Michael Richards… Paula Deen… Cliven Bundy… Donald Sterling…
That’s obviously a much shorter list than I could have given – to be honest, I’ve already forgotten about some of the people who belong on it.
This is media sport, made much easier to play by the proliferation of recording devices regularly surrounding us. And the structure of social media makes this an even easier game: momentary, decontextualized outrage is one of the things Facebook, Twitter etc. do best (or worst).
My question is – why is this sport so compelling for us?
Before I get to what I really want to say, I want to include a really important disclaimer: OF COURSE I deplore the statements made by Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Of course I think it’s a shame that there are people in our world who think it’s acceptable to say things about who one should or should not be seen in public with. Of course rambling and misinformed speeches about “the negro” are horrible and destructive. Of course screaming the n-word at a comedy club patron is unacceptable and hateful. Of course, of course, of course.
But what’s interesting to me is not that these things happen (who among us doubts that the world has and will always have idiots?) – it’s the function their coverage seems to play for the larger media and political environment. The racist-of-the-day reporting does something that actually bad: it serves as a placeholder for a broader conversation we refuse to have.
It’s a cliche that Americans don’t like to talk about race; it’s also a cliche that Americans actually love to talk about it. But what I would say is that we love to have very shallow conversations about it, but utterly loath serious, sustained public discourse about its material causes.
James Baldwin, who’s 90th birthday is upon us, was well aware that the points that need to be made – about structural inequalities, mass incarceration, “urban renewal,” drug laws, police brutality – are the ones we can’t talk about. And that’s partly because we all collectively cleanse our consciences by the ritual exposure of sports and movie stars who break the rules of the agreed-upon code words and polite silence in the face of our collective inaction and failure.
What CAN we talk about? Someone who was recently caught making a racist statement. The repeated catching of “racists” allows us all to set aside the racism inherent in our public life. It allows us all to say, “yeah, see, I’m not that.” It allows the discussion to focus on the sort of platitudes affirmed in Avenue Q’s “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” It makes racism in to a trait of individual bad actors, as the cliche puts it, “black or white” (I particularly detest the mock-gravity with which people routinely inform me that “not every racist is white.”)
We play pin the tail on the racist so that we don’t have to think about racism in any meaningful sense – so that “racism” can be a discretely isolated phenomenon among ugly and unfashionable people. Ultimately, discovering and shaming the latest racist reaffirms the very racism we as a society must combat. It reaffirms the racial status quo.