Lynching Tiger: The Ethics of Racism
You’ve got to admit, Kelly Tilghman’s comment about how the young golfers, in order to move up in the world of the sport, should take Tiger Woods into a back alley and “lynch him” was monumentally stupid. At times like this it really makes you think — although people can always “slip up” and say something they really didn’t intend on saying, in such highly charged contexts such as race you would think that people would be extra careful to think before they speak. Especially before using “lynching” in the context of talking about a black person.
What I think is more interesting here, though, is something that Al Sharpton said about the controversy. When it was suggested that Tilghman has no history at all of making racist or at least racially insensitive comments and as a result, that the commentator should be cut at least some slack, Sharpton responded by saying it is the word and not the history of the speaker that matters. He said:
What she said is racist. Whether she’s a racist — whether she runs around at night making racist statements — is immaterial.”
Given my own interest in virtue ethics, which holds that there’s a difference between saying that something is a good act and someone is a good person –specifically, virtue theory suggests that “the good’ pertains to people, and then only derivatively to actions — I was intrigued by Sharpton’s suggestion.
Is racism an action or is it a description that belongs to a person? If Silghman really does have no history at all of making such statements and truly harbors no racist attitudes in her character, does that make what she said less racist? Similarly, would it be worse is a known racist said the same thing? Or is the racism “level” of a comment really fixed, independently of the character and history of the speaker, as Sharpton suggests?