Commentary

Keeping Racism Alive

What do Philly cheesesteak maker Joseph Groh and Southwest flight attendant Jennifer Cundiff have in common? Both have made the news over blindsiding accusations of racism that seem to have come out of, well, let’s just say nowhere sensible.

The crimes? Groh landed in hot water when an astute West Philadelphian suddenly noticed the name of Groh’s 55-year-old cheesesteak establishment, “Chink’s Steaks,” and decided the appellation was an Asian-American slur. Never mind that Groh inherited the name from the restaurant’s now-deceased founder, Samuel Sherman, a Jewish man whose childhood nickname of “Chink” was so much part of his identity that it even appears on his gravestone. And never mind that there is no connection between Chink’s Steaks and anything or anyone Asian-American. Nonetheless, the classic cheeseteak joint’s coincidental commonality with an old ethnic slur has been enough to raise the ire of the Anti-Defamation League and elicit demands for a name change lest local Asian Americans be offended.

Jennifer Cundiff’s transgression, meanwhile, stemmed from the flight attendant’s playful attempts to get the attention of her passengers. On a crowded Southwest flight waiting to take off from Las Vegas, Cundiff urged her passengers to sit down. “Eeenie, meenie, minie, moe; pick a seat we gotta go,” she said over the plane’s intercom. Two black passengers interpreted the clumsy rhyme as racist discrimination, saying they immediately thought of the racist version of the old verse in which the first line is followed by the phrase “catch a n——-r by the toe.”

In a model of profound overreaction, the passengers sued Southwest over Cundiff’s remarks. But a federal jury found the airline not guilty of discrimination. The 22-year-old Cundiff, for her part, said she had never even heard the racist version of the counting rhyme, which indeed has many innocent variations that include chickens, tinkers, and tigers, among other things. The passengers, however, insist justice was not done because the jury was all white.

Together, the Groh and Cundiff controversies say something about the state of racism in the U.S. today. For one thing, both situations highlight the encouraging fact that racism has declined to such a degree that those who are intent on routing out modern instances of the scourge have to resort to some fairly extensive searching and some awfully creative reasoning to find their culprits.

It would simply never cross most Philadelphians’ minds that there was anything racist about Chink’s Steaks, because the ethnic Asian slur is such a rare occurrence in common parlance these days that the association would not likely occur to most people. Similarly, Americans of Cundiff’s generation aren’t even aware of racist versions of old rhymes and songs. When they’re reciting counting rhymes, today’s young people are thinking of numbers (or, in Cundiff’s case, of getting passengers’ behinds in their chairs), not of race or ethnicity.

Indeed, it seems racism might finally be on its way to dying a rather peaceful death in America if it weren’t for hypersensitive individuals, such as the cheesesteak police and the touchy Southwest passengers, who insist on keeping it alive by inventing reasons to become offended and cast blame. Who is really doing more to promote the autonomy and equality of all individuals? The majority of America, which is content to move ahead with a racially neutral approach to life, or the vocal minority that insists on dredging up racist history again and again so that racism is an inescapable part of modern existence?

We have come a long way from the deplorable days when the government assigned people more or less rights depending on their race. That people today are generally judged on their own merits as individuals and most of us don’t dwell on race at all is a victory. But until extremists desist in their efforts to manufacture a racist controversy out of innocent everyday goings on, it will be a victory only half won, for race, rather than individuals, will reign as a constant focus.

Until they were absurdly charged with discrimination, race was probably the last thing on busy Joseph Groh and Jennifer Cundiff’s minds. Now, it’s hard to believe they will be able to think about much else.

The race-obsessed have managed, once again, to keep racism alive.

David E. Bernstein is a professor of law at George Mason University and the author of You Can’t Say That! The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Anti-Discrimination Laws (Cato Institute, 2003).