Monthly Archives: July 2009

White Privilege: What if Henry Louis Gates had been White?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman2009By now, most enlightened people have heard about the incident involving Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge, Mass., police.  As a recap, the Cambridge police arrested the eminent scholar in front of his home.  Just having returned from filming a PBS special in China, Gates, along with his Black taxi driver, were trying to loosen the lock on the front door of his home.  A concerned woman called the police noting that “two black men” were forcing their way into a house in her neighborhood.  Although Gates was already in the house making a phone call to the real estate company that manages his home, the police arrested him. 

Gates’ arrest made me wonder what would have happened in this situation if he had been White.  It seems to me that whenever I am questioned by the police, they give me the benefit of the doubt.  Why? (of course I know why) Let me offer a recent example in which I thought to myself — ‘Hmmm what would have happened had I been African American?’ 

A few months ago, I was driving a friend home who lives in an area of Philadelphia that is considered “dangerous.”  The area is typically heavy with police officers as many people cruise the streets looking for drugs at night.  I dropped off my friend and started to drive home.  As I am not great with directions and it was dark, I got a bit disoriented and accidentally made an illegal right hand turn.  Within minutes the police were behind me, pulling me over.  They began asking me what I was doing in the neighborhood (most likely assuming that I was trying to purchase drugs) and where I was going.  I responded, “I just dropped off a friend after having dinner.  I’m trying to get home.”  Sensing that the officers didn’t quite believe me ,  I said, “I’m a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I just need to get to West Philadelphia where I live.”  The officers let me go immediately and, in fact, they helped guide me back to the main road that would take me home. They also apologized for suspecting me of anything but the traffic violation.

I was pretty shaken after this incident as any interaction with the police makes my pulse quicken.  As I drove home, I wondered what would have happened had I been African American.  Would my “I’m a Penn professor” plea have worked?  Unfortunately, based on the experiences of so many of my African American friends who have been stopped by the police for merely walking/driving/sitting while Black, I know what would have happened.  I now have a definitive answer in Henry Louis Gates’ encounter with the Cambridge police. 

Gates was in his doorway.  I was in my car, far from my home.  I was given a pass immediately by the police.  I can’t help but think my “Whiteness” was a benefit.  Unfortunately, most White Americans do not realize that they walk around with the immense privilege of being given the benefit of the doubt in most situations.  Post-racial America?  Where is this America? 

Let’s hope that people realize that racism is alive and well in America — that they own up to it, take ownership of it.  Better yet, let’s work as hard as possible to counter and confront these racist incidents, to educate those around us, and to fulfill the vision of our current president. 

I think President Obama said it best during his inaugural address:  “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).

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Michael Jackson: A Transformative Human Being

By Elwood Watson

Okay. I will confess that I was a huge Michael Jackson fan! From the time I was a teenager, I rabidly purchased all of his albums. To me, he was one of the greatest entertainerelwoodwatsons to live. To this very day, I still harbor that assessment. In fact, on the very evening of his passing I received a call from one of my sisters asking me how I was feeling. She knew how much I admired the king of pop. Truth be told, I was very saddened to hear of his death. As I saw it, he was so young, so vibrant and still had so much more to accomplish. Granted, his life history was far from serene, yet it certainly was nowhere near as “tragic” as some media pundits and entertainment correspondents argued.

I had followed the late Mr. Jackson from his days as a member of the Jackson Five when I was in elementary school (my older siblings were also huge fans as well) to his solo efforts with his superb albums “Off The Wall” and “Thriller.” By the time “Thriller” was released, I was in high school. If his record sales were an indication, I was obviously not alone in my fascination with Michael Jackson. “Off The Wall” went multiplatinum and made Jackson the first artist to have four songs in the top 10 FROM THE SAME ALBUM at one time! As if this was not significant enough, his “Thriller” album produced six No. 1 songs, sold 40 million copies, earned seven American music awards, eight Grammy awards and stayed on the charts for more than three years!

In addition in 1983, Jackson was credited for SINGLEHANDEDLY reviving the music industry! Think about it. Even if no other artist had released any album that year, Michael Jackson alone would have revived an industry which up until that time was in an economic funk! Such a record is phenomenal. No one, not even The Beatles accomplished such a feat.

It was because of Michael Jackson that MTV, which up until this time catered to a predominantly 18- to 30-year old White audience, slowly but surely began to give considerable airtime to Black artists like Prince, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston and others. By the early 1990s, MTV was playing Black artists with frantic frequency, even going so far as to have a daily show entitled MTV Raps. Most of us have heard the story of how MTV was initially resistant to playing Jackson’s videos but relented due to pressure from Walter Yetnikoff, then-president of CBS records who threatened to pull all of his artists from the music channel if they refused to comply with his demand. Whether such a narrative is valid or the stuff of urban legend, no one can dispute the fact that such a decision was a wise and lucrative one, both financially and globally for MTV.

In my opinion “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” and needless to say “Thriller,” were among the most innovative videos ever aired. Jackson’s famous moonwalk and phenomenal dancing prowess alone prompted mid-20th century dancing legend Fred Astaire to praise Jackson for his hoofing abilities. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, such racial inclusion and transformation of a White dominated industry was largely due to Michael Jackson.

Unfortunately, rather than focuses on such positive accomplishments such as his donating millions of dollars to various charities and altruistic efforts, there are those – mostly detractors – who seem more content to ruminate on what they see as the negative aspects of Jackson’s life. These are the playa haters who take perverse comfort in espousing everything that was suspect or controversial about Jackson. Examples of such retrograde allegations were:

– he was a self-hating Black man
– he was probably a pedophile
– he was a drug addict
– his marriages were a sham
– he was financially broke
and the list goes on and on.

For the record, to paraphrase USA TODAY columnist De Wayne Wickham, unlike many Black entertainers (and some White ones for that matter) who are very influential and have substantial multiracial followings, Jackson did not hesitate to confront the issue of race. This was evident in such songs as “Black or White” and “Heal the World.” This is stark contrast to many of his supposedly “pro super Black” critics who have no problem doing a number on Whites in private, but whose militant, rhetorically racially conscious backbones become spineless marshmallows when in the presence of certain Whites. The same can be said for many of Jackson’s White and other non-Black critics who would often turn a blind eye or even wink at the deviant, in some cases, pathological behavior of celebrities of their own ethnic group, but had no problems in denouncing Jackson as some “freak of nature.”

While Jackson did settle out of court a lawsuit alleging (I stress the word allege) child molestation, he did not admit to guilt. In his 2005 trial, he was acquitted of all charges by an all-White jury. Despite recent news accounts, all throughout his illustrious career, there was no hard evidence that Michael Jackson was a habitual user of drugs. In fact, it was because of his image as a drug free celebrity (which was almost an oxymoron in Hollywood during the 1980s and mid-1990s) that he was invited to the White House in 1984 by then-president Ronald Reagan to receive an award and to serve as a spokesperson for former first lady Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” to drugs campaign.

There were others who argued that in spite of his immense talents, his love life was non-existent and fraudulent as was evident in his divorces. It was very peculiar that such “know it alls” supposedly seemed to know more about the intimate details of Jackson’s private life than he did. Moreover, given a nation where the divorce rate is more than 50 percent (among Hollywood celebrities the percentage is much higher) Jackson was hardly an aberration. In fact, he was pretty consistent.

We were constantly induced with stories of financial incompetence and constant rumors of Jackson bordering on the brink of bankruptcy. Such stories became so commonplace that his accountants eventually decided to release press statements refuting such intense rumors. His purchase of the Beatles Catalog in the mid-1980s coupled with his merger with Sony music a few years ago no doubt nullified any debt he had. The amount that many fans all over the world ( I was one) spent purchasing CDs, videos, magazines and other Jackson merchandise over the past few weeks probably took care of any lingering “supposedly financial troubles” he had.

Could Michael Jackson have handled some of his public relations better than he did? Certainly. I do not think too many people would argue about this. To be sure, like a number of people, Michael Jackson was eccentric. However, being non-conformist is not a crime nor does it mean that he was all the retrograde things that many of his opponents made him out to be. Love him or hate him, there is no doubt that Michael Jackson was one of the most talented entertainers the world has ever seen and it will be a long time, perhaps never, that we may see the likes of him again. As the Rev. Al Sharpton said a few weeks ago at his memorial “Thank you, Michael.” I say rest in peace brother Jackson.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of History and African American Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board  (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008)

 

 

 

Racism, It’s Viral

metzlerBy Dr. Christopher Metzler

“To entertain her daughter, Michelle Obama loves to make monkey sounds.” That’s the photo caption of Michelle Obama speaking to her daughter Malia posted on Free Republic.

Disclaimer on Free Republic:  “Free Republic does not advocate or condone racism, violence, rebellion, secession, or an overthrow of the government. ” For those of you who have argued vociferously with me that we are living in a “post-racial America” rather than an America in which Jim Crow is on steroids, you apparently have not read the daily diet of racism that the readers and bloggers on this site consume and then regurgitate. The photo caption above was posted with a blog in which comments included: “Could you imagine what world leaders must be thinking seeing this kind of street trash and that we paid for this kind of street ghetto trash to go over there?” “They make me sick … The whole family … mammy, pappy, the free loadin’ mammy-in-law, the misguided chillin’, and especially ‘lil cuz … This is not the America I want representin’ my peeps.”

First, it is easy to dismiss these comments as isolated incidents posted on a right-wing rag. To do so, of course, would be to completely miss the point. Moreover, these comments show the continuing significance of race in a country that has become so enamored with the election of its first Black president. In fact, far too many of us are content only with the symbolism and dismiss the substance. I have heard many say that he can’t tackle race in his first term but that he will do it in his second. The result is that too many of us have accepted racism as a creature of the past and we use the election of President Obama as unequivocal proof of this.

The reality is that Bull Connor; the Grand Wizards and members of the KKK and the Aryan Nation have been replaced by the writers, editors and owners of Free Republic, who through the use of technology have more power to spread hate and racism than any of the three aforementioned entities combined.  Free Republic is the modern day racist engine that a majority of conservatives rely on to indoctrinate old and new generations of race peddlers and demagogues. Of course, the site owner is also a “sensitive” man.

According to site owner, Jim Thompson, “We should steer clear of Obama’s children. They can’t help it if their old man is an American-hating Marxist pig.” Second, far too many of us have responded to the election of President Obama simply as the removal of the most significant symbol of racism and manifestation of subordination without realizing that while significant, his election alone does not mean the entrenched racists’ mindset that continues in so much of America has simply vanished.

Racial thinking will not be cured by a single event no matter how powerful that event. Web sites like Free Republic provide a gathering place for Whites who are convinced that the election of a Black president means the end of White power and the introduction of Negro rule. For those of you who wish to quibble with me about whether President Obama is Black or multi-racial, I say that the readers of  Free Republic are not confused. Their arguments are not based in multiculturalism; they are based in naked racial stereotypes that have been and continue to be assigned to Blacks.

As one writer on Free Republic puts it “we can no longer afford to give people the benefit of the doubt simply because we do not know them personally. Our tolerance in this area has the effect of shredding the fabric of our society. It has nothing to do with being hateful, racist, or biased. It is merely a desire to maintain our society and culture.”

Third, since the president’s election, there has been an emerging cacophony of Blacks who insist that the president should stay “race neutral” because to do otherwise would relegate his presidency to the margins of history. These voices were loudest when the president boycotted the World Racism Conference, did not announce a Black person on the short list for the United States Supreme Court, chided attorney General Eric Holder for his comments that on the question of race America is a nation of cowards, said that judge Sonia Sotomayor misspoke with her wise Latina woman comment and punted in Destafano v Ricci.

It is as if the president cannot be race-conscious in his policies and govern effectively at the same time. To be sure, since his election racism has not taken a holiday and his attempts at race neutrality have been an abysmal failure. Fourth, while we have become so caught up in the symbolism of the president’s election, many of us have failed to even care that the United States Supreme Court in the Ricci case has turned back the clock, thus making it harder for racial minorities to prove racial discrimination in employment and making it harder for employers to defend employment decisions when they choose racial minorities over Whites.

I have heard very few people calling for Congress and the president to overturn that case by legislation. Yet, the very first bill that the president signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Act overturning a Supreme Court decision on equal pay. Do we wish to become so race neutral that we refuse to acknowledge the deep social context in which racial subordination is a reality in America, Black president or not?

Certainly Free Republic understands the racial context of President Obama’s election. “DIRTBAGS! All of them. Our [White House] is now a joke to the rest of the world. We have no respect and this is not going to turn out well, mark my words. We will be hit, and much worse than last time. We are now seen as weak and vulnerable. Ghetto and Chicago thugs have taken over.” Finally, regardless of whether we wish to admit it or not, the political winds that lifted the civil rights movement have shifted right.

As the posts that I have quoted from and so many others on Free Republic indicate, the election of President Obama has rewritten the racial narrative. According to the devotees, they will insist that the new narrative not trade the rights of Blacks for the safety of Whites nor would it be held hostage to the ghost of slavery.

A post to Free Republic sums up White racial thinking best: “96% of Blacks supported Zero in November. A group of 50 Blacks set upon Whites for being White in July. Decades of witnessing life. Those are a few reasons it’s back to the ’50s for this White devil, 1750s that is. As much as I can legally discriminate I will discriminate. To paraphrase Marty Balin: Everything they say we are, I’ll be. Wasn’t always this way. It is now.”

Ahh … the perils of a “post-racial America.”

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a ‘post-racial’ America and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.

Paul Quinn College: To Save or Not to Save

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman, Ph.D.

gasman2009Recently, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) voted to revoke Paul Quinn College’s accreditation, noting financial and academic problems. In the same breath, however, SACS acknowledged the excellent work being done by Paul Quinn’s president Michael Sorrell in recent years. Sorrell plans to appeal the SACS’s decision.

The loss of accreditation at Paul Quinn has been the subject of quite a few editorials and news stories over the past week.  Some editorials call for the support of the institution, noting its contributions to the community, nurturing educational environment, and recent progress.  However, other editorials and news stories have not been so supportive and in fact, have questioned the very existence of the institution.

On Tuesday, June 30, 2009, Mike Hashimoto wrote an editorial in The Dallas Morning News asking why anyone should support Paul Quinn College.  He noted that many in the Dallas area, where the small college is located, were calling for support of the institution.  He wondered why.  When supporters claimed that losing Paul Quinn would lead to increased job loss, Hashimoto countered, “there can’t be more than a relative handful of jobs on that campus.”  When supporters noted the diversity that Paul Quinn brings to the Dallas community, he exclaimed, “Diversity? It’s a historically black college so not really.”  When supporters claimed there would be an educational hole in the community without Paul Quinn, Hashimoto stated, “Hole in the community?  Down to 375 students, I’d argue not a very large one.”

Although Hashimoto makes a few interesting points in his editorial, he is not an informed critic of HBCUs.  He knows nothing about these institutions and their history.  He doesn’t understand the role that Paul Quinn has played in bolstering the lives, economy, and education of its surrounding community for decade upon decade.  Hashimoto doesn’t comprehend that the faculties and staffs at HBCUs offer more diversity than most of their “historically white” counterparts.  Moreover, he fails to realize that there is great diversity among Black Americans — being an historically Black college does not mean an institution lacks diversity in any way, shape, or form!  Hashimoto also fails to recognize the unique environment boasted by most HBCUs — one that nurtures and supports mainly low-income, first generation students regardless of the resources on hand.

What Hashimoto gets right is his assessment of the lack of support in the Dallas community for Paul Quinn.  Given the importance of the institution, it is imperative that both the majority and African American communities get behind the small college and support it regularly and systematically.  My good friend Nelson Bowman, the Director of Development at Prairie View A & M University (another Texas HBCU) often talks about “crisis fundraising” and how HBCUs sometimes fall back on this approach when in difficult situations.  In his words, the approach is  “Give us money or we will have to drop the program, go out of business or fail to provide for people who need us—and it’s going to be your fault.”  One need only recall Morris Brown College and its recent financial woes — resulting in the water company threatening to shut off the institution’s water supply.  Support during a crisis is not enough — if people in the community want the benefits of an institution, they need to support the institution regularly.  And the institution needs to ask for help regularly and not just practice “crisis fundraising.”

In 1872 a small group of African Methodist Episcopal (AME) preachers created Paul Quinn College — one of a handful of AME colleges.  These institutions are unique in that they were created by African Americans for African Americans and in that way they are American treasures that need to be held up as examples of African American agency and forethought.  It’s time for those in the community of Dallas as well as the Paul Quinn alumni to stand up for this institution now during a time of need and later during times of prosperity.

I’m hoping that President Sorrell can convince SACS and others that Paul Quinn College is back on track in terms of its ability to educate young minds.  I’m also hoping that he can keep up the good work being done by the institution and that this good work will be recognized by those in the community and especially the institution’s alumni.  Perhaps even Mr. Hashimoto will take notice.

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions  (SUNY Press, 2008).