"My Twitter feed is celebrating some unusually badass victories going down in the world of civil rights at the moment.
And despite the usual apologetics blaming peer pressure, alcohol and all the other usual white male excuses for white male behavior, it looks like the media isn’t having it regarding 19-year-old Parker Rice, the man caught on camera leading the boisterous “There Will Never Be A N***** SAE” chant. Rice has already lost his admission to OU, and the stain on his reputation will follow him for a long time. As it should.
Meanwhile the long, painful drama in Ferguson, Missouri, has finally achieved something like a positive result–after the grand jury’s infuriating refusal to indict Darren Wilson it seemed like no closure for the Ferguson protesters would be forthcoming. But the U.S. Department of Justice has provided, if not justice for the Brown family, at least validated the Ferguson protesters’ perception of entrenched, overwhelming racial prejudice in the police force that caused the Brown case to explode in the first place.
(We’ve also now seen Thomas Jackson’s resignation as chief of police of Ferguson and the subsequent shooting of two police officers by an unidentified protester or protesters, who, thankfully, are expected to recover.
Jackson’s resignation is good news and to be celebrated. The attempted murder of two police officers is a tragedy and to be condemned. Both events are signs that our culture needs to continue to change, and that we cannot tolerate a return to “normalcy” when normalcy means a world filled with violence and rage.)
Now, finally, someone is losing his job. We don’t have to settle for the anticlimax of Officer Darren Wilson voluntarily retiring in order to “heal the community,” still insisting he did nothing wrong, collecting $400,000 in crowdfunded support along the way.
Now we have a much more satisfying ending to the story, with disgraced city manager John Shaw taking full responsibility for the endless documented abuses of the Ferguson police force and stepping down immediately–only the most recent of five high-profile terminations, including a corrupt judge and three employees–two police officers and a clerk–shown to have passed around racist e-mails on the job. Yes, we all kind of knew that people must’ve been expressing nasty sentiments like that behind the scenes. Yes, we all kind of knew that the city’s “law and order” policies hid race-based motivations.
I should be happy about this news. I should be ecstatic.
So why am I instead kind of anxious and annoyed?....
......The Oklahoma University chapter of SAE does not have a monopoly on toxic racism. And while we could put some of the blame on SAE’s roots in the antebellum South, pillorying SAE specifically won’t fix the fact that de facto segregation is de rigeur in fraternities and sororities across the country. It won’t change the ugly, dehumanizing culture that infects frat life in general, even at fancy Ivy League schools way above the Mason-Dixon line, even in the frats that pledge future senators and Presidents of the United States.
On a larger scale–while the rest of the country is looking down our collective nose at the benighted conditions in Ferguson, the USA as a whole has the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world, with black men six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. It doesn’t matter how racist Ferguson is–a single small town in Missouri is nothing more than a tiny blip in this trend.
And wagging fingers about Missouri’s slaveholding Border State past and the dysfunction of backward old St. Louis are a convenient distraction from 12-year-old boys being shot up north in Ohio, and from the organized, militant dysfunction of the police force of the great metropolis of New York City, which, it turns out, also has issues with exploiting its most vulnerable citizens for revenue.
A bunch of fratboys don’t develop an oral tradition of singing racist chants laughing about lynchings without racism being deeply woven into the culture of our fraternities, our schools, our whole society. A single small town doesn’t systematically put its black citizens under apartheid to generate revenue–a town’s officials don’t feel safe joking about its black citizens as subhuman–without racism being deeply woven into our politics, our legal system, our methods of policing.
The urge to find a single scapegoat after a tragedy is overwhelming. And unlike the common use of the term “scapegoat” I’m not saying these people don’t deserve what they get–just as Michael Brown (the other one) deserved to be raked over the coals for the aftermath of Katrina, just as the buck stopped with George W. Bush for the war in Iraq, just as in most complex human tragedies there nonetheless is a specific person who, through negligence or malice, pulled the fatal trigger.
But it’s ridiculous to say that our history would’ve been completely changed if Bush had died or been incapacitated after choking on that pretzel in 2002–a Cheney presidency would’ve been no different. It wasn’t him, it was the apparatus around him, it was the cultural and political and legal mechanisms that got him elected in the first place, and if you replaced him with another guy from the list of Republican candidates he got drawn from it’s hard to see how history would change.
Just as if Parker Rice hadn’t pledged SAE we’d see that same video only with some other fratboy douche leading the chant. Just as if Darren Wilson hadn’t been on patrol that day some other cop would, eventually, have shot some other unarmed teenager (as we can tell by the number of other atrocities that have happened in the past few years across the country). Just as if Capt. Henke and Sgt. Mudd had never been hired there’d be two other civil servants comparing the President to a chimpanzee on government e-mail servers somewhere–and there probably are now, even as I write this.
Just as the Racists Getting Fired Tumblr is ultimately a grandstanding waste of time. Sure, it proves that we’re in an enlightened enough society that people foolish enough to openly broadcast their racism on a social media platform linked to their real identity get fired for it.
So what? There’s millions of other racists with protected Facebook or Twitter accounts, or who are smart enough to use a pseudonym, or who are smart enough to not post racist rants at all, going around doing as much or more damage than some random careless insurance salesman who gets caught by the Internet.
I’m worried about celebrating victory over individual obvious racists not because it’s too harsh on racism but because it’s too soft on racism. It reinforces the idea that racism is an outlier, an aberration, the belligerent drunk shrieking racial slurs, and that once we remove a few bad apples things can get back to “normal.” [Read more here]