Jeffrey Whitman feels he got a raw deal.
It’s true that Whitman, a contractor in central Ohio, has had a rough last few days. His life, he says, has been “completely and thoroughly ruined.” He doubts he’ll ever work in Columbus again.
That may be an accurate prediction, given the scalding scorn his name engenders online. He is reviled on Twitter, loathed on YouTube and his Yelp reviews have become simply brutal, including images of the Nazi swastika and the battle flag of the Confederacy. “Service was amazing,” one person snarked. “He brought his own cross, lighter fluid and hood.”
It seems that Whitman, who is white, followed an African-American driver, Charles Lovett, for almost 2 miles after a traffic dispute, parked at the end of Lovett’s driveway and told him, “I just want to let you know what a n----- you are.” It went on like that for three minutes, Whitman dropping N-bombs, Lovett calmly defending himself while capturing it all on cellphone video, including the name and phone number of Whitman’s heating, cooling and refrigeration business on the side of his van.
One viral video later, that business was facing a PR firestorm and Whitman was leaving weepy voicemails for Columbus Dispatch columnist Theodore Decker:
“It was an awful mistake,” he said, which is true if, by “mistake” you mean “deliberate action.” But Whitman wasn’t done yet. “I don’t know how to explain it, and it’s ruined my life and it’s ruined my family’s life.” He insisted he’s not a bigot which is, of course, something white people often say when caught being bigoted.
Whitman seemed bewildered at the suddenness with which his life has turned to poo. “I just don’t understand the intensity of the hate,” he complained. Whereupon irony turned a triple somersault, straightened like an exclamation point and fell stone dead.
If Whitman is confused, though, it may be because America has been sending mixed messages. After all, these are boom times for bigots. One of their own is in the White House and they are well represented in the Republican Party. The judiciary has sapped black voting rights. In Fox, they have their very own “news” network. And, perhaps most importantly, so long as you remember to use approved language — gripe about “political correctness,” for example — you can express bigotry again in polite company for the first time in years.
But the boom in bigotry has come simultaneously with a boom in social media raising virtual mobs to shame the shameful. Bigots are being outed and confronted as never before. Demand that strangers speak English, ask for a permit to use the pool, commit a little innocent racism at the foot of a black guy’s driveway and suddenly everybody, everywhere is calling you out.
There’s a word for this, a word once thought to have all but disappeared from the English language: “consequences.” Not that seeing the speak-English guy running from cameras, the pool permit Nazi out of work or Whitman’s business in trouble is any substitute for a national commitment to root out systemic bias in media, government, business, finance, education and law. And granted, maybe there is something a little facile about fighting for equality via Yelp review.
But as the White House, the GOP, the judiciary and Fox “News” try to make a world safe for racism, it is gratifying to see consequences arrive in real time for bigots, if only as a reminder that the world those folks seek is one the rest of us will never accept. We have long memories. We stand millions strong.
And we’re pretty picky about who provides our heating, cooling and refrigeration services.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist
for the Miami Herald