I’ve never been much for playing the race card. In fact, I tend to go well out of my way to ensure that I don’t make what social scientists call a Type I error, or claiming evidence for something that isn’t actually there. However, three political events have occurred this year involving President Barack Obama that have made even me, cautious race card player that I am, reach for mine. These events, though subtle, when considered in a history light and how rarely (if ever) they’ve occurred, suggest a racist underpinning.
Let’s start with Jan Brewer, Governor of Arizona, who in January had the audacity to stick her finger in the President’s face and lecture him as if he were a misbehaving schoolboy. I understand free speech and the desire to get your point across as Jan Brewer claimed she was doing, but there are much more acceptable ways to do so. Yet, in lieu of an apology, Governor Brewer shifted the onus of her finger wagging to the president, claiming she felt “threatened.” Threatened. By the President of the United States. In broad daylight and in view of cameras beaming their satellite-relayed exchange to millions. With all due respect to Governor Brewer—the very little that I have—that’s just absurd.
The concept of the “threatening” black man is rooted in stereotypes of black males as innately aggressive and driven by violent forces beyond their control. It’s in the genes, so to speak.
In studies involving simulated shooter scenarios, black men, regardless of dress or what they are holding (gun, wallet or cellphone), are more likely to be shot than their white counterparts. This concept is known as Shooter Bias, and it works off the racial stereotype that blacks are dangerous. Similarly, in a 2006 experiment published in the Journal of Social Psychology, researcher Joshua Correll found higher Event Related brain Potentials (ERPs)—changes in the electrical activity of the brain due to a stimulus—when participants looked at black faces. Specifically, the study showed that P200s, a component of ERPs that responds to threatening images, was higher when participants viewed black versus white faces. Blacks are perceived as more threatening than whites.
If you’re a black male, you already know this. Now you have science to back it up.
If Governor Brewer did indeed feel threatened by the President, I am inclined to believe it had less to do with the president’s actions and more to do with her erroneous perception of the president due to his race—conscious or otherwise. But again, this is just a thesis; I could be wrong.
Let’s move on to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, also of Arizona, who despite all evidence to the contrary, assembled a crack team of investigative professionals (whom he calls, either blatantly or ignorantly, his “posse”) to root out the “truth” behind President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. He called a press conference in March to announce that not only had he found evidence that President Obama’s birth certificate is a forgery, but that so is his selective service registration card. According to Arpaio, the President is not an American, and he’s a potential draft dodger. Talk about upping the ante.
The whole birther movement, I’m afraid, is a thinly veiled (if that) attempt to paint Obama as a liar, as a man willing and able to doctor documents and seduce the truth into silence so that…well, I’m not sure what the nefarious endgame is suppose to be. Turn America into a socialist nation? Hand it over to the Arabs? Erode its traditional values (which, by the way, include a very strong legacy of racism. I am in no hurry to get back to those traditional values)? Or just make sure it ceases to be the best country in the world (whatever that means) either by design or incompetence. I don’t know. What I do know is that it stinks. The energy and vigor Sheriff Arpaio is dedicating to this search, for a man who is not even directly connected to Washington, is, at best, disproportionate.
By the way, Sheriff Arpaio managed to find time for this endeavor despite his own legal woes, which include accusations of racial profiling and the failure to investigate hundreds of sex crimes. Did you catch that last one? The man accused of failing to investigate HUNDREDS of sex crimes, apparently has the time to investigate the legitimacy of President Obama’s American birth, a non-issue put to rest by both experts and many critics alike.
Now what possible motive could the Honorable Sheriff Arpaio have for ignoring sex crimes while fervently investigating the legitimacy of the president’s birth certificate? Well, According to Sheriff Arpaio, he’s not “going after Obama.” He’s just “doing his job.” Really? Which job? Certainly not the one the people of Maricopa County pay him to do.
While it is entirely possible that Arpaio’s motives are, as some suggest, simply to divert attention from his legal troubles, it’s curious that he should choose this racially and politically charged issue to do so. Curious indeed.
Then there’s Federal Court Judge Richard Cebull who in March sent out a racist email regarding the president. Judge Cebull later claimed to have sent it not because it was racist, but because it was “anti-Obama.” Here’s the joke:
“A little boy said to his mother, “Mommy, how come I’m black and you’re white?” His mother replies, “Don’t even go there, Barack, from what I can remember about that party, you’re lucky you don’t bark.”
Cebull, like all politicians who suddenly find themselves in a political quandary, apologized. He even took the “noble” step of calling for a review of his actions by the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit. I call “Cebull” on that. Am I supposed to believe that he has become the sort of man who no longer enjoys a sexist, racist, ribald joke and can make sound legal decisions simply because he got caught and apologized? Cebull. Cebull. Cebull.
Now, I will say that there is no absolute evidence (even with Cebull) that the actions of these politicians were fundamentally racist. After all, without some colossal screw up or a machine to peer directly into their minds, we can never conclusively know their true motives…but we can certainly infer them. And that really is the point behind a well-played race card.
As a black man in a relationship with a white woman and the father of an interracial daughter living in Texas, I’ve had a fair share of, um, “unsavory” encounters from, to be fair, both sides of the racial divide. However, racism isn’t just about hate, it is also about the abuse of power through the propagation of stereotypes and misguided ideas. And who in our nation has a better platform from which to carry this out than our politicians? Their actions send a strong and clear message about what is acceptable, and it resounds in the far less subtle actions of their constituents.
Take for example the teenage girls in, that’s right, Arizona, who posted a profanity-laced, racist rant on YouTube, basically calling Mexican immigrants stupid, crazy, criminal idiots. Now I find it hard to believe that these girls are fundamentally racist. An old dear friend of mine, a Catholic priest, once told me a true story of a priest who goes to see the bishop to tell him he’s lost his faith. The bishop sits him down, hands him a drink and says: “Nietzsche and Russell can lose their faith. You and I are too stupid to be atheists.”
In much the same way that a lot of atheists (not all but a good number) have never really taken the time to determine what it means to not believe in God, a person who can’t legally purchase alcohol is unlikely to have done the due diligence necessary to be a true racist. To be a racist you have to have lived a little, travelled outside of your tiny town, and had experiences beyond the provincial. Only then, after you deliberately choose to ignore evidence to the contrary, can you truly be racist. Until then, you’re just acting out, like a colicky chimpanzee.
I, however, think that the current political clime has created an atmosphere in which the young and the dumb (and also the old and only slightly more intelligent) think it’s okay to record and broadcast giggle-ridden and unoriginal diatribes about a entire race of people. I don’t blame those fifteen-year-old girls, nor do I absolve them of their actions…but I refuse to call them racists. If they should record another video in five years, one a bit more informed and less, for lack of a better word, idiotic, then I’ll gladly provide them with the label. Until then, they’re just young and dumb.
I’m an optimist, and I prefer messages of hope to dark and gloomy diatribes, so let me say this: We’ve come a long way even as we deal with the issues raised here. After all, this is about racist behavior towards a sitting president. But he is the president…and he’s black. That’s progress…right?
Photo: Haraz N. Ghanbari