Feminista Jones has the post to read about the events that spawned this post. Please read hers first.
And from the woodwork, another emerges:
Apparently, Anthony Cumia, the shock jock better known as half of the duo “Opie and Anthony,” had a bad Tuesday night in New York. He claims that he was taking pictures when a woman just happened to wander into the frame and then assaulted him. If his account is true, it is highly unfortunate.
But whether or not Cumia was assaulted is not actually the point. Cumia himself made sure of that when he took to Twitter in the small hours on Wednesday morning to pontificate on the state of New York and African Americans in a rant amply documented by Gawker. (Both the Gawker post and links to Cumia’s tweets that appear later in this piece contain wildly obscene and offensive language.)
I first caught wind of Anthony Cumia’s tweets when one of my favourite rappers started retweeting them. At first I thought it was parody – some sort of tasteless piece of performance art that would be explained away as “satire”. My next reaction was to remember that the internet is full of people with opinions, and if you want to find hateful stuff out there, you can. But this wasn’t some anonymous nobody tweeting from some basement den for lulz, this was the host of a fairly popular radio show.
Unfortunately, the rest of this piece won’t make much sense if you don’t read the tweets, but for those of you who (wisely, I assure you) avoided clicking on the Gawker link in the pull-quote, I will attempt to summarize. Mr. Cumia claimed to have been taking photos when a black woman happened to enter the frame. She confronted Cumia angrily (allegedly physically assaulting him), and he responded by calling her a name*. A number of black men came to the aid of the young woman, who (again allegedly**) struck him repeatedly. In response to the confrontation, the assault, and the men taking the side of the assaulter rather than the assaultee, Cumia wrote a long and sweeping condemnation of the woman specifically, black people more generally, and (for some reason that eludes ready explanation) “illegals”.
The most disturbing part of the story
The racist and misogynistic content of Cumia’s tweets cannot be denied, nor can their intent. Black people are, in Cumia’s estimation, are savages who respond with violence to any and all provocations, and “prey on white people”. He hopes the “CUNTRAG bitch fuck animal pig face worthless meat sack shit pile stink crotch ass stain rot bung…” gets killed, preferably by a “home boy”. The woman in question is lucky to be alive because Cumia is a “white legal gun owner”. There is no context in which such comments could be construed as anything other than racist white supremacy in its most naked form. These are all direct quotes, by the way.
And yet, shockingly but unsurprisingly, Cumia has legions of defenders attempting to advance a “zero bad” argument. The ones that I have seen fall into two broad categories. The first (and most risible) is that Cumia is not making claims about all black people, but rather about the specific people from his altercation who just happened to be black. If you’ve read the tweets, such a claim is yeoman’s work in motivated reasoning – Cumia doesn’t even put a Limbaugh’s effort into masking the racism. It’s more or less the kind of thing you expect to hear only at a Klan rally. Cumia’s fans are (evidently) able to convince themselves that Cumia’s response isn’t racist, but if that’s not racist hate speech then I shudder to think how high their bar must be for what qualifies as “real racism”.
The second class of statement made by Cumia’s defenders is quite a bit more frightening – that the tweets, while offensive, were justified in response to being assaulted. People making this claim will say, either smugly or angrily, that people criticizing Cumia are leaving out the fact that he was assaulted.
That’s it. That’s the argument. “Yes, he called her an animal and a cunt and extended his racial abuse to implicate all black people… but she hit him!” The implication seems to be ‘can you blame him?’
To which I reply FUCK YES I CAN, ARE YOU HIGH?
In yet another edition of “I can’t believe this needs to be explained to people”, the fact of being assaulted does not excuse a morally abhorrent response. Had Cumia defended himself with force, the assault would be relevant. Had Cumia verbally lashed out at the individual person who assaulted him, that would be somewhat proportional. Had Cumia got into a physical altercation with the crowd, even if he had pulled the weapon he says he had at the time of the altercation, the fact that he was punched in the fact might be seen as a factor that, while not excusing the response, would have at least explained it.
But there is no rational route between “I got hit” and “black people are savage animals and I hope one of them murders this cunt” that doesn’t make a lot of morally reprehensible stops along the way. Cumia doesn’t save his ire for an individual, nor does he focus his attention on the incident in isolation. He pretty much immediately broadens the scope of his rage to black people as a whole (and, although it is implied through word choice rather than overtly stated, to women as a whole). What proponents of the “but he got hit” argument would like us to believe is that Mr. Cumia walked into the altercation having no pre-existing negative opinion of black people, got hit, and turned into David Duke as a consequence. That would have to be some blow to the head.
The reason this line of reasoning scares me isn’t because it’s irrational – it’s that people think it’s persuasive. They seem to believe that the rest of us are walking around in a similar state; that which the only thing between the average person and virulent hatred of black “savages” is a single punch. What this suggests to me is that anyone who believes this excuse is anything other than ludicrous believes so because it’s true for them. “Isn’t everyone just barely biting back anti-black hatred?” seems to be the implication, under the assumption that the rest of us will say “yes, I suppose that’s true”. And the popularity of such a response, albeit admittedly based on the comments section and Retweets, makes me wonder – how many people ARE feeling that way?
Not only that, but if we’re in the habit of defending nakedly racist actions because “she hit me” or, more generally, “ze pissed me off”, what series of foot shuffles will black women continue to have to do in order to avoid being blamed for racial abuse at the hands of white men? I feel like “but she hit me” is usually something we’re supposed to stop accepting as an excuse for bad behaviour around the time we start elementary school. Not so when it’s black people and white supremacy is involved, I suppose.
Which brings me to the actual point of this piece. While Cumia’s response, and that of his defenders, is abhorrent, it is also a useful ‘jumping off point’ to a point that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Cumia’s rant included dehumanizing language about the woman’s gender and race, and he hammered on those again and again. However, it’s entirely possible that his assailant could have been a white man – indeed, it’s not exactly beyond the pale to imagine a drunk frat boy taking exception (and a swing) in response to some unwanted photos being taken by some random stranger. I’ve certainly seen it happen often enough.
And if such an altercation had taken place – what would Cumia’s response have been? Surely it wouldn’t have been to call his assailant a “whore” and “cunt” or a “savage”, as those are terms that are reserved for women and black people (and, intersectionally, black women – that “beaten to death by home boys” thing is misogynoir that is neither race-only or gender-only). What would he have attributed the anger and violence to?
It seems to be a necessary component of bigotry that the bigot will insist on a causal relationship between bad behaviour and whatever characteristic they hate. So when a black woman hits him (which, arguably, qualifies as ‘bad behaviour’), it’s because she’s a savage animal cunt. It’s not because of his behaviour, ‘obviously’, but neither is it because she’s just a jerk. Or a person with anger issues. Or a person having a bad day. Or a person who has been creeped on by pervy guys before, for whom Cumia’s behaviour and demeanour is bringing up a bunch of shit from the past. Nope – it’s because she’s a black woman. No other explanation is offered or even suggested.
And this is the key, because we see it other places. Gay men who are flamboyant are “shoving their sexuality down my throat”, whereas douchey hetero guys who talk about how many chicks they’ve plowed are “low class” if they merit a condemnation at all. Women, when angry, are “pushy” and “probably on the rag”; I can think of no parallel derogatory explanation of male anger.
More broadly, even things that are not necessarily negative will be attributed to whatever salient characteristic is at issue. We saw this with a previous study in which people used very different terms to describe a basketball player, depending on what race they believed the player to be. In the case of identical behaviour, we seem to have no difficulty reaching for stereotypes about out-groups and building our explanations retroactively from there. Those of you who have been reading since our discussion of System Justification Theory will find all of this very familiar – when our brains are under stress, we prefer the lowest-cognition route to resolving a given conflict, which means profligate use of stereotypes instead of rational thought.
What all this leads to is a pattern of behaviour in which whatever characteristic about a person is most salient becomes the primary filter through which all of their actions, good or otherwise, are interpreted. Our explanatory mechanism for anything – anger, ability, preference – is primarily informed by whatever stereotype is most readily available. Dave Chappelle has a wonderful quote that illustrates a somewhat facetious example of this process:
That happened to me. I was the end of Mississippi. I was in Mississippi doing a show, and I go to the restaurant to order some food. And, I say to the guy– I say:
“I would like to have…” And before I even my sentence, he says:
I was like, “What the… *fuck*.”
I could not believe it. I could not believe that shit.
This man was absolutely right. I said, “How did he know… that I was going to get some chicken?”
I asked him. I said, “How did you know that?
How did you know I was going to get some chicken?”
He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, “Come on, buddy. COME ON, BUDDY.
Now everybody knew that as soon as you walked through the goddamn door… you were gonna get some chicken.
It ain’t no secret down here that Blacks and chickens are quite fond of one another.”
And then I finally understood what he was saying, and I got upset.
I wasn’t even mad. I was just upset. I wasn’t ready to hear that shit.
All these years, I thought I liked chicken because it was delicious. Turns out I’m genetically predisposed to liking chicken.
Some people like chicken because it’s chicken and it’s great. But black people like chicken because they’re black. Some people are having a bad day because it’s just a bad day. But women are having a bad day because they’re having their period. Some people are shitty drivers because they’re new at driving or they’re just not particularly good at it. But shitty Chinese drivers are shitty drivers because they’re Chinese. We are prone to bypass the most typical explanation (or, at least, the explanation we’d give if the person wasn’t a member of an identifiable out-group) and instead produce an explanation that is rooted in their out-group status. The implication is that while ‘normal’ people do things for whatever combination of reasons, people from out-groups do those things because of their group.
This can and should be contrasted with the idea that people from certain groups are subjected to certain forms of differential treatment, and are therefore likely to have their decisions influenced by experiences that are typical of their group. A woman may, for example, have been subjected to repeated incidences of public sexual harassment at the hands of anonymous men, which would make her likely to react differently than a man would to having her picture taken by a stranger. A black person may, for example, have abundant experience with being dehumanized or otherwise treated as less than deserving of full autonomy at the hands of white people. It’s entirely within reason to recognize that people from different groups have different things in their past.
The trick, it seems, is to separate stereotype from fact. And if that can’t be done, to avoid attributing a person’s actions to the first thing you happened to notice about them.
In Mr. Cumia’s case, he decided to compound the error of relying on racial salience with reaching for the ugliest and most hateful stereotypes he could find. The woman objected to having her photo taken because she is a whore cunt animal, and the bystanders sided with her because they were black, and black people are savages who prey on white people. And while his supporters would have us believe either that these comments weren’t racist and misogynistic or that the racism and misogyny is merely the justifiable product of anger, the fact remains that his reaction is just an extremely dramatic version of an extremely mundane process. And while our instinct is to (rightfully) decry Cumia’s disgusting actions, we should remain mindful of the fact that the cognitive processes that underlie those actions could most certainly find a home in our brains as well.
*I can’t imagine what name he must have called her, but it must have been worse than ‘whore’, ‘bitch’, and ‘cunt’, because while Cumia uses those terms repeatedly and unrestrainedly, he censors himself when describing what he called her. My guess is ‘nigger’, but a guess is all I have.
**I am going to stop using the word “allegedly”, mostly out of convenience. While I very much doubt Cumia’s version of events, I don’t think he completely made up the fact that he got hit. Whether or not he provoked the assault is in question, but my experience with liars like Cumia is that while they will re-arrange or omit information to serve themselves, they are far less likely to invent details out of thin air. For the record, the assault is alleged by Cumia, and until such time as a court rules otherwise, they remain allegations only.