The Critics Respond, Part Thirty-Seven

The AP Stylebook says that it’s no longer appropriate to mention race in crime-related news stories. The provided exception, mais bien sur, is the James Byrd case, because it’s a case where white people targeted a black person for violence based on nothing but the color of his skin. (In cases where the races are reversed, as in so-called polar bear hunting, the AP Stylebook appears to recommend that the story be buried or deleted.) It’s also appropriate, we are told, to mention race when it is related to civil rights or slavery. I’m reminded of the Dilbert comic where the narrator says something along the lines of “The only appropriate way to portray women in sci-fi is as starship captains.”

Of course, since journalists are lazy by default, the old (and admittedly racist) headlines of “Blacks riot at mall” or “Blacks attack old man on street” have simply been changed to “Teens riot at mall” or “Teens attack old man on street”. The aliens who listen closely to our news broadcasts are probably shocked by the way in which undifferentiated teenagers have replaced undifferentiated African-Americans as the nation’s greatest criminal threat; everybody else just reads the “dog whistle” and nods knowingly.

Luckily I don’t cover the crime beat so I don’t have to devote much though to any of the above. But when I mentioned the race of an Escalade driver in my Zimmer review, at least one reader decided to take me to task. Was he right to do so?


Here’s the paragraph in question:

The Zimmer generates affection out of thin air. An elderly man in Amarillo called it “the best-looking car I’ve ever seen.” A young black guy in an Escalade almost hit a Shell pump in reverse trying to get a better look and start a conversation about the QuickSilver; he pronounced it “lit.” A group of heavily-tattooed twenty-something girls spilled out of a van outside a rest stop near Needles, California to drape themselves all over the long hood and take Instagram selfies. On a side street of a Houston suburb, two muscled young men who claimed to be intimate acquaintances of the legendary rapper “Willie D” estimated the current value of the car at “one hundred Gs, one-twenty-five if you put pokes on it. It’ll gitcha the looks,” I was assured, “that a Phantom can’t. A Range Rover is played next to this.”

This is the problem that I faced while writing this part of the story: although almost everybody who saw the Zimmer QuickSilver had something nice to say about it, African-Americans were far, far more interested in the car than were whites. I’d say that eighty percent of the discussions I had during my trip from Los Angeles to Houston were with black people. Insofar as African-Americans are a distinct minority of road users on the route of said trip, this is significant.

The first question to ask: Is this in any way relevant? Does the reader need to know that black people liked the Zimmer more? After all, I didn’t spend any time breaking down the QuickSilver’s appeal to, say, German-Americans vs. Italian-Americans. Why not just be colorblind about it and let the racial composition of the car’s fan base go unmentioned? I could easily have done that. Maybe I should have done that. Instead, I did what white people with college educations often do: I decided to perform some affirmative action. Of the four interactions described, two are with white people and two are with black people. I chose those interactions because they stuck in my mind a little bit more than most of the quick and interchangeable conversations I had with bystanders at gas stations and restaurants.

The two guys who claimed to know Willie D were, as the alert reader might have guessed, black. They were straight out of Houston’s Fifth Ward, the infamously downtrodden section of town that produced the Geto Boys, Scarface, and a variety of other rappers. They used the N-word a lot. At one point, they referred to me as an N-word: “This lucky-ass N-word right here drivin’ this bitch cross-country, you know, gitcha dick sucked on the regular.” Would it have been useful to mention their race? Because — let’s face it — if two white guys were talking and acting like that, you’d have a different opinion of them. But I felt that the aforementioned alert reader probably picked it up anyway.

For the fellow with the Escalade, I mentioned his race because I thought “whitewashing” him would have produced a significantly different image on the part of the reader. By and large, a young white kid in an Escalade is driving his mom’s truck. A young black man in an Escalade probably bought it himself. There are exceptions to this rule on both sides, but only a deliberately obtuse person would pretend that the Escalade appeals to the same demographic across color lines. I wanted the reader to have the image of this highly enthusiastic young black man almost sending himself, me, and ten other people up in a massive fireball because he just had to get a look at the car. He was a great guy, very friendly, and very stoked about the Zimmer.

I think you can make the argument either way regarding identifying that young man as black. You can say that it doesn’t materially help the story and that including his race does nothing but perpetuate a system in which we see black people as a color first and a person second. My feeling on the subject is that identifying the race of a person helps when it is relevant to the story being told. It doesn’t really matter whether the old man who thought the Zimmer was the best looking car of all time was white or black; I heard similar things from older people of all colors. It doesn’t really matter whether the girls at the Route 66 gas station were white or black. They could have been a mixture of both. The Escalade driver, on the other hand, changes in your mind as you think of him as white or black, and he represents a different demographic depending on the color of his skin. So I mentioned his race in the cause of precision in storytelling. Nothing more, nothing less.

Mr. David Hand says that the story is “completely ruined by the gratuitous mention of race”. That seems like an extreme position to take, particularly insofar as the driver is not portrayed negatively either as a person or as a racial stereotype. Yeah, he almost set us all on fire, but as a car enthusiast myself, I understand his actions and I’m not criticizing him. And I don’t want to live in a world where mentioning someone’s race or gender or hair color ‘completely ruins’ a story. My regular readers know that I will often describe the women I’ve known in ethnic terms: the fiery half-Puerto-Rican Drama McHourglass, my passionate Italian (ex-)housekeeper, the chiseled Chickasaw cheekbones of Danger Girl herself. I also take my own ethnicity seriously; I’m three-quarters German, not that far removed from the old country on either side of the family, and I think of myself as a German-American, not a “white guy”.

Even with all that, however, I don’t think I’m as sensitive to race as Mr. Hand. Since the comment came from the R&T article on Facebook, I clicked through on Mr. Hand, and this is what I found:

He appears to be in a relationship with a black man. Issues of both sexuality and race are probably foremost in his mind for the same reason that issues of tire compound and power-to-weight ratio are foremost in my mind. So the way I’ve chosen to look at his comment is this: When I was younger and shooting competitively, I would be absolutely furious over what I saw as misleading or incomplete descriptions of firearms in literature. The classic example is when James Bond takes delivery of his Walther PPK: “…with a delivery like a brick through a plate glass window. Takes a Brausch silencer with very little reduction in muzzle velocity.” Gag me with a spoon! The feeble .32 ACP round has less kinetic energy than an actual brick through a plate glass window, and of course the silencer doesn’t affect the muzzle velocity much — it also doesn’t have much effect on the noise of the shot when fitted to a fixed-barrel blowback semi-automatic!

That ridiculous description of the Walther PPK almost ruined Bond for me. Everybody else just enjoyed the books and the films without worrying about it. I suspect the same is true of this Zimmer story. But out of respect to Mr. Hand, and everybody else who feels the same way, I will continue to pay special attention to the way I depict race in my writing. I can’t say I’ll please everybody. But I won’t do anything without consideration and due care. Hope that’s enough.

32 Replies to “The Critics Respond, Part Thirty-Seven”

  1. MrGreenMan

    I like the people who attack commenters on breaking news stories who ask for the race of the suspect when it’s a call to be vigilant and on the lookout for the suspect at large.

    “What does that have to do with it?”

    I don’t know; if I can narrow it down from a general fear and loathing of all people that they would like to offer, I usually prefer it.

    Reply
  2. MrGreenMan

    Further, your comment is extremely relevant as what appeals to the young black man’s tastes – for you, the Escalade driver – is the very definition of “sick” in America, the final chapter, the current year.

    I would normally accuse this guy of trying to deny the black Escalade driver’s basic humanity and right to be proud in his own skin, and you for wanting to ensure his humanity was fully embraced, but, well, there’s that picture.

    Reply
  3. Feds

    See, and I had to stop reading and come back when I saw:

    “all of it covered in a thick golden carpet that resembles the fur of a massive Persian car.”

    Now I can’t stop thinking about jacked up Paykans

    Reply
  4. -Nate-Nate

    ” Why not just be colorblind about it and let the racial composition of the car’s fan base go unmentioned?”.
    .
    Because you’re a Journalist .
    .
    That’s why .
    .
    -Nate

    Reply
  5. jz78817

    if it hadn’t been pointed out, I wouldn’t have even thought twice about it. Mr. Hand appears like he looks for stuff like this though.

    I can’t remember who it was, but I recently heard a stand-up bit on one of SiriusXM’s comedy channels, where the white (yes, it’s germane) comedian recounted an exchange he supposedly had:

    Comic: “Hey, what was the name of the black guy who just left?”
    Other Guy: “WHOA! Hey man, I don’t see color!”
    C: “It’s okay… I’m black.
    OG: “Uh, no you arent.”
    C: “Ah-haaaa!”

    Reply
  6. Joe

    The reference to the cool cat in the escalade was perfectly reasonable and added to the story, some people are always looking to get butt hurt and don’t need any excuses.

    Reply
  7. Jeff Zekas

    Political correctness has killed comedy, and soon it will kill journalism. In this now Orwellian world, we shall all be “worker” despite the obvious differences. Newspeak and thoughtcrime will soon be the norm.

    Reply
  8. Ronnie Schreiber

    Maybe it’s because I live near Detroit, but I rarely see a ’90s Impala SS driven by anything other than large black males. The Impalas are usually black as well. Does that make them BBCs, big black cars?

    Reply
    • arbuckle7809

      “Does that make them BBCs, big black cars?”

      I really like the Panther Maurader, Impala SS, and other full-size sedans in black, so that’s why my usual webchat handle is “LuvsBBC”.

      Reply
  9. S Seigmund

    At a nice dinner table recently the discussion came up of an acquaintance. An old gentleman of South Carolina who had employed a black man for most of his adult life. Although the relationship was that of a worker and an employer, the men were friends. Calvin lay in a bed in the ICU with his family at this side when Walter entered the room. The men held hands, and after a time Walter spoke, “Calvin, . . . . you still my N-word-a?”. Calvin responded, “Yessur, Mr. Walter Sur. I’ll always be yo N-word-a”. The two old men smiled and continued to hold hands. Calvin didn’t go home from the ICU.

    A member of our dinner party commented after a thoughtful moment that this was a very intimate conversation between two people who cared deeply for each other. It was also brought up that such an exchange today would send a good number of people into a hysterical fit of rage. Here in Virginia, a school district has recently suspended To Kill a Mocking Bird and Tom Sawyer following a complaint from a “concerned parent” of racial slurs contained in the books. We are dealing with a state of ignorance and I see little hope of improvement. An author can’t write compellingly and convincingly without intimate knowledge of the subject, the environment, the historical context. You can cleanse something until it has no meaning or value. At least the black culture in America still enjoy unfettered use of a rich dialect.

    Reply
  10. Josh M.

    I live in Dayton. When I had my Mark III it got to the point where I couldn’t get gas in my neighborhood without having seven conversations about the car. It’s to be expected.

    Reply
  11. Disinterested-Observer

    A friend who happens to be a black, (street) motorcycle racer, said in reference to my dirtbike, “(Japanese) dirtbikes are the only reason rednecks haven’t nuked Japan again.”

    So I was relaying this comment to some people I work with and I said “My black motorcycle racing friend…” And before I could finish the sentence one of the guys I was talking to says “Why’s he gotta be black?”

    Well he is, and I thought it was relevant. I think the comment sounds a lot darker (no pun intended) if a white guy said it.

    Reply
  12. DirtRoads

    One reason I like Trump is he’s not as PC as the run-of-the-mill politicians we’ve suffered with lo these many years. But whites will never be able to identify a black man with slang, while it’s apparently OK for them to identify whites thusly, all. day. long. What’s up with that?

    I thought marking the Escalade owner as black gave me a better picture of the story. I don’t care for stories that are cleansed to the point where you don’t know who the hell is in the picture. I can imagine they’re all 19 year old cheerleaders, I guess, but that would be just telling on me as an old white pervert, now wouldn’t it? And it wouldn’t make the story accurate.

    I started college in 1976 as a journalism major. Never did get that degree. But I’ve watched the business wither and fall into its current deplorable state for a long time. I tend, because of my age and history, to think the seed crystal of ‘new journalism” happened in the Watergate years. Oh my God, we got so tired of hearing about it. But because Nixon was a Republican, it was so FUN to make him the laughing stock all day long. Frankly, it seems to me there were far more important things to talk about back then. I’m glad I didn’t go into journalism, because I would hate it today, being a rather independent thinker and all, and someone who is sick and fucking tired of people being PC so someone’s feelings don’t get hurt. The world isn’t run on your feelings, snowflake.

    Reply
  13. Frank Galvin

    This is timely. I had to conduct an investigatory interview the other day with one of our employees. He’s accusing some workers of mistreating him based on his race. He’s black, from NYC, gold teeth, cap just so, and is a former felon. I always try to find a rapport with those I’m interviewing, and he made a comment that cast some real doubt on the person who had accused him of some other misconduct, “that part where he said he waited for me to leave, [expletive], that [expletive] is always first one out of the parking lot, Nascar style, doesn’t wait for the oil to get the top of his engine.”

    Bingo, we spent a good 45 mins discussing our cars. He gave me a ton of shit for being a Ford guy, but wanted to know about my Fusion. And I learned all about his three cars, all old, but in tip top shape. He was worried about his 10 y.o. Escalade and an upcoming repair on the catalytic converters. As conversations go, this was one of the more enjoyable ones. So, stereotype is present: black, gold teeth, Escalade. Do I view him that way? Hell no. Should a distinction be made in a story as to the racial identity of an Escalade owner? Absolutely. Why? It matters, particularly with context and geography. Working class males, white or black, from the Greatest Generation era worked like hell to eventually buy a Cadillac. My white former railroad engineer Grandfather bought one as soon as he retired, and a replacement every three years thereafter. My black clients drove Caddies. My labor union clients drove Cadillac when they moved on up. Cadillacs have long been a staple of success, whether real or imagined, in any working class community, and yes, that includes the black community. Driving one is a statement of how the owner views himself, and also signifies that he respects car culture and appreciates what he believes to be objects of value.

    So, if the article does show positive feedback from a young black guy with an Escalade, then shit….the reader should understand that the Zimmer is getting positive feedback from a man in the know in his community. What if it had been a she, white, clad in lulumon, clutching a $100 stainless steel coffee thermos thingy, stating to Jack, “Ohmygawd, what is that?” We wouldn’t care.

    Reply

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