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In the two weeks since WARW morning DJ Doug Tracht was canned for instigating D.C.’s latest racial scandalette, folks in Washington have had the displeasure of watching a well-rehearsed routine. By now, morning radio junkies and late sleepers alike know that on Feb. 24,
Trachtaka the “Greaseman”played a record by the previous evening’s Grammy Award star,
Lauryn Hill, and then flippantly remarked, “No wonder people drag them behind trucks.”
Even people who managed to avoid the Greaseman affair probably know what happened next.
Tracht’s initial suspension earned him the predictable flurry of denunciations from black civic leaders and black talk-show hosts. When the station made it official and gave him the boot a day later, the familiar saga churned along: Protesters, picketing; news anchors, grimacing; talking heads, remonstrating; fingers, wagging.
When you look back at the two weeks that turned an adolescent-style FM humorist into a national figure, it becomes pretty clear that once the ceremonial rebuke was issued, critics began calculating how they could get their own chunk of notoriety out of the Greaseman’s debacle. Longtime boxing promoter Rock Newman led the efforts by serving as Tracht’s liaison to black Americaor at least that corner of black America that hosts talk shows and thinks big thoughts about race and society. Newman orchestrated an apology tour in which Tracht appeared on several black media outlets and held a penitent press conference at National City Christian Church.
Black media folks like Tavis Smiley, host of BET Tonight, and WOL talk-show host Joe Madison leapt at the opportunity to publicly flail Trachtand, no doubt, give their ratings a goose in the process. Even former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson joined the fray and brought the Greaseman on his sports talk show. In classic D.C. form, the fiasco soon became a poor man’s O.J. Simpson trial.
One of the endearing features of capitalism is that anything can be packaged and soldeven a tired routine like this one. Big white guy makes stupid racist comment. Big white guy apologizes profusely. Black talking heads pound him relentlessly. Black community members go back to their struggling lives. It is a sideshow that has become a staple among an intellectually empty crop of black leaders who understand racism only as something that causes whites to not like black folks very much.
The saddest thing about it is that nobody seems to notice how much time and air they’re all wasting. While Rock and the boys have been busy dragging the Mr. Bobo pull toy along for the benefit of attendant hordes, the real racismin the non-
dramatic, radio-unfriendly form of a billion structural inequalitiescarries on, unchecked.
Almost every black person I know has been called a nigger before. The circumstances varya few country bumpkins riding past in a pickup, a 6-year-old classmate mindlessly repeating his parents’ words, or a white hiphop head who gets a little too comfortable. By all accounts it is an unenviable emotional experience that enrages you while still making you feel lower than dirt.
I’ve never been called a nigger by a white person. But I did go to a middle school where black kids traveled in packs for fear of being jumped by other black kids. I grew up in a neighborhood where having a father who was anything more than biological was a luxury. I remember when my friends stopped wearing Starter jackets for fear of being shot and robbed. The first time I saw someone pull a handgun, I was 11. And I wasn’t at a target range for a little father-son quality time.
I didn’t grow up poor or wanting for much. But I understand that being black places a sinister veil over the term “middle class.” I also understand that if I were white, the chances of my experiencing any of those things would be sliced in half. Most important, I know that the Greaseman didn’t chase all those fathers out of the homes in my neighborhood. The Greaseman didn’t run guns into the local high schools. He didn’t put crack on the streets or attempt to incite a fratricidal war among black kids over name brands. To be sure, the Greaseman is a racistbut he isn’t racism.
But don’t tell that to the hard-working crew of talking heads who have turned the black struggle into an entertainment industry. Let’s call it the racism-industrial complex. Obsessing over Tracht, after all, is the path of least resistance: Without the cyclical racial blunders of hillbillies like him, black leaders would have to do the hard work of examining racism as a systeman effort that would require them to question their entire world, and even their own prominence. Finding and busting inequality is a lot tougher than simply waiting for something very public and very obvious to happen in order to kick up the pronouncement machine.
Forget poverty and all its trappings. Forget bad schools, teen pregnancy, and AIDSnone of this will get you a quote on the evening news. Instead, accuse the Fox network of racism for canceling Living Single, investigate Merriam-Webster’s hiring practices because it won’t change the dictionary definition of the word “nigger,” or boycott the Oscars because none of those rich black actors got nominated. If all else fails, just hold a march with the word “million” attached to any noun. And of course you can always wait for some racist idiot to hold true to his nature and then jump on him with both feet.
Nothing exemplifies what the late black historian John Henrik Clarke called “show-biz liberation” more than Rock Newman’s entry into the fray. Having spent years promoting boxing, Newman is just the man to repackage racism as a Hollywood stage act that fits neatly into
6 o’clock-news sound bites, not to mention the square minds of Americans. Newman can’t expect that the black community will now say, “Oh yeah, he apologized and Rock says he’s OK, so the Greaseman’s fine with me.” (Newman, for his part, was at least honest in arguing that his Greaseman tour was a returned favor.)
But if Newman and his cronies want to hold somebody’s feet to the fire, they need to start closer to home. This is the same bunch who will tell the black community to vote for a president who pimp-slaps them whenever it’s politically expedient. Better still, black leaders can begin with one of their own: The Rev. Henry Lyons, head of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the largest black religious organization in America, pocketed funds that were supposed to rebuild black churches that had been torched throughout the South. Compared with Lyons, the Greaseman is small potatoes.
But a “repenting white racist” is so irresistibly juicyperfect for an opportunistic bunch too lazy to challenge anything bigger than a small man with a smaller mind tripping over his own ignorance. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Meganck.