Black Male Achievement ≠ White Male Failure

Equal UnEqualScenario 1: Hair There and Everywhere

A white woman was shot to death this morning after an altercation with a black man at a lunch counter.  “She kept hitting me with her long hair when she tossed it” the man said as he was led away in handcuffs “They’re always tossing their hair, never minding who it hits and where if flies…and this one had one of those whiny, whiny voices and played with her food like a two year old…it was too much, I just snapped.”

This actually happened inside my head last weekend when I was having lunch in Los Angeles.  Seated at a counter, the woman next to me kept flinging her hair and droning on and on about some nonsense with a boy she was texting, while mashing a piece of pie into a vile baby food like paste; not easy to ignore in the close proximity of counter seating.  But as it was, this is a scene that I’ve been a part of repeatedly through my life, where a white woman with long hair thinks nothing of tossing it in my face, on my body, in my food.  I have learned great patience with this.  But to my knowledge, no one has pulled a gun on someone for this casual, though exceedingly personal rudeness.  It is a cultural behavior with built in assumptions: “all girls do that,” “she didn’t mean any harm,” “gee, its a little sexy”…all in all not considered a life threatening situation, despite being a direct invasion of personal space.  Yet, the state of Florida has once again been through a racially charged trial based on another kind of cultural behavior that somehow, has, once again been treated as a life threatening situation. Rest in Peace Jordan Davis.

Scenario 2: White Male Guilt

“Why does it always have to come back to race?” His face was a perfect picture of genuine frustration and vulnerability. “I mean, every time I hear about the economy from a person of color, I feel like I want to crawl under a rock.  It makes me ashamed of the color of my skin…and it makes me angry that I can’t disagree.  I feel helpless”

I have had several recent interactions like this with white men where they ask or say something to the effect of “can I do anything right?” and “why do I always feel guilty?”  and “why are white guys always wrong these days?”  What is most surprising is that these are the liberals; progressives who are supposedly living lives that are dedicated to social, racial and economic justice.  I read a lot of blogs and online content and often when a piece involves statements about colonialism or inequality and race, there is increasing backlash in the comments from white men who feel vilified and targeted as being the source of all cultural ills.

Scenario 3: A “Black” President

President Obama is poised to launch the “My Brother’s Keeper” Initiative.  This is not only a first in American history by specifically targeting improvements for men of color from a National perspective, but it is seen as a fitting legacy for the country’s first black president who is uniquely positioned to leverage his own identity to address the United States continuing challenges around men of color.  Praised by most progressives, there is also backlash from predominantly white groups who feel this is too narrow a focus for a US president and also some from women’s activist groups who feel there is already too much focus on outcomes for men.

President Obama has made it clear that one of the legacies he will leave will be to have made a commitment to helping black men counter the institutionalized cultural barriers and hurdles that still linger in our national consciousness.  Although he is mixed race, he identifies as a black man and sees an opportunity to leverage this social location into real and positive change.  But already there are ugly attacks on his Presidency and threats to his and other black men’s personal safety for highlighting this work.  Part of me wonders how is this different than George Bush and his commitment to faith based communities based on his identity as a Christian?

Where This is Heading

I lay out these scenarios because I believe that they are the formula for a perfect storm.  We are facing the very real prospect of a true revolution unlike any we have seen before and one for which, in our techno driven, isolated, “me centered” existences we are ill prepared.  As a nation, we have never before faced a critical mass of empowered people of color and marginalized populations who were not so much asking for change in the cultural narrative about equality as they were making the change.  In California alone, there are community organizations that are pointing toward redefining the place for indigenous sensibilities in the lives of young men of color; organizations that lift up the unique relationship between Latino communities, parents and LGBTQ people; others that are dedicated to new educational models for young people of color or re-imagining how people of color can access healthcare through school communities…the list goes on.  These organizations represent the result of cultural fatigue of asking but never receiving from the dominant hierarchies, from the government systems and agencies.  The result is marginalized people and specifically people of color representing their communities in state and local legislature and making changes that will help the people they come from.  The history of missed opportunities for people of color, is part of the fabric of what this nation comes from and goes right back to the beginning.  The best example is how the founding fathers of the United States had the opportunity in early drafts of the Declaration of Independence  to significantly alter the prevalence and conversation around slavery in the fledgling country (see full text HERE).  However, it was determined that this language would imperil the success of securing independence over all.  Basically, dealing with the injustice of slavery, took a back seat to the priorities of the white landed men who were more concerned about separation from British rule and protecting their own interests.  People are through with waiting.

But there is a bigger lesson here.  The title of this entry is “Black Male Achievement ≠ White Male Failure” (if you are unfamiliar with the “≠” symbol or your computer doesn’t display it properly it stands for “does not equal.”)  In the fight for rights in America, we are at a crucial point.  Those fighting for rights are no longer looking at success as being defined by the standards and approval of the dominating culture (largely white men.)  And as a result,  instead of looking at polarizing in-equalities we have to explore unifying equalities that exist in a broader cultural landscape and increasingly varied social locations.  Where the language was once “level the playing field” and “war on: poverty, sexism, racism, etc.” (language that subtly implies winners and losers) the language must now speak of community, interdependence and universal balance if we are to actually avoid negating (or worse obliterating) one another all together.  The “stone soup” analogy fits here: independently, we will starve; blending our ingredients together, we will all be nourished.  Therefore, the “enemy” (if you subscribe to that language) is not just white and male; the real enemy is anyone who has adopted and perpetuated the attitude from colonial culture that excluding “the other” for more selfish opportunities is a positive thing.  Adopting an attitude of “I’ve got mine” is cultural violence that ultimately will not sustain progress.  Shockingly, the “I’ve got mine” violence usually takes the form of silence.  Yes, the violence is conservative white politicians changing the landscape of voting rights, and the violence is in “Gay Jim Crow” laws in Kansas.  But the violence is also in white LGBTQ silence on issues of race and African American silence on Immigration rights and Asian American silence on issues of financial disparity and minimum wage increase.

So in the end, would I be justified blowing the brains out of a blonde for flinging her hair at me? No.  Is a white man justified for killing a black kid who’s music was too loud. No.  Are white men always wrong. No.  Are black men always right. No.  The only way we can actually know one another is by sharing real relationships with each other without value judgements and comparisons.  My gayness does not diminish your straightness; her Judaism doesn’t diminish your Islam; and indeed, black male achievement does not mean white male failure.  There is plenty of room at the counter and plenty of soup for all of us.

Spring Will Not Be Silent in North Carolina

HKonJ-FB-Profile-pic“While [Rachel] Carson knew that one book could not alter the dynamic of the capitalist system, an environmental movement grew from her challenge, led by a public that demanded that science and government be held accountable.  Carson remains an example of what one committed individual can do to change the direction of society.  She was a revolutionary spokesperson for the rights of all life.  She dared to speak out and confront the issue of the destruction of nature and to frame it as a debate over the quality of all life.”  – Linda Lear, Introduction to the 40th Anniversary edition of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

On February 8, 2014, activists, clergy and concerned citizens will gather in Raleigh, North Carolina for the Moral March on Raleigh also known as HKonJ (Historic Thousands on Jones Street). This march is threatening to be “bigger than Selma” and is part of the wave of reaction to a Republican minority driving the North Carolina government toward exclusionary policies that hinder opportunity for all the poor and primarily the largely Democratic people of color of North Carolina.  These shocking policies,  most specifically around voting rights,  harken back, not just to the days of Jim Crow, but to the Slave Codes of the late 19th century.  Although not related to environmental justice on the surface, the call to action is the same:  we must fight back against short sighted public policies that serve to enrich an already wealthy minority while killing the larger population…and the time to fight back is now!

Silent Spring caused a firestorm of controversy around the use of pesticides when it was released in 1962.  Penned by celebrated author and pioneering biologist, Rachel Carson, the book called into question the entire biochemical industrial complex.  She made the powerful case for the toxic effects of biochemicals on all creatures, most of all on human beings, linking certain types of cancers directly to the production and use of chemical pesticides.  This was despite popular scientific theory of the time that claimed humans had “tolerances” and “adaptabilities” that surpassed these toxicities.  Her conjecture flew in the face of the greedy, ego driven, arrogant and entirely male dominated world of pesticide and chemical development.  Initially she was dismissed as a “hysterical woman” with no real scientific foundation for her claims.  But ultimately, when President John F. Kennedy took notice of her writing, things began to change.  Eventually, through public pressure, the government was compelled to investigate her theories finding them to be an understatement of the gravity of the actual situation.  Her work would lead to the creation of the EPA and domestic bans on DDT and other advances in the control, limitation and elimination of certain toxic biochemicals.  Her battle was not just for the masses, but rather personal.  Unknown to many at the time, while she worked on Silent Spring, she was battling breast cancer.  She would die in 1964 before seeing the full fruits of her labor.

Today, we still wrestle with big business and government interest around the environment, our food supply and ecosystems.  The battle for ecological justice is far from won, rather, it continues in earnest as the greed of a few continue to push Genetically Modified Organisms into our bodies and minds, with claims that they will be “better for us” in the long run.  The struggle will continue as long as the powerful, wealthy few live in fear of losing their power and wealth. Sadly, it is the same with the state of civil rights in North Carolina and other localities that are feeling the effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling on key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights act last year.  But what is most shocking is the hubris of conservative politicians to assume that they are immune to the toxic political environment they have created. At the very least it is irresponsible, at its worst self destructive.  Reflecting back on Carson’s perspective on the environment, Lear goes on to state that Silent Spring:

…proved that our bodies are not boundaries.  Chemical corruption of the globe affects us from conception to death.  Like the rest of nature, we are vulnerable to pesticides; we too are permeable.  All forms of life are more alike than different. 

Similarly, the restrictive public policies that the Moral March is highlighting ultimately bring down not just people of color and the poor in general, but all North Carolinians and ultimately all people of this nation.  Like the rest of nature…we too are permeable to the pesticides of class and race politics.  We are all susceptible to the poison of public policies that benefit only the very few.  The benefits for those few will only last a short time; the illness and cultural cancers for the many will and have lasted for generations.  Ultimately, greed multiplied by fear is the most toxic poison to the cultural soul.

But there is hope.  We  have seen the images from the struggle for voting rights in the 1960’s: black people…children going to prison, adults being attacked by dogs, or assaulted with hoses and brutalized by police.  But there was also Unitarian Universalist minister and pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., James Reeb, a white man, who was beaten to death in Selma, Alabama for showing his solidarity with blacks in 1965.  His martyrdom and the actions of all the Civil Rights activists, black, white, gay, straight, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and non-religious combine to inspire a new generation of leaders and community organizers who believe that equality is not just for people who look like one group of people or speak the same language or come from the same economic class.  They believe, and the science of Rachel Carson and the science of nature itself, back this up: real social equity is something in which we all must make a deep investment.  It is the only antidote to the poison that permeates the current political climate in North Carolina and it is the only real cure to stop it’s insidious spread to the rest of our nation and maybe even the world.

This spring in North Carolina will not be silent.  March on, march on!

Update: The Moral March drew thousands on a cold rainy Saturday.  Despite conservative media challenges, the movement is poised for much greater national action (READ HERE)

Links:

Historic Thousands on Jones

Standing on the Side of Love

America’s Tomorrow – via PolicyLink

Equity Blog – via PolicyLink

Twitter: #MoralMarch

A Lesson in Figure Skating and Black Men

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Squaw Valley…and my off ice spiral.

Dear Robert Samuels of the Washington Post,

Although I appreciate the observations in your recent article “I’m black.  I’m a guy. And I’m obsessed with figure skating” – Washington Post Online, January 30, and I also appreciate how challenging it is to be a man of color working for the Post, your perspective as a black man loving figure skating is neither newsworthy nor unique. You are definitely not the first black man to be a fan of figure skating.  In fact, in addition to other black men being fans, there have been and continue to be black men and women actually in the sport.  But I have to also realize that you, along with many others may not be aware of the depth and breadth of the history of blacks in figure skating in America.  So, with all good intentions, here are a few of my own observations as a fan for over 45 years.

Today, in Culver City Californa, an era comes to an end.  On February 2, 2014, Culver City Ice Arena will close.  Along with it, the dreams of many a child who usually wouldn’t have access to even knowing about skating of any kind.  I discovered Culver City Ice when I moved to Los Angeles in 2000.  I had started skating (as an adult) while living in Toronto in 1996 and had managed to keep up the sport.  My first impression of Culver City Ice was that it was run down (the ice had a distinct dip toward one end.) But there was a charm that is summed up by the “Sweetheart of the Ice” sculpture that adorns the roof and by the warmth of the instructors, some who had been teaching there since its opening in 1962.  The other thing that spoke to me were how many kids of color were on the ice.  It was the first time in all of my years of following figure skating that I had seen that many kids of color on the ice.  One of the first people I met was Catherine Machado, US National Bronze medalist (1955, 1956) as well as the first Latina national champion (Junior, 1954.)  She was funny and wry and so unassuming, I didn’t realize her history.  I remember her telling me that one reason she loved this rink was that, although she loved all her students, Culver City attracted the kids who looked and sounded like her and it was important for them to see a role model.  But I digress…

Culver City Ice was not only where I first landed an axel jump (thank you Gary Visconti) but where I met Atoy Wilson, the first African American National Champion (Novice, 1966) and the first African American to skate in the National Championships (1965) and former star of Ice Follies, Holiday on Ice and numerous appearances on television.  He introduced me to a world of black figure skaters who to this day continue to be sidelined by a sport that is plagued by both racism and economic elitism.  Through him, I learned about and was fortunate to meet incredible athletes: Franklyn Singley, Sheliah Crisp, Derrick Delmore, Aaron Parchem, Andrea Gardiner, Rohene Ward, just to name a few…not to mention legendary figures like Debi Thomas, Richard Ewell and  Tai Babilonia. These skaters, represent some of the most phenomenal talent to ever land on the ice.  At a 2002 gala in Cleveland, I saw them perform spins and jumps that don’t even have names in the mainstream sport; I witnessed a level of athleticism and artistry with these skaters that puts anything that most of our national competitors do to a sorry shame; and I encountered a passion for the sport that transcended the cultural barriers that were routinely put in their way by “the establishment.”

The most important introduction, however, that came to me from Culver City Ice Arena was my introduction to Mabel Fairbanks.  Fairbanks was a black skater and coach who came up in a time when it was impossible to be a black woman and be a skater, let alone a black woman from Jacksonville, Florida. Arriving in New York City in the 1930’s, she saw figure skating, most notably the movie “One In a Million” with Sonja Henie, and was hooked.  Although she was most likely in her early 20’s when she started, she found a way to teach herself and wangle lessons with then US Champion Maribel Vinson Owen and eventually create small ice shows around herself in Harlem using all local children as talent.  After some important publicity in New York, the prospect of a movie career called her to Hollywood, but due to racism and questionable management, it was not to be so.  But this didn’t stop Mabel.  She began performing a “tank show” (small patch of portable ice), created an international tour with skaters of color and most importantly started coaching.  She worked with the children of many celebrities through the 1950’s and eventually went on to coach Atoy Wilson who I mentioned above.  She was the reason he broke the color barriers at both the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club and US Figure Skating Nationals.  It was around this same time that she looked at a little white boy and a little Filipino/black girl and said something to the effect of “I think they would make a nice pair” and put Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia on the ice together.  Needless to say, the rest is World Champion history.  Due to her failing health at that time, I only had the chance to speak directly to Mabel briefly on the telephone, but I will never forget her delicate and determined voice even in illness saying how important it was to make sure that ALL the skaters get a chance.  She died in 2001.

I could go on, but there is a more important element to this story.  I started by saying that with Culver City Ice closing, so are the hopes and dreams of many skaters who won’t have access to the sport of skating whether that be figure skating or hockey.  Most of those kids are of color…and most of them don’t know the depth of the history of skaters of color outside of those of Japanese, Korean and Chinese decent (all of whom are phenomenally talented and deserve all the praise they get…Mirai Nagasu!)  Culver City Ice is on the border of several poor communities where one of the only low cost fun family, teen activities is ice skating.  What a loss.  I remember being a child in New York City after seeing Peggy Fleming skate at the Olympics and wanting more than anything to “do that.” My parents indulged me briefly by taking me to the Sky Rink once, but it was too far away and too costly. The message was clear.  Little boys…particularly little black boys, don’t figure skate.  How lucky the kids of Culver City have been, to skate in the home of the All Year Figure Skating Club in a place that was easy to get to on a bike or by bus.  There might have been some little black boy skating there thinking “I’m going to be the one to stand on the top of the Olympic podium.” Now we will never know.

With Peggy Fleming in 2011

With Peggy Fleming in 2011

While I was at Culver City, not only did I have the chance to skate with National Champion, Gary Visconti and Olympic Champion Bob Paul, but I had the chance as a former Broadway dancer to share my love and knowledge of dance with a few young skaters of color.  I am insanely proud that I had the chance to work with the young Tetona Jackson who later went on to be the first to portray Disney’s first black princess, Tiana, in Disney on Ice.  The legacy of black and brown skaters continues even today despite the barriers that remain both through finance and through the limited vision of many judges and coaches in the sport.

So, Mr. Samuels, again, I support you as being passionate about the sport of figure skating.  So am I.  So are all the people I mentioned above.  So are many, many other people, men and women, boys and girls, all of them people of color in this country and abroad…and all of us are considered outsiders.  Our voices have been crying into the wind and being unheard for years.  They de-fund our learn to skate programs, they keep us off the podium (or at the very least off the top spot…hello Surya Bonaly!) and they close our rinks.  The real story here is not about a black guy who likes to watch figure skating.  The real story is about all of the black guys who have been shut out of being on the podium or even in the competition throughout the history of the sport.  Let’s hear about that huh?