Racial Discrimation in the DC LGBT Community: A Game of Cards

Last night I attended a panel discussion about racial discrimination in the DC gay bar scene, put together by the Rainbow History Project. (The discussion was held in the Thurgood Marshall Center, that had formerly served as the “Colored” YMCA back in the day; Langston Hughes used to room there).

Thurgood Marshall Center/ 12th Street YMCA
Thurgood Marshall Center/ 12th Street YMCA

Many bars and clubs used the practice of “carding” to deny entrance to African-Americans, transgender people and women. “Carding”  = demanding multiple forms of I.D. for one set of customers, while the desired demographic gets to enter with only one (driver’s license).  One  bar, the Lost and Found, was sued over this practice and the court testimony included bar employees recounting a staff meeting where they were instructed not to serve “n*ggers.” Another club, Badlands, reached a settlement after that accusation. Eventually a law was passed whereby drivers/ non-drivers licenses were the only required identifications needed to enter bars. Many of the panelists and the audience members also recounted their experiences in those days. One older gentleman said that he would be let in when accompanied by white friends, but would be denied entrance when he was in a group of fellow African Americans.

The inside of the Lost and Found, courtesy of the Rainbow History Project digital archives
The inside of the Lost and Found, courtesy of the Rainbow History Project digital archives

A few years ago, I was on an online forum where a couple of white gay men were talking about how Black Pride festivals were “reverse racist.” When I brought up the issue of “carding,” they all vehemently denied the mere possibility of such a practice. Before leaving the forum, I posted a link to the article that showed that such things happen even today.

H.P. Hatecraft: On Nepenthe and N*ggers

 

by Emily Balivet
by Emily Balivet

The first H.P. Lovecraft story I read was “The Outsider.” It was, and still is, a fine piece of work. It’s a poetic tale about an introvert who touches a dark “eidolon,” drinks the elixir of “nepenthe” and then joins the ghastly beings who live in the nooks and crannies of time and space. “The Outsiders” is, in addition to a horror story, a mediation on isolation and loneliness. As a closeted student in a mostly white high school, I felt like an outsider myself, and wanted to ride with the ghouls in the chilly, beautiful vistas of other dimensions.

Then I read the next story in the collection, “The Rats in the Walls.” I never finished it, because the narrator had a cat, called “Niggerman.” I have never read any other Lovecraft afterwards. I later found out that Lovecraft was a racist and anti-semite of the highest order, who subscribed to the pseudoscience of eugenics. Lovecraft wrote a poem that is practically talismanic for the White Supremacist crowd, called “On the Creation of Niggers.” Black people, like myself, are described in other stories as being bestial and like gorillas. Apologists will say that Lovecraft was a product of his time. To which I say, no. There were white progressives back then, and white people who even married black people.

I came back to “The Outsiders,” years later, and realized that there is an allegory there. Lovecraft, like the narrator of the story, lived alone in a castle of fear and hatred. He only found kinship with the ghouls and shades in an alternate universe. And what are racists, except ghouls and shades that hide out in some alternate universe where non-whites are subhuman? White Supremacy is the ultimate nepenthe.

*There is a character in the New Scooby Doo Adventures named H.P. Hatecraft.

Gaslighting Racism: A parable

Internet comments on articles are where many ideological battles are fought these days, and in spite of the admonishment, “don’t read the comments,” I keep doing so anyway, out of a morbid curiosity. In the post Zimmerman trial articles, I find one persistent idea put forth, mostly by trolls, but some genuine folks actually believe this idea, as well. It’s the idea that racism is an illusory specter that doggedly haunts black people. In the age of Oprah and Obama, racism shriveled up and black people just have a collective chip on their shoulders. We’ve heard such sentiments phrased in a myriad of ways. They range from accusations of “playing the race card” to “black people are the true racists because they only see race.” This belief occasionally comes from black folks themselves—see Ward Connerly and Clarence Thomas.

racecard

The most insidious form of this sentiment comes in the form of gas lighting racism. This is where (mostly) (some) white people will twist themselves into logic pretzels to deny racism, even when it is obvious. The first time I experienced this was when I was in college. I was a part of an anti-discrimination task force made up of students, faculty and staff. The point of the task force was to examine racial issues from our respective spheres, and then report them and make recommendations to the college. As a member of the task force, we were given access to the historical records of the college. I discovered that there had been a cross burning in front of an on-campus house full of black students in the 70s.

I remember relaying this information one time at lunch. One white girl, who was very sweet, began to come up with a series of bizarre reasons why a cross burning couldn’t possibly be racial. One of them was, “Maybe they were pagans.” And it was just coincidental that the burning cross was in front of where a group of black students lived. At the time, I was stunned. Somewhere along the line, I came to realize that to some white people, even overt racism is a thing of the past and black people are just over-sensitive and over-emotional. This attitude—of ‘gas lighting’ racist incidents—was just the first of many that I’ve experienced.

I have come realize that when people say, “I don’t see race,” they mean, “I don’t see racism.” It’s difficult, because often the people who do such ‘gas lighting’ are good, well-intentioned people.

The enduring influence of “academic” racism

Back in the early 90s I worked in a bookstore—one of the now defunct “superstore” chains. The store was located in Bethesda, on the border of Rockville, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. That area was then mostly populated by people who had participated in the “White Flight” migration of DC proper, leaving the District as a mostly black and, in three quadrants, lower middle class to poor city. At that time, The Bell Curve was published was a ‘controversial’ bestseller, rare for an academic book. (Bestsellers at that time included a diet cookbook written by Oprah’s personal chef and the first Dr. Laura self-help book). The clientele of the store was privileged, not only in material wealth, but also in attitude. Customer service and dealing with the public can be challenging and I have my share of war stories.

One particular story involves The Bell Curve. Having read Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man in college, in addition to being aware of the media storm that surrounded the book, I knew that it was pseudoscientific claptrap. An elderly woman sidled up to the Information Desk where I had been stationed. I was the only person not helping a customer, so she deigned to engage me.
“Excuse me, young man,” she said. “Do you know where the book The Bell Curve is?”
There was a stack of the book at the front of the store. I was about to show her where the requested book was, but she interrupted me: “That’s spelled ‘B-E-L-L space C-U-R-V-E.”
Did I hear that right? Did that patrician doyenne actually spell out the title for me, as if I were an illiterate, ignoble savage?
I would love to tell you that I went all Sarcastic Darky on her, shuffled over to the book, and said “Yes ma’am. De books be here. I ‘preciate you spellin it out fuh me. I’se not too good wit de letters!’
Alas, I did not. I needed the job, so I silently pointed her to the stack of books.

The allure of that book, which has been thoroughly debunked, still reigns supreme among the fringes in the Age of Obama. I see its influence in the circles where I associate. Most recently, the gay writer Andrew Sullivan gave credence, once again to the research of differences between the races and opined that racial differences were not unlike the difference between various dog breeds. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Association, an professional organization of genre writers (of which I am not a member) has been relentless attack by a member who subscribes to the theories laid out in the book (ostensibly to drum up interest in his mediocre fantasy fiction).

The point of my anecdote is show how such poisonous theories manifest in the real world. It isn’t about ‘censoring’ intellectual curiosity, which seems to be Sullivan’s interest in prolonging discussions about race. Rather, it is grist for the racist mill, a justification for treating people of color rudely. It isn’t a coincidence that the mediocre author is boorish and nasty in his attacks. Back in 2011, a principal who subscribed to white supremacist doctrines was unmasked, after spending years catering to a mostly minority population.

My anecdote at the bookstore is mostly humorous. Other people’s direct contact with this vile form racism is serious, and has lasting effects.

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