Words and underlying racism

When Hillary Clinton claimed last week that Barack Obama was having trouble getting the votes of “hard working Americans, white Americans,” much speculation ensued about whether she was intentionally exploiting classic racist beliefs about the supposed laziness of African Americans.

My view is that Clinton isn’t as gifted a politician as her husband, so this apparent appeal to the kind of racist populism that fueled the careers of demagogues such as former Alabama Gov. George Wallace may have well been a verbal slip (if Bill had said something like that you can be sure it wouldn’t have been by accident).

In the end it really doesn’t matter much. A mistake people make about racism is to think it’s primarily a personal flaw that some people have and others don’t, as opposed to something that distorts our society at a structural level, whatever particular individuals may believe or say.

One of the easiest places to see this is in the sports world, where certain racial cliches and stereotypes get expressed in relatively unselfconscious ways. These stereotypes reflect the sort of language we are now seeing from Clinton and her advisers, about “blue-collar” voters.

Just as in Clinton’s special political language, in the world of sports “blue-collar” is a code word for “white.” A bunch of other terms — “gritty,” “gutty,” “hard-nosed,” “lunch-bucket ethic,” and of course “intelligent” — work in the same fashion.

The idea is that white players must overcome their lack of God-given athletic talent (which is apparently conceptualized as God’s version of affirmative action for black players) through good moral character, and in particular the classic Puritan virtue of hard work.

In recent years, these cliches have been noted often enough that more sophisticated media figures have become aware of them, and will try to avoid them, just as savvy white politicians have come to realize it’s not a good idea to refer to people like Barack Obama as “articulate.”

Nevertheless these patterns of thinking are so ingrained that they continue to appear in amusing if ultimately disturbing ways. Consider this evaluation of a couple of football players just chosen in the NFL draft.

Draft Countdown, one of the most popular NFL draft evaluation sites on the Internet, provides critiques of college football players for the purpose of judging their professional prospects. The site lists what NFL talent scouts call a player’s “measurables,” the most important of which is his speed in an electronically timed 40-yard dash, and his weight (Generally speaking, the bigger and faster the player, the better the player’s prospects, although “measurables” don’t include “intangibles” like gritty, gutty, blue-collar leadership skills).

Here is the site’s evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of two players. Each is listed by the site as running the 40 in 4.55 seconds. One weighs 212 pounds; the other weighs 211. Both play the same position (safety).

Player A’s strengths include “excellent athleticism” and “great timed speed.” His weaknesses include “technique and footwork” (i.e., things that can be improved through hard work and practice).

Player B’s strengths include being “a hard worker and team leader with excellent intangibles.” He is described as “smart” and “tough as nails.” His weaknesses are said to be that he “is not a great athlete” and “does not have great timed speed.”

Given the foregoing information, any sports fan with half a brain will be able to say with something close to absolute certainty that Player A (Kevin Phillips) is black, and Player B (Tom Zbikowski) is white.

From a social perspective, the evaluation of college football players may seem like a trivial thing. But the same cultural forces that almost automatically depict Tom Zbikowski as a gritty, gutty, hardworking, blue-collar team leader, and Kevin Phillips as a great natural athlete who could benefit from working a little harder, have far more important effects.

Just ask Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)