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Use of Racial Epithet to Prompt Warning From eBay

Chicago Tribune

V Dion Haynes, Tribune national correspondent. Chicago Tribune Chicago, Ill.: Mar 15, 2003. pg. 11

Copyright 2003 by the Chicago Tribune

A campaign against the online auction service eBay for what African-Americans and others equated to retailing in racism bore fruit Friday when the company announced it will caution sellers against describing items using a racial slur.

The Internet giant offers a variety of memorabilia--including black pickaninnies, lawn jockeys and mammy figurines--that was commonplace during an earlier era but deemed highly offensive today. The fact that eBay lists the items wasn't the problem--after all, many black people collect them as artifacts to help them understand historical racism.

But what caused a furor across the nation was how eBay allows them to be labeled. Anyone typing a well-known racial epithet into the search field will be greeted with a plethora of items using it.

On Friday, eBay announced it will acquiesce to protesters' demands and by May will provide a pop-up box on the computer screen alerting sellers listing items using the slur that the word "might be highly offensive to many in the eBay community" and could violate the company's policy against racially offensive items.

"eBay did the responsible thing," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the National Alliance for Positive Action, a Los Angeles-based social justice group that initiated a phone, fax and e- mail campaign against the company.

Rights group ends objection

The eBay decision shows "they are joining in the battle to educate the buying and selling public about the danger of racial stereotypes," said Hutchinson, adding that his group has called off its protest.

Kevin Pursglove, a spokesman for the company based in San Jose, Calif., said: "This is one idea we thought was good in striking a balance between people who feel there is legitimate value in buying and selling the merchandise and those who find the term offensive."

The dispute represented a clash of two trends--the growing popularity of black memorabilia and growing controversy over use of the familiar epithet.

"As ugly and hurtful as these things are, they have a history. If we try to forget the past we'll relive it," said John Thorp, executive director of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., which displays the materials as a way to educate the public about historical racism.

The eBay protest spurred much debate about the epithet, used liberally in rap lyrics and black comedy routines.

It generated fodder for online discussions and radio commentaries as well as calls by black elected officials in cities, including New Haven, Conn., to ban the word altogether.

"That word was placed on us as a label to identify us as something lesser," said Yusuf Shah, a New Haven alderman who drafted a ban resolution. "That word is associated with hatred, denigration and murder."

Black memorabilia popular

Fueled by the Internet, the popularity of black memorabilia is at an all-time high, experts say. The items reflect a period from the 1600s to the 1950s when denigrating and unflattering portrayals of blacks were used to advertise a variety of products, from motor oil to laundry detergent to oysters.

"People are willing to bid a great deal of money for the items," Thorp said.

But, he added: "We can't forget that we still live in a racist society. [Some] people are buying it because they're racist and they hate the people this stuff represents."

This is not the first time eBay has faced charges of racial insensitivity.

About two years ago, Jewish groups in the U.S. pressured eBay to stop selling Nazi flags, badges, scrapbooks and other Holocaust- related materials on the site. Such items are illegal in Germany and France. Company officials agreed to part of the request by Jewish groups by banning the sale of items bearing swastikas, but it still sells other items from that period.

"eBay does have a corporate and community responsibility to show some basic sensitivity," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based international Jewish human-rights group that operates the Museum of Tolerance. Still, it may "fall to community activists to serve as an ad hoc watchdog ... to get over-the-top stuff removed" from the site.

Some activists said they plan to expand protests to African- American artists and actors who use the epithet in music, film and television shows.

"Before, we said it amongst ourselves," said Pearl Jr., president of the National Black Anti-Defamation Association in Los Angeles and a local radio host.

"What's happening now is we're allowing other people to hear us say it and they think it's OK to disrespect us," she said. "So we're going backward."

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