.Notes on that Napa Trainwreck: Not a Laughing Matter

According to Census Bureau information posted on Wikipedia, Napa County’s African American population is .4 percent of the total population of about 125,000. By my math, that means about 600 black people live in the entirety of this most hoity of toity counties.

True to the demographic it chugs through on its tours, it appears that the Napa Valley Wine Train has an issue with sensitivity around cultures that aren’t white, well-off and self-entitled to silence, or at least hushed and delicate voices, while drinking wine on a tony tourist train.

You’ve heard the story by now: Ten African-American women, and one white woman, were summarily booted off the privately owned and operated Napa Valley Wine Train over the weekend. Their crime was laughing while black: Laughing too loudly, as it were, for the sensitive earlobes of certain passengers of a Chardonnay-hued variety. 

The group, members of a book club out of Antioch, were warned and they were warned again. The women said they turned down the volume, but it wasn’t enough, so: Three strikes, you’re out. Where have we heard that one before? 

Here’s a fact I could not help but notice as this story jumped the local for an express track to certain media ignominy on a national scale: The Napa Valley Wine Train is made up of old Pullman cars. The cars are classic and well-appointed, but as the Pullman State Historical Site website explains, Pullman railroad cars are inextricably linked to the racial history of this country.

The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case of 1896 “involved a man traveling in a Pullman car,” the site notes. It sure did. Plessy v. Ferguson was the case that endorsed and legitimized a racist “separate but equal” doctrine that gave rise to murderously unequal Jim Crow policies that would follow for decades.

Those same policies are now, not incidentally, being given a new lease on life with the advent of anti-gay Jim Crowish laws written by an intolerant Republican rump that’s already had it with the Voting Rights Act and other efforts to un-separate equality from historical racism. There’s a nasty ol’ “new Jim Crow” out there for blacks, too, and even a book of the same title that was very well-received.

Some have asked, “Why does everything have to be about race? Can’t people get thrown off a train because they deserved to get thrown off a train?”

Sure. But a little context, please: We live in a country that’s spent the last six-plus years over-tolerating right-wing weenies who believe that the Public Accommodations Act of 1964 should be outright repealed. In this fevered imagining of a purportedly “race neutral” America, black people might not even be able to get on the train in the first place. Let alone get thrown off of it. So there’s that. 

And what’s the justification for such backwards-ass agitation in the service of legalized segregation? The country elected a half-black president, of course! Or was he half-white? Whatever, we’re all equal now, so shut up about race!

These are bitter times for anxious crackers who seek legitimizing purchase in a country they’ve lost to the forces of tolerance, empathy, justice, and a few other good things, some of which you can smoke or marry. So, let’s take it out on some rowdy black women on a tourist train! Next stop: Clutch that Confederate Flag and beat up some Mexicans because Donald Trump says that’s how you make America great again. Whoo-hoo!

This stuff is happening all over. A lady at a nice Chicago beach recently dropped some rough and unforgiving language on a black woman whose kids had accidentally splashed her with water and did not express sufficient contrition. A police officer recently grope-arrested a teenaged black girl in a bikini for the crime of showing up in a white neighborhood for a pool party. It goes on and on. 

And here we are in sunny Napa County, white and well-heeled and perhaps the nearest thing to a “red” California county this side of Orange. But if you come to Napa, don’t laugh too loud while being black, or you may be harassed and humiliated by security officers deployed to root out undesirables, like so many neo-Pinkertons. You’ll be escorted through numerous Pullman cars of mostly white people on your way out the caboose, at which point you’ll be greeted by an actual police officer, who may or may not arrest you, but who will almost certainly be white. 

Why is everything about race, you people ask? Because the Napa Valley Wine Tour has done an abysmal job of contextualizing this episode in any way other than one that would have you thinking, “Geez, there’s quite possibly some damn racism going on here.”

Take this: A company employee who was on the train posted on the wine car’s Facebook page after the incident in an attempt to turn the tables on the women. That person blamed them for escalating the situation, alleged they had been “verbal and physical towards other guests and staff” and said they had no choice but to throw them off the train.

It was a woeful gambit, dankly reminiscent of the posturing over the death of Sandra Bland in Texas last month: They escalated the situation! All bets are off!

Wrong. The women denied any of that happened, and the post was soon determined to be one of those things called a “lie.” It was deleted, but not before one of the book-club ladies took a screenshot.  

The Napa Valley Wine Car is now in a state of media free-fall, derailed by its over-reactions and unable to come up with a justifiable reason to boot the women beyond, “They were laughing too loud.”  So it is no surprise that this afternoon the apologies reached all the way to the corporate media ninnies at CNN. After first saying they’d apologize to the women even though they’d done nothing wrong, the Napa Valley Wine Train today told CNN, “We were 100 percent wrong.” That’s about right.  


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