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I guess I'll just sink to the bottom of the pool

Friday, August 18, 2006

Tramm Hudson is running for the U.S. Congressional seat in Florida's 13th district (the one vacated by Katherine Harris), and a video has surfaced of him making a foolish statement about blacks and swimming that threatens to sink his campaign like a stone.

How many times do you think he's told this tale behind closed doors and didn't think twice about it?

1984 we were in Panama. Our unit was doing a two-week training down there. I commanded an infantry company and we were practicing crossing a river. You know, an infantry company has 140 some-odd soldiers. A large number were black. I grew up in Alabama and I understand and I know this from my own experiences that blacks aren’t the best swimmers or may not even know how to swim. But we were crossing this and wanted to make sure every soldier could swim and if they couldn’t we’d get them across the river. We had the line across the river and we were making our passage way and one of the black soldiers with his ruck-sack on his back, his weapon and fell from the line…he let go. Sunk down to the bottom of the river. And I’ve got to tell you, it took my breath away.
I read this and think:

1. How many black people does he actually know?
2. It clearly never crossed his mind that maybe fewer blacks swim because of socioeconomic factors -- perhaps the ones he's been around don't have swimming pools or access to them.
3. If he did know about #2 above, he would have saved himself a lot of grief by adding a line about it to put his statement into context.
4. What about mixed race people -- how white do you have to be to possess floatability in Hudson's book?

Gee, I guess I need to forget that my mom took me to swimming lessons at the Y when I was a kid and I should just sink to the bottom of the pool.

That said, I'll put myself out there and say that Hudson's comments probably had no malice behind them. He did issue one of those standard political apologies when it blew up in his face.
"I said something stupid. I apologize for it and would apologize in person to anyone hurt by my comments. To those who are understandably offended, you have my deepest apologies and I want you to know that it was out of character for me and those who know me know that to be a fact. This was a thoughtless remark that does not reflect my lifetime commitment to treating everyone fairly and without bias. I apologize to everyone who is offended by this comment."
Some blacks came out with public comments of support for Hudson when this all went down, including a minister and the president NAACP of Sarasota County (Tramm apologized to him in person).

What it comes down to is that Hudson's ignorance is the kind of racism that makes me sad because it is so pervasive. It reflects zero thought and it's usually because the bonehead saying comments like this doesn't really know many black people at all. For too many people, black is some "other" mysterious breed of human being (if that for some) that is so dissimilar to whites physically that yes -- the inability to swim is some kind of innate genetic defect, which is ludicrous. One can extrapolate from Hudson's ignorance in this matter that he might hold some other serious misconceptions, say about the intelligence of blacks, but we'll never really know unless he steps in it again with another personal anecdote.

It's no different than Jimmy the Greek and former Dodger exec Al Campanis, two guys who famously said on the air, unbelievable comments that they proceeded to compound with even more mind-blowing defenses in the same breath.
"(Blacks) may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager."
-- former Dodger general manager Al Campanis in 1987 on ABC's "Nightline"
I was watching Nightline when Campanis had his live meltdown. Poor Ted Koppel tried asking him eight different ways to get out of the hole, but it got worse each time. I was embarrassed for the guy.

I didn't see Jimmy the Greek's infamous comments live (his faux pas came about year after Campanis's), but I saw plenty of replays of it; here's a good summary:
Jimmy 'the Greek' Snyder remarked that black athletes already hold an advantage as basketball players because they have longer thighs than white athletes, their ancestors having been deliberately bred that way during slavery. 'This goes all the way to the Civil War,' Jimmy the Greek explained, 'when during the slave trading. . .the owner, the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so he could have a big black kid, you see.' Astonishing though it may seem, Snyder intended his remark as a compliment to black athletes. If black men became coaches, he said, there would be nothing left for white men to do in basketball at all.

Embarrassed by such rank and open expression of racism in the most ignorant form, the network fired Jimmy the Greek from his job. Any fool, the network must have decided, should know that such things may be spoken in the privacy of the locker-room in an all-white club, but not into a microphone and before a camera.
This reminds me of the interaction I had back in the day, which I recounted in an earlier post, Skin and the color of money.
"Can black people tan?"
-- a white college student at Fordham, back in 1983, asking me whether I could turn browner in the sun, as we sat outside in the late spring.
My answer to that question, by the way (after I picked my jaw up off of the floor) was to calmly say "yes," and I took off my watch so she could see the contrast between my tan and what was underneath my timepiece. I then held my arm up next to her olive-skinned Italian forearm to show her that my non-tan color was lighter than her skin tone.

Gina was quite friendly and earnest when she asked the question. The fact that she felt comfortable enough with me to ask it, made me feel that she deserved a response that would not humiliate or embarrass her by pointing out her ignorance. I was, however, quite perplexed by the blunt question for several reasons. It made me curious about what she exactly thought "black" meant in physical terms (educating her on the fact that race is a social construct probably would have been too much for her to handle). In her world, though, were we that different? Did she have no concept that all humans just have varying amounts of the same chemical, melanin, that affects the complexion they have? Was she just racist? That last word is loaded. Gina was not outwardly hostile toward someone of another race. To narrowly define that word here -- she is a victim of growing up in a world of cultural, institutionalized racism and lack of exposure to people of another color.

That lack of exposure perpetuates the problem on both sides. It must be hard if you're white, asking a question about skin tone, hair texture or any physical characteristics commonly associated with being "black." You've got to take the leap of faith that the person you're asking isn't going to react badly. If you're black, the insult of the question can cut psychologically deep. Are they judging my whole value by my color? Are they saying I'm subhuman? Am I, yet again, the inferior "other"? The fear of negative reaction on both sides in this politically correct world often ensures much-needed conversations on race will never occur. It doesn't stop the ignorance, the stereotypes, or promote healing on either side when you remove the ability to ask and answer simple questions about difference.


The above comments by these people are, again, not meant to offend, even as they do. What's embarrassing is that the level of ignorance is completely guileless, almost innocent. The problem is that they are sorry, but usually not sorry enough to want to correct their state of ignorance.

The people making the unfortunate comments don't feel any need to extend themselves to become better informed or really know any blacks on a personal level, because that's not their world. And if blacks aren't all alike, if these people manage to get that far in their thinking, evaluate blacks who do not fit in the stereotype emblazoned on their brains as somehow exceptions to the rule.

The fact of the matter is the "all black people are alike" problem is alive and well; it's just morphed a bit. The "one-drop rule" in this increasingly browning country isn't what applies here; this is really about whether one is visibly identifiable as "black". Mr. Hudson and others like him -- are then able to continue placing those blacks (and other minorities) in a comfortable slot of stereotypes perpetrated by the dominant culture. [Heaven help you if you're black and a woman.] In this case, it's the hoary "blacks can't swim" slot for Hudson.

Someone at winger site Red State aptly pointed out that Hudson's remarks came around the sixth anniversary of Anthony Ervin qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Swimming team, the first black man to do so.

Unfortunately some of the comments from other posters at Red State made my already kinky hair curl more, shall we say:
I hate to tell everyone this, but he's correct. African-Americans have higher muscle density, and less fat as a % of their body compostion. Whites have more fat and are therefore float more easily, hence they are(on average) better swimmers. Socioeconomic factors might might the problem worse, but there is nothing racist about this statement. Sounds like a good officer who made sure he didn't lose any men crossing that river. Is it racist to say that certaing Asians react very badly to alcohol?

This whole thing is crazy, what he said was No Big Deal. So what if he said blacks can't swim, it's nothing. He is just speaking his mind and I think that we need people that are willing to say what they really mean representing us in elected office. This liberal PC propaganda must stop!
There's a lot of work yet to do on this race front, huh?

Folks, don't be afraid to comment. I know these threads on race tend to cause commenters to turn into lurkers.

Hat tip, Shakes Sis and Political Wire