Driving With Rednecks: A Newsweek Reporter Rationalizes Racism

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A Newsweek reporter journeyed to Jackson, Miss. months after the killing of James Anderson, a Black man, by a white teenager named Deryl Dedmon in an attempt to comprehend the motives of Dedmon and his friends.

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Tony Dokoupil went off-roading with some of Dedmon’s white friends, and spoke to their Black acquaintances at the Sonic Drive-In. And for those activities — Dokoupil declares in his piece  “Mississippi Sends Its First Hate Criminal to Prison” — that he found something “deeper, scarier, and more complex than a single country boy gone bad or even simple, pre-civil-rights-era racism.”

What Dokoupil actually ended up doing was accepting the weak rationalizations of Dedmon and his white friends wholesale, with nary a side-eye nor skeptical scrutiny. Dokoupil’s thesis?

The kids in Dedmon’s social circle don’t think they’re racist at all. Sure, many use the N word, sometimes even in anger. But they say they don’t mean it in a racist way, any more than the town’s monument to the Confederate dead is meant as a call to arms. “It’s heritage, not hate,” says Trevor, echoing a common defense of Southern pride. The trips to west Jackson, he and others believe, were driven by social status—reveling in the lawlessness of poor neighborhoods—not skin color. Surprisingly, besides the boys’ mothers, their black friends tend to agree.

Their “Black friends,” by the way, consist of two people interviewed by the Jackson Free Press, and a couple of dudes that dropped by the Sonic hamburger joint whom Dokoupil questioned as they were surrounded by their white peers.

“They’re not racist to me,” said one of the black kids.

“I’ve never had a problem with them,” added the other.

Throughout the piece, Dokoupil displays his partiality to the argument, spouted by Dedmon’s co-defendants, that the crime wasn’t motivated by race:

Hate-crime laws, however, are blunt instruments. They don’t allow for the distinctions between black friends and the down-and-outs in Jackson they call “niggers.” As a result, “it’s not real hard to charge somebody with a hate crime.” says Sam Martin, a lawyer for Rice. “You don’t get a pass for ignorance.”

The idea that the murder of Anderson was something other than an act of racism, that it was somehow motivated by something more “complex” and subtle — Golly gee, Dedmon had friendly exchanges with Black kids on occasion! He can’t be racist! — shows either an incredible degree of naivete, or a willful ignorance of simple social science. Elsewhere in the piece, Dokoupil spouts Dedmon’s friends lament of reverse racism, with no significant challenge nor a call for specifics to back up their charges:

They see double standards: the KKK is a no-no but the Black Panthers are not; saying “nigger” is a no-no but “cracker” is not; black guys can kill white people and it’s just a crime but reverse the colors and it’s racism.

“It’s annoying to us that when a black guy does something to a white guy it’s pushed aside,” one of the kids on the scene with Dedmon told me. “The black guy gets the benefit of the doubt. But when it’s a white guy on a black guy, it’s a hate crime. They get the favor. We don’t.” They know history, but they don’t see what that tradition has to do with them today. As one put it, “I don’t own slaves. What does slavery have to do with me?”

Newsweek brands this piece as if the writer has found something new and “complex” about racial attitudes. He hasn’t. White supremacists — whether they are conscious of their own privilege and feelings of supremacy or not — have always absolved themselves of connection to the history of slavery and oppression. White Americans with racist sentiments have perennially had close relationships with Black folks — in school, work, and in the home. They say “Hi” and can be polite to Black people at will. They’ve been fans of jazz and R&B and hip-hop, and may even have a poster or two of a Black sports or entertainment icon on their walls.

Much has indeed changed in the power relationships between whites and Blacks since the Mississippi of the 1960s. Dokoupil’s search to find those differences is a worthy quest. But his spineless piece instead allows Deryl Dedmon’s friends and family to use the age-old language of white supremacy to exonerate themselves.

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