Black and White and Shades of Gray

“That’s some nappy-headed hos there”
Don Imus, Radio Host and Shock Jock

“Nothing a white man with a penny hates more than a n***** with a nickel.”
Chris Rock, Comedian

“The Black is a better athlete to begin with, because he’s been bred to be that way”
Jimmy Snyder, Sports Commentator

“White people… I wish that you had my freedom of speech… You think you do?
Please, go into your work and tell my jokes on Monday.”

Carlos Mencia
Latin comedian specializing in racial jokes and satire.

“As for the one Mormon running for office, those who really believe in God will defeat him anyways”
“White folks were in caves while we were building empires. . . . We taught philosophy, astrology, and mathematics before Socrates and those Greek homos”
Rev. Al Sharpton

Perhaps Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s greatest contribution to the civil rights movement was an unwavering sense of respect, for blacks and whites alike. He had a true sense of equality and treated members of both races, not by the color of their skin but by their character. It was infectious, demanding respect and equality from a system that thought he deserved neither. Today there is a want of these virtues. Anger and bitterness have engendered self-righteousness and resentment in both blacks and whites to the point where dialogue on the subject is all but impossible, and true progress against racism is stalled, if not slowly regressing. It has even become all but impossible to know anymore what truly constitutes racism.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines racism as a doctrine or teaching, without scientific support, that claims to find racial differences in character, intelligence, etc., that asserts the superiority of one race over another. Snyder’s comments had scientific support, but were none the less considered racist (likely for the derogatory choice of the word “bred”). Imus’s comment doesn’t strictly fit the definition but was widely considered racist also. Rock’s comment, while not strictly fitting the definition either, was closer than Imus’s and was not considered racist. How can we as a society hold people to a set of standards which appears fluid enough that, at a minimum, even Webster’s can’t accurately define it?

Don Imus and Al SharptonA lot of people on the radio say a lot of offensive things about other people (just listen to Rush Limbaugh or Dr. Schlessinger), and a number of whites simply do not understand what propelled Imus’s comments from the realm of offensive to that of racist. They don’t understand why, if it was a joke not meant to harm, was it racist? They believe that racism requires conscious intent. It does not.

Racism is necessarily an unjustified pre-conception about someone based on the color of their skin. But everyone thinks their preconceptions and beliefs are justified. If you knew you were racist (i.e. that you had unjustified beliefs) you would correct it. Even members of the KKK do not think they are racist – they believe the world justifies their views, and believes them correct. A racist never intends racism.

What Imus said may have been a joke, but it was a joke that said to these women that no matter how good they are at anything, no matter how beautiful, intelligent, or athletic, and no matter what they accomplish in life, they can always be reduced to the status of “hos”. Always. That’s where they came from, and that’s where they will always be. It said that theirs is a country where, not just some ignoramus off the street, but a popular cultural icon, can say that to them. That he didn’t mean for it to have that particular effect makes it worse; it demonstrates that this kind of thinking is so ingrained into our culture that he had no idea the effect it would have (he certainly didn’t think he’d be fired for it).

To most blacks this seems like it should be obvious, and when whites don’t see it it’s because they don’t care or because they’re racist. There is a catharsis in thinking that were they (blacks) the majority race in this country they would not be so ignorant or dismissive of racism (a view not considered racist). But that is to underestimate the human heart, and to realize we are truly equal, and anything any race is capable of, the others are as well.

All people, of all races and backgrounds, have great difficulty sympathizing with victims with whom they have little in common, no matter how terrible the crime (just ask the people of Darfur). When Seung-Hui Cho walked into a building at Virginia Tech and killed 32 people, Americans of all races treated it as far more tragic than the record number of people (over 200) killed in four separate car bombings in Iraq that same day.

Whites are phenomenally well insulated from racism. If Imus had been black, and the basketball team white, and in the spirit of good natured ribbing he had said “Those crackers play like they’re cracking a whip on their father’s plantation”, there would have been no debate – he’d have been fired before he finished the sentence. Blacks in this society simply do not have the same power to offend whites.

Fifty percent of blacks in this country are on welfare. The leading cause of death for black males is homicide. If you’re black you have to prove yourself to a white country every day – a country who knows those statistics and use them as justification to make you earn a trust freely given to whites. Your bosses will likely all be white, and they may or may not be racist but you’ll never know for sure. In all 50 states you are far more likely to be turned down for a job, loan, or mortgage than an equally qualified white person, and more likely to get pulled over when doing something as innocuous as driving down the road. Blacks often work harder in this society for lesser compensation, which makes it impossible for them to fairly compete with white colleagues, thereby perpetuating the myth that they are not as competent. A white never learns he’s white but for every black one of his or hers first memories in life is the day he learned he was black – that he was “different” – not worthy to be treated the same.

How can whites in this country understand what that does to the human psyche, the resentment it causes, the self doubt, the frustration? Since only 12% of this country is black the vast majority of white people can spend most of their lives, through no fault of their own, never seeing overt racism or damage it causes. Rather they only hear stories of how bad it “used to be” and look around, knowing they themselves are well intentioned and say “everything must be all right.”

The only way to learn about racism is through dialog. But for a white (particularly male) to express any opinion or engage in discussion about racism is like playing with a loaded gun. Many times they feel that blacks are of the opinion that their lack of experience precludes them from being able to discuss it. So whites (who, being human, abhor injustice no less than blacks) who don’t feel they understood the problem find ways to shrug it off. About Imus they said that blacks were overreacting, or that he’d been saying those things for years and it was hypocritical to start complaining now, none of which they really believe they’re the only opinions they’re allowed to voice.

Whites who do not understand why Imus’s comments were racist despite his lack of intent, or why blacks think racism really is still a problem in this country, can’t get answers. They can’t ask the questions they need to because to do so is offensive. . People assume that everyone should know what made Imus’ comments racist, and that not knowing is in and of itself racist (for if Imus’ comment was racist without his knowledge, then not understanding why is to be guilty of the same ignorance, and thus the same racism). Asking these questions is to suggest (even when not intended) a challenge to the charge of racism, and that too is racist. The label “racist” is almost as bad as any racial epithet (indeed many whites see “racist” as, truly, only a few rungs up the ladder from child molester) and most whites will go to great lengths to avoid being called one (even if the best way to avoid being called racist is to act racist). So when they have honest questions they don’t ask them.

When Imus appeared on Sharpton’s show the “debate” wasn’t about why what he said was wrong as much as it was about why he should be punished, what that punishment should be, and why he felt he didn’t deserve it. Imus found himself in an adversarial situation where he had no clue what the problem was, but admitting that would have been far worse than issuing a mea culpa (which nobody believed) and trying to mitigate the damage. This is a phenomenal problem because equality is reached only when and by people like Imus not saying comments like those because they truly understand the nature of those comments, not when and by people who censor themselves simply to avoid punishment.

This inability to bring whites into the discussion of what racism is also prevents the challenging of beliefs and preconceptions about racism which need challenging – for example the notion that Rock’s comments weren’t racist?

While Don Imus was making fun of black women in his joke, Chris Rock, in reality, was not making fun of whites in his joke. He was trying to make fun of racists (a group of people in desperate need of mocking). He was giving his audience (mostly blacks) a chance to mock something which affects and wounds them deeply, on a daily level. He was speaking a language of common experience whereby they could see that they are not alone – there are other victims of racism – and that even the famous share this with them. He was trying to take the edge off of racism, and he was being cathartic. Rock was trying to heal, trying to bring the black community together, and trying to do his job – be funny, all at the same time. He did a wonderful job.

And it doesn’t matter. Rock’s comment was racist and offensive. Rock was saying that all whites are racist, that all whites hate it when they see blacks excel.

It wasn’t what Rock intended. It was a joke, and Rock wasn’t speaking to whites. Then again, Imus didn’t intend what he said, it was a joke, and he wasn’t speaking to the Rutgers women either. Rock may have helped his community heal but is there no better way of healing than to mock white people and call them racist? How can that not teach members of his audience that it’s okay – in fact it’s a good thing – to insult white people? That it’s a good thing to have, even if just a little, hatred for whites? How can white people who hear this not assume that Rock (and his audience who laughed) believes that all whites are racist? How can that do anything but engender resentment, both for the statement, and for the hypocrisy of it? How can comments like this do anything but increase the divide between us?

And whites do get offended by statements like this, but they can’t say so, they aren’t allowed to be offended. This is a tragedy, because it offers whites a tiny glimpse and understanding into the pain of racism, a glimpse which they won’t discuss or learn from because it demoralizes whites who feel that blacks all think they’re racist no matter what, that they are seen only as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

To say that both sides suffer the same would be both ludicrous and insulting to blacks. But both sides offer significant contributions to the problem and expect the other side to clean up their act first before they are worthy of the effort of tending their own house. Even just 50 years ago it was not the case that blacks contributed to the problem as whites did. But at a time when a black man has an honest chance at holding the highest office in the country, if not the world, we have to acknowledge that it’s not the same world it was 50 years ago. While we are still far from equal, this is a problem which must be owned by both sides. Whites need to be responsible for themselves, take a more pro-active approach, stand up and engage in debate and discussion of racism regardless of their fears. Blacks need to forgive that whites truly don’t and can’t understand, and do their best to engage whites with an open and honest heart and with the same vigilance as whites.

This was what made the Reverend Dr. Martian Luther King so special, and what has not been replicated since – the true, genuine absence of racism. He respected and loved himself and his black and white brothers and sisters. He saw no differences between them, only justice and injustice, and he allowed no double standard. He would have disapproved of Rock’s joke at least as much as Imus’s. And he’d not have sought punishment for Imus, but seen those comments as a chance to educate. He suffered more racism than blacks today, far more than whites, and had less anger towards the people who perpetrated it against him. In the truest Christian sense, he hated the sin, but he loved the sinner. While this country could always use another leader like him, we don’t need it. What we need is for people to take the initiative and follow the example he already set. That this country systematically disenfranchises blacks (and increasingly Hispanics) is not a black (or Hispanic) problem, it’s an American problem, a human problem, and humiliating in the face of countries that don’t (“lesser” countries like Brazil). It is not the country most of us would want, but it is, for the moment, the country we have.







0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Garrett Morris
Garrett Morris
9 years ago

Thanks for a very thoughtful essay. I can’t help thinking about how Western thinking tends to polarise concepts, and often ignores the continuum between two extremes. Indeed, look at Barack Obama: he is neither “African” nor “Caucasian”, but an inspiring child of both. We often forget that words have power, and their effect can sometimes depend on who hears them. I read the quote attributed to Rev. Al Sharpton, “White folks were in caves while we were building empires. . . . We taught philosophy, astrology, and mathematics before Socrates and those Greek homos”, and I couldn’t help being offended… Read more »