Commentary

Vick case has us confounded by the race issue again

Updated: September 27, 2007, 1:32 AM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

The letters sit heavy for weeks. They do not yellow, for in the paperless society people do not write the way they once did. They use e-mail, and it is now impossible not to be aware of the exact number of people who want to talk to you about him: from 255, when the federal government closed in on Michael Vick, to 974 later when it became clear he would plead guilty, to 2,208 on Sept. 20. That many from his first comments 'til today, 11 weeks of fresh air left before his Dec. 10 sentencing.

The letters are overwhelmingly from Americans, your countrymen and women, and you theirs, all of us blanketed in a word -- American -- that should say something more about us than merely location. A word that should provide a crucial, binding commonality, especially at a time when two wars are being fought.

Michael Vick
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesMichael Vick's case has come to represent more to America than a simple dogfighting arrest.
Ostensibly, the letters are about Vick, about what he did and what he did not do. But they are really about us. Go beyond Vick. He doesn't matter anymore. They are about the intractability of race. They reveal the faces behind the American mask, the black and the white at stubborn impasse. Vick has provided us an unwelcome mirror, shown us who we are when we're held up close to the light, what we are really thinking when we walk past each other every day, each wearing the same uniform that says "America" across the chest. The uniform is the same, but clearly, after he exposed the raw nerves of race and class and privilege, Vick has shown us we are not all playing on the same team. We've always known this. But maybe we thought that by living better than our parents, at a greater distance from the bloody collisions that pockmarked their lives, we had made progress.

Vick shattered that illusion, telling us that despite undeniable progress in rights and opportunities, we don't understand each other at all.

The letters are there, so you tell yourself to go ahead, click on them, all of them, which have landed here over the past month. You don't flinch. You tell yourself to put them out there, as Malcolm X once said, "In a language we can all understand."

And then you deal with it.

Commonality
    "Just maybe people will stop crying 'race' and understand right and wrong for a change -- when the ref fixed games the white people didn't say 'please understand where he came from or it's the culture.' It was wrong, black or white! I'm so sick that African-Americans can't separate right and wrong -- blame the white man or use their 'culture' as excuse -- like having babies and leaving (70%), not wanting to do well in school for that's 'being white,' not wanting to speak proper English, just wanting to be known for being dancers and athletes, and for calling women 'bad' names and using such foul language in their common talk. We're not animals and people know right from wrong."
    -- A reader's e-mail

Perhaps we don't care to go this deep, into the real space of communication, preferring instead surprise every time an O.J. Simpson moment tells us more about ourselves than it ever could about something as simple as a double murder. We expected, as a people, to be universal in our outrage that two people were killed. We were wrong; and when race took a hand, it all unraveled and we ended up here, running in place. Maybe it is the words, words like "justice" and "equality," that get in the way. They are clumsy words designed to fool us into thinking we live under the same umbrella. We don't. We are not the same. We are not equals. We do not begin at the same starting line. We accept this fact in virtually every other facet of our lives.

Michael Vick
Robin Snyder/Scoopt/Getty ImagesMiddle ground on the Vick case appears to be non-existent.
It's been hammered into our skulls that life isn't fair. Your little brother is taller than you. The boss' son has an edge on you. You went to a state school, and you're competing against kids who went to Harvard. Life isn't fair. We all understand, except when it comes to race. Only with race do we demand the myth that the scales are equaled, that everything we've done, everything we've been, has now become wonderfully balanced. When the myth of equality is disturbed, we recoil and then uncoil. Even when simple, obvious observations about life being unfair are raised -- black quarterbacks are judged differently than white ones -- intelligence immediately takes a holiday.

    "Are African-Americans ever at fault for anything? Repression is over, debts for slavery is over. I cannot believe that people pay you for your racist BS. Vick did wrong, and he has to pay the penalty, just like anyone else would and should pay. Who cares what color he is? Don't play the race card because he … cannot make the correct decisions."
    -- A reader's e-mail

Try to see what black people see. Stand on the platform at 59th Street in Manhattan and wait for the D train to the Bronx. Look at the Asian teenager, the one with the ubiquitous white iPod earbuds, clutching a bag of McDonald's in one hand and a hot coffee in the other. Look at the white father and son, probably heading to the Yankees game. Look at the black kids bunched near the stairwell, wearing their Yankees caps, and at three Latinas banging out too-fast-for-my-level Spanish as the A train -- the wrong train if you're going to Yankee Stadium -- approaches. That is New York City on Sunday morning, Sept. 23, 2007.

Then turn on television and watch "Friends," one of the highest-rated shows in TV history, and look at the New York being beamed out to the world from your country. It is a New York you've never seen, one so carefully devoid of the color that gives New York its special vibrancy, makes it unlike any city on Earth, and ask yourself how this is possible. Scrubbing New York so clean of its diversity, of its authenticity, does not feel like an accident. Ask yourself who made the decision to make your New York, the one you lived in and breathed, look like this? Yes, it's just a television show, but it's also a fact: The people being wiped out of the picture look just like you.

O.J. Simpson
Jae C. Hong/AP PhotoO.J. Simpson's double-murder trial brought race to a boiling point in American consciousness, and his recent arrest stoked those fires again.
Think about language, the term "the race card," and feel the sting of being slapped right in the face. The sum of another person's life experience can be reduced by your countrymen to nothing more than a tactic needed to win a game, the strategic equivalent of calling a fake punt when the time is right. To them, the life you've lived is nothing but a cheap gimmick, the desperation play in times of emergency.

Go back to a 1997 Vanity Fair essay on race by Fran Lebowitz:

"The way to approach it, I think, is not to ask, 'What would it be like to be black?' but to seriously consider what it is like to be white. That's something white people almost never think about. And what it is like to be white is not to say, 'We have to level the playing field,' but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field, but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with. White people are the playing field. The advantage of being white is so extreme, so overwhelming, so immense that to use the word 'advantage' at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that doesn't exist."

That's not a cop-out. It is not playing "victim" or the dreaded "race card." It is simply a fact. And we all have to live, and love and thrive in spite of it. And so many of us do.

    "I was confounded to hear your apologist take on Vick on National Public Radio Aug. 25, confounded until I saw your picture on the ESPN Web site. Clearly, your blackness makes you unable to understand the deep pain this monster has caused people, such as myself, who consider their pet dogs a member of the family.

    "This entire incident has caused me to question my lifelong pursuit to stamp out the latent racism taught to me by parents. Your comments make me sick, and caused me to view you as less than human.

    "I suspect your blood runs as cold as his."
    -- A reader's e-mail

Walk into Borders at Columbus Circle in Manhattan and think for a second about Cuba. People told me when I visited Havana that racial divisions there are as pronounced as they are here. They say light-skinned Cubans have more money and more political clout -- dark people dominate the island, but the light ones run the government.

But in Cuba, the music -- the son, the guajira -- brings people together. There is a national music that white and black Cubans play together. It is their bond.

Now go into the bookstore's music sections and see the many ways we are divided. Divided for ease, yes, but also divided for profit. In America, there is no simple commonality. Just ask the black kids who listened to rock or alternative or any other type of "white music." They paid a price, just as clearly as the whites who idolized hip-hop culture did when their peers -- at least where I grew up in Massachusetts -- would ask them why they listened to "jungle music." Their peers, black and white, made sure everyone stayed in their lanes.

Now go back to the television section, where there are white comedies and black comedies, with only the cash register in the middle. It is there, in the checkout line, not in the church or at the dinner table, where we all finally meet.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesIs race an element in the reaction to Vick's court case? Of course it is.
You look at your country like this and you see that the reaction to Vick is a continuation of the divisions America has mastered. It makes sense, then, that something so seemingly simple as being offended that a person electrocuted an animal could become so complicated.

Malcolm X, another divider who learned to heal -- tragically, too late -- once said, "Show me a capitalist and I'll show you a racist." His reasoning: Eventually, at some level for all people, and corporations especially, the pursuit of revenue will ultimately collide with what's good for the whole. Ask Michael Jordan, the shoe king of the third world, or Phil Knight at Nike. They got rich together.

Justice
    "If Vick was white, nothing would be done. What happened to Wayne Gretzky and his wife gambling and betting on hockey games? Go and get some information about that. So when you come to work tomorrow you wouldn't even have a job. You're not permitted to talk trash about the white people, but you can about Mr. Vick."
    -- A reader's e-mail

Forget, if you can, the idea of equality. Like objectivity in journalism, it doesn't exist. The world is too big, individual experiences too sharp and unique, for common experience to belong to everyone. We didn't all have the same starting points, but we want to believe in that far-away ideal -- and justice for all -- because it is all we have. But accepting that ideal for what it is -- a goal, and not a standard -- might make it easier to talk.

Think about what it means to look the part, and you realize how hard it is to turn off the impulse. Barry Bonds needs to go away, for good. He is reprehensible, yes. But he is no more suspicious than Troy Glaus or Rick Ankiel, and you cannot compare the recent coverage of their stories to Bonds by reducing the issue to a discussion of Bonds' outsized stature against their relatively small celebrity. Ankiel looks his part, the feel-good part, and Bonds his.

In 1991, I exited a New Jersey transit bus in the suburban hamlet of Gibbstown in broad daylight, wearing a Temple University sweatshirt and sporting a yellow Sony Sports Walkman. Two police officers, hands on their weapons, appeared and ordered me to the ground.

"Where are you going?" they asked.

"To my aunt's house. She lives down the street."

"Where did you come from?"

"I just got off the bus. I'm a student at Temple."

"Well, we saw the bus go by, but didn't see you get off of it. We're looking for a guy who looks just like you. Armed robbery."

The police act like this. I know, because it happened to me. I looked the part. There is no equality, unless you, too, have been the guy with his cheekbone in the asphalt with a gun on you.

But once, you were, because that's what people on top do to people on the bottom. "Irish Need Not Apply." Grab a history book and read about how the immigrant Irish and Italians were treated by the police. Why do you think they call them "Paddy wagons"?

Maybe we have more in common than we think.

We said we wanted to hear from Vick. We demanded contrition. He had to feel horrible about what he did. The only human thing to do was show remorse. And then one August day, he spoke. The analysts talked about the victory for the justice department, the guilty plea gained so swiftly, so efficiently. It was a great day for justice.

[+] EnlargeAlberto Gonzales
Brendan Smialowski/Getty ImagesWhy is it that the public hasn't demanded an apology from Alberto Gonzales, as it did from Vick?
On that same day, with all eyes on Vick, the country's No. 1 law enforcement official quietly resigned in disgrace without nearly the demand for contrition. Alberto Gonzales, the U.S. attorney general, abruptly stepped away from his office while at the center of a congressional investigation.

At once, race stared us down again. The black face, forced to say he was sorry for what he did; Gonzales, allowed to disappear behind kind words about his dedication from the president, who called him a victim. The highest law in the land -- the federal justice system -- was being investigated by the body that makes the laws, and nobody seemed to care or question a justice department's being corrupted at the highest level. Maybe this is why black people believed with so much force that Vick was being held to a higher, unfair standard.

They saw race. What they didn't see quite as clearly was class. Gonzales could have been Mexican-American, white or Clarence Thomas. What mattered wasn't his race, but his class. Gonzales was part of the power, the people who have more ability to corrupt the umbrella ideal of justice than a thousand Michael Vicks -- who clearly transcended class financially, but never socially -- ever will. These are the people who make the rules. They have the power. And they never, ever, have to say they're sorry.

Revelation
    "Uncle Howard has to sell bro Michael Vick in his article of betrayal; because the pea brain bigots at ESPN would have it no other way. Every one of their moronic media people has to compete to see who is best at the good ole American pastime, Black lynching. Nothing like a good old fashion Black lynching."
    -- A reader's e-mail

Don't be depressed by the predictability of it all. Take it in, a deep corrosive drag off a smoke. In 2004, a black male sold $50 worth of crack cocaine to an undercover Boston police officer within 1,000 feet of a school. At his trial, I was made jury foreman. He was guilty, and I read the verdict.

My uncle was upset.

"I would have never convicted him," he said. "Why? Because of all the times they put us away for nothing. I'd never convict another black man. Never. Let him go. Leave it to someone else."

Vick belongs in prison for what he admitted to doing. The details, if you feel anything at all, do not need repeating. You look for commonality, and this was supposed to be an easy one. You break the law, you pay.

Michael Vick
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesHave we learned anything yet from the Vick case? And if we have, can we apply it to the next incident?
And yet, the majority of African-Americans who wrote say Vick has been unfairly targeted, and also believe that African-Americans offended by his actions have lost the meaning of being black. They've just been co-opted by whites.

    "Hey Howard, go back to your white girlfriend and your white neighborhood with your white bosses and all be white together. We don't need you. Black people don't care about this. They're just dogs. You care about them because your white bosses tell you to care."
    -- A reader's e-mail

The baseline of common decency -- that people simply are not supposed to behave this way and there are basic concepts of behavior we can all agree upon -- has disintegrated. Or maybe it hasn't even arrived. The letters tell you this is so. The exchanges between you and the black people who say you have contributed to the destruction of another black male grow heated and depressing. The question about how someone who murdered an animal could become so much more about black-and-white is being answered right here, right now. And you think about money, that everyone with enough talent in the right discipline can earn $1 million.

But as with the ubiquitous Simpson, we cannot reach the human layer of commonality, because we believe it doesn't exist. Not while race first defines who has value and who does not, who receives sympathy and who does not, and who goes to jail and who does not.

Maybe, you suggest to the readers, that the reverse is true. Maybe it is Michael Vick who let everyone down. Get past the clumsy words. We know that things are harder for us, you say, so you ask why Vick put himself in this position. He was the winner of the Great American Lottery, in which his talent trumped the intractable racial and class divisions. You tell them about what he did and what his crimes mean to you as a person. You tell them that believing Vick should pay for his crime doesn't mean you believe Tim Donaghy shouldn't pay for his.

You think you are making progress, and then they respond. They tell you that you are nothing more than a tool for your white bosses.

    "I am a 53-year-old black man who grew up during the '60s civil rights era, the Black Panthers, and the Nation of Islam here in Oakland, Calif. My friends have called me an 'Uncle Tom' because I don't have any sympathy for Vick. This case is NOT about race. It's about right or wrong. Period. I never thought that in a million years that I would make this statement."
    -- A reader's e-mail

You think about your older sister, the one so acutely attuned to even the faintest scent of racism or sexism. She's the political one, the radical; and yet, she is also horrified by Vick, and more by the blind loyalty toward Vick in the black community.

"Why are black people spending so much time protecting him?" she asks one evening. "And all these [people] want to say he's a victim. A victim of what? And what about all the black people who believe this is wrong but don't want to get beat down by their own? And what about the black people who didn't mess up their lives and need help? Who speaks for them?"

Rules
When it happens again, when the next story hits us like a flash flood and we're asking, dumbfounded, how race again became so prominent, remember that Vick has already provided the answer: It always was. Go back to W.E.B. Du Bois and read the first paragraph: "The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line, no longer in opportunities, perhaps, but certainly in thought."

Take the umbrella words -- equality, reality, justice -- and throw them in the trash. Umbrellas are useless, because here, it always rains sideways. One day, maybe we'll believe in truths that aren't our own. Start from a new place. Maybe then we'll have a fighting chance next time.

Howard Bryant is a Senior Writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.