Wednesday, October 17, 2007

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No noose is good noose

Unless you’ve been visiting Mars for a while, you know about the noose thing. The situation in Jena, LA, where white kids hanging nooses in a tree triggered fighting that resulted in charges of attempted murder — now reduced — against six black kids. The noose hung on the office door of a professor at Columbia University Teachers College recently. And others.

I wasn’t going to say anything about all that, until a friend told me about another sort of noose controversy: Halloween decorations depicting hangings. I checked the noosenews:

The gist of the situation is this, using the Georgia item as an example:
Members of the NAACP demonstrated Friday against a Halloween display in the 1400 block of Hogansville Road. A gallows with three dummies hanging from nooses appears in the front yard of Tommy and Deborah McCann. The protesters said it harkens to an era when blacks were sometimes the target of lynchings.
In the Massachusetts case, it’s a witch that’s being hanged, and a “witch” who’s calling it a “hate crime” against her religion. (In an amusing, but irrelevant aside, the “witch’s” name is Lynch.)

Of course, the people who put out the decorations are mystified. This is from the Georgia article:

The dummies aren’t black, she said — one is white, another is a space alien and the other is “some kind of monster.”

“It’s just a Halloween decoration,” she said. “It’s not going against anybody. ... What’s race got to do with it? The dummy in the middle is white.”

Perspective, folks, perspective. These are Halloween decorations. No one is threatening anyone, and no one is glorifying lynching. These aren’t meant to insult anyone, whether black, white, or green. I’m reminded of when a government official in the District of Columbia was fired, albeit briefly, for saying that he’d have to be “niggardly” with some money, and now I’m waiting for people to become offended because kids pretending to be ghosts are walking around in white sheets.

We’ve gone overboard-nuts with all this.

It’s a stupid and offensive thing to do to hang a noose in the face of a black person. Yes, it is. It’s a stupid and offensive thing to deny the Holocaust, to call people by racially or socially charged names, to imply that someone will cheat you because he’s Jewish, steal from you because he’s black, or break your knees because he’s Italian.

But you know what?: People do stupid, offensive things all the time. It’d be nice if they didn’t, but there it is. We have to separate the real threats — which we should deal with properly — from the incidents that are just stupid and offensive. And we have to separate the real offense from the unwarranted perceptions of offense.

In other words, we need to use some sense, and develop thicker skins. As I thought about all this, I remembered the incident at the World Cup, when Zidane attacked Materazzi because the latter made a lewd comment about the former’s sister. Zidane was officially punished, but was unofficially lauded for standing up for his honour. Camel crap. Fighting with someone because he implied that your sister’s a slut is even more stupid than the implication was.

Thicker skins. Walk away. Show people that this idiocy doesn’t bother you, and that it says more against the perpetrators than it does against you.

And along comes John McWhorter, with his commentary on NPR yesterday, saying essentially the same thing. Go listen to the audio, to hear it straight from Mr McWhorter’s mouth. For convenience, though, I’ve taken the liberty of transcribing it; I hope he doesn’t mind:

A modest proposal: The next time somebody plants a noose, let’s just ignore it. No press conferences, no news stories, nothing. Not because I don’t understand the importance of fighting racism, and I’m quite aware of what nooses symbolize. Because, in this case, walking on by might be the way to tamp down this expression of racism, rather than going nuts every time somebody pulls it.

Right now, we’re in the aftermath of the noose hung on professor Madonna Constantine’s door at Columbia’s Teachers College. The nooses hung from a tree in Jena were just last year, then there was a noose hung in a warehouse in New York last December. This past weekend, someone scrawled the “N” word on a bench at a Staten Island high school, which is really the same kind of thing.

There’s no evidence that a sententious brouhaha after each of these events has any preventative effect. Rather, they just keep coming. Obviously, the kinds of people who do things like this aren’t reached by sonorous statements about civility.

There are times when a brouhaha makes sense. Banishing Don Imus from the airwaves, even if it was temporary, made sense because it actually was an effective battle against the expression of racism. Talk show hosts will now be more careful about what they say, out of a desire not to lose their jobs.

But noose-hanging pranksters in the night can’t be stopped by just words. Some bored jerk hangs a noose and spends the rest of the week watching his deed make national news. He and his friend do a “high five”, while some web-surfing scumbag across the country decides he wants to do something like that too.

And as to the white kids in Jena who hung the nooses: even if they had been expelled, it wouldn’t have stopped whoever hung the noose at Teachers College at Columbia. They apparently left no traces, as is the usual situation in such cases.

Imagine if in Jena, black kids had just walked by the nooses and gone on about their business. Let’s say, next month there’s a noose hung from the mast of a black man’s yacht in Key West. Say nothing. In February, some fool writes the “N” word in the dirt in front of a black schoolteacher’s apartment in Tucson after she gives him a bad grade. Nothing. And nothing, after a black guy finds a little noose hanging from his rear-view mirror for no reason he can think of in Savannah next summer.

If these dregs of society couldn’t get such a rise out of us in the media, they very well might eventually knock it off. If anyone hung a noose from my door, I’d mention it to some friends and family, but that’s it, and I’d be more concerned about how painting my bedroom was going. I have a job, a piano, a kitchen, a family, a life. I’d be uncomfortable implying that there was even any question as to whether someone imposing some symbol on me could actually make me feel bad.

The jerks press the button and watch black people go “Ack!” time and again, while the media exploit it for viewership. This is giving them the power. You get two for one: weakness, plus only encouraging more nooses. Great.

Hence, my modest proposal. The next time — and there will be one — let’s let it go. Not because it’s OK, but because that’s the way to discourage it from happening. Isn’t that what we were going for?

I couldn’t agree more, and not just for nooses, but for all of it. We can only be insulted if we allow ourselves to be.

4 comments:

Lisa S. said...

Well, Barry, you know my opinion on all this. McWhorter is right, and had to be the one to say it because he is black. On this subject, only a black person would be listened to. Someone like me would be shouted off the metaphorical stage. (You probably will be, too, but c'est la vie.) This kind of crap is not only not newsworthy, but it draws attention and ire away from actual racism, not to mention actual crime. There's enough of that to go around; people don't have to be manufacturing it out of whole cloth, which is exactly what they're doing in the Jena and Columbia and now -- god help us -- Halloween cases.

Anonymous said...

There is a difference between an insult and a death threat. NO need to get worked up over halloween decorations, agreed. But as a black woman my response to John M is this: if someone managed to get in my car and leave me a warning in the form of a noose hanging from my rear view mirror, I would call the police. I imagine many people would do the same, black or white.

Barry Leiba said...

Yes, I think that's true, and I think Mr McWhorter's engaging in a little hyperbole here. If nothing else, I'd worry that someone entered my car and put something there, even it it were a chocolate truffle.

But I think the broader point is that while you (and I) might contact the authorities about any particular personal situation... it's not news, and it's certainly not national news. I do agree with him that the publicity we drench these incidents in is exactly what the idiots who do them are looking for.

Lisa S. said...

From an article in the NYT October 14 titled "Racial Crisis? Or Just Rope in the Hands of Fools?":

'And maybe it’s just the distorting mirror of the never-ending media cavalcade, where any moron with a Sharpie and a length of cord from Home Depot can make a statement heard round the world.

'“One theory about media is that it’s not so much telling the news as it is retelling old folk tales,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “The idea should be to put facts in context, not to put them into familiar arrangements that reinforce old attitudes.”'

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/14/nyregion/14towns.html