Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Senseless Death of a Good Stereotype

Nice going, Asshole!

Yesterday, John Allen Muhammad, the wack job who tricked out a Buick and convinced a kid to join him while he drove around D.C. and shot people, was found guilty of six counts of first-degree murder in the state of Maryland. A few months ago, he was sentenced to death in Virginia. I’ll be honest with you. Normally, I’m not a proponent of the death penalty. But in this case, I’m happy to make an exception.

At the time of Muhammad’s killing spree, my wife and I were living in Alexandria, VA, a suburb of Washington, D.C. I really can’t convey to those who weren’t there what it felt like to think that you might be in the crosshairs of a psycho. It seemed like every other day another sniper murder would be reported on the news. People discussed the killings and joked nervously about drawing straws to see who would go pick up lunch. Not many individuals were willing to stop and chat with one another outside. And EVERYBODY was avoiding white vans (initially thought to be the vehicle of the snipers) like the plague. It was surreal. Technically, considering the size of the area, the chances that you would be the next victim were miniscule. But it was a lottery that not many wanted to play and even fewer wanted to win.

When I revisit this period I feel angry that this madman literally terrorized an entire region of the country and murdered over a dozen people. I’m angry that every time I went to get gas I quickly attached the pump to my tank and jumped my ass back in the car. I’m angry that dude had grown folks walking zig zag from the parking lot to the front door of the grocery store, looking like they escaped from an asylum. I’m angry that most outdoor activities in the region were cancelled because we were blanketed in fear and confusion. But I’m pissed even more because he destroyed one of the only stereotypical assumptions that worked in black folks’ favor. Namely: We Ain’t Serial Killers. Until this cat messed it up for us, randomly killing folks for kicks fell squarely into the realm of Crazy White Folks. John Wayne Gacy. Jeffrey Dahmer. The Green River Killer. All white. All crazy.

Not that we don’t have our own murderous foibles. Blowing somebody’s brains out because they scuffed up your Jordans isn’t exactly noble. It’s just that, generally, if a black person wants to kill you, you actually had to do some shit to him. Or, at least, he has to think you did something to him - whether the slight was real or imagined is immaterial.

Undoubtedly, we’ve got a few positive stereotypes left. Black men are thought to possess larger than average sexual equipment. We also, apparently, can dance and sing and we’re superior athletes. But the W.A.S.K. stereotype wasn’t bogged down by any negative connotations or tied to any racist marginalization whatsoever. Too bad Muhammad’s death won’t bring W.A.S.K. back to life.


Monday, May 29, 2006

Heaven, I Need Some Prison Time

“Why am I not in jail?”

I’ve got a few questions.

Why is R. Kelly still walking free? I’m not going to give this topic a whole lot of Blaxplanation space but I was just wondering about that. How many already-famous people can make a pornographic video containing themselves and an underage girl, have that video be bootlegged and widely distributed, and still remain remarkably unconvicted? And why don’t black folks seem to care?

I realize that we’re an exceptionally forgiving people – particularly with one another. Marion Barry was re-elected AFTER he smoked crack on tape. Ray Nagin was recently re-elected after he failed the city of New Orleans during its greatest time of need. The “Reverend” Jesse Jackson’s “Love Child” debacle doesn’t appear to have hurt him. I just can’t understand the amazing amount of tolerance that we’re showing a full-fledged sexual predator. Can Stepping in the Name of Love really serve as such a distraction that we’re giving this cat a free pass?

A few years ago, when the R. Kelly sex vid first emerged, I was talking to a sister who absolutely LOVES him. Interestingly, she wasn’t at all put off by the tape (she had seen it). Her argument was that these “young girls” know exactly what they’re doing when they chase after a celebrity. In her opinion, it was a victimless crime.

I mean, I LOVE Prince. He’s a visionary, a musical genius, etc. But if there was a video tape circulating around the country with him (forgive me) peeing on the face of a minor, I would have to abandon him. At the very least, I would expect him to have the humility to not follow up his shameful act with an album called, “The Chocolate Factory”. Sorry, but I can’t listen to a disc, no matter how well made, with R. Kelly exploring his sexuality anymore.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Calling Out Cosby

“It only took me forty years to learn the Black Power Salute.”

He's at it again.

Bill Cosby, the former pudding pop pusher and current purveyor of black morality, is engaging in a series of national, public discussions that he's entitled, "A Call Out With Cosby."

As many of you recall, a couple of years ago Cosby made headlines when he made disparaging comments about "the lower economic and lower middle economic people" who, according to him, were not, "holding their end in this deal." Of course, by "this deal" Cosby was referring to the successes of the Civil Rights movement. I'm not sure what role Cosby played in helping open up American institutions to blacks and others throughout the Civil Rights era (I've read that he essentially absconded). What I do know is that, often, those individuals who were alive during that time, and wanted or had absolutely nothing to do with sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, voter registration drives, integrating 'whites only' dining establishments, etc., will be the first to take credit for their impact. "We paid The Price," they will contend. It reminds me of when white folks attempt to take credit for the abolition of slavery by arguing that, 'We fought and died in the Civil War,' or when men pat themselves on the back for the passage and implementation of women's suffrage. That they either had nothing to do with it, or were in direct opposition to the struggle for equal rights doesn't really register with them.

Regarding the comments that Cosby made two years ago, I have repeatedly argued several points. Namely:

  • Although every single black person I know, including myself, has, at one time or another, expressed frustration with black people in general, what Cosby did was much different. When I complain about “these Negroes” I do it while bellyaching among friends. Within that context, I've also made general complaints about every group of people on the face of the Earth. Of the major differences between Bill Cosby and me two of the most important are these: 1) I'm not a well liked, highly regarded and influential public figure and 2) I was venting to a group of friends. To make the kind of incendiary, sweeping, stereotypical comments that Bill Cosby made - in front of a national audience – is simply not intelligent.
  • The only thing he did was spout white supremist arguments in blackface. I've heard his line of reasoning repeated ad nauseum by enemies of black people: Rush Limbaugh, David Horowitz, Pat Buchanan, David Duke, etc. Whenever any of these people publicly identify what they see as a shortcoming specific to black people they are roundly and loudly criticized by the black community, and rightly so. Whenever a black person does it (and WE do it far too often) it's given a free pass.
  • I've heard people say that it doesn't matter what we say or do because whites will believe whatever they want about us. Cosby himself made it. This, frankly, is complete bullshit. Sure, white supremacists will continue to promote the idea that blacks and other non-whites are inferior. But they are a part of a fringe movement whose goal is to convince "normal" uncommitted whites of that, and affect radical social change. Cosby just provided them with more ammunition. Further, that bankrupt notion doesn't give him or any other black person the right to publicly smear an entire segment of the population. Cosby made himself a hypocrite. To make blanket, public statements accusing blacks of generally lacking personal responsibility is the HEIGHT of irresponsibility.
  • Ills that are endemic to society as a whole (or that are class, not race, based) are often portrayed as unique to black people. Poor people, across racial lines, have higher rates of incarceration, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, dropping out of high school, alcoholism, domestic violence, etc., than those higher up the socioeconomic ladder. Cosby should have acknowledged that.
  • When people argue that, at the very least, Cosby's rant precipitated a much needed discussion in the black community, I respond that this discussion has been occurring at all levels of black life for many years now. What exactly did Cosby contribute? "These people are going around stealing Coca-Cola. People getting shot in the back of the head over a piece of pound cake, and then we run out and we are outraged saying, 'The cops shouldn't have shot him.' What the hell was doing with the pound cake in his hand?" This kind of ignorant, high-handed, ridiculously simplistic assessment of the very real problem of police brutality isn't helping anything. Moreover, people can't be guilted into making good decisions. To quote Justine Felix, an author and activist in San Antonio, "People don't exist in a vacuum. They are the products or their environment. If you want to change the way folks behave then you need to change the conditions that give rise to that behavior. Criticizing people for their personal behavior on an individual basis might make sense because on an individual basis it might actually work and result in positive change." But lambasting an amorphous section of the population is foolish and regrettable.
Cosby's latest target is church leaders. He has a problem, "with churches who allow drug dealers to set up two blocks away." So do I. But I have a greater problem with church leaders who continue to bilk their congregations but don't offer them any job training or placement programs, college scholarships, first time home buying seminars, career counseling, classes on debt prevention, sex education or anything else that might help them escape poverty.

Of course, Cosby isn't all bad. He's a brilliant entertainer who, with The Cosby Show, somehow managed to give the black family one of it's only positive television representations in history. An even larger saving grace is that he's got the decency to put his money where his big mouth is. But it would be nice if he could teach that mouth of his to deliver better informed more thoughtful criticisms.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

On Berating Bonds

The day suicide lines lit up like a scoreboard

White people LOVE to hate Barry Bonds. I’ve noticed this with increasing curiosity over the last three years or so. There appears to be something affirming in it for them. Don’t get me wrong. There are black people who dislike him also. But for whites, Bonds seems to illicit an animosity that borders on fanaticism. Contrary to what you may believe, this hatred has little to do with the steroid cloud under which Bonds has played for the last few years. Indeed, many whites’ obsessive contempt for Bonds began long before the “clear and the cream” infamously entered the baseball vernacular. The steroids accusations just seem to have given white folks a cause around which to rally.
Undoubtedly much of the hostility toward Barry Bonds is rooted, to one degree or another, in the following things:

One is that Bonds has, for many years, maintained an uncanny ability to keep white folks – fans and media – at a distance. He doesn’t appear to need them, or court their praise one way or another. At times, he comes across as surly and recalcitrant. In a post Michael Jordan era, when successful athletes are encouraged to be all things to all people, Bonds, apparently, just wants to be left alone. Only recently, with his ESPN reality show, Bonds on Bonds, has he made himself accessible to the media. To most, the fact that Bobby Bonds, Barry’s father, had a tumultuous relationship with the media in his playing days, and that this soured Barry on the media early on, can’t or won’t register.

Another reason is that Bonds seems completely indifferent to the steroids accusations. The more the media focuses on Bonds’ alleged steroid use, the more apt he seems to be to shrug his shoulders and imply that, at least for him, it’s a non-issue. Media types want to see Bonds at least pretend to be apologetic and contrite, one game that Bonds doesn’t play well.

Also, Bonds has made statements that have further alienated him from the baseball “purists.” He’s spoken dismissively (oh my!) of baseball god, Babe Ruth. Tellingly, those who want an asterisk to be placed beside Bonds’ name don’t feel it necessary to have one placed beside Ruth’s – who completed his assault on the record books without ANY blacks or Latinos to impede him.

To add fuel to the fire, a couple of years back, he correctly identified the city of Boston as being a haven for racists. As could be expected, many clueless whites reacted by identifying Bonds himself as the racist (even going so far as to compare his comments with those of John Rocker) despite the truth of his words. Boston has a viciously anti-black history, and sports were no exception. According to Dave Zirin, author of What’s My Name, Fool!: Sports and Resistance in the United States, Bill Russell, whom many consider the greatest team player in American sport, and the foundation of eleven Celtics championships, described the city as “a flea market of racism.” “I didn’t play for Boston,” Russell once admitted, “I played for the Celtics.” As the winds of racial change blew throughout MLB in the fifties, Beantown’s beloved Red Sox still clung to their policy of excluding blacks. That organization was, in fact, the last major league team to integrate its roster. Further, Boston continues to be one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country.

Despite all this, I’m still left wondering if some of the animosity towards him can be traced to his blackness. Would Mark McGwire, for instance, if he shared Bonds’ personality, be the object of such universal hatred? I can’t imagine that he would. As I’ve suggested, Bonds won’t win any congeniality contests any time soon but he’s certainly no Ty Cobb, who was, by all reports, the dirtiest, SOB to ever play the game.

So now that the 2006 baseball season is well underway, the venomous jeers and hisses have become cacophonous. Fans (again, OVERWHELMINGLY white) somehow seek to restore the dignity of the game by tearing him down. Dads bring their kids to the park so that they can shout, “Cheater,” and throw inflatable syringes at him. Reporters keep seeking to corner him into contrition. And his recent stumble out of the gate has solidified his guilty status in the minds of his detractors.

Frankly, the carnival of Bonds-haters has made me begin to root for him. The resolve with which his enemies seek to ruin him has convinced me that it ain’t just about the ‘roids. So, hopefully, as white folks keep on hating Bonds, he’ll keep on hitting them out of the park. If only to spite them.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

Alien Ambiguity

Many African-Americans have been conspicuously silent during the debate over immigration reform. I’m one of them. Aside from a few email exchanges and short discussions with friends, I haven’t contributed any real sweat or righteous indignation to the immigrant cause. I’m not entering debates, participating in rallies, petitioning, besieging my congressman or woman or, up until now, even bothering to write about it. I hadn’t really asked myself why this was until I listened to an NPR broadcast of News and Notes with Ed Gordon on which one of the panelists drove it home for me. She mentioned that, although many African-Americans recognize that much of the anti-immigration sentiment is fueled by racism and ethnocentrism, they are ambivalent about throwing their full support behind Latino – particularly Mexican – immigrants. I wondered why this was and came up with three reasons.

One is that, to one degree or another, some of us have bought into the idea that we’re competing with illegal immigrants for limited resources. As ridiculous as it may seem, those of us who have always struggled to keep ourselves economically afloat can’t fathom the idea of immigrants entering this country by the millions and “stealing jobs.” Of course, the idea that illegal immigrants somehow swipe job opportunities away from blacks and others is absurd. The truth is that, with regard to wages and benefits, corporations are racing each other to the bottom and illegal immigrants, unsurprisingly, will accept less compensation than other Americans. But this doesn’t make black folks feel any less uneasy.

The second reason is that African-Americans tend to lean towards the right with regard to a number of issues. Generally speaking, black folks are Christians of the God-fearing variety, who attend church regularly (sometimes two to three times a week!) and have a literal belief in heaven and hell. This informs our opinions on a myriad of hot-button issues like gay marriage, capital punishment and abortion. The only reason most of us aren’t full-blown conservatives is that, no matter how much we achieve, whites always find a way to let us know what they really think of us. Also, with regard to the law of the land, despite racist assumptions, most African-Americans have always been law abiding. Given all this, although many of us may sympathize with those who are merely attempting to obtain a better life for themselves and their families, we are reluctant to put ourselves in the position of supporting illegal activity.

The third reason? We’re cautious about being too inclusive. What would happen, for instance, if blacks and Latinos united to suppress all efforts to establish immigration reform of the wall-building variety? What would happen after 2nd generation Latino-Americans establish themselves as full, politically participative citizens? My belief is that Latinos would abandon blacks shortly thereafter. Apart from the tendency of groups to be insular and look out for themselves, some of the most adamant supporters of racial inequality are “minorities.” I can’t count the number of discussions I’ve had with Asians, Asian Indians, and Latinos who argue against affirmative action and minority “hand outs.” Further, some just flat-out look down on African-Americans. Mexican President Vicente Fox’s recent assertion that immigrants work jobs that, “not even blacks,” would want to do was, for many of my people, both a wake-up call and a ‘What-The-Fuck!?!’ moment.

I don’t want to give the impression that I support the idea of “immigration reform.” Indeed, when I see (as I did a few weeks back) a caravan of hillbillies driving down the street waving signs that read, “Illegals Go Home,” and “We’ve Been Invaded,” it angers me. I also realize the fact that Latinos and African-Americans have, at present, a common enemy and this establishes a need for unity. Yet, knowing this, I still nurse reservations. And I know I’m not the only one.


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