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Why I wrote 'If Michael Vick were white'

By Touré, Special to CNN
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ESPN under fire for 'White Vick' image
  • Touré gives background on ESPN story on Michael Vick
  • Story layout features photo of a white Michael Vick, which Touré criticizes
  • Touré notes he has no control over headlines, images used with his writing
  • ESPN magazine editor makes his case for altering the photo

Editor's note: Touré is a contributor to MSNBC and the author of the forthcoming book "Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? A Look At What It Means To Be Black Now" (Free Press).

(CNN) -- When ESPN asked me to write about Michael Vick I knew they didn't want me to write about football. I love football but there are many people far more insightful and experienced than me in their database. Plus I wanted to write about the Vick meme -- the ideas around Vick, especially the social and/or racial ideas around him. And just that week on Twitter there'd been a brief argument about Eminem.

Someone asked if Eminem would be where he is if he were black. Undoubtedly Eminem's whiteness has propelled him, because it separates him from the vast majority of MCs while also likening him to the overwhelming majority of the music-buying public and the music media. That said, it's unknowable what a "black Eminem" would rhyme like and what he would rhyme about, because every moment of his life would be different, so who would that man be? Is it possible that this hypothetical black Eminem could be a better and more popular MC than the white one? Sure.

Unlikely to be more popular, Eminem's the best-selling rapper of all time, but maybe if he rhymes better, then who knows? But the real point is that this test, this thought experiment so many people like to do these days, where we switch someone's race to test whether a given situation is racist without changing any other aspect of that person's life, is too naïve and simplistic to be taken seriously. The character, the mind and the rhyming ability of a black Eminem is simply unknowable and the test itself fails to take into account that race impacts every moment and every aspect of your life, thus making the racial switch test silly and moot and unable to truly tell us anything.

Take a look at the ESPN layout of the Vick story (PDF)

Tonight somewhere in America two men will be arrested for DUI. Many people get arrested for this every day. Surely some will be black and some will be white. Does the fact that people of both races will be arrested for this prove that it's not a racial situation? No. Does the ratio of those arrests as compared to the population perhaps prove that it is in fact a racial situation? Sure, but almost every situation is racialized.

'White Michael Vick' photo controversy

One black driver may be arrested because the police who notice him are hypersensitive to black drivers in BMWs, so he's the victim of Driving While Black even though it turns out that he also had a little too much to drink. Meanwhile maybe another black driver is swerving and it's obvious he's a problem before the officers can clearly see his face. The point is race is too nuanced to be looked at in a simplistic way. And this "switch test" should be discredited and thrown out.

That was the initial guiding force for me behind my Michael Vick piece. I recall people wondering if he would have gotten the penalty he did if he were a white star athlete. Many say he would not, he would have gotten a slap on the wrist. I respect their position and disagree. I think dog killing is considered heinous, frightening and disgusting by most Americans. Many put dog killing on a moral level with harming a human toddler.

So I think Tom Brady or some other white star athlete would have ended up with a similar fate. Some have pointed to Ben Roethlisberger not being charged for rape after an incident in Georgia in 2010, but then conveniently forget that Kobe Bryant was also charged with rape in a case that went away. Both these situations are impossible to judge from a bird's-eye view. We must dig into the details to understand why they both got away from alleged crimes and not simply say they got off because of their race, end of story.

Am I saying that we're in a post-racial society and race no longer matters? Absolutely not. "Post-racial" is a meaningless term that people who have a sophisticated understanding of race do not use without an ironic smirk. I hate that dumb term and am dismayed at the number of people who think it's indicative of modern America. It is not. Race still matters. But I think nowadays it often matters, or comes into play, in ways that are more subtle or nuanced than we care to admit.

These are some of the ideas I brought to writing my Vick story. How did race interact with him getting to the point in his life where he was able to kill dogs? Surely race was part of the story before he was arrested and sentenced. It didn't just show up then. I thought for certain the massive moral failing that was displayed in Vick's ability to kill dogs was wrapped up in his not having a positive paternal influence from his father, something that too many black men of our generation have had to deal with, which leads us to construct manhood on our own. Some manage to do that well, some do not.

I also thought that even though dog fighting is a multiracial endeavor, Vick's multiclass life, which is seen in many black athletes, is a big part of what conspired to bring him down. The man grows up working class in a community where dog fighting is so common it becomes normalized to him. Then he quickly leaps to the upper class while naturally maintaining close working-class ties. So he's got the money and will to build a dog-fighting mill that's larger than the vast majority of them because this is what he was taught to do for fun, but now he's got the money to really do it big. Meanwhile his cousin, who's a friend, is still selling weed in the 'hood. That's a problem just waiting to happen. The cousin got arrested and Vick inevitably went down, too. Perhaps a smaller dog-fighting mill would have gone unnoticed by a police search for marijuana, but the monstrosity that rich Vick was able to construct was impossible to not notice.

This is what I set out to discuss in my Vick article. I also wanted to discuss some of my football observations, but ESPN was less interested in that, perhaps rightly so. As is typical in the magazine business, a writer hands in his copy and then it goes through an editing process. We knew it was a complex piece and worked on it very carefully, wanting to get it right, not wanting to offend. But the writer does not have a say in the title or the artwork that goes with a piece. I've been writing for magazines and newspapers for almost 20 years and I can't recall ever being asked about or even knowing about the title and the art surrounding my stories. That is not considered the magazine writer's purview. So I had no knowledge of or say in the title of the story and the horrific, misguided picture of Vick in whiteface, which dismayed and disgusted me when I saw it.

I think careful readers will note that the story and the image don't really interact. They're like two people who kinda know about each other but don't really know each other. But this has happened to me before.

In the book world you title your books, but you have no say in the book cover. In my first book, a collection of short stories called "The Portable Promised Land," I wrote a short story about a basketball player with Air Jordans that let him fly short distances. He was named Falcon Malone.

When I got my finished book cover there was a painted image of a man with what looked like a chicken on his shoulder. I asked my editor why there was a chicken on his shoulder. He said that was supposed to be a falcon. I said, "But there are no flying birds of any sort in any of these stories. I wrote about a man nicknamed Falcon." He shrugged.

CNN asked ESPN the Magazine to respond to the controversy about the photo. Here's what editor-in-chief Chad Millman wrote:

This past January we decided to dedicate our entire NFL preview issue to Michael Vick. His story, from All-Pro to inmate and back, had transcended the boundaries of the field and become a flashpoint of conversation. It incorporated sports, society, morality, forgiveness and, yes, race. Among the many questions asked when discussing his crime and punishment -- How could he do such a thing? Should he be allowed to play again? Could he ever play again? -- was, would he have been punished as severely if he were white?

It's hard to ignore the topic in a fully realized examination of Vick and his impact. As the senior editor of the piece, Raina Kelley, pointed out on CNN, rather than use vague arguments that skirt the issue, we chose to address it head on. First in a thoughtful essay by Toure. And, just as important for a magazine, with art that lent power to the concept. In the past, designers have challenged readers to consider their views on race by portraying a black Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II. We had several conversations about how to support the essay with imagery that made people think as much as the words did. Ultimately the resulting treatment felt like the strongest way to answer the question so many have been asking.

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