It is one of those sad and yet iron-clad laws of the internet that if you talk about race long enough, someone will accuse you of being a “race baiter” or “race hustler”. And because the people who say this aren’t terribly creative, you will also soon thereafter be accused of worshipping/fellating Al Sharpton, as though he is the only black person on the planet who discusses race. Perhaps more likely is that he’s the only black person on the planet they can name who isn’t an athlete or artist of some kind. So it goes.
When I have had this lazy accusation thrown my way, I have adopted the practice of asking my interlocutor to actually define what a “race baiter” is, as though I hadn’t heard the phrase before. Most of the time, unused as they are to having to actually think about the things they’re saying, the person will bluster their way through a series of insults and unimaginative aspersions before either quitting, or giving some form of the following definition:
Race-baiter (n.) – a person who inserts racial content into a discussion where race is not relevant for the purposes of winning the argument based on sympathy rather than the merits of their position.
I have, of course, translated the various responses I’ve received over the years into intelligible English for your sake.The more colloquial form of this assertion is that people are “bringing race into it”, when there is no “actual” racial issue worth discussing. In discussions of conservative/libertarian policies, raising the disproportionate deleterious effect they have on communities of colour is “bringing race into it”. In discussions of the opposition to the Obama presidency, discussing the way in which this particular opposition is unique and grounded in anti-black prejudice and barely-coded language is “bringing race into it”. When talking about mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offences, discussing the overwhelming disparity between who uses them and who is arrested for using them is “bringing race into it”.
“Bringing race into it” is, to hear fans of the phrase tell it, a terribad thing. It distracts our attention from “the real racists” – a group whose membership is never defined and appears to be largely imaginary. The problem of “real racism”, again according to those whose anti-racist efforts are conspicuously absent unless a person of colour is talking about racism, is exacerbated when people “bring race into” things where race isn’t applicable. This is because we have a finite supply of outrage about racism (apparently) and if we “waste” it talking about redlining and Stop & Frisk programs, we will be too tired to get upset about… cross burnings and lynchings I guess? I honestly don’t know what they think “real racism” looks like. I’ll have to start asking.
Now maybe you caught it already, but there is a massive and unjustified assumption present in the above definition: “where race is not relevant”. The label carries with it the assumption that the discussion of race, in whatever context “race baiter” is introduced, is not relevant. As adjudicated by… them. At the risk of a massive Appeal to Authority Fallacy or any number of related Ad Hominems, I don’t exactly have the greatest confidence in the racial awareness and sensitivity of someone who thinks I need to “stop sucking Al Sharpton’s dick”. Indeed, my contention has always been that people who are the victims of racism are usually better judges of whether or not it’s at play than those who are, by and large, the beneficiaries of it (or at the very least whose lives are not directly affected by it on a daily basis).
This raises another issue: in what context does someone who uses the term “race baiter” think a discussion of race is appropriate? Does someone have to call me a nigger before I’m ‘allowed’ to point out their racism? Do we need to see a “whites only” sign before we talk about underrepresentation? How blatant does it have to be in order for it not to be “race baiting”?
It was January 2010. Ojore Lutalo, a Black Liberation activist who had formerly spent nearly three decades in prison, was traveling on an Amtrak train back to his home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The woman sitting in front of Lutalo, who was eavesdropping on his conversation, reported hearing alarming remarks to train staff. When the train pulled into La Junta, Colorado, Lutalo was arrested at gunpoint. He spent three days in jail. Meanwhile, town officials had realized they could not substantiate Lutalo’s purported terrorist threats, prompting the embarrassing question of whether charges would even be filed. Assistant District Attorney Barta phoned arresting Officer Mobley to confer about how to salvage the investigation and secure an indictment. (Lutalo was never charged.)
If the circumstances of Lutalo’s arrest were different—if he didn’t have a high profile or access to legal support—we’d probably never know about this incident. The recordings were disclosed during discovery after Lutalo filed suit against the city for violating his constitutional rights by making false claims to justify his arrest. The suit was ultimately settled out of court.
Arresting Officer Mobley: I should have just let [the arrestee] get off the train and go.
Assistant District Attorney Barta: Ah, you should have said that he pulled a knife on you and shot the son of a bitch.
Barta: (Laughter) He pulled something out of his pocket and it looked like a gun… then… it was a goddamn comb, I’m sorry! (Laughter)
Mobley: My bad, I’m sorry! (Laughter)
Barta: My bad! (Laughter)
Barta: (Laughter) Oh well, anyway… (Pause) Or, you could have arrested him, alleged that the train tried to pull out, and here’s a thought, throw him under the track, the wheels, and then say he tried to escape. But too late for that….
Mobley: Yeah …
Mobley: Oh well! Anyway…
When I first read this story, I went to Twitter and ruefully/ironically began listing the many excuses and comments that would likely be used by racism denialists to insist that there’s nothing to the story. It was “just a joke” between friends and there’s no reason to suspect that there’s anything malicious and/or racist about it. I can understand how you arrive at that conclusion: this was just a couple of guys cracking jokes that were perhaps in bad taste, but who among us hasn’t made a private joke with a friend that wasn’t exactly ‘politically correct’? Sure it’s gruesome, but it’s not like they actually killed someone.
Except this wasn’t just “a couple of guys”. This was a police officer and an assistant district attorney. These are two men who have a massive infrastructure (that we are asked to call “the justice system” because irony never goes out of style) behind them, joking about the fact that if Officer Mobley had done what so many other police officers have done – murdered an innocent black person and lied about it – ADA Barta (or another white man in his position) would be among the people who would ensure that there was no consequence for his actions. This is not hypothetical – it happens nearly every day, and it is a trivial task to find cases where police officers walk away from it unscathed (or where justice happens only after a prolonged and costly fight by the surviving family members). This was a conversation between two powerful men where the substance of the joke rests on the reality that, had Officer Mobley chosen to do so, he could have murdered Ojore Lutalo to cut down on paperwork, and ADA Barta would have helped him get away with it.
But the “race baiter” crowd inserts themselves at this point to feverishly point out that this story “isn’t about race”. At no point in the conversation do Officer Mobley or ADA Barta say “you could get away with it too, because he’s black. I hate black people so much. Specifically because they’re black. I am a racist”, which as far as I can tell is the cartoonish level of blatancy that they require before identifying it as “real racism”. And because the men on the phone don’t explicitly spell their comments out in that way, we can’t say for sure if it’s racist, and therefore using this story as an example of the ways that racism is endemic in law enforcement is “race baiting”.
Here’s the thing: thanks to hundreds of years of white supremacy and the ongoing devaluation of black life, such blatancy is redundant. White supremacy means you don’t have to explain it; the subtext is understood. These men have power in a system, in a society, where there is no more need to say “you should have shot the son of a bitch… because he’s black” than it is necessary to say “you should have shot the son of a bitch… with a gun”. The post-ellipsis content of the thought doesn’t need to be vocalized – the context fills it in. The context of “with a gun” is evident because police officers don’t usually carry bows and arrows. The context of “because he’s black” is evident because America.
There are several more aspects of this story that are disturbing, to be sure: the circumstances of the arrest, the branding of Lutalo as a terrorist, the statements that Lutalo was born in Nigeria (close – he’s from New Jersey), the comments and threats, but by far the most chilling aspect is the way in which ADA Barta and Officer Mobley, realizing they have no case, discuss the possibility of returning Lutalo to jail (where he had been imprisoned for 22 years) by fabricating evidence and relying on the racist prejudice of the jury (again, they didn’t have to spell it out) to secure an unjust conviction. This kind of conduct is easily dismissed by the “race baiter” crowd as the fevered imaginings of conspiracy-minded blacks who are prejudiced against the upstanding citizens who staff the criminal justice system.
It’s on tape.
And because I’m sure that, as I write these words, there’s someone somewhere on Twitter or Facebook saying that this story “isn’t a race issue”, please allow me to offer the following amended definition for what “race baiter” actually means:
Race-baiter (n.) – a person who discusses race in any context that makes me feel uncomfortable.
And no wonder they don’t want us “bringing race into it”; it might distract from the “real racism” of them trying to take race out of it.