Author explains writing “If Michael Vick were white”

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.

SI cover story on Vick says “You can’t turn away”

The story of Michael Vick seems to bring out the passions of sports fans. For those who love stories of second chances, Vick is a great example – a guy who didn’t play up to his full talent in Atlanta, ran into trouble, but now is playing great and seems to have turned the corner. For those who love dogs or think NFL players (and athletes in general) get too many breaks, Vick is a perfect example: just because he is a possible MVP candidate, Vick gets a free pass for his bad behavior.

The recent cover story in Sports Illustrated explains the situation:

The Vick paradox is simple: You can’t look away from the beauty, and you can’t quite forget the brutality. His game is rivetingly kinetic, and now that Vick’s commitment to football is making itself evident, it’s impossible not to wonder how good he can be. Yet his infamous stewardship of the Bad Newz Kennels created a discomfort that has endured longer than the usual distaste for bad actors. On Thursday, Goodell stopped in Philadelphia and, 14 months after he lifted Vick’s playing ban, spoke of the “message” behind Vick’s rebound, the “lessons” to be learned. “We need our kids to see that kind of success story,” Goodell told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “This young man has turned his life around, and he’s going to contribute.” But Vick’s tale is not that tidy, and it’s far from finished.

For some, Vick might never be able to make up for what he did. But if he proves himself to be a winning and successful NFL quarterback, many will look past his transgressions. And along the way, he is likely to get paid handsomely in salary for his efforts.

More broadly, Vick’s situation raises all sorts of sociological issues: should athletes get a second chance? Should anyone who mistreated dogs in the way he did get a second chance? Can jail time rehabilitate people or are they tainted forever? Can Vick become a hero or role model in the future? If Vick can’t be redeemed in the eyes of most Americans, who can?