I began to think of the 'race card' as a real collector's item.
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The O.J. Simpson case drastically altered the face of America. It brought us Court Television; it lead Marcia Clark, Mark Furham and Christopher Dardin to have careers on television as "experts" of something; it elevated the status of lawyers to public intellectuals; it gave us the Dancing Itos, Kato, and countless other memorable moments. More importantly, it gave us the race card. Given the widespread belief in colorblindness within contemporary America, the race card refers to those efforts by racialized persons to add race into an otherwise race neutral situation. Given the absurdity of colorblindness and the historic problems of blaming people of color for inserting race, I always wondered if there might be an actual race card.
After yet another media reference to the race card and Kobe Bryant, I asked my partner if she knew what a race card looked like. "Is it a playing card, or a sports collectible card?" She answered with a history lesson; the "race card" was first mentioned during the O.J. Simpson trial, when legal and media experts described his lawyers' use of race as part of the defense as "playing the race card". With Kobe, she concluded, these same "experts" were prognosticating how his legal team would also play the race card in an effort to exonerate him of rape charges, stemming from an incident involving a 19-year old Colorado woman. I saw the situation differently, arguing that the idea of playing the race card, as if it were an "ace in the hole", made little sense because of the centrality of race within American life. As race and racism are important, one cannot choose whether to use it depending on the circumstances.
My partner ultimately concluded that the race card was a silly racialized reference to playing cards; whereas I began to think of the race card as a real collector's item and one that I was determined to posses. Given the number of references to this ubiquitous yet elusive object, I figured its addition to my collection of trading cards and sports memorabilia would be a valuable acquisition.
I imagined a race card depicting a rusty old drinking fountain with a sign above reading "colored," and another depicting a charred black body hanging from a tree. Maybe the race card was part of a collection celebrating American white supremacy, similar to the deck of "most wanted" distributed by the U.S. military during the most recent Gulf War.
I headed straight for E-bay. Sadly, typing r-a-c-e c-a-r-d did not bring forth any available items. Still amazed that something mentioned so often was not even available on E-bay, I scouted about on Google.com. Yet again, typing "race card" into the search field did not lead me to anything of substance. I continued to search, this time typing "race, Kobe, white supremacy" in hopes that the race card might be found on the numerous white supremacist sites talking about Kobe. Yes, now I was getting somewhere.
The responses of white supremacists to the allegations against Kobe Bryant were unsettling, but not surprising. White supremacists have not been shy about deploying the longstanding rhetoric of black male sexuality threatening white female purity. As I searched through numerous white supremacist websites, I found racist images, rhetoric, and appeals to stereotypical ideas of black male sexuality and criminality; so close, but still no race card.
I knew when I reached newnation.org, a site dedicated to "minority and migrant crime," that my chances were getting better. Its headline read "Sports: Kobe Bryant � Just another N*gg*r rapist". With "statistics" on black men raping white women and anecdotes about the alleged criminal activities of black athletes, this site identifies the Kobe Bryant situation as a "hate crime", warranting 14 years in federal prison because Bryant allegedly called the victim a "white bitch". Could this site be a source for a race card that ticks off these allegations? I imagined a card picturing Kobe, eyes and lips enlarged, with the words "white bitch" bubbling from his mouth. Rather than statistics on the back, this race card might include a brief list of black men, named and unnamed, throughout history that have been accused of rape. Better yet, I pictured a card of skinheads holding anti-Kobe banners, with the names of black athletes accused of crimes. As I continued my search, I discovered numerous online chats and reports on the subject along the way, but I saw no signs of the race card.
Chat room dwellers continually connected this incident to an epidemic problem of black rape and black athlete misconduct. In a number of chat rooms, anonymous numbers convicted Kobe Bryant of the horrific crime of sleeping with a young, middle-class, and suburban white woman. Cyber dwellers constructed a race card containing a menacing picture of Kobe Bryant, with the words: "Guilty of sleeping with a white woman" spread across the top of the card. Whether or not he committed a crime seemed irrelevant to the cyber white supremacists.
On fuckedupsports.com, a lengthy chat resulted in a number of blatantly racist interpretations of the Kobe case. Could the race card be here! On August 6, "Whitey" posted the following rants: "He should have never raped that poor white girl. I hope he gets what is coming to him. Are you kidding me about moving the trial so they can get a bunch of welfare cases on the jury? In any case, if he wants black on the jury, next time he should rape someone in Inglewood." Not to be outdone, "Klansmen" added: "N*gg*rs just should not be screwing white girls, period. Kobe should have his balls cut off." This country's shameful history of slavery, lynching, and castration was revived within this disturbing conversation, as was the larger discourse surrounding the impending Kobe Bryant trial.
The stereotypical vision of a black man as a hypersexual brute, in contrast to the helpless white girl in need of patriarchal white protection, embodies this and similar arguments that draw upon racist ideas. The more of these online rantings I read, the more disgusted I became. This final statement finally drove me to shut off my computer: "I would love to ravage Kobe's wife, but I don't think my average white man's dick could ever come close to the simian monster of the jungle man Kobe. He's a giant black warrior rapist; how could I ever live up to that."
Unsatisfied with my failed attempts to find the race card, and convinced that leaflets all over Eagle County calling on whites to avoid sex with blacks, or racist chat rooms, were not what I was looking for, I figured it was time to examine the popular media in search of the race card.
Since the allegations became public, members of the media have dedicated numerous hours to the case. They speculated about: what happened between Kobe and his accuser; his image; his future earnings; a $4 million ring; his appearance at the ESPYs; his speech at the Teen Choice awards and; his visit to Disneyland. The alleged victim, despite her legally protected anonymity, has also received a great deal of coverage. I read about her failed audition for American Idol, a suicide attempt, a mental breakdown, a break-up with her boyfriend, and everything I wanted to know about her friends and their opinions of the situation. I knew the professional history of each of the lawyers involved, the case's potential affect on NBA ratings, and the possible implications of Kobe's absence on the court. I had learned a lot about the epidemic problem of athletes committing crimes as well as the societal shock that has resulted from the allegations directed against Kobe. Still, through all this talk, I could not find the race card.
I began to notice a trend that I thought might lead me towards my ultimate discovery: the common description of Kobe as articulate, good-looking, a family-guy, soft-spoken, kind, generous and most importantly "different" raised my suspicions. J.A. Adande, a columnist for the LA Times, remarked how confident he had been about never seeing Kobe's name "on the police blotter". David Aldridge, of ESPN.com, wrote about his "mistaking Kobe's identity". Commentators wrote of "shock", "surprise", and how Kobe Bryant was the last person they expected to be standing trial for rape. I began to wonder how was Kobe "different"? And who/what is he different from? Is he different from other athletes, black athletes, or all black men in general?
This shock reflects the inherent racism of the media and its stereotypes of athletes as greedy, arrogant and rude; of black men as sex-crazed and violent; and of all black men as criminals. It reveals the societal practice of locating social problems in the bodies of black men. Immediately following Kobe Bryant's arrest, self-proclaimed feminists took to the airwaves in defense of the young women. Kathy Redmond announced on ESPN that athlete violence was a serious problem. In this setting, as in newspaper articles, Redmond used the accusations against Kobe Bryant as a platform to engage the horrors of sexual violence. Chris Sheridan and Rob Fernas offered similar positions, both commenting on the serious problem of athletes committing crimes. Each author spoke of athletes, while only providing examples of black athletes accused of a criminal offense. The practice of coding rape or other crimes in the bodies of black male athletes defies statistics.
Athletes who commit roughly two sexual assaults per week represent but a fraction of the problem of violence against women. In fact, they are just a fraction of the problem. With rape occurring every 18 seconds and an estimated three percent of American men guilty of battery, it should be clear that violence against women takes place outside of the sports arena, too. What we need is a collectible card that captures a picture of a "man" and the following statistics on the back: American men batter more than 8,200 women and rape over 2,300 women per day. In a single year, America sees three million cases of battery and over one million incidents of rape.
We do not need any more racist cards that blame black men for rape. Even with the hundred arrests per year involving athletes and numerous others rapes that go unreported (high estimates put a ratio at 10 incidents for every one reported), it is clear that athletes who commit sex crimes account for a mere fraction of the millions of violent crimes committed against women.
The discussion of criminality among athletes as an epidemic further reflects racism in the media. In almost every report about the upcoming trial, experts continuously compared Kobe to Mike Tyson and O.J, given their legal troubles. I started to imagine a race card that pictured these three black men clustered together, including a comparison of their criminal charges and convictions on the back. A special historical version of the card might cluster Kobe with Silas Lynch or Bigger Thomas. Indeed, the media seems to be displaying such "race cards" with every story. Perhaps this series could be expanded to include cards of William Kennedy Smith or any number of naval officers, priests, what-have-you � all who have scored the comparable accusations of sexual violence. Playing on racist myths and feeding white fear, the feminist deployment of the rape card has pictured black athletes as the perpetrators of sexual violence. "Cards", so to speak, that present Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant and a host of other athletes, and containing statistics and anecdotal evidence "proving" the problem of athletes perpetrating sexual violence on women, are all too common.
Why limit the special edition there? How about a card comparing how whites and blacks view the Kobe Bryant case, revealing that half of whites think Kobe is innocent compared to seventy percent of whites. Another card could be dedicated to the demographics of Eagle County, which is almost 90% white, and less than .02% black. This special edition set would need a card for the overwhelming white jury destined to hear the Kobe Bryant case. The back of this card might contain statistics from the Capital Jury Project, which concluded that white jurors are far more likely to believe the police and white witnesses over black defendants and witnesses.
Finally, any set of race cards would be incomplete without a card for the Eagle County Sheriff's Department. The front of the card might picture the overwhelmingly white force, with the back spelling out its racial history, including accusations of racial profiling, orders to stop all black or Latino drivers with California licenses, and of course the $800,000 settlement against the Department for racial discrimination.
While I was unable to find an actual race card, an object that I could place next to my Shaq bobblehead, my search proved how much race matters within the Kobe Bryant trial. It matters in that white supremacists have taken advantage of the case to organize and to publicly voice longstanding white fears of black sexuality. Race matters in the way the media has compared Kobe to other black athletes accused of crimes, and columnists have sensationalized its shock over the accusations. Race matters with the efforts to blame black men for the widespread problem of sexual violence. Race matters with our reactions, the jury pool, and the history of the Eagle County police. Whites construct and play the race card every day, serving to reaffirm widely accepted ideas of race, justice and American democracy. While never able to secure an actual race card, my search confirmed that the race card is played every day, in virtually ever setting.