She added on the Monday mail, “I wasn’t aware of the story at the time, but ignorance is not an excuse. I was old enough to educate myself before meddling. I unequivocally regret, condemn and reject white supremacy. At the same time, I acknowledge that because of my race and privilege, I am the beneficiary of a system that has distributed unequal justice and rewards. “
It is imperative to reckon with America’s long history of racism and discrimination, and it is good that our society is in a moment of deeper examination of its past as it seeks to move towards a more just future. And Kemper’s statement was strong, thoughtful and correct – like many, it benefited from a completely unequal system of racial hierarchy.
But it carries the risk of simply putting the sins of our country on the backs of teenagers – or anyone who borders on an institution with a “racist, sexist and elitist past” – through nuanced public embarrassment campaigns like the ones that ended up at Kemper.
The Kemper attack is not accountable; it is harassment under the guise of social justice. And because these online indignation campaigns are very self-righteous and factual, they don’t really help us explain anything.
That doesn’t make the ball or the organization behind it a bastion of social progress, let alone a fair space. It makes them a racism-based institution that has taken small, important, and still inadequate steps towards greater equality – an institution that certainly deserves criticism, but not anyone associated with its modern incarnation as a white racist makes.
In that regard, it is not that different from almost any other century-old American institution, including the Southern Baptist and Mormon Churches, most major universities, every branch of the US government, and America itself: every single one at one point shut down African-Americans and discriminated women . Each remains imperfect, and each carries worrying levels of racism and sexism to the present day.
Indeed, it is unclear why an internet mob attacked Kemper and apologized for attending a ball with a racist past, but not for attending Princeton University – a school with historical links to the American slave trade that excluded women until 1969 , and that remains at the forefront of the Ivy League as the citadel of American elite.
My point is that it is overdue and imperative to review, criticize and call for better institutions. Attack campaigns against individuals who, like almost all of us, have participated in institutions with ugly pasts – and particularly attack campaigns that focus on what people did as children and adolescents – are not.
It is a necessary work to examine the history and enduring influence of organizations like Veiled Prophet and understand their current power in the context of their racist and sexist history. But that takes patience to really get involved. For many people, it’s easier – and certainly more satisfying – to beat up a stranger for a perceived offense and feel righteous by comparison.
Kemper is a wealthy and famous actress; it is unlikely to ruin their lives, even if their reputation is damaged. But it’s hard to see how that dustiness benefited the Kemper causes they believe in. Opponents of racial progress and those who rub themselves against understanding American bigotties so that we can repair them – under the veil v against “waking-ness” – already using this story as an example of how allegedly progressive people are eager to to expose everyone to their two-minute hatred.
Kemper’s apology and those who challenged it did not show a clear path forward, nor did they present coherent and consistent moral guidelines. And many of us who believe that people and institutions can change and evolve for the better – who believe that the American appetite for public shame and harsh punishments has been largely destructive to American society and especially devastating to the country’s most vulnerable – are concerned about the hyperfocusing on a single teen’s behavior and a viral outrage designed to serve … what exactly?
The work of grappling with the past and building a better future is chaotic and imperfect, and it may be inevitable that assault, conflict, and cruelty will occur in times of upheaval. Neither of us get it right all the time, and certainly the damage done to Kemper pales in comparison to the brutalities of American racism and misogyny.
But we owe it to ourselves and to each other to try to get the facts right before jumping on online outrage campaigns, addressing power systems as well as bad individual choices, and America’s ugly past and wildly imperfect present with honesty, fairness and depth of nuance it deserves.