Two things happened in LA recently that are symptomatic of race relations in the US but not, I believe in the ways most think nor in the way the media has portrayed them. Around November 18 Michael Richards of Kramer fame appeared in a Night club and screamed at some hecklers using a word I find it hard to think, let alone speak or write. A little more than 10 days later the Mayor of LA vetoed a settlement with Tennie Pierce, an African American firefighter, of $2.7 million for putting dog food in his spaghetti. These incidents exemplify frustration in both the African American community about continuing racism and the community at large about accusations of racism.
Let's look at the Tennie Pierce case first. This has created an outcry on the part of the community, not because of racism (there is a real question as to whether there was any involved), but because of the amount of the payout. According to the LA times the payout was the largest in history of the department. On the other hand the LA Times story went on to say:
A Fire Department investigation suggested the incident was intended to "humble" Pierce - who stands 6 feet 5 - after his team won a fire station volleyball game. A lawyer for one of the defendants initially called the incident "a good-natured prank … [not] in any way motivated by race."
And this is where the problem lies. How is it that you pay $2.7 million for a "good-natured prank" even one that in hindsight is regrettable or in poor taste (no pun intended). This isn't Michael Richards screaming horrendous epithets, this isn't Rodney King taking a beating, this isn't about a hostile environment, this is a single incident of a prank. The problem is this kind of law suit actually minimizes and trivializes racism. It makes radio talk show hosts into superstars for rabble rousing enough to get the mayor to veto the settlement. It makes my wife and I sit around the table lamenting the ridiculous extremes to which so called "advocates" against racism will take cases and in the process we start talking about "us" and "them" and it makes us sick. This is the kind of case that does not foster unity or understanding or brotherhood, it fosters anger, frustration, distrust and divisiveness. Advocates for racial harmony, to the extent they are involved with Tennie Pierce, should take care. At some point advocating for Tennie Pierce makes people start to feel like Michael Richards.
Michael Richards was angry (clearly) and frustrated with some heckling, but why did he say what he did? I can't know. As I said, it makes me cringe just to think about, let alone articulate what he said. Yet you can speculate, given the level of frustration demonstrated by the public in the Tennie Pierce case, that his frustration with people playing the race card, coupled with an environment where he hears that word in conversation, comedy and music from many African Americans with whom he associates, allowed him to erupt as he did. It was totally and unequivocally inexcusable. We can however understand and lament where it came from.
If racial equality is ever to become a reality and if harmony is actually a goal, divisiveness is not the answer. Suing people will neither redress grievances nor create an environment that can improve, it will only make people angrier. That may be necessary from time to time in egregious cases but advocating the payout, without a trial or showing of evidence that is the highest in fire department history, for a prank of serving dog food to a veteran firefighter, is simply divisive and without, as they say, any redeeming social value.
Finally, it makes me angry that Mr. Pierce and his advocates seem to believe he had an entitlement to the money and that failing to settle is "wrong." Failing to settle is never wrong. It may be foolish or smart, but it merely means that the counsel doesn't believe it should settle, it believes it should litigate. Mr. Pierce has not proven his case. In this country he is free to do so and the counsel is free to defend itself.
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