What Rhymes With "White?"
"...And in the joy of a new beginning we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who'll do justice and love mercy say amen."
- from the Reverend Joseph E. Lowry's benediction that followed President Barack Obama's inaugural address.
It has been said that the Reverend's racial references in the above passage are racist. Who is saying this? Well, Greg Beck, conservative commentator now at Fox News, for one, who said that the passage amounts to "America being called racist." In fact, according to the FBI, most hate related incidents in the United States occur with race as the motivating factor. However, I believe Mr. Beck's interpretation s a misunderstanding or misrepresentation. I believe the remarks were meant to be racial, not racist.
The passage is certainly racial, as it uses cliché descriptions of racial skin color to differentiate some of the various peoples of the United States and then proceeds to express generalizations about each one. But is it racist?
Merriam-Webster defines "racist" as (1) "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race", or, (2) "racial prejudice or discrimination."
The first definition does not apply because Reverend Lowery does not raise any race above the other. Actually he denigrates each race fairly equally. To break it down, he says that black people are asked to get out of the way, brown people have to leave, yellow people aren't mellow, red people can't advance themselves, and white people don't do like to do what's right. In short, black, brown, and red are victims while yellow and white are perpetrators. Nobody wins here, therefore this is not a racist passage by this definition.
On the other hand the passage does discriminate between the races listed by representative color, and it does apply generalizations to each of them that would indicate presupposed characteristics. Like most generalizations, they carry some falsehood with them. Colin Powell and Barack Obama, for example, are not "asked to get back;" brown people can usually if not almost always "stick around;" many Native Americans are, for example, doing a lot better than I; I personally know some very mellow Asian people; and I know that some if not most white people try to do the right thing.
Barack Obama could be justifiably angry at being characterized as someone who is "asked to get back," or as someone not free to "stick around," but I don't think he is angry at the Reverend's remarks. There are some people who are offended at the not mellow yellow remark, if you look hard enough for them, but they, actually, are not Asian. Actually they are white. The only people offended at Reverend Lowery's prayer seem to be white, or at least the overwhelming majority.
While there is falsehood inherent in generalization, there may also be truth. The number of race based charges of racial descrimination at the workplace have risen more or less steadily over the last decade. There is a significant difference in the health of black Americans vs. white Americans, and studies indicate that the health of people of color is compromised by the stress of racial discrimination in the United States.
According to the FBI, in 2007, 52 percent of all hate crimes committed in America were race based, and 75 percent of all race based hate crimes targeted black people. One third of all racial hate crimes committed against individuals are committed by white people, one third by unknown offenders, one ninth by black people, and the rest by other groups.
It is not a stretch to say, based on this data, that as late as two years ago, most racial descrimination in America was committed by white people against black people. It is also safe to say that this has been going on for some time. Most reasonable people would agree this is wrong behavior. Therefore it is not racist for a black person to ask white people to "embrace what is right," speaking in broad generalizations, because the wrong behavior is in fact there and does, in fact, need correcting.
Is a statement racist if it is the truth? Perhaps. Sometimes it is unkind to express the truth. Some things remain best unsaid. Since the Reverend's remarks discriminate between ethnicities and cite generalizations about each, yes, it can be said according the secondary definition in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the remarks are racist.
In this case only representatives of the group that is the largest perpetrator of racial discrimination seem to be saying the remarks are racist. Is a remark racist because of its intent, or its perception? Clearly the answer is perception. As is so aptly put by conservatives all over the Internet, if the roles were reversed, and the speaker were white and the offended parties black, an apology would be expected. Therefore, Reverend Lowery should apologize for offending, unintentionally, those who were offended: not because he was wrong, but because it is polite to apologize to the unreasonably offended.
Personally I am not offended by the truth. Reverend Lowery owes me no apology.
The Reverend is guilty of ending a prayer with a hip hop poem and of saddling himself with the not-so-easy task of rhyming the word "white." What rhymes with "white?" Well, let's see:
Hmm. Any of these words might be taken the wrong way if one was bound and determined to do so. I don't think he could have used "bite", and "fight", "flight", "might", "night", "plight", and "tight" are all definitely out. "Contrite" might produce a poor result as well. "Trite" is no good. "Wight" is a homonym, and that crowd would certainly be offended by anything beginning with "homo". You know, there's just not a lot of choice here.
I guess, to satisfy those who sat in wait, weighing each word for its use as a weapon, Reverend Lowery would have had to end with something like,
"and the white will continue to show us what's right"
But even that probably would not have satisfied the parties who remain offended today. When you are looking that hard to find something wrong, you will probably find what you are looking for.
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