Archive for the ‘racism’ Category

It is Free Verse Friday (FVF), but first I want to thank all of you for yesterday.  It wasn’t my moment, and so it feels selfish to admit how much it mattered to me.  But it did.  And if you plan on being at Marvin tonight around 8, I’ll thank you in person.


But the business…  Yesterday, I promised today would be a conclusion to that entry.  And it is.  This is an excerpt of something I wrote about a year ago.  If you want the whole thing, I’d be honored to email it to you.

If you know me, I’m one of the quintessential child of divorce types: I don’t think I’d make a good dad, afraid I’d…  I don’t know.  It’s irrational.  And it works itself out irrationally; like with this excerpt, one of many things I’ve written about what it would be like to be a dad.

These few words are about what I’d have to say to a son to explain to him the world he’s inherited.  Because whenever he’d become real, that would be it.  That would have been the best I could do, as far as making him a better world is concerned.  There’d be no more prep time.  And in light of the cartoon from Wednesday, it’s obvious there’s a lot to be done before I could proudly answer the questions I imagine he’d ask.

Thanks for stopping by.  Looking forward to seeing as many of you as can come tonight.


i don’t know god
but i’ve seen her in my dreams,
so i’m writing this open letter
just in case she reads.

but there’s no time,
i need more time,
to change it all
before he comes;
’cause once he comes
then there’s no time,
it’s way too late,
he’ll be my son.

so what do i do?
i can’t lie;
no, wait, no: that’s a lie.
but i can’t lie to kids, i can’t:
there’s something in their eyes.
so if i can’t fix the world
before he comes to question truth,
i’ll answer:
“the best defense against the rain’s
a pair of sturdy boots.

“because there will be many
who smile
to watch you fall from grace;
but there’ll be some not satisfied
unless they pull you down themselves,
who wanting more
than the discourtesy
of stabbing you in the back,
bask in the injustice
of doing it to your face.”

and i pray we’re not so blinded
by hatred and fight
that the DNA we give our kids
fails to give them sight.

because this letter is a poem
and this poem is a plea,
that my son,
the new black man,
knows not the trouble i’ve seen.


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Before you (probably) ever read this blog, it was often very different.  Not that I’ve changed, but it is what it was: back then, “readers” were people kind enough to read the links I delivered to their inboxes, people who already knew me.  And so what follows today may feel different.  It’ll probably sound more like that thing I wrote about Gary Sheffield, or that thing I wrote about Imus.

Maybe you’ve heard about it already.  This made it into the New York Post yesterday:


Credit: Sean Delonas

I suppose I should “set the scene.”

If you don’t live in the NY metro area, you can find the cartoon in its context here.  It is the meshing of two stories, one literal and the other figurative.  The literal story is that police in Stamford, CT (my hometown, actually) responded to a 911 call regarding a domesticated chimpanzee, named Travis, that had escaped and mauled a woman.  They shot Travis to stop him.  The figurative story, at its most agreeable base, should be clear: a critique of the passage of the stimulus bill.

The problem, for many of us, is obvious and actually layered.

I’ll start with facts:
1. The economy is reeling.
2. Therefore, the stimulus deal (apart from its effectiveness and so at a minimum as an effort) is considered a big deal.
3. The economy was an integral part of the presidential campaign’s homestretch.
4. Obama has been active in making the stimulus package his visibly preeminent priority.
5. The stimulus package is lauded by many as the first major piece of legislation by Obama.

What all of this means: the stimulus package, certainly by its critics, is currently being affixed to Obama.  He is its figurehead.  This doesn’t seem reasonably debatable.  Sure: the truth is that it is an idea of many.  There are many responsible for its construction and passage.  Forgive the cliché, but that’s politics, and quite obviously so.

But not in that picture.  There is no team of experts, no crowd of faces, no group of monkeys of various sizes and shapes.  There is only one.  And that one chimp, the “someone” to whom the writing of the stimulus bill is attributed, is shot by police and rests bleeding on the ground, dead.*  So let’s not insult modern intelligence by suggesting that dead chimp isn’t supposed to represent the figurehead behind the stimulus package, punished for his “crime.”

Historically, though, it should be pretty widely understood that black Americans have been analogized to monkeys.  Hell, I bet we could even find that kind of information in one of those outdated, yellowing textbooks they still force upon some of our public schools.  The comparison takes at least a couple of forms: 1) the darkness in complexion, physical features and 2) the almost, but not quite human status.  That’s the funny thing about race: it’s so often really obvious and lends itself to similarly conspicuous interpretation.

And so it shouldn’t seem absurd to anyone that many of us drew a certain conclusion: Obama is that dead chimpanzee.  Simple, right?  And it shouldn’t be odd that many of us would feel that we’ve seen such images before.  And so we get to perhaps the most finely split hair of the new millennium: the difference between being a racist and being racially insensitive.

A racist is defined by her or his motivations; it’s as straightforward as understanding that the suffix “-ist” refers to an active, outward, purposeful nature.  Someone who is racially insensitive, however, is defined by her or his ignorance.  To be clear, then, this post isn’t about racism.**  I don’t know the cartoonist, Sean Delonas, and I won’t pretend to know his motivations.  My problem is with his ignorance.

He should’ve known the conclusions many of us would draw.  The New York Post should’ve known this, as well.  And that should’ve mattered to both of them, regardless of whether they agreed with our interpretations.  It’s not about bending to every whim of any group of readers.  It’s about a cognizance of the classic stabs at black presence in America.  It’s not like we’re a secret.  It’s also not like there’s only about a thousand of us (not, of course, that that would serve as justification).

Racial sensitivity is, perhaps ironically, about acknowledging the context of your own existence.  We don’t live in bubbles, at least not solitary ones.  And with that shared residence comes shared responsibility.  It’s what grown-ups do: they mature, then they appreciate and then they understand.  We forgive sensitivity mistakes in children because they haven’t had the time to experience difference.  Our patience for adult missteps is shorter.

But maybe that’s why the tone for this post is different than it would have been years, or even months, ago.  I’m not asking for repercussions to befall the paper or the cartoonist, because while my patience has long run out, so has my desire to scream about it anymore.  I’d love, once and for all, for us to have actual conversations about these dilemmas.

The true conclusion for this entry will be posted tomorrow.  But for now, I’d really just love for any people who read this to ask how readily they forgive themselves for not knowing about a life they don’t lead.  I do it all the time.  While I can confidently say I don’t do it like Delonas did, I do it.  I do it because it’s easy.  But I shouldn’t, ever.

I think one of the biggest pitfalls for the American conscience is the notion that none of us are mind-readers; that we don’t ever really know what others are thinking and feeling and that, therefore, we’re allowed to make huge mistakes out of that ignorance, and/or that we’re allowed to demand of the very people who are very often voiceless that they scream, only in a language the rest of us understand, loud enough for us to acknowledge as alarm.

But it’s really all just intuition.  We really are just other human beings.  It’s not nearly as difficult as we convince ourselves it is.  And that’s why the constant failure to empathize hits harder, each time.  Because we could just choose to be different, to be better, but we don’t.

*On another day, I’d have time to discuss our history with police violence in this country…
**Though, I don’t believe the nouveau theory that insensitivity is worse than racism. The power of active, direct hate seems unparalleled.

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Second Comes Love

Late tonight, huddled at my computer screen, I met Barack Obama. I liked him. We still have a lot to talk about before we’re pushing a baby in a baby carriage, but at least we’re finally sitting in a tree.

He seems different exposed. Maybe we all do. Maybe our truest moments come only when we’re naked, moments at which we reveal the difference between being honest and being candid. Why do we roll up our pant leg to show you that scar we got when we were 6? Probably because it makes the story we tell about it more real.

Now, before you chastise me for having multiple personalities, and choosing today’s persona because it has a shiny new convertible bandwagon…

I’m still not in love with Barack. So much of me wants to be. I want him to wear the air of my aspirations and a suit whose lapel is cut to the style of my conviction. Not because I am what he should be, but because I want what he is to include me. I want my words to resound in his voice. I want my ideals to shape his endeavors. Most of all, I want my passion to drive his spirit.

Today he made it possible to love him. But we still have work to do in this relationship. I can forget Rev. Wright’s name by tomorrow. The name of his church already escapes me. I was never supposed to commit to Rev. Wright. No 2008 election outcome put the stability of the world, the fate of our economy, or the dreams of my parents in his hands. But I’m supposed to trust Barack with at least that, if not more.

And so we should be greatly excited at the opportunity Barack reminds us is waiting to be actualized. But we can still ask why it took so long. He has been the candidate of hope, change, dreams, faith, and everything between. We’ve crowned him the facilitator, if not the bringer, of the cure for what ails us. But listen to what he said today: we cannot move forward infected by anger. Yet until today, he never bothered to fearlessly identify what is arguably our most viral disease. Until there was a crisis, he offered no management.

It is critical that you understand I do not consider him an opportunist. What we witnessed was not mere political calculation. He was knocked down. He stood up. He brushed his shoulders off. He took huge strides. He was impressive. He was complete. And I thank him.

He was aware this morning. But my calendar shows more than just today. Today, Barack admitted what we all at least suspected he knew. Race is more than an issue in America. It is its own institution. I know Barack didn’t learn this by watching the pundits last week. I know he’s lived it. I know he and Michelle have told their children allegories, if not stories, about it. He had to know this was a speech he’d have to give, even if he imagined it never included his pastor’s name. JFK had to. Romney tried to. Barack has more vision than he previously displayed. He should not have been surprised here.

I know he walks a fine line. Forget thin ice. It must be more like he’s skating on a meniscus, in a glass half-full. He has to convince a nation that Cornell is as right as he is wrong: that his race matters as much as it doesn’t. Don’t tell me it has been unfair to expect that he found a way to deliver that message flawlessly, though. He did it today. And you should’ve expected it before now at least as much I did. We owe that sense of inquiry to ourselves.

And we owe both our ancestors and our children more than static reincarnations of the past. That’s the subtext of Barack’s speech today. That obviously means answering a call to arms to erase inequality. I understand your point: that perhaps the issue wasn’t ripe, that we weren’t yet ready to receive until controversy arose. It’s frightening how true that may be (we too often ignore leaks until they’re floods). You might even say that I had no reason to have doubts in the first place. You may be right, but only because calling my hesitation “doubt” misses the mark. You’ve seen it: two black men pass each other on the street, make eye contact, and nod. True, maybe neither one of them has lived anything like the life of the other. But they nod silently anyway. They believe there’s a great chance they share something. They have to believe it. It soothes. All I’ve ever said is that the man who will be president has to do more than nod. He has to open his mouth. He has to speak.

And so my anger in my posts about Barack should be measured not as blame, but as the weight of great expectations. I want him to be great because we simply cannot survive any less. I want him to be great because he can be. And I am not afraid to ask it of him.

I am a bundle of all of the contradictions he acknowledged today. It’s comforting to know he is, too.

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I used to think that if this country was just us
that we could build an overdue conception of justice,
but just us could never really combat injustice
’cause when power’s in just us, it’s just nuts.


For instance, Gary Sheffield sounds like a bigot:

…You’re going to see more black faces, but there ain’t no English going to be coming out. … [It’s about] being able to tell [Latin players] what to do — being able to control them.

Where I’m from, you can’t control us. You might get a guy to do it that way for a while because he wants to benefit, but in the end, he is going to go back to being who he is. And that’s a person that you’re going to talk to with respect, you’re going to talk to like a man.

Can I pull something reasonable out of that?  Sure.

I could tell you that what he really meant to say, is that profit-hungry MLB owners and officials capitalize on the struggles of Latino youth; that they dehumanize them, seeing Latinos as potentially cheaper labor to further a product rather than young men hungry for a chance. I could tell you that baseball’s athlete-sourcing has taken a huge hit stateside due to the skyrocketing popularity of football and basketball. I might tell you it’s been obvious for years that baseball has little interest in scouting young black men domestically. I could tell you that young black American men are more often misled by marketing featuring Carmelo Anthony, Michael Vick and Clinton Portis than they are influenced by ads featuring Ryan Howard and… and actually it’s hard to think of a commercial featuring a black American baseball player. I could tell you that these facts are all part of a larger, ongoing social wave towards more instantaneous gratification and away from the national “pastime.”

I could, but I’m not going to do Sheffield’s work for him.

Gary Sheffield is a grown damn man. At what point do we stop being apologists and calling these people inarticulate? Our civic duty includes not just exercising our right to speak, but managing said exercise. Why isn’t Sheffield expected to be able to deliver his message, if it indeed has been publicly misconstrued, accurately? Is it because he’s an athlete? Is it because he’s black? If he means something different than what he says, why are the listeners burdened with decoding?

He said two things very clearly: Latino men are relatively easy to control and black American men are relatively rambunctious. Neither is flattering. More importantly, neither is even true.

The larger point here is that there is more than enough intrinsically devisive about our social fabric. The last thing we need is to turn black-brown relations on themselves by excusing a man who tries to hide behind the conditioning of his skin color to be as racist as those he claims to actually be critiquing.

The message, if so intended, that MLB’s power structure is an illustration of a deeply-seeded socio-eco-political dilemma that operates to divide us, is critically engaging. It is a message that is too important to get lost between the lines. It has to be said, but it has to be said well.

Gary Sheffield sounds like a bigot. The fact that he’s black makes it worse, not better.

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“Don Imus is only doing what rap has done for decades.”

There’s your gauntlet; its suggestion synonymous with absurd. But if America really wants to have this debate, let’s have it.

The claim: Rappers use the same language Imus used and no one holds them accountable or vociferously demands change – certainly not with the ferocity that the cries against Imus display.

Where do I begin?

Imus, and notably his whole staff, referred to black female athletes as “nappy-headed.”

Ok. We live in a society, and as black Americans have always lived in a society, that doesn’t merely undervalue our beauty, but aggressively seeks to legally desecrate it. Black women have uniquely felt this sting. So to call our women “nappy-headed” in a derogatory fashion is to reify that division and to restate the hateful categorization of “black” as deplorable, disgusting, etc.  Maybe you haven’t checked lately, but go open your dictionary. Any dictionary; the editor doesn’t matter. Note how “black” is defined as “dirty,” “dark,” “bad,” etc. while “white” is quite the opposite. In short, Imus poured salt in a wound that we, quite frankly, are tired of having to mend. And we are tired of having to do the mending ourselves while the majority and its empathizers tell us “the cut isn’t that bad.” It’s ours. We bite our lips and bear it. And so only we will determine its pain.

Then he called them “hos.” Along the same lines as above, the hypersexualization of black women and their reduction to sexual chattel is precisely why his “joke” crossed the line. These Rutgers women, and black women across the globe, are human beings. They are doctors, lawyers, presidents, nation-leaders, mothers, daughters and sisters…  No definition of “ho” allows for those identities. In fact, the word strips them, leaving them as exposed and vulnerable as the days we were dragged here.

But remember: more was said. An assistant said watching the Rutgers/Tennessee game was like watching the jigaboos play the wannabees. He and Imus laughed about how the women from Rutgers looked rough, especially as compared to the more attractive Tennessee players. The jigaboo/wannabee reference is directly tied to “School Daze,” a Spike Lee joint, but also indirectly tied to the ever-present issue of the attractiveness of black skin. To suggest that the Rutgers women, on average with darker complexions, were rough and unattractive jigaboos, while remarking that the Tennessee women, on average with lighter complexions, were more attractive wannabees is indicative of a battle our women and men have been fighting for a time too long to count. And we seemed to all have missed that being a wannabee is nothing to be proud of. It suggests that the lighter-skinned Tennessee players preferred their complexion because it allowed them to pass or at least distance themselves from the darker Rutgers women. When is someone going to remember that Tennesee’s women were insulted as well?

Nonetheless, my focus here is on the counter-argument that hip hop brought this all about…  That the very word “ho” is rap construction…  That no one is up in arms over the misogyny in rap…

“Ho” as rap construction: really? The word is undeniably linked to “whore.” So your argument is what, that black artists invented misogyny? Well here’s some earth-shattering, breaking news: white men were beating, raping, killing, and verbally abusing women long before they ever encountered us. This isn’t to say white men are singularly responsible for sex-based stratification. Men as a whole are responsible. Yet you ignore not just modern realities but the evidence of history in its entirety insofar as it is contrary to your own assertion. But, to be fair, I suppose that is what they call responsible journalism these days.

No one is up in arms: Let me be so much later than the first to disagree. I want misogyny out of our culture. That includes a specific desire to see its end and remedy in hip hop. Has no one seen “Hip Hop: Beyond the Beats and Rhymes” by Byron Hurt? Has no one heard of the Take Back the Music campaign led by Essence? Has no one seen Def Poetry? Has no one heard the countless underground and commercial artists whose songs cry for change? People are clamoring for change. Real change, substantive difference. If you haven’t been listening, whose fault is that? If you’ve believed the distant critiques from outside the genre, don’t displace your failure on us.

The truth is, this “argument” ignores the lesson our 4 year olds are able to learn: two wrongs don’t make a right. Even if you don’t buy that rap’s change is inevitable because of internal criticism, your argument can’t really be “but everybody else does it,” can it? Is that your idea of intellectualism? The issue is not whether derogatory use by one group can be punished or otherwise treated differently than that by another. That approach has nothing to do with independent evaluations of wrongdoing. You don’t get moral points for – you don’t get to create an appropriate balance by – saying non-blacks should be able to degrade blacks in the same ways many of us already do to ourselves. Even if I was to concede, and this would be a large concession, that you’re then treating people “equally,” you’re forgetting the point: YOU’RE NOT ACTUALLY SOLVING THE PROBLEM.

The problem is not the imbalance in degradation; it’s that the degradation exists at all. And so perpetuating such aggression could never be a band-aid, let alone a cure. In other words, black people realize that acquiring the respect we deserve is significantly tied to the dignity we portray. But even if we drop the ball… Even if we create derisions among ourselves with hateful rhetoric, what makes you think that’s a legitimate reason for the majority to do the same?

I just find it so interesting that when the issue is so clear… When it’s so clear that the real issue is whether Imus, a rich white man with broadcast power, should be able to use such derogatory language, within days the topic has shifted. Now the national dialogue is a referendum on traditionally black music. Funny. Of course we all need to change. But once, just once: could we please, PLEASE maintain focus? Rap needs to change. Rap will change. But this isn’t about rap.

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the Amazing Race

So my focus has been on the promise of equality as one meant to guarantee chance or results. Current legal structure, with its concerns – both rational and absurd, accurate and incomplete – of reverse discrimination lends itself to this allegory:

A king hears of a land he recognizes as unacquired. He sends a ship, instructing its captain to stop miles shy of its shore. The captain’s orders: throw a naked white man and a naked black man into the ocean. The goal? The first to make it to shore gets to lead a new nation. If there’s a tie, they both lead. But there’s a catch. The white man is dropped into a boat with an oar. The black man is dropped with a boulder chained to his ankles.

The winner should be obvious. The white man, though stranded in the middle of the ocean without fresh water or food, paddles his way to shore. There he finds all the resources he needs for survival. But overwhelmed with his new power, he claims all he sees as his own, confusing leadership with ownership, and stamps his mark upon the landscape with ash and mortar. As leader, the white man decides the new regime is to begin immediately. He doesn’t wait for the black man to surface.

The black man is in a paradox. He can choose to quit and drown, realizing his escape would most likely require superhuman strength or transcendent mental ability; his success nothing short of a miracle. If he is blessed enough to be armed with either, his arrival at shore will be met with hierarchy; he will not be the ruling class.

Somehow, the black man makes it to shore. The miraculousness of his perseverance is ignored, and so he soon forgets it himself. He is late, so he’s slow. He couldn’t figure out how to win the race, so he’s stupid. And he is still naked, dripping wet, so he’s a raw, sexual being. He is treated accordingly. Who wants a slow, stupid, sex fiend to have power over anything or anyone?

Eventually, the nation is confronted with the notion that its past of oppressing the black man and his descendants was erroneous. Some say it’s because benevolent whites sympathized. Some say the blacks demanded it. Some say both possibilities are true and incomplete. Nevertheless, the nation promises “from now on, things will be done differently.”

But the black man still carries his boulder.

An ever-present problem with current legal structure is its literalism. It forgets that even if the black man survives and makes it to shore, the boulder is his existence. It is the evidence that he arrived late; that his power is determined by the white man’s, whose arrival was timely; it is his mark of ineffectual intelligence, if any; it is the reason why he should be grateful to have been included at all. Perhaps most telling, it is suggestion that some great power intended him to have lost. And he wears these ideas on his skin (an indicator as much for those who see him as a personal reminder). If he keeps this facade, he is Stokely Carmichael. If he sheds it, he is Michael Jackson.

What is the promise of only looking forward if that gaze is affixed with old eyes? Eyes that remember the black man’s arrival as late, invasive, at best functionally necessary… One could perhaps argue we could return to that original beach. But when we draw a line in that sand, and say, “The race for opportunity starts here,” whether there is at that point a false start is not the sole issue. We must also note that one is still latched, dragging a weight the other does not.

How can we run beside you if our legs are tied?

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