Trashy Racism

Few things rankle me more than someone illegitimately playing the race card. By that, I mean that I hate it when someone calls racism on an issue that isn’t racism, mainly because it calls attention away from the real racism. The straw racism argument does a detriment to everyone who’s trying to fight actual racism. In fact, probably the only thing that pisses me off more is actual racism.

In my prejudice seminar, we spend a good bit of time discussing what leads someone to determine that another’s behavior is the result of prejudice. There are individual difference variables that lead some people to see it in ambiguous situations more than others would. But we also take situational and historical data into account.

If a black man goes into a restaurant and receives bad service, he takes into account whether everyone’s receiving bad service, whether only the other black customers are receiving bad service, whether he’s received bad service from that waiter before, and so on. And, if he’s really thinking through it, he might consider whether he’s done something to elicit bad service or whether his perceptions are biased by expectations or racism or a bad mood. Not that we’re all so analytical in our everyday lives, but that’s some of the process that the research documents.

In Jena, we know that none of us ever heard of tennis shoes being considered deadly weapons, and we never heard of any white kids being tried for attempted murder when they beat up a classmate. We know that there is a history of racial harassment and tension in the school. So the sentences look pretty damn racist, especially for those of us inclined to think that the image of a group of black kids beating up a white kid strikes an all-white jury as a lot scarier than a group of white kids beating up a black kid.

In Atlanta, when we hear that a black 17-year old gets 10 years for consensual oral sex with a 15-year old, we can think there’s racism in the sentencing, especially among those of us inclined to consider the sexual primitive stereotype an aggravating factor in the judge’s thinking.

When powder cocaine gets a feathery sentence relative to crack, and we know that powder cocaine is associated with rich whites and crack with poor blacks, those of us inclined to be cynical about society’s treatment of different groups are going to see racism.

And of course, when people make it easy for us–Don Imus, Michael Richards, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and so on–we can see the racism, despite the perpetrator’s efforts to convince us it’s not the real them.

But when a trash company doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do and charges us a premium, firing them isn’t racism. In fact, their ripping off a poor majority-black city is doing more to hold down black citizens than a couple of companies that are overcharging at best and gouging and profiteering at worst.

I personally believe strongly in affirmative action to make sure that minority owned companies get a fair shot at the work, and I’m glad we did that. But this situation looks shady, and the people calling racism are doing a disservice to the people who are suffering real racism. Especially in a city that seems to think that Tony Soprano’s garbage business was legitimate.

UPDATE:  Here‘s the link to the T-P article I’m referring to, but please don’t lump me in with the commenters.  Thanks.


7 Responses to Trashy Racism

  1. jonolan says:

    “If a black man goes into a restaurant and receives bad service”… he might want to consider how he is dressed as compared to other customers. If he is dressed “street” and is in a restaurant where the subculture he is identifying as is in poor regard, he might want to reconsider the “racist” argument. Sometimes the race card is played when the real problem was the appearance of the person involved.

    “When powder cocaine gets a feathery sentence relative to crack, and we know that powder cocaine is associated with rich whites and crack with poor blacks, those of us inclined to be cynical about society’s treatment of different groups are going to see racism.”

    Those laws may be racist, but they may not be. Powder cocaine does not have the same history of violence associated with its trafficking that crack does. Those sentencing laws may have had more to do with that violence then the race of the users.

  2. Editor B says:

    Well observed, reasoned and written. The question remains, where’d you get your info? I’m assuming the Times-Pic or other local media. Then the question becomes can we trust that source?

  3. Sophmom says:

    Very measured post. I’m not sure what I think of the whole garbage mess but this is well said.

  4. hammhawk says:

    Jonolan, I would argue that the “street” appearance does a disservice to the customer, but doesn’t he still deserve the benefit of the doubt and fair treatment? I can remember when cornrows were considered a sure sign of a thug, but then they became relatively mainstream. I know I’m guilty of judging books by their covers, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair.

    Re the cocaine argument, I agree that we never KNOW that something is racist, mainly because we don’t have a legitimate control group, and I’d be with you except that the disparity is so extreme. A number of studies show a 100:1 ratio in the quantity required to receive a specific sentence. I’ve also read that the conviction disparity is pretty compelling. Once again, as tough as it may be for some of us to swallow, should we assume that a crack user is more dangerous than a powder user? Intuitively, perhaps, but legally…? I don’t know that we should.

    B, you make a good point about my lack of “source monitoring” (to psyc term you). I am making assumptions about the T-P article, and I thought the article was lacking. We didn’t get the real crux of the argument, and I suspect I’ve been so chapped by Veronica White’s obstinance and the apparent cheat job going on with the trash deals that I wasn’t casting a very critical eye to the piece. I’m guilty of playing the Will Rogers card. We shall see…

  5. jonolan says:


    I would not necessarily say that prejudging someone based on their appearance is “fair”. I was just proposing that it wouldn’t be a case of racism. The same experience could be expected by a White man dressed in “punker” or “biker” clothing in many places.

    As for the cocaine issue, you can’t separately use the 100:1 sentencing ratios – that is the basis of the legislation and is what I’m saying may be based on perceived danger as opposed to racism. I also wonder if the conviction rate is more highly based on “class” as opposed to wealth. A “public defender” is almost always a poorer choice than a privately retained attorney; economics may be more a factor than skin color.

  6. hammhawk says:

    Jonolan, I agree that cases of prejudging are not necessarily racism, but I sometimes draw the conclusion that they are because race is so frequently confounded with other issues like SES or “look” (e.g., biker, punker, gangsta). Still, I continue to believe that those areas associated with black people get more of an emotional reaction from whites.

    I posted a while back about the Half Moon putting up a sign saying no oversized white t-shirts. We all know what they were getting at, and I understand that they didn’t want self-identified thugs hanging out there causing trouble, but they also probably would have let me (or Colin Powell) stay, even if we were wearing oversized white t-shirts.

    Of course you’re right about the possibility of economics and public defense, but again, I think that race is at least indirectly playing a role. Don’t you think that the “perceived danger” is related to the race of the perpetrator? Just as with the Jena and Atlanta examples I cited in the original post, I think that whites’ image of those black perpetrators is that they are more dangerous than white perpetrators in the same situation, and that leads to imbalanced sentencing. It seems to be more of a threat. Yes, a poor white man might elicit more fear than a rich black man, but all else equal, the black defendant is going to get treated worse because the jury is going to perceive more danger in him.

    I really don’t think that a crack user is 100 times more dangerous than a powder user. When the Rodney King incident went down, the cops said they thought he was on PCP, and they wouldn’t have said that if he’d been white. His race cued that association, and they went with it. When Amadou Diallo was shot reaching for his wallet, he was shot 40 times. Again, cops associated him with greater danger because he was black. No, I can’t prove that these claims are accurate because we don’t have a perfect comparison, but it’s consistent with tons of research on the thoughts that are activated when we encounter a stimulus.

    So, I gladly concede that it’s not all about race, but I’m contending that a lot of it is. Either way, the judgments aren’t fair to people about whom the assumptions are made.

  7. jonolan says:

    You illustrate both the problem of dealing with Race issues and the ease with which the “race card” can be (mis)played. All of your points in your last comment seem completely valid to me – yet none can be taken as an absolute. In all cases you mentioned the motivation may or may not have been Racism as opposed to Classism or just economic effects in a capitalist society.

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