Yes, there's a double standard -- so what?

February 12, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

"LOOK HOW white I am," he writes. "Am I lame or what?"

That's Rick Reilly's "Life of Reilly" column from the Feb. 4 edition of Sports Illustrated. Several readers have passed it along, inviting comment from your humble correspondent, who is happy to oblige.

For those who missed it, Mr. Reilly's piece delineates what he sees as a double standard that allows black athletes to insult white people with impunity. How, he wants to know, could Shaquille O'Neal get away with writing in his book how embarrassing it is to be dunked on by a white guy? Didn't John Rocker get pilloried for saying things like that?

And what about Mike Tyson grabbing his crotch at a recent disastrous press conference and making a vulgar and racist remark to a white reporter? Former Denver Nuggets coach Dan Issel just torpedoed his career by doing less. Why is there no firestorm of reproach and censure when the offender is black?

I think Mr. Reilly makes a valid point. I'd quibble with him over some of the examples he chooses, but in the main, the guy is right on target in challenging blacks in sports -- and, by extension, blacks at large -- to give the same respect they demand. He should know that there is, however, more going on here than a simple double standard.

After all, when he notes the absence of any response to racially inflammatory remarks by black athletes, Mr. Reilly is in effect indicting not just black observers, but white ones as well. Indeed, white ones perhaps primarily. Where is their outrage?

Mr. Reilly believes their silence grows from a kind of racial inferiority complex, a sense that, where sports is concerned, denigration is deserved.

He may be on to something. But that surely doesn't tell the whole story. I mean, race and sport are not the only arenas where one party is allowed to say things the other is not. Consider gender. And if you're a guy, you probably already know where I'm headed.

According to a generation of female comics, the fact of malehood means several things.

That you worship beer, bosoms and the internal combustion engine.

That you communicate emotion by grunts and shoulder punches.

That you choose each day's wardrobe by determining which shirt stinks least.

That your cooking qualifies as a crime against humanity.

That your lovemaking is worse than your cooking.

That you are proud without cause, clueless without apology -- a channel-surfing, football-obsessed talking ape who would be helpless but for the civilizing influence of women. Who are, of course, superior.

A woman can say pretty much what she wishes about a man. The man who tries to do the same becomes Andrew Dice Clay.

I'm not here to suggest you feel sorry for that Neanderthal. No, my point is simply that most men don't spend a lot of time fretting about the disparity -- nor should they, nor CAN they, without sounding whiny and small. The disparity is, after all, part and parcel of belonging to the gender that, for the most part, still controls the levers of power.

As much as we like to pretend equality has arrived, the truth is that access to those levers is still largely a matter of gender and race. It is, when all is said and done, power that's the true dividing line here. Most of us instinctively observe different rules, give broader latitude, depending upon whether one is part of the group that wields power or the group upon whom power is wielded. That's why the secretary who yells at her boss is considered audacious, but the boss who yells at the secretary is overbearing.

We make an automatic perceptual adjustment depending upon who's doing what to whom. So there's usually no outcry, even among whites, when some black public figure says some stupid thing. Mr. Reilly is right in suggesting that black athletes ought to be called to account when their rhetoric is racist.

Such behavior braces up stereotypes injurious to blacks. It is also offensive. But if he truly expects to see a day when the sins of a Shaq O'Neal call down the same fury as those of a John Rocker, he needs to understand that it's not coming.

You can have pity or power, but you can't have both.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He may be reached via e-mail at leonardpitts@mindspring.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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