Thursday, May 26, 2011

Personal Foul - Inappropriate Use of the Race Card, 40 Year Penalty

     A recent experience on the job got me thinking once again about the subject of race in our society. The work I do often has me in situations where I'm overseeing large groups of workers in the process of construction within residential areas. The overwhelming majority of the laborers are Hispanic, their immediate and secondary supervisors are from varying cultural backgrounds and then there's me.  More often than not, the residents of the neighborhoods are primarily Caucasian and often "well to do". Such are the demographics of many Northern Virginia 'hoods. I've had several "colorful" encounters with homeowners regarding the labor force.     

The antagonist is a mullet wearing redneck stereotype. Irony.
     What usually starts out as a conversation about the invasive nature of the work and how we plan on restoring lawns to their former glory often detours into concerns about the legal status of contracted workers. Most folks present themselves as normal functioning members of society in these conversations, while others resort to their baser instincts and come out blazing with the most ignorant of approaches. What is most disturbing to me is those who calmly and assuredly spout a cliched', bigoted and stereotypical ideology with the assumption that I am in concurrence with their backwards line of thinking. That being said, let me tell you about a recent encounter with a homeowner...

     This gentlemen wanted to speak to someone about how we intended to complete the work w/o damaging his irrigation system. I was called in to explain the process of how we deal with challenges should they arise. After some brief dialogue he seemed satisfied with my answers. Now relaxed, he remarked how professional, efficient and diligent our workers had been to that point. I guess on some subconscious level I found the remark to be a tad bit condescending (as it assumes that one was expecting otherwise, and his inflection had more than a little bit of surprise), so I acknowledged with a nod of the head as opposed to verbally. I guess he interpreted my nod as an invitation for more commentary. With a friendly pat on my back and a jovial delivery he continued, "...and what in the world did we do for manual labor before these fellas jumped the border, 'eh? Hehe!"

     At least in MY head the entire tone of our conversation had changed. As he waited me to co-sign on his statement with a light-hearted chuckle or maybe a well placed, Rochester-like, "You sho' nuff is right about dat boss!", I saw no hint that he detected even the slightest thing offensive about what he had just said. So as his words dissipated into the ionosphere, I answered his question with the first thing that came to mind. Almost as a reflex I looked him in the eye, smiled and said, "Well, I believe it was called Chattel Slavery."

     As the thick sarcasm dripped from my words, that "deer in the headlights" look on his face gave way to an introspective smile. He exhaled and said, "Wow. That was pretty racist of me, wasn't it?" Again, I smiled and told him, "No, I don't think that was a racist statement - prejudice and stereotypical, yes, but not racist." The easy nature of our previous dialogue allowed us to continue talking and have a decent, productive discussion about immigration, civil rights, race and The Constitution. It made me think about how we are so often quick to emblazen people with the scarlet letter R(acist), when in fact the majority of these infractions do not rise to that level, and in the process we diminish the impact of the label by appearing to cry wolf.

     One of the most blatant and ridiculous examples of this occured in May of 2010 when the local Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP accused Hallmark Cards of producing a graduation card that plays a racist message, claiming that the card's microchip includes the phrase, " black whores, you're so'd better watch your backs". Hallmark said the message was being misunderstood. The card's theme is the solar system and emphasizes the power of the grad to take over the universe, even energy-absorbing black HOLES. The card company says the card speaks about the power the grad will wield. "The intent here is to say that this graduate is not afraid of anything," explained Hallmark spokesman Steve Doyal.

The offending card
     But that's not what some people heard. As if the L.A. Chapter of the NAACP didn't have bigger fish to fry, they created such a stink about this that Hallmark voluntarily ceased production of the offending card and pulled it from all it's stores and partners throughout the country. This was done even before it became fodder for the national media. Here is a link to the story. . It is my opinion that the L.A. NAACP wasted a colossal amount of time and resources that could have been more scratch that...ACTUALLY productive had itf focused on something of substance.

     So what actually qualifies as racist? Does every cultural slight or misunderstanding automatically fall under the umbrella of racism? For me, this is a many tentacled serpent; born of intolerance and a somewhat blissful ignorance in many cases. There is a level of naivete that some people are comfortable with when faced with customs/cultures different from their own, thus they don't do the work necessary to dig below surface. Not every jackass who says something so wildly inappropriate as the guy I encountered above is a racist. Here is how I see it....

Stereotypes - When I told the homeowner that he was stereotyping, I was referring to his statement about the laborers "jumping the border", which is disparaging characterization of Hispanics. Websters defines a stereotype as "a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and assumed common by members of a group." In short, we make assumptions about people based on the group we percieve them to be a part of. In it's most base form, a stereotype is a generalization attributed across the board that reduces a subjects complexity. Whether they be positive or negative we associate certain things with specific groups of people. Stereotyping is shallow and lazy, but we all do it. It's practically programmed within us to unsubstantively assign certain behaviors to particular groups that include but are not limited to race, gender and culture. We also stereotype by nationality, class, domestic region, profession, creed and age just to name a few.

He must be smoking weed, right?
     One of the common stereotypes I experienced when I had dreadlocs was the assumption that I smoked marijuana. I cannot count the times that someone approached me asking where they could get some "sweet ganja." The most memorable was one weekday afternoon as I was taking a long bike ride along the G.W. Parkway and stopped to rest in Rock Creek Park. I'm catching my breath on a bench when a proper looking young hipster in a shirt and tie nervously approaches and sits down next to me. He extends his hand for some dap, and in his best "down with the brotha's" contrived dialect he says, "S'up my man. You got some weed? Don't give me that stuff you usually give the white boys. I want that good s**t you smoke, dawg. I can handle it. I"ll pay top dollar." I suppose my responsive smirk and head tilt displayed my disgust. He says, "Hey I'm sorry. You're not holdin'?" I replied, "Every brother you see with locs doesn't smoke weed." Now he's in damage control mode. In an attempt to save face, he replies, "Hey whoa, dawg. You don't understand. I LOBBY for you people." How reassuring.

Prejudice - Sitting a rung higher on the ladder of socially awkward faux pas is our tendency to form unfavorable opinions beforehand without knowledge, thought, or reason. Fostering beliefs without knowledge of the facts is the crux of prejudice. Websters defines Prejudice as "unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, regarding a racial, religious, or national group". I would take it a few steps further and add gender, sexual orientation and class. In the minds of the ignorant and willfully uninformed, prejudice is the fuel that stokes the fires of discrimination, bigotry and racism. When you encounter someone who is unusually resistant to argument backed up by fact, their prejudice has overtaken their rational thought. For example, when we lived in upstate NY we had a neighbor who was deathly afraid of Black men. He would scurry into his house when my dad came home. It turns out that he had been violently mugged by a black man and associated all black men with this incident. Irrational yes, but the trauma of that incident imbedded a deep seated prejudice/fear that was triggered by his direct proximity to melanin and testosterone in equal quantity. He wasn't scared of me because I was, like 3 at the time.

 Bigotry - A bigot is most often identified as person who is hostile to those of differing race or ethnicity, but that definition is to simplified. Bigotry cuts an even wider swath than stereotypes and prejudice, because it incorporates them within the bigots ideology. Bigots have an iron clad devotion to their own opinions, presumptions and viewpoints. They postulate that because they regard an opinion, it's the Gospel. They generally have animosity towards anyone with differing beliefs. Bigotry encompasses intolerance towards just about anyone that doesn't think, act or look like the group the bigot embodies.
     An incident that sticks out for me was when I was 16 and working at a local theme park then known as Wild World, a kind of wildlife preserve/amusement park hybrid. It is a Six Flags today. As the safari train tour guide, my job was to identify, describe and spew amusing anecdotes about various wildlife we encountered as the train traveled leisurely through the preserve. On one ridiculously humid August day I noticed that one man had ridden the train several times in a row. He was sitting near me in the back, kind of sideways in his seat. Each time around he seemed to be listening rather intently - half observing the animals, half observing me. As the train pulled into the station and passengers filed out for new ones to board, again he remained in his seat and this time struck up conversation. "Hey son, you're pretty good at this." he said. I thanked him and asked if he was enjoying the ride. After some more small talk, he cut right to the chase. "So tell me, of all the people who applied for this job...why do you think they chose you?" he asked. Well, ask a cocky 16 year old a question tailor-made for self aggrandizement, get a cocky answer. "Because I was hands down the best one for the job" was my half-joking, succinct reply. Very slowly, he chose his next words carefully and said, "My son applied for this job. Are you sure that it was because you're the best, or because you're Black?" Even at 16 the implication was clear to me. He was suggesting that I was a quota hire, inferring that my blackness somehow made me less qualified than his son.  I wasn't so much as insulted as I was shocked by the directness of the question. Since he was so direct with me, I felt no hesitation at being direct right back with him even though he was a grown man. In fact, I smelled blood in the water and relished the opportunity to retort. "I'm the best. If your son were better he'd be holding this microphone and my dad would be riding the train over and over. In second thought no, he wouldn't. He'd be more productive with his time. Has your son found a job yet?" Ok, maybe that's not a good example of bigotry, but it's a darn good story.

Racist -  The big kahuna. This is the broad brush with which we unceremoniously slap anyone who utters anything that can be construed as a slight to people of color. Before I get to a definition I'd like to cite another ridiculous example of someone being unjustly labeled a racist. Back in January of 1999, the newly elected Mayor of Washington DC, Anthony Williams appointed David Howard as Ombudsman. In a budget meeting attended by 3 other people, Howard, who is White, casually remarked that he would "...have to be niggardly with this fund because it's not going to be much money." A fairly abstruse word, Niggardly means "miserly" or "reluctant to spend" and obviously has more than a passing phonetic resemblence to the racial epithet with which we all seem to have a love/hate relationship (I'm working on that note next).

     Let's be clear - a better word choice would have been "frugal" or perhaps "penurious". Because his co-workers (both white and black) were uninformed on the words meaning, Howard was accused of crassly making a sneaky reference to black folks being poor, cheapskate tightwads. Unmoved by the fact that the word is NOT a racial slur, the gatekeepers of Negrotopia stamped him a racist and declared him not worthy of his appointment. In short order the Mayor was accepting his resignation.

The Ace of Spades.
     David Howard found himself standing in the soup line for the crime of possessing a copious vocabulary. Because his co-workers and the majority of those who heard of his comment didn't know the definition of the word, they jumped to conclusions and commenced to publicly flog him until he declared his name was Toby. In affect, the linguistically obtuse majority cried wolf and derailed his career path.

       So what actually constitutes racist behavior/thought? It isn't as cut and dry as we have made it to be. Racism certainly employs all of the other catagories mentioned, but what it basically comes down to is unbridled hate within an ideology and malicious intent. A racist holds and espouses a system of beliefs that harbors hatred and absolute intolerance for a race, culture or ethnicity different from their own and therefore, assumed inferior. defines a racist as someone who 1)"employs a doctrine that inherent differences among the races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others." or one who exhibits 2)"hatred or intolerance of a different race or races."

      While no one will argue that racism isn't the main ingredient in social discrimination, racial segregation, hate speech and violence, I would argue that we have become so sensitive and ever vigilant to these things that more often than not, we elevate a smaller infraction to the level of racism. This is a dangerous practice. This muddies the waters enough to demonize and ostracize the naively innocent offender while attenuating and expulcating the offenses of the truly guilty. The practice of crying racism at even the perception of the most minuscule of cultural transgressions has given birth to the concept of victimology, aka "the race card."

      Most people define the race card as using ones race, or introducing race as a factor as a means to gain an advantage in any number of situations. Others say it's a way of explaining away or blaming current abhorrent behavior on the atrocities of the past. I say it's a rather ambiguous term that seems to selectively morph depending on who is using it and for what purpose. As a concept and technique, what the race card should be is an effective means to directly personalize a situation or event for someone of a different ideology or culture; to manifest a mindset that they otherwise wouldn't conceptualize. In short, getting an opposing party to consider something from the vantage point of your shoes. If the race card was exclusively used in this manner, it would be a powerful tool for tolerance and cultural acceptance. Unfortunately, it is more often misused.

  • It is used to relate offenses to racial bias...

WG - "I heard the cops pulled Victor over and searched him last night."
BG - "Yeah man, what did you expect? It's because he's Black. They do us that way."

  •  It is used as a way of generalizing, racializing and claiming desirable attributes...

WG - "Wow, LeBron was on fire last night! He's an amazing athlete!"
BG - "Yeah man, what did you expect? It's because he's Black. We're just made that way."

  • It is used to excuse personal shortcomings by blaming some uncontrollable cultural phenomena...

WG - "I heard Cam got caught stealing computers."
BG - "Yeah man, what do you expect? He's Black and poor. How else is he gonna get a computer?'

The race card is just as often employed by those who feel that it gives someone other than themselves favor, power or precedence. These folks use it as an accusatory tool to gain a sympathetic ear.
  • It's used to belittle someone else's accomplishments...
OG - "I heard Maria made partner."
WG - "That's what I heard too. She's Latina you know. Obviously an affirmative action promotion."

  • It's used to justify someone else's ascension over them...
WG - "Weren't you under consideration for that spot?"
OG - "Yeah, but she fits the demographic they needed. I didn't.

These folks actually love the race card. It gives them the option of being able to accuse someone of using it for undeserved gain. The accusation chips away at the other parties credibility and creates doubt about their ability, intent or accomplishments.

     Considering all of the above, we should be careful to understand what actually rises to the level of discrimination and when the label of racist is justified. A co-worker of mine suggested that we establish some kind of football style penalty flag to help officiate and watchdog cries of racism...

BG - "I'm in the market for a new truck."
Salesman - "You're in luck. I've got a top of the line Escalade on sale over here. It's got 20 inch chrome wheels and everything!"
BG - "Oh, 'cause I'm Black you assume I want a flashy Cadillac? You're a straight up racist, man!
Ref - (tweeeeeeeet!) "Personal foul! Inappropriate use of the race card! 5 year penalty."
BG - "5 year penalty!??"
Ref - "You've set the race back at least 5 years with that over the top accusation."

...or how about this real life example...

Congressional Committee - "Judge Thomas, did you talk about pubic hair on a Coke can and sexually harass Anita Hill?"
Clarence Thomas - "I"m being subjected to this high tech lynching because I'm black!"
Ref - (tweeeeet!) "Flagrant foul! Perversely ironic use of the race card by a guy who opposes Affirmative Action after directly benefiting from it! 20 year penalty!" 

One of the most interesting plays of the race card happened recently when the CEO of Godfathers Pizza Hermain Caine, a 2012 republican Presidential hopeful who just happens to be black, remarked that "...people are over this first black president thing. Don't condemn me because the first black one was bad."
     No discussion of the race card is complete w/o mention of Willie Horton, OJ Simpson and The Birth of a Nation.

     Willie Horton is the black convicted felon who escaped a Massachusetts prison while on furlough and proceeded to assault a white couple in their Oxon Hill, MD home. After beating, binding and stabbing the man, he raped the woman and fled the scene in their stolen car. George Herbert Walker Bush (the first President Bush) featured Willie in a compelling political ad during his campaign, implying that if you elected Michael Dukakis (his opponent), he would unleash the Willie Horton's of the world to wreak havoc. Dukakis had been supportive of the Mass. prison furlough program. The not-so-subtle subliminal of the ad was a play on the fear of black men as sexually veracious and violently criminal - two pervasive racial stereotypes that unfortunately, Willie was doing his best to personify.

     The pivitol point in the OJ Simpson trial was the introduction of evidence of Mark Fuhrman's past racial transgressions. The defense successfully created reasonable doubt by in part by painting Fuhrman as a racist cop hell bent on framing the gridiron legend. Prosecutor Chris Darden accused the defense of "pulling the race card", and rightfully feared that it would trump the prosecutions own "gender card." The result was a jury more sympathetic to a targeted, black male celebrity than to an abused wife.

     Arguably the most talented film maker of his time, DW Griffith brought The Birth of a Nation to the big screen in 1915. Considered a groundbreaking film, Nation is significant for pioneering the camera techniques deep focus, jump-cut, cross-cut and facial close-up, which are now considered integral to the industry. At 3 hours and 10 minutes long, it is still one of the lengthiest commercial films produced, and a cinematically beautiful, propogandized race card that is credited with the resurgent membership of the Ku Klux Klan. Originally a play entitled "The Clansmen" written by Thomas Dixon Jr.,  Nation recounts the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction through the eyes of Southern whites who vehemently opposed the political/social progress made by newly freed African Americans after the Civil War. It openly depicts southern blacks as vicious and lascivious, their northern white allies as cunning, unscrupulous, and arrogant, while southern whites are sufferers of repeated political and sexual indignities at the hands of white northerners and black southerners before literally being rescued by the gallant, hooded riders of the Ku Klux Klan. Historian Thomas Cripps has characterized Nation as “at once a major stride for cinema and a sacrifice of black humanity." The Birth of a Nation went on to become the most admired and profitable film ever produced by Hollywood, replaced finally after 1940 by Gone with the Wind, another film about the Civil War, Reconstruction and "gallant Southern cavaliers."

A still from Birth of a Nation
     Up for debate is the accusation that Ronald Reagan's rise to prominence may have been assisted by the race card.  While on the campaign trial, Reagan often told the anecdote of the "welfare queen", perhaps not with racial intent but with racial results. The commonly associated image is of an unmarried, jobless black woman with multiple children and baby-daddies, shamelessly mining govt. assistance programs.

     So going forward, how are we to address "the race card"? As on so many occasions, the immortal words of Kenny Rogers can be called upon to provide wisdom. "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run!"
  • "Hold 'em" when a racist comment or action is simply indefensible or unattributable to any other reason. Imagine a guy who dresses like Boss Hogg and sounds like Foghorn Leghorn says to me, "Hey boy, come over here and shine my shoes...and if you sing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" while your doing it, I just might give you a coupon for a grape soda and a 3 piece at KFC. Or maybe I'll let you pluck a nice, sweet nigga'fruit from my watermelon patch." I'd say it's safe to call that guy a racist.  
  • "Fold 'em" when it is fairly reasonable that your concern is due to something else. Just because the waitress told you about the fresh, "asparagus spears" instead of asparagus tips doesn't mean she's Marge Schott.
  • "Walk away" if your possible reaction to a perceived racist offense could land you in jail, where you will undoubtedly encounter more racists...with criminal records.
  • "Run" when you're in a sundown town, or the black guy in a horror or war movie.
    "Sundown Towns" used to prominently display signs like this, but no longer. Some still exist, and you'd better darn well know when your in one. If your ever in Forsythe, GA, keep it moving.
     The simple, ugly truth is that when you dig below the surface of our id, prejudice, bigotry and racism are only multi-layered, self-centered survival instincts. It's about a dominant group attempting to keep control of resources and keep others outside of that dominant group from taking or sharing those resources. The race card shouldn't be an ace-in-the-hole, under any circumstances, when-all- else fails, last ditch effort to turn the tide in your favor. Doing so desensitizes your intended audience, leaving you and the other party a little less discerning to discrimination. At worst it trivializes actual racism.

No comments:

Post a Comment