The old tweets bubbled up from the depths of the internet, surfaced by an apparently anonymous user on Twitter.
In them, Sarah Jeong, a technology writer recently hired by the New York Times for a prestigious post on its editorial board, spoke sarcastically about white people.
"Oh man it's a kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men," she wrote in one.
Without evidence that they had any bearing on Jeong's extensive body of work, which includes a book she wrote about harassment online, these statements could have perhaps been unceremoniously dismissed as insignificant. But after conservative media seized on the story, they ignited a firestorm of debate.
Exposing a painful debate
Jeong is the latest in a long line of people to have their old tweets surfaced for scrutiny in connection to a high-profile career assignment. In recent weeks, for instance, at least four baseball players have been excoriated for old tweets.
But in a country in the midst of a painful debate about white supremacy and privilege, Jeong's episode has exposed a deeper rift between some conservatives — whose political ideology has been marked by the rise of a president who has trafficked in racially charged rhetoric and policies — and the left, pointing to a fundamental disagreement about the nature of race and power in the United States.
Episodes like Jeong's are now a regular part of the culture online where petty outrages, stoked by both legitimate emotions and political motivations, can quickly bloom into full controversies, their way smoothed by internet algorithms. Hastily made statements, mistaken and juvenile sentiments and moments of idiocy now live forever online.
The cycle is rapid and routine: the tweets surface, drawing strong reactions, which give them prominence. News organizations take notice and provide coverage accordingly. Sometimes people lose their jobs.
At right-leaning outlets such as Fox News, the Daily Caller, the Gateway Pundit, Breitbart and Infowars, Jeong's tweets were skewered as "racist," "offensive" and "anti-white."
To some conservatives, her hiring, and the subsequent defense issued by the Times, was an example of how liberals get away with their own brand of racism — against white people.
But others were quick to say that the statements Jeong made could only be skewed as racist if the culture, history and current sociopolitical context of the United States were ignored.
"Part of the reason it was so easy for the outrage to be manufactured in the first place was it was completely decontextualized and ahistorified," said Nolan L. Cabrera, an associate professor at the University of Arizona who will publish a book in the fall about racial attitudes held by white college students.
"Then it was easy to drum up anger and say it looks like she hates white people. That only makes sense if you are willfully ignorant of 400 to 500 years' history and contemporary social context and also the context from which the tweets were sent."
'A complete false equivalence'
It is likely true, as many pointed out, that if any minority group's name were substituted in the place of white people into Jeong's statements, she would not have kept her job. Some edited Jeong's tweets to hammer home that idea, replacing the words "white people" in her tweets with "black people" and "Jewish people" to make the point.
But Cabrera said the idea was "a complete false equivalence," noting that whiteness isn't a cultural identity the way being black, Japanese American or Jewish is. Cabrera listed examples of government policies that targeted various racial groups, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Operation Wetback, calling racism a "systemic reality" that necessarily favors white people.
Still some conservatives disagreed with that framing, acknowledging that though they were not comparable to white supremacist ideologies, they still should still be considered racism.
"The threat of anti-white racism [except in rare cases] isn't violence. It's not systematic oppression. There's no realistic scenario where 'the tables are turned' and black Americans visit on white Americans a reverse version of the worst aspects of American history," David French wrote in the National Review. "The problem with anti-white racism is that it runs directly counter to efforts to unify despite that history. It runs counter to efforts to elevate American culture. And, yes, it can and does create individual injustice in those instances where anti-white racism manifests itself in more than just tweets and academic journals."
Jeong's episode has also raised complicated questions about the stubborn nature of harassment women of color face online. In a statement she posted to Twitter on Thursday, Jeong said she regretted the tweets and that they had been made as a satirical response to people who had harassed her because of her race and gender online. She included a screenshot of a racial slurs directed at her online, and said she had used language that "mimicked" her harassers.
This type of harassment, that combines racism and sexism, is something only women of color experience online, said Shireen Mitchell, founder of Stop Online Violence against Women.
Social media has created the opportunity for minority communities around the world to connect, but it has also left these groups vulnerable to vicious attacks by anonymous trolls.
"There's a point where you ask yourself: should you just not say anything or should you speak up about it," Mitchell said.