I was riding in a car through downtown Richmond a couple of months ago when something odd happened. The radio was tuned to a local “urban” station, and one of the morning DJs was chatting about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. He went through the usual drill. Great man, accomplished great things for all people, not just blacks, martyred for a just cause. Y’know, good stuff like that. Then he said something really strange.

So in case you forgot, today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. And remember, there’s no “f” in birthday.

I stared down at the tuner. I wouldn’t say I was shocked, really, but the statement certainly caught my attention. I know what he meant. It was a black DJ, on a black station, talking to what he knew was a largely black listening audience, many of whom I know from personal experience here in Richmond do, in fact, say birthday with an f. As in birfday.

Kind of like axe instead of ask. Or W’s favorite, nucular instead of nuclear.

So there was no doubt in my mind what he was getting at. It just struck me as a little unseemly for the DJ to broadcast this arguably racist message over the airwaves.

I say “arguably” because the DJ was black, and there’s generally a reluctance to ascribe racist motives to words spoken within a race. Indeed, the law once recognized a universal presumption that an employer’s adverse action towards an employee was not discriminatory if the employer and employee were of the same race. This judicial “prejudice against prejudice” has been relaxed somewhat in recent years, as well it should be. Anyone who has heard Chris Rock’s “Black People and N***s” routine knows full well that an African-American is just as capable of being prejudiced against his own race as anyone else.

Still, I didn’t get the sense that the DJ was trying to be racist. If anything, he was chastising the knuckleheads out there who, by their conduct, make it difficult for their fellow African-Americans to be treated fairly and equally. But it seemed OK to me at the time because, after all, they were his knuckleheads. Like if I made some catty comment about the polyester curtains in a double-wide trailer back at the farm in Stony Point.

The truth of this idea became all the more apparent when I imagined the very same “birfday” comment coming out of the mouth of, say, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, or anyone on the Fox “News” Network.

Yep, racist.

“Why is that?” I rhetorically asked myself. Well, probably because it would have been racist, which is to say, spoken with deliberate racist intent. Those people, and that network, have demonstrated a willingness to bend the truth to push their conservative agenda, together with an almost knee-jerk condemnation of anything addressing racial or social issues. At least that’s the way I see it.

Obviously, then, track record matters. So, too, does race. Limbaugh and O’Reilly are white, Fox News almost comically so (even the black ones). This can’t help but have an impact on my perception of the intent used in making the statement. Had the “birfday” comment come from Clarence Thomas, an equally hard-line conservative, I doubt I would have thought it racist, or at least not as racist as the Limbaugh/O’Reilly version. Just like Chris Rock, I would probably have given Clarence the benefit of the doubt.

Unfair? Perhaps. True? Definitely.

As I am prone to do, however, I sat and thought about this for a while. A good long while. Pondered, actually, now that you mention it. And I wondered.

Was it unfair? Really? Was there something inherently unjust about basing my two opposing reactions to the “birfday” comment solely on the race of the person making the statement?

When I asked myself the question that way, I had one of those “Eureka” moments, like Alec Baldwin in Hunt for Red October answering his own question by asking “How do you get a crew to want to get off a nuclear submarine?”

There, the key word was “nuclear.” Here, it was “solely.” Because it was obvious when I thought about it that I wasn’t evaluating the “birfday” comment differently based solely on the race of the speaker, but rather one those characteristics that I associated, intentionally or otherwise, with each particular race. And here we get into signaling theory.

A game theoretic notion most closely associated with evolutionary biology, signaling theory is based on the idea that each of us gives off signals. Actions, responses, states of being, whatever. These signals, in turn, convey information about us, who we are, to those around us. Some of these signals may provide accurate information (“honest signals”). Some may not. But even a dishonest signal, properly interpreted, may convey as much or more information than a straightforward, honest signal.

Similarly, some signals may be easily altered or manipulated by the signalor, while others may not. The higher the cost of manipulation, the less likely such manipulation will occur, and hence the more reliable the signal. Signals such as race are deemed immutable. Short of an Eddie Murphy skit, there is no way for a signalor to change his actual race, and he will be left instead with efforts to change the appearance of his race or his underlying behavior if he wishes to engage in such manipulation (also known as “passing”).

So how good a signal is race? Pretty bad, actually, at least as used by many people in the United States. Weighed down with stereotypes, historical baggage, and personal prejudice, the racism signal is, I would venture to say, used irrationally to an alarming degree by many members of society.

Another word for this irrational signaling behavior is racism.

But for those who care to do so, that very irrationality can be factored into the analysis to make the race signal a better rational predictor. I know, for example, that someone with this particular signal, i.e. black skin, is more likely to have experienced irrational discriminatory behavior than I have (a safe bet). And while such an individual’s learned set of social behaviors may differ from mine (a less safe bet), I at least have the benefit of my past eight months of experience in an eye-openingly different cultural environment to sharpen my analysis.

I also have the benefit of my own tour of duty as an oppressed minority several years ago, one which tells me that I am better-suited than your typical straight white male to: (1) evaluate ambiguously homophobic comments, such as nellie queen, tag hag, flamer, or queer; and (2) use such close-to-the-line comments in an appropriate manner.

So taking all this into account, my answer is this. Perceiving the “birfday” comment as conditionally discriminatory depending on the race of the speaker was not unfair in any reasonable sense of the word. I rationally determined that a black speaker, who probably brings to the table a better understanding of the racial context of the statement, as well as a more well-developed ability to deliver such a comment in a non-inflammatory manner, would be less likely than a white speaker to have made the statement in a racially motivated way. Those like Messrs. Limbaugh and O’Reilly, who would like to say such arguably racist comments with absolute impunity, would no doubt cry foul, and that is their right.

But they would be wrong. And irrational, to boot.

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