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.