Gates Case has Everything to do With Racism, Which is Probably why it Won’t go Away.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. participates in a panel on CNN's live show 'Moment of Truth: Countdown to Black in America 2,' Wednesday, July 22, 2009 in New York.  (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. participates in a panel on CNN's live show 'Moment of Truth: Countdown to Black in America 2,' Wednesday, July 22, 2009 in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The ink had barely dried on Henry Louis Gates’ arrest record before people were falling over themselves to debate whether or not the arrest had anyhing to do with race. Even President Obama was asked to weigh in at a White House press conference. But at least one person involved in the scandal—the eminent Harvard professor himself—believes race was a factor.* In fact, expressing this opinion to Officer Crowley is what got him arrested.

Somewhere in this mess is Lucia Whalen, the 911 caller who’s been accused of racism for mentioning to the dispatcher that the suspects were Black. The recently released 911 tape provides some vindication—some vindication because, while she does not specifically use the word “Black,” she does tell the dispatcher that one of the suspects looked “kind of Hispanic.” Kind of Hispanic? What exactly does kind of Hispanic look like anyway? Because pictures of Gates’ accomplice have been hard to come by, it’s safe to assume Gates—with his mocha skin—was very likely the Hispanic-looking one. But it doesn’t matter because in Boston—which doesn’t exactly have a great reputation for racial inclusivity—“kind of Hispanic” translates into “not White,” which pretty much answers the dispatcher’s question about the suspects’ race.

If race was not a factor, why then does a suspect’s skin color matter in the first place? Wouldn’t “what are they wearing?” be just as good for identifying suspects? After all, the police are perfectly capable of identifying suspects by their clothes, hairstyles, or physical features, no? Gates, for example, has a very recognizable limp. So again, if race didn’t play a role, why was it so important to the dispatcher?

But wait! Just when things couldn’t seem more cut and dry, genetics throws a spanner into the works. In an ironic twist, professor Gates has traced part of his genetic ancestry to an Irish warlord! Even more astonishing is the fact that Officer Crowley, who maintains that his decision to arrest Gates had nothing to do with race, is descended from the same warlord!!! This means that Professor Gates and Officer Crowley are related!!!

So the question becomes: if not for racism, how on earth could Officer Crowley and Professor Gates end up in the confrontation that splashed their photos all over the national press and got them invited to the White House for beers with the President? On the one hand you have Crowley, a White police officer, a symbol of law and order in his community. On the other hand, you have Gates, a Black man and a renowned Harvard professor—albeit surprisingly unknown and unrecognizable to Crowley. On the 911 tape, Crowley tells the dispatcher, “I have an ID of a Henry Louis Gates.” Apparently, he had no idea who this “gentleman” even was! So again, how did Gates become a burglary suspect in his own home? More importantly, how did these two men—who share DNA!—wind up on opposite ends of the racial binary, one presumed to be an upstanding, fairminded citizen and the other so easily mistaken for a burglar? It seems pretty cut and dry.

According to Officer Crowley, Gates was “uncooperative”—as anyone with any dignity or self-respect would have been in that situation—so the handcuffs had to come out. But giving a police officer a piece of your mind because he basically accused you of burglarizing your own home is not disorderly conduct, it’s freedom of expression. Expecting any person to grin and bear such indignity and humiliation is not only unfair and insenstive, it borders on tyranny. Isn’t protection from the caprices of an overbearing executive one of the foundational principles of the Constitiution, a document with which Professor Gates is no doubt familiar? Luckily, Cambridge PD sympathized with the professor and dropped the charges. That should have been enough vindication.

But not for everyone. In nearby Boston, Officer Justin Barrett was so incensed by a local columnist’s defense of Gates that he wrote her an email in which he called the professor a “banana-eating jungle monkey”! Even more troubling is Barrett’s assertion:

I am not a racist, but I am prejudice [sic] towards people who are stupid.

Apparently, Officer Barrett, despite his dislike of stupid people, is incapable of recognizing racism. He goes on to conclude that Professor Gates “has indeed transcended back to a bumbling jungle monkey,” and adds that, had he been in Officer Crowley’s place, he would have pepper-sprayed the professor in the face.

So we’re back to the same question: on what foundation did Barrett’s letter rest, riddled as it was with “frequent grammatical and spelling errors”? This barely literate man, despite having been an English teacher, does not even know the meaning of transcend—to rise above, to move onwards and upwards—or that it has a positive connotation (the word he was looking for is “regressed”). Yet for some reason, he confidently and mercilessly denigrates an acclaimed Harvard professor! In fact, this incident defies logic and can only be understood as an irrational emotional response born of prejudice and ignorance. Kinda like . . . racism?

But, lest anyone get the impression that this case is all about race and nothing else, it’s only fair to point out that Officer Barrett also had a few choice words for the columnist, Yvonne Abraham:

Barrett, who identified himself as a veteran . . . also took issue with Abraham’s journalistic ability, calling her ‘a hot little bird with minimal experience in a harsh field,’ as well as ‘an infidel.’ The rambling e-mail also suggested that she ‘should serve me coffee and donuts on Sunday morning,’ later returning to that line of thought with, ‘I like a warm cruller and hot Panamanian, black. No sugar.’

Good to see that Officer Barrett is well-rounded in his prejudice. After all, his sentiments give the impression that having been born with a penis—kinda like having been born with  the right skin color—entitles him to insult and dismiss a professional journalist for no reason other than that she was born with the wrong genitals. Oh, and he disagrees with her on the Gates issue.

The only good that might come out of this episode is that Officer Barrett will be removed from the police force, prompting a huge collective sigh of relief from “infidels,” “hot little birds,” and “jungle monkeys” all over the Boston area. In the meantime, I gotta cancel my subscription to Ms. Magazine and tear up my NAACP membership card. I won’t be needing those anymore!

*Considering Professor Gates has written books on the question of race and racism in America, I’m going to have to assume he knows what he’s talking about and agree with him.

This Is Mexico . . ..

I’ve been in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for four days now, and have only now had the time and ability to write a short post. I had intended to write a cheerful and upbeat post about how great Puerto Vallarta is, but made the mistake of checking my email first.

In my inbox were emails from several people who had sent me links to the latest news on the verdict in the Luis Ramirez case, which I’d blogged about since Ramirez, a Mexican, was beaten to death in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. On a July night last year, he was walking home with a teenaged girl when he encountered a group of teenaged boys in a park. Words were exchanged—not a few of them racist insults hurled in Ramirez’s direction—and the situation escalated into an all-out fistfight that ended with Luis Ramirex laying on the ground unconscious and foaming at the mouth. He died in hospital two days later from severe head injuries sustained during the fight.

The jury was tasked with, among other things, sorting out who exactly delivered the blow that killed Luis, since at least three of the teens fought with him directly. They found the accused not guilty of all but the least serious charge: simple assault. I understand that sometimes, people make mistakes. But some mistakes are more serious than others. For example, someone might make the mistake of drinking and getting behind the wheel of a car. If they make it home safely, fine. But if they accidentally run over a pedestrian and kill him, they do not get off simply because they made a mistake. Yet here we have a case in which a human being’s life was taken by people using their fists and feet as weapons, yet they got off scott free.

So, as I sit here watching the orange sun set over a glassy bay, I find myself writing a very different post from the one I had intended. I wanted to write about how amazing Puerto Vallarta is. Every single person I have met here has been nothing but wonderful: warm, hospitable, generous, and good-humored. It was everywhere around me, once I left the taxi-and-package-tour-hustle-and-bustle of the airport. This was what I had planned to write about . . . before I checked my email. Now, the kindness and warmth of the Mexicans I’ve met stands out even more starkly when viewed against the backdrop of the Luis Ramirez case: I cannot imagine a situation in which six Mexican teenagers would find cause to make a disparaging remark towards me or any of the people I’m here with, let alone attack any of us so viciously as to leave us brain-damaged and dying in a park.

I know I’m here as a tourist and that tourist dollars are the lifeblood of the local economy. But I’m also here as a foreigner. I look physically different from every single Mexican I’ve seen, and my Spanish is far from good enough to allow me to pass. Yet nobody has yelled a racial slur in my direction, and nobody has told me—out of contempt or frustration—to learn Spanish. And, while I’m sure Puerto Vallarta has its share of crime both petty and violent, I haven’t found myself in a situation in which I’m made to feel uncomfortable or threatened because of my skin color, hair texture, or non-flueny in the local language.

After all, despite the obvious benefits tourists bring to the towns along Mexico’s coasts, there is more than enough reason for Mexicans to be hostile towards me. I’m a foreigner, a tourist, and an American. There is a long history of tension between our two countries, and I’m sure some tourists and foreigners comport themselves in a less-than-decent way with the locals. But none of this has been enough—in my admittedly limited time in Mexico—to cause the locals to treat me with suspicion, scorn, resentment, or outright hostility. When I attempt to communicate in my piss-poor Spanish, they listen patiently, correct me when I ask for correction and, when I eventually give up and ask if they speak English, graciously switch to fluent or near-perfect English.

I imagine that, had the teenagers who were found not guilty of beating Luis Ramirez to death ever found themselves in Mexico, they would have met the same reception as me and my fellow travelers. I imagine that Brian Scully too—the one who made the comment that started the fight and who yelled racial epithets while his friends were beating Luis Ramirez—would have been treated with nothing but kindness, warmth, and good humor.

Tragically, the reception Luis Ramirez got in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania was markedly different from the one I am getting from his compatriots in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. In fact, his experience could not have been more different, a difference made even more grotesque by the fact that his attackers were ultimately found to be not responsible for his death.

Luis Ramirez’s Killers About to Stand Trial

Derrick Donchak (top), Brandon Piekarsky (middle), and Colin Walsh (bottom), have been charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Ramirez died two days later from head injuries sustained during the attack.

Derrick Donchak (top), Brandon Piekarsky (middle), and Colin Walsh (bottom), have been charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Ramirez died two days later from head injuries sustained during the attack.

The Republican Herald reports that jury selection in the trial of Derek Donchak, Colin Walsh, and Brandon Piekarsky will begin on April 22, with the trial itself set to start on April 27.

Last summer, the three accused attacked Luis Ramirez after they ran into him and a young woman in a park. The woman turned out to be the younger sister of Ramirez’s fiancee, whom he was walking home. Donchak, Walsh, and Piekarsky had—according to witness testimony—been drinking malt liquor in the woods near the park.

The ensuing attack left Luis Ramirez unconscious and foaming at the mouth. One question that will hopefully be answered by the trial is whether it was Colin Walsh or Brandon Piekarsky who delivered the fatal blow. Walsh’s sucker punch knocked Ramirez down and left him unconscious on the ground, where he lay when Brandon Piekarsky delivered a final kick to his head. The unconscious Ramirez was transferred to hospital, where he died two days later. 

Elsewhere, it is being reported that Colin Walsh has agreed to testify against his co-accused. There is also some confusion about whether or not the charges against him will be/have been dropped in exchange for his cooperation. Hopefully more information will come out about the details of the various plea arrangements.

The announcement that justice will be done in the Luis Ramirez beating-death case comes as good news for supporters of the rule of law. And, as anti-immigrant rhetoric is ratcheted up and anti-immigrant hate crimes continue to increase, it is important that those who are found to have committed hate crimes are punished according to the law.

The law does not require anyone to like anyone else, but it does state explicitly that a person may not physically assault or kill another person. Hopefully justice will be done.

Hate Speech is Not Free Speech: Chilean Students’ Killer had a History of Xenophobia

On the morning of Thursday, February 27, 14 friends gathered at a townhome in Miramar Beach, Florida for a party. At around 1:45 am, Dannie Roy Baker, who lived in the same complex as the hosts, crossed the compound with a rifle and opened fire on the partygoers.

By the time police arrived at the scene, five people had been shot—two of them fatally—and the shooter had returned to his home, where he awaited the arrival of police. Since his arrest, Dannie Baker has not spoken to the police so his motive for the killings is not known. But enough information has come out to indicate that it was at least partially motivated by the fact that the victims’ were not native-born Americans. All 14 people at the party, including Baker’s five victims, are Latinos. The two he killed were Chilean students visiting the US as part of a work-study program.

The story is not getting widely picked up in the national media and one of the first places to compile details was the Daily KOS, who reports that Dannie Baker had volunteered with the local Republican Electoral Committee during the 2004 presidential race, after which he apparently sent “radical” and “inappropriate” emails to other members. Baker’s emails were so disturbing that they were reported to the local sheriff’s department but, because the emails did not contain threats against a specific person, the sheriff’s department took no further action against him. The actual text of these emails has not yet been released.

Although Baker had no history of violence, it appears he was not entirely mentally or emotionally stable. According to Jim Anders, a member of the Republican Executive Committee, Baker was very “eccentric” and seemed to have “some emotional problems.” And Crystal Lynn, a neighbor of Baker’s, says “he did come up to me one time and asked me if I was ready for the revolution to begin and if I had any immigrant in my house to get them out.”

Until more information comes out, there’s no way to know what Dannie Baker wrote in those emails that so troubled people that they reported him to the police. Hopefully, he didn’t write about killing immigrants because that would mean the sheriff’s department screwed up big-time by not investigating him further and putting him someplace where he could not be a threat to others. A direct threat against a specific person should justifiably be grounds for police action, but so should threats against a specific group. After all, a hate crime does not target a specific person but it does target a specific group, identified by race, nationality, sexual orientation, or some other collective identity marker.

So if it turns out that Baker had made threats against Latinos or any other immigrant group, the Sheriff’s department should explain why they took no further police action against him. Freedom of speech permits deranged and sane people alike to say whatever they please, but if one of those crazy people rants against foreigners, sends “radical” and “inappropriate” emails, and tells his neighbor to get immigrants out of her house, that ought to be grounds for the local police to do something. Now two people are dead, three are wounded, and an entire community is traumatized. But of course, until the contents of Baker’s emails are released, there’s no way to know if he had made threats against a specific racial group.

At the end of the day, hate speech is not free speech, but it seems many Americans have trouble distinguishing the two. Or perhaps, with more Americans joining hate groups and anti-immigrant rhetoric—to say nothing of anti-immigrant action—becoming more mainstream, the question should not be whether Americans can recognize hate speech but whether and to what extent they are bothered by it. (The fact that several news outlets have mentioned the victims’ immigration status—as if that is relevant to the case!—further illustrates this country’s obsession with immigration. God only knows what the news coverage of this hate crime would look like if the victims had been in the country without the proper immigration paperwork!)

Now, twenty-three-year-old Nicolas Corp-Torres and twenty-two-year-old Racine Baldontin-Aragondona—two of Dannie Baker’s victims—are dead. But they might still be alive had local law enforcement understood, or cared about, the difference between hate speech and free speech the first time they had to deal with Dannie Baker.

Post-Racialism Marches On in America.

Totally non-offensive picture showing the White House lawn prepped for the annual Easter watermelon hunt which, according to Los Alamitos Mayor Dean Grose, will replace the more traditional Easter egg hunt. Mayor Grose claims he was unfamiliar with the racial stereotype that Black people love watermelon.

Image distributed by Los Almitos Mayor Dean Grose, showing the White house lawn prepped for the annual Watermelon hunt. Grose is claiming he was unaware of the racial stereotype that Black people love watermelon.

Lest anyone was having trouble remembering that we are now living in a post-racial America, here are a few reminders.

In Los Alamitos, Mayor Dean Grose has come under fire for sending a doctored photo titled “No Easter egg hunt this year.” Offended recepients, including Keyanus Price, a Black businesswoman, have demanded an apology from the mayor. Speaking in his own defense, the mayor claimed that he had no idea there was a racial stereotype involving Black people and watermelons.

Rupert Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, issued a reluctant apology for the above cartoon, drawn by Sean Delonas.

Rupert Murdoch, owner of the New York Post, issued a reluctant apology for the above cartoon, drawn by Sean Delonas.

Other examples of post-racialism at work  have attracted nationwide attention. Take, for example, the New York Post cartoon in which two White officers shoot dead a chimpanzee, and one of the officers says to the other, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” While the Post and its supporters tried to argue that the cartoon ape and the reference to the stimulus bill were not coded racist references to President Barack Obama, there is no escaping the association. Although admittedly the president is not the bill’s author, a cursory Google search on the term “stimulus bill” turns up tons of articles that reference Obama in their opening paragraphs (see also here). So while the cartoonist may want people to believe that the link was unintentional, the reality is that on one hand, the ape has long been used as a  racist caricature of Black people, and on the other hand, there is a long history of White people doing violence to Black people. When the links among the stimulus bill and Barack Obama, the history of police violence towards Black men, and the ape as a racist caricature are considered, it’s hard—if not impossible—not to see the racist overtones in this cartoon.

Sadly, some of the other signs of post-racialism are much more real than a doctored photo or a newspaper cartoon, and the town of Paris, Texas provides a few examples. Paris is where a 14-year-old Black girl was sentenced to seven years in a juvenile prison for pushing a hall monitor. The sentencing judge had earlier sentenced a young White girl to probation for arson! Paris is also home to Turner Industries’ pipe factory, whose Black employees are complaining that nooses, confederate flags, and racist graffitti are prominently displayed all over their workplace.

Ah yes! We are living in heady times! Post-racial fever is sweeping the nation and everybody’s catching the bug! According to CNN, there has been a huge upswing in the number of Americans joining hate groups. Don Black, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard (what an unfortunate last name for a KKK Grand Wizard!?), told the cable news network that 2,000 people joined his online hate group the day after Obama’s inauguration: prior to the inauguration, he got about 80 new members a day.

Clearly, in this post-racial climate, many people are confused and disoriented, and don’t know how to handle life in the new America. In the spirit of post-racialism—and as a personal favor to Mayor Dean Grose, Turner Industries’ White employees, Don Black, and anyone else who wants to jump on the post-racial bandwagon—here are a few ways in which the post-racial esprit de corps can be advanced:

  • Don’t make any jokes about Native Americans and alcoholism;
  • Do not make casual references to Asians, math prowess, and/or penis/butt/breast size;
  • Avoid associating Black people with grape soda, fried chicken, drug dealing, or primates of any kind;
  • Whatever you do, DO NOT join a hate group. Joining a hate group will severely undermine your post-racial credentials.

Boy, it feels great to be living in a post-racial America! I shudder to think what America was like before post-racialism.

We Have Not Overcome.

electionnight

On election night, I joined thousands of revelers in the streets of Washington, DC in a spontaneous celebration of Barack Obama’s presidential victory. And we were not alone: similar celebrations erupted all across the United States and around the world. Seventy-seven days later, the spectacle was repeated on an even grander scale as over a million people streamed into DC to witness the inauguration, and millions more around the world watched it on television and computer screens.  The inauguration of Barack Obama was hailed as a truly historic occasion, a sign that America had changed, that we had entered a post-racist era. We united in self-congratulation as we watched Bettye LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi end their rendition of Sam Cooke’s classic with the line, “a change has come, ” while the more eschatologically minded described Mr. Obama’s ascension to the presidency as nothing less than the fulfilment of Martin Luther King’s prophetic dream. But have we really overcome?

Well, if news headlines from around the country are any indication, we still have a long way to go. It will take more than a changing of the guard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to fix what ails our country because, while Obama’s victory is significant for many reasons, it has not brought us into a post-racist world.

Take, for example, what is taking place in Maricopa County, Arizona, where  Sheriff Joe Arpaio—who already has a reputation for brutally mistreating undocumented county residents—sank to hitherto unimaginable depths. A short while ago, the tough-on-immigration sheriff marched over 200 immigration detainees (mainly Latino men) from the county jail to a tent city created just for them. Detainees were dressed in old-time striped prison uniforms and paraded publicly to the tent city, which is surrounded by an electric fence. In the past, the sheriff’s department has caught flak for racial profiling and disproportionately targeting Latinos for arrest and harrassment. There have also been numberous reports of mistreatment of detainees, who have been hog-tied, beaten, and forced to work in chain gangs. To put things in perspective: 70% of Arpaio’s detainees have not been tried or convicted of any offense! So much for the American ideal of “innocent until proven guilty.” One doesn’t have to be a holocaust scholar to be sickened by Sheriff Arpaio’s pogrom against Maricopa County’s Latinos.

The situation is no better on the other side of the country where Jack Lacy, the ex-president of Hamilton Township in New Jersey, was forced to resign after sending an e-mail in which he compared President Obama’s inauguration to the evacuation of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. According to Lacy, “How can two million blacks get into Washington, D.C., in sub zero (temperatures) in one day when 200,000 couldn’t get out of New Orleans at 85 degrees with four days notice?” So . . . when over a million Black people gathered in DC to celebrate what could be the greatest day in the history of Black America since emancipation, Jack Lacy saw fit to compare it to what was possibly the worst time in recent Black American history.

And finally, who can forget the spate of hate crimes that erupted around the election? In Long Island, New York, a gang of teens went on an immigrant-bashing spree that culminated in the death of Marcelo Lucero. Another case involved a Black family of Obama supporters in New Jersey who found a burnt cross on their lawn a few days after the election. On Staten Island, New York, a Black man was beaten by two teenagers: during the beating, they insulted their victim with racial slurs and called him “Obama.” It’s worth noting that these are not isolated incidents, the death throes of bigotry in a post-racist America. In fact, there was a spike in hate crimes and ethnic intimidation around the country, according to a report put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

There are countless other examples but there’s no need to recount more, because those who share my outlook already know about them, and those who don’t cannot be convinced. Suffice to say, attitudes from racial America have been effortlessly carried over into post-racial America, and eliminating these attitudes will take much more than a Black family in the White House. America is still America and, lest we forget, Obama did not get 100% of the votes cast. Far from it. He got only slightly over half. Yet watching the nation bask in collective self-congratulation, one might be forgiven for thinking that Americans had—by the mere act of electing the first Black president in our nation’s history—accomplished nothing less than the elimination of racism from the face of the earth.

Part of the explanation for this response lies in Americans’ limited understanding of racism. Many Americans understand racism simply as namecalling or violence. Other Americans see racism as the absence of Black people or other people of color in positions of power. Racism is both these things, of course, but it is also much more. However, for the average American, who understands racism as merely the absence of colored people in positions of power, the Obama presidency is a major blow against racism: some of the more sanguine of that lot even consider it a fatal blow. But there’s more to this racism-is-dead rhetoric. The claim that America has entered a post-racist era is nothing less than an extension of our national mythology.

Our nation’s myths tell us that we are a special nation destined to blaze a unique trail in the world. America, we are often reminded, is a city on a hill, a shining beacon for the world. Everything we do, everything to do with America, is further proof of our unique place in the world. Even when we are doing wrong, it’s gets spun as proof of our inherent greatness. At any given point in our history, for instance, the majority of Americans have tolerated unimaginable injustices carried out against minorities—enslavement, segration, lynching, ethnic cleansing, torture, the racist “war on drugs,” unprovoked war against Iraq, illegal roundups of undocumented immigrants. Yet when a few courageous individuals lay their lives and freedom on the line to end some form of  injustice, we unite in collective self-congratulation, holding up the victory as proof of how great our country is.

But is the constant need for some to triumph over injustice really proof of America’s greatness? Clearly, that is what the myth-makers would have us believe. After all, we are reminded, only a great society would give a dedicated handful of people the chance to risk their lives and liberty in the fight against state-sanctioned injustice. We point to people like Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks as proof of America’s greatness, a place in which even those who are brutalized by the system can, through superhuman acts of heroism, become full citizens. Yet we never stop to wonder why these people were, in the first place,  living in a society in which they were compelled to stand up and demand that their dignity and inherent humanity be recognized. Why have minorities in America had to exert heroic efforts just to be recognized as full human beings and full citizens? What does it say about America that she has demanded nothing less than heroism from non-White people whenever they have aspired to nothing more than the chance to live as ordinary people? Would Frederick Douglass have chosen to be born a slave just for the chance to achieve greatness by rising from slave to human? Would Rosa Parks not have preferred to live in a society in which heroism was not a prerequesite for being able to sit wherever one pleased? Naturally, our myth-makers never answer these questions. Hell, they never even ask them. Instead, they tell us only that America is a great country in which Black people like Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass can become national heroes. But they never tell us why the systems of injustice under which they suffered—which forced them to become heroic—came to be so widely accepted in the first place.

And so the myth-makers are spinning the story of Barack Obama, the first Black president . . . of the United States, anyway, because many other countries have had Black presidents. The difference is that in most of these countries, White privilege and racism were never so institutionalized that it became remarkable that a non-White person would rise to the ranks of the presidency. The fact that we find it so remarkable that America actually has a Black president says a lot about our society. But our nation’s myth-makers would rather ignore this inconvenient truth, choosing to remind us instead that Obama’s victory is further proof of how great our country is.

But the Sherriff Arpaios and Jack Lacys of the world remind us of something else. They remind us that we still have a long, long way to go.

When is a Racial Slur not Offensive? Never.

Not long ago, Prince Harry, son of the late Princess Diana and third in line for the British throne, unleashed a storm of controversy after a three-year-old home video was released in which the prince used the terms paki and raghead. The video was shot while Prince Harry was still a cadet at Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy.

In the first scene the prince pans his camera over fellow soldiers waiting in an airport departure lounge, pausing on fellow cadet Ahmed Raza Khan and referring to him as “our little paki friend.” In another scene, he tells another soldier that he “look[ed] like a raghead.” Prince Harry rightfully caught flak and did the right thing by promptly apologizing, but he’s had more than his fair share of apologists who want us to believe that calling someone a paki or raghead is not really that offensive. But they’re wrong: directing a racial slur at someone is always offensive.

Rod Richards, a former Royal Marine and Foreign Office minister in the Conservative government of John Major had this to say in defense of Prince Harry’s use of the slurs:

I am a Welshman and it was quite common for people like me to be called Taffy. Similar nicknames are also used for people from other parts of the world. The use of the word ‘Paki’ doesn’t surprise me but in a military context, it is not derogatory. People are making an issue out of something that is not an issue.” 

And this was the response of Michael Evans, Defense Editor of the Times Online:

Prince Harry was clearly not attempting to be deliberately offensive towards his Pakistani colleague but appeared to be using the pejorative term in a light-hearted way. Similarly, the term ‘raghead’ is used not infrequently in the Army when soldiers are referring to the ‘opposition’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Richards and Evans, and the many others who defended the prince, are missing the point. Paki and raghead are not mere pet names that can be tossed around willy-nilly. They are racial slurs and that makes them offensive. For starters, paki and raghead are used solely in reference to South Asians and Arabs/Muslims respectively, and never as terms of endearment or respect. Furthermore, calling people names based on their skin color, ethnicity, language, or region of origin is plain wrong. Even kindergarteners know that. After all, nobody chooses their skin color or where they were born, and nobody should be called names because of things over which they have no control.

But the bigger issue here is that unlike nicknames, which may stem from an individual’s height, weight, or hair color, racial slurs are used against entire populations. And, unlike nicknames, racial slurs are created and used in specific  historical and political contexts. In other words, they are created in a context of inequality in which one group (let’s call them the namecallers) creates and uses a slur while simultaneously doing violence to, marginalizing, exploiting, or otherwise denigrating another group (let’s call them the namecallees). For this reason, it is impossible to separate a racial slur from the context in which it was created.

Take, for example, two common American slurs—nigger and gook. These words were created, and came into popular use, at a time when the namecallers were doing some kind of violence to the namecallees. Nigger came into use at a time when Africans were being captured and sold into plantation slavery in the New World, and continues to be used as a derogatory term to this day. Gook came into being as long ago as 1899 and has been used sequentially against Filipinos, Japanese people, Koreans, and Vietnamese people. Is it any coincidence that these uses followed the sequence of America’s wars in Asia?

Similarly, paki came about at a time when newly arriving South Asians were experiencing hostility, to say nothing of violence, at the hands of native-born Brits. Is it any wonder, then, that attacks against South Asian immigrants came to be known as paki bashing? Michael Evans, the Times editor, lent (perhaps inadvertently) support to this point when he reminded his readers that “the term ‘raghead’ is used not infrequently in the Army when soldiers are referring to the ‘opposition’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Put another way, this means that British and American soldiers are doing violence to Arabs and Muslims, all the while referring to them as ragheads.

Wars might end and time—to say nothing of equal rights legislation—might pass, but racial slurs do not cease to be offensive, nor do they lose their power to denigrate. Because they are conceived and used in violence, they can never go back to being mere words. To call someone a nigger, a paki, a gook, or a raghead is not just to remind them of the violence done to people who shared their skin color, religion, or birthplace. It is also to point out that they are different, that they do not belong, and that they will always be outsiders in the dominant culture. After all, can nigger be separated from the brutality of the Middle Passage, plantation slavery, and Jim-Crow segregation? Can anyone honestly claim to have successfully divorced paki from paki bashing? When will gook lose its connotation of napalm and free-fire zones? And, long after the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan come to an end, what meaning will raghead retain? Will it really be possible to draw a neat, sharp line between the word and the violence done by British and American soldiers to the people they called “ragheads“?

To be clear, this is not to argue that anyone who uses a racial slur is a racist. The question, ultimately, is not whether it is possible for someone to use these words and simultaneously not be a racist, but whether it is decent to do so in the first place! After all, racial slurs on their own do not constitute racism but their use is an essential component of it. Using racial slurs is an exercise of power by the namecaller, used to establish his dominance over the namecallee and everyone else who shares his skin color, religion, language, or birthplace. In addition to being reminders of past violence, racial slurs let the namecallee know that he does not belong, that he is inferior to the namecaller. The intended use of a racial slur is immaterial: the context in which it was created—in other words, how it acquired meaning and thus the power to offend and demean—is what really matters.

So while Prince Harry may not be a racist (although showing up to a party wearing a swastika armband does little to rule out the possibility), his casual use of racial slurs proves that a top-notch education does not necessarily endow its recipient with common sensitivity, let alone common sense. As for Ahmed Khan, Prince Harry’s “little paki friend” (now a captain in the Pakistani army), there is no way to know how he feels about having been called a little paki: the army has barred him from discussing the matter.

At the end of the day, Prince Harry’s affinity for swastikas and racially insensitive language says a lot about his level of cultural sensitivity, but at least he has enough sense to apologize when he has caused offense. That’s much more than can be said of the people who rallied to his defense and tried to argue that paki and raghead aren’t so offensive after all.