Monday, August 19, 2013

if lynching was racist, bullets were, too—plus the taxi test; or the ignorance of Oprah and Forrest Whitaker

I had wanted to see The Butler, but I want to see it less now, because the ignorance of its creators is impressive.

Oprah Winfrey said of the word "nigger", "I always think of the millions of people who heard that as their last word as they were hanging from a tree." According to the Tuskegee Institute count of lynchings between 1882 and 1968, 3,446 black people were lynched, and 1,297 white people were lynched. Which is 4,743 too many, but far from millions.

Lynching became disproportionately racial after the Civil War, but it took longer to become racial in some places. LYNCHING notes,
In the first phase of lynching in Oklahoma, 1885 through 1907, most victims were whites, punished primarily as rustlers, "highwaymen," or robbers. In those years, 106 individuals were lynched for suspected criminal activities. While 1892 was the peak year nationally, 1893-95 were the peak in the Twin Territories, with cattle/horse theft and robbery the main offenses. The 106 victims included 71 whites, 17 blacks, 14 Indians, 1 Chinese, and 3 of unknown race.
Forrest Whitaker said, "I can’t even get a taxi [in New York]. I send my [white] assistant out to get a taxi because I can’t." Most rich people send their assistants to get taxis simply because they can. I did some research in Is it harder for black people to get a taxi in the US? or About the Taxi Test and found that actual racist decisions by taxi drivers are between 1% and 4%, and probably closer to 1%, which means that yes, it is statistically harder for a black person to get a taxi, and this is wrong, but it's hardly a justification for sending your flunky out to get your cab.

When I was young and lived in New York, I didn't wear expensive clothes. I often saw business folk of all colors getting picked up before me. People who assume racism should always consider other prejudices may be at work. Just as some people see race as a marker of class, other people see age, and everyone sees expensive suits.

ETA: Yes, this post was partly inspired by the memory of the furor over Amanda Palmer being ironic about the Klan: what's declared taboo is made sacred.

ETA 2: If I was doing an essay about lynching, I would point out that the most famous fictions about lynching, The Virginian and The Ox-Bow Incident, are about lynching white people.