Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Whitlock may miss the boat, but Playboy still misses the ocean

By Joe Uchill
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If you (like me) read Jason Whitlock’s column about his experience writing a cover story for Playboy, you’d have the sense that the magazine chose an irrelevant, race-baiting headline to make a story about the cultural costs of prisons sexier. If you read the actual Playboy – you know, for the articles – the reality isn’t quite that bad. It’s merely a partially-relevant, race-baiting headline, but only if you read the subhead and stretch your imagination. Meanwhile, the cover using the main headline “The Black KKK” is nearly-partially-relevant and race-baiting, and misses the nuanced meaning of that titular phrase, coined by Whitlock and never used in the article.

But the headline is not irrelevant.

And using a race-baiting phrase that’s also irrelevant multiplies the offensiveness by a factor of three or four.

Months ago, when Whitlock actually wrote the words in response to two specific incidents, “the black KKK” was a reactionary metaphor for black-on-black violence. It was chiding a certain subset of black people for self-defeating actions. This had only the slightest connection to the Playboy article – an indictment of America’s supersaturated prison system costing too much, solving too little, for spilling an internal, multicultural gang culture onto the streets. Neither of the Whitlock concepts had much to do with the of a cover that proclaimed “The Black KKK,” that a group of black people was going after people of other races. Even after adding the subtitle Whitlock quoted in his column, everything was still a mess. “The Black KKK: Hip Hop is killing Black America, and it’s time to do something about it” blames whatever is wrong with Black America on music, something that the article directly contradicts (“What we foolishly term ‘hip-hop culture’ is really prison culture,” says Whitlock).

Had Playboy not only put that phrase on the cover, but also used the full headline that Whitlock said they had, they would have had two inflammatory titles to describe a more rational story. Had it happened, cynics might think that Playboy was intentionally conflating things kinda-sorta attributable to an author to promote this month's issue through fake controversy. Those cynics included Jason Whitlock and me.

We were wrong. Whitlock misquoted the headline in his article. It actually read, “The Black KKK: Thug life is killing black America. It’s time to do something about it.” That’s the lesser evil. Expecting people to take the machismo culture of “thug life” to mean “prison gang life” is a bad thing. Using “black” to mean “inner city” is even worse. But even if the story is broad enough to depict prison guards faking riots to bilk the state out of compensation, an awful lot of this article is about prison gang life ruining inner city America. Playboy's headline now appears to almost relate to the story.

This small miracle certainly doesn’t make the cover less misleading; it doesn’t stop Jason Whitlock from being reduced to a catch-phrase. It doesn’t make the headline a bull’s eye (even if it now hits the dartboard). It doesn’t block out the racial ugliness of the whole ordeal. It does, however, solve the biggest problem – that the misleading, inaccuracy and racism seemed like a calculated business decision.

Despite the enormity of the problem, we still overreacted.

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The statement Playboy sent to us earlier today can be found here: Letters from the editor: Playboy Responds

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