Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, in his studio...

Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, in his studio in Dublin, California, in October 2006. Credit: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Over the past week, the hugely successful cartoonist Scott Adams experienced a swift downfall over inflammatory remarks on his YouTube show. The artist referred to Black Americans as a “hate group” and suggested that white Americans should “get the hell away from Black people” and avoid helping them. In response, his “Dilbert” comic was canceled by nearly every newspaper that carried it, including Newsday. Adams was then dropped by his syndicate and his book publisher.

Is this an example of the punitive “cancel culture” that not only conservatives but liberals and centrists have deplored — or a justified response to bigotry? Are pundits on the right who see a racial double standard making a legitimate point, or soft-pedaling racism?

It’s worth noting that Adams, once a moderate libertarian/Republican but more recently a purveyor of far-right paranoia, has long reveled in provocative statements (for instance, that a Joe Biden victory in the 2020 election would lead to Republicans being hunted down). In this case, he was responding to a Rasmussen poll asking whether people agreed with the statement, “It’s okay to be white.” Among Black respondents, 26% said they disagreed either strongly or somewhat, while 21% weren’t sure. From this, Adams deduced that nearly half of all Black Americans don’t think it’s okay to be white and presumably hate white people.

In fact, in addition to doubts about Rasmussen’s sampling methods, the question itself is misleading. “It’s okay to be white” is a slogan long used as a seemingly innocuous “code” by white supremacists and popularized by internet trolls a few years ago. Most likely, many Black people in the survey had some vague knowledge of this background or realized they were being asked a trick question of sorts. More than one in four white respondents (27%) also declined to endorse the statement.

Adams could have acknowledged his error. Instead, he dug in his heels, improbably claimed that he was using “hyperbole” to illustrate that it’s wrong to generalize about people by race, and seemed to take pride in his “cancellation” (which he can afford financially). He has also found a troubling number of more or less mainstream conservative defenders, including Twitter owner Elon Musk and highly popular commentator Ben Shapiro. On Twitter, Shapiro acknowledged that Adams’ rant was racist — only to add that “if you substituted the word ‘white’ for ‘black’” in it, you would get “a top editorial post at the New York Times.”

Racial double standards are a complicated issue. While most of us will agree that expressions of racial, ethnic or other group antagonism are somewhat less abhorrent when coming from a historically oppressed minority group, that doesn’t mean we should condone them. Yet in recent years, progressive discourse has often normalized rhetoric that treats “white” as a pejorative. This pattern contributes to overall toxicity around racial identity, and it absolutely should be criticized. But if you invoke it as “whataboutery” in response to a blatantly racist rant about Black Americans, this inevitably comes across as excuse-making.

As for “cancel culture,” almost no one disagrees that some odious views and statements call for shunning. Problems start when people are “canceled” for expressing controversial but debatable opinions or making trivial missteps, such as uttering a racial slur while quoting someone else's words. In an open society, the lines demarcating views “beyond the pale” should be very carefully and narrowly drawn. But overt racism is certainly on the wrong side of that line.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a cultural studies fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.

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