Tuesday, August 30, 2011

White Vick

I generally agree with Luis both in his reaction to the the white-faced Michael Vick and his reaction to the accompanying article by Toure, a black cultural critic. I don't see the problem with putting Vick in whiteface (nor would I see the problem with say putting Ben Rothlisberger in blackface if the point is to talk about race and racial privilege).  Race and phenotype matter.  One of my all time favorite academic articles is this one, entitled Looking Deathworthy, by Jennifer Eberhart and colleagues.  From the article's abstract:
—Researchers previously have investigated the role of race in capital sentencing, and in particular, whether the race of the defendant or victim influences the likelihood of a death sentence. In the present study, we examined whether the likelihood of being sentenced to death is influenced by the degree to which a Black defendant is perceived to have a stereotypically Black appearance. Controlling for a wide array of factors, we found that in cases involving a White victim, the more stereotypically Black a defendant is perceived to be, the more likely that person is to be sentenced to death.
 Notice that we're not simply talking about race but also phenotype.  Thus, in my view, it is perfectly acceptable to change Vick's race and phenotype and ask whether our reaction to him is driven in by one or both.  When I medidated on the picture, it dawned on me that I found white Vick quite palatable, less menacing.  It reminded me of this Jason Williams.

As for the accompanying article by Toure, I thought the article was itself confused.  To ask whether Vick would be treated differently if he were white is not a "meaningless" question.  This is just a question of baselines.  The concept of equality requires a baseline.  In the American context, whites have always been the baseline.  In many ways, the comparison is a basic tenet of American law.  Compare here 42 U.S.C. section 1981(a), which provides:
(a) Statement of equal rights
All persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts, to sue, be parties, give evidence, and to the full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of persons and property as is enjoyed by white citizens, and shall be subject to like punishment, pains, penalties, taxes, licenses, and exactions of every kind, and to no other.
I remember the first time I read this provision, I was struck by how explicitly the baseline was asserted.  Now one may say that whiteness as a baseline is incomplete, which is how one may charitably read Toure's piece.  But ultimately, the piece really is just confused. Consider Toure's closing lines:

 And to those who believe we should judge a man by how he responds when dealing with the worst life has to offer -- with how he climbs after he hits rock bottom -- Michael Vick has become heroic.
And that has nothing to do with race.

Huh?  Did Toure miss the fact that the reaction to Vick is completely racialized. If Toure had done some research, he would have found this article in the social science quarterly, which examined the racial reaction to the Vick case.  Specifically,
 Using data from 400 adults, we examine how race affects perceptions of criminal punishment and subsequent reinstatement into the National Football League in the case of Michael Vick, a star professional quarterback who pled guilty to charges of operating an illegal dog-fighting ring.
This is what the authors found:
 Attitudes toward both criminal punishment and NFL reinstatement vary across race such that there exists important divides in how individuals perceive the system meting out punishment and subsequently reintegrating offenders back into society. These results underscore that white and nonwhites perceive the law and its administration differently.

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