Last week, my friend and fellow classmate Lamar White Jr. tweeted a pale-toned portrait of Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal. In response, the Governor’s Chief of Staff Kyle Plotkin proclaimed this was not an official portrait and accused White of race-baiting. Many others decidedly weighed in and White’s tweet went viral. Time’s Jack Linshi explained why the whitewashed portrait evoked such a deeply unsettling reaction:
Modern America might be a different place if the distinction between a lighter-skinned Jindal and a darker-skinned Jindal was a mere question of artistic vision. But today, in an age of expanded civil rights, this pick-and-choose attitude toward race has only heightened. The decision whether to dissect or ignore the paint color of Jindal’s portraits is but a small yet important choice among larger, modern issues.
It’s about whether post-9/11 airport security unfairly targets those who appear to be Middle Eastern; whether affirmative action is anti-Asian; whether grand juries would return different decisions if the defendant were not black. At its core, what Plotkin decries as “race-baiting” is question of who has the power to decide when an issue deserves to be investigated in racial terms. Choosing to throw the “race-bait” accusation is simply a convenient disengagement from these issues, all of which are complicated by histories that conflate complexion with race, and race with power.
One-fourth of our college students believe racism is no longer a problem today. Don’t think racial issues exist in our society? Look no further than the Grammy Awards. Since 1959 there have been 795 nominations for the three major performance categories of the Grammy Awards — album of the year, record of the year, and best new artist. Forty-eight percent of nominations are white males, 21 percent are white females, 19 percent are black nominees, and 3 percent are musicians of Latino origins. As for Asians, we are basically invisible.