Tag Archives: black

Black Issues Connected: Why Race Is Never Just Race

Even for a country where racial commentary is an amateur sport and racial incidents come in waves, we’ve had a strange run of racial news about black Americans, people who think they’re black Americans, and justice.

Browder; Dolezal; Vesey

Browder; Dolezal; Vesey


There’s Kalief Browder, pushed to suicide by years of abuse in the New York jails for a crime he arguably should never have been arrested for and did not commit, juxtaposed with what is variously described as the trans-racialism or minstrelsy of Rachel Dolezal. (See Ta’Nehisi Coates’ juxtaposition of the two cases…and note which one got more media attention.) Then there’s there’s a white man murdering churchgoers at Emmanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, South Carolina. The church had been burnt down in the early 1800s in retaliation for a planned uprising of enslaved people organized by Denmark Vesey. That Emmanuel re-organized, re-built, and played a crucial role in the community and civil rights is its own testament to the human spirit.

Vesey was executed for daring to take action against the system of treating humans as chattel. Browder, nearly two centuries later, was treated like chattel or worse. Dolezal’s story is many things, but in light of the murders at Emmanuel, in particular, it strikes me as a man-bites-dog story that’s easy to consume when we have bigger things to think about.

For example, take the recent court ruling that says (for now) that one single Uber driver must be treated as an employee. That could up-end the company’s model, arguably undermining a financially productive, disruptive, technology-based company; or providing more security to workers displaced by disruption. How does this relate to race? In many cities across America, non-white Americans and immigrants are more likely to be drivers than white native-born Americans, in part because these hard jobs provide an economic point of entry into a society where opportunity is still linked deeply to race, class, and national origin. A ruling that stands up to legal challenges and puts more impetus on the parent company to, say, provide corporate insurance for its drivers could provide more economic leverage not only for Uber drivers but also, as market forces balance, for drivers of traditional cabs and cars.

My problem with the discussions on race we’re having today is that they’re so limited. We’re talking about race as a thing-in-itself when it’s never been just that. Slavery was about commerce and nation-building. Jim Crow was about labor economics. The inequality in the current education and prison systems set up deeper divides tracking people into futures of potential security or insecurity. Race was never just about race, but often our conversations about it are.

In my experience, being black means strangers feel free to tell you what they think about black people. I’ve had strangers in airports and newly-met attendees at business conferences quickly move from pleasantries to a discourse on why black people (sometimes Americans; sometimes globally) are incompetent, lazy, violent, etc etc. My reactions used to be shocked silence or quiet intellectual anger, followed by rebuttals of their points. Now, if I respond at all (and often I don’t), I simply respond with my own historical knowledge of how we got to where we are today — whether that includes current employment statistics on hiring bias and educational inequality, to historical analysis of wealth-building and legal justice from the colonial era through Jim Crow.

I was raised to be an information warrior — to help speak on behalf of black people to the white mainstream I was trained to go to school and work with. And while I have succeeded in some small part I’ve become increasingly skeptical of the mission. I can’t convince anyone (including black people and people who are neither white nor black) that black people are equal to white people, or immigrants to American-born. Your belief in equality is something you chose from your core. What I can do, and often do, is provide information that can inform our understanding of structures that support or deny equality-in-fact. Whether we want to know the lessons history has to share with us is completely our own choice.

It’s all history.

This is a picture of my mother looking at a picture of herself as a child in the Reginald Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.

Been thinking a lot about family and history.

I’m gearing myself up to begin asking family members if they want to do audio interviews with me, just for a family archive. I am totally neurotic about storytelling and I’d like to talk to everyone — adults and kids — and just get them on tape.

One of the things my Mom did when my sister and I were young were do audiotaped time-capsules. It was literally audio tape back then… cassettes.

Now, you can store hours worth of audio on a tiny SD card.

Anyway, thinking….

And in the meantime, enjoy some photos of my Mom as a child in a verse speaking choir from Turner Station, Maryland… Above, the full choir, with my mom on the bottom row, second to right. Below, a close-up. Another story for another time.

History. We all have it. Why not record it?

Trayvon Martin, The Long Walk to Justice, and Compassion Fatigue

Like so many people, I’ve been following the death of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teen shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain.

(Above, Martin in his football uniform.)

Here’s what we know so far: a man named George Zimmerman called police saying he’d spotted someone wearing a hoodie who was acting suspiciously. Zimmerman himself had previously been arrested, though later charges were dropped, for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer. Yet Zimmerman, against the advice of the dispatcher on the 911 line, pursued the unarmed 17 year old and shot him to death, much of which was captured on audio.

The family and scores of people across the nation have been hammering the Sanford, Florida, authorities for failing to arrest Zimmerman. But now it’s spiraling into a media circus, with the grieving family caught in the middle. The audio of their son’s death is heard on news reports and available on the internet. A little known black militia is claiming they’ll make a citizen’s arrest of Zimmerman, which the family doesn’t want.

The lives of young black men are treated with suspicion and casual indifference by too many. For every case like this that makes headlines, an untold number more pass as par for the course. So while many people are asking for justice for Trayvon Martin, I have to ask myself, as a reporter and an American, how we can leverage the anger over individual incidents into a larger restructuring of perceptions and justice. There’s a well-documented bias against black boys and men, ranging from schools to jobs to the criminal justice system. (It’s worth reading each of the linked studies).

So, where do we go from here? It’s easy to work up ire about individual cases, but harder to work on systemic change. Systemic change is a long process, often tedious, with reversals in both the judicial courts and the court of public opinion. (Remember the exoneration of the five young men wrongly convicted in the Central Park jogger rape case? How many times did their faces flash across tv when they were arrested and convicted, and how many of us today even remember their names?)

(Above: the young men wrongfully convicted in the jogger case. To date, none have received compensation for years in prison.)

Too often, the overwhelming statistical evidence of bias is rebutted by citing individual crimes committed by black boys and men — and certainly those are committed, far too often, usually against African-American victims. I simply hope that in the case of Trayvon Martin, the heat of anger is accompanied by the light of justice. Context is a strong part of justice — tracking patterns and calling out bias. The developing field of data-driven journalism has provided some new ways of tracking how different Americans are treated. For example, data journalist John Keefe of WNYC used police and geographic data sets to show that the highest marijuana posession arrest rates in New York were predominately in minority neighborhoods, although national drug statistics show more use of marijuana by young whites than blacks. The WNYC data was used in conjunction with a story on alleged illegal searches.

Logic doesn’t always carry the day. In the case of racial bias in the criminal justice system, there’s sometimes an implicit tolerance for wrongful actions because, in the minds of people who don’t consider themselves morally compromised, it’s just the cost of keeping order in a chaotic society. The more that we can turn the mirror towards ourselves and ask what compromises we are willing to make to feel safe, and who gets wounded, slandered or killed as a result, the more likely we are to change. Laws are critical, yet on some level change has to come as a result of a sense of moral urgency. During the Civil Rights movement, images of hoses and dogs provoked a sense of moral urgency among people who considered themselves bystanders to racial injustice.

Today, books including The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander are drawing the much needed connections that could lead to a national push for reform. But many other tools are needed. Local news is addicted to crime scene shots, which adds to a sense of paranoia. What if that attention was turned to sorting genuine criminal patterns from citizen paranoia? The law, the media, academia — all have a role in reshaping American justice. But in the end, it’s up to us. There’s a beautiful challenge that the writer Aldous Huxley sets out when he wrote, “There’s only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that’s your own self.” To me, that’s not a contradiction to organized campaigns for justice. It’s a reminder — accountability begins with us. The first thing we can do to be accountable is neither to tune out the horror of a shooting like that of Trayvon Martin, nor to let it push us to unfocused anger. Fear and compassion fatigue may be George Zimmerman’s best allies. Knowledge and persistence are the tools we can use spur justice in this case, and in our nation.

Goodbye, “Good Jobs”

I spoke this spring in Chicago at the convention for the NFBPA, or National Forum for Black Public Administrators, an organization with 2600 members in civil service at the local, state and Federal levels. I talked about something that’s been on my mind: whether African-Americans should exit professions like teaching at a local elementary school; serving in the military; or working at the Post Office.

Public employment is undergoing some of the sharpest cuts of any sector, and black families are feeling the hit. Public-sector employment is the #1 employer of black men and #2 of black women. As the public job pool shrinks rapidly, it constitutes a major mover of African-American unemployment. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, as I discussed with the NFBPA. Public-private partnerships may expand the constituency for public employment, but in this political atmosphere negotiations are fraught. (I spoke at the convention of black public administrators shortly after the showdown in Wisconsin over public labor.)

Public-sector jobs — military, civil service, public k-12 education, public colleges and universities — were a ladder to the middle class for many black families, including my own. (Grandparents: Post Office and Social Security. Mother and siblings: Post Office, US Army, US Marines, Social Security, Baltimore City (schools and water department), Baltimore County (schools). My generation: almost all private sector, save one.)

Good jobs used to come with a promise of stability, leading to a here-until-retirement mentality. No more, not in the private sector or the public. The drop in African-American employment has helped fuel a drop in African-American support for the President. A recent Washington Post-ABC news poll saw the number drop from 83 percent “strongly favorable” to 58 percent now. The Congressional Black Caucus is running a jobs initiative that has challenged the President on his approach to jobs, specifically not addressing the African-American employment crisis as a discrete thing-in-itself. To do so could be political suicide; but to not name the problem could cause widespread African-American voter attrition, particularly around first time voters and those who voted for the first time in 2008.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow recently spoke at a Congressional Black Caucus summit on jobs. He’s also written about the global war for what people used to call “good jobs,” a battle with high stakes beyond money. Jobs have become synonymous, for many of us, with identity and personal happiness — not just in the US but across the world. There are few things people fight for as hard as their sense of self.

Jobs, Race, and Reality

I hate the term “Post Racial.” It’s weasely. You might as well say that you’re post-reality.

To wit: a new report released today by Congress, revealing that 22% of Americans who have been unemployed for a year or more are African-American. The black population is 11.5 percent of the labor force.

I suspect, given the way unemployment figures are counted, that the figures are actually much starker.

The level of African-American joblessness is a profound opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us to restructure the ways we think about social mobility, business ethics, and the impact of employment on issues from mental health to child-rearing. It’s a profound opportunity for us to look at how the demographic least likely to vote for President Obama share many of the same economic issues as African-Americans. I’m talking about white Southerners in economically challenged states like Mississippi and Alabama. (Those states ranked 50 and 42 in per capita income, and ranked the lowest on the percentage of white voters who chose Obama, 11 and 10 percent respectively.) It’s a profound opportunity for us to challenge categories like “African-American” and “white Southerner,” and figure out how we can develop language about groups and constituencies that is not too broad, but does not ignore reality.

Well, that’s a lot of opportunity. There’s a lot of work to do.

The Black President Trap

“For every factual attack, there are a thousand possibilities…and all of them strike down together.”

It’s a line from China Mieville’s speculative fiction novel The Scar, but it could easily describe today’s politics.

President Obama has been described as a socialist and tool of banks and big business; a “racist…who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture” and someone who “hasn’t done much for their [i.e., African-Americans’] bottom line” because “so-called black leaders are much more interested in invitations to the White House…than in raising any kind of ruckus that might benefit people in real trouble. Continue reading »

Post-Racial At What Cost? (Reflections on Obama/Matthews)

After the State of the Union, MSNBC host Chris Matthews made this comment about the President:

He is post-racial, by all appearances. I forgot he was black tonight for an hour. You know, he’s gone a long way to become a leader of this country, and past so much history, in just a year or two. I mean, it’s something we don’t even think about.

What are we to make of that?

Well, the Associated Press did a smart piece (featuring one of my Twitter friends, @profblmkelley) on whether black folks want to give up blackness. (Short answer: no.)

That’s one way of deconstructing Matthews’ statements. What it called up for me was the fundamental question of payback. Andrew Hacker, the author of books including 1992’s Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, wrote about race and voters in the New York Review of Books shortly before the 2008 election:

Resentment of perceived black privilege is also involved, as we have seen with respect to affirmative action, and even fear of some kind of racial payback. Over half of a largely white sample told a Rasmussen poll that they feel Obama continues to share at least some of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s positions on America.

The fear of black payback goes back as far as fear of slave rebellions. In modern politics, it means that some voters fear that black politicians will favor black interests, just as white politicians have often favored white interests. In fact, if you look at the history of American government, there has been a far greater transfer of black wealth to white Americans and skewing of public funds towards non-blacks than the reverse.

Instead of a payback mentality, the Obama Administration seems to deliberately be hands-off on dealing with problems facing black America. Last month, there was a spat between the Congressional Black Caucus and the Administration over whether the administration was doing enough for African-Americans. (According to economist Dr. Julianne Malveaux, the real non-employment rate among African-Americans may be 27%.) This is a struggle to keep an eye on, because it begs the question: is the only way to be a post-racial President to ignore the specific structural inequities of race, and if so, at what cost to the nation?

Reax to Tavis publishing R. Kelly Memoir

Reaction is running hot to Tavis Smiley gearing up to publish R. Kelly’s memoirs.

From the SmileyBooks press release

“I’m writing this book as Robert, not R. Kelly,” the singer says. “I’m tired of being misunderstood. I will show you the tears, fears, and sweat. I will open my heart and reveal the good in my life as well as all the drama. I want to tell it like it is.”

There is no direct mention of the sexual assault allegations that resulted in an acquittal.

From Gina MacCauley’s What About Our Daughters:

I had hoped this was a hoax, but apparently Tavis Smiley, who is accused of gathering large numbers of Black folks together so that they could get pitched predatory Wells Fargo loans (disproportionately affecting Black women) is joining forces with another accused predator, R. Kelly. Its amazing that the primary unifying force in the Black community is EXPLOITATION of women and girls. If you go to TavisTalks.com you will see front and center and item announcing that R. Kelly has joined Smiley Books. When is that State of the Black Union and how do we get a permit to protest it? I’m serious.

The comments are no less critical.

And from Danielle Belton’s The Black Snob:

And this book will be just another in a long line of signifiers to perverts that you can do pretty much anything to a woman, girl, child, whatever, and someone will love your trifling ass anyway because it’s our fault for having vaginas. But for Tavis, and others who claim to be holding the entire race to a higher standard, this is further proof that you never meant to hold anything to any standards ever. That “cash rules everything around you, dollah, dollah bill, ya’ll” and you could seriously give two craps about the implication of being the speakerbox to a known predator. After all, freedom of speech, ya’ll! And SOMEONE was going to publish his book so why not Mr. Accountability? Pardon me while I go regurgitate something.

(Belton’s blog also has a link to a guest post about Smiley and Wells Fargo.)

It provoked a conversation on Twitter where several of us talked about who gets the mic when it comes to representing blackness in media. The short answer, in my mind, is that the people who are the best at getting the mic are people who help build the platform: people like Tavis who are business-builders as well as media-makers. So all critiques have to be funneled through the lens of economics: if you don’t like what one mediamaker does, do you have an alternative brand or model?

What do you think?