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.