With the vaccine rollout gesturing at a kind of normalcy in America, Saturday Night Live evidently felt there was no time like the present to gauge how the old stereotypes of ADOS now fit onto their audience’s new (and presumably refined) sensibilities about race in America. After all, its primary audience was surely among those out marching in support of black lives over the past year. We had devoured White Fragility and spewed out its limp doctrine on Zoom meetings during smalltalk with co-workers. We’d performed the requisite self-flagellation online, confessing the discriminatory filth of our unconscious and our destructive complicity in making this place one-hundred percent inhospitable to black people. We’d scolded our relatives and distanced ourselves from degenerate friends who didn’t speak in tongues of wokeness. We’d decolonized our children’s dollhouses, arranging little POC and white figurines together in mise-en-scènes of anti-racism. We became—it would seem—new collective subjects who’d undergone a genuine conversion in our values, attitudes, and our felt sense of duty in helping bring the machineries of injustice set upon ADOS for centuries now to a grinding halt.
But if this development in the social sphere generated any anxiety within industries whose revenue streams have always depended on there being a healthy absence of pro-ADOS sentiment in the consumer market, then this past week’s SNL must surely have inspired a great sigh of relief. And maybe that was the point.
Because insofar as there is a spectrum of possibility for how we can interpret, identify, and encounter the ADOS experience, then one manufactured pole of that is as a dependable punchline. The other is as an actual plight that is deserving of every single ounce of our energies, nothing of ourselves withheld as allies in the struggle for justice for ADOS. I don’t need to tell you who is in charge of managing popular perception of the ADOS experience, nor are you probably unaware as to which of those two extremes these executive committees prefer to hew when packaging it for our consideration. But if there was a dim promise for the post-covid, post-George Floyd landscape of America, it was that white liberals were tacking hard in the opposite direction. It was as if maybe we really had plumbed the depths of our experience and arrived at a point of authentic understanding that would, if properly guided, admit no alternative but a complete giving over to the cause of repair for ADOS. At the very least it seemed that we had moved into a space where the old derogatory tropes about ADOS—that their poverty is voluntary, that their lives are just long stumbling negotiations in ignorance, that they choose to be victims—simply were not going to have any further traction, no further purchase among whites whose consciousness of systemic racism had been so dramatically intensified and deepened in the early spring of last year. Such ideas about ADOS belonged to a benighted past and it was our responsibility now to rail against any effort to rid us or rob us of our awareness of how profoundly and enduringly vulnerable their group has been made to be. Or so it seemed.
Given SNL‘s history as a venue for elite interests to announce whether it’s OK for white liberals to laugh in the aftermath of a reality-fragmenting event, it’s not surprising to see them trotting out anti-ADOS tropes as we haltingly piece society back together after the trauamtic interruption of the pandemic. No, no, not to worry now. SNL is here to inform us that the first order of business in a vaccinated America is an immediate revival of our quaint ridicule of the American Negro. In fact, post-pandemic America (SNL would like to suggest) provides us with a whole new environment into which we can now port our enduring national prejudices about them. Oh, those vaccine-averse blacks! Isn’t it just like them to knowingly avoid doing the Right Thing? Sigh.
Here’s something to consider: the teeming possibilities of the face(s) of vaccine skepticism in America. Fully 1/3rd of the U.S. military expressed an unwillingness to receive the vaccine. Large swaths of the nation’s rural area residents (31%) are on record saying they would rather wait and see what happens before they offer a bare arm at a vaccine site. You could do Trump voters (47%), or Republican men in general (57%). White evangelicals? Yup: 40%. Hell, 50% of construction workers in America are declining to take the vaccine. You could talk about the failure of TikTok to adequately gin up vaccine enthusiasm in the youth. We have a whole menu of reluctants from which to choose and what do we do? We instead rush to pour scorn on the exact group of people whom we have just spent the entire past year trying to impress other liberals with our newfound awareness about (and apparent empathy for) how that group’s experience in this country has essentially been a four-hundred-year unfolding catastrophe.
Obviously the grotesque racism on display in the skit was repulsive. But it’s the surge of repressed anti-ADOS sentiment in this particular moment, and its warm reception, that evokes a real horror. If you are the sort of person who can transition from insisting on systemic racism as that which shapes every aspect of ADOS’s lived experience, to then laughing along with a late-nite comedy skit’s idea of those same people as being deserving victims, then you are a monstrous semi-human whose innate viciousness is all the worse because you make such an obscene spectacle of pretending not to be the absolute lumbering contradiction that you are. It is all the worse because you affect such moral panic one minute, and disclose your obvious complicity in the whole thing the next. I know that it’s comforting for you to see what that SNL skit offered—confirmation that it’s still acceptable to view ADOS as that which fundamentally exists to inspire mirth (what else could really signal the resumption of normal affairs in America!)—but the realities that it tried to lampoon are (warning: obvious point ahead) far more complex.
Who cares though, right? Yeah, who fucking cares. Let’s just hector them into getting the vaccine. Let’s subject them to a barrage of abuse—give it a comic gloss—until they do the sane and reasonable thing and take the damn substance that they are so foolishly refusing. Nevermind that many are not in fact refusing, but rather are falling victim to the same merciless, brutal, and rotten system that has sorted out their non-access to just about everything in America since their ancestors’ time on the plantations. Nevermind that they are the same group that the U.S. government, a century and a half ago, earmarked for a reconstruction effort that never took place and instead simply left them to a world intended to collapse. A world that is not your world but is one I guess you think you can laugh at when you’re not busy stroking your chin and filling up reams of paper with your thoughts about how oppressive it is and about your privilege in relation to it. A world that for you and I is unfathomably distant, a thing about which neither you nor I have really even a fucking fraction of actual understanding. A world that is full of people who have been made to bear the traces of their ancestors’ material ruination and whom (despite that!) we apparently feel no real unease of conscience when it comes to caricaturing them in skits as people whose decision-making apparatus is irredemably and hopelessly broken; to paint them as people whose thought-capacity is so crude and primitive it’s a wonder that cranial slime doesn’t just leak out of their earholes all day; ludicrous beings whose stories in this moment must not be shown to resemble actual occurences like this one: “As the nurse swabbed his arm, [Richard Hopkins] began explaining how he’d been trying to find the shot for months. Selma, the nearest town of any size, had run out of doses. Birmingham was too far, and he did not have a smartphone or Internet connection to secure an online appointment, anyway. ‘Seems like they looked over me some kind of way,’ he said as the shot went in the arm of a man who had been in Selma for the famous civil rights marches of 1965, and then moved to New York City, and then returned home, where he did not want to die of covid-19.”
We are the hopelessly broken ones.