Friday, April 25, 2014

Black is as Black Does

Bundy phones FOX News to complain that the feds also stole his glasses

The batshit crazy right-wing news cycle for this week has been dominated by the travails of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher and career deadbeat who refuses to pony up money he owes to the federal government because, well, he thinks he can get away with it if he wraps himself in Old Glory and claims he's standing up against the "evil" government. With an assist from FOX News, Bundy has become an ephemeral media celebrity; until, that is, he used his fifteen minutes of fame to opine that perhaps blacks were better off as slaves. Given that Bundy is an old, white rancher living in the Nevada wilderness, it shouldn't be shocking that his views on race are antediluvian. Perhaps he could blame his outburst on the radioactive fallout he grew up with thanks to those federal government atomic tests in the 1950s. Predictably, Twitter and the mainstream media reacted with shock and horror at such a naked display of racism, but this past week also saw some racist imagery (or racial stereotyping if one wants to be polite) that's being used to promote NBA basketball. Check it out:

The Toronto Raptors are in the playoffs for the first time in six years and they're decided to rebrand themselves with the "We the North" ad campaign. The first thing that sticks out about this ad is that there's a conscious effort being made to give the Raptors "street cred." Aside from the obligatory glamour shot of Toronto's skyline, the ad shows a city filled with bleak, ugly apartment complexes and grimy expressways. The people playing basketball in these settings are overwhelmingly black, with several of them bearing elaborate tattoos just to provide a hint of gangsta life. It's hard to see what the end purpose of this ad is, but the message seems to be, "Hey, looks at us, we're just like big American cities--we have lots of nasty public housing filled with dangerous-looking black men who love playing basketball." The ad only runs in Canada (as far as I know), but it feels like it's addressing an American market (complete with American-accented voice artist), asking them to please, pretty please, take us seriously as a basketball franchise. And the way to do that, the ad agency has decided, is to portray blacks in one of their officially approved roles: poor, urban and vaguely threatening.

What that ad fails to show is that the audience at Raptors games is easily is the most ethnically diverse of any of Toronto's major sports teams, so it's doubly odd that "We the North" is trying to peddle a black-centric vision of Toronto for no clear purpose. What the campaign does reveal is one of the acceptable faces of racism. People from both ends of the political spectrum find poor, urban blacks to be a useful political tool; the right uses them to attract frightened white voters, the liberal-left needs them as a stick to attack the failures of rightist government policies, and, it would appear, the Raptors use them to sell tickets. What all concerned seem to have difficulty with is seeing blacks in roles outside those traditionally allotted to them, and what's a bit surprising is how common this attitude is even amongst people you'd normally characterize as liberal, or at least enlightened. Have a gander at this trailer for Seth McFarlane's upcoming western comedy and the "joke" at the 2:09 mark:

Hilarious. It's nice to see that the black-men-want-women-with-big-asses trope hasn't died yet thanks to the diligent efforts of white comedians. And then there's Bill Maher, who's mocked entertainer Wayne Brady on several occasions for, apparently, not fitting Bill's definition of what black means. Even Steve Martin got into the act recently with a Twitter joke that backfired spectacularly. Of course, Steve was also the star of Bringing Down the House (2003), the most enthusiastically racist film since Birth of a Nation. And don't get me started on Tina Fey's 30 Rock, but please read this piece by Zeeshan Aleem in the Huffington Post for an efficient dissection of the racism in that show.

The problem with the Cliven Bundy's of the world isn't their lunkheaded, slack-jawed ideas about race, it's that their theatrical racism distracts us from the widely accepted, daily racism that lies behind the Raptors ad and the jokes from Hollywood entertainers who would probably be deeply offended to be called racists.

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