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THE RACIAL POWER OF HUMOR

It is a tragedy that the dream of every great man, the world he envisioned, is on the verge of becoming a comedy; it is a tragedy that every great deed he accomplished, the world he changed, is on the verge of becoming a comedy; it is a tragedy that every great thought he had, the world he understood, is on the verge of becoming a comedy; after the darker and subtler actions came… The more comical manifestations. The first effects of the Englishman’s arrogance running amok… The Southerner’s funny strut… All lead to curious acts. It is obviously better, inherently, to assume that the assumption of whiteness alone is superior to the tan or brownness of God’s various hues.

W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Spirits of Caucasian People”.

Officers were surprised by the results shared with them and Brown. Although Brown assumed his family had Native American ancestry for a long time, he was surprised to find out that he had 18 percent sub-Saharan African ancestry but no Native American ancestry. Throughout his life, Brown was often teased for being Black, even though he had Native American heritage. Before filing a grievance against the Hastings PD, Brown, a military veteran and law enforcement officer with twenty years of experience, took a DNA test from Ancestry.Com. Brown never thought he would be the target of racism as a Sergeant in an all-white police department. He never thought he would be the victim of such racist comments in Hastings. Therefore, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Hastings Police Department, alleging harassment, ridicule, taunting, and joking by fellow officers and city officials.

At least $500,000 in damages were sought by attorney Karie Boylan on behalf of Brown, who sued the police department for racial harassment and its impact on his ability to work and mental health. Brown stated that he felt emotionally distressed and “bullied” by his colleagues, with ongoing stress from the incident. The jokes about African Americans as “Negroids” went on for months. The mayor reported that Brown told him about the jokes that were made, including the one where a Black Santa figure with the number “18%” written on its beard was placed in Brown’s Christmas stocking by a fellow officer during the holiday season. Furthermore, Brown was referred to as “Kunta” in reference to the character Kunta Kinte from the television miniseries Roots by Chief of Police Jeff Pratt. This racial mockery and taunting came from the entire chain of command, both upwards and downwards. His newfound racial identity became a running joke at the police station.

The city’s best interest was to resolve the case on the terms of the mediated settlement agreement, as stipulated by Brown’s resignation. The city did not believe that the lawsuit had merit, comparing the disruptive and costly effect of defending the case to the settlement. In 2018, the city awarded Brown $65,000, although City Manager Jeff Mansfield stated that he did not believe Brown’s accusations. Brown denied making rude comments about black people, but it was mentioned that he had a long history of such behavior. Additionally, Brown allegedly made comments about why he liked chicken so much, which he now understands as racist. According to City Attorney Michael Bogren, Brown jokingly and freely shared these remarks with his fellow officers, resulting in a racially charged banter. Brown disputed these allegations, stating that he himself initiated the racial banter.

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How should we understand this peculiar incident? Many will certainly find this story comical, ironic, and ridiculous. It is often the case that incidents like these, where a white police officer racially ridicules and harasses a Black man, are characterized by entertainers, law enforcement officers, elected officials, and generally more by jokes “go too far.” We should not take ourselves too seriously and should view such incidents as just a joke, suggesting that no real harm has been done. It is not often that we hear about a white police officer racially ridiculing and harassing a Black man in the workplace.

The film, “Mirror Dark,” directed by Jordan Peele, could potentially explore the premise of an interracial cop buddy comedy set in the 21st century. In this peculiar incident, a police officer mistook a white man for a criminal and nearly beat him to death during a traffic stop. However, the victim becomes not only a victim of police brutality but also the target of racist jokes by his white fellow officers. It is interesting to note that the white officer who shares no DNA test results with the victim is the only one not involved in the racist jokes. This case could be seen as a satirical allegory highlighting the prevalence of racism within our criminal justice system in many ways.

The New York Times informed him that he now feels his eyes are being opened to the great divide in this nation, and why we have a problem of racism in this law enforcement. He believed that it gave him a greater insight into the ongoing racist taunting and joking, while also feeling humiliated. Sergeant Brown expressed his observations, arguing that the only way white people can truly understand what it’s like to be a “Negro” is by becoming one. This incident is reminiscent of journalist John Howard Griffin’s experience traveling in the Deep South, as documented in his book “Black Like Me” (1961). Additionally, it also highlights the temporary darkening of his skin.

9. “In contrast, despite enduring ridicule and teasing from his white colleagues and city officials, Brown’s racialization in this case was not altered by the joking racist practices and rituals that took place in that setting. It is worth noting that his Ancestry DNA test did not create the racist jokes he experienced, and it did not temporarily darken his skin color or alter his complexion.”

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According to Anderson, Brown briefly experienced what sociologist Elijah Anderson describes as the “n***** moment”–instances of “intense disrespect” that Black individuals frequently encounter in predominantly white environments, where all white individuals possess the ability to shame, belittle, and label them as racialized outsiders.

This moment can have a significant impact, even if the incident is relatively minor. It is always insulting and takes the victim by surprise when the guard is caught off guard. However, this act of discrimination and acute insult raises awareness. It occurs at the moment when a joke is made, and it is often referred to as the occasional chuckle among black people, in a light-hearted and joking manner.

In the present day in the United States, one of the most influential societal positions an individual can hold is that of a Caucasian, male law enforcement officer. In the case of Cleon Brown and the Hastings PD discussed earlier, the utilization of discriminatory comedy altered the social and racial encounter. Discriminatory jesting customs have consistently played a significant role in shaping how racialized groups and individuals are perceived and treated as inferior subjects and outsiders, while simultaneously establishing and preserving social structure, unity, and boundaries among Caucasian participants and members of the “in-group” as superior. Such occurrences are not insignificant, trivial, or harmless, despite often being labelled as racial “microaggressions.” These seemingly inconsequential incidents regularly transpire disguised as humor.

Social power encompasses racist humor, meaning that racialized emotions, hierarchies, and perspectives are produced and upheld through racist humor. Racist humor, as a form of communication, has historically and presently exerted significant influence in generating and sustaining racialized emotions, hierarchies, and perspectives. Currently, racist jokes and insults circulate among politicians and public figures, far-right groups and organizations, colleagues in the workplace, and in the media. Throughout the history of blackface minstrelsy, whites often mockingly depicted and portrayed blacks as unintelligent and foolish. For those who engage in this forbidden amusement, both in the past and present, what purpose does the use of racist humor serve? Furthermore, how has it affected people of color who have consistently been the primary targets of such humor? And if racist humor possesses the ability to impact the social and racial experiences of a white male police officer in the 21st century, what are the implications?

The example of how “race” has continued to be constructed and challenged politically and socially in everyday life, and how racist humor has been circulated in U.S. Society, is a clear indication of the critical role it has played in shaping how many Americans act, feel, and think about race. Over the last two centuries, racist humor has played a significant role in the organized opposition and discursive and political evolution of race. However, it is often disregarded as benign or peripheral and has been little explored as a piece of the puzzle in the formation of race. In this book, I aim to offer another piece of the puzzle that has been largely ignored – the process of making and constructing race socially, or what Winant Howard and Omi Michael call “racial formation.” How individuals and groups are socially defined and treated as racialized entities, and how racial theorists define and take action upon them, is a key aspect of this process.

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Notes

Throughout history, the persistence of the myth of race has had troubling and socially disparate consequences for racialized individuals and groups over the last five centuries. These constructions, which emerged out of European colonialism, are not based on any scientific ideas and do not connote “real” biological categories of race.

New York Times (May 12, 2017): https://www.Nytimes.Com/2017/05/12/lawsuit-black-brown-cleon-us.Html report on racial harassment endured by Sergeant J. Eligon

The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Beacon Press, 2016; Ancestry Testing and DNA: Uses, Limits-and Caveat Emptor, in Genetics as Social Practice (pp. 75-88). Routledge, 2016; Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century. New Press, 2011; The Science and Business of Genetic Ancestry Testing, Science, vol. 318, no. 5849 (October 19, 2007): 399-400. DNA tests do not demonstrate the biological nature of race, and their precision and findings are frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted. For extensive discussions on race and DNA, and racial science more broadly, see A. Nelson, T. Duster, D. E. Roberts, D. A. Bolnick, et al.

Post, New York (May 12, 2017): https://nypost.Com/2017/05/12/ police officer: I Was Mocked After Genetic Test Unveiled I Have African Ancestry, Miller, J. R., Cop: I Was Ridiculed After Genetic Test Exposed I Have African Heritage, 4.

5. Eligon, Sergeant Who Discovered He’s Partially Black.

N. Rojas, a White Police Officer, receives a $65,000 settlement from the city in a legal case involving racial bias. The occurrence was covered by Newsweek on August 1, 2018. For further details, visit: https://www.Newsweek.Com/cleon-brown-hastings-police-michigan-racial-discrimination-settlement-1052977.

In the articles “Colorblindness,” and “Humor Racist,” from 956-974 (2017), the authors discuss the myth of colorblindness and its connection to racism. They also explore the violence, injury, and estrangement that can result from racist humor. In another article by Ward G. And Pérez R. (2019), titled “Jokes Police Racist,” the authors further examine the link between racist jokes and violence, injury, and insult. Pérez R. (2017) also contributes to the discussion in their article “Perspectives Sociological,” where they explore the concept of racism without hatred.

8. Eligon, Sergeant Who Discovered He’s Part African-American.

Please consult E. Anderson’s research article, The White Space, in the discipline of Sociology with a specific emphasis on Race and Ethnicity, volume 1, issue 1 (2015), pages 10-21.

10. E. Anderson, The Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. Norton, 2011, 253. (No modifications were made)

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