"What Would You Do?" is great television.
It merges the classic TV show "Candid Camera" with social science-like experiments and a clear moral lens which offers the viewer the "good guy's" perspective: thus, breaking the proverbial 4th wall and providing an ethical Deus Ex Machina moment.
What Would You Do? is so very smart in how it creates complicity with the viewer through scenarios that are very much a black and white, cut and dry, right and wrong binary choice, where no "decent" person would side with the obvious wrongs depicted on screen.
What Would You Do? is especially powerful, because its unscripted moments often reveal basic facts about white racism and other social ills that the privileged and the in-group would prefer to deny in order to sustain the fictions of a just world that sustain them psychologically.
It is easy to maintain a sense of one's righteousness and moral superiority by watching a television show; it is much more difficult to do so through lived practice in everyday life.
What Would You Do? offers moral catharsis and cheerleading for viewers, a group that would likely choose self-interest over generosity in most of their social interactions
A settled debate about the evils of racism and the virtues of egalitarianism are central to how post civil rights America defines itself. In practice, this is muddied: for example, the Republican Party is a white identity organization which uses the language of "colorblindness" to advance a white supremacist agenda. Operating in the same historical moment, egalitarianism has been uncritically folded into a public ethos of American Exceptionalism such that a black man could be elected President of the United States while institutional and structural white supremacy still remains a dominant force in American life.
Social and political reality often undoes easy, parsimonious, social theory. Anti-intellectualism births much nonsense because it allows its adherents to be comfortable while projecting a sense of superiority as nurtured through lazy thinking.
For all of its virtues and merits, What Would You Do? is a product of the post civil rights era consensus. This bargain was based on the following lie: all Americans, of any color, or occupying any position relative to the colorline, are equally capable of being "racist".
Racism is prejudice plus power. Racism has nothing to do with color. In practice, racism has almost everything to do with how different people are located relative to different racial groups by dominant society.
Racism is not a mutual sin across the colorline. No. Racism is the near exclusive sin, in American society, of white people.
White people as a group are not racists because of some arbitrary melanin count or the laws created around its meaning. Whiteness, white supremacy, and racism are intimates because of how white society created an entire social system around advantaging its members and thus disadvantaging those others excluded from said community by virtue of skin color.
Much anger will likely be directed against such a proposition by some white folks and those people of color invested in Whiteness. This is misdirected energy. White folks who are angry about discussions of white racism should direct their talk and processing inward to their own community, and also backwards to their ancestors who were signatories to that Racial Contract.
Moreover, the flattening of history created by such a consensus fuels fictions such as "reverse racism", or the mythic belief, common to those on the White Right and its useful idiots, that white folks are somehow "victims" of "racism" in the post civil rights era.
White Supremacy, and the struggle against white on black and brown racial terrorism, has been one of the central, if not dominant, narratives in American history. Anti-racism forced American democracy to be more true to its potential and abstract creed.
The lie of raceless "racism" gives protection to white supremacy by freeing white people of their particular relationship to a centuries-long system of white privilege while simultaneously allowing them to accrue material and psychological advantages from its evils. As I and others have suggested, white privilege is a great and singular invention because it allows its beneficiaries to accrue gains while also providing the plausible deniability of ignorance, individuality, and good intentions.
Because What Would You Do? reflects the norms of post racial and post civil rights America, the show is primed towards engaging in its own hunt for the mythic unicorn that is "black racism". The other lies, what are the slogans "fair and balanced", and "both sides do it", that dominate contemporary late 20th and early 21st century political discourse, demand such a fool's quest.
What Would You Do? tried to find "black racism" at a barbershop. The prank involved inserting a white barber into a black space.
Of course, because African-Americans are a radically democratic and inclusive people, the white barber in What Would You Do? was defended, and for the most part, welcomed by the patrons who demonstrated a deep respect for the rule of "law", and how a person who is trained and licensed should be allowed to practice their craft. This is expected--yet still welcome to see--as a principle from a community of people who were historically denied such protections by white society.
It is important to note how the scheme on What Would You Do? was grossly ahistorical and lacked any sense of context for the role of black barbershops and hair salons in the African-American public sphere and counter public. In a world long-dominated by Jim and Jane Crow and white supremacy, those spaces were one of the few that allowed African-Americans a sense of dignity, privacy, a living wage, and the opportunity to be treated as full human beings.
Of course, the black barbershop was not immune from the social power of white supremacy--white men prized their black barbers; many shops and artisans developed a lucrative reputation precisely because they did not cut black people's hair.
The political economy of black hair also reflects the broader challenges of African-American life in post civil rights era America. The end of Jim and Jane Crow, and then the new racially predatory policies of State, Local, and Federal governments, helped to destroy black wealth as held in both businesses and by individuals.
Of note here, Black Americans spend extravagant amounts of money, as compared to other racial groups, on personal grooming. However, this outward flow of resources is not sustaining the Black American community. Instead, those resources are supporting East and South Asians, African immigrants, and others, who have realized how a lack of a self-sustaining, indigenous, black American economy--as a people black Americans give the vast majority of their money to those outside of their racial and ethnic group--is a literal golden egg for others to create wealth and opportunity.
The barbershop episode on What Would You Do?, while advancing the lie of black racism, also fails to ask the inverse question: would white ethnic barbershops accept a black person as a client or as a barber? Based on my own experiences, and in talking to others, the reception a black person would have received in those spaces is likely far less welcoming than that received by the white barber on What Would You Do?.
What Would You Do? also fails to offer up a foundational question: given the history of African-Americans with racial harassment, white violence, and surveillance, what is so objectionable or problematic about the idea and practice of a "black space?"
In the Age of Obama, the search for black racism is fashionable. By comparison, the reality of white on black racism is uninteresting. The truth, more often than not, is found in the latter category. "Everyone's sin is no one's sin" is one of the guiding rubrics of white supremacy in the post civil rights era. Of course, such a claim is sophistry. Nonetheless, it is very compelling for too many Americans.