Battling Corporate Racial Insensitivity

eBay, the world's largest on line auction service, recently agreed that the racist collectibles they list and sell are offensive to African-Americans and that racially offensive language used to describe them will be prohibited. This was a solid victory in the ancient fight against racist stereotyping.

Though the sale of these items and the use of racially derogatory terms to describe them ignited national protest, some detractors, and that included some blacks, wondered why so much fuss was made about a few harmless objects.

Museums, art houses, and private collectors, including many African-Americans, routinely buy, sell, and swap these items. Jewish groups use Holocaust pictures, films, and Nazi memorabilia to educate the public about the horrors of religious and ethnic genocide. Racist collectibles, then, should be used in the same manner to educate the public about the horrors of America's vile and shameful racist past.

That's true. But eBay is not a museum, art house or private collector. It's a major corporate conglomerate. The sale of racist collectibles with no disclaimer or warning, and with no attempt made to sensitize buyers and sellers to the historic damage these items wreaked on African-Americans was a tragic mix of corporate irresponsibility and racially tinged indifference.

It also reflects the dangerous and mistaken notion that racist collectibles that portray the tom, coon, and mammy image of blacks merely reflect a bygone era when blacks were viciously and publicly racially mugged. And mugged they were. A century ago, newspapers and magazines had great fun ridiculing, lampooning, butchering and assailing blacks in articles and cartoons. They were branded as "lazy," "brutes," "savages," "imbeciles," and "moral degenerates." plantation songs, tales, and slave caricatures were wildly popular up until World War II. The Uncle Remus "darky" character immortalized in Walt Disney's classic, Song of the South, was wildly popular on the screen, in tunes, and in stories. And Quaker Oats continued to peddle the bandanna wearing, fat, dark-skinned mammy image of black womanhood on its pancake boxes until 1989.

But that era is far from past. In the past year, legions of college fraternities have been nailed for holding slave auctions, minstrel shows, and displaying the Confederate flag in front of frat dorms, and for their members sporting the flag on tee shirts. Meanwhile, a lengthening parade of politicians, sports figures, celebrities, and shock radio talk jocks have been called on the carpet for making racist wise cracks, jokes, tongue slips, and flat out slurs of African-Americans. The battle against racist stereotypes in TV and films has been brutal and endless. There's even more fresh evidence that the grotesque racial stereotyping depicted in racist collectibles -- such as Ten Little Nigger Boys, and Nigger in the Woodpile that eBay lists and sells -- is still very much alive.

  • A vendor, purportedly representing the financial conglomerate Bank One at the University of Louisville, gave away t-shirts that read "Ten Reasons Why a Beer is Better than a Black Man." The picture on the t-shirt showed a black woman and child with wildly distorted features.

  • A whites-only sign was plastered over a water fountain at the Dallas County records Building. Despite protests, the sign was not immediately removed.

  • A student panel at the University of Virginia exonerated two fraternities of wrongdoing when guests at their Halloween party donned black face and took racial digs at tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams.

  • Sony Pictures announced an October 2003 release date for the animated film "Lil Pimp." Here's the studio's description of the on-screen escapades of its star, a 9-year old white pimp. "Follow his exploits as he hustles his 'ho's' around the 'hood'." The trailer depicts a black man and black woman with distorted features, and clad in outlandish attire.

  • A regular guest on a popular network TV variety show called a black dance performer, "a hip hop monkey." There were no fan protests and no apology from the producers.

While eBay publicly agreed that some racist collectibles, and the cavalier use of "nigger" and other racially objectionable terms used to describe and promote them on its website are racially damaging, other on-line auction sellers haven't. Yahoo, for instance, bans Klan and Nazi memorabilia and other racist items that promote or glorify hatred. Yet it still continues to sell, with no disclaimers, racist collectibles described in racially offensive terms.

That eBay listed and sold racist collectibles with no guide to the severe harm that they have caused was a disturbing warning that part of America's hideous racist past is anything but past. And that corporations can and must do everything they can to help bury that past. The eBay campaign challenged them to do just that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion Web site: He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).

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