TIME Race

We Can Affirm That Race Matters—But Much Less Than It Used To

Sonia Sotomayor
This Sept. 19, 2013 file photo shows Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor speaking at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del. The Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld Michigan's ban on using race as a factor in college admissions. In dissent, Sotomayor said the decision tramples on the rights of minorities, even though the amendment was adopted democratically. “But without checks, democratically approved legislation can oppress minority groups,” said Sotomayor, who read her dissent aloud in the courtroom Tuesday. Patrick Semansky—AP

In 1970, it made sense to treat being black as a disadvantage in itself. But today, the Affirmative Action should be about socioeconomics.

Now that the Supreme Court has decided that citizens, as well as judiciaries, have the right to decide against Affirmative Action policies — the import of the decision in favor of Proposition 2 in Michigan — we are hearing the usual cries that benighted people are rolling back good people’s quest to “take race into account.” This time, as usual, it’s Affirmative Action in college admissions that is at stake, and specifically the kind based on race and gender.

But in the grand scheme of things what we are seeing is a preservation of what Affirmative Action was originally supposed to be about — acknowledging disadvantage. In 1970, it made a certain sense to treat being black as a disadvantage in itself. But today, the proper Affirmative Action should be about socioeconomics.

Most Americans would understand this if the way we discuss Affirmative Action weren’t so coded. A leading misimpression is that college admissions policies are always a mere thumb on the scale — that among candidates with equivalent grades and test scores, race is “taken into account” only to ensure diversity. And that kind of Affirmative Action is great. I, for one, would dread teaching a class where everybody was a privileged white kid from the suburbs. Or, where everybody was anything.

But that’s not the kind of Affirmative Action decisions like Tuesday’s by the Supremes addresses. Too often, colleges have had a two-tier admissions system, in which black and brown students are, as a matter of policy, admitted with lower grades and scores than other students’ in a quest to fill a quota. This has been identified over the years at the University of California, Rutgers, the University of Michigan, and countless others.

That kind of taking race into account made perfect sense when most black people were poor and had no access to decent education. But what about now, when it is not rare to be middle class and black? We must avoid pretending that such people are mere hothouse rarities — i.e. last time I checked, it was racist to declare that being black means being poor.

So, do we “take into account” the race of the child of a lawyer and a systems analyst by exempting them from the standards we apply to white kids? Many say that the issue is simply whether race “matters” in life. But is that the smackdown point we are often told? In contesting this decision, Justice Sotomayor has it that “Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed ‘No, where are you really from?’, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country.”

Those things are real — but even black people can question whether they make it morally corrupt to expose middle class black kids to serious scholastic competition. Sure, polls often show that people of all races “approve of” Affirmative Action. But the topic is too complex for that question to have any useful meaning. It’s like asking people whether they approve of feeding children warm muffins, without considering how many, how often, and what’s in the muffins in question.

Too seldom do we hear things such as that in a book that got too little attention because it came out in the wake of 9/11, Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza polled 715 black people on whether they approved of policies regularly admitting black students with lower scores than other students and found that 90% disapproved. “Taking race into account”? Sure. But in which ways?

Here’s something. Despite my comfortable middle-class upbringing, race most certainly “mattered” in my life, thank you very much. A kid liked calling me “blackey” in camp. I was once denied a summer job because of my race. A couple of times I caught an expression of alarm on a shopkeeper’s face when I walked in. In schoolyard interactions with white boys, there were occasions when it was clear that I was to “know my place” on a certain unstated level. The dating age as a black kid in mostly white schools in the 70s and 80s was no picnic — most of the women around you could only see you as a brother. Your rating was gratifyingly less abysmal in all black settings, but your day-to-day existence was in a world where you were, in a sense, not considered a whole man.

Yes, race mattered. But my mother would have — well, I can’t even imagine — if I had said that those things qualified me for lower standards of evaluation in college admissions than a white kid. Race “mattered” for me to the same extent as any number of things for other kids, regarding health, family issues, appearance, disabilities, and much else.

It’s socioeconomics that create the kind of obstacles to scholastic success that truly justify altered standards. Your school is lousy. Your school doesn’t offer Advanced Placement courses. You had to help raise your siblings. Few people in your family value higher education. You barely knew anybody who went to college.

A society that insisted that people with burdens of that kind come up with grades and scores equal to those of more privileged people would be backwards and unsophisticated. Therefore, we do need Affirmative Action.

However, what needs to be affirmed in today’s America, as opposed to Lyndon Johnson’s, is disadvantage suffered by all people. This is quite different, in 2014, from the more particular fact that race matters.

Decisions like Tuesday’s are, therefore, progress. We should celebrate it.

TIME Race

On Obama and Race, It’s Not Black and White

Is race the key to understanding how Republicans view the president? Only if you ignore how they treated Bill Clinton.

In the wake of speeches such as President Obama’s this week on the occasion of the sesquicentennial of the Civil Rights Act, it is customary to say that on race “We’ve come a long way but we have a long way to go.” And the true intent of the statement is less to celebrate than to sigh. We are to keep ever in mind that we haven’t come as far as we might think.

However, the very way in which race is discussed so often these days indicates happier news than many perceive. I refer to, of all things, the role that racism has played in Republicans’ reception of our president.

“Oh, you just know what really bothers them about him is his race,” is the expected response here — during the delivery of which one could surely detect a distinct spike in endorphins. To the non-Republican in 2014, to identify this racism is a badge of one’s awareness of racism’s existence and power. One must know this, feel it, and say it. One has done one’s job.

And here is how we know how far we have come — in the sheer vehemence, even fury, with which this opinion is typically vented. A sterling example is the response to Jonathan Chait’s piece this week suggesting some moderation in how the racism charge is leveled at the right.

Though Chait is no right-wing partisan and thoroughly outlines the extent to which race does play a part in the right’s rhetoric, he has been brutally slammed by people left of center — and I refer in particular to non-black writers, for whom racism isn’t even a personal experience. The bilious tone of Chait’s critics signals something beyond opinion: This is argument from something more like personhood, of the kind we associate with religion. And as ordinary as this response to a piece like Chait’s seems today, the prospect of it ever happening would have seemed like science fiction to someone watching the Civil Rights Act being signed 50 years ago.

We have gone from a society in which it was ordinary for whites to have a deep-seated, near-religious opposition to black people to one in which it is ordinary for many whites to have a deep-seated, near-religious commitment to showing awareness that remnants of that racism still exist. That is as much a defining feature of what America is today as the racism itself.

On racism and Obama, we know that this feature has become as much creed as opinion in that it elides, as all creeds do, certain empirical facts. When people say racism plays “a part” in how the right sees Obama, they consider it by far the most interesting part — in fact, it would seem fair to say, the main part. “It’s all about race,” one hears said, with confidence and a distinct sense that the discussion is closed.

But this neglects what hatred of Bill Clinton was like in the ’90s, as Chait has noted. The searing contempt so many very white people had for the man — some of the same who now hate Obama — was as near-recreational as today’s against Obama can be, including goofy speculation that the Clintons got people killed. And the reason was their hatred of a charismatic Democrat trying to change how the nation works.

Another one: We are to assume that the Tea Party would not exist if Obama weren’t black. But who can say that John Edwards, if he hadn’t been waylaid by scandal and had won, wouldn’t have inspired a similar animus? Encouraging class conflict, not exactly clubby in his public persona, married to an accomplished and public-spirited woman who wasn’t going to be “home making cookies” any more than Hillary Clinton was — would Republicans in today’s climate have liked him any more than they do Obama? Wouldn’t they have come up with names to call him other than racial ones? Recall that from the right, he was at one point termed with a word beginning with F that has six letters.

All of which is to say that the idea that racism is anything like the reason why Republicans don’t like Obama is one that reasonable people will differ on. I’m the last person to deny that race plays a part in how the right processes the president. It may be 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, but it isn’t 100 years after it. Even over 50 years, people only change so much.

But is race the main issue here? That is, in the history books, will the verdict be that Obama got so little done beyond health care reform because of how people like Mitch McConnell and Rep. Joe “You lie!” Wilson feel or don’t feel about black people? Doubtful — and yet, one is not even to “go there” in certain circles today.

And that, as ticklish and even acrid as it can be here in the present tense, is a sign of true progress in this country. Imagine telling Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King that there would be a time when a numerous and influential component of white people would be irate at the proposition that racism was not the defining trait of one political party?

We’ve come a long way.

TIME Race

The Tin Ear of the #CancelColbert Brigades

A key part of humans getting past, getting over, conquering, leaving behind, is minimization. And a key way to minimize something is to ridicule it.

So now Stephen Colbert is a racist for making fun of a racist, and it’s supposed to be a sign of higher reasoning to understand that.

Just what moral catastrophe are we holding off in pretending that making fun of racists is as racist as racism itself?His sin was in the course of ridiculing Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who has refused to change the regrettable name of the team. Colbert hearkened back to a skit where his “character” didn’t understand why his caricatured depiction of a Chinese person named “Ching Chong Ding Dong” was racist, and followed it up with a mock tweet “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

And quickly a certain Suey Park began a hashtag campaign to have Colbert pulled off of the air for “racism” — even though Colbert was mocking racism as backwards, not exhibiting it.

Some have said that the sin was the tweet’s placement outside of the context of the old skit, but that’s bending over backwards. The tweet alone is clearly meant as humorous — and it was. Except to a certain contingent who have decided that when it comes to racism, even ridiculing it is — wait for it — racist.

This perspective is offered up as a kind of higher wisdom. But too often it seems more like willful backwardness.

It’s a debate that pops up regularly. Remember the New Yorker cover in 2008 depicting the Obamas in Black Panther garb doing a fist bump, mocking the conservative pundits who had seen the Obamas do such a bump as a passing gesture of celebration and read it as evidence that Obama was a secret terrorist?

Good-thinking readers nationwide assailed that cover as, itself, “racist.” The idea would seem to be that bigotry can’t be deemed ridiculous. As such, layered humor — such as an extended in-joke where we assume we all consider the racism being depicted as ridiculous — is off-limits.

That may seem to make a certain sense. We don’t want to seem like we are trivializing something so hurtful. But this can only hold gracefully for so long. A key part of humans getting past, getting over, conquering, leaving behind, is minimization. And a key way to minimize something is to ridicule it. This is why this kind of joke about racism has become so common over the past few decades. It is a symptom of a society slowly but surely getting past the ways of the old days.

Few misunderstand this when we see it in the past, such as in cartoons depicting Hitler as a shrieking moron. Few misunderstand this when aimed at single figures considered menaces (think of South Park’s depiction of Saddam Hussein as a hopping, squeaky-voiced miniature). Few misunderstand this when aimed at white people in general. Note the complaint “That’s so white!” now regularly leveled by whites themselves, or do a quick web search to see the popularity among a certain writerly set of the wryly dismissive term “unfettered whiteness.”

But somehow, when it comes to the specific figure of the racist, we are supposed to suspend this natural tendency to ridicule that which we despise. Instead we are to shake our heads and surmise that the prevalence of jokes like these is just “racism” itself “in a new guise.”

But maintaining this view requires a mental gymnastics that will never be mastered by as many people as we might prefer. The jokes will keep coming, because people will continue being smart persons denigrating that which they look down upon, and racism will be included. We are asking Americans to pretend instead that in the particular case of making fun of racists, layered humor — i.e. wit — isn’t funny.

And that’s where we end up replacing backwardness with backwardness. We’re asking thinking Americans to dumb themselves down. When artists started painting with perspective, it took viewers some effort to comprehend it at first. People in Beethoven’s day heard much of his later work as noise. And a medieval person presented with that New Yorker cover would readily have supposed that the intended statement actually was “Michelle and Barack Obama are terrorists.”

But we’re supposed to be moderns. It’s time to ask: Just what moral catastrophe are we holding off in pretending that making fun of racists is as racist as racism itself? Anyone who read Colbert’s tweet as racist in any serious way either 1) has a strangely tin ear to how humor works, 2) would be better off spelling out just what society will gain from the willful humorlessness they are espousing, or 3) is exhibiting something one might title Progressive Puritanism.

At a bar’s stand-up open mike night in 1984, I recall a white college student getting up on stage and telling a joke to a room she assumed was all white (I was in the corner in the shadows): “What do you call 100,000 black people at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.”

Now, that was racist. So, we must ask whether any of us really think that word “racist” really applies to Stephen Colbert’s depicting a character tweeting “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Progress happens. Preaching deafness to nuance is no way to keep it going.

TIME Race

‘Microaggression’ Is the New Racism on Campus

University students use computer
Lawren—Getty Images

There’s a new word on the street that the old-style social racism is still with us, 24/7 — you're about to start hearing it everywhere.

Think everyday, interpersonal racism is a thing of the past? In progressive politics, most of the action has moved on from the Civil Rights struggles of the past to a focus on societal or “structural” racism. But, wait, not so fast — there’s a new word on the street that the old-style social racism is still with us, 24/7. That word is: microaggression. And you’re about to start hearing it everywhere.

A student at McGill University recently had to apologize publicly for the “microaggression” of “emailing a doctored video of President Obama kicking open a door” as part of a joke about midterms. Campus newspapers have begun denouncing the evils of such small, apparent slights.

The idea is that whites should now watch out for being micro-aggressors, in the same way that they learned long ago not to be racist in more overt ways.Here’s what they are: The concept of microaggression has leapt from the shadows of academic writing into the bright light of general conversation, especially in the wake of widely consulted work by professors Derald Wing Sue and Madonna Constantine over the last seven or so years. Microaggressions, as these academics describe them, are quiet, often unintended slights — racist or sexist — that make a person feel underestimated on the basis of their color or gender.

The idea is that whites should now watch out for being microaggressors, in the same way that they learned long ago not to be racist in more overt ways. Importantly, the microaggressor is quite often a “goodly” person, of the kind we assume is too enlightened to pop off with racist or sexist insults.

The black journalist Toure has recounted, for example, being in a writer’s program and being asked by a prominent literary critic “So why are you here?” The critic didn’t ask in a hostile way, but the question itself carried an implication that there was some reason that his presence was unusual, and it was obvious what the factor was. The critic likely had no idea how that came off, and of course Toure went on to have a fine life. But this was, nevertheless, a microaggression.

As was when a middle school teacher praised a feminist friend of mine for having made the highest math score of any girl in the class. Or when I once asked a linguist a question about their presentation, only for him to repeatedly give me an answer I wasn’t seeking. The problem was that he spontaneously assumed I wasn’t familiar with the basic grammatical topic he was covering, when I, as familiar with it as any linguist of 25 years’ standing, was interested in a more specific matter. This man was not a “racist” by any stretch of the imagination, but he was spontaneously assuming that a black linguist must only be interested in societal issues rather than the wonky mechanics of grammar.

Of course, I’ve been just fine since, too. In fact, some might see this whole microaggression concept as just a way to keep grievance going in an America where it gets ever harder to call people on naked bigotry. “Life is tough for everybody,” you might think. “When does all of this ‘poor me’ stuff stop?” One need not be a racist or sexist to have that sentiment, especially given that the nature of microaggressions — subtle, unintended, occurring in the hustle and bustle of social interaction — is such that they will never cease to exist entirely.

Perhaps there is value in fostering an awareness of such things, in the name of our society becoming ever more enlightened. It’s comforting that the term is at least microaggression. It acknowledges that change has occurred, that we are dealing with something smaller and less starkly egregious than name-calling and formal exclusion. That’s better than just calling all of it, from cross-burning to asking a black person if you can touch their hair, “racism” (which has always been sloppy and counterproductive).

However, there is something equally counterproductive about the microaggression concept, at least as it is currently being put forth. The scholars promoting this concept claim that it is a microaggression even when someone says “I don’t see you as black,” or claims to be colorblind, or purports not to be a sexist, or in general doesn’t “acknowledge” one’s race membership or gender.

But let’s face it — it’s considered racist for whites to treat any trait as “black.” If we accept that, then we can’t turn around and say they’re racists to look at black people as just people. That particular aspect of the microaggression notion seems fixed so that whites can’t do anything right.

One can’t help sensing a notion that this would be perhaps “payback” for whites and the nasty society they stuck us with. But all it does is create endless conflict, under an idea that basically being white is, in itself, a microaggression.

That, however, is neither profound nor complex — it’s just bullying disguised as progressive thought. Let’s call it microaggression when people belittle us on the basis of stereotypes. Creating change requires at least making sense.

TIME Education

The New SAT: America Treats Its Language Like Garbage

Student taking a test
Getty Images

The SAT writes off “big” words like laconic, indefatigable and probity. Russians value their words and teach reverence for their language. Why don't we?

The new revision of the SAT test gives us a peek at something we Americans don’t always realize about ourselves. We Americans don’t love our language.

It can be hard to see that about ourselves, just as fish don’t know they’re wet. But the latest revision of the SAT test is a handy window into the matter. The new test eliminates what are commonly dismissed today as “SAT words” — the ones like punctilious, phlegmatic and occlusion. And quite a few, especially those in charge of teaching children, think this is just dandy.

The defense is that from now on, it isn’t that the SAT will only dwell on words like walk and cat, but that the “big” words it engages will be the ones that we encounter the most, such as synthesis. In other words, the common big words are fine – call them the “business casual” realm. But no more abrogate, mendacious, or oblique – that is, put away the tuxes.

Too old-fashioned, too stiff, too “impractical.” One senses a certain Yankee pragmatism. But is language only about what’s practical?

(MORE: 9 Things Changing on the New SAT)

A major spark for the dismissal of higher vocabulary from the SAT was a speech in 2001 by then-University of California president Richard Atkinson. He described seeing schoolchildren studying verbal analogies such as “untruthful is to mendaciousness is as circumspect is to caution” in preparation for the SAT.

Atkinson’s implication was that this was as depressing a sight as the kids being taught alchemy. But there was a time when what Atkinson saw was considered to be, well, school. The idea that such a thing could only be a gloomy matter of “teaching to a test” would have seemed alien. The expectation was that a test most certainly would examine students’ retention of such words and their ability to grapple with precise aspects of meaning.

But a reigning conviction today is that knowing the outer layers of vocabulary is not part of what it is to be educated. We are now to think that teaching words that are key to accessing sophisticated literature and argumentation is not real teaching.

I see. Of course some might say that high vocabulary is learned by reading, not studying the words in isolation. But then would the same people have a problem with piano students starting out with notes and scales, as opposed to being told to just play and see how far they get?

Here is where we see that there is more afoot here than educational philosophy. Russians refer to their language as “great and mighty” and regularly teach schoolkids to recite Pushkin. To us, that seems lovely. Or, we hardly shudder to imagine a classroom of Italian kids learning the fancier words. Why?

Because we think of Italian as beautiful – as opposed to our own language, which we do not.

We used to. Americans once referred to one another’s “English,” sounding rather like Italians and Russians today. Edna St. Vincent Millay described her mother as writing “such beautiful English,” H.L. Mencken criticized Warren G. Harding for writing “the worst English that I have ever encountered,” Booker T. Washington savored Harvard President Charles Eliot’s “beautiful and strong English.”

Note how we wouldn’t phrase it that way now. Likely no one would speak or write of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust’s verbal abilities at all, much less whether they were “beautiful and strong.” But if they did, the phrasing would be “how she talks.” We do not assess one another’s “English,” as befitting a time when our educational officials consider its high vocabulary something young minds are best off shielded from.

Certainly we need not burden kids with the truly useless words certain types are given to popping out at parties like tergiversation, which are chance retentions in a language like bugs on a windshield. Only the existence of dictionaries keeps some words from falling out of memory.

But the idea that words like laconic, indefatigable and probity are to be treated as hothouse distractions of interest only to a dedicated few, like modern classical music, old radio or eating bugs, is evidence of a people who think of their language not as a magnificent accretion but as just talk.

In the 1830s, a 19-year-old clerk wrote to a girlfriend “Most youths at seventeen or eighteen years of age take a pride in boasting of their amours, of their dissipations, and of their wild exploits; I have, however, no taste for such exposures.”

That clerk, one Richard Robinson, had an eighth-grade education. I suppose we are to view it as an antique tragedy that he had been plied with such an oppression of big, bad words.

John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and the author of What Language Is (and What It Isn’t and What It Could Be). The views expressed are solely his own.

TIME society

Spike Lee’s Racism Isn’t Cute: ‘M—–f—– Hipster’ Is the New ‘Honkey’

FilmDistrict & Complex Media With The Cinema Society & Grey Goose Host A Screening Of "Oldboy" - Arrivals
Director Spike Lee attends a screening of "OldBoy" in New York City, Nov. 11, 2013. Jim Spellman—WireImage/Getty Images

What’s really bothering Lee is that he doesn’t like seeing his old neighborhood full of white people, which makes him historical detritus.

It’s interesting that the director of the richest oeuvre of black films in the history of the medium doesn’t understand what the Civil Rights revolution was for. In his expletive-laced comments about the gentrification of Fort Greene during an interview at the Pratt Institute, Spike Lee seemed to think that what we Overcame for was to be grouchy bigots.

Basically, black people are getting paid more money than they’ve ever seen in their lives for their houses, and a once sketchy neighborhood is now quiet and pleasant. And this is a bad thing… why?

Lee seems to think it’s somehow an injustice whenever black people pick up stakes. But I doubt many of the blacks now set to pass fat inheritances on to their kids feel that way. This is not the old story of poor blacks being pushed out of neighborhoods razed down for highway construction. Lee isn’t making sense.

“Respect the culture” when you move in, Lee growls. But again, he isn’t making sense. We can be quite sure that if whites “respected” the culture by trying to participate in it, Lee would be one of the first in line to call it “appropriation.” So, no whites better open up barbecue joints or spoken word cafes or try to be rappers. Yet if whites walk on by the culture in “respectful” silence, then the word on the street becomes that they want to keep blacks at a distance.

In his interview with Anderson Cooper on Wednesday to clarify, Lee mentioned the controversy in Harlem some years ago over park drumming, which new white residents protested. Lee thinks whites were supposed to put up with being woken up on weekend mornings by the drums. That was a subtle issue. I refer to it in my Western Civilization class as a difficult judgment — the kind that shows that real life offers few easy answers.

Lee seems to think it was an open-and-shut case – but then how would he feel if it were whites drumming and blacks moving into the neighborhood and complaining? Maybe he thinks blacks are supposed to be accommodated as payback for the past. But for how long? Pity is not respect. W.E.B. DuBois once said that “Black America needs justice and is given charity.”

But on gentrification Lee doesn’t have time for making sense or trying to, despite the nuance he so brilliantly displays in his films. His comments are instead a tantrum, and an ugly one. What’s really bothering Lee is that he doesn’t like seeing his old neighborhood full of white people.

Or whitey, perhaps. Just as “thug” is a new way of saying the N-word in polite society, Lee’s “m—–f—– hipster” epithet for the new whites of Fort Greene is a sneaky way of saying “honkey.” Lee is less a social analyst than a reincarnation of George Jefferson with his open hostility to whites.

But George had grown up in Jim Crow America. We let his bigotry pass as “cute” because it was just desserts for a nasty past that was barely even past. But it’s been 40 years.

Surely what bothers Lee is not that Fort Greene is now a cushy neighborhood. He just wishes it had gotten that way with all black faces. He’s yearning for the multi-class black communities that people of his generation regret the dissolutions of after the end of institutionalized segregation (when black people like my parents, for example, moved out to mixed or white neighborhoods).

But let’s face it: The reason there were black communities like that was because of segregation. If there still were black communities like that, no matter how beautiful they would look when shot lovingly in films like Lee’s, it would signify racial barriers. The neighborhood would be prime fodder for people like Lee to intone with smug indignation about how non-post-racial America is. “You barely see a white face on the streets. What’s that about? What are they afraid of?”

Enough, Mr. Lee. Enough.

When racial barriers come down, people mingle, cohabitate, and mate. People grumbling on the sidelines about the losses and appropriations and whatnot that this involves are historical detritus. That becomes ringingly clear in how impossible it is to scorn the multiracial children who grow from processes like this, who grow up to be perfectly normal adults — and life goes on.

And black will go on — but hopefully not the way people like Lee would prefer. There are those who think recreational contrarianism is the soul of blackness — surely, if we aren’t mad, we aren’t truly black.

But history records no human group whose core essence was eternal indignation. Lee’s films, ironically, teach much about what black is and what it will be. Odd that in real life he thinks hearkening back to the social politics of Fred Sanford is moving on up.

TIME Crime

How Not to Lose Another Jordan Davis

Denise Hunt tears up as she finds out the jury is deadlocked on the first-degree murder charge for Michael Dunn outside of the Duval County Courthouse as the jury enters the fourth day of deliberations, Feb. 15, 2014, in Jacksonville, Fla.
Denise Hunt tears up as she finds out the jury is deadlocked on the first-degree murder charge for Michael Dunn outside of the Duval County Courthouse as the jury enters the fourth day of deliberations, Feb. 15, 2014, in Jacksonville, Fla. Kelly Jordan—The Florida Times-Union/AP

Now is not the time to dare The Man to beat us down

There are times when civil disobedience isn’t the answer.

That’s an odd thing to say during Black History Month and especially after the hung jury result of the Michael Dunn trial. Surely the way we keep the Struggle going — as parents of my generation have always urged us to do — is to dare the Man to try to beat us down.

That’s the implication of this popular piece, which claims that black people telling their sons to avoid offending whites only encourages racism. So black kids should not have to turn down their music or “suppress their attitude,” because this is being “submissive” to whites who wish they wouldn’t be “so, well, black.”

It is easy to get a rise with this kind of rhetoric, but it’s better as theater than counsel. Is taking a cue from the kids who got themselves hosed, beaten and mauled in the streets of Birmingham really constructive in these times?

Because after all, that’s what a piece like this is suggesting. The columnist seems to imagine black boys attitudinalizing across the U.S. and white men somehow learning that it’s racist to not like it. However, the murder of Jordan Davis suggests a certain unreality in that vision.

One thing we can all agree on is that racist attitudes are very deep-seated. Many question whether they can ever be eradicated. As such, in savoring the idea that black boys act up all they want, aren’t we sentencing them to fates like Davis’?

Birmingham worked because people could see this kind of thing on TV for the first time. But TV is no longer a novelty, and the problem today is hardly that no one sees or hears about cases like Trayvon Martin’s and Davis’. The issues are harder today.

Besides that, encouraging black boys to suppress their self-control is to teach them to get down in the mud with the Dunns. It’s one thing to wear a hoodie or even to don one as a gesture of defiance as many supporters of Trayvon Martin have. However, are we really continuing the legacy of Dr. King to think it’s just fine for black teenagers — or any teenagers — to blast music in public parking lots? Since when is that being “so, well, black?”

No, no one is supposed to die for turning up rap music. But to deem it a social tort to ask black boys to turn it down gets us nowhere. Davis’ murder was a horror; all of the sin was Dunn’s. But surely, if we could roll back time, we would make Davis turn down the music – and not call Dunn a cracker or a bitch. Dunn would have taken his racism home with him and Davis would be alive now.

The response to the Jordan Davis murder, then, is not “Act up.” The first response is to crusade against laws like Florida’s Stand Your Ground law that make it so hard for even fair-minded juries to convict murderers like George Zimmerman.

Then, the larger issue would seem to be about how easy it is to get a gun. To focus on that, however, requires a spiritual self-discipline equivalent to the one that got those brave black people out into the streets 50 years ago. Namely, the gun issue is harder to racialize.

What I mean is this. Race played a part in the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. There were, as academics are now given to putting it, “intersectionalities” with race in play. If Martin and Davis had been white, they’d surely be alive.

But let’s say a Martian observer buzzed down to the U.S. and wrote up a chapter on violence in their report back home. The Martian would not write of a particular problem with white men killing black boys but of people killing people.

And despite claims that the media overplays black crime, it’s often black people killing black people that we don’t hear about — and not only gangland episodes. Just this Saturday, as the Dunn verdict was being discussed, a black man killed a black 15-year-old girl for perpetrating a prank on his son. Last spring, a few months before the Zimmerman trial, two black teens shot a white baby dead during a robbery.

The problem is too many guns in too many hands. Racists aren’t the only ones who are carrying them; it’s America as a whole. It’s time to act up about that, and about the laws that support people getting away with using guns to kill people.

And maybe after that we can see how far we can get with spraying white people’s mental attics for racism.

TIME Race

Let’s Not Make Thug the New N Word

Richard Sherman
Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman speaks at an NFL football news conference on Jan. 22, 2014, in Renton, Wash. Elaine Thompson / AP

We’re stuck with endless misunderstandings about the N word already. Adding another one will only mean twice the mess.

The statement of the week on race worries me a little. I sense new waves of cognitive dissonance coming.

I refer to the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman, black, on the word thug. Commenting on the wave of online attacks directed his way after his controversial postgame TV interview, the outspoken cornerback said, “It seems like [thug] is the accepted way of calling somebody the N word nowadays.”

Well, yes, but.

Sherman is correct that these days, a white person can object to a black person’s behavior as “thug” in public, when what they mean is that the behavior was not just offensive but offensive in a way associated, negatively, with black men. Of course no one puts it that way. But nobody calls, say, Justin Bieber a thug (or fighting hockey players, as Sherman pointed out). Why is there a particular word used when, say, someone like Sherman goes off on somebody?

To the extent that the N word as a slur is the same business — meaning that someone is offensive in a supposedly “black” way — Sherman is right. A white person who uses the N word is roasted publicly for weeks, and so the word is out to hold back on that one. Yet whites do not perceive blacks the same way they do whites. As such, thug has quietly been recruited as the salty but suitable way of saying, “There one of them goes again.”

However, there’s more to this than what many people are going to make of it – namely, that white racism will eternally create slurs against black people and racism is forever.

For one thing, it’s not only whites who have a way of breaking out slurs referring to black people behaving in “certain ways.” There are black people who draw a line between “black people” and “niggers.” Need I even mention Chris Rock’s famous routine? Sure, he’s a comedian, but being a good one means tapping into real community sentiment. Claude Brown, black author of the underread autobiography Manchild in the Promised Land, about Harlem in the 1940s, once called nigger “the most soulful word in the world,” elsewhere recounting how as a youth he was “expected to kill a nigger if he mistreated me.”

And another problem is that there is a part of black America that likes the thug image in spite of itself. Yes, the technical definition is supposed to be, roughly, a criminal, a bad guy. But dictionary definitions are mere abbreviations of reality. Things get realer in the Urban Dictionary. The most popular definition there of thug is “someone who is going through struggles, has gone through struggles and continues to live day by day with nothing for them. That person is a thug, and the life they are living is the thug life. A thug is NOT a gangster.”

People who approve of a definition like that show that there is a positive element in people’s sensibilities as to what and why a thug is. That is clear in countless other ways. Beyoncé’s take on 50 Cent’s “In da Club” was “Sexy li’l thug.” If thug really just means “reprobate,” why is there such an expression as “thug love” at all? When R&B singer Aaliyah died, one fan eulogized her as both “classy” and harboring a dash of “thug image”.

So, just as among black people the N word is partly affectionate, thug has a positive aspect. There is major overlap between thug and swagger. That means that within the wider discourse thug is coming to occupy the same strange position as the N word. We’d like to condemn it as a slur when whites use it. But the grimy truth is black people use the word with a ticklish combination of disgust and pride. As long as a critical mass of black people think of the thug as someone who has the guts to “act up” — someone with what others might call cojones — then some whites will feel like they can use it without causing too much offense. Unsurprisingly, many of them will be in the macho world of sportscasting.

I’m not sure there’s any point in elevating thug as yet another word called a slur only when white people use it. We’re stuck with the endless misunderstandings this creates with the N word already. Adding another one will mean only twice the mess.

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