Saturday, February 15, 2014

Meditations on the word thug ... The Dunn case ... And our "(selectively) open dialog" on race.

UPDATE, Monday, February 17: It occurred to me this morning while watching Chris Cuomo's uncomfortable interview with George Zimmerman (who framed his answers to even the simplest questions with a painful reticence) that we may be having the wrong debate here. I'm now thinking the Dunn shooting is less closely related to the Trayvon Martin case than to mid-January's killing of moviegoer Chad Oulson. Oulson, you'll recall, was shot by retired cop Curtis Reeves after Reeves confronted Oulson over his cell phone usage and Oulson responded by throwing popcorn at Reeves. Seems to me both shootings, Dunn and Reeves, were really about the degradation of civility in public life and the inclination on the part of many of us to say "SCREW YOU!" when corrected over our boorish behavior (e.g. loud "thug" music, inappropriate or obnoxious cell phone use), etc. Now please reread that line and understand that I mean only what it says and no more: I am not contending that loud black teens or yuppie cell phone abusers deserve to be shot dead. I am merely noting the likelihood of such confrontations in a nation in which (1) consideration of those around us seems increasingly rare, and (2) there are an estimated 300 million guns in circulation, so each armed citizen who takes a stand knows that the person he confronts may well be packing, too. ... In fairness to Oulson, by the way, he was merely texting his babysitter. But some people are fed up with rule-stretchers as a class, and have become self-appointed Enforcers of Decorum. ... Mark my words, if the FAA follows through on its plan to lift restrictions on airborne cell phone usage, you'll see more and more of these heated confrontations...thankfully, one thing missing in mid-air (at least we hope) will be the gun...though who knows what may happen once the plane lands and fliers have access to their checked bags.

The real OGs ("original gangstas"): St. Valentine's Day massacre.
I am tired, oh so tired, of the "thug" thing. I linked to the Richard Sherman dust-up, but it's not just there, of course; it's everywhere;  ubiquitous; inescapable. Click on CNN and they're discussing it as a back-drop to the Michael Dunn/Jordan Davis case* and the nation's suite of problematic "stand your ground" laws. Pick up a newspaper, read some activist's blog or watch some concerned civilian's vlog and it's there too. I'm especially tired of reading overwrought (and over-simplistic) "analyses" like the one that follows from Pulitzer winner Leonard Pitts Jr., whom I generally admire, but who has gone a bit off the rails since Trayvon. (Understandable? Yes. Still unfortunate.)

Pitts is writing here about Dunn/Davis, specifically's Dunn's use of the term thugs to characterize the young black men blasting music from the adjacent car that night:

"What [Dunn] describes, of course, is the great Catch-22 of African-American life. They decide you're a thug from the moment you're born, so they lock you up in disproportionate numbers. Then they point to the fact that you are locked up in disproportionate numbers to prove that you're a thug."
I'm not arguing that the columnist's point is altogether without merit. But I submit that there's no hope for the true dialog that everyone claims to want if the paranoiac, blame-shifting paradigm embodied in those lines is the authorized (and only permissible) lens through which black crime and social dysfunction can be viewed. In this context, as with most calls for an "open dialog" nowadays, the phrase translates to "let's have an open dialog [monologue?] about how irredeemably racist you whites are, though you go to great lengths to deny it, even to yourselves..."

First off, to deal with Pitts' most directly stated point, when I was a youth, the thugs were Italians. Wops, as we were known. I dare say there remain any number of culturally prominent Italians, including most of the alumni of Jersey Shore, who still qualify for the thug label. Snooki and the girls, too. Maybe Snooki and the girls in particular.

So thug does not always = black. It can refer to blacks, of course, if they're, well, acting thuggish, which not a few young blacks in certain settings surely do these days. Such blacks can be said to have acquired the thug label the old-fashioned way, if I may paraphrase the famous Smith Barney ad: They earned it. But the word does not translate to black, certainly not to "the N word," and any contentions to that effect are defensive, PC overkill. Regardless of who's doing the contending.

Disclaimer, as required by conscience: This does not mean there aren't whites for whom thug = black and black = the N word.** That list likely includes both Dunn and our old pal George Zimmerman. However, it would be as unfair to imply that all whites feel that way as it is to imply that all black kids are thugs. The deeper problem in this country is that too many of the whites who do think that way are walking around with a chip on their shoulder and a gun in their belt, looking to settle a score, if not actively stalking their quarry. That's a separate issue that, of course, applies in the case of too many of the thugs as well.
Let us also pause to consider that the thug meme was given considerable impetus some years back by a pair of uber-prominent black icons, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and comedian Bill Cosby. In 1996, Jackson memorably and unambiguously lamented:
“There is nothing more painful to me … than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
Cosby, meanwhile, has long chastised black youths for the manner in which they comport themselves in their "streetcorner culture." Here's a highlight:
"People with their hats on backward, pants down around the crack, isn't that a sign of something? ... Isn't it a sign of something when she has her dress all the way up and got all type of needles [piercing] going through her body? ... What part of Africa did this come from?? 
"We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans. They don't know a thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed and all of that crap, and all of them are in jail."
Is it overstating to propose that Cosby's provocative torrent of words reduces to the single word, thug? (Here's another link for those who may think I'm quoting out of context.)

As Cosby suggests, an open dialog about race must be one that admits the possibility of some black culpability, and does not seek to excuse every form of black failure by (1) tracing it back 300 years to its roots in slavery, and/or (2) linking it to poverty/oppression. These inquiries should not be driven by political correctness or the demands of social engineering.

The statistics on black crime are sobering, and one wonders why we are pressured to construe them solely in terms of racism or some other virulent environmental injustice. (Keep in mind that blacks constitute just 13% of the U.S. population. By the NAACP's own admission, blacks are arrested at nearly six times the rate for whites, and as of 2001, one in six black men had been incarcerated. In fairness, the page also includes the NAACP's explanation for this phenomenon, which will resonate with Leonard Pitts sympathizers.) In other settings in life, we accept statistics more or less at face value, without straining to rationalize or excuse them. In my case, I am charged prohibitively more for life insurance because of my age (63+) and the fact that I've had a stroke. It doesn't matter what kind of shape I try to keep myself in, or how diligent I am in taking my meds and watching my diet; New York Life could care less. All they know is that men my age die a lot more often than men age 25. Especially men my age who've already got one stroke under their belts (or above their collars). Similarly, the fact that your 17-year-old son may be the best driver this side of Indy and you put him in the rough equivalent of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle won't stop Allstate from using its good hands to extract an awful lot of lucre from your pockets in premiums. That's because of what the stats reveal about other 17-year-old males. Is this bigotry? Or is it a commonsense response to what the data say? I could name dozens of other circumstances in which we're allowed to draw such ipso facto inferences from data, but that would be overkill on my part.

Even in academia, which supposedly exists to expand the boundaries of human knowledge, we're not allowed to go anywhere near the research of, say, the late Nobel laureate William Shockley or Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray, co-authors of The Bell Curve. (You do not tend to see those names come up in Black Studies curricula, except perhaps to disdain their motives and discredit their work. And again, I'm not saying that Shockley and Murray were right. I'm just saying that they did the research, and they claim to have done it honestly, and if our dialog is "open," it should be open to their conclusions, too.) Nor are academics fond of research into a so-called "violence gene." That's another dialog we cannot have with regard to any sector of the population, because the implications are irreconcilable with our a priori social goals. Also, while I'm on the subject, feminist academicians have historically been hostile to all inquiries that seek to document hard-wired differences between the genders. Let the science, if it exists, be damned!

A related point, and one that I know I've fallen back on before, so forgive me. I'm just reminded of Bill Maher's timeless line about the "profiling" of Muslims at the airport:
"Let's face it, those planes weren't hijacked by 19 guys named Sven."
Yes, that is dangerous thinking. I agree. It can have disastrous consequences for innocent people if applied on a universal scale. But does such thinking not even deserve a hearing in our search for answers to the threat of terrorism? That's not rhetorical. I'm asking.

Incidentally, as a Caucasian, I am a member of a large group that trails another large group, Asians, in the hierarchy of intelligence posited by Hernstein and Murray. And you know what? Maybe they're right, maybe they're wrong, but if they're right, I simply don't care. What is, is, and anyway, I'm me. I'm an individual, not my group. (See my dissertation on my refusal to take pride in my Italian heritage.) On the other hand, I happen to be substantially taller than your typical Asian, so I lucked out there. 

Bottom line is, if we're going to have an "open dialog," it needs to be truly open, which is to say, no-holds-barred. And let the thugs fall where they may...

* Do not be misled, however. Although I wasn't in court, I think Dunn is guilty as sin.
** I'm not squeamish about the actual word, and I think the bowdlerized form looks more than a bit silly on the page. I just think it's high time that we all stopped using the slur itself...though I must insist on the Blazing Saddles/Gang Starr exception.


Anonymous said...

This takes a lot of courage. Expect to be called ugly names. You teach college? I worry for you.

Anonymous said...

You are definately in denial Steve if you think the average white person isn't at least a little bit racist in his thinking. I think you're in denial about your own feelings that motivated you to write this.

Be real here, you're telling me a white guy who hears black teens playing their kind of loud music is going to have the same reaction as hearing a bunch of white teens playing Springsteen? No way. It's just not the same thing.

Pitts was largely right, you see us a certain way from the outset and it colors your perspective on us, no pun intended the rest of the way.

Btw Christie is still a thug.

Avid Pitts fan said...

Pitts has a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, what do you have? I've read your thoughts on race before and have always been suspect of your motives. I don't want to hear your self serving analogies with your being Italian either, it's not the same. To be black in America is to be instantly recognizable as such, there is no escaping that .

Instead if writing thoughts like yours why not use your pulpit even as limited as it is, for good? You'd be a happier person for it and it roiled be better for society.

Steve Salerno said...

Avid, it "roiled" be? Is that some bizarre spellcheck error or is there an idiom of which I'm unaware? Thanks anyway for weighing in. I think I make my motivations pretty clear, regardless of what you think. I stand by those motivations as well as what I wrote.

RevRon's Rants said...

Am I the only one who thinks we're hearing voices from the past, with their own "issues" intact and unabated?

I suspect that those who are so quick to paint all whites as racist are driven by their own racism, along with a need for some advantage that they cannot achieve through their own abilities. They've gotta blame *someone,* I guess.

Avid - Steve puts himself out there, and though I don't always agree with what he has to say, he doesn't hide behind a veil of anonymity, as his most acerbic critics so. Do you not see the irony in your challenge, "what do you have?"

I personally am not biased against any ethnic group, but have little patience for those who so diligently strive to perpetuate negative stereotypes, whatever the origin of those stereotypes might be. Whether it's the culture that defines itself by gangsta rap, bumper sticker sedition, or the perpetuation of an economic or ethnic class struggle, the single common element is the abdication of personal and social responsibility, along with the creation and vilification of a strawman *other* as a target upon which to heap blame for one's own shortcomings. *That* is what I take away from Steve's latest post.

Jenny said...

"On the other hand, I happen to be substantially taller than your typical Asian, so I lucked out there." I am reminded of the story, The Farmer's Son: Fortune or Misfortune. Do you know that one? It's about a series of oh-how-unfortunate events that morph into we'll-see scenarios, and when all is said and done, the idea of happiness seems pretty nebulous.

Other than that, I'm with you.

I have a dream.... Really, I do. I imagine a world where we can talk honestly and candidly in a spirit of love and genuine dialogue, mostly listening and then reflecting much before speaking, refusing to ever jump to conclusions, and stay with it. People tend to shy away from uncomfortable conversations and I believe this can often lead to tragic consequences.

Killing is serious business and yet some of the best humor has its roots in death. Here, you mention the classic movie, Blazing Saddles, which is a fine example of the kind of parody and satire that helps us lighten up about these pernicious topics. I'll close with a bit of dialogue:

Bart: I better go check out this Mongo character.
[Bart reaches for his gun]
Jim: Oh no, don't do that, don't do that. If you shoot him, you'll just make him mad.

Jenny said...

Also, regarding one of the commenters comments (terrible choice of words, but there it is) that Steve would "be a happier person" if only [whatever]....

This isn't about Steve's happiness and it's not a pissing contest. Just sayin'.

how very white of you said...

Two beautiful young black men are dead, Travon and Jordan. Plus how many others through the years. And you and your readers are quoting jokes from movies where they call us "niggers" every other minute.

You wonder why some of us have a hard time being as gracious about this as Jordan's mother! I would only hope and pray you're never in these circumstances, see how much you feel like laughing then!

how very white of you said...

Also I resent you implying in your update that Jordan somehow got what he deserved for playing his rap music too loud. You make it sound like that Dunn monster was just doing his civic duty keeping the thugs in line. Where do you get your nerve.

You don't even see it do you. How could you when your vision is so clouded by your racist colored glasses.

roger o'keefe said...

I agree with almost everything you say here, I say almost because I think if anything you're too soft on the criminal element. To me the data on black crime is pretty clear, I don't know why you spend so much time in your article going out of your way to give them the benefit of the doubt.

When whites break the law, they don't have the luxury of citing 300 years of slavery and supposed oppression. The crime is judged at face value. No matter what black activists might say about the Dunn trial, the case was heard by a jury of his peers, including minorities, and they could not find him guilty on the most serious charge. I suspect they found him guilty on the lesser charges at least partly because they knew they'd have to find him guilty of something or all hell would break loose.

Steve Salerno said...

Roger, we could go back and forth on this, and as noted earlier in the thread, I stand by what I said about the importance of making these highly un-PC points. They need to be part of the PUBLIC dialog, not just raised here on blogs or in post-dinner conversation among people who already think alike.

But are you really saying--as you appear to be--that whites face a tougher reception in the criminal-justice system than blacks? That's a bit of a stretch, and it helps explain why I certainly have to give a nod to the points raised by people like Leonard Pitts. To blame everything on slavery is foolishness, to my mind (and unhelpful in any case), but it's just as foolish to dismiss his "thug" paradox out of hand.

RevRon's Rants said...

Roger, there remains a substantial degree of inequality toward minorities in our criminal justice system, and our society in general. Otherwise, the penalties for possession of powder cocaine - which is the drug of choice for more affluent (particularly white) users are far more lenient than the penalties for possession of crack cocaine, which is favored by minorities. Furthermore, it is not unusual for a minority to serve substantial jail time for stealing a few dollars' worth of food from a grocery store to feed their families, while CEO's of companies that have been proven to have cost taxpayers and investors billions from illegal trade practices have rarely seen any jail time, and some are even given millions of dollars in bonuses, e4ven after their companies have been bailed out with taxpayer dollars.

This is not to excuse *anyone* from responsibility for their behavior, only to note that a significant disparity in prosecution for illegal behaviors still exists. The "luxury" to which you refer is egregiously misplaced, IMO, and the negative stereotyping is done very discriminatingly.

RevRon's Rants said...

how very white - I honestly wonder where you got the idea that Steve implied that Dunn was justified, or, for that matter, that his comments are couched in racism. I think your own chosen screen name points to your being driven by the very racial bias that you erroneously attribute to Steve. IMO, it is truly a case of needing to remove the log from your own eye before pointing at the splinter in another's. Nobody is asking others to be "gracious" in their responses to heinous acts... only that they try to be at least somewhat objective, and not project their own issues onto others.

Anonymous said...

Let me sum up what you've posted here. Blacks are dumber than whites, and also more violent. Despite all blacks have endured in this country and continue to, you're unwilling to make any allowances and don't even understand how blacks could carry those wounds with them. Not only that, you are resentful of their resentment. Am I missing anything or does that about cover it.

RevRon's Rants said...

Anonymous asked, " Am I missing anything...?"

Pretty much the entire context of the thread.

Steve Salerno said...

I just posted Ron's comment above, and I hate to pile on, but dammit, Anon 4:45, seriously, I almost didn't post your comment because it represents such willful disregard of everything I'm trying so CLEARLY to achieve in this post. Indeed, your comment epitomizes precisely the kind of one-sided, BIASED (yes, biased) argument that I'd hope we as a culture could rise above.

So in the end that's why I did post it. You are a metaphor for yourself.

Jenny said...

Hi, all. A discussion like this would be better in a room of people face to face. These are difficult issues we all grapple with on some level, regardless of who we are: the ones who have lived lives of "white privilege" and everyone else. That's generalizing, though, because the reality is we're not talking about simple us-and-them rivalries. Still, I have no idea what other people (even my nearest and dearest) really go through and am aware that only when one has experienced something does it become truly known.

I'm a white female and yet speak only for myself, not for every other white female. We might be a demographic but each one of us is an individual who defies stereotype, even if that grain of truth might be present. For example, I'm not good in math (remember the Barbie controversy a few decades ago?) and I don't do car maintenance or body building. On the other hand, I'm not blonde, so there's that.

What I'm getting at is I have genuine empathy for what other people go through and do watch and catch myself when some judgment arises; I don't always like what I see in myself and not all of that gets vocalized. This might be one of the reasons there is so much potential for misunderstanding in a conversation like this, the fact that so much is unknown.

Hearts and minds hold so much that we don't see. The anonymity of these discussions, regardless of whether we use a real name or not, gives us a kind of safety (think of AA meetings, for example) but it also prevents real exchanges. We're not our avatars or our profile pictures; we're thinking, feeling people who react and respond according to how the information we're taking in is experienced.

I'd like to hear some other examples of movies or other art (stories, videos, documentaries, etc.) that help us move forward toward truly inclusive communities.

Glad to hear everyone's voice here. Thanks, Steve, for opening up this conversation.

RevRon's Rants said...

Jen, while we certainly can't truly know what is inside another person, it's not too difficult to know what they put before us. And when we don't know, it's usually better for us to keep silent until we *do* know, rather than lambaste and make asses of ourselves.

If something I read on someone's blog led me to believe that they were a racist, I'd read some of their other offerings before jumping to conclusions. Unfortunately, in the case of our anonymous commenters, those misinformed and acerbic conclusions are all they have offered, and that is what readers will use to base their opinions.

Finally, it has been my experience that those who spout the most vitriol-laced comments anonymously online tend to be far less confrontational when face to face with someone who holds to a different perspective, unless they are just looking for a fight, that is.

Anonymous said...

I just read an article on Huffpo in which the writer argues that by railing against black culture Dunn effectively admits to the racism that he denied in court. The writer then "proves his case" by talking about how Dunn described rap music as profane, violent and anti-women. So if I as a white woman am repulsed by music that is part of a culture that is angry, profane and filled with violence and contempt for women, I am now "racist"? I thought I'd heard it all but this is too much.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 3:28, first of all, what were you doing commenting at 3:28am? Were you just up all night exasperated over all this, or do you live on the far side of the pond? Regardless, thanks for dropping by.

As you make clear, it really is hard to win nowadays, unless one toes an unerringly PC line, and even that's hard to do because they keep moving the little sucker. (I think I'm paraphrasing William Hurt from Body Heat; great movie, great script.) The most hard-core black apologists seem to want 100% acceptance (and even absolution) for everything, up to and including crime, which is white America's fault because of slavery and oppression. There can be no meaningful engagement if that is going to be their position.

Weston said...


You are half right. It was William Hurt but it was in Broadcast News not Body Heat.

Always loved that line.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Weston. Yeah, another great film, great script. At the time I actually knew a couple of women in media who were every bit as neurotic and anal-retentive as Holly Hunter. (It was Holly Hunter, right?)

There's certainly no mistaking that it was Kathleen Turner in Body Heat. Wow. ("I thought you'd want to lick it off...)

One of the sexist delivered lines in film history, along with Greta Scacchi's "It's gonna be so good" in Presumed Innocent.

And now I'm supposed to work?

Jenny said...

I'm reading Presumed Innocent now, Steve. Didn't know about the movie version. Must see! Also, I would be remiss if I didn't point out your Freudian slip there with "sexist." I'm sure you meant sexiest, right?

Steve Salerno said...

I stand naked before you, as it were...