Commissioner Roger Goodell, and subsequently the NFL, failed the handling of Rice and other domestic
Even after two solid years of blogging and activism, I find myself reminded from time to time that, as a white man, I will forever deal with racism and discrimination in the abstract. I can’t deny my gratitude for this; to do so would negate precisely why I have the energy and the empathy to function as an ally. But it’s easy to get personally attached to the struggle of others sometimes, and in doing so forget that if privilege and its manifold intersections are not properly acknowledged, the results can be costly. Thankfully, my social media feeds are populated with enough blockheads to guaranteed that I’ll never forget this fact for too long.
The most recent example concerns a conversation I had with a couple of my Facebook followers, concerning a meme contrasting NFL cornerback Richard Sherman against Justin Beiber, Canada’s Great White Dope. As you may have heard, Sherman’s a bit of a peacock, and Beiber just pulled a Lohan for the first time a couple of weeks ago. While the meme itself is rather clumsily executed, the message is clear: you’re only allowed to be angry in this country if you’re white, especially if you’re in the public eye.
Now, let me make myself perfectly clear: I could care less about either of these two. They’re a couple of buffoons as far as I’m concerned, and the amount of attention they’ve received is far more than either of them deserve. But after this happened (like it always does), there really wasn’t any other option than for some people to start setting other people on fire. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
As you can probably imagine, these are some of the kinder responses to Sherman’s antics; they, among others, are obviously what prompted this meme to be created, and prompted me to share it on my Facebook feed. And that’s when the fun began.
My favorite people to engage in conversations about race with (and by favorite, I mean least favorite) are the centrists. Ideologies surrounding race and class tend to fall along fairly partisan lines, but there’s still a broad spectrum of (mostly white) people for whom the former is still a mystery, and who believe that the answers lie in seeking some sort of equivalence between the ways that blacks and whites are critiqued by society. They’re like the CNN of racism, and seriously, their “both sides do it” mentality is hurting America.
The essence of their critique is as follows:
“Of course Sherman doesn’t deserve to be called the ‘N’ word, but Jesus, just look at how black he’s acting! What else was he expecting, and why the hell should I feel sorry for him? He brought it on himself! Besides, Beiber gets made fun of for being a stupid white kid all the time, and nobody says anything about that!”
There is SO much wrong with the entire argument that it’s hard to know where to begin, but the rebuttal basically comes down to following: yes, there is indeed a fine line between blame and responsibility, but assigning any sort of blame to Sherman’s actions for white people calling him racial slurs, no matter how well-intended or non-racist you think that might be, doesn’t make sense unless you believe on some level that he deserves to be called those things. What I mean to say is: lending cover to racists contributes to racism as an institution. It’s not really any different than when, say, society blames women for their own assaults. Both are implicitly tied to stereotypes rooted in genetics–skin color and gender, respectively–and both are inexcusable, regardless of circumstance.
The meme highlights the usage of the word “thug” to describe Sherman, a fairly ambiguous pejorative which the centrists have anchored upon as proof that both sides can be equally insulting to one another. Equally as pervasive as this argument is the principle of coded language, which allows words to take on a variety of contexts depending on whom they’re applied to. You guessed it: the word “thug” falls squarely into this category, functioning to add insult to injury, and doing it well. Want to know more about coded language? Just ask Lee Atwater, former political strategist for Reagan and George H.W. Bush:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights,’ and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes…obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “n*****, n*****.”
From the mouths of babes, am I right? I couldn’t have said it more racist if I tried, and I really don’t want to try. Atwater’s description of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” encapsulates an ugly truth about the way racism has been legitimized through the use of coded language. By allowing white people to draw false comparisons between the way blacks and whites are respectively judged, we completely erase the reality of how black people are perceived and/or treated in this country by whites when they act or speak in anger or frustration. Fifty years later, it’s become a reflex of white privilege among well-meaning centrists, one of the more egregious ones due to the fact that it’s almost never meant to offend, but almost always does.
I feel like I shouldn’t have to tell you at this point that this whole incident wouldn’t have happened if Sherman were white. It seems redundant. Rather, what I would ask you to consider, if even for a moment, is the names Beiber might be called if he wasn’t white. If you need a hint, just replace “Sherman” with “Beiber” in the aforementioned tweets, and you’ll start to get an idea.
It’s times like this when I get a glimpse of why black people get so angry at white folks sometimes. For most of us, it’s not that we don’t mean well, it’s just that the conditioning of white privilege runs so deep that it’s made most of us fairly obtuse when it comes to the politics of race. We’re afforded a dearth of ignorance that allows us to indulge in a carefully constructed, Rube Goldberg-esque illusion of superiority that we nearly always take for granted, meanwhile failing to realize that interracial squabbles allow for those in power to fleece the lot of us right into the poorhouse. Take it from LBJ: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
There certainly isn’t anything coded about that, is there?