I am becoming increasingly irritated by comments suggesting that racism no longer exists or thrives in America. I cringe with each “America is post-racial” comment or insinuation. Every “race is simply a by-product of capitalist exploitation: it will fall with capitalism” statement causes my skin to crawl and my stomach to ache. Each “If WE were in power, we’d be just as oppressive,” or “It’s not REALLY about race, but money” line causes my heart to palpitate.
I am not a political hypochondriac; the “pain” I feel and observe among my people is REAL and statements that reflect the sentiments above only mock that pain. I recently appeared on the new Biography Channel series “Gangster: The Most Evil,” which explored the legacy of former Harlem kingpins Azie Faison, Rich Porter, and Alberto “Alpo” Martinez. I was no doubt invited to participate because I co-authored Azie Faison’s memoir, “Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler.” I literally shocked the interviewers by mentioning that the popular “American Gangster” series formerly aired by B.E.T. was wrongly titled. “It should have been named “Black Male Gangsters in America,” I noted. Because while the title of the series referred to American gangsters, the series itself generally chronicled the criminal activities of Black youth in America’s “inner-cities.” The new Biography series is even more guilty of this mischaracterization. It is titled “Gangsters: The Most Evil.” So far episodes have explored a Latina female, Two Black men along with a Latino male, a Chinese man, and the next will look at another Latino male. Again, the entire world watching this series might believe that people of color are the quintessential (even “most evil”) American gangsters! This despite the fact that the most murderous and impacting criminals in the history of America have been white. In fact, far from being decried or critiqued, their legacy of “organized crime” has become the stuff of legend and admiration. Why the differential treatment and depiction of Black and white criminals? Race.
The first and most wicked American gangsters – according to my reading of history – would be those whites that engineered and profited from the Transatlantic slave trade of Africans and the wholesale theft of Native American land leading to their subsequent ghettoization on reservations. Running a close second would be infamous FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover who using the most insidious methods of deception was partially responsible for the arrest and deportation of Marcus Garvey in the 1920s all the way up to the harassment of Black communists in the 1930s-50s and the dismantlement of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 50s-70s. The man behind communist witch-hunts and the Counterintelligence Program; 50 years of illegal persecution, spying, and outright murder on his hands, but why isn’t he considered a “gangster?” Race. How about President Ronald Reagan who during his administrations invaded Grenada, and killed its popular leader Maurice Bishop? Or the role he played in the Iran-Contra affair, where he signed off on the illegal sale of guns and drugs overseas which eventually manifested itself in high homicide rates and the influx of cocaine and crack in Black neighborhoods during the 80s? Why isn’t HE seen as an “American gangster?” Race. And this does not begin to address similar atrocities whites have committed against other populations of color including Australian Aborigines, and Asians. (Naturally, none of these comments appeared in the documentary).
From the 1600s on, race and racism have been not only existed in America, but have been an inextricable thread woven into the American social and political fabric. At a time when the vast majority of the nation were the illiterate and poor victims of capitalist planters and industrialists (which should have led to interracial class warfare) whites satisfied themselves by saying “I may be poor and dumb, but I ain’t no nigger!” Thus, race not only served to make to debilitate and inferiorize Blacks, but provided whites with a grand illusion of superiority which prevented them from challenging their own oppression! From the end of Reconstruction up to WWII as documented in James Anderson’s book The Education of Blacks in the South, the entire debate over the form and content Black education would assume, was dominated by thoughts of racial and class subjugation. Almost the entire country adopted the Hampton-Tuskegee model of industrial education (popularized by Samuel Armstrong and Booker T. Washington) in which reading, writing, research, critical thinking and computation took a back seat to hygiene, submissive racial etiquette and very limited agricultural learning. One’s social mobility and right to education, employment, housing, political power, legal protection and freedom of expression were legally based on race and only ended (arguably) during the 1960s, only 4 decades ago! Racially segregated Black soldiers proudly returning to the the U.S after WWI were hunted down and lynched, many times in their uniforms, and their counterparts in WWII and the Vietnam Wars received massive unemployment and discrimination as rewards for their bravery and sacrifice. Why? Race.
Not only Blacks, but those perceived to be too sensitive to Black issues and interests were persecuted. The worst thing a white person could be called for many years in this country was a “nigger lover.” The two U.S. Presidents perceived to have been too accommodating to Black empowerment – Lincoln and Kennedy – were publicly assassinated! And now, even in our supposedly “post-racial” society, President Barack Obama faces levels of unfair scrutiny, blame and hatred (along with uncritical support) unknown to former presidents. Why? Race.
Some of us with a communist or socialist orientation, might insist that racism is simply a by-product of capitalist exploitation. While it is true that we cannot study America meaningfully without taking class issues into account, this still does not negate the existence and tenacity of race. Study the 50s and 60s. If discrimination stemmed completely from issues of profit, why would white southern business owners refuse service to Black people? Wouldn’t this go against their desire to make money? Sure it did. But their preoccupation with race caused them to dismiss their profit motives didn’t it? When the Supreme Court passed its 1954 Brown v. Board decision prohibiting racial segregation in public schools, and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus used to National Guard to prevent Black students from entering Central High School then later temporarily closed down EVERY public school in the state rather than admit Black students, how did he justify it? Race. When white citizens throughout America quickly fled their neighborhoods and business in the 70s upon witnessing a surge of Blacks in their population, why did they participate in “white flight?” Sure, they believed their property values would decrease, along with their personal safety and the quality of their businesses and schools. Why? Race. More recently, when the white guy in Boston killed his pregnant wife, or the white woman strapped her babies into the car and ran it into the river, who did they both say was responsible for such egregious acts? Black men! Why? Because they knew that in this country, Black men were believed to be innately violent and predatory. They knew the public would believe this lie. Why? Race.
But don’t trust my exhortations or claims. Read Andrew Hacker’s book Two Nations, Black and White, or Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, or any number of books written by Black and white intellectuals which demonstrate how this country still maintains remnants of racial apartheid. Compare median Black and white incomes, infant mortality and incarceration rates, property ownership, school quality, etc. Ask yourselves the rhythmical question, “If police brutality is not about race, how come its victims NEVER have a WHITE face?” Observe which people get followed around the department store by security and “helpful” workers. Take note of the roles we land or how we’re generally depicted in Hollywood. Or the looks of suspicion you receive when riding the elevator or driving your stylish car. Make no mistake, despite progress in ANY and every area, Black and Brown people still operate under unfair scrutiny, discrimination and prejudice due to our presumed race. Despite Barack Obama, Oprah, Magic Johnson, or Jay Z and Beyonce, the insidious whispers of racism still present themselves….”Don’t trust them,” “He’s probably a drug dealer,” “She’s a welfare cheat,” “Why should I respect HER authority on this issue,” “I feel threatened around him,” “Do YOU have insurance,” “Our store doesn’t do lay-away.”
Like the cancer it is, racism does not go away from our failure to acknowledge it, nor does its seeming remission indicate that it’s gone for good. We must take our heads out of the sand of fear and denial and EXPOSE and CHALLENGE it! We owe this to our ancestors, ourselves and our progeny. Even the supposedly self-inflicted harm we witness in our communities (Black violence, competitiveness, and resentment) are manifestations in some way of over four centuries of white supremacist ideology and behavior that we have internalized. As one Black preacher noted, we have been taught that “We are nothing, have nothing, can do nothing,” and many of us therefore see our Black or Brown skin as badges of inferiority, failure and shame. Observe how we depict ourselves in media, or how we refer to each other. Check out the television shows, music, or books that captivate so many of our youth. Notice how after decades of police brutality we still refuse to defend our communities. Ponder how we’ll study our great leaders but fail to implement their blueprints. Examine how we’ll accept white authority but reject and dismiss our own experts and intellectuals working on our behalf. Admit how easy it is for some of us to be absorbed into or brainwashed by so many cults and con artists. Contemplate the ease with which simple disagreements among us brew into full-blown hostility and violence.
So as we identify and challenge racism from whites, we must also rigorously identify and eliminate our own self-hatred. Instead of fixing our mouths to ignore or deny racism’s existence, we must fix ourselves and our communities to challenge it…or the “joke” we think it to be will ultimately be on US….