Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Reverse Racism?

I thought I had the perfect argument for why reverse racism is a myth. It started in all places, with a Facebook exchange about a hockey game.

Last Saturday night, the Chicago Blackhawks hosted the Washington Capitals. When a Cap player was sent to the penalty box, some Hawks' fans taunted him, not at all uncommon for partisan hockey fans.

What is a bit uncommon is that the player, forward Devante Smith-Pelly, is one of only about thirty black players in the National Hockey League, which works out to about one player per team. While serving a five minute penalty for fighting, four fans wearing Blackhawk jerseys chanted what some considered racial epithets at Smith-Pelly, that not only got them booted from the game, but banned by the Blackhawk organization for life.

And what exactly did the fans chant at Smith-Pelly?

"Basketball, basketball, basketball."

The Facebook exchange in question was between two friends, both white males of whom I think it would be fair to say are both politically conservative. One is a staunch Republican and a Trump supporter, the other is a a card carrying member of the Contrarian Party, most definitely not a supporter of the president.

The Trump supporter posted his outrage at the fans for their racist behavior, to which the Contrarian replied: "since when is 'basketball' a racist term?"

Having contrarian tendencies myself, I completely understood where that friend was coming from. In fact, I was a little surprised and heartened by the almost unanimous public outrage directed at these fans. The only ones who didn't fall in line with the popular public sentiment were the usual suspects, genuine racists, people clueless of American culture, especially its sports culture, and of course, contrarians.

My contribution to the conversation was tepid. I said that in a perfect world, yelling "basketball" at a black hockey player on the other team shouldn't be a big deal, after all, it's an obvious observation that the game of basketball, especially at the professional level. is dominated by black athletes. But our world is far from perfect, especially regarding the issue of race. Given that, unless they fell into the clueless camp which is highly unlikely, the taunters knew exactly what they were doing and how their chants would be taken. As they say, "intent is nine tenths of the law." I added that I felt the Blackhawks were perfectly justified in their response.

To that, the Trump supporter brought up the hypothetical situation of the reverse taking place at a Chicago Bulls basketball game in the same building, namely a black fan chanting "hockey, hockey, hockey" at a white player on the opposing bench. That scenario is precisely what I considered to be the perfect illustration of the myth of reverse racism. You see, I've actually witnessed black people yelling something about hockey to white basketball players. Actually I thought it was pretty funny, and for the life of me, I can't imagine any white player being seriously offended by that remark, especially if it was coming from fans of the other team. I didn't pose that question to my right wing friends but I can only imagine their response would be the same: if it's considered racist for one side, it should be racist for both. After all, fair's fair.

Unless it isn't.

I posed the question to my son the following day. He agreed with me that the hockey fans taunting the black player was definitely a racist act, while the hypothetical situation of black fans taunting a white basketball player with the word "hockey" was not. But he begged to differ on the idea that black folks can't be racists.

My children have grown up in a racially integrated neighborhood, participate on integrated sports teams and dance groups, ride on integrated public transportation. and go to integrated schools. But last summer, my son had the experience of being the only white kid in a summer program for Chicago school kids. In that program he experienced some outright hostility from some of his peers because of his race. Having experienced this, he told me that he chafed at a comment from a girl in the group who said flat out that black people, and members other minority groups, cannot be racists. 

Racism comes in all shapes and sizes. In our day, it's just about the worst accusation you can make against someone. However when pressed, I think few people can adequately define racism, to them it's a little like the word pornography was to Justice Potter Stewart who famously quipped when justifying his ruling on a 1964 obscenity case that he may not be able to adequately define what pornography is, but "I know it when I see it."

To many of us, white folks especially, my son included, the terms racism and prejudice describe precisely the same thing.

Here's the definition of the word as found in Merriam Webster:
racism:  a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
It's that belief that one race,  usually one's own, is superior to the others that makes racism different from run-of-the-mill prejudice.

So at least according to Merriam Webster, if a black person considered her race to be superior to all others, that person would be a racist right?

Well not so fast.

In an article I stumbled across from Vice Canada, the author Manisha Krishman quotes Anthony Morgan, a Toronto-based civil and human rights lawyer:
Racism is based on a couple of things—historical, systemic oppression and power, ... And as far as history goes, white people have never been persecuted for the colour of their skin—so there's no point comparing their experiences to those of black, brown, and Indigenous folks.
To that Krishman adds:
...Morgan said even if all people of colour straight up said they hate white people, it wouldn't affect a white person's ability to get a job, an education, or increase the odds that they'd get carded or charged for a crime.
Now we're getting somewhere. Of course some white folks would beg to differ, especially if they feel that the American Dream of having it better than their parents, is out of their reach. They see affirmative action and other well intentioned attempts to level the playing field between the races, as governmental interference putting them at a disadvantage because of the color of their skin.

To that issue Mr. Morgan says:
When you're so deeply invested in your privilege, and in this case white privilege, racial equality feels like oppression.
Now it's unlikely that message, coming from a civil rights lawyer up in Canada, is going to play well to say, an unemployed white coal miner in West Virginia who probably would not feel himself to be the beneficiary of "white privilege."

As I said above, racism comes in all shapes and sizes. The question often comes up, is the current President of the United States a racist? While I don't agree with his son often, I thought that Eric Trump's remark that the only color his father sees is green, was spot on. My impression has always been that the only thing Donald Trump judged people on was how much money they had. Even the lip service he gives at times to white supremacists strikes me as mere pandering to his base, rather than genuine racism. After all, Trump at least judging by his public persona, feels superior to everybody, not just black people. However his gratuitous "shit hole" comment about Africa and Haiti to select members of Congress, was the straw that broke the camel's back, at least for me. It seems to have cemented into posterity his true feelings about black people, earning him a place at the table in the pantheon of famous racists of the world, whether deserved or not.

Unfortunately, the need to feel superior to other human beings seems to be a common thread in the species Homo sapiens. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the most virulent and open racists are people who come from the lower stratas of society. You might be a dirt poor white guy with no money, no education, no skills, no prospects, and no self-esteem, but in American society as it has existed since its beginning, at least you could feel like you were superior to black folks, no matter how accomplished they were.

That too is white privilege, picayune as it may seem. To these people, racial equality truly must be a bitter pill to swallow.

I needn't go into the tragic history of black people in the United States. With the election of Barack Obama, some folks mistakenly believed that we lived in a "post racial" America, where we no longer needed to concern ourselves with the divide between the races. The election of the current president has proven that to be quite wrong.

You may argue, why would a professional athlete at the highest level of his profession, making scads of money, be upset by the actions of a few cretins who happen to have enough money to sit in the pricey seats along the ice? Well in a day when the President of the United States himself singles out black athletes daring to publicly protest injustices in their community as being sonsofbitches who deserved to be fired, you can rest assured that no matter high or mighty you may be, there are still people not worthy of carrying your jockstrap who are more than happy to put you in your place.

As for my son who was harassed by some minority kids, I had this to say: you experienced treatment that those kids and their ancestors have experienced in this country for centuries, something that hockey player experienced just last week. The difference is, you don't live in a country that continues to argue about honoring people who actively fought to enslave your people. The president of the United States doesn't call the continent of your ancestry a shithole and have countless people agree with him. You get to go out into the world and not have to worry about being profiled, carded, suspected of crimes, wrongly arrested, and perhaps even shot and killed by the police, just because of the color of your skin. Unfortunately those kids and even that rich NHL player can't say the same thing.

It's a tough lesson to teach and to learn. Living it, as African American people do every day, is much tougher.

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