Perhaps taking a tip from the less-than-successful Lenny Henry/Andy Breckman collaboration “True Identity”, ESPN The Magazine not only wants us to contemplate Michael Vick-photoshopped-as-a-white-man, but contributor Toure’ considers Michael Vick’s blackness impossible to separate from any analysis of his talent (“Vick’s style is so badass, so artistic, so fluid, so flamboyant, so relentless — so representative of black athletic style — that if there were a stat for swagger points, Vick would be the No. 1 quarterback in the league by far”) or consideration of his story (“Vick’s stunningly stupid moral breakdown with respect to dogs is certainly related to the culture of the world he grew up in, which he says fully embraced dogfighting…but it’s also related to the household he grew up in”). Nothing I’d contend with, at least not until Toure states, “after his arrest for dogfighting, so many people asked: Would a white football player have gotten nearly two years in prison for what Vick did to dogs?”.
This question makes me cringe. It is so facile, naive, shortsighted and flawed that it is meaningless. Whiteness comes with great advantages, but it’s not a get-out-of-every-crime-free card. Killing dogs is a heinous crime that disgusts and frightens many Americans. I’m certain white privilege would not be enough to rescue a white NFL star caught killing dogs.
The problem with the “switch the subject’s race to determine if it’s racism” test runs much deeper than that. It fails to take into account that switching someone’s race changes his entire existence. In making Vick white, you have him born to different parents. That alone sets his life trajectory in an entirely different direction. Thus when this hypothetical white Michael Vick … wait, I can’t even continue that sentence in good faith. I mean, who would this white Vick be? That person is unknowable. When you alter his race, it’s like those Back to the Future movies where someone goes back in time, inadvertently changes one small thing about his parents’ dating history and then the person starts to disappear. If Vick had been born to white parents, you wouldn’t even be reading this right now. That Vick would have had radically different options in life compared with the Vick who grew up in the projects of Newport News, Va., where many young black men see sports as the only way out.
Indeed, it is a facile, naive, shortsighted and flawed proposition. But who actually asked? In the mountains of column inches exhausted on the topic of Michael Vick, where has anyone suggested he’d have suffered no consequences were he white? It seems slightly more common to hear someone wonder what the employment prospects would be for a convicted dog killer who didn’t possess Vick’s otherworldly QB abilities. Or how quickly the public, media and sponsors would’ve championed Vick as a redemptive role model if he was 3rd on the Eagles’ depth chart.