Lessons to be learned

Lessons to be learned

The headline of a noncontroversial column sparks a surprising racist response

By Kevin Uhrich 07/24/2013

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For all the places in the paper that someone could take exception with our coverage of current events — the Letters to the Editor, News and Feature sections — it was a column appearing last week in our Life Section, Wheels, by Jen Hadley, that sparked a surprisingly vitriolic reaction from one outraged reader.

The reason for the somewhat worrisome e-missive received Friday, one day after publication: The column’s headline, which I wrote, not Jen, which reads, “Joe on the go: In America, coffee and cars go together like rednecks and mullets.”

It seemed harmless enough. After all, hasn’t the movie “Joe Dirt,” David Spade’s hapless but lovable redneck with a mullet, been shown on TV hundreds of times? Judging by the reader’s reaction to this subhead, or deck as they’re called, it was clear he or she hadn’t seen that flick, or else found nothing funny about it.

Nor apparently had he or she noticed that cable television — from the History Channel and A&E to the Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and the Food Network —has been commandeered by such lovable “Hee Haw”-like hillbilly caricatures as Honey Boo Boo, Larry the Cable Guy and the Turtle Man, the endearing toothless guy who dives into muddy ponds and catches snappers and other wild critters using only his hands and wits.

No, there was nothing amusing to this person about the headline that I slapped on Jen’s column.

“Couldn’t you have considered a better and more sensitive headline?” he or she wrote. “Was there a pressing need to insult white people?”

It’s important to put all this in some context. Last week, the paper was full of information about the not guilty verdict in the racially charged 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla.  After the verdicts were read, parts of the greater Los Angeles region were rocked by a number of protests and some acts of violence and vandalism, resulting in dozens of arrests, somewhat reminiscent of the 1992 LA Riots following the not guilty verdicts for the four LAPD officers tried for beating Rodney King.

In addition, we repackaged a story that Professor Peter Dreier of Occidental College had written for Huffington Post about the abominable way baseball legend Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel were treated when he was in the minor leagues and playing a game in Sanford, a city, like most Southern communities in those days, that was strictly segregated.

No one seemed to have a problem with these troubling yarns in which white people were depicted as the villains they were and sometimes still are, or another news story in which members of a coalition called for tighter civilian control of the LA County Sheriff’s Department, which has come under fire in recent years for brutality committed by deputies against jail inmates, most of whom happen to be poor, black and Latino.

Perhaps our reader had just finished those pieces and was just beginning to seethe before getting to Jenny’s story on page 19, because, according to the next few lines of the letter, that headline simply could not be tolerated.

“What would you think had happen (sic) if instead you use (sic) something like: Joe on the go: In America, coffee and carts go together like n****** and watermelons. … I don’t think you would even consider the idea of such action since blacks are a protected specie (sic) capable of justifiably burning down your sorrowful newspaper office while whites are like an anvil where you discharge any kind of blows without expecting a reaction,” the now clearly angry person wrote. “Well, Ms. Hadley, I am not an anvil and I am reacting to it!”

After learning about the letter, my first reaction was to call the cops and have this person investigated. We have the person’s email, so tracking them down should be easy enough. But Jenny said that wasn’t necessary.

“At first it seemed kinda scary, but I hadn’t had coffee yet,” Jen wrote, putting on a brave face and riffing on her own column. “Now I’m sorta laughing because it’s preposterous. And I’m in a bit of shock over the use of the ‘N’ word.

“I don’t want to be an alarmist, but it’s one of those fine lines between, is this guy a lovable goof, or is this guy like a movie theater shooter?  I don’t know so was deferring to you.” But, Jen said. “I’m fine, and don’t feel threatened.”

I couldn’t help but think of the stories we published last week, especially Dreier’s piece and the news accounts of reaction to the verdict. To a person, all of the elected and appointed people we talked to — two Pasadena City Council members, one school board member and past and present presidents of the Pasadena Branch NAACP — said they were disappointed but not surprised by the all-female and predominantly white jury’s decision in favor of Zimmerman.

As Board of Education President Renatta Cooper also said, “I hear a lot from young people who say we live in a post-racial era and the work has been done. It has not been done and they need to start doing the work.”

Let this letter to Jen be an illustration of the need for those efforts to begin sooner rather than later.

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I'm from south Mississippi and if there's one thing I can tell you about white people from the south is that the folks you would think would be considered "rednecks"... ALSO consider themselves "rednecks" and take pride in the fact that they're "rednecks." They don't try to hide their mullets, trucks, guns, etc. Case in point, Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty... do you think these people get upset when they're called rednecks? No, not in the least. They're proud of their lifestyle and could careless about what others think.

I'll never forget... I was talking with one of my best girlfriends from elementary school a few years ago about my new MacBook Pro laptop and she said with a laugh... "I will never be able to get one of those because I'm too white trash and I'll break it." This is coming from a woman with a Ph.D. and has lived in San Francisco for the past 10 years.

The person who took the time to write letter to the paper is clearly dealing with some personal deep seated issues of racism and is looking to attack with words in the wake of the whole Zimmerman situation. Take a deep breath and relax a bit.

posted by DaraoDo on 7/25/13 @ 12:43 p.m.
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