The narrative always wins.
After a flurry of media coverage about the discovery of a noose in NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace’s car bay at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, an FBI investigation revealed on Tuesday that the “noose” was, in fact, a garage door pull rope (of a type present in other garages at the track) and that no hate crime had occurred.
This should be good news. Amid nationwide social unrest and calls for a transformation in race relations, this story was a reminder that the country was not irredeemably racist. The initial noose story had drawn a quick and supportive response by the NASCAR community. NASCAR immediately launched its own investigation and released a statement saying, “We are angry and outraged, and cannot state strongly enough how seriously we take this heinous act.” And this particular story had a good ending — no one had actually been attempting to terrify or threaten Wallace, the most well-known African-American NASCAR driver in the sport.
There is only one problem: The original narrative — the one that assumed that Wallace had been the target of a hate crime and was being singled out because of his race — better suited the activists who had relentlessly been promoting it for days.
Jemele Hill, a contributor to the Atlantic, responded to the FBI’s announcement by simply refusing to believe it. She tweeted, “It. Was. A. Noose. They just don’t believe it was directed at Bubba Wallace. I know facts nor context is your strong suit, but do try to keep up.” Earlier, while the FBI’s investigation was still ongoing, she told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that the noose was a “disgusting reminder” of who the sport was for, suggesting she was all-in on assuming her narrative (that it was a racist hate crime) would be the ascendant story.
Likewise, after the FBI and NASCAR inquiries had determined that no crime had occurred, Al Sharpton stated, on MSNBC: “It’s clear what a noose represents … And then did someone know that it was in the stall when they did belatedly assign Bubba there? … I do not think that we’ve seen closure in this particular inquiry.”
So powerful is the impulse to stick to the approved narrative that, when presented with the evidence that he was not, in fact, a victim, even Bubba Wallace couldn’t resist going on TV to portray himself as one. In a CNN interview Tuesday night, he told host Don Lemon, “what was hanging in my garage is not a garage pull . . . It was a noose. Whether tied in 2019 or whatever, it was a noose. So, it wasn’t directed at me but somebody tied a noose. That’s what I’m saying.” He added, “I’m mad because people are trying to test my character and the person that I am and my integrity.”
But the public should question the integrity of any person or any news media institution that repeatedly ignores facts to pursue its own narratives. Activists could have celebrated the results of the FBI investigation for what it did reveal: it showed that the public is more aware and sensitive to concerns about race than perhaps people understood them to be; it showed that an organization like NASCAR takes such incidences seriously; and it demonstrated that law enforcement can move quickly to investigate such incidents. In other words: the system worked, which is why activists invested in the narrative of systemic bias are keen to deny it.
When one’s investment in an ideological narrative is so powerful that facts that contradict it must be discarded, and self-deception by adherents to the narrative must be practiced and performed publicly, we’ve gone beyond highlighting serious problems in need of reform and have moved into the realm of delusion.
And it’s not just prominent figures like Bubba Wallace who willingly embracing such narratives.
In a New York Times story about residents of a Minneapolis neighborhood who “vowed to check their privilege” as a way of coping with the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, the effort to willingly suspend often-dangerous realities to maintain the integrity of an ideological narrative is disconcertingly on display.
In this case, the “progressive neighbors have vowed to avoid calling law enforcement into their community” because “doing so, they believed, would add to the pain that black residents of Minneapolis were feeling and could put them in danger.” But their commitment to refusing law enforcement’s help has been tested as an encampment of homeless people have set up in a local park and brought a thriving drug and prostitution trade to their neighborhood, as well as violent crime.
Even though some neighbors admitted they are afraid (and have stopped allowing their children to play in the park where the encampment has been set up), others attempt to justify the criminal activity by turning to critical theory. “To the extent that illegal activity is going on in the park,” the story notes, one resident “does not blame the tent residents. ‘My feeling around it is those are symptoms of systemic oppression,’ she said. ‘And that’s not on them.'”
Also, not “on them,” evidently, is armed robbery. When two black teenagers stuck a gun in a resident’s chest and demanded his keys, he called the police, but two days later he said, “Been thinking more about it,” he wrote in a text message. “I regret calling the police. It was my instinct, but I wish it hadn’t been. I put those boys in danger of death by calling the cops.” He also told the reporter he wouldn’t be cooperating with prosecutors if the boys were arrested.
What has this commitment to an ideological narrative about law enforcement and race done for him and for his community? He can feel sanctimonious about supposedly doing the right thing by “protecting” violent criminals from the police, but only at the cost of his neighbors’ and his community’s safety? Because his lack of cooperation increases the likelihood that the perpetrators, if arrested, will now go free to rob again.
It’s an odd bargain to strike for people who claim to care about systems of oppression (although perhaps no more contradictory than the progressives who feel themselves to be entirely on the right side of history as they topple statues of abolitionists, suffragettes, and founders of American democracy). Subjecting one’s own community to the dangers of criminal violence, as in Minneapolis, or ignoring evidence that a hate crime didn’t occur, in the case of Wallace, in order to feel that one is solving systemic social problems is at least logically inconsistent. But it is clearly emotionally satisfying for many people right now. It remains to be seen how sustainable those feelings will be as they are further tested by brutal facts.