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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I Want to Know What It Feels like to Be Free

I am watching Soledad O'Brian on CNN. She is the Black/Hispanic/mixedrace anchor who is responsible for producing the "Black In America" show which aired a while back. She is about to air Black in America Two" tonight. In the meantime she is interviewing accomplished African Americans about their role models, their mentors, how they became so  accomplished.

The first guest on her show was Professor Henry Louis Gates who talked about being arrested this week by a "rogue/racist" white cop in Harvard Square in his own house. A neighbor reported seeing "two black men" trying to break into a house in the prestigious neighborhood near the University and the police responded.

When the police arrived to find the University professor inside his home they asked him for identification. Dr. Gates made the mistake of requiring them to present their identification as well. After getting their badge numbers ad giving him his ID, proving he was the owner of the house and accusing the officer of racial profiling, he was arrested and charged with "disorderly conduct."

It is a bit difficult to imagine that the distinguished 58 year old scholar, one of the best known and most published black scholars in the country, who standing at only 5'7", weighing 150 lbs, and walking with a cane could have intimidated the three officers present. Dr. Gates reports it was only the intervention of the one black officer who prevented him from having to try to walk with his arms handcuffed behind his back, something that as a disabled man, he would have been incapable of doing without falling.

The rogue cop filed a report full of spurious and false claims but the charges were later dropped although the Cambridge police refuses to admit to any wrongdoing and claims race was not a factor. Numerous black professors would beg to differ. They too have been stopped by Cambridge police for daring to be black on the campus of the most prestigious university in the country. Their white colleagues have not suffered similar fates.

As a professor of African American ancestry I have also been treated in ways my white colleagues never have. I am a success story. I am professor of philosophy. I have become what my grandmother never could have become, no matter how brilliant she was. I am proof of the progress we have made as a race, as a country on the subject of racism. I have had opportunities my Black father never had and I am grateful for this.

We have a black/mixedrace president now. We have Black and Latino news anchors, congresspeople, and businessfolk. We have a Latina woman soon to be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. Her mother never could have achieved that goal no matter how hard she worked. We have come a long way.

But events in recent weeks remind us that we also have a long way to go. Despite my having a PH.D. from the top-rated University in the world (UCBerkeley)  I am on the receiving end of racism on a regular basis. Despite his accomplishments, Dr. Gates was arrested. Despite being the most qualified nominee in a hundred years, Sotomayor experienced racism at the hands of white male congressmen during confirmation hearings. President Obama has had so many threats against his life (more than Lincoln when he was threatening to abolish slavery) he has had to be under more extreme security than any other president in history. Its good to have opportunities, it would be better to be treated as if we deserved them.

Soledad's next guest was a famous national radio show host, Bev Smith. She talked about coming from a long line of African American forebears who fought for justice. Soledad asked her to comment on  the remarks of a little boy who was one of the 60 black and latino summer campers who were subjected to racist remarks and ejected from a private pool in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago. The little boy said he didn't think this kind of thing could happen in America when we have a black president. Bev Smith said, Well we have a lot of symbols, Soledad. We have Obama, we have Oprah, we have am African American professor at Harvard, we have you on CNN... and that's good but that's not enough.

"I am tired of symbols," she said. " I want to know what it feels like to be free."

I agree with Bev. I, too, want to know what it feels like to be free. 

When will that be?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The New Earth: Headed For More Heart

The thunder is rumbling in the distance as I eat the homemade oatmeal and blueberry pancakes I cooked on my new griddle today. I started the day out listening to the  Sotomayer hearings but had to turn the news off after she was forced to sacrifice "heart" as a valuable component of decision-making. 

I understand the fears of her (mostly male) colleagues. After all, as a country we have been led by logicians and masculine authoritarians for our entire history. We have been led by men compelled to subscribe to our culturally-constructed definition of masculinity: a construct that requires dichotomic thinking, the vilification of emotion, and engagement in competitive ego battles. No room for heart there. 

But its time for a change.

The origin of the original "heart" statement now being used by senators to question the nominee, was our president. Some time ago, while responding to a question on how he would nominate judges, Obama said that in 95 percent of Supreme Court decisions, “the law is pretty clear…. But it’s those 5 percent of the cases that really count. And in those 5 percent of the cases, what you got to look at is: What is in the justice’s heart? 

"What’s their broader vision of what America should be?.... we need somebody who’s got the heart … the empathy to recognize what it’s like to be a young, teenaged mom; the empathy to understand what it’s like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old. And that’s the criteria by which I’m going to be selecting my judges.” 

I agree with the man! Let's hear it for more heart!

Obama does not define his manhood the way men most in America do. And this is part of his appeal. He is not afraid to talk about emotion, to have a strong , equally-educated, extremely successful wife. He does not feel the need to prove he is a "real man" by talking endlessly about "victory" in Iraq. He tells complete strangers he loves them. He has empathy.  And that is one of the reasons I voted for him. The masculinist focus of the last 200 years has NOT served us.

Most men in this country get punished for not behaving in a way that is consistent with societal norms of masculinity. Hence the recent rash of suicides by small boys who were being verbally bullied by their classmates who called them "faggots" and "sissies" while their teachers looked the other way. One mother defended her son. "He played football. He tried to fit in" (i.e. he tried to follow the "act like a boy" rules). His efforts did not save him. He had too much heart.

Meanwhile, off in the peace-touting, lovey-dovey corners of the earth, many are talking in glowing terms about an uplifting in consciousness- the creation of a New Earth where so much more is possible. 

More Americans are interested in spirituality than ever, there has been a huge growth in green consciousness, and the younger generation is much less invested in perpetuating racism, sexism, classism and other ubiquitous forms of oppression. Young people are claiming gay and transgender identities earlier in life and demands for freedom are being made worldwide. And we elected a mixed-race black Hawaiian who has heart and are about to confirm a wise Latina as a Supreme Court justice.

With change comes resistance. Kicking and screaming is inevitable during times of accelerated growth and we should not be put off by it. A new, improved earth is on the way, one filled with heart, wise latinas, sensitive men, happy gay people, black people in power, animals free from abuse, healthy food, the flourishing of a green planet and the expansion of consciousness.

So, I am not going to worry. My high-fiber, high in antioxident, organic pancakes taste good and I am not frightened by the sound of booming thunder in the distance.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Michael Jackson and the New Racism

It hasn't been easy following the news coverage of MJ's death. The man's body was not yet cold when the mud-slinging began. Allegations of drug abuse and repeated references to charges he was acquitted of in 2005 dominated early reports. 

Eventually so many people complained about it that CNN changed its programing. Despite the fact that millions worldwide were paying tribute to the man in the streets, VH1, MTV, and BET, along with other news sources stopped covering the pop star's life early on. Some people complained that they didn't want to keep hearing about Michael Jackson because they wanted to hear world news.

But as my brilliant sister so eloquently put it, when people in every country on the planet are mourning your death and celebrating your life, you ARE world news.

Every single white person I know, without exception, had something negative to say about this man before he was buried. Without exception.

People working in the morgue where his body was examined "leaked" the graphic details of the state of his corpse to the press.

Old rumors that he bleached his skin because he wanted to be white resurfaced and were repeated as if they were the gospel. 

Long drawn-out narratives of his 2005 trial implying he was guilty, despite the fact that he was acquitted of all 14 counts by a conservative, upper-class, overwhelmingly white jury, were repeated on every channel.

Before his young children had a chance to deal with the shocking loss of their father, news reporters were claiming they were too white to be the biological children of Michael.

White addicts I know and white doctors claiming to be experts in addiction have been quick to label him an addict (before any toxicology report is out), pretending there was no real distinction between taking an anesthetic for insomnia and taking heroin or drinking alcohol to get high and escape your problems.

We have not seen this type of treatment in the death of white stars and we won't. You don't have to be a fan of Michael Jackson's to care about this story. You just have to be someone who is intolerant of racism.

This is the new racism. It is hard to pin down. It is more subtle than the racism some of us grew up with. People don't call colored folk nigg*%s! anymore. They find other ways to question and undermine everything a black or brown person does. I know because I experience it on a regular basis. 

Its ugly, its insidious and its ubiquitous.

It is the tone of voice that shop clerks, bank clerks, co-workers use to talk to you. Its the lack of respect given for one's life, one's needs, one's family, one's schedule. Its the insinuations that you are lacking, are not good enough, do not deserve something you have, do not belong where you are. It is the automatic doubting of the veracity of any story you tell about your life. It is the ever-present unfounded suspicion. It is the repeated challenge to your authority no matter your position or your education. This is the face of the new racism. Its harder to prosecute but it still exists, it still damages lives. It still crushes the souls of black folk.

Normally we respect the dead. Normally we treat those in mourning  with respect. Normally we say good things about the dead. There is even a social taboo regarding speaking ill of the dead. We wait until they have been buried awhile before we dish the dirt.

But when a black person does good in this country white people get mad. They don't always know how to express this anger and in truth many may not be aware of the depth of their rage or its origin. But the expression of this rage is so evident whenever a black person succeeds in a big way in this country. Especially if his or her accomplishments eclipse those of whites.

Normally when a candidate of an opposing party wins an election people are frustrated, disappointed, maybe even angry. But when Obama  ran for office, people weren't just disappointed, they were violent. It was ugly. Acts of hate speech and hate violence spiked during and after his campaign, according to the FBI. Gun sales skyrocketed in the days following his election. I personally heard more racist hate speech  and experienced more discreet acts of subtle racism during that campaign than I had experienced during the last twenty years (accounts of some of these incidents can be found in my blog archive)

The explicit and dire acts of racist violence have died down but the new racism continues unabated. We are not now a non-racist country, racism has simply morphed. Racists find new and more creative ways to explain their bad behavior towards people with pigment. The disrespectful way in which Jackson's death and corpse were treated is just one example of this new racism.

Just a quick review of this week's news reveals the ubiquity of this new racism:

A white firefighter is testifying against Porto Rican Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor for "reverse discrimination" after the Supreme Court upheld his case this week. One form of the new racism is the claim that all Black folks of note or in power are  reverse racists. It's not enough for us to pretend that whites are no longer responsible for racism or its impact on the lives of blacks and browns, now they have to turn racism into a black thing.

Black children were forced to hear racist comments from white private swim club members, to watch all the white children exit the pool when they got in, and then were ejected from a swimming pool in Philadelphia after paying $1900 to swim, because, according to the club employee, they were ruining the "complexion" of the club. What is the likely defense? It had nothing to do with race.

But back to the world news: Michael Jackson.
White people and non-white people alike have accused Michael Jackson of "wanting to be white." ever since his skin started to lighten in the '90s. As soon as he died this rumor began re-surfacing with a vengeance. Its as if nobody can believe that a black man could be that talented and that successful without wanting to be white. 

The man modeled himself heavily after great black music and dance legends like James Brown, the Supremes, and Diana Ross; he had black stars in all his videos; he was the first black artist to desegregate MTV, he was the first to portray Egyptians as Black people, he wrote about racism, and accused his own record label of being racist. He was the first American to raise millions of dollars for Africans and he gave millions to the United Negro College Fund, among many other charities. He was the only major pop star ever to positively portray Native Americans, Africans,  and South American Indigenous folk in his videos. And despite all this evidence of his love for Black and Brown people, when he came on national TV, on the Oprah Winfrey show in 1993 (yes, 16 years ago!) and told the world he had a disfiguring skin disease that turned his skin white nobody believed him.  

It is racism that makes us think it preposterous that a black person would love his blackness.

Last week Deepak Chopra, a famous Indian physician and author, confirmed that  Michael had vitiligo.

Last night his white dermatologist, Dr. Arnie Klein in an interview with Larry King, once again confirmed that the star had vitiligo and that it was so widespread and severe that "depigmentation treatment" was his only option. Ne did not bleach his skin to look white. He got a treatment for a serious skin disease that had already caused depigmentation. The treatment resulted in the loss of his remaining pigment.

Why was his own explanation doubted? Why did everyone assume a black man of mammoth talent and unparalleled success, who could dance and sing and write and produce better than any white person ever has, would want to be white?

The new racism.