While dressing at the gym this morning, I overheard a young guy say, “Shut up nigga.” Although I’ve heard that expression a lot on TV or the movies, I don’t recall hearing it in real life. There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about why “nigga” is apparently permissible if spoken by black people, but “nigger” is utterly impermissible if used by anyone other than a black person. After hearing the expression, I looked toward the speaker and was happy to see the speaker and the recipient were both black. Otherwise, I would have felt compelled to consider how to react to the racism.
Which brings me to my topic for today – racism and bigotry. Racism has returned to the front page of American life because of the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman matter. And bigotry has been a huge issue in San Antonio for several weeks as the City Council contemplated whether to add sexual orientation and identity to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance (NDO). Both topics have generated an immense amount of passionate oratory, but very little dispassionate reflection.
A good starting point for any discussion is to agree on definitions. Although some people are called racist whenever they act badly toward or speak badly of a black person, the term actually means a person who (a) believes that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races, and (b) acts with prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
This definition of racism certainly does not prevent an individual from speaking or acting badly toward a black person, provided the individual is not motivated by a racial animus. But the definition also seems to allow a certain amount of racial profiling if the profiling is based on facts. For example, NYC has a stop-and-frisk policy that results in 90% of the frisked being minorities. The NYPD justifies this result because most of the frisks take place in high-crime neighborhoods, which happen to be populated by mostly minorities, and most of the criminals in those neighborhoods are young minority males.
The Martin-Zimmerman confrontation also fits a profiling framework – i.e., Trayvon was a young, black male wearing a dark hoodie walking idly alone in the rain at night in a neighborhood where this would not ordinarily occur. Surely, a neighborhood-watch person might have approached the kid without this being proof of racism.
Bigot is a term that was thrown at just about anyone in San Antonio who opposed the inclusion of sexual orientation and identity in the city’s non-discrimination ordinance. The term is defined as a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance. Although sexual orientation and identity are not racial or ethnic characteristics, they are characteristics that are often treated with hatred or intolerance.
Based on this definition of bigotry, I understand why GLBT activists would consider opponents of the NDO to be bigots. In their mind, sexual orientation and identity are comparable to race and ethnicity because they are an immutable quality that you are born with. Many, if not most, NDO opponents, however, consider sexual orientation and identity to be lifestyle choices, and even if they aren’t choices, there are still evil – an abomination, according to the Bible. They consider homosexuality to be deviant sexuality that should not be approved.
Formal societal approval, some have argued, is the ultimate objective of San Antonio’s NDO ordinance, which was passed by the City Council on an 8-3 vote earlier this week. There was not a lot of evidence of past discrimination in SA, and as a practical matter the NDO will not deter an individual determined to discriminate. But the NDO does welcome the GLBT community into San Antonio’s mainstream. That is why I supported the NDO.