Every time you think there’s nothing left, no area or topic, where race can’t be injected into the conversation, you’re wrong. An African-American skater on the U.S. Olympic team refused to attend the opening celebration because of the results of a coin toss that decided whether he or a white female skater would represent the United States at the ceremony.
The skater, Shani Davis, said the coin toss was “dishonorable,” even though it was the previously agreed-upon method for breaking a tie vote among U.S. athletes. Davis included the hashtag #BlackHistoryMonth2018 in his tweet along with a list of his accomplishments that he said should have made him the flag-bearer. It seems as if Davis is alleging the first racially motivated coin toss in Olympic history.
Race also factored in another Olympic controversy last week. Fox News vice president John Moody penned an opinion column that took potshots at a Washington Post story in which U.S. Olympic Committee officials touted the diversity gains among this year’s Winter Olympics team even though the team remained “overwhelmingly white.” Jason Thompson, the USOC’s director of diversity and inclusion, told the Post, “We’ve just been trying to find ways to make sure our team looks like America.”
Moody took issue with this approach, saying, “In Olympics, let’s focus on the winner of the race — not the race of the winner.” He noted that there were no plans to fix the disparity among races in the National Basketball Association, where 81 percent of the players are African-American. Others have noted that there are understandable reasons of geography and interest level that may explain racial disparities at the Olympics. In this year’s Winter Olympics, 4 percent of the U.S. team was African-American, while 13 percent of the general population is African-American. In the most recent Summer Olympics, in Rio, 23 percent of the U.S. team was African-American.
But Moody went further than these valid points. In a clumsy and insensitive manner, he wrote:
Unless it’s changed overnight, the motto of the Olympics, since 1984, has been “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” It appears the U.S. Olympic Committee would like to change that to “Darker, Gayer, Different.” If your goal is to win medals, that won’t work.
Moody’s hyperbole brought out the critics. Gay-rights groups denounced it as bigoted. One headline called it a “homophobic, racist column.” Fox News issued a statement saying the column “does not reflect the views or values of Fox News and has been removed.”
Commentary such as Moody’s can be edgy and exaggerate matters. But are they the work of bigots and racists? A lot of people think the “racist” label is being used too loosely and too often. The dictionary tells us that “racism” is a belief that one’s race is superior to another. But now the charge is hurled for any perceived slight or criticism of people of color. In the theater of the absurd, TV personality Chelsea Handler called Housing Secretary Ben Carson a “black white supremacist” last year. Carson’s apparent sin is being a conservative while black, as opposed to most blacks, who vote for Democratic candidates.
Donald Trump has certainly escalated the playing of the race card, both because he has made insensitive statements and because his opponents are willing to hurl any epithet against him. In 2016, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof answered the question “Is Donald Trump a Racist?” by saying, “I don’t see what else to call it but racism.” Kristof’s fellow columnist Charles Blow has described Trump as “a Nazi/white nationalist apologist if not sympathizer,” adding, “The accommodation of racists is his creed.”
There was a time when liberals recognized just how poisonous and conversation-ending a reckless charge of racism could be. John Bunzel, a Democrat who served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wrote that we should end the “corrupted usage” of the word “racist.” It breeds “bitterness and polarization, not a spirit of pragmatic reasonableness in confronting our difficult problems,” he wrote in 1998.
The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a pillar of the Democratic party until his retirement as a U.S. senator in 2001, identified just how much damage the misuse of the racist label can do. In a famous speech he gave while serving as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1975, Moynihan unsuccessfully warned the U.N. General Assembly not to pass a resolution declaring that Zionism was a form or racism and racial discrimination:
The terrible lie that has been told here today will have terrible consequences. . . . The harm will arise first because it will strip from racism the precise and abhorrent meaning that it still precariously holds today. How will the people of the world feel about racism and the need to struggle against it when they are told that it is an idea as broad as to include the Jewish national liberation movement?
Let’s acknowledge that crying racism in today’s political theater is sure to create both more smoke and more fire.
Very few modern Democrats have shown the courage of a Bunzel or a Moynihan in decrying the overuse of “racism” as a slur. One who has is Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Temple University. “It’s very rare that I call someone a racist,” he told Philadelphia magazine. “It has to be so unambiguous, like some white supremacist leader. I just don’t find the term productive. It cripples the conversation. No one wants to discuss the matter with you after you use that word.”
So if we wonder why our conversation has become so stilted and so unable to incorporate language that helps us solve problems, let’s acknowledge that crying racism in today’s political theater is sure to create both more smoke and more fire. Before it gets any worse, let’s have as many people of good will as possible declare that, for at least a bit, we should stick to the dictionary definition of racism. After all, dictionaries exist for a reason. Let’s use them to clear the air.
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