not sure if they agreed with the statement “It’s OK to be white.”

The poll involved a small sample size and deployed a question loaded with language born from acts of racial trolling. “It’s OK to be white,” has recently appeared on Neo Nazi and alt-right groups’ flyers and websites and in some of their real-world speeches. Some of those polled may have recognized it. Rasmussen doesn’t appear to have asked why respondents agreed(53%), disagreed (26%), or were not sure (21%). Then there’s the fact that Rasmussen has a tendency not only to consistently produce results that vary widely from other polls querying similar things, but to lean consistently to the right and do so most significantly when conservative candidates or ideas are trailing elsewhere. Those are just a few of the issues the political scientist and political-behavior expert Alan Abramowitz warned of in an October 2016 blog post titled “Don’t Trust Rasmussen Polls.”

That may be further down into the statistical weeds than a cartoonist engaged in a YouTube coffee clatch is inclined to go. Adams admits during his conversation with Sharpe that there may be some problems with the Rasmussen data and later describes himself as a person whose online schtick is doubting polls, doubting science, doubting authority.

But there’s still the rather basic question of why Adams then leaped to the conclusions that he did. Here we get to the real point of Adams’ commentary, the stuff that makes Adam’s so-called rant part of a broader phenomenon of diseased thinking.

Adams seems convinced he and other white people are the victims of a spiraling effort to minimize them, their influence, and their life trajectories if and when they are accused of racism, harboring racist intentions and supporting the discriminatory effects of past and present policy. White people, Adams tells Sharpe, are being demonized daily.

Put another way, the changes and conversations necessary to create a more equal country seem to all but make him itch.

It’s not a new idea, a phenomenon that Rasmussen’s question made clear, or a position Adams maintains alone. In 2015, in the run-up to the election where Trump would encourage rowdy crowds of mostly white supporters to punch or physically overpower protesters, 43% of respondents to a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll told researchers discrimination against white Americans has become as large a problem as discrimination against Black Americans and other minority groups. Half of white Americans—including 60% of white working-class Americans—agreed that discrimination against white people had become as big a problem as discrimination against Black Americans and other minorities, while 29% of Latino respondents, and 25% of Black Americans agreed.

Last year when PRRI returned to that question, its researchers found a slightly smaller group of Americans – 39% – agreed with the idea that discrimination against white Americans had become as large a problem as discrimination against Black people and other minority groups. White Americans – 46% – were significantly more likely to agree than the 33% of Latino Americans who concurred and the 13% of Black respondents who told researchers the same thing.


Similar patterns have shown up in other polls.


Adams and those who share this view have a problem though: from the cradle to the grave, white Americans are, statistically speaking, the ones winning. White Americans up and down the income and education ladders continue to enjoy better quality health care and better health outcomes than Black Americans, helping to make them less likely to be born early or die before the age of one. Those who give birth are significantly less likely to die when they do so. They are more likely to have the option to send their children to the best-quality public schools, to have access to nearby full-service grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables, and to see mortgage applications approved, which puts those things within easier reach. They are more likely to attend a four-year college, more likely to be able to depend on family financial support, more likely to receive no-cost financial aid and therefore more likely to graduate and earn more, become more likely to be employed, and then experience shorter periods of unemployment should they lose a job. They are more likely to report being able to stock away more in retirement savings. They, on average, live longer than Black Americans and are far more likely to leave behind a tangible legacy, which is also worth more when they die.

Yes, some aren’t doing as well as generations before them. And some come from families that have never done well at all. But still, in almost every measure of economic or social well-being, white Americans, including those who are white and poor, fare better than most other Americans. It’s a choice to view any disruption of that pattern as a terrifying diminution of white America, a dangerous turn, rather than a slow opening of opportunity, health, and safety to other Americans.

Stay away from Black people isn’t the only logical conclusion. It’s not a logical conclusion at all. The average pay coming from employers compared to profits, the cost of health care, the amount of debt and stress that most households must take on, and terrible decisions or investments figure far more prominently in bankruptcy-court cases than claims that nearly 47 million Black people did this to me. But somehow this all makes sense when you are in victim mode, where Adams seems to dwell and, as many conservatives appear to believe, public disputes and popular opinion are won.

Leap far enough in Adams’ direction and you get to a place called Winter 2023, where people are arguing in public forums that anything and anyone who identifies systemic or individual discrimination are the problem, the real racists. Information that illuminates racist assumptions, myths, stereotypes, or even the racially uneven effect of policies and practices and, of course, an accurate and inclusive recounting of history are a devious plot against the self-esteem and mental health of white children. It’s all an unnecessary and enraging burden for grown-up workers inside companies that make their staff watch an annual diversity and inclusion video but change little about who they hire or how. And it’s simply intolerable, downright unreasonable, to demand any of the above from legislators engaged in public policy debates and hearings that shape all of our lives.

Adams appears to be trying, just like that cast of complainers above, to reset social norms back to the point that joining him in a feast of bigotries seems like taking a seat at the only table available. None of us have to eat there. But some only recently let into the room, some whose forefathers waited that table, and some who have always had a seat are clamoring for another chair.

Having now spent more time with Adams and his ideas than I’d like, I’ll probably go back to tuning out most of the hyperbolic “Dilbert is dead, murdered by a woke army in the winter of ‘23” chatter. (Are his supporters confessing that to share their views one must remain effectively asleep?) Or I should say I’ll aim for that.

It’s not quite that simple since a good portion of white America shares both Adams’ disdain for facts and figures, and good old plain truth about actual discrimination in this country. Some have been primed by religious institutions, a penchant for denying their personal shortcomings, and schools and families where they haven’t been taught to meaningfully question what the country’s political and economic systems make possible and likely in their lives. And some outright share Adams’ ambition to recast themselves as the victims of any progressive social change. It’s a problem, but one that women as wise as Toni Morrison warned those hated and underappreciated not to be distracted by. There are real questions of justice, inclusion, and equity that demand attention. That means I will sigh deeply when Adams inevitably tells his fans how they may subscribe, individually, to any cartoons that he decides to draw.

Then, I will remember that the self-described attention seeker also told Sharpe he’s 65 and his plan has long been to retire by “blowing Dilbert up.”

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