THE WASHINGTON POST needs to make up its mind. Either it's ok to judge people by appearance or it's not.
The paper recently reported (March 23) on two federal lawsuits that were filed on behalf of blacks who claim that they weren't picked up by cab drivers because of race. In one of the cases the cab driver himself was black. In both cases the drivers deny the litigants claim that service was denied on the basis of race.
Although the drivers didn't say so, it's entirely possible that service was denied not on the basis of race, but on two things: a legitimate fear for their safety, and dress. And there's nothing wrong with that.
But to grasp the Post and liberalism's hypocrisy on this issue, we need to back up. In last December 7th’s edition of the paper there's an editorial by Geneva Overholser, the former ombudsman of the paper. It concerns the recent piece the Post ran about Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. The piece about Harris was by Post fashion writer Robin Givhan. Givhan was brutal on Harris: "Her lips were overdrawn with berry-red lipstick....Her skin had been plastered and powdered to the texture of pre-war walls in need of a skim coat....[she had] spikes of false eyelashes."
Overholser defends this ad hominem scalping: "To say no one could fairly comment flies in the face of human instinct. It suggests no fashion writer could legitimately notice, say, Tammy Faye Bakker's eyelashes. It takes us to task for making the responsible observation that a person in whose hands the presidential election pretty much seemed, at moments, to rest had made some strange choices and was projecting a most unusual image."
In my view, even as a Republican, Overholser is right. But I'll get to that shortly. For now it's interesting to point out that the Post was steamed up on the exactly opposite side of a similar issue earlier in the year. In January Sandra Seegars, the commissioner of the D.C. taxicab service, advised her drivers to avoid "dangerous-looking" black passengers. Seegars defined dangerous as "a young black guy...with his hat on backwards, shirttail hanging down longer than his coat, baggy pants below his underwear and unlaced tennis shoes."
The Post editorial page wasted no time in piledriving Seegars political incorrectness. "Some people have noted that Ms.Seegars is black. That makes her remarks no less distasteful. It's sad that Ms. Seegars, who has lived in [mostly black] southeast Washington for more than 30 years, finds all young black men not neatly dressed to be threatening. It's beyond sad when a public official brands all black young men attired in so-called 'thug-life' dress as dangerous and deserving of discriminatory treatment." The op-ed barely mentioned the reason for Seegars's discrimination: the number of cab drivers in the District who had been murdered by young, slovenly dressed black men.
So: if a Republican female is wearing too much makeup, journalists have every right to take the gloves off - to ask them not to would be against "human instinct" itself. Yet a taxicab driver in Washington who statistically has reason to fear for his life by picking up a young black man who looks like he stepped out of MTV is a disgrace. Still, I can't help but feel that not only is Miss Seegars of the taxi commission is right, but so is Geneva Overholser. Human beings do make judgements on appearances, and journalists from both sides do it.
In my book If It Ain't Got that Swing I make a case for doing just that, including a sartorial indictment of some left-wing protestors I watched one afternoon in Washington. I've run out for a loaf of bread in both sweatpants and a t-shirt and when I'm in a suit after church, and the reaction you get from people - especially the elderly, who remember when women didn't go out in public without gloves - is markedly different. Indeed, it's hard to escape the verdict of the masses. I was at a Christmas party recently when a friend who had never met them pointed out to me who my high school buddies were. I asked her how she did it. Simply, she replied: the way they're dressed. We had all gone to an all-boys Catholic school together, and the habits of getting into a blazer and tie every day had taken. She immediately felt at ease with them: the suits and ties telegraphed that these are accomplished, civilized people.
Yes, she made a judgement.
Further, today the prejudice that many feel is intractable in the heart of America is not as much racial anymore, but about fashion. What the Post, in its pique over Seegars, didn't do was pose a hypothetical that I believe gets to the heart of the matter: Imagine it's late at night, and you've just left a restaurant. You have to pick a side of the street to walk home on. On one side of the street are a group of white kids. They're disheveled, with leather jackets and tattoos. On the other side are a group of young black men dressed in coats and ties, talking quietly amongst themselves. Which side of the street do you walk on?
I honestly believe we are at a point in America where an overwhelming majority of Americans would choose to walk home with the black kids. It's not the fact that the rappers on MTV are black that intimidates us; it's the fact that in their every tone, gesture, and, yes, article of "gangsta" clothing demands no less. Compare the oversized, infantile outfits of these lost men with the regal mien and resplendent suits and dresses of the black jazz musician from earlier eras - the neat suits of Count Basie and Lionel Hampton, the top hat and tails of Duke Ellington, the elegance of Ella and Billie. To a visitor from space, it would seem that over the course of the century America's blacks had gone from great wealth and status to poverty rather than the other way around.
Katherine Harris was wearing a lot of makeup, and the Post ran a funny piece about it. They then strongly defended the piece. It would be nice if they defended the lives of D.C.'s cabbies with the same vigor.