Racism: Not So Black & White by James Gribble Jr.

April 26, 2012

After a series of strange events brought on by a tweet I tweeted about a stinky elephant, I asked James Gribble Jr. to write a guest blog about racism. He kindly obliged. Below are his thoughts…

Racism: Not So Black & White by James Gribble Jr.

“Racism is that big, ugly elephant in the room that many people would rather ignore, even though he’s stinking up the place.”

I have to disagree slightly with my brother, Ryan. But we’ll get to that later. When he posted that statement to several social networks a few weeks ago, he got a lot of responses–both positive and negative. Mostly positive, though.

But there was one particular comment that caught my eye. It was from an acquaintance of Ryan, whom we will call Chaz. Now, Chaz has since deleted his comments, which, in all honesty, was probably best. But his nightmare is not over because, alas, my memory is not quite as bad as I tell my wife it is.

Chaz’s first post read pretty much as follows: “Are poverty-stricken blacks really disadvantaged in any way that poverty-stricken whites are not?”

That question reeks of myopia. The stench is palpable. “Racism”, here, has been narrowed to “a disproportionate poverty-induced social disadvantage”. This is also the problem that I have with Ryan’s statement. It reduces racism to something that is clearly visible and either acknowledged or ignored.

And that’s why, though I responded to Chaz, I didn’t really answer his question. I replied:

“Chaz, there are answers to that question. We could run through some statistics, if you’d like. But I’m pretty sure Google’s way more informative than me.

But let’s ask some different questions. Why is the ratio of poverty-stricken blacks to other blacks so much greater than that of their white counterparts? Why is the black incarceration rate so much higher than that of whites? Why do so few blacks hold positions of prominence in the corporate, religious, political, and academic sectors? Why are blacks so underrepresented and stereotyped in popular media? Why do little black girls pretend that they have long, flowing, blond hair? Why is the president black and Zimmerman non-white?

How many of our parents watched with their naked eye or participated in one of Dr. King’s marches or rallies? How many of our great grandparents were slaves/slave-owners or children of slaves/slave-owners? How many of our grandparents were raised by Nazi Party or KKK members?

And that’s just black Americans. Don’t get me started on “American owned and operated” convenience stores, Indian reservations, Japanese concentration camps, illegal immigration of natives, the country of Africa, Indian/Arab/Persian/North-African, “Orientals”, “Mexicans”, and a load of other things.

As long as we’re asking questions.”

The first set of questions are about the social and political systems which apply limits on individuals’ rights (not limited to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness) on the basis of race. Systems is what this is about. But, again, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll get to that later.

The second set of questions was intended to highlight the nearness of the sort of racism that goes beyond those systems to the conscious, chosen bigotry and hatred of The KKK, Jim Crow, and even slavery. The sort of nearness brought to mind by the fact that two of John Tyler’s grandsons are alive today (http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/115058). John Tyler was the tenth president of the USA. Abraham Lincoln, if you know your history, was the sixteenth! John Tyler died during the Civil War as a Confederate congressman. His grandsons are alive right now.

As the poet, Shihan, said “I’m sick of people acting like slavery doesn’t affect the present state of blacks in this country when slavery was a race with a four hundred and fifty year head start for everyone else. Plus, truth be told, my grandmother’s grandmother was a slave, so it wasn’t that far back.” There’s no denying the existence of the sort of racism that is passed from parents to children, the sort of bigotry that have led the parents of several friends of mine to (surprisingly explicitly) forbid them to associate with black males. And there is no doubt that the children of the Jim Crow era, of the KKK, and of the Nazi Party–children who now run the world–are influenced by the not so distant past.

“But,” as Shihan goes on to say, “I’m sick of us still using it as an excuse.” Which takes us back to systems and, for a third time, to Ryan’s statement. The fact is, systematic racism does not only affect the thoughts and behavior of white people. Why do one-third of black men have criminal records? Could it have as much to do with the perception of an education as an unreachable pipedream as it does with the profiling of black men by police? I think so.

That is why Chaz’s next comment disturbed me even more. Rambling in what, he later admitted, was a sleeping-pill induced rant, he insinuated that the reason that blacks are not as well off as whites is because we simply have chosen to not work hard. He claimed that plenty of white people are born into poverty then work to bring themselves and their families out.

He also mentioned that black people do get great rolls in entertainment media. As an example, he cited Mr. T.

My response:

“So (and correct my summaries of your responses if I’m wrong), you feel that there is a great enough disparity in levels of effort and commitment between whites and blacks to produce the differences in economic levels and mobility? Would you say that such apathy and lack of vision is genetic (black people are inherently lazy) or learned (black people are shaped at an early age by a culture of laziness)?

As far as Mr. T., dude was a minstrel. He, along with Flava Flave, Steve Harvey, Mo’Nique, Lil’ Wayne, and a ton of other entertainers have been holding civil rights back like a 30mph headwind.

You thought “I pity da fool!” before you thought “But you don’t have to take my word for it.” (But, of course, Levar isn’t really black. He was the whitest black guy on public television. Amiright?)

Nothing against Mr. T. He seems like a fine guy. And he can play whatever roles he wants to play. But the question is “Why are blacks so underrepresented and stereotyped in popular media?” Mr. T isn’t the best actor. And he wasn’t the best role model. He was a stereotype. That was his role (granted, that was everyone’s role on that show). That was his job. That’s what he got paid to do every day. And that’s the first iconic black person you thought of. And that’s my point.”

He missed the whole point! Even if we removed all the outside barriers and pretended that it wasn’t a statistical fact that blacks are prosecuted and sentenced with prejudice, discriminated against in employment at all levels, and poorly represented in media, we would still be left with a self-perpetuating internal system which most black Americans do not even realize exists!

Who teaches the young black male in the inner city about the dangers of bankrolling one’s college education with student loans? Who tells them how to work the state/private/community college system to minimise cost while maximising potential? Who shows them around government grants, scholarships, work-aid programs, lodging options, etc.? Are black men just that lazy as a people that we would drop out of school at such high rates or are there systems in place which are leading us by the hand down paths that white men (as a general rule) would never even consider? Are black men just that eager to fall in line with the stereotypes presented in the media or are we being conditioned, on a neurological level, by Pavlovian, Skinnerian processes from the moment we first laid eyes on a Television?

Like Mr. T. What did Mr. T. teach us? Which of the team’s perennial problems did he ever solve? Only the ones which could be solved by cracking skulls, by being a bad-ass mother-[shut-yo-mouth!]. Mr. T., clearly an integral member of the A-Team. This is one of the things I love so much about Star Trek: The Next Generation. Levar Burton played Lt. Geordi Laforge, the Enterprise’s chief Engineer. Geordi’s job, his role on the show, was the solve problems, lead the crew, and counsel the ship’s captain. Geordi didn’t “talk black”. Geordi didn’t “walk black”. Geordi didn’t “dress black”. Geordi simply was black. Levar Burton simply is black

And so is Mr. T. And so is Cornell West. And so is Kanye West. And so is Yasiin Bey. And so is Kat Williams, Bill Cosby, Clarence Gilyard, Yolanda Adams, Condolisa Rice, Mo’Nique, Saul Williams, Robert Glasper, Michelle Obama. And those are just some Americans off the top of my head.

But, when Chaz thinks of a black person who gets a fair shake in the American entertainment media as someone representative of and a role model for the larger black community, his first thought is not a harvard professor, US secretary of state, godfather of the modern family sitcom, world-renowned poet, or the man who taught America to read. His first thought is B. A. Baracus!

That’s a systematic problem!

Now, I don’t think that Chaz hates black people. Nor do I think that he is intentionally suppressing acknowledgement of influential blacks. I think he’s been fooled as much as anyone. A fish doesn’t know the pollution of the water in which they have swam since their hatching. I think he’s a fish who has never been forced to question whether the waters in which he swims are as clean as they can be. But when he does, he will be faced with a choice: address the smelly elephant or find some Fabreze.

P.S. A tweet I read this morning: Ferrari Shepherd (@stopbeingfamous) said, “C.P Sheppard owned my grandfather Bright Sheppard and sold him to A.O.P. Nicholson, a US Senator”. Slavery–seems like it was just yesterday.


Trayvon Martin Smear Campaign…

March 27, 2012

I was really hoping it wouldn’t happen, but I can’t say I haven’t been uneasily awaiting the impending inevitability of a smear campaign against Trayvon Martin. I saw its conception, as whispers began about the theories for Trayvon’s “mysterious” school suspension. And then it began to take shape as people’s racist rhetoric and pictures flooded my Facebook newsfeed and Twitter timeline; “he shouldn’t have been dressed like a thug”, a picture of Trayvon wearing a gold grill on his bottom teeth, a picture of “Trayvon” (that was not actually even him, but just another random black kid) giving the camera the middle finger with his shirt off, and videos and articles with ridiculous comments made by Right Wing leaders and commentators.

And suddenly, the ugly beast was birthed in full effect, and the real smear campaign commenced. Zimmerman, painting himself as the victim, reported that Trayvon was the aggressor and attacked him. The Sanford Police Station unjustifiably leaked information about Trayvon’s school suspension (he was caught with a trace-amount of marijuana), as if that had anything to do with this case. There have even been ridiculous, erroneous claims that Trayvon was a drug dealer. And in general, Trayvon has begun to be painted as the “typical thugged-out, blinged-up, gang-affiliated, violent, drugged-up” stereotype of black man, ostensibly “justifying” his murder for White America. It is devastating, and sad, and sick. It makes me weak.

His mother said, “They’ve killed my son and now they’re trying to kill his reputation.”

I don’t know what is more heinous in my eyes, how the media is unashamedly ripping apart the character of a voiceless murder victim, or how certain people are so quick to jump on the smear bandwagon with their, “See! I told you so,” posts and attitudes. What I do know, is Trayvon’s suspension for trace-amounts of marijuna has nothing to do with this case, except for the fact that Trayvon probably would not have been there on that dreaded night, had he not been suspended by the “Zero Tolerance” policies of the school, because he was visiting his father during his suspension. I also know that in the United States it is statistically proven that though white kids are more likely to use drugs, black kids (making up 70% of all youth reported to authorities by schools but only 18% of the school population in the U.S.) are more likely than their white peers to be suspended from school for drugs.

Speaking of white kids’ drug use, I smoked weed in high school. And I smoked way more than trace amounts. Does that mean that it would have been okay for some self-proclaimed neighborhood watch vigilante to gun me down? Nope. But come on, are you really trying to say that the possibility of Trayvon smoking weed at some point, and getting suspended from school vindicates his murder? Please! That makes about as much sense as the picture of the random black kid who is not even Trayvon providing reason for his death.

This is one of my actual Facebook pictures from 2011. Maybe if I am murdered it will be used to determine that I deserved it.

As for Zimmerman’s reports that Trayvon attacked him, I think he’s lying. And yes, I am entitled to my own opinion. Sure, I definitely believe they probably got into a scuffle when Zimmerman confronted Trayvon, which would explain the scrapes Zimmerman received on his face. Trayvon might have even gotten in a few good punches, because he felt threatened by the strange man who had followed and then confronted him. But no, I do not believe Trayvon turned around, chased Zimmerman down, and beat him to the ground, as Zimmerman is trying to claim.

I am not professing to know what happened that evening. The truth is, the only two people who know exactly what happened are George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Most unfortunately, one of them was killed by the other one and is therefore unable to give his account. We may never know all the details of what really went down. I am not trying to paint Trayvon Martin as a perfect angel, nor George Zimmerman as an evil demon. I am merely trying to say that it is ludicrous to get caught up in the media’s smear campaign aimed at a dead child.

We don’t know all the facts, but here are some important things to remember:

It is more than a month after the murder took place. Of course Zimmerman has had plenty of time to speak with his lawyer and anyone else, working up a solid story that would protect him under the Stand Your Ground law. Let us also remember that police did not check Zimmerman for toxicity on the evening. If he had been under the influence of a substance, which he very well may have been, it could have given explanation as to why he was hyped up enough to kill someone, why his judgement was clouded, or why his recollections of the events may not be accurate.

Zimmerman was renowned for both habitually calling 911, and racially profiling young black men. In Zimmerman’s 911 call we see that he has already labelled Trayvon as “up to know good” and classed him in the category of those who “always get away”. You can hear when he begins walking fast or even jogs as he follows Trayvon and breathes heavily into the phone. The dispatcher told him they don’t need him to do that. He says ok, but you can hear that he does not stop, and continues moving swiftly and breathing heavily.

Now, the media says there is about a minute after this call where we “don’t know what happened”. That’s actually not true because Trayvon was speaking on the phone with a friend. His friend recounts, “He said this man was watching him, so he put his hoodie on. He said he lost the man. I asked Trayvon to run, and he said he was going to walk fast. I told him to run, but he said he was not going to run.” His friend said he eventually began to run, and thought he had managed to escape, but suddenly said the “strange man” was back, which concerned Trayvon. “Trayvon said, ‘What are you following me for,’ and the man said, ‘What are you doing here.’ Next thing I hear is somebody pushing, and somebody pushed Trayvon because the head set just fell. I called him again, and he didn’t answer the phone.” And then the line went dead. That does not fit with the “Now you’ve got a problem!!” kind of threat that Zimmerman is claiming.

Then, of course, we have the horrible 911 call from the neighbor, where you don’t have to be a voice recognition specialist to hear that the screams, cries and pleas for help are not Zimmerman’s. A couple of the witnesses (who only heard what was going on or saw vague figures) on the night have reported that they were told by police to say the screams came from Zimmerman, when they were not even sure what was going on. They have come back and retracted those statements.

As I’ve said, I wasn’t there on the evening, so I don’t know. But from the evidence we have, it seems to me that Zimmerman was the aggressor from the beginning, not Trayvon.

Trayvon Martin, White Denial and “Post-Racial America”…

March 26, 2012

It happened again. Another tragedy-turned-headline sparked a torrent of racial debates. I saw this happen time and time again in South Africa, as it often does here in America; people don’t want to talk about the existence of racism, they say it’s not a problem, and then a race-based crime makes headlines and the racial battle rages. The problem is, these battles often leave us further polarized in our views of reality, no real healing or resolve is brought, and after the headline disappears from our TV and computer screens, the average person retreats back into silence about the matter.

What is most troubling to me, during both the media hype and the lull, is there are people who genuinely seem to believe that racism is not a problem. Most of those people I come in contact with are white people, too blinded by their own privilege to see any other alternatives. They are quick to tell you “racism is not a problem anymore”, and “cases like these have nothing to do with race”, but they are even quicker to tell you how, if anything, they are discriminated against. There are even those amongst that group of white people who try to invalidate the experiences of discrimination people of color face on a daily basis, experiences told by the only experts on the matter: the very people who experience them!

I guess it makes sense that people completely unaffected by discrimination could never really understand it. They have never felt what it’s like to be the outside of their privilege-enabled protection. They have never felt what it’s like to have paranoid, watchful eyes on them in almost every store they’ve ever gone in. They have never been stopped by the police for merely being “black and walking.” They have never felt the sting of a fake smile matched with a pair of eyes, that have predetermined they are superior, looking down on them. They have probably never been called a racial slur. They have not had to deal with the tragic ramifications that systemic racism plays on their day-to-day life. If they are reading this, they are probably rolling their eyes right now. They are untouched. Their privilege blinds them, and their denial protects them as they live on in blissful ignorance.

These people will also try to tell you that speaking about racism only perpetuates the problem. They say that we are only “making the problem worse by trying to make this about racism”. I won’t even beg to differ. I will just differ. Racism is the problem. Not speaking about racism perpetuates it. Not intentionally acting against racism is unpardonable. If we ignore racism, it will not “just go away”. We are not dealing with an imaginary Boogie Man fabricated by the mind of a frightened child. Racism is real, and it negatively impacts the lives of millions of people in America. In one of his lectures, Tim Wise said there is no other social ill we take this “talking about it only perpetuates the problem” stance with. Imagine if we told our kids, “If you just ignore AIDS it will go away,” or, “As long as you don’t talk about drug abuse, drug addiction amongst teens will stop.” Absurd!

No matter how you look at it, George Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin, seeing him as “suspicious” because he was black, and that is what began the tragic series of events that led to the murder of an innocent child. Period. Now, more than a month later, the killer remains armed and free, sending the message, whether intentional or not, that young black men’s lives in America are completely disposable. But somehow the truth gets muddied by people not wanting to call a spade a spade. And like the magician’s hand, waving around in the air, concealing the trick he’s doing in his other hand, we get distracted and caught up in arguments over Zimmerman’s race, Trayvon’s articles of clothing being the “real killer”, and the young black victim’s past.

People try to disprove a killer’s discriminatory motives by saying, “Zimmerman is only half white, and he’s half Hispanic,” as if other races are not capable of racism. Geraldo Rivera tries to say the hoodie is just as much responsible for Trayvon’s death as Zimmerman is, as if thousands of children don’t wear hoodies every day without getting murdered. Right Wing leaders try to draw attention to the fact that Trayvon had been suspended from school, suggesting he was a “troublemaker”, as though it is perfectly alright to gun down random troublemakers in the streets. Normal, everyday, loving white parents of white children say Trayvon “should not have ran, fought, or tried to get away from Zimmerman”, as if they would tell their child not to run, or do anything to get away from a strange grown man, stalking them on their way home from buying candy from a store on a dark, rainy night.

Does he look suspicious?

Zimmerman’s race doesn’t matter if his reason for noticing Trayvon was because of Trayvon’s race. What Trayvon was wearing doesn’t matter if white children wearing the same thing don’t get killed for the alleged “fashion faux pas”. Whatever might have happened in Trayvon’s life before that dreadful night doesn’t matter if all he was doing that night was walking home from the store, talking to a girlfriend on his cellphone, armed only with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Tea. Trayvon was “suspicious” because he was black, and that is the root of the problem. His killer remains free and that only complicates the problem further. What will indeed perpetuate this problem is if we are not dedicated to the continuation of this racial dialogue met with appropriate action, even after sweet Trayvon has left the peripheral of our sight.

Racism is a problem in America, and we should be just as vigilant at fighting it as we are with any other social ill. And for those who boast that we live in a “Post-Racial America” and say that racism is not a problem…I cannot believe that anyone has honestly convinced themselves of this, unless they have truly deceived themselves into believing that hundreds of years of oppression, inequality and injustice dealt out by the hands of a racist system have magically “fixed themselves” and the direct manifestations birthed by that very system, in less than a quarter of the time it took to create this mess. I would go as far to say that if that connection is not being made, the person unable to make the connection is more unwilling to make it than unable. Why bring attention to the injustices and inequalities of a system that benefits you? It’s called denial.