A great benefit of living in America is that nothing is ever about race, except when it is, which isn’t very often, although it seems to be a lot. If that sounds confusing it is because America is the one nation on the planet where you can be intentionally run over by a truck driver calling you “nigger” and the immediate official response is, “This is not a race related incident.” James Blake, the tennis star recently and wrongfully tackled by a police officer in NY city, knows the deal.
The reasons and justifications for this may be many, ranging from law enforcement facetiousness to public confusion as to what “race” or “racism” really entails. Whatever the case, America has an unconscionable record of insulting the general humanity of those who live the reality of race every day and watch that reality mocked at every turn. The result is a cultural psychology so predictably calibrated that it would be unable to identify slavery itself as a race-related event. Skeptical? Here are six examples in recent history where it wasn’t at all about race, but really was.
1) On June 26, 2011 in Jackson, Mississippi a Black man named James Craig Anderson was attacked and killed by 18 year old Deryl Dedmon who is White. Dedmon and his friends who were also White targeted the 49 year old James Anderson at random. Security camera captured Dedmon’s friends beating Anderson before Dedmon proceeded to fatally strike Anderson with his pick-up truck. Dedmon called Anderson a “nigger” as he killed him.
That is harrowing enough, but the notable detail of the whole tragedy is that despite the eventual ruling of the murder a hate crime, the assailants did not consider their crime an act of racism or themselves to be racist. By the attackers’ own testimony and that of friends and family, some of whom are Black, their use of the word “nigger” was an exercise of heritage and not hate. Where, pray tell, is race involved?
2) On June 17, 2015 Dylann Storm Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where he proceeded to shoot nine Black churchgoers in cold blood. When asked by the victims why he was committing such a heinous act Roof replied that it was because Blacks were, “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” This reasoning however is only a preview of an entire manifesto written by Roof detailing his racist views.
In the manifesto Roof writes that, “niggers are violent and stupid” and “Black people are racially aware almost from birth, but White people on average don’t think about race in their daily lives. And this is our problem. We need to and have to.” It’s all pretty straight forward, but Dylann Roof was quickly branded a mental case by the media rather than a domestic terrorist or hate criminal. It wasn’t long after that Roof’s Black friend, Christon Striven, was publicized for defending him against accusations of being a racist.
Dr. Keith Ablow of Fox News went so far as to explain that, “psychiatrically ill people can channel their paranoia or depression or extreme self-loathing into bizarre beliefs that sometimes lead to the destruction of others. Those beliefs can look just like intense hatred — of a particular person or a whole race of people.” There you have it. Psychiatric malaise can look just like racism so it’s easy to be fooled by all the White Supremacist paraphernalia. No need to feel ashamed. Nothing racial to see here.
3) On August 26, 2015 Vester Flanagan , whose TV personality was Bryce Williams, shot and killed two former co-workers on live television. The motive was clear. “Why did I do it? I put down a deposit for a gun on 6/19/15. The Church shooting in Charleston happened on 6/17/15…What sent me over the top was the church shooting,” he said referring to the murders of Dylann Roof. “As for Dylann Roof? You want a race war (expletive)? BRING IT THEN YOU WHITE (expletive)!!!”
But nevermind that. Almost on cue Bryce Williams was branded as mentally unstable in the media and the explicit articulation of his own motives was dismissed as the unfounded ramblings of a disgruntled employee. All the racism he claimed to have experienced was suddenly the delusions of a madman, and just like that race was disappeared.
4) Earlier this year the iconic wrestler Hulk Hogan was embroiled in a bit of scandal when he was recorded ranting about n*ggers. Now it is possible the Hulk was also exercising some innocent southern heritage vocabulary with his word choice, except for his direct and rather crass reference to Black people. You could be forgiven for thinking as much because Hogan’s daughter Brooke was quick to set the record straight in a heartfelt poem:
“If you knew my father,
you would know how hard he fought…
and the way it brought a smile to people light, medium and dark.
We always fight a battle
that people never see,
and sometimes when you’re hurting, you don’t think logically.
Human isn’t perfect,
and perfect is not he,
but I can tell you one thing, it’s just not what it seems.”
Thank goodness, because it was seeming pretty racist.
5) The literary world experienced some turbulence this year when Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman portrayed Atticus Finch as an obviously bigoted stiff as opposed to a likable progressive racist in To Kill a Mockingbird. There was much gnashing of teeth, but readers in Michigan who believed themselves to be above the fray of the “R” word simply disparaged the book as bad writing before dismissing it as controversial.
One bookstore in Michigan, Brilliant Books, went so far as to offer a full refund and a heartfelt apology to customers who were offended by the book’s content. No clues as to what all the offense was about, but the New York Times summarized Go Set A Watchman as “a lumpy tale about a young woman’s grief over her discovery of her father’s bigoted views.” Race you say? Nah.
6) In September 2015 the Black tennis star James Blake was wrongfully tackled to the ground by a member of the New York Police Department. The NYPD commissioner William Bratton responded swiftly to the incident saying, “race has nothing at all to do with this,” and that James Blake just happens to look like the twin brother of an alleged suspect.
Soon after the NYT ran a piece titled “The Science Behind ‘They Look Like Me'” explaining the science behind the human inability to distinguish facial variety within a unfamiliar racial group. It’s not race they say. It’s science! Some people have too few perceptual experiences to tell apart the members of racial group that is not there own.
If that doesn’t sound comforting, it is because it isn’t. One engineered function of racism is reducing entire populations to a monolith in order to regard them more simplistically. As a Black person in America, there is perfectly reasonable anxiety in knowing that at any minute you can be mistaken for someone who doesn’t even look like you because the armed authorities have too few perceptual experiences to know you aren’t Suge Knight while they’re out trying to catch Bill Cosby. Package that with the prejudices of American history and the science quickly becomes a problematic enabler.
The racism of ignorance bites just as hard as racism with intent, and often they work hand in hand. That’s the point, but it’s a point continually lost because, well, it’s never about race. James Blake eventually received an official apology, but in Blake’s own words the apology was not enough.
“I’ve gotten emails and texts from people that tell me, ‘This happened to me. This happened to my friend, my father, my brother’…None of them get public apologies. They deserve the same treatment I’m getting.”