John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University
One of the most disgusting photographs I have ever known was the one in 2000 of then New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman. She was riding along on a cop call; when a black man was detained, the cops invited her to take a turn at frisking the man. In the picture, Whitman is heartily grinning for the camera as she frisks—or really, “frisks”—this human being, as if she had caught a massive salmon, as if this were some kind of sport.
I’m not one for using occasions like that to deem someone a racist, but the photo was starkly and appallingly tone-deaf. That photo is of someone ignoring the ignoble history of American law enforcement and its effects on black people, ignoring that excessive profiling—as hot an issue in 2000 as it is today—is a keystone scourge of black communities, ignoring that quite a few criminals have mental health problems, or are truly desperate, or are otherwise victims of circumstances beyond their control.
Apparently we are to have the same kinds of feelings about a new photo: Ellen DeGeneres’ photoshopping of herself in a tweet as riding Usain Bolt’s back, captioned with “This is how I’m running errands from now on.” DeGeneres, we are told, is implying that a black person’s proper place is as some kind of pack animal.
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