Thursday, March 21, 2013

Joseph Cassano and The New York Fire Department Discover the Racist "Schwoogie Buzzer" on Twitter

[We are in the twilight of our informal fundraiser here on We Are Respectable Negroes. Folks have been so kind so far. The gestures means a great deal. 

If you are moved to throw some change into the donation bucket, be it one dollar, two, ten, or what have you, I would be grateful and appreciative. I do this for love. I learn so much from all of you and am only encouraged forward by your generosity. I appreciate all of you. I truly do.]

As the genius bard and wordsmith Flavor Flav once asked, "is 911 a joke in your town?"

The son of Sal Cassano, New York City's Fire Commissioner, took to Twitter and shared his less than positive feelings about blacks and Jews. His father game him a public dressing down. Joseph Cassano has been publicly shamed because of his racist stupidity.

Joseph Cassano is one more example of racism in an Internet age of colorblindness: it is online; it is couched as "humor"; and the focus is on the speech act and breaking of public norms about racist behavior as opposed to the deeper structural issues actually involved.

Joseph Cassano's racism is a source of public embarrassment for his father, a man, who to his credit, did not excuse-make for his son. This mistake is also ill-timed. The New York Fire Department is also grappling with its own issues related to diversity and inclusivity, as it is one of the most segregated and white male dominated public institutions in the United States.

Buried in the reporting about Joseph Cassano's bad behavior on Twitter, is an allusion to the fact that he is in a fast-track program intended to recruit people of color and women into the New York Fire Department. Police and fire departments are a bastion of white male power and authority. As we discussed about the Ricci case in New Haven, Connecticut, these public jobs are lucrative, and are seen as almost a type of entitlement or legacy program for the white ethnics who have monopolized them for generations.

On the surface, civil service jobs with the police and fire department are based on a race neutral and gender neutral test. In practice, however, there are many informal systems of recruitment and hiring in effect. Moreover, if being a fire fighter is the "family business," a candidate will likely have access to testing materials and a network of social contacts who can shepherd them through the process.

Because of how fire and police departments have been spaces where gender and racial privilege have helped to structure access and opportunity, history echoes into the present: white men have a de facto, day-to-day advantage in both securing these jobs and in finding success once there. Similar dynamics are at work in the skilled trades where women and racial minorities face systemic obstacles in finding apprenticeships, and being fairly treated once hired.

I have little use for complaint and excuse-making by black and brown candidates for civil service jobs who because of an inability to pass a test cannot secure employment in a given trade. However, the tests which fill a gate-keeping function must actually be predictive of one's ability to do well in a given field. In addition, these exams must be fairly administered to all people. Nepotism and favoritism--and the perks they can provide for those who are juiced in--should be eliminated as variables in the selection process.

Social scientists and others used to talk about "the black tax." This was shorthand for discussing how class and race intersected, so that life is, quite literally, more expensive (for example, paying more at horrible supermarkets which have sub-par food; environmental racism and horrible schools) for people of color, and by implication the poor, in the United States.

Joseph Cassano's joke is a reminder that this dynamic still hold true in the Age of Obama. To point. Do black and brown communities receive worse service from first responders such as fire fighters, EMT's, and police? Are the citizens in poor communities given the same quality of care as their rich and middle class counterparts from public employees? As resources are paired down, the public commons and social safety net are both privatized and eviscerated by the austerity fiends, these are imminently pressing concerns that impact the lives of real people.

Joseph Cassano's failed effort at racial humor online, is also an opportunity to revisit the evolution of racist language. My favorite old school racial slur is "moon cricket." Joseph Cassano's use of the slur "shwoog" was a new one for me. Apparently, "shwoog" is Yiddish for "nigger." You learn new things everyday.

I am huge Howard Stern fan. To be a ghetto nerd, one must, on some level, appreciate his decades-long body of work. Howard is one of the greatest interviewers in radio and TV history. Stern is also one of the most honest voices about race and the colorline in America.

The Stern Show's interview with black voters about voting for Obama in Harlem is priceless. The armchair sociology of King of All Blacks' "guess the race of the garbage game" is yeoman's work. Stern's discussions of a childhood in Roosevelt Queens, as one of the few white kids, in a neighborhood beset by white flight during the 1970s are tragically funny.

Through my decades of following Howard Stern on radio, TV, and online, I became aware of the word "schwoogie." Part of the fun of being a Stern fan is tracking the relationships between the staff and how they have created their own vocabulary and imaginary of shared stories and history. The Stern Show is the equivalent of listening to a group of friends who have known each other for years talking about the good old days and the memories which tie each member of the clique together.

Howard Stern's producer is named Gary Dell'Abatte. The latter worked in a clothing store as a teenager where the manager had installed a buzzer system to alert the staff as to their responsibilities in relation to different customers. Affectionately called "the schwoogie buzzer," Gary's boss would ring it to alert the employees that they should follow black customers around the store in order to "deter" them from theft. The buzzer was a tool for racial profiling. Gary's retelling of the madness which this system--which I embedded above--created is hilarious to me.

Racism is not an opinion or a figment of our collective imaginations. It is real. Like many of you, I can recount being followed around department stores by detectives. My favorite moment involves confronting a plain clothes detective and asking him if I could help him with his task of following around the only two black folks in the store. He turned beat red and skulked off.

I no longer shop at Urban Outfitters because of their clearly racist habit of selectively checking the ID's of customers who want to use a credit card--discretion about the enforcement of what should be blanket and consistent policies is one of the primary means through which colorblind racism operates. And never mind my tale of harassment by the agents of Chicago's virtual police state during the NATO meetings last year.

My hands are not clean on these matters. Perhaps, this explains my ability to laugh at the schwoogie buzzer.

When I was a teenager, I worked for about ten years at a Shell convenience store. My boss was a wonderful Korean American woman who taught me some real lessons about commitment to task and the merits of hard work.One day she called me into her office. She was flustered and in a panic. She explained how a corporate alert was sent out that instructed franchise owners to be alert for a gang of gypsies who were "raiding" convenience stores in a 1990s version of a flash mob. This band of gypsies would swarm down upon a store, strip its shelves bare, and then run away.

I was taken aback and surprised. I was also scared, as images of gypies--we didn't call them Roma then--beating me up filled my imagination. I had a practical concern: I asked my boss what exactly do gypsies look like? Do they wear a uniform or ride in on stagecoaches or horse-drawn wagons? Do they ring bells or dance?

My boss admitted she wasn't sure either. She figured maybe I had a clue. We both shook our heads. The image was worthy of a comedy skit: a middle aged Korean woman asking a teenage black kid what to do about a raid by gypsies in 1990s Connecticut.

Joseph Cassano's Twitter racism is a warning. We know that closet racists exist. Racial micro aggressions are exhausting because they wear you down over time. They are the source of so much anxiety. Many people, most conservatives, a good number of white folks, deny that racism exists in post civil rights America. Then one has the moment of confirmation.

It could be the outing of Joseph Cassanos and college racists on Twitter or elsewhere online.

Maybe it is a lawsuit which uncovered that banks systematically discriminated against minority applicants for mortgages. It can be the substandard care given by white doctors to black and brown folks because the former believes that we have higher pain tolerances, or could perhaps get addicted to pain killers.

Micro aggressions can kill you too when they mate up with implicit racial bias, and thus the white cop who sees a cellphone or candy bar in the hands of a black man magically transformed into a gun, or a juror links black people to images of apes and gorillas and then renders forth the death penalty during a trial.

The closet, backstage racism of Joseph Cassano, and those like him, are the metaphorical shadow people of bigotry and intolerance that people of color (and women, as well as gays and lesbians, in some cases) know is there. We can see him. Others deny that he exists. We are not crazy. We feel his fingers on our shoulders, his breath on our neck, even when he is not there. But, this shadow person is lingering in our peripheral vision. He watches and leers.

Racism is trauma. Black and Brown Americans are suffering a type of PTSD that White American society has never fully owned up to or acknowledged its role in creating. There is a collective moment of surprise and pause when white racism moves from the backstage to the frontstage and is made public for all to see. Black and brown folks, and thinking, aware, white brothers and sisters, can point and say "see we told you so!"

The answer is often "so what, okay you were right, move on, and what is the big deal anyway? You got a black president and that Doctor King guy freed the slaves back in the 1960s. Why are you so damned sensitive anyway?"

Post racial America is grand, is it not?


Daniel Goldberg said...

I was hoping you would post on this, which managed to disgust me even while I imagine myself to be almost beyond surprise at the reach and scope of racism and white privilege in this country.

I particularly like your emphasis on microaggression, as it is something on which I am reading up and thinking about incorporating into my teaching. Working at a regional public university in the upper South, one of the difficulties I face is dislodging students from the habitual belief that racism refers only to plain ol', garden-variety individual blatant forms of prejudice and discrimination, rather than the invidious structural and institutional racism that pervades our society. I am hoping that the concept of microaggression might provide an additional wedge into getting students to consider the hitherto invisible ideas of Whiteness, privilege, and structural racism.

Maybe I should just have them read WARN. :-)

chauncey devega said...

Please don't inflict that assignment on them ;)

Can't wait to share your work here. The lie that racism is blatant and overt is great cover because it allows white folks--and men with sexism, heterosexuals with homophobia etc.--to transfer responsibility and culpability onto those "other people." Much harder than looking in the mirror at one self.

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