No matter how you parse it, Incognito is a bully and Cobb is a white supremacist.
Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (68) and tackle Jonathan Martin (71) look over plays during the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, August 24, 2013 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
They’re curiously phrased, those expressions of sympathy by Miami Dolphins players who have lined up to defend left guard Richie Incognito’s violent behavior toward his teammate, offensive lineman Jonathan Martin. Incognito achieved particular notoriety recently for directing a hefty wet stream of racialized epithets at Martin. (“Hey, wassup, you half-[n-word] piece of [expletive]…[I’m going to] slap your real mother across the face…. I’ll kill you!”) This bullying was so relentless that Martin decided to resign from the NFL.
Despite Incognito’s extensive history of brutality (he was elected “dirtiest player” in the league), a significant number of black and white teammates have rallied around him as an “honorary” black man, incapable of racism. Incognito, it has been proffered, had merely “messed” with Martin as one would a “little brother.” Martin, by contrast, the genteel, sweater-vested Stanford classics major, has been depicted as “not really black” because he’s somehow too “soft” to stand up to a bit of friendly hazing. Most intriguing, he’s been painted as a reverse racist for even complaining.
There are those who swear that all this has nothing to do with race. Says a sports-obsessed friend: “It’s a club. Like the Thin Blue Line. Omertà…. The difference is, [Incognito] used the n-word. The others are coming to his rescue because they know that that’s the only thing that distinguishes his bad behavior from theirs.” Yet whatever the dynamic, the main actors have deployed the signifying power of the language of race. They have done so, moreover, in a way that would seem to scramble the borders of identity—white is black, black is white, we are all n-words now, kumbaya! Some have found in this a weirdly soothing promise of a “postracial” society. But I worry that what is actually happening is a not so subtle reinforcement of racism’s slippery power to reinscribe social hierarchy, even while denying its very existence.
Racism is malleable; it is always changing its clothing. If we do not speak of it in exactly the same way we did thirty or forty years ago, it helps to remind ourselves that it has always been a mash-up of multiple forms of intolerance—i.e., racism, class bias, insider-outsider. The precise proportions may shift over time, but the alignments of Incognito’s pseudo-blackness with threatening behavior and Martin’s pseudo-whiteness with being threatened is a persistently re-emerging metric.