They're curiously phrased, those expressions of sympathy by Miami Dolphins players who have lined up to defend left guard Richie Incognito's violent behavior toward his teammate, offensive lineman Jonathan Martin. Incognito achieved particular notoriety recently for directing a hefty wet stream of racialized epithets at Martin. ("Hey, wassup, you half-[n-word] piece of [expletive]…[I'm going to] slap your real mother across the face…. I'll kill you!") This bullying was so relentless that Martin decided to resign from the NFL.
Despite Incognito's extensive history of brutality (he was elected "dirtiest player" in the league), a significant number of black and white teammates have rallied around him as an "honorary" black man, incapable of racism. Incognito, it has been proffered, had merely "messed" with Martin as one would a "little brother." Martin, by contrast, the genteel, sweater-vested Stanford classics major, has been depicted as "not really black" because he's somehow too "soft" to stand up to a bit of friendly hazing. Most intriguing, he's been painted as a reverse racist for even complaining.
There are those who swear that all this has nothing to do with race. Says a sports-obsessed friend: "It's a club. Like the Thin Blue Line. Omertà…. The difference is, [Incognito] used the n-word. The others are coming to his rescue because they know that that's the only thing that distinguishes his bad behavior from theirs." Yet whatever the dynamic, the main actors have deployed the signifying power of the language of race. They have done so, moreover, in a way that would seem to scramble the borders of identity—white is black, black is white, we are all n-words now, kumbaya! Some have found in this a weirdly soothing promise of a "postracial" society. But I worry that what is actually happening is a not so subtle reinforcement of racism's slippery power to reinscribe social hierarchy, even while denying its very existence.
Racism is malleable; it is always changing its clothing. If we do not speak of it in exactly the same way we did thirty or forty years ago, it helps to remind ourselves that it has always been a mash-up of multiple forms of intolerance—i.e., racism, class bias, insider-outsider. The precise proportions may shift over time, but the alignments of Incognito's pseudo-blackness with threatening behavior and Martin's pseudo-whiteness with being threatened is a persistently re-emerging metric.
The logic that underwrites this bizarre algebra is not simple. It is surely true that our entire culture is marked by a shift toward more warlike role models—whether the steroidally invincible robo-thug, the tatted-up cage fighter or the bullying cop. But I fear there is a racialized difference in who gets to wear those identities as heroic masculinity. My suspicion is that if Incognito really were black, Fox News would no doubt be gleefully pluralizing him, lamenting the imagined pathologies of "his ilk" and "those people." And if Martin really were white, he'd be hailed as the Wheaties-boxed torchbearer of a lost age of sport as fair play, a Gipperesque icon of clean, leather-balled rectitude.
Another example of the peculiar play between intolerance and racism's multiple, malleable designations: the bizarre encounter of neo-Nazi Craig Cobb and black British chat show host Trisha Goddard. In pursuit of his dream of racial homogeneity, Cobb has attempted to establish a whites-only colony by buying up all the property in Leith, North Dakota—and trying to drive out its one black resident, a black man married to a white woman. Cobb was recently arrested after terrorizing residents and brandishing guns in the pursuit of this endeavor; he is also a fugitive from Estonia and Canada for general promulgation of hatred.
For reasons that remain a mystery for another day, Cobb agreed to submit to a DNA test and then receive the results on Goddard's program. The breathlessly delivered reveal purported to show that Cobb is "14 percent sub-Saharan African." In a now-viral meme, Goddard leapt from her chair and tried to fist-bump him: "Bro!" she cried out in mock rapture. Following up, commentators exulted at Cobb's shock in finding out who he "really" is. Typical of the coverage was a broadcast on HuffPost Live with commentary from Marc Lamont Hill, an affable young pundit who found the whole thing "hilarious" and "awesome." He was tickled because the DNA test purportedly shows that Cobb is not only "of African ancestry, he's 14 percent sub-Saharan African. That's like he's super-black."
While Cobb and Goddard's encounter was endlessly exploited for its we-are-all-brothers irony, the truth is, there is no genetic marker for race. In fact, the real irony of this story is its reinforcement of the notion that race is detectable in our genes and that there are "pure" racial stocks, whose essences can be titrated into mixtures measured by percentages. When we describe our biology as "part this" race or "part that," we rely on the fallacy that race is biological, and that there is a "whole" this race or that. I've written before about the misleading nature of carelessly regulated commercial genetic tests that purport to show race rather than ancestry. It bears repeating: it is sloppy, dangerous pseudoscience to imply that any human being could be "100 percent" of any "race" other than human.
At the core of these seemingly inconsistent racial connotations is a shape-shifting collective tradition of prejudice that violently pushes some of us outside the civic or even human cohort and ultimately blocks all of us from full engagement with the American dream. And so the eponymous Incognito barrels his way across a cultural field that marbles black and white into a camouflage pattern of "wigger"-ish, "playfully" insensitive gladiatorial brutality. The self-composed integrity of a Jonathan Martin is devalued as the angry, fractionated whimperings of the "half"-bred and half-hearted. And an internationally terrifying white-rights activist like Craig Cobb is lightly—and darkly—passed over as "hilarious," "awesome" and "super-black." There is nothing postracial about this.
Racism in the NFL is nothing new—just look at the name of the Washington, DC, football team. Dave Zirin Weighs in.