I came to know Eric Garner as "Big E" not long after moving to Staten Island. It happened around 3 a.m. on a mildly lucid evening, when all 6-foot-3, 350-plus pounds of him approached me in the dark with a smile of pure kindness, too disarming to ignore. "You need a loosie, big man?" was his deadpan line. "Big man" -- I couldn't help but laugh. He laughed back when I jokingly asked for an American Spirit loosie. "I thought you Spanish, papi!" he replied between chuckles, a slick little nudge at the racial coding of my favored poison. We ended up laughing every time I ever spoke to him. He was a good person.
The NYPD killed Big E last week, just a few hundred feet from my front door. The day after, on the same block where an NYPD officer choked Big E to death, I stumbled across a small rally, held by supposed community leaders. One of them called for everyone to be patient and act respectably while the NYPD completed its investigation. Another said that Big E's murder happened because the community doesn't vote enough. The crowd turned on the speakers almost immediately; they know how the bigotry that allows a black man to be murdered by cops in broad daylight manages to survive. First there is the bigotry of Big E's murder, and then there is the bigotry of making those affected share the blame for their own persecution. It's the politics of respectability, our collective standard for determining who gets to be a perfect victim and who must be used to keep things as they are and have long been.
Figuring out where the line is requires only a willingness to listen. Sometimes, it's as obvious as the "respectable" non-white class using their platform to tell a mostly non-white community that they themselves are responsible for the state's crimes against them. Other times, it's as obvious as a champion of diversity going on the record about what specific kind of diversity he values. NFL head coach turned NBC analyst Tony Dungy did just that in an interview with Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune.
"I wouldn't have taken him," Dungy said. "Not because I don't believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn't want to deal with all of it. It's not going to be totally smooth ... things will happen."
What Dungy means is that a gay man can be denied a job based on his sexuality, and there ain't a damn thing wrong with that. He does, however, take care to obfuscate his own point by mentioning things that will happen. This is kind of how the passage of time works; things happen. But what are these things? Are these things known, unknown or a known unknown? Who knows? But rest assured, things will happen, and those things will be Michael Sam's fault.
This quote would seem inexplicable from Dungy, given his status as an outspoken advocate for diversity in the notoriously white field of NFL coaching. Just last month, Dungy called out NFL teams for violating the spirit of the Rooney Rule by interviewing non-white candidates for positions that aren't even open. Yet his advocacy on that front does nothing to change the obvious: Tony Dungy believes gay people don't deserve equal rights, which makes him a bigot by definition.
This is not a recent revelation. Back in 2007, while employed as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Dungy accepted a "Friends of the Family" award from the Indiana Family Institute, "a research and educational organization for preserving and restoring the family in the home and in the public square," which is an awful lot of words for "a group that hates gay people." In his acceptance speech, Dungy stated his support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, a view promoted by IFI. More recently, he got called out on Twitter after posting, "I don't agree with Jason Collins' lifestyle." It's a twisted society that gives Dungy a modicum of credit for believing that Collins "deserves respect," but given Dungy's stated religious beliefs as an evangelical Christian, it felt like something resembling incremental progress. People who intertwine their biases with their religion are usually intractable.
Either way, Dungy's comments about Sam demonstrate what happens when you put faith in a bigot's capacity for self-directed progress. What makes Dungy different from and much more powerful than a garden-variety bigot is that not only is he paid to comment on the NFL for a major network, but he enjoys both respect and outright admiration from the public. In a battle for true social progress, the toughest enemies are the ones who enjoy the respect conferred by public support. After all, respectable people are not bigots; ergo, Dungy is not a bigot. Yet our standards for respectability are a sour joke. There is no other explanation for how a bigot can win the broad respect that keeps Dungy safe. He is just like the community leaders who said that Big E's murder by the NYPD is not the NYPD's fault. Their status makes it nearly impossible to defeat the vile ideologies that exist alongside their limited virtues. Thankfully, the rally took a turn when the real community stepped forward and presented a radical solution.
It started when an anonymous local -- around my age, perhaps a bit younger -- snuck past the official speakers and walked confidently to the podium. My paraphrasing won't do his opening line full justice, but it went something like: "I ain't supposed to be up here, but I'm up here, and we're gonna talk about this s--- for real right now." It was instantly the best opening to a speech I've ever heard. Unlike the so-called leaders before him, he spoke of the casual injustices imposed on the Black community, of how Big E's murder demonstrates a desperate need for real change that goes far beyond punishing one or two cops. He then handed the mic to an elderly blind man, held up only by his cane, another local not on the planned list of speakers who came determined to speak his truth anyway. He spoke of a lifetime lived under the pall of anti-Black racism, of his hope that the current generation may be more willing to take on injustice, without feeling the need to parcel out justice only to those who are deemed worthy. The crowd had shouted approval at his younger predecessor, but they mostly remained silent during the older man's speech. On a day already marred by a fresh injustice, the community's solution was to simply snatch the goddamn mic and listen to one another. That's how they defeated the respectable bigots.
Whether the issue is institutionalized, racist violence or the entrenched notion that gay people deserve some rights but not others, the path to beating the respectable bigots is the same. This is why it's worth shouting back the bigotry that Dungy espouses, in the name of a God I'm not familiar with, and why we need to ignore every bit of empty respect attached to Dungy's name. Without his respect, he's just another sad little person whose sympathies extend only as far as his own interests. If that's "respectable," then "respectable" is not something anyone should ever wish to be.
I know Big E wasn't worried about being respectable. He was too busy being a good person.