This weekend ESPN.com ran the headline, "Chink in the Armor," after a Friday night New York Knicks loss to the New Orleans Hornets.
The headline only ran from 2:30 to 3:05 on mobile devices.
By Saturday morning a firestorm had emerged. That day ESPN issued a profound apology and then the next day it fired the employee, editor Anthony Federico, who wrote the headline and suspended another employee for 30 days, anchor Max Bretos, who had used the phrase on air.
Yesterday Bretos took to Twitter to apologize: "My wife is Asian, would never intentionally say anything to disrespect her and that community," Bretos wrote. "Despite intention, phrase was inappropriate in this context."
(By the way, "My wife is Asian," is the new white guy's, "I have lots of black friends," line.)
But it's live television.
I do fifteen hours of live radio a week. So I empathize with anyone who says the wrong word or utters a phrase that isn't perfect in the spur of the moment.
We all do it.
Do you really think Bretos decided to wait until after he married an Asian woman to take nuanced aim at the entire continent? If so, he's the ultimate racist secret agent. He hates Asians so much he married one...and uttered a subtle double entendre that only racists even noticed.
Today I'm asking the question, in 2012 why do we assume racism is the issue in situations such as these?
I didn't write at all about this over the weekend -- I did, however, Tweet the news -- because I wanted time to think about the issue. But come Monday, I was even more sure that this was my opinion, racism isn't over and we don't live in a post-racial society, but does anyone under the age of 40 actually know an avowed racist?
Not a single one.
And I don't think I'm the least bit unique in this. If you told me that anyone in my high school class at Nashville's Martin Luther King was a racist, I'd be shocked. Completely stunned. And I think everyone I graduated with would feel the same way. I think everyone that went to my high school over the past twenty years would feel the same way. And I don't think that's rare, I think it's common in today's America.
Every generation fights its own battles -- and God knows our parents fought a ton -- but I think people under the age of 40 are still being held to a different racial standard, the one that existed in pre-integration era; most bosses are enforcing the racial dynamics of their own generation.
And not the one that exists in our own lives.
This country hasn't defeated racism, but it has marginalized racism to such an extreme that true awowed racists are kooks, as common as people who don't believe man walked on the moon or people who handle poisonous snakes at church services. Sure, these people exist, but they're a circus freak show of irregularity, an extreme minority.
No matter what you think of the network, do you really think anyone at ESPN is a public racist? And if someone was a silent racist, would they advocate sleeper cell racism until they could put up a racist headline at 2:30 in the morning that only people with mobile devices could see? Wow, gotcha there, the first ever instance of public iPhone racism for an elite cadre of sports fans up past midnight, the app world will never be the same. Will Asian-Americans ever recover from this vile attack?
Some of you reading this now will say, okay, the headline wasn't avowedly racist, but it demonstrates a great deal of racial insensitivity.
I completely disagree.
In today's era most racial insensitivity is completely unintentional. And entirely in the eye of the beholder. Outside of comedy stages where racism is funny because it's being mocked, no one is trying to be racially insensitive. Indeed, racism used to be crime against the powerless. Now, that's reversed. The person who alleges racism is the person immediately placed in a position of power, not the "racist."
I guarantee you there are a ton of ESPN employees who would rather have gotten a DUI this weekend than written the "chink in the armor" headline or asked the "chink in the armor" question.
Think about this for a minute, it's more socially acceptable to be a drunk driver than a racist.
Indeed, in modern sociey there is only one thing worse than being publicly branded a racist -- being an accused child molester or being accused of having child pornography.
At least if you're accused of murder you get the presumption of innocence. Being accused or racism brands you with the scarlet letter R. The accusation is the punishment. There is no defense, all of them seem weak and cheap, you're the worst of the worst. Put it this way, when was the last time someone was accused of being racist and ended up being vindicated as not being racist?
From a societal perspective there's almost nothing worse than being branded a racist.
Yet, actual racism is incredibly rare. And becoming rarer still with each passing year.
So why is it that we're so quick to assume racism if it's so rare?
I think it's because it makes us all feel better. If someone else is the racist then you can judge them. See, we all say, that's not us, we're not the racist.
It reminds me of law school discussions on racially charged cases. I remember white and Asian kids without a racist bone in their body saying before class, "I'm not talking today because I don't want to say something that seems racist to someone else."
Think about that for a moment.
Intelligent people who aren't racist are so afraid of being accused of being racist that they don't even speak. Actual cross-racial discussion, which could be helpful, is actually discouraged for fear of being branded a racist.
That's how powerful accusing someone of racism has become in our society.
Let's pretend that a kid raised today is completely unaware of specific racial slurs. Isn't it possible that a kid being raised today could never hear the term "chink" as a slur and only associate the phrase "chink in the armor" with the 16th century phrase's origination?
Isn't it possible that a kid coming of age today could refer to LeBron James's dominant basketball performance as "King Kong-like" and not be aware that black people were once compared to apes?
Put another way, how many parents had to explain that chink was a racial slur because of this story?
Couldn't a completely racism free kid growing up in America today make these errors and not have a racist bone or thought in his or her body?
Which raises another interesting question, are we now duty bound to educate these kids on particular racial insults from before World War II? Just to make sure they don't offend people when they're grown? Look, I'm a history major, I'm not advocating a whitewashing of history to avoid teaching slavery or the Holocaust or the Trail of Tears, or countless other historical atrocities perpetrated by the majority on the basis of ethnic or racial differences, but I am asking this question, do we teach antiquated racial insults to avoid accidental racial insensitivity?
We've reached a point in our country where a severe chink in our own armor is our assumption that racism is to blame when race and mistakes, spoken or written, collide.
Put simply, I don't think Bretos should have been suspended, and I don't think Federico should have been fired for his headline.