Posted on November 9, 2004

Rising Up The Ladder Of Racial Caste

Mike Seate, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Nov. 9

The crew of construction workers had been hanging around my favorite bar long enough to get comfortable. We’d traded a few dirty jokes and had fun discussing the sorts of things men talk about when they’re eager to put a few pints between their workdays and home lives.

Which is what made a comment by one of them such a mind-blower during a discussion about last week’s presidential election.

“Now that Bush is in for four more years, I’d hate to be a towel-head right now,” he said with a satisfied laugh. “Those sand-niggers better watch their backs,” he added to high-fives from a few of his buddies.

Because the construction crew members were white and I am closer in color to the Arabs he was insulting, I was more confused than dissed. There are plenty of black men — and women, for that matter — who would start throwing rights and lefts at the mere sound of this word from the mouth of a white person. But ignorance on this kind of global scale tends to bring out the philosopher in some of us.

Speaking of philosophies, before I could even respond to his first statement, my “friend” turned up the volume on his own philosophical hate speech. He explained how the world won’t be safe until all “these people” were dead, locked up or “working behind the counter at a 7Eleven.”

I’m willing to bet the construction worker, in some twisted way, actually saw himself as some sort of paragon of cultural sensitivity when he included a black man in his tirade against Arabs. There was a time not long ago when he wouldn’t have even bothered using the prefix “sand” to distinguish between dark-skinned people in this country and those living in the Middle East.

In the world of us-versus-them racism, I guess you could call that progress.

In fact, this is far from the first time a white person in Pittsburgh has pulled me aside to share his distaste for Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Arabs, Asians or some other ethnic minority. Each time, I’m left with the impression a new racial caste system has been established in some people’s minds, a new order in which African-Americans have become a little less horrible than the rest.

It’s easy to assume my construction worker buddy likely felt it was safe to speak ill about Arabs and that I should feel privileged to be treated like one of the good ol’ boys when he did so.

But I didn’t. When the construction worker finally finished his sermon, I pulled him aside and said something I hoped would embarrass him.

“One of my best friends is an Arab, man. That’s not cool,” I told him as sternly as I could without starting a brawl.

That pretty much ended the conversation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end the disturbing trend of white people expecting black folks to embrace their other prejudices.