I was relieved when the incident was met with swift and commendable action from all corners: the school’s principal, students, fellow teachers, the NAACP, the school board and elected officials. He was swiftly placed on administrative leave and MUSD employees underwent racial sensitivity training to find out why incidents like these are so offensive, and why they go beyond simply the bad optics of darkening one’s skin color.
What isn’t so clear is how we deal with the aftermath.
I’ll be honest: When I sat in on a January school board meeting, it perplexed me when Carter appeared during public comment to ask the board for his reinstatement. He was joined by his parents, some students and even some community members, all extolling his virtues of helping students and his intelligence in his field.
Perhaps it was late at night. Perhaps it was because I had covered issues like this before. The amount of people brushing Carter’s actions as “just a mistake” — as if he had merely dropped a textbook on a student’s foot — was more than I anticipated.
Does an overtly racist act not warrant expulsion from one’s job? A job that holds so much influence over young minds? What message does that send to students in perhaps the most diverse county in the country?
Perhaps we as a community — including myself — don’t know the impact of such actions. Why dressing up as a person of color as a white person inherently can’t be “just a mistake.”
Even when such actions weren’t intended.
Carter’s trade as an engineer provides an interesting lens into how race and equality play out in Silicon Valley. The region that gave birth to tech giants like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, PayPal and HP — just to name a tiny few — lags woefully behind the curve when it comes to diversity. So far behind, that the Congressional Black Caucus paid several visits to our region to find out why.
In one of the most progressive counties in the country, we’re not progressing when it comes to race. We’re moving backwards.
Carter’s actions aren’t a one-off anomaly of a misguided pop culture lesson. And he himself isn’t the problem. And any disciplinary action wrought upon him isn’t going to fix it.
Instead, his actions are a symptom of our current, bigger problem with race and identity all of us deal with. A symptom of a disease that — despite more than six decades of supposed remedies — hasn’t been cured yet.
We all like to think we’re above racism. Even the most openly racist candidate in presidential history gloats that not only is he not racist, no one has done more for people of color than him.
What a lot of us don’t realize, however, is how overtly racist we can be, even if we don’t think we are. And why some of us think racism is as simple as calling someone the “blank-word” or not hiring someone because they look different than you.
And why a caricature of a person is brushed off as “just a mistake.”
What’s more, actions on racism are now suddenly “overused,” “politically correct,” and nothing more than a tactic used by the “left” to “win more votes.”
Perhaps we underestimate the impact of our words. Of our actions. Of the significance they hold, and the history that lies behind them.
So let’s sort this out: Blackface isn’t just makeup. It’s coordinated oppression. And it’s a lot more complicated than just bronzer.
Blackface itself dates back to the 19th century, when white stage actors would darken their skin with shoe polish at gatherings called minstrel shows. The actors joined their blackened skin with cartoonishly large lips to mimic African culture. A typical minstrel show went through a myriad of topics, but would always have an underlying theme: black people were lesser. The all-white audience would of course eat it up, and enjoy a few cheap laughs during their fabulous (to them, anyway) night out.
Who could blame them? The moment these minstrel show audiences walked out of their local theaters, they were greeted by their slaves, who were busy working on their property.
It’s easier to make caricatures of people who are beneath you. It’s easy to laugh at a dehumanizing characterization when you have the power.
Which is why Carter’s actions were more than just mimicking our (yes, I’m a Common fan) favorite rapper. When Carter walked into his classroom, he didn’t just carry an impression of “the guy from the Microsoft commercials” in his back pocket. He brought with him a deep historical act of racism dating back hundreds of years.
Even if he didn’t know he did.
And that’s part of the problem. Especially if you’re entrusted with shaping the minds of young people every day.
Those blind spots are in part why people of color are much more likely to be pulled over than white people. It’s why minorities disproportionately fill our jails. It’s why, all things being equal, it’s vastly more difficult for people of color to get a job. To get approved for a loan. To climb the corporate ladder. To break into positions of authority. Why the wealth gap between African Americans and white Americans has only widened since the twentieth century.
To mention the few people of color who have made it to the top only serves to drive home the point. And it’s why the supposedly most diverse coalition in history berthed two white septuagenarians as its party’s leaders.
These problems didn’t spring up overnight. They’re vestiges of an era we like to think is behind us.
I have no doubt Mr. Carter is a good man. He has prospered in two fields — engineering and education — that I myself have tried and failed at. His intelligence and aptitude in those subjects alone command my respect.
And it’s true that we’ve all made mistakes. But the mark of learning is how you react and learn from them. And how those in power react and learn from them, too.
No one action, law, or firing is going to solve society’s very real race problem. But neither is ignoring the problem. To ignore such conversations for the sake of “moving on” is avoidant at best, and disingenuous to the problem at worst.
Whether Carter intended to be racist is beside the point. As David Leonard, chair of Washington State University’s department of critical culture, gender and race studies, wrote, “Intent is irrelevant.”
What is relevant is how we deal with it. Will we sweep this under the rug under the guise of a “second chance,” without addressing the larger problem of everyday racial problems in our community? Or will we treat this issue with the gravity and impact it so commands?