I was on Facebook last night when a Black male friend of mine posted an article by Touré on the ESPN website, entitled “What if Michael Vick were white?” Above the actual article was a disturbing sight: Michael Vick in “white face” with light hair and light eyes. (This article also appears in the latest ESPN magazine.)
I know next to nothing about sports, and I don’t find sports interesting, either, so I almost didn’t read the article. (To read an analysis of Touré’s piece by someone who does know about sports, check out this brilliant post by David J. Leonard.) I knew that I would encounter certain “insider” terms about sports in a, well, sports magazine. I only read on because of the provocative title. But luckily, I needed to know absolutely nothing about sports to understand Touré’s inflammatory and downright rude article, because it wasn’t about sports. It was about the pseudo-science of analyzing “race.”
Only in this article, Touré wasn’t analyzing the constructed concept of “race;” instead, he was making sweeping generalizations about Black culture, and reinforcing coded cultural and class stereotypes. Throughout my reading this article on Michael Vick, instead of asking myself the question I was supposed to—what if Vick were white—I found myself asking instead, what if Touré were white?
Now, before I go any further, let me say that I’m no fan of Michael Vick. I think what he did to those poor animals was horrible. And I’m also past tired of Black (and some White) folks trying to give Michael Vick a bleeding heart pass for inhumane treatment to God’s creatures and whining about he caught a bad break because he was African American. I don’t care what race he was; I think he should have done way more time than he already did.
Yes, I said it. Snatch my Black card, and I don’t care. I can always get me another one down at the Target.
But let me say that the sort of strange racial rhetoric on the other side of this debate, about the “nature” of Black men and Black culture is infuriating as well. And seriously tacky. In Touré’s defense, this rhetoric was going on long before he waded into this fray with his singular, accented moniker and “throwback jam” Enlightenment philosophy.
However, Touré’s article takes this rhetoric to the next, unsavory, near-skull measuring level. Again, this article is not about sports, though Touré begins with bloviated, quasi-lyrical language, using such terms like “in the pocket” and (I guess) establishing his Black bonafides with the use of the Black vernacular, as when he writes: “I’m not saying that a black QB who stands in the pocket ain’t playing black.” [Emphasis mine.]
What the heck does “playing black” mean? I’m not even a sports fan and I know that’s not one of those complicated technical terms. And if a White writer said some sort of essentialist crap like somebody “plays black” we’d be all over him. Why doesn’t Touré just start talking about antebellum slave breeding practices that produced better athletes while he’s at it? Like we haven’t already heard that one before.
Then, Touré goes on to imply that if Michael Vick were White and middle-class, he wouldn’t have been dogfighting in the first place.
One pertinent question: Would a white kid have been introduced to dogfighting at a young age and have it become normalized to the extent that he builds it into his life after he joins the NFL? It’s possible, but it’s far less likely because what made Vick stand out among dogfighters is less race than class.
Here, I want to focus less on Touré’s circular reasoning in this quote—such as, if what makes Vick stand out is his class, then why are we bringing up his race in the first place? Oh, that’s right, because we have to prove that Black folks are pathological—and more on his Clear Yankee Ignorance as well as his Clear Historical Ignorance.
As my readers may or may not know, I’m from the Deep South, where White men love them some dogfighting. White men of all classes. Matter of fact, the term “Alabama Dog Fight” definitely does not refer to an African American sporting event.
Further, according to ASPCA website, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the roots of dogfighting can be traced to “bear baiting” which began in England in mid-1800s. England, not Africa. Thus, dog fighting is not a Traditional Negro Pastime.
Then, Touré hits even lower: he focuses on Michael Vick’s absent father:
If Vick grew up with the paternal support that white kids are more likely to have (72 percent percent of black children are born to unwed mothers compared with 29 percent of white children), would he have been involved in dogfighting? I ask this not to look for an excuse but to explore the roots of his behavior. Vick’s stunningly stupid moral breakdown with respect to dogs is certainly related to the culture of the world he grew up in, which he says fully embraced dogfighting. But it’s also related to the household he grew up in.
So apparently, violent behavior toward animals is connected to your being Black and your daddy being gone. I’m just going to let that appalling statement marinate with y’all for a second.
Now, let’s come back.
If a White man had implied something illogical like being Black, fatherless, and working class predestines somebody to treat animals badly, we’d call him all kinds of racists. Or, like, call up Fox news to get him fired, because that’s probably where he’d be working.
In a recent review of Touré’s latest book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to be Black Now, Randall Kennedy talks about Touré’s logical fallacies on the subject on which Touré has appointed himself as expert. It’s clear that Touré wants to distance himself from “regular” Black folks by positioning himself as “raceless” or “post-race.”
But the problem is that if Touré weren’t Black, he wouldn’t be looked to as an expert on Black culture—and the supposed intrinsic pathologies located therein—in the first place. Indeed, Touré’s stunning statements are not “post-racial” or even new. Not only is he the latest in a long line of Black folks (mostly men) who have decided to go in hard on the Black community, he’s also writing in a tradition that has its roots going all the way back to the Enlightenment period, where Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Thomas Jefferson asserted “facts” about Black people’s inferiority.
Kant and Hume “ordered” the races—and of course, Black folks were down at the bottom of all that–and Jefferson asserted that Black women and orangutans were getting it on. (I’m not lying. Look it up in Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14.)
All three of these men—and countless other European/American philosophers, intellectuals, and scientists—asserted “facts” about Black folks with absolutely no proof of the existence of these assertions. They just made stuff up as they went along, saying whatever rude things they wanted to say about Black folks and it was taken as cultural gospel. And many people don’t even know that much of the racism that we now hear being spouted as “fact”—by both White and Black folks– were simply philosophical ramblings that solidified throughout two and a half centuries.
That was back in the day, but now White folks aren’t allowed to spout certain things in polite company—certainly not in print—and get away with it anymore. So enter Touré with his Patrick Moynihan-esque faux-truths for why Michael Vick turned out to be mean to animals.
Oh, y’all didn’t know? It’s about the breakdown of the Black family. That’s why Vick fought and/or killed dogs. It’s about about how poor Black people just are naturally not as nice as middle-class and upper-middle class folks. That’s why Vick fought and/or killed dogs. And by the way, Touré implies, poor Black people also are poor because they lack some intrinsic moral gift, not because of, like, the centuries-long economic policies in place all around the globe to keep folks of all complexions and cultural backgrounds poor.
And thus, in Touré’s logic, being poor and Black and coming from a single parent home makes one brutal. In the last line of Touré’s article, he asserts that it is only when Michael Vick has ceased to be brutal that the issue of race in his life is deemed null and void—I assume this means when Vick becomes an honorary White man, since “race” here is the code used for “not-White.”
But aside from the glaring, offensive assertions in Touré’s article, he misses the basic point. It’s so obvious I kept waiting for him to say it. See, brutality has never known race or class or color or gender. White folks aren’t naturally brutal. Black folks aren’t naturally brutal. Poor people aren’t naturally brutal. Men aren’t naturally brutal.
Nobody is naturally brutal.
All brutality needs to come to the surface is unchecked power over someone or something weaker than yourself. That’s all. And what Touré—the ultimate “post-racial” cultural critic—missed in his article is that, in terms of wielding that unchecked power, Michael Vick wasn’t inhabiting the natural role of a fatherless, Black man from poor origins—he was just a regular, old human being who didn’t check himself. And so, when he exercised his power over the weak, Vick established himself as quintessentially “post-racial.”