Monday, January 30, 2023 Jan 30, 2023
28° F Dallas, TX


By Chris Tucker |

The scene was a meeting, some months ago, of a local journalists’ organization. The hot topic of the night was media coverage of minorities. Was it fair? Was there enough of it? How could good minority journalists be persuaded to stay in Dallas, rather than being lured away to bigger money and markets on the coasts?

Good questions, and a good-sized crowd was on hand to hear answers from a panel that included Channel 8’s weekend anchor John McCaa and County Commissioner John Wiley Price, whose presence always guarantees fireworks. Bill Evans, managing editor of The Dallas Morning News, was the only panel member actually in a management position. Introducing him, moderator Henry Tatum of the News laughingly assured Evans that he was not intended to be “’the only voodoo doll” at the gathering.

There was laughter-some of it nervous, since everyone expected Evans to field some tough questions about minority hiring. But when it came Commissioner Price’s turn to speak, he surprised the room by homing in not on quality and quantity of minority coverage, but Tatum’s language. Had we, he wanted to know, picked up on the “unconscious racism” just displayed by Tatum?

Many people looked puzzled. I’m sure I did. A long moment passed while we all sifted through our memories. None of the forty or so listeners raised their hands, so Price finally gave us the answer. What did we think of when we heard about voodoo, he wanted to know. Didn’t we think about “natives,” “savages,” “cannibals’-and weren’t the practitioners of voodoo in our mental scenarios usually black?

So there it was. In Price’s view, our moderator had just proven, once again, that some kind of “institutional racism” was marbled like fat into the fibers of our thought, inseparable from the very language that we use to describe the world. A few people, all of them white, sheepishly protested that when they thought of voodoo, they were just as likely to think of an old white woman dressed in beads and veils, muttering incantations. Maybe a gypsy type, Price quickly dismissed these rationalizations.

Most people said nothing. I said nothing, :hough I thought and still think that Price’s charges were foolish, off base, and ill-informed. Whatever the word may have meant hundreds of years ago, surely it borders on paranoia to say that references to voodoo-as in George Bush’s famous phrase, “voodoo economies”-have a shade of malicious racism about them.

I kept my mouth shut that night for several reasons. For one, Price was a guest who had given us time from a busy schedule. But the main reason was that I could feel myself getting angry, and I wanted to avoid an argument. 1 was raised around here in the Fifties and Sixties, and I can remember when a line like “that’s mighty white of you,” said in gratitude, wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. I can remember seeing white boys fight like tigers because one called the other a nigger, which was even worse than the other great epithet of the day. “queer.” That’s been a long time ago, but I know what racism and insensitivi-ty sound like, and there was none of it in Tatum’s remarks.

The problem here goes far beyond Price, who’s also been known to regale audiences with his objections to being called “black.” (The word, he explains, contains the letters 1-a-c-k; use it, and you’re implying that African-Americans “lack” something. He’s serious.) No, the larger point is that we now find ourselves living in the Sensitivity Society, and the ground rules are anything but clear.

Consider the recent insensitivities of Andy Rooney and Clayton Williams. Rooney was flayed, as I understand it, for statements about a terrible epidemic (he said that AIDS was transmitted by homosexual unions) and for dubious genetic theories (he said that blacks had “watered down” their genes). Racial genetics has found little scientific cover since Arthur Jensen’s largely discredited work in the Seventies. But more to the point, I think, are the words of one SMU biologist who believes that even if a genetic hierarchy could be proven, our society would be better off if such findings were never released. “In any discovery, a scientist must be concerned that the good outweighs the bad,” he told me. “What good would come of knowing this?”

As for his statement about AIDS, Rooney said nothing that has not been said by everyone from the World Health Organization to your local G.P. He may have sounded cranky, whiny, and pugnacious (in other words, vintage Rooney), but that’s a commentator’s prerogative. I wonder if some of the reaction came because so many people fervently wish he was wrong. I wish that too, especially when I think of an old friend in New York who has the disease. But there are many painful, awful truths, and more than one way to utter them.

Williams, of course, likened a rainy day at the ranch to rape: “If it’s inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.” Gaffes by politicians are always a harder call, because our judgments get warped by partisanship. In other words, Williams is not my SOB, so I read the rape quip as further confirmation of what I was already prepared to believe: Ah, the rich redneck is showing his true colors. I think I”d be just as repulsed if the same gaffe crawled from the mouth of my favorite candidate (if I had a favorite candidate), but I don’t know. Maybe I’d squirm around and excuse the whole thing like state GOP head Fred Meyer and so many other Republicans had to do. After all, they think they may be riding with a winner in November. Plenty of time to adjust ol’ Claytie’s couth once he’s in Austin.

This topic is worth another spin another time. It’s not going away. Who is sensitive enough these days? Surely the answer is not totally subjective-if I like you, you’re just blunt-spoken; if I don’t, you’re a racist, sexist, homophobic dog. But where to draw the line? When Commissioner Price announced his plans to trash liquor and cigarette billboards in minority areas, he declared that “Sunday is D-day in Dallas and there’s going to be a whitewash.”

Wait a second. “Whitewash”? You mean like a cover-up? An evasion of the truth? Hmm. I’m sort of pinkish beige, but if I were white, I think I might wonder about Price’s sensitivity.

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