Author Archives: Elwood Watson

We Should Be Realistic About Racial Representation in Television

elwoodwatson by Elwood Watson

Over the next few weeks, the American public will be introduced to many new comedies, dramas, “reality” programs and other forms of media. And of course, viewers will witness the return of many of their favorite programs. To be blunt, I do not watch an abundance of television. One reason for doing so is that I do not have much time to be an indulgent couch potato. To be honest, I do not find that much on mainstream television to be all that appealing.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of television programs I watch are on cable. During my boob tube viewing history, I have had a few programs that I had religiously tuned into on a weekly basis – “The Cosby Show,” “Ally McBeal,” “Swingtown,” “True Blood,” “Mad Men” “Six Feet Under,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Frank’s Place.” Of all the current cable programs, the one that I have been most deeply engaged in is the AMC drama “Mad Men.”

The show, produced by Matthew Weiner, creator of the HBO mega hit “The Sopranos” explores the inner workings and complexities of several men and women who work at an advertising firm in New York City in the 1960s. Now, in its third season, the show has addressed a number of social norms that were relevant to the era. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homosexuality, abortion, infidelity, alcoholism, depression and other topics are discussed at various degrees. The main character of the show is a conflicted, tormented upper middle-class WASP advertising executive named Don Draper.

“Mad Men” has been a consistent favorite of television critics. The show has spawned a number of columns, commentary and debates by journalists, psychologists, academics, Internet chat rooms, blogs and other media. Even the fashion industry has begun to take notice as the mod look of the 1960s has suddenly become vogue in some Madison Avenue circles. The show has definitely struck a nerve among many people from varied walks of life.

What is notable is that a number of African-Americans have weighed in on the “Mad Men” phenomenon. Earlier this summer, there was a piece of the popular website “Double X” entitled “Why Mad Men Is Afraid of Race?” written by cultural critic Latoya Peterson that took the 60s styled drama to task for being hesitant to address the history of American racial conflict. Several days later, another journalist, David Swerdlick, a frequent contributor to The Root web site responded to Peterson’s column arguing that the show was very realistic in how it addresses the marginalization of people of color.

As a historian, I have my take on both perspectives. The fact is that non-Whites were largely obscured in the professional WASP world of the 1960s. It is probably safe to say that the few Black characters that are showcased — Paul’s ex-girlfriend Sheila, the Draper’s maid Carla and the Black elevator operator Hollis — are accurately seen as individuals who are occasional yet brief interlopers in the lives of upscale Whites. They were there to serve at the pleasure and discretion of the White families and businesses that employed them and they are expected to listen, answer when spoken to, do their jobs and stay out of the way. While such a situation was certainly unflattering and even annoying on a number of levels, the fact was that this was reality for more than a few Black people in America during the days of the modern Civil Rights Movement.

While it would be interesting to see Carla, Hollis and Sheila deeply engaged in the most intimate workings of the lives of the main characters, the fact is that such a depiction would largely ring untrue. The same holds true for the advertising agency. No Black person, including secretaries, outside of the janitorial staff, would have been working at Sterling Cooper. Racist clientele, stockholders, the status quo and the conservative climate of the environment would have prohibited such a thing. The fact is that race has an ugly history in our nation.

What is even more important (at least to me) is that while it is commendable for television writers and producers to be racially, religiously and gender inclusive in their shows, the fact is that sometimes this may not always be the most accurate approach. Let me make it clear that I have no problem with television shows experimenting with new ideas or even thinking “outside the box” for that matter. Much of television is imaginative in its nature. Moreover, more diversity on the networks of any type is a good thing. The NAACP’s 1998 report criticizing the three major broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, for their deplorable lack of diversity was justified.

What becomes problematic (at least to me) is when shows, for whatever reason, in an effort to make their shows more diverse, engage in plots and develop situations that seemed contrived or forced. Would it have made sense for a Black family to be the major focus of “The Soprano’s” when that show focused on Italian Americans who lived in northern New Jersey? Would it have been logical for Blacks to be 50 percent of the characters on “Newhart”, the CBS program in the mid-1990s about White middle-aged people and some senior citizens that took place in central Vermont?  Should senior citizens have been the major characters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a program where teenagers slayed all sorts of evil beings? Should Whites have been prominently showcased in every single episode of “The Cosby Show? or “Soul Food? ” Get my point? It probably would have smacked of patronizing tokenism at best.

To be honest, I watch “Mad Men” and most television shows strictly for the entertainment value. If I wanted accuracy and precision I will read a history book or interview someone who has lived such an experience. Such a person could provide you with more accuracy than any situation comedy, drama or “reality program” can ever do. This is simply a fact.

There is nothing wrong viewing television with a critical eye. However, sometimes, we need to be realistic about the fact that oftentimes writers, producers, and directors are often attempting to deliver entertainment value to their audience — nothing more and nothing less. Fiction, by its nature, has no responsibility to be accurate. Sometimes it is best to remind ourselves of the saying “it’s just a television show.” All of us should keep this thought in mind as we tune in to watch the new fall season.

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.

The Growing Intolerance Must Be Confronted

by Dr. Elwood Watson


Think about the following:

• Former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has made the claim that President Obama’s health care plan would establish “death panels” to oversee end of life care for the elderly and  terminally ill.

• A Swastika was found spray-painted on a sign fronting the office of U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia,  (who is Black) a week after rowdy attendees at a town hall meeting angrily confronted the congressman over health care reform.  

• Newly-turned Democratic Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania faced a hostile crowd as well as taunts during a town hall meeting on health care reform.

• Right wing agitator and talk show host Glenn Beck of FOX News states that President Obama has a hatred of White people.

• A political poster of President Obama equating him with the deviant Batman character, the Joker, is posted on a number of right wing Web sites.

• A small but vocal number of Americans (known as birthers) refuse to believe that President Obama is an American-born citizen

• The majority of Republican Senators vote against confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court

I could provide you with more examples, but the point should be made clear by now. Unless you have been comatose or camping in the most remote regions of the earth without any access to modern technology then you are aware of ferocious rage that has erupted among a segment of the political right. From dishonest comments from certain right wing radio talk show hosts to aggressive and in some cases, mob violence from resentful tea baggers and private citizens who align themselves with such a movement, the far right has been on the warpath demonstrating its ugly, callous, and largely inhumane face to a currently surprised mainstream America.

For over a month now, the leaders of this political segment of American politics have engaged in the most destructive rhetoric publicly expressed by fearful citiizens  since the days of the early modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. Even President Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was able to successfully garner the support of the region by manipulating racist Whites who were fearful of and resented the civil rights movement, did not seem  so overtly hostile in its aims.

Some radical critics have gone even further and compared such troublesome behavior on the right to that of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. While it is probably safe to say that this nation will never reach the horrific crisis that engulfed Germany during the Nazi era, the similarities are far too eerie to dismiss. The naked raw emotions and resentment expressed by Obama opponents in public are  striking.

From ruthlessly spreading falsehoods that the current proposed health care plan would allow “death panels” to pull the plug on dear old grandma and grandpa if they became too ill; to shamelessly lampooning the president; to referring to Judge Sotomayor as a “Latina racist”; to arguing  that Obama was born in Kenya; to comparing the Obama White House to a Nazi organization and the president himself to Adolf Hitler, the malcontents who represent this extreme brand of conservatism have shown their racist, sexist, sinister and xenophobic teeth. And guess what? They have demonstrated that they are not afraid to bite no matter how disgraceful, rabid or perverse the consequences. Some of these anti-Obama protestors have arrogantly carried loaded guns to town hall meetings.

All one has to do is listen to the steady stream of hate that is coming from right wing talk radio on a daily basis to realize that the anger, fear and mistrust is rampant among more than a few people. The level of hate is unreal. Throughout American history, every president has had critics who have levied all sorts of allegations against him no matter how bizarre or unfounded. History has shown that there tends to be a vehement hatred toward those in power from those who are looking in from the outside.

Nonetheless, I would argue that among our very contemporary presidents –from Jimmy Carter onward, there has never been the level of unrestrained paranoia that is being directed toward our current commander-in-chief from his opponents. To be sure, while Ronald Reagan was not popular among many liberals (or many Black Americans for that matter); many liberals did like him personally.  No one managed to incur the wrath of conservatives like Bill Clinton did (his wife was a frequent target of conservative ire as well). George W.  Bush infuriated a number of groups, including liberals for what they saw as his embracing of anti-intellectualism as well as many traditional conservatives due to his rejection of a mainstream conservatism in favor of neo-conservatism.

However, there was no one (at least that I recall) posting incessantly on political blogs, carrying signs, contacting congressmen, disrupting town hall meetings demanding to know whether the president was a legitimate American citizen! Note to all the doubting Thomases out there – HE WAS BORN IN AMERICA! He was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 4, 1961.

To me, such intense resistance and resentment has a racial nexus to it.
From the first Latina being confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, to the son of a Black Kenyan immigrant and White Kansas mother occupying the most powerful office in the nation and the world for that matter and other milestones, the fact is that a number of people (certainly not all or perhaps even most) cannot fully accept the fact that the “Leave it to Beaver”, Norman Rockwell , “Happy Days,” “Laverne and Shirley,” “Pleasantville” early post-World War II suburban America, male dominant WASP culture has suddenly included non-Whites (and for sexists, White women) in the top echelons of power in the U.S.  The America that that these people knew where non-Whited were frequently marginalized, occasionally seen but not heard and certainly had little, if any voice, have managed to secure Supreme Court seats and live in the White House. This fact is driving a number of them mad with PARANOIA!

There are some conservatives who have denounced the tactics of some of their more extreme brethren, but these are the individuals who seem to be voices in the wilderness as opposed to being taken seriously as rational voices of reason. When this current madness will end is anyone’s guess. To be sure calmer voices will prevail as they always eventually do. Nonetheless, Republicans and other conservatives may want to do some real soul searching about what is happening in their party. As of right now, the right wing lunatics are running the asylum.

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)

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)




Racial and Religious Extremism Rears Its Ugly Head



By Dr. Elwood Watson

Last month, I wrote a column discussing the racial hostility, paranoia and potential violence that was increasing in America. A month earlier in April, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a report that attempted to inform Americans about a potential upsurge in right wing extremist violence. While there are some who may continue to deny that such violent acts are occurring, the evidence, it seems, demonstrates otherwise. Once DHS made their memo known to the public, the immediate reaction among many conservative talk show hosts and commentators was one of ridicule, self-righteousness and defensiveness. Some on the political right went as far as to accuse the memo as being misguided, slanderous, and outlandish. It appears that such “supposed overreaction” by the Department of Homeland Security was well-founded.
By now, most Americans are aware of the horrific, outrageous murder of Black security guard Richard Johns by James Von Brunn. Brunn is an 88 year-old White supremacist who, according to a number of media outlets, was deeply involved with right wing organizations. He had spent several years in a federal prison for his violent activities and was no stranger to such fringe activity. In short, he was a dangerous person.
Immediately after the identity of octogenarian Brunn was known, various segments of the conservative right, rather than acknowledge that the seething, hostile, xenophobic, bigoted rhetoric that many of them have espoused was likely contributing to an upsurge in right wing violence, went on the offensive. Unabashed loudmouth and supposed current leader of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh and other right wing talk radio hosts made the foolish suggestion that James Von Brunn was a liberal and a “lone wolf.” Limbaugh’s insane accusation was supported by National Review online columnist and occasional USA Today contributor Jonah Goldberg. A number of other conservatives such as conservative pundit Monica Crowley and perennial, possibility self–hating, right wing cheerleader Michelle Malkin also attempted to deflect blame from the political right for the actions of Von Brunn and rather ascribed his irrational violence as the result of the political left. Such behavior by conservative pundits is the epitome of intellectual dishonesty at is worst.
It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that racist, anti-Semitic, and other forms of religious and cultural intolerance have become more commonplace in America. Anyone who has taken the time to peruse a number of political-oriented blogs and websites should be astute to this fact. I, myself, received a scathing, racist, hate-filled, paranoid e-mail from a conservative blogger based on a rational comment I had made last year with a reporter from ABC in regards as to why Oprah Winfrey had decided not to interview to Alaska governor and then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential election season. While the e-mail did not threaten violence, the searing, irrational, venomous hatred directed toward me and Black people in general was alarming.
Things have become so emotionally charged that even some conservative media pundits have began to take notice. FOX News anchor Shepard Smith, host of the Fox Report, has decried the level of hatred that emanating from a number of people on the right. Earlier this week, Smith went so far as to read some of the letters and e-mails (the ones that were suitable for public airwaves) to give the public an idea of the level of intolerance, especially the anti-Obama rhetoric that is brewing in various circles. As a result of his laudable efforts, Mr. Smith has become the target of hate mail and rallying calls from a number of FOX viewers calling for his firing. The fact is that Smith has the second highest rated show on the network, thus it is highly unlikely he will be terminated anytime soon. For the time being, he is a thorn in the side of FOX’s intense Obama haters. 

To be fair, not all the vehement hatred that is happening is coming from the right of the political spectrum. There are certain segments of the left that are just as deranged in some of the so-called rhetoric they promote to their followers and listeners. They should be denounced as well. Dishonest hate speech is atrocious regardless of who is spouting it.
The murder at the Holocaust museum should not be forgotten. It is the symptom of a more ominous cancer that has slowly but surely affected an increasing segment of a public that is being manipulated by some opportunistic media personalities to believe that they are being increasingly marginalized – educationally, economically, socially, religiously and in other ways. We all must be at the forefront of suppressing and if possible, indeed, prohibiting such a troubling trend. 

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).


Sonia Sotomayor: A Fabulous Choice For The Supreme Court


by Dr. Elwood Watson

Even before she was considered to be the front runner as the next Supreme Court Justice, there were rumblings from political conservatives about the “problems” with Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Now that she has been officially nominated by President Obama, certain segments of the right have come out swinging and kicking. One could argue that they are fouling pretty badly as well. The noise has been loudly obnoxious.

In his most recent article, Faiz Shakir of The Progress Report e-newsletter discussed some of the outlandish accusations that have been hurled at the nominee. Among some of the blatantly bigoted and sexist comments have been conservative commentator Pat Buchanan referring to Sotomayor as an “affirmative action candidate” and former House Speaker  Newt Gingrinch denouncing her as a “Latina woman racist.” According to FOX News conservative pundit and Weekly Standard magazine columnist Fred Barnes, Sotomayor  is rumored to be “sharp tongued and occasionally combative.” Perennially angry radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh tagged the esteemed legal scholar as a “reverse racist.” Former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo on a CNN talk show made the claim that Ms. Sotomayor “appeared to be racist.” Former Bush strategist Karl Rove questioned how “intellectually strong” the probable future Supreme Court judge was. Conservative radio’s newest darling, Glenn Beck, describing his reaction to President Obama’s selection of Sotomayor, said “Hey, Hispanic chick lady! You’re empathetic…you’re in!”.

Some of her critics have even decried the fact that she has an affinity for Puerto Rican food. Wow! Imagine! A person of Hispanic origin who likes Latino food!? This should certainly make her a questionable choice for the Supreme Court. ( I am being sarcastic.)

Yes, things have become increasingly foolish in the often delusional world of the radical right.

The statement that has caused much of the brouhaha was the response to a speech that Sotomayor delivered several years ago at the (University of California) Berkeley La Raza Law Journal annual symposium. During her talk, the judge argued that a person’s gender and race can influence their decisions on race and gender discrimination cases. She further stated that she “would hope that a wise Latina woman with richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a White male who hasn’t lived that life.” This is racist and sexist language? I don’t think so!

In fact, during his confirmation hearings in 2006, Justice Samuel Alito made the following remarks “when I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of gender. And I do take that into account.” He basically made a similar argument. Where was the outcry from the political right about Alito’s remarks?

This sort of ambush rhetoric and brash judgmental behavior is surprising and quite frankly, hypocritical coming from individuals who have made a career out of attacking and engaging in polarizing, racist and dishonest behavior. Rush “I hope Obama fails” Limbaugh once told a Black caller “take that bone out of your nose and call me back.” Tom Tancredo referred to Miami, Florida as a “third world country.” The ethically-challenged Newt Gingrich equated bilingual education with “ghetto life.” Glenn Beck was recently called out and exposed for his dishonest behavior by Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg on the ABC daytime television program “The View”. 

Although they are trying to appeal to their political base and varied audiences, the truth is that many of these men are hardly poster boys for exemplary behavior and should not be in the business of attacking or questioning anyone’s else’s character.

In all fairness, there have been some conservatives, such as Wall Street Journal op-ed columnist Peggy Noonan, Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Utah senator Orrin Hatch and political strategist Mark McKinnon, who have denounced extreme partisan politicking from their fellow GOP brethren. The ever poetic Republican party chairman Michael Steele made it clear that certain members of his party need to stop “slammin and rammin” on Sotomayor.

The nominee’s life history is the example of a female Horatio Alger story. The product of Brooklyn housing projects, Sotomayor was born to Puerto Rican  parents who migrated to the American mainland when she was a young girl. Her father died when she was nine years old. She was diagnosed with childhood diabetes when she was eight. Her mother was a nurse, who often worked two jobs and instilled in both her children (her brother is a medical doctor) the importance of hard work and education. Sotomayor’s mother  sacrificed much to ensure that her children would inherit a better life than she had.

Sotomayor went on to become valedictorian of her high school class. She holds two Ivy League degrees. She graduated summa cum laude and second in her class at Princeton University. She served as a member of the Yale Law Review. She has been the recipient of numerous awards. The list goes on and on.

On the contrary, Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove do not have college degrees. None of the aforementioned critics of Sotomayor had distinguished academic records themselves. Some of their accomplishments, while significant, still do not compare with those of the distinguished judge. And yet, they have the audacity to question her academic qualifications? Such behavior smacks of racism, sexism, hypocrisy and arrogance at its worst.

Barring any unforeseen bombshell, Sonia Sotomayor is going to be confirmed as the next Supreme Court Justice of the United States. Even many of her detractors are aware of this. Her qualifications for the job are stellar. Her extensive judicial experience speaks for itself. Her selection is a brilliant, fabulous, and inspirational one.

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)

Racial Intolerance, Historical Streotypes and Paranoia on the Rerun

Racial Intolerance, Historical Stereotypes and Paranoia on the Rerunelwoodwatson

While many Americans of all races celebrated the election of our first Black president, there were others who did not. These are the men and women who have been seething in resentment and rage at the fact that a person of non-Eurocentric origin is occupying the most powerful political office in the world. Such hostility is evident. According to the latest statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), 926 hate groups were active in the United States. This was a 4 percent increase over 2007. Moreover, it is a 50 percent increase since 2000. Examples of such intolerance range from anti-Obama rallies where so-called “true and proud” Americans have shouted hate-filled comments such as “kill the nigger” to anti-Obama rallies where supposedly Christian men and women have screamed at the top of their lungs holding posters with language stating “Obama is a socialist” or “Obama is the anti-Christ.” The hatred has been searing. More important, they are often rooted in long-held historical stereotypes.

While a number of social and cultural issues have been at the forefront of American debate, the fact is that Americans have always had a preoccupation and fascination with race — from the days of slavery to the practice of social Darwinism in the late 1890s to popular authors that era like Rudyard Kipling and Madison Grant who argued of the superiority of Whites and the inferiority of non-Whites. The nation witnessed a dramatic racial spectacle when the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s busted the seams of a largely, rigid, segregated American society. The fact is that all ethnic groups have had stereotypes ascribed to them. White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs ) have been seen as stuffy and pretentious, Hispanics and Italians as hot tempered, Asians as aloof and bookish, Blacks as childlike and oversexed, Jews as neurotic and shrewd. Of course, many people are aware that these are historical stereotypes and nothing more, but many others, even today in the 21st century, subscribe to such deeply held retrograde notions.

The often insulated world of the academy has not been immune from such myopic intolerance. Despite the fact that academia has long been known as a haven of racial inclusion and tolerance (to a degree this is true, although much of it has been rhetorical trendiness and faux liberalism as opposed to radical, genuine progressive behavior), the specter of racism has been prevalent. This has particularly been the case over the past decade. In the 1990s, books by authors such as Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza caused much controversy for their supposed assumptions on intellectual, racial and cultural differences.

Some academics from respected institutions have argued that Whites have superior brains for their body size, that lower Black and Hispanic intelligence is the cause of higher crime rates in these communities, that integrated schools demand an “academically deficient curriculum” that frustrates White students and so on. The fact is that most legitimate research has demonstrated that crucial environmental factors – love, discipline, stability, motivation — are often the decisive factors that determine how well most individuals perform. Race is irrelevant.

Without question, there are millions more Barack Obamas, Cornel Wests, Hillary Clintons and Toni Morrisons languishing about, and their predicament has nothing to due with their racial orientation. Lack of economic opportunity, low morale, mediocre teachers, out-of-date textbooks and other factors are the problems. This is where these academics and other so-called “experts” need to focus their criticisms as opposed to engaging in inaccurate, paranoid falsehoods arguing racial dysfunction.

Racial paranoia and stereotypes, whether it be promoted by politicians, private citizens, academics or others, must be challenged aggressively. The lessons of Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and others should remind us of what such potentially ominous rhetoric can lead to. Our increasingly diverse, pluralistic nation can ill afford such polarizing discourse.


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 the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008).

Michelle Obama: One Classy, Resilient, Intelligent First Lady

By Elwood Watson

elwoodwatsonFrom the moment her husband became a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, Michelle Obama has been a perennial figure in the media spotlight. With this level of exposure has also come a significant amount of controversy. Unlike previous first ladies such as Rosalyn Carter, the late former first lady, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, Pat Nixon and others, Mrs. Obama seems to evoke rabid passion among her supporters and detractors alike. There is no middle ground or indifference in their feelings toward her. Her proponents see her as intelligent, classy, elegant, no-nonsense, charismatic and socially conscious. Her opponents denounce her as being arrogant, aloof, unpatriotic, and racially bigoted and harboring a socialist agenda.

For her critics, the already high level of suspicion toward both Obamas reached a fever pitch in the 2008 presidential campaign when the then-future first lady stated first_lady_michelle_obama_official_portrait_2009-redthat for the first time in her adult life she was really proud of America. While many reasonable and rational people totally understood what she meant (even Laura Bush later in the same year in an interview stated that she did) and were well aware of the fact that there was not one hint of unpatriotic rhetoric in her comments, the political right led by Cindy McCain and company wasted no time in perversely exploiting a sincere statement, misconstruing it to imply that Mrs. Obama was an anti-American who harbored Black nationalist sentiments.

Sensing a possible campaign issue, the Republican right seized on Mrs. Obama making her the target of vicious assaults. She was accused of hating Whites and using the term “whitey” on tape. Terms such as “baby mama,” “angry Black woman,” “jezebel,” “Black Lady Macbeth,” “Ms. Grievance,” “bitch” (in many cases preceded by the word Black), “uppity” and other derogatory and disrespectful labels were ascribed to her. In fact, on some far right wing websites, the language used to describe both her and her husband was so inflammatory and intolerant that some website moderators decided to shut down for a few days to reissue stricter guidelines for bloggers. I could not even repeat such incendiary rhetoric here.

Not content enough to just take a quote grossly out of context, the anti-Michelle crowd posted copies of her Princeton undergraduate thesis on anti-Obama websites in an effort to demonstrate that she was obsessed with being Black, attacked her University of Chicago administrative job as a “diversity position,” spread false rumors that she only wanted Black and other non-whites at campaign rallies, that she was on tape yelling anti-American statements and other such nonsense. A couple of talk show hosts referred to Michelle Obama by invoking the term “lynching party.” YES INDEED! THINGS WERE GETTING UGLY! The McCain campaign fall rallies demonstrated the vile, seething anti-Obama paranoia and hatred that was evident. But that’s another story that has been effectively covered.

In regards to the tapes, the interesting thing is that none of them ever surfaced. This is probably due to the fact that no such tapes ever existed. The Republican architects of such sinister schemes were well aware of this; however, they knew that it was not necessary for them to produce any concrete evidence. For their jingoistic, wild-eyed, racist, sexist, xenophobic right-winged supporters, just the thought of such images was enough to whip them into an anti-Michelle Obama frenzy.

Some people argue that there have been other first ladies like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan who have undergone critical and hostile scrutiny. While true, neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mrs. Reagan were subjected to acerbic racial overtones. They were criticized for certain excesses, but never were the attacks, especially in the case of Nancy Reagan, so racially charged or personal. Race has undoubtedly been a factor in such treatment. However, like many strong, radiant and viable Black women before her, Mrs. Obama has managed to admirably shrug off such criticism and resentment and focus on the goals that are important to her, such as speaking to young girls in elementary and middle schools and meeting with military families.

More recently, the current first lady has charmed the world demonstrated with her impeccable fashion sense. She warmly embraced Queen Elizabeth (the queen reciprocated). She demonstrated that she is just as elegant as any European leader’s wife and endeared herself into the minds and hearts of millions of people all over the world. In fact, many people have compared her to a previous first lady, Jackie Kennedy.

Whether this deep admiration for her will last remains to be seen. Nonetheless, for the present moment, it seems that many individuals see her diverse, flexible, sincere personality as one that is refreshing to them. Recently, even her most strident, bigoted critics, a number of whom would rather have her cleaning their houses as opposed to living in the White House, have been unable to demonize her. One thing is probably for certain and that is Michelle Obama will remain true to herself and to her constituencies. She is indeed one classy, resilient, intelligent first lady.

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)




The Beleagured Michael Steele

By Elwood Watson

Several weeks ago, the Republican National Committee  elected Michael Steele as its first Black party chairman. What was seen at the time as an excellent move on the part of the GOP by some (even some Black columnists such as Earl Ofari Hutchinson and USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham) has devolved into feelings of disillusionment, panic and, in some cases, outright anger as Steele has made several comments that have outraged some members of his party’s more conservative base. Many Republicans are beginning to have second thoughts and doubts about the former lieutenant governor of Maryland.

From inadvertently picking a fight with mega radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh on the soon-to-be-cancelled CNN program “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News” and later apologizing, to slashing more than 100 positions at the RNC, to voicing statements on abortion and homosexuality in a recent issue of GQ magazine that are clearly at odds with the GOP’s conservative base, he has caused many of his red state constituents to unleash a fury of anger toward him. Comments ranging from “he is a loose cannon” to “he is not a true Republican” have become common responses among many Republicans.

Outraged by Steele’s remarks that Limbaugh was not the leader of the Republican Party but rather an entertainer, and at times an incendiary one, Limbaugh admonished Steele for spending too much time doing a poor job meandering on the talk show circuit and urged him to get to work doing the job that he was hired to do – rebuilding and raising money for the party. It was not only Limbaugh and White Republicans who were voicing their disgust with Steele. Fellow Black Republicans – North Carolina national committeewoman Dr. Ada Fisher and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a runner up for the GOP chairman position – have made their displeasure with their current party boss known. Fisher called for his resignation.

While Steele has made a number of mea culpas and promises to revive the current beleaguered state of the GOP, his goal to reach out to make the party more inclusive to Blacks, especially younger Black Americans, has been noteworthy, yet questionable. In a party that has more than its share of bigots (there are a number in the Democratic Party as well, however in the GOP they are more at center stage) and has voted against the interests of Blacks since the mid 1960s, when the far right snatched power from the more moderate Rockefeller wing, promising to make the party more racially inclusive is going to be difficult for chairman Steele. Too many people of age can remember the infamous 1992 Republican convention where Republicans like Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson voiced vehemently bigoted, sexist, homophobic and anti-semitic rhetoric.

Other examples are the 2000 and 2004 presidential election voting shenanigans in Florida and Ohio some GOP officials were associated with. Many people watched in disgust and horror at the Bush administration’s callous and indifferent attitude toward the largely disenfranchised and oppressed Black population of New Orleans during the Hurricane Katrina fiasco in 2005. Then there was the absence of many 2008 Republican presidential candidates from several forums that were sponsored by Tavis Smiley on issues facing the Black community. Such behavior cannot be easily forgotten. Indeed, more than a few of the party’s critics have memories like “elephants” – the party symbol.

Interestingly, there are a number of issues that the Republican Party espouses that would appeal to Black upscale voters. Today’s Black professional class, largely religious, devotedly committed to education, yet progressive on many social issues, would seem to have a lot in common with moderate Republicans. However, in order to accomplish this, Steele will have to clean house or marginalize the bigoted, regressive-minded individuals that have dominated the party since 1964 and restore the party to the more racially inclusive entity that it was during the Eisenhower era. No doubt the current chairman is well aware of this fact. Perhaps Michael Steele (if he survives as chairman) will be able to rectify a party that is currently in shambles politically, racially, socially and in almost every other way imaginable and bring such diverse elements together. It is doubtful but one should never say never.

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)

Hiding Behind Racism

By Elwood Watson

A few weeks ago, I was part of a campus panel discussion that discussed the N-Word, racism and post-racism. I was invited to speak by Bakari Kitwana, author and CEO elwood-watson1of Rap Sessions. Other panelists included Rosa Clemente, 2008 vice presidential nominee of the Green Party; MC Serch, host of VH-1 Shows, “The White Rapper Show” and “Miss Rap Supreme,” M-1 , of the rap group Dead Prez; and Lisa Fager Bediako, president and co-founder of Industry Ears, Inc. I was contacted by Mr. Kitwana to be a panel member. I was honored to receive an invitation to be a part of such a well-known, prominent panel.

Attendance at the event was large, and the question-and-answer session was lively and fruitful. The issue of racism and its manifestations dominated the discussion and seemed to intrigue the audience the most. There were a number of thought-provoking questions from audience members; however, one question that stood out among the others (or at least for me) was “do you think some people make an effort to hide behind their racism?” Each member of the panel responded to this question from their own perspective. I responded yes.

I further argued that unlike the 1950s and 1960s, when it was acceptable, indeed even permissible for Whites, especially White men, to openly voice their racism and sexism toward non-Whites and women without fear of retribution, that several decades later, while such views are still largely harbored by many people, we have advanced to the point of where it is totally unacceptable to publicly engage in overt acts of racial intolerance. I mentioned the Michael Richards (aka Kramer ofSeinfeld” fame) nightclub incident that happened a few years ago as an example. A number (certainly not all) of  people who were repulsed by the fact that Richards would use such ugly, ferocious language in public would have no problem engaging in such behavior in private among likeminded friends and acquaintances. The “I am among friends, it is safe” mindset reigns in such an environment. It is hypocrisy at its finest.

Indeed, over the past few decades we have seen a number of situations where many people, rather than hurl vicious, ugly callous racial rhetoric in the public arena, have resorted to hiding behind their racial hatred in more sophisticated and subtle ways. Among them, the infamous Willie Horton ad that was used during the 1988 presidential campaign by Republican party operatives, the recent New York Post editorial cartoon depicting President Barack Obama as a murdered chimpanzee (the cartoonist denied racial intentions), and the racist e-mail of former Los Alamos, Calif., Mayor Dean Grose who depicted a White House lawn populated with watermelons (the mayor subsequently resigned after public outrage). There are numerous other examples of such deplorable behavior. These are not isolated incidents.

What is even more amusing (in a perverse way) is that more than often when the culprits of such behavior are caught with their hands in the racist cookie jar, they are quick to revert to defensive mode, blaming those who denounce their behavior as being “oversensitive,” “humorless” and get this – troublemakers who should learn to thicken up their tender feelings. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Such behavior is an example of sophisticated racism manifesting itself.

The good news that has come from this is that those individuals who have found it acceptable to participate in such retrograde behavior have been put on notice that in our emerging, increasingly diverse America, such behavior will not be allowed to be winked at or given a pass. Those who partake in such acts will be called out on it and that’s the truth, Ruth!

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)

Defining a Person’s Blackness?

By Dr. Elwood Watson

Last October at an annual conference that highlights various aspects of the Black experience, I attended a panel where Dr. Ronald Walters, professor of government and African American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park and several other scholars were discussing the potential impact that the upcoming election could have on the Black Community. Walters made several thought provoking points during his presentation to the audience. However, one of the most notable things he mentioned during his insightful talk was an experience he encountered on his campus when he was within ear shot distance of a group of Black students.

According to the distinguished professor, these students were using the word “ghetto” as if they were discussing either a person(s) or group of people. Professor Walters admitted that he caught the very end of the conversation, thus he was unable to grasp the full extent of whom and what they were talking about. He concluded that such behavior may very well be another sort of group division added to the already numerous number of distractions that the Black community could ill afford.

More recently, just last week, I heard a Black male student here on my campus refer to some fellow Black students as “bougie Negroes.” His comments made me think of the potential divisions that Walters was discussing. Yet his statement also made me ponder a larger question, how do we define Black?

In my forty plus years of life, I have heard numerous terms some Blacks use in describing one another – ghetto, Uncle Tom, sellout, Negro, bougie, oreo, incognegro, aunt Jemima etc … All of these terms have been used in a derisive manner. Even the controversial N-word has been bandied about. Despite the historically genetic poison of this word, it has largely had an ambivalent meaning in the Black community. Some of us love to use it; others of us detest even thinking about it.

The larger question that emerges from this is how and what do we define as Blackness? economic situation? educational attainment? skin tone? religious affiliation? clothing attire? racial genetic makeup? geographic region? I pose the following questions. Are lower income Black people in the Huff section of Cleveland more Black than those who live in the wealthy Los Angeles suburb of Baldwin Hills? Do Black people who have doctorates, law degrees and MBAs embody less Blackness than those who only have a high school diploma or even more minimal level of education? Are darker skin Black people like Wesley Snipes more racially legitimate than lighter skinned Blacks like Beyonce Knowles?

Do Black Pentecostals and Southern Baptists have more SOUL than their Presbyterian and Methodist parishioners? Do Black men and women who wear clothes by Damat and Tween and Tracey Lee more representative of a fashion racial consciousness that is absent among those who wear J. Crew and Timberland threads? Are biracial Black people like Halle Berry and Barack Obama less authentic than those of us who have two Black parents? Are Blacks who reside in the heat sweltering, largely agrarian Black belt states of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia more racially aware than their fellow Blacks who live in the picturesque, snow capped mountain states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire?

My answer to all these proposed questions is a resounding NO!

In my opinion, defining another person’s Blackness is an arrogant, misguided exercise in futility. We clearly have more IMPORTANT issues to address. However, there are people within our community who have and would raise such questions for debate. As far as I am concerned any person who is committed to addressing the educational, economic, political and environmental problems that afflict a large segment of Black America and is dedicated to advancing the race – regardless of monetary income, biological makeup, pigmentation of skin, preference in worship, zip code, etc … this includes non-Blacks too, is Black enough for me.


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)