The horrific murder of Jordan Neely on a New York subway spoke volumes about the tolerance of racial violence in the American social order. Think of the very medium that publicized the killing: The first response of a bystander to a lethal assault in a public setting was to record it, rather than to intervene on behalf of the victim. Equally chilling was the dialogue edited out of the recording that first circulated, which captured the words of a passenger who was restraining Neely as the attacker, Daniel Penny, choked him. The accomplice is heard dismissing a warning that Neely had defecated on himself—a common sign that someone being strangled is about to die—while denying that Neely’s killer was even “squeezing” his neck.
You might think that this level of shameful depravity would spur some genuine soul-searching about the core racial social contract that rendered Neely something less than human. Instead, the aftermath of Neely’s killing has unleashed a repulsive wave of excuse-making in the online punditsphere. These takes have reliably stressed Neely’s emotional instability, past criminal record, and hostile utterances. They’ve also claimed that the incident was the result of an unjust brand of social inequality, in which “working class” passengers of public transit are subjected to the squalid and frightening conduct of the unhoused—a circumstance that elite liberal moralizers can afford to ignore altogether.
“The percentage of high profile media and political voices who angrily sneer at concerns about violent crime who grew up in extreme privilege is off the charts,” tweeted journalist Lee Fang. “It’s really the most jarring class divide.” Newsweek editor and Compact columnist Batya Ungar-Sargon likewise cautioned that anyone denouncing Penny’s actions needs to “take a seat.” “It’s working class New Yorkers who have to face down this violence,” she confidently asserted.
The refrain continued to build as protesters disrupted subway service. “Madness,” the Paris-based Atlantic contributor Thomas Chatterton Williams pronounced. “This just makes working and poor people’s lives harder rather than addressing the state’s inability to provide public order in public space—which is the root of this tragedy in the first place.” Fellow Atlantic contributor Conor Friedersdorf, who’s built a robust career as an online troll by approaching every social issue from behind an unfrozen caveman’s veil of ignorance, proceeded to explain that legitimate protests, like the 1954 Montgomery Bus Boycott, didn’t set out to “inconvenience” anyone.
Of course, no one peddling this recursive, exhibitionist trolling bothered to consult actual statements about Neely’s killing from organized bodies of working people. Still less would the Atlantic school of social analysis be able to process the news that Rosa Parks, whose act of civil disobedience triggered the Montgomery boycott, was a lifelong working-class radical who practiced a politics of confrontation and disruption throughout her long activist career. Ever since the baleful anointment of J.D. Vance’s memoir as a grab-bag of unresolved white working-class trauma, the ascription of an all-purpose politics of affront to a mythologized “working class” has been a perverse full-employment plan for our extremely online punditocracy. The unmistakable lesson of that orgy of media cross-branding was Vance’s own devolution—under the tutelage of right-wing venture capitalist ghoul Peter Thiel—from a soft-focus Never Trumper into a race-baiting, New York–scorning mini-Trump, brandishing his Appalachian birthright on the campaign stump so that voters wouldn’t look too closely into his own venture capitalist portfolio.
This is the logical endpoint of the American center-right’s romance with a working class it has no actual interest in understanding and representing. As Jewish Currents editor David Klion has observed, Daniel Penny grew up in a million-dollar home in the Long Island town of West Islip, which has a median income 40 percent higher than the rest of the state. Just as Neely’s race rendered his humanity invisible in the fatal moment of Penny’s assault, so has the notion of subway transit blotted out Penny’s own socioeconomic station. Neely’s killing occurred in the mid-afternoon, which means that passengers were unlikely to be commuting to or from work; what’s more, the protest action that outraged Williams on behalf of commuting workers actually took place on a Saturday evening—not exactly rush hour.
The pundit-preened “working class” is a bit like the urban folk legend Candyman in this scheme of things—dimly discerned on subways and other metropolitan netherlands on the fly, and always in moments of fear, flight, and attack. It’s never a multiracial or immigrant service-sector workforce, even though that is the fastest-growing cohort of the American working class today. Instead, the pundit’s ideal-type working class is prone to vigilantism, bootstrapping economic rhetoric, and flag-waving nationalism—even though non-college-educated voters (the crude and misleading Census stand-in for “working class”) are showing a pronounced aversion to the orange-hued tribune of those values these days. The difference, of course, is that Candyman is always conjured by looking into the mirror—something our present pundit caste of working-class whisperers has proven constitutionally unable to do, time and time again.