I agree with Harvey that the article was strongly racist, but I think
he somewhat missed the point of the essay. A few quotes for the benefit
of those who have lost it:
> You can pay me reparations, Johnny.
> To start with, I figure you owe me for three bicycles.
The implication is that the bicycles were stolen by black people,
and that Johnny Cochran is therefore responsible because he is black,
a racist claim.
> A few years back, my middle-school daughter brought home a horrendously
> misspelled science hand-out. Now, Johnny: You and I both know that it's easy
> to make a typo, and write "phenylkeetone" instead of "phenylketone." But
> "feemelkeebome" is stretching it. The errors were of this sort. An
> understanding of chemistry clearly had never rippled the serene surface of the
> woman's mind.
> Without thinking, I asked, "What color is your teacher?"
His first unthinking reaction at seeing a bad misspelling was suspicion
that the teacher was black. This is a racist reaction.
> But here's a large ravage of slavery, Johnny: Fear.
> What price do we put on looking over our shoulders? On watching to be sure we
> don't go one subway stop too far? Warning our girlfriends not to drive on
> certain streets? Checking the clientele of Seven-Eleven before going in at
> People in, say, Switzerland can walk their streets after dark. We can't. Why?
> What have we got that they don't, that might cause fear?
The implication is that blacks are dangerous criminals, a racist claim.
> The white guy beaten to death 100 yards from my door last year - they never
> caught the killers, but - what you reckon, Johnny? Do you figure it was white
> Presbyterian women from the old-ladies' home?
The implication is that black people are more likely to beat someone to
death than white people, a racist claim.
> As a result of slavery, you have been using our civilization without a
The implication is that black people are undeserving of the benefits of
actions of previous generations purely because of their skin color, a
Anyway, the essay is so obviously drenched in racism that there is hardly
any need in pointing out further examples.
The real issue is that the essay is also intended to be read ironically.
It is meant to be a satire on racist attitudes. It aims to mirror some
of the claims made by those calling for reparations in order to show
how racist those claims are when the racial roles are inverted.
The question is, then, whether its use of satire excuses its racism.
When Swift wrote his "modest proposal" to begin eating children, it
was satire, and that excuses the hideous cruelty of the suggestion.
The proposal was not meant seriously.
I think the problem with the essay is that the attitudes it expresses,
although meant satirically, are actually very close to real attitudes
held by real people today and in the recent past. Many white and asian
people DO believe that black people are thieving, stupid, violent, and
undeserving. It's not expressed very openly now, but a few decades ago
people made racist jokes and remarks in public. And views like these
So here we have an essay expressing views which are hateful in the
extreme, views which are widely held. It doesn't work as satire when
the position being offered satirically is one which is held seriously
by a significant number of people, one which society has been struggling
with for decades and centuries.
Smith's modest proposal wouldn't have been satire if there were actually
a London cult cooking and eating children, and if his society had engaged
in a titanic struggle to end that harmful practice. In the same way,
an essay which simply expresses hateful, racist attitudes towards blacks
today cannot be successful as satire.
Given the sensitivity of the subject and the tremendous wrongs which have
been committed in the past by racists, attempting a satire on the subject
of racism is extremely hazardous. So deep is the divide between races,
so vicious the hatred which racists have held in their hearts, that it
is in fact practically impossible to satirize racism. In a world where
black people have been tortured and killed merely for the color of their
skins within recent decades, it is impossible for the satirist to go
beyond reality. The attempted satire merely becomes a racist screed.
For an example of a different attempt at satire in this difficult area,
see Hofstadter's article on "language purity" at
http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html. He tackles
sexist language by transforming it precisely and dispassionately into
P.S. From dictionary.com:
1.The belief that race accounts for differences in human character
or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.
2.Discrimination or prejudice based on race.
I think the examples above are consistent with this definition; all
describe negative characteristics of human beings in terms of their race,
and imply that whites are superior to blacks in these matters.
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