MLK/Malcolm X photo © Associated Press
By David A. Love
Published by The Black Commentator
September 27, 2007
With fascination, I've noted the recent popularity of these television commercials featuring the smart Black guy. You know what I mean, the intelligent, "articulate" and "clean" man of color, someone you wouldn't mind inviting to your home for dinner. In the commercial, he is invariably called upon to provide technical expertise on some complex matter, whether it involves the specifications of the latest model computer, information on selecting an insurance policy, or giving crucial investment advice.
I suppose I should be satisfied that we have improved in the media depictions of people of color, somewhat, that Black men are finally portrayed as something other than criminals, buffoons, the hired help, etc. To be sure, these ads, creations of Madison Avenue, rightly suggest that there are many Black men out there from which society could learn a great deal. However, in the real world in which most of us live, Black men are rarely heard. Most of society has very little to say to Black men, and believes there is very little, if nothing, that they can learn from them.
To be sure, there have been many who were willing and eager to give advice, but society has refused to heed their message. For example, in the 1960s, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Medgar Evers and others had much to say to America, and much advice to give. But their message was unwelcome, and the messengers were assassinated. And a number of whites at that time who openly asserted that society must listen to what Black people have to say, were murdered, maimed or otherwise discredited.
African American men are the nation's universal scapegoat. They are the most likely to die, the most likely to be undereducated and the most likely to be unemployed. Many whites fled the cities to get away from them, so that their children would not go to school with them, or even worse, date them.
Through unjust laws, Black men, along with their Latino counterparts, are the majority of the nation's prisoners. And they comprise the most incarcerated demographic in the world, America's attempt to lock up its race problem — out of sight and out of mind — and throw away the key. In a country where each of the 50 states bans dog fighting, and rightly so, men of color are chained up and put down like dogs, and men and women of color often are not even respected as much as dogs.
Black men in particular are stressed over the badge of criminality they must bear. The nation's tough-on-crime, law and order apparatus is mobilized primarily against them. When they are born, there is a presumption of their guilt. Society places an insurmountable burden on Black men to prove that they are not a criminal element, which is why they are likely to receive longer sentences for the same crime than white men.
Even the clothes associated with young Black men of the hip hop generation - saggy jeans - have been prohibited by law in some parts of the U.S .
A white man with a criminal record has an easier time finding a job than a Black man who has had no brushes with the law. And as anti-racism activist and writer, Tim Wise notes, a Black man with a college degree makes nearly $20,000 less, or nearly half his white counterpart, while a white with a masters degree earns 10 percent more, and a white with a professional degree earns $30,000 more.
Based on the longstanding assumption that two or more Black males gathering together in public constitutes a criminal conspiracy, the Black Codes were enacted during Jim Crow in order to control Black men's daily affairs. Studies have been funded to prove that Black men possess an innate wolfpack mentality and penchant for violence. America is the department store within which African American men must navigate, constantly monitored, followed and scrutinized, and always presumed to be up to no good.
And today, we can see the intergenerational nature of this criminalization process. As six Black teens were arrested and indicted in Jena, Louisiana, facing hard time for fighting against raw racism under the "white" tree, eight former Black Panthers were arrested and indicted, based on illegal evidence, old, unsettled scores and trumped up charges, four decades in the making.
In this election season, it is plausible that almost none of the interchangeable empty suits that are the Republican presidential candidates will have any contact with Black men, much less acknowledge their existence. That is why many of them have run away from the presidential debates on Black and Latino issues. It is doubtful that a number of Democratic candidates have a clue as well.
Certainly, an individual such as Mitt Romney, marketed as the whitest man with the whitest family in the land, has no need to concern himself with what Black men are thinking. And surely Rudy "9-11" Giuliani had no concern for the many Black and Latino men who were killed by the police under his watch as mayor of New York. For this crowd — which, curiously, seems to believe it can win by playing to the base and ignoring this nation's ascending majority — policy towards people of color is of a punitive nature, whether it is war against Arabs and Muslims at home and abroad (and apparent Arabs and Muslims), deportation for Latinos, elimination of civil rights, voting rights and affirmative action for people of color in general, and more imprisonment for all of the above.
(Of course, our white brothers and sisters of meager means do not fare any better under a hypothetical G.O.P. administration. However, the regressive conservatives throw a bone to that segment of the electorate in the form of the race card, naked homophobia and criminalization of women's rights, the war on terror, the war on crime, creationism, guns, and other divisive distractions.)
The Black guy in the commercial seems to serve a role for a society that is in denial. He soothes the collective guilty conscience by reminding America of the progress we've made, and providing proof that racism and racial inequity are a thing of the past. "This smart Black guy is managing my stock portfolio and building me a computer, he's doing well, so why does he need affirmative action?" the argument goes. "The civil rights movement was a long time ago, and we live in a colorblind society, so why should this guy get any breaks over my kid?"
There is a racial disconnect in America, and it is enormous. A recent study by Ohio State University of white people's understanding of the black experience suggests that many whites are clueless. When given a hypothetical involving an oppressed minority group in a fictional country that mirrors the Black experience, whites estimated that the group deserved, on average, $1 million in compensation. But when posed the same question with regard to African Americans, the estimate dropped to $10,000.
And according to a survey by the Associated Press and MTV, 72 percent of whites between ages 13-24 say they are generally happy with life, as opposed to 56 percent of Blacks and 51 percent of Latinos. Among participants of color in the survey, the most important key to happiness was lack of money woes, while whites said that a good family was the most important factor. Further, 28 percent of people of color believe race will hurt them in their search for a better life, while 20 percent of whites feel their race will help them get ahead.
So, the next time you see a smart Black guy in a TV commercial, ask yourself a question: how much better would this country be if we actually listened to what the real-life Black people have to say?
Copyright © 2007 by David A. Love