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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.