By: Eric Thomas
Once again, America owes a debt to the NFL. They already provide hours of entertainment to hundreds of millions, educate people on the importance of physical education and they teach a near constant class on avoiding taxes by declaring themselves a “non-profit” organization even though they take in $9.5 billion dollars in revenue a year. But now, by way of a proposed rule change, they have gone above and beyond the call of duty in a way that no other organization could.
The NFL solved racism.
The rule, which could be voted on by the 32 owners at their annual meetings, would make an on-field utterance of the “N-Word” a 15 yard penalty. This is probably coming up because of last year’s controversies, when Ritchie Incognito called Jonathan Martin the word as part of the now documented push to break his offensive line teammate and Riley Cooper, who famously said that he’d “fight every [n-word] here” at a Kenny Chesney concert last year.
We would be remiss, in this celebration of the NFL and their ability to tackle tough issues, if we neglected to mention the other failed attempts at solving racism. The NAACP already buried the word years ago in here in Detroit, only to have it rise again like an extra from the Walking Dead. Quentin Tarantino got a lecture from Spike Lee; the Food Network fired Paula Deen; Brad Paisley teamed with LL Cool J and made a song so cringey that I’ve never made it all the way to the end without running from the room or hiding under my desk. Mazeltov, but you all failed. Now the NFL steps in to do what those before them could not.
This ridiculous dance occurs on the linguistic periphery, completely and totally meaningless in terms of the actual fissures that exist between human beings. We seem stuck in the linguistics, incapable of having an actual discussion on the thoughts and feelings behind bigotry. I’ve had many people say ridiculously racist things to me, only to follow it up with “But I’m not racist!” Let’s call it the Nixonian principle: if you have to tell anyone you’re not a racist, you’re probably a racist.
The good old OED defines racism as, “The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.” If you make a generalization about anyone in regards to race, good or bad, and attempt to attribute a person’s individual characteristics to a larger group, you’re making racist statements.
Does that help?
Sure, positive statements will probably be more welcome than negative ones. Who doesn’t like a compliment? Insulting someone on the basis of race isn’t a compliment, and to weigh compliments and insults equally shows a fundamental lack of understanding in the back and forth nature of human interaction. So if you say “you don’t reject generalizations when they’re positive,” you’re missing the point.
Racism is bad because it plays into the worst parts of our nature as human beings. Anthropology teaches us that we are tribal as a species, and it’s in our nature to fear those who are different or foreign to us. As society marches on, we become less warlike, less vindictive—haven’t seen any Catherine Wheels lately, have we?—and more moderate. It’s no accident that seeing black and gay people on television softened racism and bigotry in the last century. We realize that the people aren’t to be feared, and they are just “like us” in many ways, thus part of our particular tribe.
Race is the third rail in America. You dare not bring it up, for fear that you’ll be fired and be sent to the island of people who spoke inarticulately on the subject. We hear quarterly cries from pundits and philosophers, calling for “a conversation on race.” It’s never going to happen, because people who are racist are so afraid of being labeled racist that they will never participate.
Racism is a thought, an idea. The N-Word is a word. When either of those labels are applied to people, it becomes offensive. If you seek to moderate society, and actually fix the root of the problem we are having, it’s best to look at the person who is applying labels to people and recognizing what they’re engaged in on an anthropological level.
Believe me, I hold my hand up. I’ve certainly sinned on this particular issue. I’ve called people racists many times. My particular problem is I call people “stupid,” or “idiotic.” There aren’t any actual stupid people, of course. Just like with racism, stupidity—as I define it—is a thought. There are idiotic thoughts, not people. People can change their mind or come across a new fact and grow; they cease to be stupid by my definition. Although what I call people “stupid” on is often opinion anyway, so saying that is often just me being small. Labeling someone “stupid” when they have a thought I don’t agree with is a bad habit.
Labeling people racists and sending them away doesn’t do anyone any good. If someone says something racist, they should be sat down and forced to defend their thoughts. We should’ve made Paula Deen explain why she thought that that way in the first place, not dismiss her. It feels good to engage in righteous indignation against so-called racists but it’s not accomplishing anything.
If nothing else, it’s a different idea. Banning, burying and now, flagging, to make a word go away have only made the problem worse. Reducing people to labels is wrong, no matter what the justification. I suppose it’s easier to demagogue and name call rather than engage in the “conversation about race” that so many people, including the President, want to have. Study of history is important, and understanding this country’s original sin and the nearly two hundred years it took to correct it is essential for every American, but we should learn the lessons and not spend any extra time making new mistakes in an effort to push our thumbs on the scale and make things more fair.
We’re trying to ban a word rather than actually take the steps to do something about the thought process behind it. When people say racist things, they should be asked to explain them rather than suspended or fined so that they can spend their time nurturing their resentment. Can we try that instead of doing the same news cycle pillory again?
No? Never mind. Unsportsmanlike conduct, racial epithet utterance; fifteen yards, first down.