After years of trafficking in bigotry, Kanye West has finally been kan-celed. But at second glance, the consequences for West might be less a victory for social justice than a sign of its current limits.
The antisemitism was the last straw. Corporate cancellation has come for Ye. He has been dropped from representation by agency CAA. Vogue and Balenciaga have cut ties with him. Most crucially, this week, Adidas finally severed its extremely lucrative relationship with Ye. Canceling his Yeezy line will cost the company $248 million this year — the deal generated an estimated $2 billion a year, close to 10 percent of the company’s annual revenue — and its stock tumbled. Gap similarly announced it would shut down YeezyGap and pull the merchandise.
That must hurt. But Adidas, Gap and the other brands that have stood by Ye all these years abso-freaking-lutely deserve to lose money and stock value for betting on a man who enjoys spewing antisemitic hate and conspiracy theories. As they say, play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
The “deplatforming” of Ye is a strong and necessary check against hate speech. But the saga reinforces how fraught it is to look to predominantly White, capitalist institutions to enforce and maintain boundaries around hate and bigotry in this society.
First, let me say that there has been a lot of hurt and frustration from Black and Jewish voices about this moment. Many Black people are rightly hurt that Ye’s open flirtation with anti-Blackness in the past decade had no meaningful consequences. Brands, including Adidas, happily profited from being associated with hip-hop culture through their deals with him, even as he paraded around the Confederate flag, blamed Black people for slavery and palled around with Donald Trump. West’s popularity only grew, with the Black community lacking the structural power to cancel him. Meanwhile, for Jewish people, the flagrant antisemitism is just another reminder of the mainstreaming of centuries-old antisemitic hate, including the resurgence of ridiculous conspiracy theories.
The mess has opened up resentments around which groups’ historical traumas have the social power to merit mass sympathy and consequences, which is a losing battle. The only real victor in the antisemitism/anti-Blackness struggle olympics is white supremacy.
Second, it’s all very well to cancel Ye, but as a Black purveyor of anti-Blackness and antisemitism, he was low-hanging fruit. The rules of racial capitalist hierarchy means that White men who traffic in anti-Blackness and antisemitism manage to withstand social pressure from the groups that they attack.
Remember the drama over Joe Rogan this year? After it was found that he had used the n-word multiple times on his podcast and had helped boost the profile of the hate group the Proud Boys, the powers that be protected him. Spotify resisted calls to “deplatform” him, instead maintaining Rogan’s $200 million contract. India Arie, the Black musical artist who called attention to Rogan’s use of the slur, tried to pull her music from Spotify in protest but was blocked by her label. Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek defended Rogan, saying, “It’s critical thinking and open debate that powers real and necessary progress.” Instead of cutting Rogan off, Spotify tried to social-justice-wash the scandal, saying it would give $100 million to podcasters of color.
Or remember the excommunication of Mel Gibson for his rabid antisemitism by “liberal” Hollywood? After a few years, he has been welcomed back into the industry — this year, he confirmed he would be directing (and starring in) a fifth “Lethal Weapon” movie.
In the political arena, we have figures like Tucker Carlson, and of course, Donald Trump, who retain an immense amount of power by trafficking in hate.
Fair enough, Carlson doesn’t have a global sneaker brand behind him. And it is true that many mainstream advertisers have dropped his show. But none of that changes the fact that Carlson commands enough attention, wealth and power to pollute the public discourse with xenophobia, racism and antisemitic dog-whistles. He exploited Ye by inviting him on his Fox News show to make even more incoherent, vile remarks. And we seem to have already forgotten that Trump recently attacked American Jews, saying they did not give him enough credit for his policies on Israel. There has been crickets from the GOP — and the story has fallen from the news cycle. We shrug and move on.
At the end of the day, all I want is for us is to end hate and intolerance. In that spirit, I wish we didn’t defend White men’s hate speech as legitimate “open debate.” I only wish we could cancel the rabidly racist White men in our culture and politics, just as we’ve done for an ignorant Black rapper who makes really ugly shoes.