It was a misunderstanding, all right. And don’t expect any understanding to result from it.
Thank God the FBI found no substantial evidence that Wallace was being terrorized with a symbol of hate. Still, even after the investigation, there are more questions than answers. Authorities may have ruled out what NASCAR initially deemed a “heinous act,” but in no way does that absolve those who still have extreme animosity toward the sport’s only top-level African American driver for using his influence to persuade the sport to ban the Confederate flag.
Some have tried to compare Bubba Wallace to actor Jussie Smollett, who allegedly staged an assault last year. Some celebrated by nicknaming him “Bubba Smollett,” an embarrassing false equivalence. Whatever happened here, it didn’t occur because Wallace was seeking to be a victim. There is no evidence of deception on his part. His name was pulled into this mess because a Richard Petty Motorsports team member found a noose in the garage and reported it up the chain of command. Everyone involved — seasoned professionals who know garages like they know their names — found it troubling, so troubling that NASCAR released a statement Sunday night vowing to “identify the person(s) responsible and eliminate them from the sport.”
NASCAR had little rational incentive to be so forthcoming unless it had a strong sense that something bad had happened. It also had little rational incentive to do so without multiple highly informed opinions that the knotted rope was not merely a garage pull.
“I’ve been racing all my life,” Wallace said Tuesday night during a CNN interview with Don Lemon. “We’ve raced out of hundreds of garages that never had garage pulls like that."
A joint statement from U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town and FBI Special Agent Johnnie Sharp Jr. used the term “noose” three times. In its statement, NASCAR called it a “garage pull rope fashioned like a noose.” Later, in an interview with reporters, NASCAR President Steve Phelps said the sport will continue its own investigation, focusing on why the rope so eerily resembled a noose.
Now, allow me to be vulnerable for a bit. I wrote a strong column denouncing hate immediately following NASCAR’s announcement that it believed it had a disturbing situation at Talladega Superspeedway. I’m thrilled the Wallace situation doesn’t appear to be a hate crime. I’m not sorry for quickly and forcefully condemning what NASCAR itself presented as suspected racism.
I’ll tell you the thing I do regret, however. After my first Wallace column, a 62-year-old woman wrote a thoughtful email that included her disappointment that I used the general phrasing “white Southerners” instead of the more specific “some white Southerners” in describing people who shamefully have kept the Confederate flag on display this long. She is a proud white Southerner who abhors that flag, and she wanted all textures of the South to be represented. Specifically, she wanted to be seen as an individual. As a human. Her criticism was absolutely correct, and I wrote to tell her so. I promised to do better.
The point of that story is to emphasize humanity. America has a heartbreaking problem with dehumanization.
We put too much power in symbols and institutions, which has a way of turning us all into faceless nobodies distinguishable only by superficial traits such as skin color. Just to get beyond the surface of racism, we first have to cure this instinct to dehumanize, this inclination to draw conclusions from appearances. I’m guilty of falling into the trap. Everyone is. Few recognize it until they are the victim.
So the strong reaction to the turn in this noose story makes sense. Some of it — the celebratory responses and taunting of Wallace and others like me who shouted down perceived racism — is almost as disturbing to me as the noose accusation. But it’s very human and rooted in the frustration of not receiving the benefit of the doubt.
For certain, before the investigation’s conclusions, a faction including Alabamians, white Confederate flag-toting Southerners, employees at Talladega and people throughout NASCAR felt labeled and targeted even though they weren’t actual suspects. They felt like criminals. They felt faceless, unseen. They wondered why people were treating them like savages without getting to know them. Sound familiar?
That surely felt unfair, like part of America was rushing to judgment before knowing the whole story. Surely that made some people angry.
That feeling lasted for about 40 hours. Black people in America have felt it for more than 400 years.
Delve into the particulars, and the two sides are not the same, not in mission or morality. Not even close. But we all want to be seen in full, as vibrant individuals whose character, intentions and complexity should be cherished above all else.
At its core, Black Lives Matter is a movement screaming for the dehumanization to stop because, for us, this feeling of disposability comes with the fear of senseless death. It is a relief that the FBI doesn’t think someone tried to threaten Wallace. But as his mother claimed, Wallace has experienced plenty of racism during his racing career. Her long-standing concern for her son remains valid despite one of the threats appearing to be a misunderstanding.
For rushing to support Wallace and attack the “heritage, not hate” myth of Confederate flag defenders, someone wrote to say, “You are less than a man.” After the FBI’s findings, another declared, “You’re upset that this country doesn’t actually have a racism problem.”
And then there is this revelation from earlier Tuesday: Dustin Skinner, the 35-year-old son of former NASCAR driver Mike Skinner, posted some violent words about Wallace on Facebook.
Wrote the son with great venom and questionable grammar: “my hat is off to who put the noose at his car. frankly, I wish they would of tied it too him and drug him around the pits because he has single-handedly destroyed what I grew up watching and cared about for 30 years now. I will not watch this sport anymore and that’s sad.”
The son later apologized. His father made a couple of attempts at apologizing, too. But this was not a misunderstanding. This was the elevation of hatred to an appalling level of wickedness.
Dustin Skinner would like you to know his hateful words were “not about race at all.” So what was it about? The inability to see the Confederate flag at a race? That provokes a desire to tie a man in a noose and drag him?
Of course, not every person wanting to preserve that flag belongs in the same category as this hostile young man. That’s important to make clear. But this wild ordeal validates why NASCAR finally abolished the symbol.
It’s poisonous. As those flag-obsessed protesters paraded around outside Talladega on Sunday, it created the atmosphere for this epic misunderstanding. And it reconnected us to The Misunderstanding: Racism.
Think about the noose in the garage again. What do you see?
What do you want to see?
Why do we live like this?