American Life & Culture

After reading the book,
ed: Poverty and Profit in the American
, and participating in your Service Learning work, please answer
the following questions, using examples both from the book (specific
ones; you must discuss at least 3 people discussed in the book) and
your servic
e learning
and refer to concepts from class discussions

What are the consequences of homelessness for individuals and
and society

Discuss the intersections of race,
gender, and class in the lives
of those affected by homelessness and poverty.
Please use
examples from the book and your service learning experience
and integrate class concepts into your discussion.

Desmond asked, “Do we believe that the right to a decent home
is part of what it means to be an American?” (page 300). Do you
think th
at decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for
every American citizen? Why or why not?

What is the best way to address the affordable housing crisis:
through gove
rnment politics, market mechani
, church
initiatives, pri
vate non

profit grou
or something else? Please
discuss, supporting your answer with references from the book
and online.
You must cite references to the book. As well, you must draw from
examples and concepts throughout the book (not just from one
chapter, for example). If y
ou use external resources, please cite them.


CES 180
Your paper should be 8

10 pages long, double

spaced, not including
your title page and bibliography. You may use first

person and third

person. Please include an introduction and conclusion.

What Can You Say?




What Can You Say? America’s National Conversation on Race

John Hartigan Jr.

Stanford University Press

Stanford, California



Stanford University Press Stanford, California

© 2010 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system without the prior written permission of Stanford University Press.

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free, archival-quality paper

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Hartigan, John, 1964– What can you say? : America’s national conversation on race / John Hartigan Jr. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. isbn 978-0-8047-6336-3 (alk. paper) 1. United States—Race relations. 2. Racism—United States. 3. Post- racialism—United States. 4. Communication and culture—United States. 5. United States—Race relations—Press coverage. I. Title. e185.615.h325 2010 305.800973—dc22 2009049990

Typeset by Motto Publishing Services in 11/13.5 Adobe Garamond Pro



For Beka for everything




Preface ix

1 From Gangsta Parties to the Postracial Promised Land: A Year of Race Stories 1

2 Waking Up to Race with Imus in the Morning 27

3 Narrating Nooses: Locating the Role of Race in Jena, LA 58

4 “Race Doesn’t Matter”: Manic Glimpses of a Postracial Future 91

5 Conversation Stoppers: Apologies All Around 141

6 Our Unfi nished Conversation 182

Acknowledgments 193

Notes 195

Index 215





THIS BOOK BEGAN as a fi le folder on my desk in which I kept clippings of news stories about race. Th e idea was to keep on hand some current examples of how race matters today, which I could use to update my lectures or my writing. It quickly fi lled and then gave way to a series of similar folders, each labeled with a proliferation of titles—“race and health,” “workplace discrimination,” the “race gap” in education, and many more. I also subdivided these into “liberal” and “conservative” lines of argument and debate.

Th ese articles ranged from reports of particular incidents to cover- age of new poll results on racial opinions and to recent fi ndings from studies on discrimination. Th ey also included excellent journalistic es- says and critical commentaries that sharpened my thinking about race. Eventually, too, there were stories about coverage of race in events like senate races or other political campaigns. As the fi les grew, I began to see a broad stream of public discourse unfolding, a meandering current of commentary, refl ections, and reporting. Th en I started to think about the larger question of how we settle on which examples have the great- est bearing in telling us something substantive about how race matters today. Sometimes these thoughts were sparked by the glass-is-half-full- or-half-empty debates over whether racial disparities in this country are diminishing or remaining fairly constant. But also, I wondered about the representativeness of any one example or incident as they just kept occurring, sometimes in novel forms, sometimes as maddening repeti- tions of the same old stories. Which ones were most exemplary of the enduring signifi cance of race?

Eventually, I realized this question itself warranted a book. I set-




x Preface

tled on a framework as much out of practicality as based on an ana- lytical rationale. I would take a year’s worth of stories and examine how they refl ect the interpretive process by which Americans make sense of race. In terms of the rationale, I thought the value of this approach lay in trying to understand something about how we as Americans con- sume these stories, apart from their status as examples in arguments that race no longer matters or that it remains the bedrock problem in this country. But really, this decision was a practical one as well—the stories just never stopped coming. I settled on a year’s framework, in part, be- cause there was no other way to get this project off my desk and into the light of day.

As I write this preface, President Obama just reworked his criti- cism of the actions of the Cambridge police in “stupidly” arresting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in his own home. Gates fi gures prominently in the fi nal chapter on this book, appropriately enough on the dynamics of apologies for racial incidents. Th is “new” story perfectly melds the elements of obviousness, ambiguity, and utter discrepan- cies that “racial” often entails. As well, it features remarkably well-cast characters—Gates, certainly, as a preeminent scholar who has incisively grappled with race; Sergeant James Crowley, a police expert on racial profi ling; and, of course, our nation’s fi rst African American president. Yet, in resisting the urge to add still another chapter, I hope I have set- tled on something else of value instead.

Th is book is about our “national conversation on race,” the sprawl- ing, unwieldy, often maddening means we have developed in the United States for discussing and evaluating what counts as “racial.” I focus on the underlying dynamics of American culture that shape this conversa- tion more than on the particular topics that variously surface and then recede. Th at is, I attend to the rituals and taboos, the selective vision, and the stylized reactions that culture generates. We humans are cul- ture-bound creatures, and as Americans we share an underlying culture that is far more powerful than our various crucial, poignant, and devas- tating divisions. Th is common culture is on display in this particularly curious cultural artifact—our “national conversation on race.” I hope that in having this underlying culture drawn to your attention you will



Preface xi

fi nd a way to think diff erently about race. Whether or not you do, I re- main certain that this conversation is a long way from over.

Inevitably perhaps, most writing on race is polemical. Th is stems from the fact that it is nearly impossible to have an entirely neutral stance about whether or how race matters. Race is clearly a political and polarizing issue; as well, the urgency and importance of racial matters compel us to take emphatic positions. At the same time, the polemics around race make it devilishly diffi cult to settle important questions, such as, when and how does race matter? My aim here is to present a view onto our racial polemics, via that oft-referenced “national conversa- tion on race.” What I ask of the reader, then, is a bit of patience as you encounter on these pages voices and positions that are antithetical to your own views on race. Th e clash of liberal and conservative stances on race may be too powerful and passionate for you to suspend your own well-honed reactions, but my hope is that this book provides a means of stepping back from the fray to consider what might underlie all this turmoil.




THEIR FACES ARE CONFIDENT AND CONTENT, which makes the images all the more absurd and bizarre. White college kids at Clem- son University, displayed on Facebook, are draped in black garb, hands duct-taped to forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor. Th e women are arrayed with huge hoop earrings, and two guys are wearing baseball caps—one of them scowls behind his dark shades. Other whites in the crowd sport red bandanas on their heads and gold “grills” on their teeth. Th ey ap- pear drunkenly awash in a sea of racial signifi ers, seemingly oblivious to any lines they may be crossing. Th e “gangsta” theme party was held over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 2007. What were they thinking?

Th is wasn’t the only such party that weekend. A similarly themed event was hosted by white students at Tarleton State University near Fort Worth, Texas. Days later, law school students at the University of Connecticut threw a “Bullets and Bubbly” hip-hop party. And these were just the most recent in a series of such parties occurring on col- lege campuses across the country over the past few years.¹ Th e emblems whites sported in each setting were the same—do-rags, gold chains, baggy pants, puff y coats, and dark shades. Th ey fl aunted bottles of malt liquor and fl ashed gang signs. Hadn’t they heard about the controversy months earlier when a fraternity at Johns Hopkins hosted a “Halloween in the Hood” party, or when the University of Colorado Ski and Snow-

1 From Gangsta Parties to the Postracial Promised Land A Year of Race Stories



2 A Year of Race Stories

board Club had to cancel their “gangsta party” because of complaints about racial stereotyping? Th ey must have also missed the stir over a similar frat party at Baylor or the cancelled “ghetto party” on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at Texas A&M.

Th e pattern is remarkably similar in each setting. White kids adorn themselves with charged symbols from their media-saturated lives and parade about in gleeful amusement. Someone takes pictures and posts them online. Th e images circulate and protests follow, condemning white racism. And in each case, the whites who face the ordeal of public condemnation express a similar sense of confusion and deep regret. Th e apologies that follow each explosion of outrage convey a common senti- ment. As a Clemson student explained on Charleston’s local WCSC TV news report on January 30, 2007, “We weren’t trying to be racial or any- thing.” Several Clemson students circulated a letter of apology stating, “We invited all races and types of people and never meant any racial harm.” But even if it was not an all-white aff air, how could they think that such images are not “racial”? Th eir surprise and befuddlement over being caught up in a racial incident—a common feature of the stories in this book—refl ect an increasing confusion over what is “racial” and how such assessments are made. Th ese stories refl ect the inevitability of be- ing racial, the relentless signifi cance of race, and the insuffi ciency of our cultural conventions to ever fully contain that signifi cance.

White students’ confusion in the wake of such parties is an indi- cation that the conventions by which we decide something is racial are changing rapidly. In cultural terms, we rely on a set of social conven- tions to contain the riotous meaningfulness of race. But these expecta- tions and assumptions—concerning who can say what about race, for instance, or, more crucially, what people must not say about race—are themselves in fl ux. Th is is partly because the line between public and private, which long maintained conventional notions about race, is rap- idly shifting. Th ough national media, from Fox News to the Washing- ton Post, reported these stories as a trend rattling college administrators and opening up a disturbing view onto racial aspects of campus life, the deeper story here is that the public sphere for talking about race has greatly expanded. Th anks to such social networking sites as Face- book—and critical Web sites like Th e Smoking Gun, where party pic-



A Year of Race Stories 3

tures were posted after they were removed from Facebook—once private settings, like these parties, are thrust into public space, opening up new ground for talking about why and how race matters. Rather than simply revealing well-hidden forms of covert racism, this shift highlights the instability of conventions that mold Americans’ selective views of what counts as racial.

Media race stories in the year that followed the Clemson party refl ect a reconfi guring of race in the public sphere. Don Imus’s dramatic fall from his media throne is credited to an online posting of a video of his off ending remarks about “nappy-headed hos.” Th e massive civil- rights protest in Jena, Louisiana, resulted from the rise of the “black blogosphere,” which both circulated news of events in that tiny town and provided a medium for organizing protestors from across the na- tion. In retrospect, the gangsta parties can be seen as just the fi rst wave in a long series of incidents in which Americans have confronted a host of new examples of the continuing impact and importance of race. Each has been marked by some combination of confusion and certainty, of outrage and obliviousness, as private or local moments have been ex- amined intensely in a national framework. Th is shift in audience from private to public—thanks to the many new means for electronically cir- culating remarks and images—has provoked a change in how we talk about race. Th is shift in the spotlight has not so much revealed a hidden set of white opinions about race; rather, it has caught whites in awkward moments when they traffi c in signifi ers previously coded black—from Imus’s word choice to the symbols whites adorn themselves with in the gangsta parties—but that have come to permeate “mainstream” dis- course in the United States.

Th e white kids at these parties were playing with powerful sym- bols that have crossed bounded, racially segregated worlds to pervade American popular culture. Th eir use of these images—once free and easy—was drastically challenged, not simply by a “black community,” but by campus-wide mobilizations that decried their impact on the pub- lic sphere in general. But is this playing with hip-hop imagery—which feeds on Americans’ long romance with gangsters—inherently a racist act? Black students commenting on the parties were not entirely sure. Where some saw racism, others recognized a clumsy manipulation of



4 A Year of Race Stories

pervasive, highly commodifi ed images. Harold Hughes, a member of a black fraternity at Clemson, noted that white students “see this on MTV and BET, they think it is cool to portray hip-hop culture.”² But another student—Ranniece McDonald, a black junior quoted on Fox News on February 2, 2007—remarked, “they didn’t know that they were being racist. It’s really sad.” Th e uncertainty over their possible racial intent stems from the source of the imagery in question. Th e cultural realm of symbolic gestures and rituals presents a diff erent kind of terrain for challenging race than that of affi rmative action, job discrimination, or housing segregation.

Partly because of legislative and judicial accomplishments stem- ming from the civil rights movement, Americans increasingly discuss race in terms of cultural matters. In these discussions, hip-hop claims a central role. Commenting on the apparent failure of Bill Clinton’s “national conversation on race” in the late 1990s, Jason Tanz, in Other People’s Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America, as- serts that “the conversation has not ended: instead, it has been coded into beats and rhymes. Many of the most important race-related discus- sions of the last two decades have concerned hip-hop music directly: anti-Semitic statements attributed to a member of the rap group Public Enemy in 1989; the 1992 controversy over ‘Cop Killer,’ a song by Ice-T . . . ; the criticism by presidential candidate Bill Clinton of Sister Soul- jah; the fl ap in 2001 over the rap CD made by Cornel West.” In each of these instances and more, Tanz writes, “white America’s” relation to hip-hop “shows us how the old racial verities of the 1960s and ’70s have transformed, and provide a fruitful avenue through which to examine a complicated and confusing new world.”³ In this new world, appearances can be disorienting: When a white kid drapes himself in gangsta apparel at a hip-hop theme party, is this kid racist or just someone who imbibes and idolizes aspects of this public image?

Gangsta parties are a good jumping-off point for examining the complicated dynamics of race because the questions they raise do not have clear-cut answers. Th e white students addressing the news cameras convey this lack of clarity through their utter befuddlement that play- ing with stereotyped images from the much-hyped realm of gangsta rap could be considered off ensive. An unidentifi ed white student—only his



A Year of Race Stories 5

hands were depicted on the screen because he feared harassment—ex- plained to viewers on January 30, “We have a lot of theme parties where we just dress up and try to have fun. And we decided that we’d do a gangsta party.” On the same local WYFF TV news report in Greenville, South Carolina, a black student who attended the party described how the mood at the themed event quickly shifted when one guy showed up in blackface. “It escalated after those gentlemen came in. And, it just kinda turned . . . it was palpable, the emotion that was there. And people just left.” Would the party have caused a racial incident if those white guys who made the “minstrelsy” angle emphatic had not shown up?⁴ Like many such themed events today—such as “80s” and “90s” music parties or other stylized themes—it would have probably passed without notice.

Whites taking up hip-hop imagery can alternately represent, as Tanz argues, an urge to overcome historical and current separations based on race or “a fantasy that equates garden-variety suburban alien- ation with the struggles of ghetto life.”⁵ Th ese contrasting ways of in- terpreting the same gesture involve more than uncertainty regarding the individual beliefs and intentions of particular whites. Th ey refl ect changing conventions around “real” and “authentic” experience that are notably keyed to race but not entirely reducible to it.⁶ Th e indetermi- nacy stems from the possibility that such gestures may refl ect not cer- tain racial values and ideals but rather a fumbling eff ort to make sense of how and why race matters. Yet, even as what counts as racial today grows unclear, news stories depict “racial” incidents as fairly obvious and straightforward, encouraging people to participate in emphatic judg- ments about the contradictory and confusing aspects of race.

In Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop: Wankstas, Wiggers, Wannabes, and the New Reality of Race in America, Bakari Kitwana reads whites’ interest in hip-hop as refl ecting two seemingly antithetical aspects of American life today. One, not surprisingly, is the impact of black popu- lar culture, but the other stems from the role whites play in producing and marketing hip-hop music. “Th e Black presence in popular culture,” Kitwana writes, “has changed the way Americans engage race, especially for a generation of young people who have lived their entire lives with such access.” Th e terms of popular cultural literacy now are often coded



6 A Year of Race Stories

black. At the same time, “the white infl uence is so great in the hip-hop industry that it would be unnatural and odd, almost freakish, if the fi – nal product didn’t appeal to white youth” (emphasis in quoted material is mine unless otherwise indicated).⁷ Young whites are not just intensely subject to the marketing of this music, they recognize in it something uncannily familiar.

Th is recognition refl ects a generational fault line in the signifi – cance of race.⁸ In Kitwana’s view, “hip-hop is a framework, a culture that has brought young people together and provides a public space they can communicate within unrestricted by the old obstacles.”⁹ Clearly this is exhilarating but also greatly unsettling. One year after the party at Clemson, South Carolina returned to center stage in the nation’s con- versation on race; Barack Obama’s major primary victory there, buoyed by young voters, seemed to herald the triumph of his campaign’s theme of transcending racial diff erence. Sounding much like Kitwana, Obama told the audience that night in late January—after a week of heated campaigning marked by a public battle over the legacy of Martin Lu- ther King Jr.—“It is a choice not between black and white, but a choice between the past and the future.” Th is gesture cued a shift in conven- tions governing public images of race. In that moment, South Carolina’s image was no longer primarily defi ned by fi ghts over the Confederate fl ag or Strom Th urmond’s fi erce defense of racial segregation. Instead, it seemed to stand for a dramatic new possibility of the nation’s fi rst Afri- can American president.

Th is is how our conversation on race goes: in fi ts and starts, with scenes that lurch suddenly from seeming hackneyed to appearing quite novel. Th e pop-cultural domain has become Americans’ preferred ter- rain to think about race because it off ers just such images—familiar, yet capable of generating new meanings and implications, where scenes of shocking stupidity and off ensiveness might be set in a diff erent light, as audiences and frames of reference shift. Th ese shifting scenes reveal how much we rely on cultural conventions to keep from appearing to be “racial.” Yet the instability of those conventions—as the line between public and private is redrawn, as generations change, shifting the frames of reference we bring to bear upon them—keeps supplying impressions to the contrary. We work at making sense of race using media stories because they are the most tangible and vivid. Th ey are also the most



A Year of Race Stories 7

confusing and changeable. How Americans make sense of race through this charged cultural material is the subject of this book.

What Counts as Racial?

Race is a fact of everyday American life. Wherever we turn, we see it on each other’s faces, and we typically sort ourselves by color where we live, work, and play. We do race when we socialize or consume, but usu- ally in ways we hardly notice.¹⁰ Race is so routine for us we are largely unconscious of the pervasive conventions guiding our actions, words, and perceptions. Against the backdrop of these highly conventional and seemingly unremarkable ways of “doing” race, we label only a few no- table events or encounters as “racial.” Of the myriad ways whites, blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, and other groups interact in this country, a mere handful of comments or actions are characterized as being about race. In these moments, the subtexts and assumptions we rely on to get through daily life with minimal confusion and stress jump front and center. Generally, such instances confi rm what “everybody” already knew or believed about race. But there are moments, too, when describ- ing a situation as “racial” highlights, rather, how much these shared conventions and meanings are shifting.

Two primary ways of evaluating the signifi cance of race stand out at this moment. First, there are the ways it creates disparate life chances, disadvantaging primarily blacks and Latinos through various forms of discriminatory practices (particularly in the spheres of housing, jobs, and access to credit), and, by extension, advantaging whites. Th is is the principal way, in terms of progress and policy, that we address—or al- ternately eff ace and ignore—race. But there is also another dimension to race, a cultural one that is not as clear cut and often more diffi cult to assess. Race, simply, is meaningful, and meaning, as we know, is often unruly and irresolute, barely constrained by intention or referentiality. Th ough we may strive to equate race singularly with issues of racism— which Americans widely accept to be a social and moral failing—we keep confronting the fact that the boisterous meaningfulness of race of- ten makes it ambiguous and diffi cult to grasp. A few examples illustrate this predicament.

Across the U.S. South, “Canadian” has recently emerged as a code



8 A Year of Race Stories

word for black, surfacing in the talk of white sales clerks, the banter of white waitresses, and even in comments of a white Houston district attorney, who referred to black jurors as “some Canadians on the jury feeling sorry for the defendant.”¹¹ Th is is just one instance of the many endlessly inventive ways that some whites fi nd for skirting the conven- tions against racist speech in the United States by fi nding “code words” that mask their racial animus. Th e Racial Slur Database, an online reference source, off ers many more examples, including derivations of “Canadian” into “Coonadian,” and “Canigger.” However, this same growing social awareness of or sensitivity to the potential signifi cance of race has also led to people fi nding racial meanings even where they were not intended. “Niggardly,” for example—a word with Norwegian roots, meaning stingy—has been practically driven from public discourse be- cause of its resonance with a certain racial epithet.

More strikingly, the astronomical term “black hole” has even been rendered suspect. A recent discussion among Dallas County commis- sioners was abruptly halted when a white commissioner, Kenneth May- fi eld, remarked that the county ticket collections agency “has become a black hole” because so much paperwork was being lost in the offi ce.¹² Commissioner John Price and Judge Th omas Jones, both black, im- mediately expressed outrage over the comment and demanded an apol- ogy for his “racially insensitive analogy.” Mayfi eld’s protestations that the phrase had nothing to do with race fell on deaf ears. Th is form of heightened awareness to the potential for racial meanings is fundamen- tal to how Bill Clinton’s use of “fairy tale” during the New Hampshire primary—in relation to Barack Obama’s purported stance in opposition to the Iraq war—could be seriously considered as a racial remark.

Th ese contrary glimpses of the signifi cance of race—either mask- ing racial hate with code words or anticipating fi nding it potentially in any utterance—frame some of the challenges we face in grasping what counts as racial today. Th ese opposed orientations induce a state of “racial paranoia,” as characterized by John L. Jackson. Th is condition, Jackson explains in Racial Paranoia: Th e Unintended Consequences of Po- litical Correctness, emerges from the “ambiguous and nonfalsifi able sense of racial distrust at the heart of the new reality of race in America.”¹³ Jackson does not see this paranoia as race-specifi c; rather, it “delineates



A Year of Race Stories 9

something essential about how all Americans confront social diff erence in their lives.”¹⁴ Indeed, this condition is schizophrenic as well. “We continue to commit to [race’s] social signifi cance on many levels, but we seem to disavow that commitment at one and the same time. Race is real, but it isn’t. It explains social diff erence, but it couldn’t possibly. Th is kind of racial doublethink drives us all crazy, makes us so suspi- cious of one another, and fans the fl ames of racial paranoia. Nothing is innocent, and one bumps into conspirators everywhere.”¹⁵ Th at is, the meaningfulness of race is outstripping the social conventions Americans have devised to contend with its unruly potential. Th is is one of the reasons we fi nd media stories about race to be so fascinating: they off er society-wide opportunities to debate and evaluate what counts as racial these days.

But this eff ort is further complicated by increasing uncertainty over the role and extent of racism today. Is it still pervasive and unchanging, or is it fi nally gradually dissipating? Th e obvious way of framing this uncertainty is through the gap between the remarkable and impressive political ascendancy of Barack Obama and the enduring forms of ra- cial inequality in housing, hiring, and health—on one side, an inspiring image; on the other, a source of infamy for this country. But so many instances and situations that might be characterized as refl ecting racism fall in between these starkly contrasting representations. Th ese are fea- tured in Richard Ford’s Th e Race Card: How Bluffi ng About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse. Ford examines accusations of racism from a quiz- zical stance, taking “an unsentimental look at such claims, defending those that deserve sympathy, scrutinizing those that deserve suspicion, and ridiculing those that deserve contempt.” He approaches claims of racism in major media stories by asking a set of basic questions: “When are complaints of prejudice valid and appropriate and when are they ex- aggerated, paranoid, or simply dishonest?”¹⁶ Th is stance regards charges of racism as rarely transparent and, at times, as potentially calculated. Ford’s work makes plain that, in confronting the possible role or pres- ence of racism, we are increasingly called on to be savvy interpreters and analysts of how, when, and why race matters.

My approach, which builds on the work of Jackson and Ford, ex- amines the cultural conventions by which we evaluate potentially racial



10 A Year of Race Stories

situations or meanings. Th ese conventions—pervasive but largely un- conscious formations—structure our assessments of what counts as race. Th ey are on display in the medium by which Americans most avidly consume and debate racial matters—race stories in the news. Under- standing what counts as racial today involves seeing through our racial paranoia as we grapple with confl icting claims about the relevance and prevalence of racism. By recognizing the role of cultural conventions in shaping our assumptions, perceptions, and experiences of the racial, we gain a critical purchase on this diffi cult task.

“Racial,” in this moment, as Ford emphasizes, frequently involves “disagreement[s] over the interpretation of ambiguous facts and over contested goals.”¹⁷ Eff orts to sort out confl icting, competing versions of events have typically given primary weight to the historical aspects of race. But, as Jackson argues (echoing both Tanz and Kitwana), we need to recognize that the current dynamics of racial meanings are not wholly defi ned by the past: “understanding race means disregarding al- most everything we accepted about it prior to the 1960s.”¹⁸ Grasping how race matters today—as lines between public and private alter and as generations shift—requires recognizing how social decorum deeply conditions the ways we respond to and make sense of “racial” incidents.

Making Sense of Race in the News

Media stories about race are our consistent touchstone for under- standing what counts as racial. We are ardent consumers of these moral- ity tales, which typically feature people caught transgressing the social conventions we rely on to keep race from “coming up” in everyday life or routine circumstances. We often respond to these stories almost in- stantaneously with powerful, visceral sentiments about whether truth and justice have been served. But we are barely conscious of the welter of assumptions, experiences, and social precedents that condition our perceptions of these stories. We fi nd it diffi cult to recognize the cultural patterns they represent because we are caught up in larger narratives about the signifi cance of race in the United States that implicitly frame each story. Th ese are not just news stories but fodder for important ar-



A Year of Race Stories 11

guments in our society about whether “race still matters” or, conversely, “race is over.”¹⁹

My strategy for prying these stories out of their polemical narra- tive frames concerning the state of race relations in the United States is to position them somewhat diff erently—in the frame of a year’s worth of stories about race. Rather than asking what any one or two stories tell us about relative progress or stagnation on race matters, I use this somewhat arbitrary frame to examine both the power of conventions and their instability regarding the meaning of race. By taking a year of race stories—spanning roughly from Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2007 to the following one in 2008—it becomes apparent how selective our attention is to racial matters. Th e few stories that generate major news coverage are drawn from a huge pool of other race stories, which itself is a limited gleaning of a still larger set of potential stories about race that draw no media attention at all. In examining these stories, it also becomes apparent how much cultural work goes into producing and mediating them. Th ese news items, after all, are hardly neutral, transparent accounts of events. Rather, they each refl ect or conform to sets of assumptions and beliefs that we carry around about race.²⁰ Th ese stories are then seized on by commentators, social scientists, and politi- cians to illustrate sweeping claims or make general points about whether race matters in this country. Th at is, not only do these stories present selective views of the racial world; we receive them in still more limited ways, to the extent that they conform to established narratives about the ways race matters.

Th is array of stories is set off against another class of incidents that represent moments when our expectations are somewhat disrupted and disoriented. Th e stories that become media spectacles typically highlight certain instabilities in the meaning of race. Th ese stories typically are identifi ed as new installments in our “national conversation on race.” What Can You Say? features a series of such spectacles, stories that stand out both for the great deal of commentary they have generated and for the way they refl ect our changing sensibilities regarding racial matters. Th ese incidents, somewhat contradictorily, both reinforce and revise cultural precedents. But before proceeding to these various installments



12 A Year of Race Stories

of our national conversation on race, it matters to see them fi rst against a larger backdrop of incidents and events involving race that at least momentarily blipped across the national media radar. Placed in context by the following timeline, it is easy to grasp, fi rst, the selective basis of race coverage—out of a plethora of possible stories, only a few are widely broadcast—and, second, the wider arrangement of social arenas in which racial dynamics play out in this country. Consider the high- lights from a year’s worth of stories in the news (shown in the timeline).

Th e stories in the timeline represent something of a kaleidoscopic view on how race matters; bringing any two or three news items into conjunction makes for a diff erent outlook on the signifi cance of race. When Don Imus made his remarks about the Rutgers women’s basket- ball team, reporters contextualized these alongside recent remarks by other white male celebrities, such as Michael Richards and Mel Gibson. Strung together as such, they present a compelling case that racism re- mains a deep-seated condition in this country. But the clarity and co- herence of this storyline is harder to maintain if you consider this year’s worth of stories at once, allowing the ambiguities, contradictions, and gaps between them to resonate.

In this larger view, it becomes apparent that there are other ways of drawing connections between these incidents. Imus could also be put in context with the remarks by Isaiah Th omas asserting that it is all right for black men to make derogatory comments about black women, but not for white men to do so. Th is juxtaposition shifts the larger frame these stories can be made to illustrate—from the depth of racism to the role of racial “double standards” in American public discourse. For that matter, pairing more proximate stories, such as Obama’s Iowa victory on January 3, 2008, with Kelly Tilghman’s remarks about lynching Tiger Woods on January 4, disrupts narratives about a “postracial” future by asking, Which story is more revealing about the relative signifi cance of race in this country?

Another factor is often overlooked in the process of taking par- ticular news stories as a basis for illustrating “the problem” of race in this country. Th ese stories are generally exceptional: they are out-of-the- ordinary (and, hence, newsworthy) incidents that erupt from a backdrop of mundane, generally nonconfl ictual moments. Which instances—the



TIMELINE Race Stories in the News, 2007– 2008.


L AT E JA NUARY Coinciding with MLK Day, white students at the University

of Connecticut, Clemson University in South Carolina, and

Tarleton State University in Texas throw “ghetto fabulous”

parties, which feature blackface, fake teeth, and forty-ounce


JA NUARY 29 White students at Santa Clara University in California throw

a “South of the Border” party, dressing as janitors, female

gangsters, and pregnant women.

JA NUARY 31 Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, in announcing his

candidacy for the presidency, characterizes Senator Barack

Obama as “the fi rst mainstream African American who is

articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

F EBRUARY 10 Senator Barack Obama announces his candidacy for the

presidency in Springfi eld, Illinois.

F EBRUARY 23 Kenneth Eng writes a column titled “Why I Hate Blacks” in

AsianWeek, generating protests.

F EBRUARY 28 The New York City Council passes a resolution symbolically

banning the “n-word.” The resolution, according to

sponsoring councilman Leroy G. Comrie Jr., is largely aimed

at blacks who use the word among themselves.

APR IL 4 Don Imus refers to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as

“some nappy-headed hos.” Public outrage over this remark

leads to his being fi red from CBS Radio.

APR IL 11 North Carolina attorney general Roy Cooper drops all

charges against three white lacrosse players from Duke

University, who had been accused of sexually assaulting a

black woman. Cooper declares the players “innocent” and

characterizes them as victims of a “tragic rush to accuse.”

M AY 2 A study fi nding racial bias in NBA offi ciating, with white

referees calling fouls at a higher rate against black players

than against white players, is widely reported.



M AY 5 White students at the University of Delaware throw a “South

of the Border” party, dressing as janitors, gangsters, and

pregnant women.

JU NE 12 Georgia’s supreme court overturns the conviction of

Genarlow Wilson, a black man sentenced to ten years in

prison without parole for having consensual oral sex with a

fi fteen-year-old girl when he was seventeen.

JU NE 28 The U.S. Supreme Court rules that schools cannot use race

as a determining factor in trying to achieve desegregation.

The ruling stresses that “racial classifi cations are simply too

pernicious to permit any but the most exact connection

between justifi cation and classifi cation.”

JULY 9 The NAACP symbolically buries the “n-word” in a ceremony

featuring a horse-drawn carriage carrying a black-wreathed

pine casket through the streets of Detroit.

AUGUS T 3 USA Today reports “Michael Vick dogfi ghting case opens

racial divide,” noting “Vick’s supporters are mostly black; his

critics are mostly white.”

AUGUS T 13 Major papers report a study indicating a racial bias in strike

calls by Major League Baseball umpires, with umpires calling

more strikes for pitchers of their own race.

AUGUS T 31 Comedian Eddie Griffi n—nicknamed the King of Hip-Hop

Stand-Up—has his performance abruptly terminated during a

sold-out show for Black Enterprise’s fourteenth annual Golf

and Tennis Challenge in Miami. His microphone is turned off

because he repeatedly uses the word “nigger.”

SEP T EMBER 11 Six whites are arrested for kidnapping a black woman,

Megan Williams, holding her captive for a week in rural West

Virginia, and beating, stabbing, and raping her repeatedly.

Williams claims she was called “nigger” as she was stabbed

and beaten, and that she was forced to eat rat and dog feces.

Two years later, after all six whites are convicted on various

charges, Williams recants her story as a hoax.



SEP T EMBER 18 Isaiah Thomas, Knicks’ coach and president, responds

to sexual harrasment charges, including accusations that

Thomas called a black woman a “bitch.” Thomas testifi es

that if a white man said that to a black woman, “it would

have violated my code of conduct,” while allowing that a

black man talking to a black woman the same way would not

have offended him. “I do make a distinction,” he explains.

SEP T EMBER 19 Bill O’Reilly stirs up protests when, commenting on his dinner

at a restaurant in Harlem, he remarks that he “couldn’t get

over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s

Restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City.

I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by


SEP T EMBER 20 Approximately twenty thousand people gather in Jena,

Louisiana, to protest racial disparities in the cases of six

black males.

OC TOBER 5 John K. Tanner, chief of the voting rights section in the Civil

Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department, remarks on

“the racial aspect” of American culture by suggesting that

“our society is such that minorities don’t become elderly the

way white people do. They die fi rst.”

OC TOBER 25 Nobel Prize–winning biologist James Watson resigns as lab

chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory after protests

over his remarks in an October 14 Sunday Times of London story

questioning the strength of African intelligence.

NOV EMBER 13 The Pew Research Center releases a survey that fi nds 37% of

African Americans agreeing with the statement that blacks

“can no longer be thought of as a single race.”

DECEMBER 3 Don Imus returns to media, now on WABC-AM Radio in New

York and RFD-T V.

DECEMBER 10 The U.S. Supreme Court addresses the disparity between

sentences for crack and powder cocaine convictions, which

were generally more punitive for blacks, by upholding more

lenient sentences imposed by judges who rejected federal

sentencing guidelines as too severe.



16 A Year of Race Stories


JA NUARY 3 Obama wins the Iowa caucus with 38% of the vote.

JA NUARY 4 Kelly Tilghman jokes that fellow golfers should lynch Tiger

Woods “in a back alley.” The Golf Channel reprimands her

with a two-week suspension.

JA NUARY 16 Radio & Records Inc. revokes talk show host Bob Grant’s

Lifetime Achievement award, citing racial remarks he made in

the 1990s.

JA NUARY 18 David Seanor, editor of Golfweek, is fi red for placing a noose

on the cover of the January 19 issue, which featured several

articles on Tilghman’s comments.

JA NUARY 26 Obama wins South Carolina’s “fi rst in the South” primary

with 55% of the vote.

banal or the unusual—are more revealing about the relative and endur- ing importance of race? Sure, the dramatic ones seem more interesting, which is why people choose them as examples of these intuited larger issues. But are they the most refl ective aspects of race? In selecting cer- tain incidents as exemplary of racial situations in the United States, we generally are oblivious to the enormous amount of mediation that goes into constituting these stories, both in a literal sense of the massive edit- ing process involved in broadcasting such spectacles and more broadly in terms of the cultural dynamics that shape our expectations for what counts as racial. Additionally, consider that these stories could as easily be paired with ones that suggest a more complex and perhaps even con- tradictory state of aff airs regarding race in this country.

Looking over the year’s worth of stories, from one Martin Luther King Jr. Day to the next, it is diffi cult to come up with a narrative that encompasses them all and still purports to say something sensible about the ways race matters in this country. Th is is partly why we settle on the convention of designating some stories as installments in our “na- tional conversation on race”—a designation suggesting that these are potentially moments when the kaleidoscope of racial scenes is fi xed long enough for us to get some clarity on these crucial matters.



A Year of Race Stories 17

“National Conversation” Over the coming year I want to lead the American people in a great and

unprecedented conversation about race.

President Bill Clinton, commencement address

at the University of California, San Diego, 1997

From the collection of racial incidents deemed newsworthy, a few stand out because they unfold in a more unruly and unpredictable man- ner—incidents that provoke discussion in addition to outrage or enthu- siasm. We designate these events as part of our “national conversation on race.” More than just confi rming stock beliefs, these are moments when assumptions about race are often jarred out of their comfortable setting in the background of cultural conventions that make our un- troubled (and often barely conscious) navigation of social situations pos- sible. Th rown into relief, these assumptions become subject to refl ec- tion, discussion, and commentary, carried out in parallel lines between media coverage and our commonplace social settings, where we tend to talk over big news stories with family, friends, coworkers, and some- times strangers.

Th e framing motif of a “national conversation” has a particular origin: it was fi rst proposed by Harvard law professor Lani Guinier, and then formally initiated by former president Bill Clinton’s Initiative on Race—a concerted eff ort over fi fteen months (launched in June 1997 and offi cially terminated in September 1998) to develop public forums where Americans could engage in serious discussions about race. In 1995, Guinier asserted, “we need a National Conversation on Race. We need new thinking and new approaches to race and racism that move beyond notions of intentional acts of bigotry and prejudice; beyond the claims of legal racial equality that rallied the civil rights movement in the 1960s; beyond the notion that racial preferences are the only or best way to remedy inequality; away from the claims based on individual guilt and individual innocence.” Th is notion she promoted—one that aimed to break “the great taboo” of race and that would be modeled on “looking at democracy as a well-conducted conversation”—reached fruition in Clinton’s Initiative on Race, which was led by civil rights activist and historian John Hope Franklin, who chaired the president’s advisory board on the Initiative.²¹



18 A Year of Race Stories

Franklin led the board in hosting a series of “town meetings” across the country, convened in cities such as Boston, Phoenix, San Francisco, Denver, and College Park, Maryland. Th e goals of the Initiative, as sum- marized by Franklin, were ambitious: “to articulate his administration’s vision of racial conciliation; to help educate the nation about the facts surrounding the issue of race; to promote a constructive dialogue and confront and work through the diffi cult issues; to recruit and encourage leadership at all levels to help bridge racial divides; and to fi nd, develop, and implement solutions in critical areas such as education, economic opportunity, housing, health care, crime, and the administration of jus- tice.”²² Perhaps not surprisingly, the actual accomplishments of the Ini- tiative appeared to have fallen far short of these aims. A principal hurdle was that the Initiative was subject to intense political criticism at its initiation. Part of this refl ected partisan diff erences, with Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Ward Connerly expressing the view that the “conversation” was one-sided, excluding the voices, for instance, of crit- ics of affi rmative action (though Franklin studiously contested this criti- cism). But it was also criticized from the Left by scholars like Adolph Reed Jr., who characterized this “mass-media metaphor” as “just part of the fundamentally empty rhetoric of multiculturalism: diversity, mu- tual awareness, respect for diff erence, hearing diff erent voices, and the like.”²³ Franklin, in turn, laid the blame for the Initiative’s limited suc- cess on the disinterest of the media.

Clinton himself hoped the board and “its eff orts would be more visible.” But as Franklin recounted in his autobiography, Mirror to Amer- ica, “the board’s visibility depended on the willingness of the media to render it visible.” Franklin’s enduring frustration lay in his inability to engage the interests of editors across the country in the eff orts repre- sented by the Initiative. As Franklin explained, “the diffi culties faced when anyone anywhere in America attempts a concerted eff ort to ame- liorate the baleful results of centuries of de jure and de facto racism are profound. None of which is aided by an unfortunate short- sightedness on the part of the national press that too often forestalls rather than fur- thers the needed national conversation.”²⁴

It was not as though journalists were entirely disinterested, Frank- lin acknowledged—he concluded that “easily the most ambitious re-



A Year of Race Stories 19

sponse to the president’s initiative on race was the New York Times’s se- ries of articles, ‘How Race Is Lived in America,’”²⁵ which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Rather, the diffi culty was getting editors to recognize a news story in a public forum that seemed to lack drama and confl ict. “From the outset,” Franklin laments, “it was clear that the media de- fi ned ‘conversation’ on race as a ‘debate.’ If there were no fi reworks, that was clear evidence that nothing of importance was being accom- plished.”²⁶ Th e expectations around “racial” stories were clearly, as they remain today, associated with clashes and disputes.

In retrospect, this “conversation,” which seemed to end ignomini- ously in late 1998, was only just beginning.²⁷ In fact, it was arguably already well underway before Clinton tried to formalize it as a politi- cal enterprise. Charles Krauthammer asserted as much in heralding the conversation’s demise in Time, when he dourly concluded: “It managed to go nowhere.” “It is nonsense, fi rst,” he opined, “to think that America suff ers from a dearth of conversation about race. We can’t stop talking about race. Prop. 209, O. J., Piscataway, the gerrymandering cases, race and the death penalty, race and the law schools, race and the Oscars, race and baseball (black attendance is down): Is there an issue under the American sun that has not been given a racial cast?”²⁸ In this view, the “failure” lies in not engaging with these already ongoing dialogues in a variety of cultural arenas.

Such is the attempt I make here by treating the “national conversa- tion” not as a political artifact with a palpable half-life, but rather as an anthropological object that off ers a view onto the fundamental cultural dynamics that undergird the ways Americans identify topics as racial. In this view, “racial” is an object informed by certain social conven- tions, then shaped, circulated, and consumed in a variety of cultural forms that both condense and respond to an array of social concerns and developments. Th ough the Initiative ran its course and was formally disbanded, the trope remained lively and active in public discourse, be- cause it retains the power to frame the central task major media stories present us—to sift through and reassess the set of assumptions we hold about how and why race matters.

Th e incidents recounted in this book were characterized as mo- ments in this ongoing “national conversation” because they captured



20 A Year of Race Stories

Americans’ attention by dramatizing some aspect of the changing ways race matters in this country.²⁹ Radio talk show host Don Imus opened his mouth early one spring morning and said “nappy-headed hos.” Be- fore the sun set, a technology-driven chain reaction—including posted video clips, emails, and blogs—was set in play, generating a media frenzy that ended with Imus being vilifi ed and fi red. Th e following fall, Jena, a quiet lumber town in central Louisiana—home to scarcely three thousand people—became the epicenter of a national protest as upwards of twenty thousand people converged there, drawn by a powerful story about nooses and injustice, also circulated by way of emails and blogs. Th at winter, the nation fi xated on the surprise victory of a fi rst-term African American senator over the presumptive Democratic front run- ner, Hillary Clinton, in the massively white state of Iowa. Meanwhile, in the background of these major stories ran a steady current of news items that percolated occasionally to the surface—incidents that hardly generated discussion because they were truncated by ritual apologies. Th ese scattered moments serve as a counterpoint to the broader process of “conversation,” usefully suggesting or outlining some of its limits and snares.

Th ese incidents each feature elements that seem obviously racial in retrospect but that were not uniformly agreed to be so at the time. Don Imus strenuously argued that he “didn’t think of it as racial” when he made his comments that morning.³⁰ Th e nooses in the tree near the high school in Jena seem plainly racial, but the white kids who hung them insisted they were inspired by a scene from the TV series Lone- some Dove, featuring a struggle between rustlers and lawmen. You can take these assertions as simple denials of racism or as windows onto the nuanced process by which Americans make sense of race. Th is more nuanced reading is buttressed by the 2008 presidential primary race, where, in the face of equally obvious racial dimensions, the campaign of Barack Obama argued that the election was “not about race.” Flush with victory in the South Carolina primary in January 2008, Obama’s sup- porters chanted wildly, “race doesn’t matter”—a gesture that would be rendered ludicrous by the fi restorm generated by video clips of sermons by his spiritual mentor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, just weeks later.

Th en there are instances where these conversations were sharply



A Year of Race Stories 21

curtailed, typically by abrupt apologies, such as those off ered by sports- caster Kelly Tilghman for a “joke” about lynching Tiger Woods; John K. Tanner of the Department of Justice for suggesting that mi- norities do not age the way white people do, because “they die fi rst”; and Nobel Prize–winning biologist James Watson for suggesting that Africans are less intelligent than whites. All these incidents feature com- ments where the racial basis or character of the remarks were often not commonly recognized. Th is distance between the uncertain aspects of “racial” at the moment and the ways these incidents come later to stand commonsensically as racial points us again to the crucial role of culture in all this.

A Cultural Perspective on Race in the United States

As Tanz and Kitwana argue, the realm of culture is where we most actively engage questions of race today. A major problem this presents is that we generally do not have much understanding about how culture works. We are, of course, experts about our own culture, but that does not mean we are cognizant of the basic dynamics that drive and inform cultural processes, just as being able to drive a car does not make one an expert at repairing cars. Th e purpose of this book is to make plain the cultural dynamics shaping the way Americans interpret the signifi cance of race in the public sphere.

From a cultural perspective, one of the most perplexing aspects of this year’s worth of stories becomes intelligible. Th ese incidents reveal how Americans’ conventional understandings of race are both rapidly changing and just as quickly being cemented in new forms that take on an air of obviousness. Th is is partly how culture works—it power- fully shapes people’s behaviors and beliefs, yet is continually changing and being reconfi gured. Culture is a subtle but powerful accumulation of stories, rituals, and solutions to common problems. Culture operates through collections of events and images that form shared and accepted ways of looking at the world, establishing conventions that aim to con- tain the meaningfulness of something like race. Anthropologists char- acterize these conventions as “interpretive repertoires.”³¹ While such repertoires are generally shared, they can also clash with competing col-



22 A Year of Race Stories

lections of experiences, images, and storylines. Typically, there are ten- sions and confl icts in any culture, particularly over meanings attached to common stories—whites and blacks, for instance, often have drasti- cally diff erent views of major news events, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or O. J. Simpson’s arrest in 2007. But these groups share a recogni- tion that these stories touch on key ideals in American culture, such as equality and justice.³²

Th ese shifting expectations and perceptions about race may seem confusing or even contradictory. But that is the essence of culture: it combines all manner of contradictory elements and then provides peo- ple with the conceptual means for navigating these contradictions. We often talk about culture as if it represents a clearly defi ned set of values and meanings, but it is nothing so coherent or rational. Th e basic fact of culture is that it combines both shared perspectives and intense con- fl icts: people sometimes agree only about what it is they are fi ghting over. We deal with this complex condition through the central activ- ity examined here in this book—telling stories and using meaningful language centered around compelling images. We sometimes fi nd our “national conversation” on race confusing or frustrating because we do not realize how much it depends on cultural dynamics that have little to do with race specifi cally, but which are fundamental to how we make sense of the world.

When anthropologists talk about culture, we typically do so in two distinct manners. Th e fi rst concerns general aspects of culture, such as decorum and etiquette, that one can fi nd in any social setting; the second involves a particular group’s cultural dynamics. In this book, I address these two diff erent aspects of culture by fi rst examining gen- eral matters of cultural form, then considering how they manifest dis- tinctly in American culture.³³ Th e concept of cultural forms captures how this conversation is principally conducted through mediums of language that are hardly transparent and that each involve particular textures and torsions. Th ough we ably and expertly manipulate these cultural forms we have little awareness of how they, in turn, condition our sensibilities imperceptibly. Th e question of cultural form provides the principal organizing frame for this book. I do discuss these stories in roughly chronological order, but this arrangement also makes it easy to



A Year of Race Stories 23

illustrate four basic cultural forms shaping these episodes. Each story is structured by a fundamental rhetorical form—remarks, narratives, ar- guments, and apologies.

Don Imus’s situation refl ects the privileged status we give remarks in our society to reveal when or whether race matters.³⁴ Th e intensity of how these remarks were debated shows that Americans are quite prac- ticed at working with this particular linguistic form. Regardless of the specifi c answers we arrive at in such debates, what remains constant is our ready assumption that selected words or statements are an exem- plary basis for evaluating whether or how race matters. Th e situation in Jena, in turn, highlights the fundamental role of narrative in establish- ing whether we recognize an incident as racial.³⁵ In contrast to remarks, which are fairly easily grasped as an “atom” of social life and individual sentiment, narratives are more complex and mutable cultural forms. But they are crucial to our recognition of racial matters in that, by connect- ing a set of events as an interrelated sequence of actions and reactions, they establish a series that can be construed as animated by racial mo- tives or sentiments. Events in Jena show how we rely on certain narra- tive conventions to see “race” as an animating force in a series of events. But the story of the “Jena 6” also represents the way narrative frames can clash and be contrastingly deployed, either challenging or rearrang- ing the presumably given order of events.

Beyond remarks and narratives, we also rely on and are moved by arguments and forms of persuasion that lead us to conclude race indeed is present and active in some public setting or exchange.³⁶ In the Janu- ary Democratic primary contests, both the Clinton and Obama cam- paigns accused the other of “playing the race card.” At the same time, both camps affi rmed the notion that race had no place in their political debates. Journalists almost gleefully reported that race had been “in- jected” into the campaign in comments made by one side or the other, but they were at a loss in judging the competing arguments made by each candidate regarding which one was being truly racial. Over those four midwinter weeks a polemical contest unfolded in which both Clin- ton and Obama tried to persuade the larger public following these bat- tles that race was an invidious and improper feature of their opponent’s arguments or assertions. Th ese eff orts at persuasion refl ect a nuanced



24 A Year of Race Stories

kind of cultural work that is critical to convincing people that a certain politician’s views or positions are in fact race based.

Th en there is the crucial matter of what happens after the racial basis of a remark, a narrative, or an argument has been established—the public ritual of apologizing for a breach of racial etiquette.³⁷ Somewhat in contrast to these other elements of cultural form, the topic of apolo- gies opens up an evaluation of how well this “conversation” works and where or how it breaks down. In examining this particular cultural form—along with yet more diffi cult questions of how to frame racial comments pertaining to social problems, such as the diff erential mortal- ity rates between whites and blacks that Tanner referenced—I look at apologies as off ering a basis for some general refl ections about how these discussions might be diff erently engaged and pursued.

In presenting this general perspective on cultural form, I also ex- amine how American culture has developed a distinctive take on race. Th e dominant trend in race scholarship today is towards specialized lines of inquiry that examine whiteness and blackness, for instance, as dis- tinct racial formations or constructs. A case in point is my own research, which has been on the subject of whiteness.³⁸ But my work has also led me to recognize that there are cultural dynamics that crosscut racial lines and identities. Th ese dynamics, importantly, involve more than race, which is why we often fail to notice their relevance to judgments about racial matters. My focus here is on the way that a key pair of cat- egorical identities in American culture—individual and group—shape the ways we recognize and talk about situations as racial.³⁹ Americans invest the “individual” with enormous reverence and are somewhat am- bivalent about its opposite term, “group.” As each of the following chap- ters show, our perceptions of whether we are talking about individuals or groups is fundamental to how we decide whether race matters in a particular remark, story, or argument. Th e interpretive work of deciding to regard another person primarily as an individual or as a member of a group is key to understanding how race operates in the United States, even though these categories ostensibly do not reference race at all.

Additionally, the progression of stories here also suggests that Americans are becoming increasingly conscious of social conventions



A Year of Race Stories 25

concerning racial speech. Th e Imus incident—with its varied disputes over racial double-standards for speaking roles in the United States—re- fl ects this heightened attention to these conventions, sparked, perhaps, by the fact that they are growing unstable. Th is is evident, too, in the way conventions for reporting race stories—established with the rise of the “race beat” during the civil rights movement’s battles in the 1950s and 1960s—proved inadequate in the face of contests over racial mean- ings in Jena.⁴⁰ Th is predicament was further borne out by the befuddle- ment of reporters and candidates in the face of swirling accusations and countercharges about who was “playing the race card” during the Dem- ocratic primaries. Contests today over the “race card” evince a degree of cultural intricacy that proves challenging for journalists and readers alike. In the face of this greater complexity, and lacking greater analyti- cal dexterity with such topics, Americans increasingly fall back on the comfort of social conventions, even as those conventions are becoming unhinged.

Rather than confronting the need for greater precision and speci- fi city in our assessments of how race matters in the public sphere, we tend instead to fi xate on concerns over social decorum and matters of racial etiquette.⁴¹ Th at is, we seem more certain about public ruptures of decorum—distinguishing “inappropriate” from “appropriate” words and actions—than about specifying how and in what ways race matters today. We arguably spend more time debating the social conventions governing race in the public sphere than we devote to understanding when and why race continues to matter so powerfully. A key challenge for Americans confronting racial issues today is to come to grips with this overwhelming investment in decorum and etiquette to contain the excessive meaningfulness of race.

Th is book, then, combines an attention to both general and par- ticular cultural dimensions that form the ever-changing ground rules to our national conversation on race. My goals are to convey how social conventions shape our expectation of what diff erently raced people can say, to detail the ritual aspects of racial incidents, and to examine how our customary ways of narrating news stories and gossip shape our in- terpretation of events as racial or not. Americans are so culture-bound



26 A Year of Race Stories

by certain expectations about what race means that we spend more time worrying about not transgressing racial etiquette than formulating new ways to think and talk about why race matters, in the manner fi rst pro- moted by Lani Guinier. Advancing our conversation about race hinges on fi rst recognizing and then challenging the cultural strictures on the ways we speak about and view race.



A NEW ER A OF R ACIAL VIGIL ANCE regarding public speech was ushered in early on the morning of April 4, 2007. In the predawn dark- ness, Don Imus’s popular radio talk show was just underway. As usual for a weekday morning, the words Imus spoke in the studio, broadcast by CBS affi liates and simulcast on MSNBC, carried across the groggy nation, reaching an audience of close to two million early risers. It was hardly unusual, either, that his acerbic commentary quickly and fl eet- ingly touched on race: this morning in reference to the previous night’s women’s basketball championship game between Rutgers and Tennessee. What made this broadcast diff erent is that a young researcher for Media Matters for America—Ryan Chiachiere, who monitored Imus’s show daily for off ensive comments—heard something he recognized would upset people who were not regular listeners to Imus in the Morning.

Imus was talking basketball with the show’s executive producer, Bernard McGuirk, and Sid Rosenberg, a former Imus sports announcer. Th e three white men tittered over the intimidating appearance of the Rutgers team. “Th at’s some rough girls from Rutgers,” Imus off ered. “Man, they got tattoos and—” McGuirk chimed in over Imus with, “Some hard-core hos,” to which Imus added, “Th at’s some nappy- headed hos there.” In contrast, Imus thought “Th e girls from Tennessee,

2 Waking Up to Race with Imus in the Morning

I think that America has spoken.

Vivian Stringer, Rutgers University women’s basketball coach



28 Waking up to Race

they all look cute, you know.” McGuirk suggested this was “a Spike Lee thing. Th e Jigaboos vs. the Wannabes,” referring to Lee’s fi lm, School Daze, though Rosenberg mistakenly suggested the reference was to Do the Right Th ing. Rosenberg added, “Th e more I look at Rutgers, they look exactly like the Toronto Raptors.” Chortling over their cleverness, the men moved on to other topics.

Later that morning, when Chiachiere played this segment in a meeting at Media Matters, people quickly recognized the incendiary potential of the remarks.¹ By 6:00 p.m. the organization had issued a press release condemning the comments (“Imus Called Women’s Bas- ketball Team ‘Nappy-Headed Hos’”) and posted a video clip of the seg- ment both on its Web site and on YouTube. As Media Matters emailed their press release to several hundred journalists and civil rights groups, Imus’s downfall was set in motion.

Th e media frenzy that followed was stunning, as was its dramatic outcome. Before he managed to apologize directly to the women’s team for his remarks, Imus was fi red. How had such an infl uential media fi gure, who regularly hosted powerful politicians and prominent jour- nalists, been brought down over two words? Th e simple answer can be summed up with two more words: race and gender. Journalist Gwen Ifi ll—herself a previous target of Imus’s racial animus—characterized his comment as “a shockingly concise sexual and racial insult, tossed out in a volley of male camaraderie by a group of amused, middle-aged white men.”² But there was more at work in this incident that riveted Americans for two weeks in the spring of 2007. Th is wasn’t just about Imus; it was a galvanizing moment when nettlesome questions about racial words and double standards were sharply framed.

Th e Imus incident off ers a glimpse into the media dynamics that provide us with “racial remarks” to purvey. In part, such media coverage is shaped by the political calculations of public fi gures like Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and by marketing decisions by adver- tisers and broadcast executives—crucial elements of how such episodes emerge and build momentum. If Jackson and Sharpton had not mobi- lized mass protests, it is unlikely that the show’s prime sponsors would have bailed on the program. As well, the new technologies of video cap- ture and posting played an important role in how Imus’s words were



Waking up to Race 29

avidly circulated, consumed, and criticized. His comments achieved a virtual life of their own that was scarcely impacted by his repeated apol- ogies. But the controversy over his remarks also highlights something more elusive: the cultural process by which Americans decide on what counts as racial and evaluate the place of race in the public sphere. Our “national conversation” lighted upon Imus as part of an ever-evolving eff ort at making sense of how and why race matters in this country.³

“Those words, those words.” Michael Richards

Th e coverage devoted to Imus’s remarks refl ects both our fascina- tion with racial incidents and the uncertainty we face over how racial meanings are attributed to certain words and statements. Th is coverage also reveals a good deal about how Americans think through the chang- ing meanings of race. Th ough these stories seem to unfold with a cer- tain immediacy and raw impact, they are utterly dependent on an array of mediations—literally in terms of media coverage and somewhat more fi guratively regarding the cultural forms and conventions that shape and condition our visceral responses. Media coverage of racial remarks by celebrities—fueled by the role of new technologies in redrawing the line between private and public speech—has become an established genre of reporting. But its status as a staple feature of news also rests on Americans’ sensibilities that such remarks reveal something important, not just about a particular public fi gure but about the character of the nation. In cultural terms, the central question in such moments is, what do these remarks reveal about America?

Th e answer, of course, is hardly straightforward; it depends on the kind of cultural frames we establish, through this coverage and our sub- sequent conversations, to explain such remarks. What makes the uproar over Imus’s word choice interesting—in a way similar to that of come- dian Michael Richards, months earlier—is that there were competing options for framing what was said. Initially, Imus’s remarks appeared to fi t seamlessly with shocking comments by other white male celebrities. In this frame, the focus quickly shifted from questions about Imus’s ap- parent racial sensibilities to a wide-ranging inquiry into what his com-



30 Waking up to Race

ments revealed about the depth and breadth of racism in the United States today. But as the coverage and conversation unfolded, another frame came into play, one that placed both Imus’s and Richards’s ut- terances alongside those of black rappers and comedians. As this latter frame developed, disquieting questions arose about the conventions that lead us to judge speech diff erently based on the race of the speaker. Th e intriguing matter is that this reassessment of race was sparked by factors unrelated to race, such as the rise of blogging and the use of cell phone video recorders.

Th e Imus story initially captured Americans’ attention because it fi t easily into an array of recent incidents involving white male public fi gures whose unguarded remarks had been the subjects of video cap- tures and postings. Th e key touchstones were comments by politicians George Allen (former U.S. senator from Virginia) in August 2006 and Joe Biden (former U.S. senator from Delaware) in January 2007. Allen was publicly lambasted for using the term “macaca” to label an Indian American campaign worker for his opponent, and Biden was chastised for characterizing Democratic presidential candidate and fellow senator, Barack Obama, from Illinois, as “the fi rst mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Some commentators reached back and placed Imus in context with references to Trent Lott and the racial controversy engendered by his comments in December 2002 at Strom Th urmond’s one-hundredth birthday party, championing Th urmond’s segregationist politics.

Of these examples, only Biden’s stemmed from a formal political event, a press conference, where news is expected to be made. Allen’s remarks at an August 11, 2006, rally became a story after video foot- age was posted on YouTube by Jim Webb’s campaign, with mass-mailed links sent to journalists and campaign supporters. Th e posting soared to the top of the site’s “most viewed” list, and the next day it was reported as news in the Washington Post, the fi rst of several dozen stories to fol- low in the course of a month. Lott’s remarks—that if “the country had followed our lead [in supporting Th urmond’s bid for the presidency in 1948], we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years”—were fi rst publicized by bloggers, in particular Joshua Marshall (Talking Points Memo) and Atrios (Eschaton). Th e public criticism generated by



Waking up to Race 31

these blogs, which characterized his remarks as racist, led Lott to resign his post as senate majority leader. Both Allen and Lott, addressing what they assumed to be a supportive, local audience, experienced the torsion of having their words broadcast—thanks to the rise of the Web—to a much wider public as examples of racist speech. Th eir words circulated in a broader public sphere than they initially imagined—to Americans, generally, rather than to select, partisan audiences.

Th e most vivid prior incident, though, that framed Imus’s re- marks was the outburst by Michael Richards in November 2006. Th ese two moments became entwined, initially because of their apparent commonalities—both men argued that their utterances needed to be judged in a comedic framework; and both men came to stand, at least initially, as ciphers for the depth of white racism. Th en, as each inci- dent in turn prompted more comparative discussions about white and black word usage in the public sphere, they served to open up a much wider assessment of when and how race matters. Each case became an- other moment in our “national conversation” as the discussions shifted from clear collective condemnations of racism to reassessments of the conventions governing how we recognize the racial aspect of people’s speech.

Richards’s rant became the subject of intense public scrutiny when he was caught live on a cell-phone video recording, as he lashed out at black audience members for heckling his stand-up routine at the re- nowned Laugh Factory in West Hollywood. Th e video captures roughly two and a half minutes of his furious tirade, which was proceeded by Richards’s threat that, since he is rich, he could have them all arrested if he felt like it. Th e video begins with him screaming, “Shut up! Fifty years ago we’d have had you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass.” Th en he pointed to a black audience member, shouting, “Th row his ass out! He’s a nigger,” repeating “He’s a nigger” over and over again. Th e tape ends with Richards saying, “You interrupted me, pal. Th at’s what you get for interrupting the white man.” At that point, the audi- ence left the club en masse. But, as the crowd poured out, the story was just beginning to circulate, establishing a powerful frame that would still be orienting Americans’ conversations about race when Imus said “nappy-headed hos” the following spring.



32 Waking up to Race

Was It Racist?

Th e shocking footage of Richards’s meltdown quickly gained a huge national audience through its posting on and later on YouTube. Th e furor that followed was so intense that Richards, in quick succession, went on national television (the Late Show with David Letter- man) to apologize for his remarks, hired a public relations expert “with deep contacts in the black community,” and then undertook some un- specifi ed form of therapy “to manage his anger.” He later also appeared on Jesse Jackson’s nationally syndicated radio program, Keep Hope Alive, in order to apologize further.⁴ Th e problem with Richards’s apology— one that Imus similarly faced in trying to overcome the eff ects of his later remarks—was that it raised more concerns than it allayed.

A wide range of commentators, comedians, hip-hop artists, and politicians panned his apology and publicly censured Richards’s out- burst.⁵ Critics focused on Richards’s insistence that anger was the is- sue, instead of racism (“I’m not a racist,” he asserted on the Late Show on November 20, 2006; “that’s what’s so insane about this”), and that his racial comments were merely ancillary to the fact that he “lost his temper on stage.” Richards described being “shattered” and “busted up” by the incident, but consistently used remarkably passive language in describing his role in the aff air. “Th e way this came through me was like a freight train,” he commented. On the Late Show, he disavowed being a racist but added, “and yet it’s said, it comes through, it fi res out of me and even now, in the passion that’s here as I confront myself.” But fellow comedians, newspaper columnists, and other public fi gures insisted the problem was much simpler: at heart, he really was racist.

Th e comedian Sinbad, who was in the club when the incident oc- curred, said of Richards’s apology, “Th at’s like me pulling a gun out and I shoot you a bunch of times and saying, ‘I’m not a killer, man. I can’t believe I shot you.’”⁶ Columnist Leonard Pitts wrote of the apology: “As a result, a pointed question is now being debated on the air, online, and in print: Is Michael Richards a racist? Let me save us all a lot of time: Yes.” Pitts added that what bothered him most about the discussion was that, “if so many of my white fellow Americans refuse to recognize rac- ism when it is this blatant and unmistakable, what expectation can we have that they will do so when it is subtle and covert? In other words,



Waking up to Race 33

when it is what it usually is.”⁷ Th e National Association for the Ad- vancement of Colored People also used both the remarks and the subse- quent apologies as an opportunity to comment critically on the current state of aff airs in “American culture.” Vicangelo Bulluck, director of the NAACP’s Hollywood offi ce, stated, “Mr. Richards’ commentary was clearly racist and revealed racist thinking. His declaration that he ‘is not a racist’ is indicative of the type of denial that too often accompanies racist rhetoric.”⁸ Th e evidence for seeing Michael Richards as just a rac- ist seemed quite strong, but that hardly settled the matter or quelled the intense discussion that continued long after Richards disappeared from the public sphere.

If the only issue was whether Michael Richards is a racist, there would have been little more to say about this incident. But as his com- ments and apology circulated longer on the Web, the questions they raised grew deeper and more engaging. A variety of talk shows featured the remarks in order to pose broader questions about how refl ective they were of the state of racism in America today. Th en, surprisingly, as these moments of conversation developed, the subject of concern shifted from what middle-aged white men said to the speech of black youth. In contrast to the controversy over remarks by Lott and Allen, Richards (along with Imus, later) provoked an intense evaluation and policing of the public speech of young black men. What exactly was wrong, people increasingly asked, about white men using “nigger” and “ho” if young black men’s usage of the terms was such a pervasive aspect of U.S. popu- lar culture? How such questions are posed and debated in a variety of public forums provides a window onto both the power of cultural con- ventions to shape what Americans regard as racial and the growing rec- ognition of the power of culture—in the form of rituals and taboos, in particular—to shape our response to race. In the aftermath of incidents such as these involving Richards and Imus, people both glimpse and comment widely on the conventional aspects of race and the fact that these conventions are changing.

Crossing the Line

A key factor in how public debate about both Richards and Imus evolved is that comedians played such a central role in these conversa-



34 Waking up to Race

tions. Because comedians’ refl ections and comments were highlighted from the start—stemming from Richards’s and, to a lesser extent, Imus’s status as comics—Americans benefi ted from their fi ne-grained atten- tion to arbitrary aspects of social conventions. Conventions are informal rules by which we address others and present ourselves in public. Th ey govern and inform our interactions, principally around concerns of ap- propriate and inappropriate words, gestures, and actions. Conventions are not “set in stone,” though they seem that powerful. Rather, they are constantly calibrated in countless exchanges and encounters—affi rmed, tested, and revised, generally with little conscious commentary. Comics play a particular social role in openly fl outing conventions, by blurt- ing out in public things we “know” we could or should never say. As well, comedy routines are a central forum that Americans rely on to talk about race. Who better to comment, then, on the signifi cance of Richards’s or Imus’s racial transgressions?

Critical comments about Richards’s remarks and apology quickly expanded beyond questions of racism and developed into broad public assessments of racial speech, particularly in relation to the use of “nig- ger.” Commentary ranged from comparative questions concerning when and by whom “nigger” is used in public to a concerted eff ort to ban use of the word entirely.⁹ Black comedians were most prominent in these assessments, because of the comedic context in which this incident oc- curred and the prevalence of the term in many comedians’ repertoires. Of these comics, Paul Mooney, who fi rst gained notoriety by writing much of Richard Pryor’s material, judged the remarks primarily as a comic failure. “We have the right of freedom of speech. We have the right to be funny as comedians. I believe in that, and he just crossed the line. It wasn’t funny.” He explained further: “You can do racial jokes as long as there’s a funny, as long as there’s an out for me.”¹⁰

Mooney’s remarks importantly refl ect comedians’ awareness of two sets of lines: those established by social conventions, which com- ics actively transgress in generating humor, and another set guiding what counts as “funny.”¹¹ Th e disquieting question with Richards was whether one set of lines could hold against the other, in the face of the inherently transgressive aspects of humor. As comedian Tony Figueroa lamented, “I fear that a Pandora’s box has been opened. Instead of just



Waking up to Race 35

dealing with the individual solely responsible for the incident, they cen- sor everyone. Th ey drew a line that represents acceptability and said, ‘don’t cross it.’ You don’t do that with comedians because they will see it as a challenge and they will always have the last laugh in the end.”¹² Figueroa further invoked George Carlin’s commentary from his 1970s routine, “Seven Dirty Words,” arguing “they’re only words. It’s the con- text that counts.” Th e notion of context would be invoked time and again in a manner that shifted attention from the apparent content of racial remarks to the conventional aspects of how we judge them.

Few words illustrate the power of racial meanings more clearly than the epithet Richards hurled at black audience members that night—“nigger.”¹³ Nor are there words much better for showing that cultural conventions and taboos fundamentally infl uence how we think about race. As sociologist Randall Kennedy asserts, “Th ere is nothing necessarily wrong with a white person saying ‘nigger,’ just as there is nothing necessarily wrong with a black person saying it. What should matter is the context in which the word is spoken—the speaker’s aims, eff ects, alternatives. To condemn whites who use the N-word without regard to context is simply to make a fetish of nigger.”¹⁴ As public de- bates about Richards’s usage keyed in on this question of context, they not only displaced the issue of his individual racism, but shifted the discussion entirely to focus on the speech of black comedians, black rap- pers, and other entertainers. Th is shift gradually revealed that the cru- cial ground in making judgments about context in this case—that is, the domain of the public against a presumed private sphere—was in the process of changing dramatically.

Th e very notion of “mainstream” discourse, with its various im- plicit demarcations of “racial,” increasingly was called into question by the Richards incident, through the recognition that the sphere of the “public” is expanding while its content is shifting. In the most literal sense, the domain of “public” speech is being greatly increased by the rise of video-recording phones that capture such remarks and the emer- gence of Web sites like YouTube, where such material can be posted. But, more broadly, there was also an acknowledgment, in comedian Mike Epps’s words, that “it’s amazing how mainstream this word has become.”¹⁵ Th e increasingly widespread broadcast of “nigger,” largely



36 Waking up to Race

through the enormous popularity of hip-hop music and racial comedy routines, led commentators to take stock of a host of conventions re- garding race that were subsequently appearing somewhat artifi cial, or at least no longer simply “common sense.”

Attention to these conventions was at the center of an extensive three-part discussion, hosted by Black Entertainment Television and titled Hip-Hop vs. America, on January 9, 2008, which featured Chuck D and Michael Dyson arguing for recognizing and retaining the var- ied meanings of “nigger” while strictly maintaining a line against white people using the term. Countering their stance, Keith Boykin, author of the 2005 book Beyond the Down Low, asserted, “Th e problem is that you can’t stop white people from using the word if we use the word. We can’t tell the white community they’re wrong when we’re using it every damn day on the street.” In the face of the mainstream circulation of “nigger,” via the surging popularity of hip-hop, Boykin insisted on a single standard of usage across racial lines, asserting that “we have to be consistent about this. We can’t set the line in one place and then set it in a diff erent place.” Rapper KRS-One, in an interview on National Public Radio on November 30, 2006, asserted a similar cross-racial assessment of the word’s usage. “According to hip-hop, in our rules, ‘nigger’ to me is not off ensive at all. To me, in hip-hop, if somebody said something like—for instance, if Eminem had called us niggers, which he does, and himself, by the way, there would’ve been another rapper who would have stepped up and challenged him in rap. Meaning that, to me, if you’re a comedian and you’re using the word ‘nigger’ and you use it out of con- text, where other comedians are then saying, wait a minute, you crossed the line here on this issue.”¹⁶ KRS-One’s assessment renders the issue in conventional terms, as a matter of roles and characters, which are of cru- cial import to comedians who work with racially charged material.¹⁷

From another end of the racial spectrum, Jared Taylor, editor of American Renaissance, was one of many white commentators arguing that what had really been transgressed were the conventions governing racial speaking roles. Commenting during the December 2006 pro- gram Skin-Deep: Racism in America—featuring a discussion, hosted by Paula Zahn, of the larger implications of Richards’s comedy-club break- down—Taylor argued, “In eff ect, black people have told white people:



Waking up to Race 37

Here is a word you may not use. We can use it, if we like, but you better not use it. And how have whites responded? Th ey have said, ‘Yes, sir, we will not use this word.’” For Taylor, this situation amounted to a reversal of power roles in the racial landscape. “Now, whites are the ones who are very careful about what they say. Th ey can’t risk off ending blacks. What does this tell us, despite the fact that blacks can use words like ‘cracker’ and ‘honky’? I won’t be thrown off the set if I use those words. What does that say, really, about the racial power relationship in the United States?”

Taylor’s question was answered on the show by Paula Rothenberg, author of the 2004 book White Privilege, who argued that to discuss power in this situation requires fi rst coming to terms with the pervasive- ness of white privilege. Th e concept of white privilege certainly explains a good deal about how race matters in the United States, but it does not adequately address how, in debates about such remarks, Americans are growing increasingly conscious of the conventions governing the des- ignation of some speech as “racial” and some as not.¹⁸ Th e notion of a “double standard” served to articulate this heightened awareness that certain words may be judged as racial in one instance but not in another, largely dependent on the color of the speaker. Commentator Christo- pher Hitchens engaged the question of a double standard, though, by utterly dismissing “the pathetic complaint made by some white people that it’s unfair that blacks can use the word while they cannot.” But Hitchens simultaneously railed against the “taboo” now forming over “nigger” because it does little to diminish “the word’s power and pa- thology.” He further explained, “What we have now,” with the various eff orts to ban the term, “is a taboo, which is something quite diff er- ent from an agreement on etiquette.” Hitchens, here, echoes Kennedy, who similarly warns against making a cultural “fetish” or taboo out of “nigger”—but their suggestions run counter to prevailing opinions that urged doing exactly this in the wake of debates over what Richards and Imus had said.

A taboo, simply, is one of the most basic cultural operations. Doubtless, taboos have great social value—the civility of public dis- course rests upon them. However, as both Hitchens and Kennedy argue, taboos have a host of unintended eff ects. First among these is to make



38 Waking up to Race

the prohibited object (and, consequently, the taboo itself ) more perva- sive and more powerful. In the Victorian era, taboos on sex were so per- vasive that even table legs had to be draped, lest young boys might fall prey to lewd thoughts upon seeing them. Similarly, taboos concerning race heighten race’s meaningfulness. At the same time, taboos constrain the means for assessing racial aspects of situations—“racial” becomes something we operate on in terms of restoring violated decorum, rather than by trying to examine its component parts and functions. Compli- cating the situation is that taboos may gain in importance when people are faced with diffi cult issues and shifting or destabilizing conventions. Instead of off ering a means to address or examine the processes and di- mensions of racial thought and perception, people disturbed by situa- tions involving race have a tendency to resort to a cultural resolution of barring their discussion; they treat such topics as contaminating forms of pollution.¹⁹

Th e enticing option of rendering the word “nigger” taboo is that— instead of grappling with its complexity or further questioning the con- ventions governing who may use “nigger” in public—we agree to ban the word entirely. A number of African American political leaders, led by Jesse Jackson and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, used the Rich- ards incident to launch a national campaign to eradicate the term from public discourse. Jackson characterized the eff ort as “urging all to stop using the word ‘nigger.’ Whether it’s degrading or self-degradation, it’s still wrong. We’re challenging artists and companies to stop using the word. Hate speech should be rejected.”²⁰ Th e City Council of New York followed suit in support of this eff ort by voting on February 28, 2007 to ban all use of the term in what was characterized as “a symbolic crack- down on the widespread use of the term in hip-hop songs, in fi lms, and on the city’s streets.”²¹

Strikingly, the resolution’s sponsor, Leroy G. Comrie Jr., declared that the ban was largely aimed at young blacks who use the word among themselves. Characterizing “nigger” as a means solely of “dehumanizing people,” Comrie specifi ed that “it should not be used, especially in the manner young people are using it,”²² even though it was a white man’s usage that provoked the larger debate.²³ As was the case with a number of similar resolutions passed around the same time in a variety of com-



Waking up to Race 39

munities, the crux of the issue was an expanding generational gap re- garding racial meanings. Among legislators with experiences of the civil rights movement, the common sentiment was that black youths were targeted by these measures because they “don’t know their history.”²⁴ As Andrea McElroy—a councilwoman in Irvington, New Jersey who spon- sored a like-minded ban—asserted, “I think it is basically incumbent upon us to remind them of the story of what the word meant to so many of our ancestors.”²⁵ A similar angst over the growing generational gap regarding the meaning of such charged symbols would emerge months later as Jena, Louisiana, burst into the news.

Th is movement to ban the “n-word” culminated when the NAACP, during its annual convention that summer, symbolically bur- ied the word in a mock funeral featuring a horse-drawn caisson, black roses, and a plywood casket. Th ough this gesture responded to Rich- ards’s outburst, it also sought to address the issues later raised by the Imus incident, as noted by Detroit’s mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who de- clared, “we gather burying all the things that go with the n-word. We have to bury the ‘pimps’ and ‘hos’ that go with it. Die, n-word, and we don’t want to see you ’round here no more.”²⁶ For all the calculations about money and politics that factored into the outrage over Richards and Imus, why was the symbolic realm of culture the privileged ground for resolution? Because culture—in the form of conventions, taboos, and rituals, along with notions of pollution—has become the preferred ter- rain for handling racial uncertainty and anxiety. But does it have greater effi cacy than economic sanctions (in the form of boycotts) or legislative solutions? Th at question took center stage in the public debate over what Imus said.

Rituals of Race

Imus, like Richards, facing a similarly incredulous public, found his eff orts to apologize for his remarks did little to quell the frenzy. In fact, his apologies made things worse for him. His problems were multiple. First, his remarks had thrown into stark relief how much had changed in the United States and how uncomfortable Americans had become with a certain kind of public speech. Second, apologizing for



40 Waking up to Race

making racial remarks has become so ritualized it was diffi cult for him to make much of an impact or be read as other than a white racist.²⁷ Finally, people just were not buying lines that had worked in the past. For example, Imus’s “good person” defense, which he progressively de- veloped through each of several public apologies, sparked extensive con- versations but won him little support. He did, however, in the process, manage to raise the question of a possible double standard regarding a white man saying “ho” and a black man saying it. Th is topic renewed at- tention to the racial conventions governing who can say what in public that had been stirred up by Richards.

Imus’s fi rst attempt to apologize was a terse, simple statement he made after the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP labeled his com- ments as racist and unacceptable on Th ursday, April 5. He opened his Friday morning show by apologizing “for an insensitive and ill- conceived remark we made the other morning.” Imus characterized it as “completely inappropriate,” adding, “We can understand why people were off ended. Our characterization was thoughtless and stupid, and we’re sorry.” Th en he briskly moved on to the morning’s new topics, with little comprehension of how diffi cult it would be to close the racial breach he had opened. Nor did he realize that this apology would help catapult the remarks from “incident” to “news” over the weekend. Th at same morning, the National Association of Black Journalists character- ized his comments as outrageous and disgusting, and the presidents of Rutgers University and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, in a joint statement, labeled his remarks as “unconscionable.” Over the weekend, Al Sharpton held a rally in New York and called for Imus’s resignation, while Jesse Jackson organized a picket at the Chicago of- fi ces of MSNBC.

On Monday Imus tried again. Th is time he opened his show with both an apology and refl ections on what he had learned from the inci- dent. Looking grave and ruffl ed, he fumbled through an explanation of what he didn’t say in his previous eff ort to apologize. “I didn’t think it was necessary to off er any excuse, and I don’t think there is now. I didn’t think there was any need for me to put into any sort of context what happens on this program, ’cause I unwisely just assumed that everybody knows, and just as obviously they don’t. And I didn’t think it was im-



Waking up to Race 41

portant to talk about what I do with my life, what my wife does with her life and who I am because, um . . .” His words and thoughts trailed off in befuddlement at the predicament he was facing. Th e very stylized conventions that made his show a forum for both high-minded political discussion and low-down abuse were crumbling. Th e charitable work he did on his ranch was clearly not serving as a mitigating factor for those who might judge his character based on his on-air behavior. He struggled on, though, off ering up insight from the past few days. “What have I learned from this? . . . Here’s what I’ve learned. You can’t make fun of everybody because some people don’t deserve it.” He promised, too, that the “climate” on the show would change. He ended, simply, by saying, “I’m sorry I did that. I’m embarrassed that I did that. I did a bad thing. But I’m a good person.”

Many whites respond to allegations of racism the same way Imus did—discounting the accusation by invoking the cultural category of the “good person.”²⁸ Th e reasons are several. Primarily, it refl ects a deep, abiding faith in the individual as the key category in American culture. Rather than seeing each of us as, in some sense, embodying larger cul- tural beliefs and biases, Americans steadfastly insist on regarding the individual as a morally distinct and responsible entity.²⁹ For whites— who may readily recognize each other as individuals but tend to identify people of other races primarily as belonging to groups, the opposite cat- egory from individual³⁰—this amounts to an appeal to what sociologist Orlando Patterson calls the “authentic self.” Th e cultural logic is that, if I am morally good and I belong to this category, good person, then I could not be guilty of racism, because racists are bad persons. Th is way of thinking certainly can be seen as disingenuous in racial terms, in that it steadfastly ignores evidence to the contrary. But it can just as easily be seen as a refl ection of the risk in being publicly branded by the highly stigmatized label “racist.” Th e powerful accusation “racist” can override deep or considered attention to what makes any particular comments appear racial to begin with.³¹

Th e “good person” defense was hardly adequate, though, in the face of the sustained critical assessment of Imus’s remarks. Eugene Robinson, a columnist for the Washington Post, posed the question suc- cinctly: “What would possess nappy-headed radio host Don Imus to



42 Waking up to Race

think ‘nappy-headed ho’ was an amusing way to describe the Rutgers University women’s basketball team? Why would it even occur to him to say such a thing even in private conversation, much less to millions of listeners on CBS Radio and the MSNBC cable network?”³² Robinson off ered two answers to his own question, one basic and the other more elaborate: “Th e simple answer would be—all together now—racism.” But Robinson recognized, too, that a simple answer was insuffi cient because, just as with Richards, there was a bigger question here than whether this particular white man was racist or not. With Imus still “in full self-fl agellation mode,” Robinson added, “I can accept that Imus doesn’t believe he is racist, but ‘nappy-headed hos’ had to come from somewhere.” Racism was not proving entirely suffi cient for answering the larger question about where the phrase had come from and how such words had entered mainstream American language.

Almost as if in reply, Imus appeared on Al Sharpton’s radio show, Keepin’ It Real, on April 9, to apologize further and to off er additional points in his defense. Th e studio was charged and edgy, crowded with reporters and photographers snapping pictures, while Sharpton kept a physical distance from his radioactive guest. Sharpton simply asked, “What is any possible reason you could feel that this kind of state- ment could be forgiven and overlooked?” “I don’t think it can be,” Imus gamely replied, but then he launched into an explanation with three main points. First, Imus insisted, his comments were meant and should be taken as a joke; second, he maintained that his remarks should be taken in “context,” specifi cally in terms of “a program that makes fun of everybody,” including himself. Imus thus put his remarks in the con- text of his role as a transgressive humorist or “shock jock” and a “serial insulter”: “I didn’t say it out of anger. We’re trying to be funny like we have for thirty years on this program.” Th ird, he argued the language he used came not from himself but from the “culture,” generally, and from “the black community,” in particular. “Th is phrase that I used, it originated in the black community. Th at didn’t give me a right to use it, but that is where it originated. Who calls who that and why? We need to know that. I need to know that.”

Th e bigger questions Imus raised hung for a moment in the studio, poised to shift the discussion to this broader array of issues. At root, he



Waking up to Race 43

argued, given these additional considerations, what he said was hardly racist and really even not certainly racial. “I’m just telling you what I thought,” Imus went on, “I didn’t think it was racial.” But this broader conversation slammed to a halt in the face of Sharpton’s incredulity and bemusement. “Let me get this right. You call these people nappy- headed hos but you wasn’t talking racial when you said ‘nappy.’ ‘Jiga- boos and wannabees’ but you didn’t understand what you were saying. You just . . . what are you saying? You just blanked out?” Imus replied, “I didn’t say that. I said, I wasn’t thinking that . . . I’m not thinking that it’s a racial insult that is being uttered at somebody at the time. I’m thinking that it’s in the process of we’re trying to rap and be funny.” “Nappy is racial,” Sharpton explained. “Saying wannabes and jigaboos is racial.” But would this make Spike Lee’s use of “wannabes and jiga- boos”—which Sid Rosenberg had referenced that morning—racial too, or racial in a diff erent way?

Th is question might have surfaced if things had gone diff erently that morning on Sharpton’s show. Th at it did not is partly attributable to the way Imus’s defense quickly crumbled and his eff orts to apologize turned into a shouting match with other guests and callers. Th is was hardly Sharpton’s doing, though. Both Imus’s further comments and the larger social forces outside the broadcast booth mattered greatly. When Sharpton let Imus fi eld phone calls from listeners, Representa- tive Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-MI) called to ask if he realized how much he had hurt black women. Exasperated and overwrought, Imus railed, “How do you assume I don’t understand that?” Th en, quoting a coun- try-and-western song, “God May Forgive You, But I Won’t,” he lashed out further, saying, “I can’t get any place with you people.” Th is suc- cinct utterance—which encapsulates whites’ tendency to perceive blacks as belonging to a group rather than being distinct individuals— slammed the door on any further consideration of what Imus had to say that day.

Dollars and Sense

Th e bigger questions generated in the exchange between Sharpton and Imus quickly gained a larger audience, particularly for commen-



44 Waking up to Race

tators who continued to ponder why and how Imus could not see his remarks as racial. Th is line of questioning consistently focused on the conventions that allowed Imus and his brand of humor to operate for so long in the public sphere without drawing widespread outrage.³³ No- tably, for these commentators, the line that Imus so clearly transgressed concerning the racial was not as obvious in a retrospective glance at his comedic career.

A variety of pundits noted that Imus’s style of humor has long featured insults, and his wide-ranging objects have included U.S. sena- tors and presidential candidates (whom he routinely labeled as “idiots” and “morons”), religious and public fi gures (particularly Reverend Jerry Falwell and Cardinal Edward Egan), and even his own bosses at CBS (whom he characterized as “money-grubbing bastards”). Andrew Skerrit described his own early fascination with Imus in the 1980s: “I loved his irreverence and his rebellion. As he mellowed, I enjoyed the politics and culture on his show; I didn’t object to his equal opportunity bashing.”³⁴ Some of his insults were hard to categorize emphatically as “racial.” Was the insult racial or not when he referred to Vice President Dick Cheney as “pork chop butt,” or called New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson a “fat sissy,” or referred to Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell as “the guy from F Troop,” or labeled Colin Powell as “a weasel” or called the New York Knicks a group of “chest-thumping pimps”? Regardless, many listeners and participants on his show were able to delineate a dis- tinct racial strand in this history of insults. Maxine Waters had little problem highlighting his extensive catalog of insults in a statement that called for Imus to be fi red: “His show has been so audacious as to make statements such as: ‘Venus and Serena Williams were better suited for National Geographic than Playboy,’ ‘Female soccer players are juiced-up dykes,’ ‘Faggots play tennis,’ and said ‘Palestinians were stinking ani- mals.’”³⁵ But how had such comments not become the focus of public protests?

Th e answer is complex and involves the changing racial and gen- der demographics of corporate America, the shifting contours of “main- stream” discourse in the United States, and the crumbling conventions that governed racial humor until recently. In the fi rst regard, consider the sharp fi nancial calculations that led to Imus being fi red and how those calculations were impacted by African Americans and women in



Waking up to Race 45

the corporate world. Quite literally, Imus’s employers at CBS and the show’s sponsors took stock, minute by minute, of the way his apologies were playing before various constituencies. “It was a cost benefi t analy- sis, not a moral analysis,” concluded Stanley Fish. “It was a business decision no more momentous or philosophically weighty than the deci- sion to dismiss a salesman for not making quota.”³⁶ Importantly, these corporate decisions were infl uenced by African Americans and women who work within the media. Th e National Association of Black Journal- ists was the fi rst to call for Imus to be fi red, quickly followed by the Na- tional Organization of Women’s “Action Alert” encouraging members to fl ood CBS and NBC with protests. On April 10, NBC News president, Steve Capus, was deluged with employee complaints concerning Imus. As a senior producer characterized the situation, “we went out and cre- ated diversity in our newsrooms and we empowered employees to say what they think. And they’re telling us. It’s good for us and it’s good for the country.”³⁷ Th is increasing diversity, along with the increasing sense of empowerment among employees refl ects a signifi cant shift in the public sphere in the United States.

Such changes led University of Maryland professor Sheri Parks to conclude that “what’s diff erent about this fi ring compared to that of other insult jocks is that people internal to the organizations—women and African Americans at NBC and CBS—came forward and said, ‘I am in this organization, and I do not want to be associated with this kind of man.’”³⁸ As well, black employees at Sprint Nextel successfully lobbied the company’s CEO, Gary Forsee, to withdraw the corporation’s advertising. Jannette Dates, coeditor of Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media, pointed to the role played by black business leaders such as Kenneth Chenault, the CEO of American Express. Dates con- cluded: “this means that even though there has been this nasty hateful- ness in media with comments like the ones from Imus, there has also been progress among this very group of black men and black women that has been treated so vilely. Now, we see some of them in positions of power with the means to end such hateful talk.”³⁹ Imus’s dominance as a public fi gure was clearly impacted by the power of these expanding constituencies within corporate America.

But the demographics and politics of a changing America only ex- plain the particular impact of all this on Imus himself. What mattered



46 Waking up to Race

more was a cultural shift in the conventions governing racial humor and speech, which had operated in such a way that his style of “joking” went without much comment for many years.⁴⁰ As well, the shape and con- tent of mainstream speech in the United States had altered signifi cantly in recent years, refl ecting the increased popularity of both hip-hop music and racial comedy routines. Th ese two developments converged that early April morning. Imus’s claims—that he was trying to make a joke using language he had clumsily drawn from “the black commu- nity”—received almost as much of an airing as did his original remarks. Th e critical assessments that followed off er a number of insights into the conventions governing “racial” speech in U.S. public discourse today. Many Americans who listened to all this and were caught up in the drama were left to ponder the questions Imus raised before his fi ring: Have the rules of racial humor changed? And have we clarifi ed our ex- pectations for who can say what in racial terms?

Th e answer lies in the way we selectively categorize only some re- marks as racial. In part, this is because race is such a routinized aspect of American life that a great deal of its everyday workings pass without notice. But it is also because we have gradually assembled an array of conventions governing how and when we think race can either be funny or must be taken seriously in public. Th ese amount to “rules” or “lines” that are neither fi xed by statute nor established by law, and they cer- tainly do not refl ect a natural order of things. We all know that there are lines—ephemeral and elusive lines that may only become emphatic once crossed—governing what we can and cannot say in public. Th is is a cultural matter; people not raised in this country may not see them at all or feel them weighing against their public articulations. Th at makes these boundaries simultaneously insubstantial and immensely powerful. Indeed, as we see with both Richards and Imus, these lines materialize through the process of extensive commentary and discussion—usually after the fact, when these conventions have been breached. Th is process is part of what our “national conversation” attempts to elucidate.

What stands out from the public evaluation of Imus’s remark is how clearly delineated the conventions were that allowed him, his audi- ence, and his guests to compartmentalize the racial humor on Imus’s show. Th e “respectability” he garnered from interviewing the power-



Waking up to Race 47

ful and privileged allowed them all to participate in his steady stream of disparaging and debasing language. Th ese conventions crumbled, though, when Imus’s remarks were captured and posted for circulation in a much wider American public, opening up a critical reassessment of similar comments throughout his broadcast history. As if hearing both his remarks and his routine for the fi rst time, Americans were appalled. Imus’s dexterity in manipulating these conventions dissipated and, as a satirist whose humor hinged on racist and sexist stereotypes, he could no longer distance himself from his own words. As comedian Larry Wil- more remarked, “You can’t just say, ‘So let’s talk about what’s happening to the economy this week, and up next, nappy-headed hos!’ People get confused.”⁴¹ In this sense, the compartmentalization collapsed and the targets of his humor appeared no longer abstract but painfully real and humanly vulnerable.

A variety of observers commented that his dual roles—as radio shock jock and political purveyor interviewing presidential candidates and members of Congress—were no longer clearly separable. Given his guest list, which routinely featured powerful politicians and infl uen- tial journalists, Imus was regarded fi rst and foremost as a “media gi- ant” with the ability to shape public opinion regarding the central play- ers in national politics. As journalist Weston Kosova remarked, “Th e show became an infl uential salon for the politically connected. Powerful people tuned in to hear what other powerful people would say.”⁴² His “A-list” guests bequeathed an aura of seriousness and high-mindedness that let these very guests ignore the extent of his racial insults. As one guest, NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory, related, “Imus was living in two worlds. Th ere was the risqué, sexually off ensive, sometimes racially off ensive satire, and then there was this political sa- lon about politics and books. Some of us tuned in to one part and tuned out the other. Whether I was numb to the humor that off ended people or in denial, I don’t know.”⁴³

Columnist Frank Rich concluded that this amounted to a form of hypocrisy, and, regarding his own appearances on Imus’s show, stated that “among the hypocrites surrounding Imus, I’ll include myself.” Rich related, “Of course, I was aware of many of his obnoxious comments about minority groups, including my own, Jews. Sometimes he even



48 Waking up to Race

aimed invectives at me personally. I wasn’t seriously bothered by much of it, even when it was unfunny or made me wince, because I saw him as equally off ensive to everyone.”⁴⁴ Th ese comments make apparent that the cultural conventions allowing for this compartmentalization shifted rather suddenly, such that some of his guests could now see something they had largely ignored before.

Equal Opportunity Offender or Total Humor Failure?

Th e questions raised by these refl ections on Imus’s career boiled down to whether his role as satirist and/or humorist allowed him a cer- tain kind of transgressive license. If so, how did the “racial” judgment limit this license? Time and again, phrases such as “equally off ensive” and “equal opportunity off ender” appeared as characterizations of Imus in the wake of this incident. But these assessments were typically ac- companied by acknowledgments that Imus had “crossed the line” this time in making an object of ridicule out of the women basketball play- ers from Rutgers. Unlike his typical, white, male guests, these players were not powerful, and the tradition of ridiculing and demeaning black women, which his remarks channeled, received a very public review and censure. As columnist Bob Herbert summarized the problem, “People in positions of great power are the ones who defi ne those who are rela- tively lacking in power. So when Don Imus, a very powerful radio per- sonality, dropped his disgusting verbal bomb on the members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team, he sent a powerful message across the airwaves: that the young women on the team (the black ones, at least) were crude, ugly, and genetically inferior, and that all of the women were whores.”⁴⁵ It was this disparity and this message that became the overwhelming focus of critical commentary, ratifying the conclusion that Imus, like Richards, had “a total sense of humor failure.”⁴⁶

Imus retorted, though, that he was “in character” at the time he spoke, leading us to the other conventions that worked to support his routine for so long. Imus was able to distance himself from much of his own material because it was framed in terms of a cast of characters on his show. About a half-dozen supporting cast members on Imus in the Morning, who both wrote material and performed certain character



Waking up to Race 49

roles on the show, worked to frame the talk show as a comedy routine. Jacques Steinberg characterized this as a division of labor in which the show’s producer, Bernard McGuirk—who was fi red, too, after this in- cident—provided an “illusion of deniability or distance” for Imus from the show’s racial content. Steinberg explained, “Only then can they ex- press what he might want to say about blacks, Jews, gays, or women but perhaps feels he can’t, given his stature as an interviewer of the famous and important.”⁴⁷ But the other dimension of this distance is that the supporting cast members often performed satiric roles and imperson- ations that allowed them to appear as “in character.” Th ese involved impersonations of very powerful fi gures, such as Jerry Falwell, Edward Kennedy, and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York.

Th is type of distance—provided by pretending to be a character— is what comedians such as Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen mobilize when they perform their racial material. What collapsed, in this case, were the conventions that let Imus—and his listeners—main- tain a distinction between his words and the individual who spoke them. Comedian Larry Wilmore assessed the failure of these conven- tions of distance by invoking a “racial formula”: “I have a mathematical equation for all of this. White guy plus black slang equals comedy. But here’s where the equation breaks down. White guy plus black slang mi- nus common sense equals tragedy.”⁴⁸ Wilmore’s invocation of “common sense,” on one hand, gestures to the type of cultural knowledge that Imus seemed to lack at that moment when he said “nappy-headed hos.” But Wilmore’s assessment can also be read as an indication that the con- ventions shaping this “common sense” had shifted in such a way that the assumed knowledge had abruptly been reconfi gured. In both cases, the designation of “racial” here rests upon an extensive array of cultural assessments, allowing commentators to analyze so precisely where Imus failed the humor test. Th is line of thinking raises an important ques- tion: if Imus had stuck to the rules and conventions both he and all of us seem now to know so well, would we even be having this conversa- tion? Th e answer is probably no, suggesting not only how much we de- pend on all this racial material to be “subtext” or implicit, but also how much we rely on such “conversations” to establish and contest the rules governing what counts as racial.



50 Waking up to Race

“Ho ho ho.” Santa Claus

When Imus was confronted with public attention to his use of “nappy-headed hos,” he worked desperately to shunt attention instead to its use among “the black community.” In returning to this issue, we pick up again a strand of the critical commentary linking Imus and Rich- ards: the public evaluation of both incidents eventually expanded into a wider discussion of the conventions that govern how whites and blacks are judged racially in terms of the words they speak. But observers and commentators, at those moments, could hardly foresee that these very public chastisements for racial speech would lead to a tighter policing of the words that young black men use.

Imus and Richards each demonstrated that words like “ho” and “nigger” were frequent enough features in mainstream entertainment media that white men were venturing back into a public use of language that had been foreclosed for a long time. Th e pervasive use of sexually derogatory terms in hip-hop became “mainstreamed” with the music that had grown so popular, especially among its largest consumers— young white men. As T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, author of the 2007 book Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women, observed, “Hip-hop gave Imus the language. He wouldn’t have known what a ‘ho’ was if it weren’t for rap records.”⁴⁹ Th at is largely because, as Carol Swain, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, noted, “Th e language from rappers and comedians has seeped into the culture to the point that Don Imus thought it was okay to call black women ‘hos.’”⁵⁰ Such observations fed the charge that, as with Richards’s use of “nigger,” a double standard was evident in the outrage over these remarks.⁵¹

Television talk-show host Paula Zahn, reprising her special focus on race and language in the wake of Richards’s tirade, returned to the issue of a double standard at work in the criticism of Imus. On CNN’s Paula Zahn Now on April 13, 2007, she noted that “he was brought down because he used racist and sexist words. Yet, that language is used daily by countless entertainers and ordinary people.” Another newscaster on this show, David Mattingly, reported that “a web search for the word ‘ho’ at one mainstream online store turns up more than 600 rap song



Waking up to Race 51

titles. Th e word ‘nappy,’ slang for coarse, unkempt hair, turns up more than 130 song titles. Th at word, however, is even the name of a chain of hair salons.” Both Zahn and Mattingly were highlighting the way “racial,” in this incident, delimited a certain form or instance of word usage, raising questions concerning the conventions governing “main- stream” discourse in the United States. Since “ho” was so clearly part of mainstream speech, was the designation of “racial” contingent upon the race of the speaker? Th e question, as they phrased it, became “who can say what?” Th e answer, though, is hardly as succinctly rendered, since it involves the shifting and confl icting claims (and ascriptions) of owner- ship and propriety of words that mark both the user and the objects of designation in terms of race.

Some claimed that it was Imus’s race rather than his word choice that proved damning. As Atlanta-based syndicated talk-show host Neal Boortz summed up the matter, the only reason Imus was in trouble was that he is white: “How dare a white man say that? If you can show me something that you’d never heard on urban radio, you’ve got an issue. If that’s not the case, then all you have is a case of stupidity.”⁵² Th is type of assessment echoed in wide-ranging charges of “hypocrisy” lev- eled against most of the infl uential fi gures in this incident—including CBS, whose media empire includes numerous hip-hop recordings that feature the very terms in question. Th e evaluation of speech increasingly keyed in on the disjuncture among particular individuals, their racial identities, and how the words they spoke either reproduced or disrupted the etiquette governing race and speech in the United States.

Jonetta Rose Barras—a political analyst at the time for WAMU in Washington, DC, commenting in the Washington Post—regarded all the “sensational indignation” over Imus’s words as entirely “hypocriti- cal” because “it cast African Americans principally as the victims of dis- crimination—and ignored the fact that they are the chief purveyors of the demeaning language being decried. It ignored the realities of how culture gets transmitted in contemporary society and the prominent role that African Americans play in that transfer. It failed to recognize the market forces at play. And it held blacks unaccountable for any of the damage, saddling whites with all the blame.”⁵³ In Barras’s assessment, the terms of evaluation require us to recognize the complex cultural dy-



52 Waking up to Race

namics shaping our reception of such words, in order to come to terms with the deeply ensconced assumptions about how race defi nes speech roles in the public sphere. Such assessments require very broad refl ec- tions on how much the American mainstream has changed.

Kelefa Sanneh, a music critic for the New York Times, observed, “As all but the most intemperate foes of hip-hop readily admit, this is not a debate about freedom of speech; most people agree that rappers have the right to say just about anything. Th is is, rather, a debate about hip-hop’s vexed position in the American mainstream.” In that light, San- neh actually considered the charge of a “double standard” as an “under- statement” that hardly addressed the cultural complexity of these shift- ing conventions. Sanneh continued, “Like MySpace users and politicians and reality-television stars and, yes, talk-radio hosts, rappers are trying to negotiate a culture in which the boundaries of public and private space keep changing, along with the multiplying standards that govern them. Th is means that mainstream culture is becoming less prim (or more crude, if you prefer), and it’s getting harder to keep the sordid stuff on the mar- gins.”⁵⁴ As Sanneh’s comments highlight, these discussions about racial matters—featuring cultural operations of maintaining boundaries and standards of decorum linked to lines between “public” and “private” that may operate independent of race—are provoking a good deal of thought about these underlying dynamics.

Th is attention to conventions and decorum became the over- arching focus in the wake of Imus’s apologies to the women basketball players at Rutgers. Notably, Oprah Winfrey hosted a two-show special “town meeting” on the role of hip-hop music in popularizing terms such as “ho” in the larger public discourse. Less than two weeks after Imus was fi red, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons—who appeared on the Winfrey special—promoted a ban on the words “bitch,” “ho,” and “nig- ger”⁵⁵ in “clean versions” of rap, characterizing the terms as “extreme curse words.”⁵⁶ Th is ban, and the heightened critical attention to word usage in hip-hop music and comedy routines, amounted to a cultural solution to the confusion of conventions that marked these racial in- cidents. Th at is, this word usage was to be treated strictly as a form of pollution, a transgression of the cultural etiquette regarding race, that could be contained without addressing any of the social or economic



Waking up to Race 53

aspects of race. Indeed, a variety of commentators lamented that this “national conversation” was not close to addressing most of the power- ful ways that racial inequality is reproduced in this country. Rather, the primary solution people turned to in confronting these transgressions of U.S. public discourse was to “clean up” the airwaves. Th is is a cultural solution that appears to have little eff ect on the economic and social aspects of race, as any number of commentators pointed out. But this cultural response, with its power to establish what counts as “racial” in language use, warrants much closer attention, because it is so infl uential in keeping “race” from coming into view so much of the time in Ameri- can public discourse.

What Was He Thinking? We weren’t really thinking about it, that’s obvious.


Culture plays out between the unconscious and the hypercon- scious. Culture gives us the fodder for both the quick, witty remark and the long explanation of why it may come off as off ensive instead of humorous. Th e way we think about and make sense of race operates between these two modes of culture. Lately, we have developed a more active form of listening to race—a hyperconsciousness that refl ects our awareness of both the conventions guiding how we talk about race and the fact that they are changing. Th is is what our ongoing “national con- versation” is largely about. Th e conversation develops through moments such as those in which Richards’s and Imus’s comments were made, when the smooth running machinery of everyday life spits out a word or two that reveals, starkly, how much is changing, and how oblivious we are of the transformation, up until that moment that the conventions start to shift. Th ese events are what we label as “racial.”

More incidents followed later in the summer of 2007 as the con- versation expanded from its initial epicenters. A broad audience listened closely to Isaiah Th omas explain, in testimony regarding the sexual ha- rassment charges brought against him by Anucha Browne Sanders, that he makes a distinction between when white men label a black woman “bitch” and when black men do it. Th omas related that a white man



54 Waking up to Race

using this epithet, “would have violated my code of conduct,” while he would not regard it as off ensive if a black man did the same. Th is public commentary further fueled eff orts by African Americans to police such words being used and similar distinctions being drawn by black men. Th e best example of this heightened racial vigilance came on August 31, during a sold-out show for Black Enterprise’s fourteenth annual Golf and Tennis Challenge in Miami. Featured comedian Eddie Griffi n— nicknamed the King of Hip-Hop Stand-Up—had his performance abruptly terminated when his microphone was turned off in the middle of his routine because he repeatedly used the word “nigger.” A line that was negligible for black comedians just a few months earlier had been crossed, and the sanctions were immediate and emphatic.

Culture shapes our interest in drawing such lines, which in turn shapes the ways we think about race. We often talk about race as if it stemmed from the core problem of racism, but our thinking about race involves a good deal more. Race is also composed of rules and rituals, taboos and licenses, to which we give very little thought but which in- form our perception of some words as racial. Of course, it is not just the words themselves we judge but the people who use them in certain kinds of contexts. Culture involves judgments about belonging and diff erence, and it inscribes boundaries between these two conditions. When we do race, we are both acting out and acting upon our own culture. Despite our best eff orts to keep all this straight, lines continue to be crossed. In the process, our thinking about race—which we generally prefer not to think about—is highlighted in such a way that we start to wonder why or how we could ever have thought that way.

What Are We Talking About? Basic Features of the “National Conversation”

One of the most frequent comments made about the Imus inci- dent, as with the one involving Richards, is that this episode was part of our “national conversation on race.” Sometimes this statement was made cynically or ironically, and sometimes sincerely or with uncertainty. Th e idea of such a conversation stems from former President Bill Clinton’s 1997 Initiative on Race, but the notion has long since taken on an active life of its own in the public sphere. It was there, ready and waiting, in



Waking up to Race 55

the wake of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, which so dispropor- tionately devastated the lives of poor African Americans. People quickly characterized the resulting heated debates as another stage in that na- tional conversation. Similar characterizations were made regarding events in Jena, Louisiana, and Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But the ready references beg the question, what kind of “conversation” is this?

Simply put, it is a cultural conversation—the kind a people have among themselves over fundamental issues of identity and diff erence— concerning a basic question: what is the meaning of race? Th is conversa- tional question meanders through current events, occasionally touching on the enduring signifi cance of historical moments, and is continually renewed by changes, either subtle or abrupt, that make us question ba- sic assumptions. Th e conversational character—in contrast to legislative eff orts or formal debates—recognizes that this question cannot be re- solved “once and for all.” It is an ongoing concern. As well, the notion of conversation implies that there are certain conventions and decorums, expectations about who can or will say what, and what topics are appro- priate. Each of these aspects will be explored in depth in the subsequent chapters, but before proceeding it is worth specifying further some of the conversation’s characteristic features and dynamics.

First, it is episodic and sporadic—it does not proceed in linear fashion. People expecting a rational argument or logical terms will fi nd it confusing, but this characteristic is a commonplace of culture, which is composed of stories and images with powerful, at times unfi xed, meanings, rather than a series of formal propositions. Th is conversa- tion advances through the types of episodes depicted in this book. Th ey may follow in quick succession, or there may well be a lull of weeks or months. Some episodes draw a huge audience, while others attract the attention of only a few people. But they commonly have the capacity to be linked to past and future episodes, to other stories that involve this central question about the signifi cance of race.

Another feature of this conversation is that it fi xates on moments when certainties seem to be unsettled or overturned. Central topics largely feature moments of ambiguity; in response, commentators tend to recognize these as instances when certainties might be overturned. Th e discussion really gets rolling when clashing perceptions and expec-



56 Waking up to Race

tations open up into a reassessment of the forms of cultural “common sense” we might be said to share. Th ese instances also often prompt a re- evaluation of past assessments concerning race. Imus and Richards were each easily characterized as racist, but that was just a starting point. Americans realized that the questions raised were larger than the par- ticular incidents and that the basic concept of racism was not going to provide a suffi cient answer. Certainly, racism explained it all for some people; at the same time, most of the commentary that followed pointed to an array of issues that refl ected the complexity of race and were not easily reducible simply to racism.

Th is points to a third characteristic of the conversation: it involves a fairly active, conscious process of making sense. When we refer to ra- cial matters, it is easy to assume that this is all about “hard-wired” be- liefs and biases. Explanations based on a framework focused on racism largely key in on the impulsive, almost refl exive aspect of racial percep- tions and reactions. But the discussions of Imus and Richards suggest something diff erent about these moments of conversation—that Ameri- cans gave a good deal of thought to the signifi cance of what each of these white men said. Th is evaluation both derives from and further fu- els a keen attention to the forms and conventions that guide Americans’ perceptions of what counts as race.

Another important feature on display in the incidents covered in this book is that this conversation is evolving. Judgments brought to bear previously on Lott and Allen, and the criteria mobilized in those judgments, were further sharpened and honed on Richards and Imus. Th e problems and solutions are cast in sharper relief with each new epi- sode and the scope of discussion seems to range further. Each round of race stories in the news contributes to a developing interpretive reper- toire—somewhat like legal precedent—that shapes our ability to make sense of race in each subsequent instance. Th is evolving ability, though, also refl ects the rapid mutation of racial meaning. Words become ra- cialized every day, seemingly out of the blue, partly out of Americans’ preference to police and constrain racial meanings, as well as our keen ability to recognize them in their submerged form. Th is process can re- sult in the extension of racial meaning to words like “fairy tale” and “black hole.”



Waking up to Race 57

Th is national conversation is also wide-ranging and eclectic. Th rough much of the past few decades, when we talked about race in public we referred to discrimination and inequality. Th ough these are still fundamental to why race matters, they are no longer uniformly what people refer to when they talk about race. Th e plethora of subjects that can be counted as racial grows steadily. Th is, in turn, creates fur- ther uncertainty over what “racial” means. Th is confusion is amplifi ed by the steadily eroding line between public and private speech. Th is ero- sion involves far more than race, but it is crucial to how “racial” remarks are generated and circulated. Words spoken in private—or in settings assumed to be removed from scrutiny—sound quite diff erent on You- Tube or But the same goes for the forms of entertainment we consume, especially music; they seem so intimate and yet are steadily slipping into global markets, tossing back to us the strange reverb eff ects of hearing other people saying things they heard from us or quoting us out of context.

Two crucial features of this conversation will bring this chapter to a close and direct us to the drama that unfolded later that summer in the backwoods of Louisiana. Th ese features are somewhat harder to grasp, because they take us deeper into the operations of culture. But, in this, they are potentially the most important. First, our national conversation is, like any other cultural activity, selective. Of the many ways people of diff erent races daily interact with or avoid each other, only a scant few are ever designated as racial. Culture gives us the templates from which we select, from the vast perceptual wash of experiences to which we are daily exposed, a few sounds, smells, sights, and moments of touch that we label as important and meaningful. So, too, this conversation guides us to describe as “racial” only a meager number of interactions from among the many and varied ways people of diff erent colors interact. Fi- nally, this discussion of race is part of other conversations on topics such as the importance of class, or patriotism, or regional identity, or whether history matters. Th e crucial but diffi cult point is that, in talking about race, we are often talking about multiple topics simultaneously that may, in a broader sense, seem to have little to do with race. But this in- terweaving is an important means by which we move in and out of this “national conversation.”



JUDGING A REMARK TO BE R ACIAL OR NOT, as in the case of Imus, is one thing, but deciding whether a particular situation is racial involves diffi culties of another order of magnitude. What does it take to see race when it is not crystallized in a remark; when it, instead, is rather snugly burrowed into the routine of everyday life? Th e answer is, a narrative—the fundamental cultural form that links our attention to disparate moments or events, letting us see them as interrelated, un- folding according to a certain plot line that connects actors and acts, motives and meanings.¹ A primary dividing line for our selective atten- tion to race falls between events that seem mundane and those that are volatile and marked by confl ict.² Th e challenge in recognizing the “ra- cial” aspect of certain situations does not arise from a lack of material or possibilities—racial pretenses, motives, and interests lurk throughout American society. Th e question, rather, is how we weigh their import and relevance in deciding what really is going on in a place like Jena, Louisiana.

As a national news story, Jena abruptly jutted into Americans’ con- sciousness in the fall of 2007 as a stunning tale about powerful racism resurfacing in the Deep South, raising the awkward question of what, if anything, has really changed in the past few decades about how race matters in this country. On September 20, 2007, upwards of twenty

3 Narrating Nooses Locating the Role of Race in Jena, LA

Jena is America.

Reverend Alan Bean, executive director of Friends of Justice



Narrating Nooses 59

thousand people from across the country were drawn by a very power- ful story to the tiny rural town of Jena, Louisiana. Th e story was about injustice and at its core was a searing image of nooses swinging from the branches of a schoolyard tree—a “whites-only” tree in many accounts. Th e featured characters were six black teenagers charged with attempted murder for physically assaulting a white teen. Th ese charges seemed out- landish, even more so because white teens who had similarly attacked a black youth in Jena mostly escaped punishment—only one was charged with a misdemeanor and subsequently received probation.

But more than a compelling story drew all these people, mostly African Americans, to this corner of Louisiana, deep in the pine woods. For weeks prior to the rally, the “Afrosphere” or “black blogosphere” hummed with activity, which gelled into an unprecedented organizing eff ort, one that thrived without central political leaders.³ Bloggers who fi rst began to connect up in responding to the Imus incident gradually established a network of tech-savvy, like-minded citizens who recog- nized racial dynamics that many white Americans were comfortable ig- noring. Th ey also were building an audience that was newly vigilant to how race surfaces in the public sphere, taking advantage of communi- cation technologies that were opening new avenues of engagement and criticism related to race. All that was needed to make this potent mix of media and technology gel as an eff ective social force was a powerful nar- rative charged with racial symbolism.

But was Jena really a story about race? If so, what did it say about America? Initial national

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