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Racism in All Its Glory

Even though it was appropriate for cable network HBO to publicly slap the wrist of stand-up comedian Bill Maher for referencing a racist slur (looking, as always, for a cheap laugh, Maher used the antebellum plantation term “house nigger”), let’s not be too quick to congratulate ourselves for “doing the right thing.”

Indeed, let’s not pretend that we’ve made so much progress in regard to the virulent, hardcore “racism” that existed prior to passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts that we can now focus our attention on such pesky, tangential items as tasteless jokes and taboo remarks, because clearly that’s not the case. In truth, we’ve made remarkably little progress. Racism, in all its glory, is alive and well.

Back in 1994 and 1995, exactly 30 years after passage of those two pieces of landmark civil rights legislation, Michael Moore had a network television show called, “TV Nation.” In one of the episodes, intended to demonstrate just how ingrained and pervasive racism was, they took a youngish (mid-thirties) African-American, put him on a New York City curb, and filmed him trying to hail a cab. The results were simultaneously startling, tragic, demoralizing, and “hilarious.”

After numerous cabs purposely ignored this guy (who was initially wearing regular trousers and a polo shirt), they spruced him up a bit. They put him in slacks and a sports jacket. Still, cabs continued to pass him by. So they kicked it up a notch. They dressed him in conservative business attire—a pinstriped suit, coat and tie. Still no luck. Cab after cab cruised by, unwilling to make him a passenger.

At this point, realizing the tragic absurdity of the whole thing, and wishing to exploit the issue to the max, the producers pushed it to its existential limit. They outfitted this man in a formal tuxedo. A splendiferous garment it was. So there he is, standing on the curb, dressed in a fancy tuxedo, trying to hail a cab.

Still no takers, which was positively nuts. So they kicked it up yet another notch. In addition to the fancy tuxedo (which practically screamed, “I am not a crackhead”), they had him try to hail a cab while carrying a large floral arrangement. Incredibly, there were still no takers.

So they decided to finish the gag with a flourish. They had this very presentable African-American gentleman not only stand on the curb, wearing a tuxedo and carrying a bouquet of flowers, but they now had him holding a baby in his arms. Absolutely true. There he is: Tuxedo, flowers, baby. But presumably, because he was black, cab after cab passed him by. I witnessed this telecast myself, so none of it was reported to me second-hand.

In addition to all the obvious revulsion, there was another distressing component to it. According to 1990s New York City demographics, the majority of these cab drivers would be Pakistanis. In other words, these were men who’d been in the U.S. for 10 minutes, and were already “hip” enough to know that you don’t pick up a Soul Brother. Apparently, American racism is not only endemic, it’s contagious.