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.