Earlier this week, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke to an audience at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Thomas, the second black member of the Supreme Court, felt that in one clear aspect of racial and cultural relations in the U.S., we've not moved forward:
"'My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up,' Thomas said during a chapel service hosted by the nondenominational Christian university. 'Now, name a day it doesn't come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn't look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I'd still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.'"
(This is an odd little juxtaposition by Justice Thomas. He says that race rarely came up during his childhood, even as he alludes to the thoroughly enforced customs and laws around race that contributed to him being the first black kid to attend his school.)
To Justice Thomas's point, race does come up a lot. On any given day, you could find some racially charged but relatively trivial moment blown up into a media phenomenon. But this is why it gets messy: in any given week, it would also be easy to name a racially charged moment of enormous consequence to those involved. We in the news media metabolize both those moments — the trivial and the consequential — in the same way.
This week, an example came from the world of ultimate fighting. Tyler Manawaroa, a 19-year-old fighter from Australia, landed in hot water after an Instagram photo he posted two years ago resurfaced. We're not going to post the image because it's too gross, but it shows a black toddler sitting in a shopping cart, and a joke about him getting used to being behind metal bars. (You can see it here. Standard disclaimers about slurs and offensive images apply.)
The Ultimate Fighting Championship got wind of the image, and announced it would not extend Manawaroa a contract with the company. Manawaroa apologized, citing his own racial background. Kajan Johnson, the fighter who initially called attention to Manawaroa's two-year-old Instagram post, followed with his own apology, and pointed to Manarowa's age when he posted it. "All in all, I would like to apologize to Tyler for how I handled this particular situation," Johnson wrote on his website. "As upsetting as it was at the time, I realize there are some things I should have done differently. I never anticipated that his contract would be revoked nor was that my wish for him."
The incident raises a bunch of messy questions. Should an Instagram post that someone made when he was 17 have continuing negative fallout for his professional life? At the same time, would UFC want to be affiliated with someone who posted horrible images that make light of black folks and mass incarceration? (Once again, this is a scenario we see every time some pop culture event sparks a flurry of racist tweets from kids; the content is undeniably ugly and understandably angry-making.) And for those of us in the news media, should this interaction ever have escaped the personal and professional context in which it happened?
Manawaroa is making a joke about a deadly serious topic: the racial dynamics of imprisonment. The dynamics are particularly acute in Wisconsin, which locks up more of its black men than any other state. Pegged to that, the Capital Times in Madison, Wis., has announced a project focusing on race-related issues.
This week, a contributor to that project gave us another example of a dark joke gone horribly awry. Michael Johnson, who runs the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, Wis., recalled a harrowing incident from his college wrestling days two decades ago. His story is a few paragraphs long, but it's worth reading the whole thing:
On that brisk Halloween night in 1993, the assistant coach drove me and two other wrestlers down a pitch-black road where we came upon a large cross on fire surrounded by several men with white sheets over their heads. I immediately felt my heart sink. Before I could say anything, the coach turned the car around, concerned for our safety. As we headed in the opposite direction, the men in white sheets blocked the road. The coach grabbed a bat and opened the door.
We pleaded with him to stay in the car, but he didn't listen. Mark, the other African-American wrestler in the car, looked at me in disbelief. At this moment I was prepared to fight for my life. As Mark and I slowly walked behind our coach in the dark of night, we heard a voice say, "Just give us the (n-word in plural) and we'll let you go!" The man repeated himself twice, and as the coach began to respond, we suddenly heard gunfire: Click, click, boom! The coach fell to his knees, wiped his white shirt, which appeared to be covered in blood, and chokingly said, "Run for your lives!"
As I turned to run, all I could see were Mark's white shoes kicking up dust as he fled from two people chasing him. I ran toward the car, 15 feet away. From the way it was positioned, I hoped to jump into the passenger door and slide to the driver's side. But the door was locked. The men in white sheets ran toward me at full speed. I could either run or break the window; I chose the latter. After two unsuccessful attempts, I shattered the window with my elbow, dove into the car and drove off.
I was bleeding, praying and asking God for his protection. I sped away at more than 100 mph to the nearest town. When I got to the main street, I pulled into a gas station and jumped out of the car, forgetting to put the car in park. I frantically called 911 — I was terrified!
(Do read the whole thing; it's pretty powerful.)
Johnson's coaches and teammates later showed up laughing. "Happy Halloween!" they said. The whole thing had been an elaborate prank, and Johnson and his black teammate were the marks. (The teammate, the one who ran terrified into the woods, remained hidden in a tree until the coast was clear and help arrived.) The incident briefly became national news.
Johnson was clearly shaken by it, enough to recall the incident in vivid detail 20 years later. The sense of mortal danger that he must have felt in that moment evidently traumatized him in a way that has been difficult to shake. Justice Thomas, on the other time, has quite a bit of distance from the days of segregated Georgia when he said the Klan regularly marched down the streets on weekends. It's enough distance that Thomas, who is black and Catholic, could now joke about it. "I was a two-fer for the Klan," he told the audience at the college.
This set of incidents — Manawaroa's Instagram post and the subsequent revocation of his contract, Michael Johnson's recall of this horrible prank — sit alongside all these other smaller and larger stories. Both of those cases started as jokes, but they resulted in greater and lesser consequences for the people involved. And at the same time that those consequences are playing out, folks are punditizing about things like whether an anchor confused Samuel L. Jackson with Laurence Fishburne and what that says about Race In America. We bring vastly different sensitivities to these incidents because we bring vastly different experiences to them. And we collapse all these things — tweets and traumas — into one rolling conversation, stripped of its nuance, set to the same volume.