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August 2011
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Four Reasons To Not Be Black in America

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by Esface Black

In the run-up to the 2012 election, where President Obama faces perhaps a tougher battle for re-election (a nation divided with the Tea Party poised squarely in the center, stalled job growth, looming unemployment, and ever-present global crises) than he did for his initial victory, it’s plainly evident that the famed post-racial America never came to pass. It seems that every day there’s new evidence to show that not only has America not progressed towards racial harmony over the past few years, but may have actually digressed. The problem persists, though, that bringing up these instances in normal conversation still invokes notions of being racially paranoid. Oh stop it, you’re just putting race into the situation. Comments and internal monologues such as this are allowed to flourish because of the 2008 mythos of having vaulted past race as an identifying factor in America. Unfortunately, we vaulted ourselves not over a bar of achievement, but into a pit of denial and thus further racial angst, as demonstrated by these seemingly separate, but racially entwined examples.

Nivea – Re-Civilize Yourself
Nivea recently launched an ad campaign that screams racial bias. One poster contains an image of a handsome, clean shaven Black man on a football field poised in a Olympic-style discus-throwing position, clutching a severed, afroed mannequin head in tow in place of a discus. The text reads in bold letters, “Re-Civilize Yourself.” One could step back from the racial dynamics and think logically about what the ad’s creators were trying to convey. The ad shows a clean-shaven man, presumably “throwing away” his uncivilized, i.e. unshaven, self in place of a more clean Nivea-made version of himself. Sure, this makes sense. But then we see the counter ad, geared towards a white audience. This image shows a white man in a suit, seated in a casino, adjusting his cufflinks. Standing just over him is another white man, in a fashionable collared shirt, placing a bet on the roulette table. The tagline reads “Look Like You Give a Damn.” This ad conveys confidence, one that the ad’s producers probably feel that Nivea bestows on its users.

Given that there are two simultaneous ads, the issue is clear. The white ad centers on confidence, the Black one around being civilized. The entire campaign is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Lebron James cover on Vanity Fair, where race was clearly a factor not only in the posing of Lebron and the model Gisele, but also in the choice of sexually veiled words on the cover (“PERFECT FIT” in all caps). Although Nivea has since issued an apology, the damage is done. The apology, posted on Nivea’s facebook page, features 89 comments (at the time of this article). One person in particular says he will no longer support Nivea, not because the advertisement was deemed racist, but because Nivea backed down from what he feels “was a simple, funny and non-racial advertisement.” Others leave comments attempting to stem the racial conversation before it starts, demanding that those who are offended stop crying racism from “white America” and ask themselves if they are productive members of society. To this category of response I say, what’s the point of being productive if at the end of the day you are deemed uncivilized?

Glenn Beck Hates Black Spider-Man

I am an avid comic books fan, Spider-Man being one of my three favorite heroes (the other two being Wolverine and most incarnations of the Black Panther). To keep this segment simple for non-comic book readers, just know that there are two versions of the comic book Spider-Man: regular Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Man, sort of like a parallel universe. While regular Spider-Man (on whom the movie and cartoon franchises are largely based) remains untouched, it is Ultimate Spider-Man (an equally large franchise that has yet to be popularized on outside of comic books) who faces the biggest change. Long story short, Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter Parker, dies and is replaced by a half-Black half-Latino guy named Miles Morales. While comic book fans make the usual quibble over the death of a beloved hero and his subsequent replacement (similar to the squabbles made when Captain America died and was replaced by a string of temporary costumed heroes), political pundits have found need to comment on the situation. In particular, Glenn Beck believes replacing a white Spider-Man with a half-Black counterpart is a plot by Michelle Obama to drastically bend America towards her own world vision.

Again, the situation is not so much that Marvel Comics sought to kill off a highly regarded hero and (temporarily) replace the person with someone else. This happens all the times in comics, and comic book fans know and expect this. It’s not even that the replacement is a minority, although it is very rare to find that a major hero is ever replaced by a minority (though it did happen once with Superman). The issue is not even that there is confusion, angst, disappointment, and a wealth of other emotional reactions surrounding the fact that Miles Morales is not your typical white superhero. No, the problem we find ourselves faced with is that the presence of a Black Spider-Man is immediately elevated to a level of conspiracy that brushes up to the level of the White House, and no one bats an eye. If anything, the national coverage of Glenn Beck’s notion conveys the implicit sense of “maybe he’s right.”

Mississippi Goddam

Eight white teens from an upper-middle class suburb in Mississippi decide to kill the first Black person they can find. They pile into two vehicles, go down to a working class black neighborhood, and beat the life out of James Craig Anderson, a 49 year old auto-worker. One car peeled off and left Mr. Anderson to die on the side of the road. The other car thought it best to finish the job sooner and ran him over. The group later convened at McDonald’s to celebrate.

While two of the teens have been charged and the FBI is investigating the incident, the entire ordeal begs the question of, “why?” The answer is simple: post-racial America in the wake of President Obama is a myth, not because of anything the President has done or has failed to do, but because we as a nation allowed even the phrase “post-racial America” to arise as a possibility without exploring what it really means or how one could actually arrive at such a destination. Part of the issue we still have hate crimes in America is we’ve never come to grips with our identity as a truly multiracial country. There’s never been a mass movement for Americans to discuss their cultural identities in the wake of constantly shifting racial dynamics. Instead, we have had mass movements to identify such conversations as liberal diversionary tactics designed to keep Americans from the real issues at hand. If exploring why eight, white, upper-middle class teenagers decide to kill a Black, working class man in their question “to kill a nigger” is not one of the real issues at hand, then I would like someone to tell me what is.

Cornel West & Tavis Smiley

I emphasized class as well as race in the previous example for a specific reason. As of late, both Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have been on a joint Poverty Tour designed to bring national attention to the plight of the country’s poorest, and most often underrepresented, citizens. The tour simultaneously attacks President Obama for failing to address this same group. While I applaud Cornel West in particular for taking the initiative to focus on an oft forgotten segment of American society, the fact remains that the tour has also been self-described by the two organizers as a response to what they feel is a lack in President Obama’s agenda towards Black people. Tavis Smiley stated it succinctly: “Obama is the first president who hasn’t invited me to the White House.”

Understandably, Tavis and Dr. West are hurt. Not being invited to the White House under the tenure of a Black president would seem a slap in the face. At the same time, the situation calls to mind a line from Malcolm X’s “Ballot or the Bullet” speech:

…when he comes in power, he takes all the Negro leaders and invites them for coffee to show that he’s alright. And those Uncle Toms can’t pass up the coffee. They come away from the coffee table telling you and me that this man is alright…”

To give context to this excerpt (and to avoid a Foxification of quotes), Malcolm X is referring to white, political leaders who seek to gain Black votes through cursory actions, such as inviting them for a coffee. To be blunt, this is the context in which I view all of Tavis’s previous entries into the White House. Comforting gestures designed by the President so that leaders of varying communities will know “that this man is alright.” And, to be fair, that is how politics works. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the President does not care for those groups, but it also doesn’t mean that he will forego all other agendas to appease that one section of American society. What it means for invitees, though, is a chance to have the President’s ear, and this is what Tavis is missing. Without the assurance that their words will directly reach the President in a closed, control environment, such as a coffee for two, Tavis and his colleague Dr. West have become itchy, unsure of if anyone is listening.

I prefer to look at coffee in the Malcolm X context of “it’s just politics.” However, Tavis and Dr. West’s reaction has become “it’s just race.” The Black president who has yet to have a one on one with two Black academics has become the Black president who skirts the issue of race and places Black people on the backburner. For me, this is the most critical reason it is terrible to be Black in America right now. Having to deal with racism and the threat of racial hate on a daily basis is one constant pressure, but having to witness Black intellectuals rip apart the Black president over an issue of wounded pride is equally unbearable. It calls to mind Jesse Jackson’s infamous “I want to cut off (Obama’s) testicles” remarks , and other equally disparaging remarks from Black community and political leaders. While the Poverty Tour is a valiant idea in theory, one can’t help but notice the extent of anti-Obama rhetoric left in its wake by the organizers, and how little poverty alleviation is put into action. It would be irresponsible to not criticize the President where needed simply because of the color of his skin. It would be equally irresponsible to do so solely because he is a certain color.

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