Michael Vick and racism

By | August 24, 2007

A week or two ago, there was a very interesting and thought-provoking article on ESPN.com about Michael Vick, the city of Atlanta, and the role that racism has played in the public response to the allegations against Vick. It is titled “A History of Mistrust,” but it was the little blurb below the title that caught my attention:

Having trouble understanding how so many black Atlantans see the Michael Vick case as a racial conspiracy?

Try walking a mile in their shoes.

I read the article. I tried “walking a mile in their shoes.” And while my opinions maybe aren’t quite as black-and-white as they were before I read it, I find my feelings mostly unchanged.

Take this (lengthy) excerpt, for example, about a woman named Juanita Abernathy, the widow of a prominent 1960s civil rights activist:

She leans back in the chair and watches the television. Predictably, it’s all Vick, all the time. Montages of him playing. B-Roll of him walking into a courthouse. An e-mail from a viewer is posted on the screen. It’s Lisa in Kansas.

“It is not a black or white issue but an issue of animal cruelty,” she writes. “Black, white, Hispanic, it doesn’t matter. Breaking the law is breaking the law, and Vick shouldn’t get any special treatment because he is a football player. People need to stop using race as an excuse.”

Juanita Abernathy sits in her living room as those words cross her screen. Here’s what she wants the e-mailer to know. In Atlanta, where the Old South lingers just beneath a placid, integrated facade, everything is about race. Just walk a few feet away and look at her family photos. People’s opinions about every new situation are formed by the totality of their experiences. Animal rights activists think it’s about cruelty. Soured Falcons fans think it’s about tragedy in multiple ways. African-Americans in Atlanta, according to prominent black leaders, think it’s about Vick not getting due process because of the color of his skin.

Although it might not be about race to Lisa in Kansas, it is to Juanita in Georgia. Who’s right? Can they both be? Can an opinion formed by experience be wrong? Is it possible to separate your future from your past?

These have long been the questions that define Atlanta.

The following is somewhat of a disclaimer, although I say it not because I feel like I should, but because I truly and passionately believe it: I have a remarkable respect and admiration for Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and the countless other African Americans who put their lives on the line to stand up for what was right. I believe that an injustice to one particular group of people is an injustice to every single person, and I love those people — black, white, or any other color — who helped preserve my individual rights by fighting a system that allowed oppression based on something as inconsequential as skin color.

I can never really understand what African Americans have been through. I can try to grasp it intellectually and come to grips with how I think I would feel, but as a white man from Southern California, I can never truly empathize with the plight of African Americans in Atlanta.

But I believe that the answer to “Can an opinion formed by experience be wrong?” is “Yes.” If experience tells Juanita Abernathy and others that racism is why people were outraged at the allegations against Michael Vick, I believe that experience has tainted their world views and made them unable to see reality.

Often, when I come across an opinion that is so obviously (to me) flawed, I get frustrated. With Abernathy and the others in this article, there is none of that frustration. I want to go give Mrs. Abernathy a hug, honestly. I guess I feel like someone who has given so much for a cause I believe in so strongly is entitled to an inaccurate opinion now and then.

But I still believe it is an inaccurate opinion.

Kobe Bryant was accused of rape. Black athlete, white girl crying rape. I don’t recall the outrage being any greater than it would have been if it had been a white athlete accused of raping a black girl. Kobe remained immensely popular, and the Lakers went to extremes to accommodate his legal schedule.

Ray Lewis was investigated for murder. Black athlete. His popularity has not diminished one bit. I had never heard of Ray Lewis before the murder accusations; now he is the best and most popular defensive player in the NFL.

So why was the backlash against Vick so much stronger, if not because of his race? I believe there are two major reasons:

  1. There was a lot of evidence against Vick. Before the indictment came down, there was testimony from multiple sources who said he was involved. There was the fact that the dog-fighting evidence was discovered at a house that Vick owned. All the evidence pointed to Vick’s guilt.
  2. It was dogs. For some reason, it is part of our nature to vehemently defend those who can’t or won’t defend themselves, and dogs fit the bill. As the Rev. Joseph Lowery says in the article, “Dogfighting is despicable. It smells of sadism, savagery, and reflects the hardening of spiritual arteries. It is cruel and betrays animals that show humans affection and trust, and thus are easily led to a bloody end.” With Kobe Bryant and Ray Lewis, their alleged victims were humans who may have gotten themselves into bad situations. Nothing excuses murder or rape, but it is easy for the deep recesses of the human mind to rationalize things like that. But killing dogs? Our human defense instincts kick in, and we are outraged. As Juanita Abernathy said, “We place dogs above human beings, and there’s something wrong with that picture.”

My heart breaks at some of the treatment blacks have endured, as outlined a bit in this article. I believe it is every American’s right to be an ignorant, racist pig if he so chooses, but it is despicable and unfathomable that people have been able to get away with segregation, slavery, and murder in the name of racial superiority.

But the Michael Vick issue is not about race. It is about a man who, apparently, took pleasure in torturing and killing dogs. He has now pleaded guilty, and he will be going to prison for his crimes. I don’t feel any different about it than I would if it were a white quarterback or a Chinese running back or a purple paperboy. Just as celebrity has afforded Michael Vick a huge share of good publicity ever since his freshman year at Virginia Tech, he now faces the reality that his celebrity magnifies his every mistake. Michael Vick is black. Michael Vick is a criminal. The two have nothing to do with each other.

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