by Samuel James

Profiles in Cowardice

When I was a boy, my father told me a joke he heard from his father when he was a little boy:

A black guy walks into a bar. Everyone inside is white, and the second they see him everything stops, but just for a moment. Then everything resumes and everyone seems to be having a good time, but this one weird thing keeps happening. Every once in a while, someone would yell out a number and the whole bar would break into laughter. It happened over and over. Different people, different numbers, same effect.


“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”


“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”


“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”

Eventually the black guy asks the bartender what’s happening. The bartender explains, “Well, everyone in this bar has been coming here for a long time. They’ve also been telling the same jokes for a long time. In fact, this has been going on for so long that eventually someone just wrote down all the jokes on a list. So now people just yell out a number on the list and everyone knows which joke it is.”

The black guy laughs and asks to see the list. The bartender gives him a copy and he reads it until he sees a joke he likes, then gives it a shot: “Twenty-two!”

Silence. Not one laugh. The black guy doesn’t understand, but gives it another shot. This time a different joke, “Thirty-six!”

No laughs. Not even a sound. He tries it one last time: “One hundred!”

The whole bar just quietly stares at him and whispers to each other. He turns to the bartender and says, “I don’t get it. What’s going on?”

The bartender replies, “Looks like you just don’t know how to tell a joke.”

In case you don’t get it, the reason it’s funny is that there is a certain kind of white racist who will deny racism, even at its most obvious. This type of racist will also falsely claim black paranoia before owning their racism. After writing out the explanation, I realize the possibility of this losing a beat in translation.

L.D. 366, an anti-immigration bill, was introduced in the Maine Legislature recently, and it’s got me thinking a lot about that joke. According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, “This bill tells towns and cities that their local law enforcement must also act as immigration agents, and punishes municipalities that don’t comply.”

This means cops would be forced to racially profile people. This isn’t about immigration. Every white person in this country is an immigrant or descendent of immigrants, but if this bill goes through, I’ve got a hunch that it won’t be white people getting asked for proof of citizenship. It will be people who don’t look like they’re from around here, but I’m sure there’s someone out there who just can’t wait to tell me I’m being paranoid.

Somewhere in that joke is a comment on community and how we protect our community from perceived threats. This bill was introduced by Rep. Larry Lockman of Amherst. He’s got a long record of being full of hate and full of shit and feeling threatened by anyone who’s not white and male — and even some who are. He’s also someone who rarely has to face the consequences of his opinions. He behaves as though those opinions are principles.

Ever wonder why politicians often tout themselves as men or women of principle? It’s because it makes them seem exceptional. It’s a rare thing to be truly principled. It’s difficult to sort out the world, think things through, choose the right side and take a stand. It takes time and introspection, goodwill and selflessness. And let’s face it, not a lot of people can pull that off. Like in the joke, most people choose sides according to the convenience of their environment. That problem becomes so much bigger when you consider how much we control our environments now. You can get online this minute, see a hundred posts laying out exactly how immigration is beneficial to everyone, say to yourself, “Nope, I hate immigrants,” block everyone who posted it, and go on with the rest of your day.

It’s harder than ever to be truly principled, and that means it’s also more important now than ever. Because while men like Lockman or our governor or our president would like you to believe that it’s men like them who have made this country great, the greatness of this country has only come by working against men like these. So let’s keep working. Call your representatives and let’s shut down this racist horseshit.


Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at racismsportland@gmail.com.