Should We Celebrate When Racists Get Fired?

There has been a lot of critical buzz on online shaming, silencing, censorship – you name it – of deviant opinions and behaviors, from Kirsten Powers to Jon Ronson. There are many shades of public shaming – shaming corporations vs. individuals for instance – so let me focus on one kind of shaming in particular: Racistsgettingfired.

Racistsgettingfired is a Tumblr where people do the following:

·      You find a racist post on social media by Person X

·      You take a screenshot of it and send it to this tumblr

·      You figure out, via social media, where Person X (has to be over 18) works or studies and you call/email/tweet at them with the screenshot as proof, asking their employer or college to take action

Here is a list – it is called “Gotten” – of all the racist people that have been successfully fired as a result of grassroots (or mob, depending on your slant) justice. It sometimes includes pictures of the people who have been fired.  

I find this Tumblr fascinating for a variety of reasons. 

1.    Going for the jugular. Unless you are famous, powerful or work in PR, being publicly shamed or criticized on social media is not going to ruin your career.  But basically everyone has a job that it will be costly for them to lose, so by going for the organization whom they work for that does have a brand and public image that it has to maintain is brilliant.  

2.    An online scarlet “A.” The creators of the Tumblr seem to see firing racists as a way of removing a weapon from their hands. The FAQ reads: “By holding individuals accountable to their actions in public, we force change and remove dangerous individuals from positions of power from which they could do harm.” While that is true, they also minimize what firing someone is: making them lose their main source of income. The creators assume that getting fired will not be a big deal because “the majority of these individuals will resume employment without much to impede them since they’re white.” They will have an easier time relative to non-white people, but that does not mean they will have an easy time finding another job, especially since their racist behavior will always follow them online. Hester Pyrnne carried an A on her dress to remind everyone all the time that she was an adulteress; a permanent, online record of their racist behavior could very well become a similar mark. Maybe losing their job will be the wake-up call that causes them to really examine their attitudes; it is entirely possible that this might be the only way, which is part of why I am sympathetic to Racistsgettingfired. But maybe it will just make them embittered and hire a PR consultant. 

3.    You bring dishonor to us all. Cyber-vigilantism has been analogized to the old days of public shaming in small villages. But community accountability, at its best, is exactly what we would hope for when someone tweets something racist. When small communities have to deal with misbehavior, they can weigh the fine nuances of the case – was this a one-time incident or a repeated habit? – and what penalty is appropriate given the offender’s situation. While featuring Racistsgettingfired, BBC interviewed a man, fired for a racist Facebook comment, who was struggling a few weeks later to find another job, while supporting a three-year-old kid. Moreover, communities can choose to educate the offender, offering her or him a second chance (Prison Fellowship in Rwanda often brought perpetrators and survivors together to meet each other and offer a chance at forgiveness).

In the case of Racistsgettingfired, because of the PR concerns faced by most colleges and companies, one racist behavior is likely sufficient reason to let the offender go, especially if she or he is a low-level employee. Forget weighing the nuances of the case and the appropriate penalty. Do you want to be known as a company that employs racists? No.  

In this way, cyber-vigilantism functions much like legal accountability, which as we saw in the case of Walter Scott’s failure to pay child support, is blind to nuances and inflexible: you do this, you get this. There is no contextual understanding. It is more concerned with penalizing than restoring. So it is like our legal system, except, of course, for the “due process” bit: the offender does not get to testify as to her or his side of the story in court. Take Justine Sacco, a PR executive, who tweeted on her way to Africa, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” It was meant to satirize Americans who live in a bubble separated from the rest of the world, as Sacco tells Jon Ronson in an interview for the NYT. But her company fired her within 24 hours, not because she was being racist (because she wasn’t), but because their name was linked with hers. Her mistake was not that she was racist, but that she, to frame things from an Eastern lens, brought “dishonor and shame” to her company. 

4. Companies are the new families. If we are holding companies responsible for penalizing racists, does that mean companies are also responsible for training people to not be racist? Companies are taking responsibility in limited fashion. I used to work at a company within the ethics and compliance industry which sold courses ranging from how not to break the law to how to do the right thing (e.g. respectful communication). We don’t just want to shame and penalize the individual; we want to shame the companies – what kind of company are you if this person is one of your employee? In the days of the “small village,” we would ring up the family to complain one of their members’ behaviors. Now we ring up their corporate family. The truth is that, due to legal concerns, the people behind Racistsgettingfired advise people to not get in direct contact with the offender and their families, for fear that would edge into “illegal territory” (verbal harassment or threatening could occur). The only option left, then, is their workplaces. What a world we have come to where companies become the new moral training grounds—the new families.

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she blogs on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses.