During the presidential campaign, then-Sen. Joe Biden made an off-the-cuff observation that his rival, then-Sen. Barack Obama was "… clean …" and "… articulate …"
Then Don Imus slurred the Rutgers University’s women's basketball team.
Then the managers of the Valley Swim Club banned black campers from swimming at their pool.
And let us not forget the most recent entrant in the racial hall of shame: Boston police officer Justin Barrett and his now widely circulated e-mail, in which he called The Root’s Editor-in-Chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., a “banana eating jungle monkey.”
They all have something in common: In each case, the words and actions were denounced as racist, and in each case the person(s) at the center of the controversy responded by saying they were not racist.
Officer Barrett's screed and his subsequent declarations that he was not racially motivated followed the classic “I’m-not-a-racist-I-just-sound-like one” trajectory.
How did the word become so charged as to defy definition?
Listen to any talk show or read the comments on any news site following the Gates incident, and you’d think that the “R-word” had become synonymous with the “N-word.”
Why do so many white Americans object so vehemently to the word?
Is racism a concept that may only be defined by minorities? When Imus and Officer Barrett were labeled racists, those who leapt to their defense often used the "I know him, and he doesn't have a racist bone in his body" excuse. But racism isn’t an either/or proposition. Racism, both in word and in deed, can be a matter of degrees.
Emphasizing the cleanliness or eloquence of a black person implies that the individual is an exception. It’s an example of racism, but it doesn’t fall into the same category as, say, comparing a Harvard professor to a jungle animal.
Something gets lost amid the talk radio, cable news and message board back-and-forth, and that something is this: In terms of prejudice, there is a vast array of slights and insults that falls between the malice and mistakes.
Racism is about double standards. It’s found in the language in media stories about Hurricane Katrina, where CNN graphics referred to displaced citizens as “refugees” or when pundits such as the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol proclaimed Michelle Obama “unpatriotic” for stating “… For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.” It’s left to African Americans, the offended party, to explain ad nauseum why seemingly innocuous items are offensive. We do it because we want to educate, to stop the offensive language and behavior, not because we are "playing the race card." We are always up for the teachable moment, but it does get exhausting.
For years, black Americans have tried to explain the nuances of racial discrimination in law enforcement, education, health care; racism isn’t the sole province of the Klansman.
Admiring black entertainers and athletes, voting for Obama, and interracial dating or marriage isn’t proof-positive that you’re “not a racist.” Just a couple lessons for the road ahead.
Bijan C. Bayne is a regular contributor to The Root.