An ESPN piece (and picture) that considered what might have happened if Michael Vick was white has received a lot of attention. The author explains his thought process here:
Tonight somewhere in America two men will be arrested for DUI. Many people get arrested for this every day. Surely some will be black and some will be white. Does the fact that people of both races will be arrested for this prove that it’s not a racial situation? No. Does the ratio of those arrests as compared to the population perhaps prove that it is in fact a racial situation? Sure, but almost every situation is racialized.
One black driver may be arrested because the police who notice him are hypersensitive to black drivers in BMWs, so he’s the victim of Driving While Black even though it turns out that he also had a little too much to drink. Meanwhile maybe another black driver is swerving and it’s obvious he’s a problem before the officers can clearly see his face. The point is race is too nuanced to be looked at in a simplistic way. And this “switch test” should be discredited and thrown out…
Am I saying that we’re in a post-racial society and race no longer matters? Absolutely not. “Post-racial” is a meaningless term that people who have a sophisticated understanding of race do not use without an ironic smirk. I hate that dumb term and am dismayed at the number of people who think it’s indicative of modern America. It is not. Race still matters. But I think nowadays it often matters, or comes into play, in ways that are more subtle or nuanced than we care to admit.
The key points here:
1. Race still matters.
2. Race is complicated.
Both of these points should be remembered when talking about this article or about other matters that involve race.
This reminds of one reason that I am a sociologist: we don’t rely on singular situations like this. Thinking about Michael Vick can be a helpful exercise but ultimately, it is just one case. Had a number of factors been different, Vick’s skin color, background, football performance, etc., the outcome would likely be very different. But if we look at the more complete picture, whether it is all NFL players or all of American society, we can see how race still matters. Take NFL players: there has been some interesting research about the quarterback position and how race plays into conceptions of who is able to take on that role. Take American society: there is plenty of evidence that the criminal justice system heavily penalizes certain kinds of crimes more than others, certain groups have much higher incarceration rates, and certain groups are treated differently by the authorities.
Another question we could ask: how does the Michael Vick situation illustrate different approaches of justice? I’ve suggested before that it seems like some will never be happy that Vick has tasted success again and this raises questions about whether Americans should pursue retribution or rehabilitation through the criminal justice system.