New Brunswick, N.J., spring 1984. I was in a bar during an open-mike stand-up show. A white Rutgers student got onstage and opened with, "What do you call 100,000 black people at the bottom of the ocean? A good start."
She didn't see me; I was over in a dark corner.
I should note, for the sake of history, that the joke got only a slight and uncomfortable laugh out of the otherwise all-white (or close to it) crowd. Yet the fact that the girl told the joke at all showed that this was a transitional period. No one yelled, "Racist!" or wrote the girl up in a campus-newspaper editorial the next day.
Thirty years ago, the tone of the Rutgers campus was set by white, first-generation college students, raised by parents who grew up long before the civil rights revolution. You could tell that a lot of them had less-than-ideal feelings about black people, even if they weren't outright bigots.
Time marches on, and I feel pretty comfortable assuming that in 2011, a white undergrad would not get up and tell that joke at that bar, and that if for some reason one did, he or she would be summarily chastised by nonblack students as well as black ones, with a good, nasty Twitter debate thrown in.
Yet things do happen today that remind me of that 1984 night, and remind me that we're not completely out of the woods. The latest one was at Murray State University in Kentucky, where a black female undergraduate arrived to a film class to find that the film had started 15 minutes early. The white male teacher told her that this was class policy, even though he hadn't announced it — and said that he wasn't surprised that the student had come late because slaves were never on time, either, and slaves were lashed for it.
There's no nuancing or talking around that one, and it is entirely appropriate that the man was suspended without benefits and has now resigned. But there is one aspect of this story that worries me, something that many will suppose is quite unremarkable. The woman, Arlene Johnson, wants the professor to apologize. I want to propose that part of truly getting past the past here requires leaving out the apology in cases like this.
Johnson says that she "deserves" the apology, and I see where she's coming from — but I wonder if she's really thinking about what that apology would mean. If this professor, Mark Wattier, apologizes to her, then he is inherently stating that he exerted power over her, that he had an effect. And if he and Johnson together acknowledge his having had that power over her, then Johnson comes out in the lower position.
After all, Wattier can't take back what he did — and let's face it, how sincere is the apology likely to be? For one, anybody in Wattier's position has the motive of turning away the furious media scrutiny. And besides, until just now, Wattier was explicitly resistant, contesting his suspension and trying to blame his actions on clinical depression. (Right: "Gee, I'm feeling blue lately. Hey, you — you know what? You act like a slave!")
Thus Wattier's "apology" can mean only "I harmed you and regret it." But does Arlene Johnson — or any of us in this position — truly want to air to the world that the actions of an uncivil, thoughtless baboon harmed her? Is that black strength?
Perhaps what we really want in this position is to hurt the perpetrator in return — upon which I submit that in this case, Johnson has accomplished this in publicizing what Wattier did. Believe me, he's decidedly inconvenienced now. But for him to publicly apologize — and Johnson wants him to do it in person! — would make him the stronger in this case. Because it means that Johnson was harmed by Wattier's glumly goofy comparison of her to a slave — a clumsy, stoo-pid remark made by someone clearly unfit for substantial responsibility in a civilized nation.
Johnson has already won by taking this to higher authorities. Her YouTube appearance is her victory. She should not spoil it by lowering herself to accepting an apology from pond scum.
To go back to 1984, for example, for no amount of money would I ever have called for that tragically mere lady who told that joke to apologize to me. I felt superior to her in every way, despite being a geeky fellow having yet accomplished next to nothing. Overall, it was a pleasant evening and continued to be. To have had anything further to do with her — such as accepting anything from her, much less an apology — would have felt like a soiling.
Wattier should be allowed to rest in the piddling, infamous fade-out that the rest of his life will be. That is just deserts. There are no apologies for a Mark Wattier — and none from him.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.