By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Today I’m going to veer dangerously close to pop sociology, first by invoking a sociological concept — microaggression — that if not pop, is certainly popular, and then by juxtaposing that concept with a binary opposite made up out of whole cloth especially for this post: macroexploitation. And I’ll conclude by speculating on the uses to which microaggression, as a concept, might be put — Spoiler: “finance, economics, politics and power” — while ignoring any historical context and not raising any question of agency. Should be fun!
The term microaggression — no hyphen — was coined in 1970 by Chester M. Pierce, Professor of Education and Psychiatry Emeritus at Harvard. It first occurs in the summary to his paper on “Offensive Mechanisms” — the comparison of everyday life in America to offensive tactics on the football field is sustained and brilliant — in The Black Seventies, Floyd Barbour, ed., 1970. The term also occurs in Pierce’s 1974 paper, “Psychiatric Problems of the Black Minority,” in S. Arieti (Ed.), American handbook of psychiatry, in this passage:
These assaults to black dignity and black hope are incessant and cumulative. Any single one may be gross. In fact, the major vehicle for racism in this country is offenses done to blacks by whites in this sort of gratuitous neverending way. These offenses are microaggressions. Almost all black-white racial interactions are characterized by white put-downs, done in automatic, preconscious, or unconscious fashion. These mini disasters accumulate. It is the sum total of multiple microaggressions by whites to blacks that has pervasive effect to the stability and peace of this world.
And in his 1970 article Pierce concludes:
It is my fondest hope that the day is not far remote when every black child will recognize and defend promptly and adequately against every offensive micro-aggression.
(Since 1970, the term has been expanded to include “the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group.” Here are some examples from BuzzFeed, and a parody from The New Yorker.)
The protests on college campuses today, inspired by #BlackLivesMatter, can be seen as a quest to fulfill Pierce’s dream. (Before proceeding, I should caveat that I’m aware the concept microaggression occurs in Critical Race Theory, so given my priors, I’ve put myself in the position of a one-armed juggler juggling power tools and surgical instruments and flaming torches, rather as if I were writing on intersectionality. However, I’m writing on the term microaggression as used by the journalists and pundits of today, and not as it is used in works of scholarship.)
Here’s how microaggression was recently characterized in one of a series of articles in The Atlantic by Conors Friedersdorf:
Consider an 18-year-old whose great grandparents immigrated from Japan to the United States. She enrolls at a large state university where she is constantly surrounded by strangers. A few times a week, someone asks her, “What country are you from?” Each interaction on its own is a tiny annoyance that she is inclined to ignore. But the cumulative effect of these interactions add up to a significant burden. No one likes having to answer the same question over and over and over again. And there seems to be something objectionable in the substance of this particular question––an implicit assertion that people with Asian features, or the descendants of Asian immigrants, are somehow less American than their white counterparts, even the ones whose ancestors immigrated here in the same generation. “I’m from here every bit as much as you are,” she might think to herself, “but people prejudge me as if that isn’t so because I don’t have white skin or features.”
Defenders of the “microaggressions” tend argue that people like this woman ought to have an intellectual framework and a public forum for airing her perspective.
And many critics of the “microaggression” framework agree!
They grant that a category of interactions are a) minor in each particular instance; b) cumulatively burdensome; c) substantively objectionable or plausibly objectionable; and they find it salutary to publicize, discuss, and ameliorate common examples.
And here’s how the Los Angeles Times describes microaggression:
College students confront subtler forms of bias: slights and snubs
Some call it the new face of racism — not the blatant acts of bias that recently led to the University of Missouri’s campus unrest and resignation of the president and chancellor. Instead, a phenomenon known as “microaggression” — everyday slights and snubs, sometimes unintentional — is drawing widespread attention across college campuses and kicking up a debate about social justice and free speech rights.
Students are sharing their experiences with microaggression on websites and Facebook pages at Harvard, Oberlin, Brown, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, Columbia, Willamette and other universities.
In the last eight years, researchers have conducted more than 5,500 studies on the topic documenting how such seemingly minor slights harm student performance, mental health and work productivity, said Derald Wing Sue, a Columbia University psychology professor and leading expert on the topic.
(I’m not sure how “subtle” I would find these acts to be, if I were playing defense to the offense.) Now, a lot of these “minor slights” fall under the heading of Rule #1 (“Don’t be an a**hole”), and highlight entirely new ways of violating it, of which many may not have been conscious. And I could count the ways, things I’ve done or said that make me go “Ouch!” in retrospect. Of course, conservative chin-stroking and tut-tuttery follows protest as the night the day, and I don’t proposed to summarize that here; that’s where all the whinging about “safe spaces” and “free speech” comes from.
So I’m basically with Atrios on this:
The Kids Today
It has come to my attention that the greatest threat to free speech in this glorious country of ours comes from a few black college kids. This threat is so looming and so large, so large and so looming, that 9 billion think pieces were written on this large and looming threat before the censorship began and the free speech was taken away.
Anyway, without getting too deep into all of the details, I’m a bit confused by the fact that no one remembers The Kids In Their Day. Nothing much has changed. Some college kids are socially active. They often focus on the things they know about and the things they might have some influence over. You know, their university. This is actually smart, not silly.
It is true that sometimes kids do silly things, because they’re kids. Adults sometimes do silly things, too, because they’re people. Sometimes adults do silly things like invade other countries and kill lots of innocent people for no good reason. Sometimes they are real threats to free speech! Silly adults! Sometimes adults actually have power, unlike the kids…. I guess there was a bit of attention when a few silly kids got themselves shot to death in Ohio, too. Silly kids!
For some reason it’s always the kids who are punching up, however clumsily, who get all the media attention and who are a grave and large and looming threat to all of the freedoms we hold dear.
It’s perfectly OK with me if these kids are on my lawn. And it isn’t even my lawn.
But… If we look at the field of play as covered by journalists today, we see defense against microaggression:
- Playing out in an academic context
- With appeals to administrative academic authority
- And replacement of non-performing academic authority
(As readers know, I’m all for gutting the parasitical and bloated administrative layer, and returning universities to the twin missions of teaching and research. So I’m pleased that college Presidents, Chancellors, and even football coaches are being given their walking papers or quietly retiring from the scene. But that’s not what’s going on here.) Now, none of these things are bad; the university is a powerful institution, and as Atrios says: “[Students] often focus on the things they know about and the things they might have some influence over… This is actually smart, not silly.”
But… If we return to Pierce (1970), we’ll see that he in no way wanted to limit defense against microaggression to the academic context. Pierce writes (p. 279):
There must be developed a group of health workers who could be called “Street Therapists.” They might or might not be called “Street Therapists.” They might or might not be the holders of high academic degrees. The role of the street therapist would be to conduct supportive-relationship treatment, especially for key individuals in the ghetto as well as to help poor citizens change institutional processes which work now to damage their emotions.
Thus, the street therapist functionally might be seeing a leading community organizer [sigh]. … The patient would usually not see the street therapist at a given hour or a given place. They might elect to meeet at 2 a.m. in an all-night coffee shop. Compared to traditional therapy there would be much more confrontation and direction, instead of introspection and indirection. … Paramount in the method of the street therapist will be a knowledge of offensive mechanisms, just as the psychiatrist of the middle class white never loses sight of the defensive mechanisms of his [sic] patient.
Sadly, the radical, even revolutionary idea of the “street therapist” has all but disappeared — been erased? — from contemporary discourse, with the “supportive-relationship treatment” function displaced to academics.
Second, and more centrally, we might ask if there is a larger context — a context outside the academy — in which microaggression plays out. Let’s remember Pierce’s that original trope, “offensive mechanism,” treats the game of football as a social laboratory where American social relations visibly play out. But that trope ignores invisible social relations beyond the field, and that structure and constrain, even “tilt,” the field: Who owns the stadium, for example; who purchases the tickets, who pays the referees, who owns the rights to the footage of the game, and so on.
I’m going to label this larger context “macroexploitation” — no hyphen — and since this is a work that aspires to rise merely to the level of pop sociology, I’ll caveat that I don’t know how to specify the relation between microaggression and macroexploitation. (I do think, however, that this would be a fruitful field of study.)
But I can think of two examples. The first is law enforcement for profit in Ferguson:
A new report released the week after 18-year old Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson helps explain why. ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis-area public defender group, says in its report that more than half the courts in St. Louis County engage in the “illegal and harmful practices” of charging high court fines and fees on nonviolent offenses like traffic violations — and then arresting people when they don’t pay. The report singles out courts in three communities, including Ferguson.
Last year, Ferguson collected $2.6 million in court fines and fees. It was the city’s second-biggest source of income of the $20 million it collected in revenues.
Jeff Smith, an assistant professor at the New School and a former Missouri state senator from St. Louis, says Ferguson “facilitates a debtors prison” because of the high number of arrest warrants that get issued when people don’t pay. When people go to jail, they sometimes lose their jobs.
“, and it happens to a lot of people. This stuff accumulates,” he says.
So, the problem — or “problem” — is revenue, right? Well, no, not exactly. Emerson Electric is a corporation with $24 billion in revenue, and its property tax valuation is “rock bottom.” And the solution — or “solution” is turning law enforcement into a business, just Reaon’s Robert Poole advocated, right?
Given that Ferguson was turned by its local elites into a giant debtors prison with “law enforcement” transformed into a collection agency — and with the debtors disproportionately black — I don’t see how policymakers could have imagined that anything other than what happened, would happen. An explosion is often the outcome of a feedback system in runaway mode.
Moreover, the 2008 financial collapse is also mysteriously absent. Bloomberg:
Violent unrest that captured global attention is revealing Ferguson, Missouri, as a city still struggling to mend its finances more than five years after the end of the longest U.S. recession since the 1930s. .. Ferguson acknowledged in its budget last year that “the recovery has been extraordinarily slow” and it has struggled to collect revenue. After 2007, the city lost almost $1.5 million annually in sales taxes and hasn’t fully recovered, according to the document.
So, we have lots and lots of micro-aggression in Ferguson, no question: Every stop, arrest, service, court appearance, and conviction is an opportunity for “offensive mechanics” by the official representatives of the local oligarchy. But we have macro-exploitation, too, ultimately in the form of refusing to tax Emerson, and in debt service. Microaggression and macroexploitation are firmly intertwined, and the latter creates the context for the former; it tilts an already tilted playing field even more against the offense than it’s already tilted, which is a lot. (Of course, this leads to public health problems too, as law enforcement, which seems more like an occupying army than anything else, keep whacking people with impunity.)
The second is unemployment. Pew Research:
Much has changed for African-Americans since the 1963 March on Washington (which, recall, was a march for “Jobs and Freedom”), but one thing hasn’t: The unemployment rate among blacks is about double that among whites, as it has been for most of the past six decades.
One common explanation, as William A. Darity Jr. of Duke University told Salon in 2011, is that blacks are “the last to be hired in a good economy, and when there’s a downturn, they’re the first to be released.” A 2010 article testing that “last hired, first fired” hypothesis against panel data from the Current Population Survey (from which the unemployment rate is derived) found considerable support for the “first fired” part but not for the “last hired” part: Blacks are in fact disproportionately likely to lose their jobs as the business cycle weakens, but the hiring side is more complex: “[E]arly in the business cycle, those blacks with a stronger attachment to the labor force (i.e., the unemployed) are the ﬁrst hired. Blacks who are nonparticipants tend to be hired late in the business cycle when labor demand is particularly strong.”
Now, I don’t think there’s any question that there’s microaggression in the hiring process. (The Vienna Orchestra, IIRC, only started to hire women players when auditions began to be conducted behind a screen, so candidates were judged and selected only on musical skills). However, it’s also clear that unemployment itself is macroexploitation of the highest order: “The economy” is actually regulated by the barbaric process of throwing people out of work when it overheats.
Now, it’s important to realize that Pierce (1970) righly conceives of microaggression as a public health problem, a matter of life and death, and not about the feels. But both law enforcement for profit in Ferguson, and unemployment, are public health problems too. Both set the context for microaggression, but both are also forms of macroexploitation.
What, exactly, are the universities preparing society for with their lifelong learning project on microaggression theory? Being wannabe pop psychologists, we can only speculate, which is exactly what I’m going to do. A recent article in T Magazine by New York Times Chin-Stroker-In-Chief David Brooks included this cringe-worthy passage:
My $120,000 Vacation
What sort of people go on a trip like this? Rich but not fancy. It is a sign of how stratified things have become that even within the top 1 percent there are differences between the single-digit millionaires and the double- or triple-digit millionaires. The people on this trip were by and large on the lower end of the upper class.
In other words, they were socially and intellectually unpretentious.
(Personally, I think requiring staff to behave like fake friends, rather than treating them as professionals, is about as offensive as it gets, but perhaps that’s just me.) This faux levelling tendency Brooks inadvertently points to seems characteristic of elites today; that’s why tech bro squillionaire Mark Zuckerberg wears a T-shirt, for example. Here is an even more extreme example of the same faux power trip, also from the New York Times. The author, Miranda July, is going to interview Rihanna:
DRESSED VERY CAREFULLY for her, the way I would for a good friend, thinking hard about what she likes. What I think she likes. I ordered Uber Black [!]— the highest level of Uber I’ve ridden. The driver said it would be about an hour and a half to Malibu, a long time to resist telling him where I was going.
‘‘I’m going to meet Rihanna,’’ I finally yelled over the radio.
He turned the radio down.
‘‘Rihanna. I’m going to meet her, to interview her. That’s where we’re going.’’
‘‘You kidding? That’s my girl,’’ he said. ‘‘I love her. She’s so down-to-earth. She always keep it cool with her friend and her family. Her and Melissa, I think they are the best celebrity friends. I always say that.’’
‘‘Melissa Forde,’’ I said, to show that I knew who he meant.
‘‘I took a picture with her! Look!’’ He handed back his phone and I took it skeptically. But there he was, in a tux, with his arm around Rihanna. She was smiling. ‘‘She hear my accent and ask me where I’m from. She’s so nice. I knew she would be.’’
‘‘Where are you from?’’
‘‘West Africa, Niger. I come to play soccer for University of Idaho. Oh, that’s the other thing I love about Rihanna — she love soccer.’’
Over the next two hours I interviewed Oumarou Idrissa about how he survived during his first five years in Los Angeles after his student visa had fallen through. He slept in laundromats, sending tiny sums of money back to Niger where his 25 brothers and sisters were starving. This took us through the beach traffic; we grew quiet as the SUV zipped along beach cliffs above blue water. I think we both suddenly remembered Rihanna.
Touching. Idrissa is, of course, July’s servant; that’s one of the main purposes of the “gig economy”; to provide on-demand servants to the 10% on up. (The real selling point of Uber is not transport, but transport that substitutes “independent contractors” just like me for icky working class drivers or, to be fair, Russian physicists with thick accents down on their luck.) Idrissa will collect his tip (large, one hopes) and cue up the next ride; July — “quoted as saying she has not worked a day job since she was 23 years old” — will go on to to the interview, or the next piece of performance art, or the next launch party.
So here, on July’s trip on Uber Black, we have macroexploitation: The (invisible) creation of social relations: The precariat and the concomitant brutal destruction of working class lives and dreams. And here we have microaggression: The theory that teaches Brooks and July how to deal with the servant problem, by avoiding the sort of (visible) faux pas that would ripple the smooth surface of “friendliness.” After all, when the whole field has been tilted so far against the defense, the offense can block and tackle with a very light touch.
Again, I’m fine with the students being on my lawn, and I’m not asking why the hell they aren’t doing something else more important. I am saying that microaggression as a theory, to have appeal and application outside the academy, can be usefully situated in a larger context, which I have labelled macroexploitation. And it would be nice if there were “5000 papers” relating microaggression to that context, as well.
 Vox, quoting Pierce (1974), cites to a secondary source, and copies and pastes a bad character (“±” for “-“) from the PDF. For Pierce (1970), I found a miserably poor scan in ScribD, from which I typed in the passage quoted. It would be nice if Vox, which has real resources, had been able to find Pierce’s original. It would also be nice if our shiny digital economy had made it easy to find all of Pierce’s work, instead of disappearing it into a maze of secondary sources. Can readers help?
 Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning (“Microaggression and Moral Cultures”) argue that we witnessing a “large-scale moral change such as the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.” Of course, “victim culture” is catnip to a certain sort of commentator, along with a simple, universal, ahistorical schematic. Also too, epater theliberals.
 I’m a university kid, so the notion of the campus as a “safe space” raises my hackles. But that’s because intellectual inquiry had better not be safe (Galileo; Semmelweis; this guy), not because I’m all for people having to undergo a constant, lifelong series of Rule #1 violations because of whatever hand they were dealt at birth.
 The press has the right to cover the story. That doesn’t imply that those the press wishes to cover are required to become news. It’s a conflict of good things! And it would certainly be odd if we had the right to remain silent with respect to agents of the state, but not a right to privacy with respect to employees of the press.
 And in entertainment, as well.
 This reminds me of Ferguson. I’d be surprised if “street therapy” had not been practiced there, at 2 A.M.
 And how much better a Jobs Guarantee would be!
 I know that “n*gger” is “just a word.” However, history shows that the word has often been followed by a rope, gasoline, and a match. So for me to use it would be a serious Rule #1 violation. This stuff is really not hard.