Vanity Fair made it official. Tiger is now a member in good standing in the pantheon of gang banging, drive by shooting, menacing, thug life, sexually on the make, young black males. At least that's what the lengthy pack of Tiger bashers quickly branded the pumping iron, buffed, ghetto trademark ski cap wearing Tiger that ungraces the cover of Vanity Fair. They and a handful of black commentators gloated that the magazine dumped on Tiger something that Tiger allegedly spent the better part of a decade fleeing in horror from, namely his blackness. The nonsensical talk of Calabanasian, as he coined his mixed-race (Caucasian, black, Native American and Asian) heritage, and his public duck and dodge of any identification with black causes, supposedly was final proof that Tiger had danced down the OJ Simpson path, and of course, we know what happened to him. The Tiger baiters bet that now that he's been scorned, trashed, and battered by corporate, and Golf World America he'll suddenly have an OJ racial epiphany.
Any other time, the Vanity Fair shot would be laughed away or shrugged off as just fun and games stuff. It would do little to change the universal perception of the carefully honed Wheaties Box, wholesome, image of the Golf World's reigning superstar. Indeed, when the photo was snapped in 2006, the devoted family man, clean Gene image of Tiger was still deeply frozen in the public's psyche. The parade of porn figures, lap dancers, cocktail waitresses, and call girls who allegedly wound up in Tiger's lair have rendered that image laughable, even pitiable. That makes the Vanity Fair cover thug life looking Tiger totally believable.
Still, the Tiger as racial martyr, closet thug, and America's new racial bad boy is silly stuff. The racial stereotypes that the Vanity Fair-Tiger shot reinforces is not. It's the shortest of short steps to think that if a fallen from the perch Tiger can be depicted as a caricature of the terrifying image that much of the public still harbors about young black males, then that image seems real, even more terrifying, and the consequences are just as dangerous.
The thought was that Obama's election buried once and for all negative racial typecasting and the perennial threat racial stereotypes posed to the safety and well-being of black males. It did no such thing. Immediately after Obama's election teams of researchers from several major universities found that many of the old stereotypes about poverty and crime and blacks remained just as frozen in time. The study found that much of the public still perceived those most likely to commit crimes are poor, jobless and black. The study did more than affirm that race and poverty and crime were firmly rammed together in the public mind. It also showed that once the stereotype is planted, it's virtually impossible to root out. That's hardly new either.
In 2003 Penn State University researchers conducted a landmark study on the tie between crime and public perceptions of who is most likely to commit crime. The study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crime. This was no surprise given the relentless media depictions of young blacks as dysfunctional, dope peddling, gang bangers and drive by shooters. The Penn State study found that even when blacks didn't commit a specific crime, whites still misidentified the perpetrator as an African-American.
Five years later university researchers wanted to see if that stereotype still held sway, even as white voters were near unanimous that race made difference in whether they would or did vote for Obama. Researchers still found public attitudes on crime and race unchanged. The majority of whites still overwhelmingly fingered blacks as the most likely to commit crimes, even when they didn't commit them.
The bulging numbers of blacks in America's jails and prisons seem to reinforce the perception that crime and violence in America invariably comes with a young, black male face. And it doesn't much matter how prominent, wealthy, or celebrated the black is, Tiger again. The overkill frenzy feeding on the criminal or borderline criminal antics of a litany of black NFL and NBA stars, that run afoul of the law or are poorly behaved, and of course, everyone's favorite stomping boy, the rappers and hip hop artists, further implant the negative image of black males. None of them, like Tiger, are hardly poor, downtrodden, ghetto dwelling young black males.
Tiger didn't commit any crime, and the only one that he hurt was his wife, family, sponsors, and the fantasy image of him as the Simon pure sportsman. For that he's paid and will continue to pay a dear price. The Vanity Fair cover just assured that the price he'll pay will be even steeper.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.