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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dr. Laura, Meet Omar Thornton

Over the past few days, I have been intrigued by the aftermath of Dr. Laura’s racist rant. What’s been most interesting to me is the way that Dr. Laura and her supporters have transformed her from culprit to victim, claiming that her first amendment rights have been taken away. Apart from demonstrating that she clearly doesn’t understand the first amendment, her claims of censorship were not only ironic but amusing considering that she made her announcement on national television while simultaneously plugging her soon to be released book—sales of which will probably skyrocket thanks to this latest controversy.

Oddly enough, this juxtaposition of victimhood and culpability reminded me of another story which had been in the news just a few days earlier—Omar Thornton’s tragic workplace shooting in Manchester. That story could have led to a useful national conversation about workplace discrimination, but that would have required recognizing that the shooting’s perpetrator, Thornton, may have also been a victim, and that some of the victims of the shooting, while not deserving their fate, may have contributed to what would eventually become a deadly situation. Instead, most media coverage of the story treated Thornton as your typical disgruntled employee with psychological problems. Then, 24-48 hours later, it was out of the news cycle completely as the country moved on to more pressing matters such as renegade flight attendants.

Nevertheless, there were brief moments when it looked like the racism issue might be addressed, but those moments usually ended with someone suggesting that if Thornton really was experiencing racism, it would have been addressed by the appropriate company and/or union representatives. To many observers, the thought that he may have actually raised the issue with someone who did not take his complaints seriously seemed out of the question. Perhaps we should consider for a moment what would have happened if Omar Thornton had shared his frustrations with Dr. Larua Schlessinger.

SCHLESSINGER: Hello, Caller. Welcome to the show.

THORNTON: Hi, Dr. Laura. I'm having an issue with some of my co-workers who make racist comments.

SCHLESSINGER: Well, can you give me an example of a racist comment? ‘Cause sometimes people are hypersensitive.

THORNTON: OK. The other day they called me the N-word. They said “we need to get rid of that N-word”.

SCHLESSINGER: So what? Black guys say “ni****” all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a Black comic and all you hear is “ni****, ni****, ni****”.

THORNTON: But these co-workers aren’t comics. They drew pictures of a noose. A noose!

SCHLESSINGER: I’m sure they were just trying to be funny. If you're that hypersensitive about color and don't have a sense of humor, you shouldn’t get a job at a predominantly white company.

THORNTON: You sound like them.

SCHLESSINGER: Don’t take things out of context. Don’t NAACP me.

THORNTON: Whatever. I’ll just have to figure it out on my own. [Click] [Dial tone]

In spite of all of the attention being paid to Dr. Laura’s use of the N-word, I actually believe that was the least problematic aspect of her rant. What’s more important than the one word that she repeated eleven times is the overall racial perspective that she demonstrates in sentence after sentence; paragraph after paragraph. In Dr. Laura’s world,

· If you complain about racism you are “hypersensitive” and you have a “chip on your shoulder”;
· Racism no longer exists because we have a Black president who was elected by Whites. In fact, Blacks are more racist than Whites, which is the only reason Blacks voted for Barack Obama;
· Ongoing discussion of racism is the result of Black activists seeking to “demonize” Whites.

The sad reality is that there are a lot of folks who agree with Dr. Laura’s racial perspective, and it’s a perspective that is embedded in systems and institutions all around this country. Many Black employees have lost discrimination cases over the past two decades because judges have essentially said that they were being hypersensitive. The election of President Obama has led several cities and states to try to eliminate affirmative action programs. And notions of Black racism and “reverse discrimination” have reached a point where it’s now easier for a White plaintiff to win a discrimination case than it is for a Black plaintiff. Just ask the city of New Haven, which lost a major Supreme Court case last year to White firefighters claiming discrimination.

In short, the beliefs and propaganda expressed in Dr. Laura’s ignorant rant make it increasingly difficult to deal with the realities of structural racism. Instead, we can all criticize her use of the N-word and then pat ourselves on the back as if we’ve dealt with the problem.

Having said that, I must say that Dr. Laura did make an important point with which I agree. At one point at the end of her tirade, after declaring that Black efforts to “demonize Whites” have grown, she concludes, “it’s all about power.” And although her remarks both during her rant and in the days following suggest that she’s in a dreadful state of denial about who actually has power in this society, her observation is relevant nonetheless.

Yes, Dr. Laura, it is all about power, and those who have power will always view those without power as being “hypersensitive”. More importantly, Frederick Douglass’ words from more than 150 years ago still ring true today: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

We who believe in justice must continue to demand a discussion on race that goes beyond the N-word and that fully explores the issue of structural racism. Otherwise, we will continue to see more Dr. Lauras…

…And perhaps more Omar Thorntons as well.