From Don Imus to Zimmerman: Tracing Conversations on Race & Victimization

*This post contains language that may be problematic for some audiences.

King Memorial True Peace is JusticeIn the last month or so, I have been listening closely to conversations on race and racism, especially as they pertained to the Trayvon Martin case, Paula Deen’s racist remarks, and the United States Supreme Court’s decisions on Affirmative Action and Voting Rights. I’ve been troubled by the ways in which the conversations on race have oftentimes been hijacked by racists themselves.

I was especially disturbed when the Trayvon Martin case quickly shifted from addressing the acts of a racist vigilante, who racially profiled an innocent black boy, to address the well-versed discussion on the so-called “black-on-black” crime phenomenon. (See Da Realist 1’s post last week, “The Last Word: President Obama’s Statement on Trayvon Martin”).

What I find most fascinating is how racists are capable of turning the conversation on its head so that they become victims. In this case, “black-on-black crime” allows them to validate their fear of black people and to promote the idea that the vigilantism of George Zimmerman is necessary for white people to survive when interacting with young black boys, who are so violent that they kill each other.

This fear tactic was used to lynch black bodies in the late 19th century and throughout most of the 20th century and was the premise behind the fear mongering in the white supremacist movie, The Birth of a Nation (1915). In so many ways, black people participate in this dialogue, much to our detriment.

This way of co-opting victimhood can be traced back to the Don Imus case, though it goes back much further than that. In April 2007, morning radio and talk show host, Don Imus, eagerly commented on the Women’s College Basketball playoffs between Rutgers University and the University of Tennessee. He made the remark that the women on the University of Tennessee’s team were more attractive than the women on the Rutgers’ team. He cringed while addressing the Rutgers’ women and said that they “looked like some nappy headed hos.”

He proceeded to liken the well-played championship game to Spike Lee’s movie, School Daze, by saying it was like watching the “Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes.”

Black people were outraged . . . for a while. It didn’t take long for Imus and others in the media and political arena to say that he was only doing what the rap artists do by using derogatory language to refer to black women. In other words, it was fine for these young black women to be degraded by this man who had the power of the press to publicly attack and humiliate them directly because rap artists offend black women in their lyrics all of the time.

What followed was a new discussion, one that erased Imus’s behavior as problematic and replaced it with conversations about black people’s usage of the word “nigger” and other derogatory lyrics about women in rap music. A local Historically Black College/University held a forum on the subject matter that ended up solely addressing black people’s usage of the word “nigger.” In July of the same year, the NAACP, at their 9th Annual Convention, thought it prudent to funeralize the word with a procession and burial.

The women on the Rutgers’ Basketball team were no longer considered victims of the vicious words that attacked their identity and the identity of black women as a whole, but they became transgressors of the wrong-doing initially aimed at them. In fact, we all became transgressors–black women and black men alike–of an offense aimed at all black women. I’m sure Imus breathed a sigh of relief that he was no longer the focus of the conversation.

Fast forward to this year when Paula Deen (who I promised myself I would not talk about on this blog) was exposed for using racist and offensive language. For some reason, folks were surprised that this 66-year-old white woman from Savannah, Georgia, who pours on her “Southern” as thickly as she pours four sticks of melted butter into every meal, dreamed of hosting a wedding party where black people returned to the Antebellum South as “servants” to white people. She also admits using the “n-word” at some point in her life.

Black people were horrified by her racist fantasies and by her usage of derogatory language . . . but, not for long.

Again, the discourse quickly changed! We were no longer addressing the language used by Paula Deen, but we began discussing black people’s usage of the word “nigger.” As in the Don Imus case before, the conversation moved from addressing black people as victims of racism to a discussion of us as perpetrators of racist behavior toward each other.

There is a formula for how we engage conversations on race and racism in this country and it goes a little something like this:

1. White person offends a black person/all black people by making racist comment(s). The language is so offensive that people are initially shocked, saddened, and/or sickened by it, at least for a short while. Sometimes, the offender feigns ignorance and claims, for example, that they had no idea that it was racist to pass around an email with a picture of random black folks having a picnic and eating watermelon and fried chicken out of a KFC bucket on the White House lawn, with a caption that reads “the new White House cuisine since Barack Obama became President.”

2. Other racists quickly come to the defense of their fellow racist by making the argument that it is okay for comments that espouse white supremacist ideology to be used toward black people because black people, themselves, use derogatory language when engaging each other all of the time. Somehow, the word “nigger” is invoked in the conversation, even when it was not in the original insult. Apparently, calling an African American a “nigger” is the only way to degrade us. Invoking “nigger” in the conversation is tactical because when there are no specific examples to show black people using derogatory language against each other, the usage of the word in rap music becomes the default for example.

3. In response, black people (including politicians or organizations like the NAACP) jump on the bandwagon and reiterate on every talk show, blog post, interview or media outlet, that we must end the usage of the word, “nigger.” How does one manage such a monumental feat as making sure that no other African American ever utters the word again? By holding a march and burying the word, of course!

4. The focus of the conversation has now successfully shifted. We are no longer addressing the issue at hand: in the case of Imus, a white man with a public platform attacks the character and identity of black women. This original issue is no longer being addressed.

5. Not only has the discourse been redirected, but so has the victim’s rights to be victims. The Rutgers’ basketball team is no longer the victims of Imus’s public ridicule, but they are now the perpetrators of the transgression that victimized them because, “they probably listened to rap music anyway.”

Tracing this history of how we converse about race makes it very clear for me how the defense of George Zimmerman successfully painted the picture of Trayvon Martin, the victim of murder at the hands of a racial profiling vigilante, as a marijuana-smoking, violent black male. This is consistent with the way this conversation has been had for so long. Black people are only seen as perpetrators of crimes and wrong-doing, but never as victims.

There is certainly space for conversations on violence in black communities and conversations on how black people engage each other, but the Trayvon Martin case is not that space. The facts: Trayvon Martin was killed by a white man (not a black man), in a predominately white (not black) neighborhood. That white man (by the way, his official government documents identify him as white) has walked free because a jury could not imagine Trayvon as a victim.