What does society call a Black man with a Ph.D., who always dresses in suits and uses proper English, has no criminal record, has no kids, attends church and gives to charity?
Society calls them both the same word.
Last month we have witnessed Donald Sterling, former owner of the NBA Los Angeles Clippers, lose his team after making racist comments. Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, defended Sterling, saying he is entitled to his private thoughts and should not lose his team because of what he thinks. More recently, videos have surfaced of pop singer Justin Bieber when he was a teenager, making racist comments and cracking racist jokes.
All three men associate with Black people as a part of their professions. Sterling employs Black executives, coaches, and Black players. Cuban employed a Black coach (he fired him, then hired a white coach) and has Black players working for him. Bieber pals around with Black entertainers and works with Black musicians. All of them, and countless more non-Blacks, harbor thoughts of Black people in ways that contrast with their public behavior. Are we surprised when it is revealed that they perceive Black people in insidious ways? Should we be?
I do not believe there are racially colorblind people. There are people who do not discriminate based on race, but they do notice another person’s race. They are race- or color-conscious. Noticing race or color and subsequent thoughts and behavior is natural. It is inherent in us all to categorize others as a member either of one’s racial group or outside of one’s racial group.
After categorizing a person, we generate thoughts about that person – stereotypes, if you will. We may then treat that person according to those stereotypes, or use our experiences with individuals of that group to counter negative impressions of that group to which the person is a member.
So, if we all engage in categorization, recall stereotypes, then act accordingly, why are we surprised when Sterling, Cuban, Bieber, and others make the comments they do?
One thing is true, if you only associate with a certain type of subgroup (basketball players or rappers), then your perception of the primary group (Blacks in this case) will be skewed and biased. However, that does not give you a pass nor dismiss the racist behavior. The Game gave Bieber a pass while appearing on TMZ; Whoopi Goldberg gave him a pass because he is Canadian.
Let us say for argument’s sake that the three white men did not mean any ill will toward Black people. Let us say that were just blowing off steam or their words just came out “in artfully.” So what? It is inevitable that some people will have negative thoughts about Black people, and when they utter them in the guise of racist rhetoric, then there should be punishments, and the offenders should expect them.
Let us consider Jonah Hill, the actor. He was overheard using homophobic slurs (again). He goes on an apology tour, as do most celebrities when they use homophobic slurs. However, use a racial slur, there is no apology tour from anyone. More than that, you will find some Black people will give the white offender a pass. So, once again, the sensibilities of Black people are ignored. As long as society and Black people think using racial slurs is no big deal, then the abhorrent behavior will continue to occur.
I do not advocate anyone using the N-word at any time. It is an ugly word that has no redeeming value. I am shocked, saddened, and surprised that the many Black “geniuses” we have in our community cannot come up with another word to refer to Black people. Black entertainers are extremely talented, but they cannot create a new word to replace the N-word? I recall Common defending the use of the word on ESPN, arguing that he needs to reach the kids by using the language they use. That might be the problem. The children are teaching the adults. Where is the leadership and mentorship? Where is the better example?
I am not excusing Sterling, Cuban and Bieber because sometimes some Black people act like crabs in a bucket. My basic point is that Black people should have more respect for each other, then demand it from people who are not Black.
The LBGTQ community demands it. When Kobe Bryant of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers called a referee a homophobic slur, he was punished by the NBA. The referee did not even hear it. But the LBGTQ community made their voices heard. We did not hear individuals in their community give Kobe a pass. Black people need to act better, then demand better to get better treatment. When was the last time someone used anti-Semitic language and someone from the Jewish community advocated the use of the slur and defended the offender?
Black people cannot let the wool get pulled over their eyes. Just because white people seem “cool with Black people,” do not stop policing the language they use; behind that language are thoughts and sometimes those thoughts are expressed. Be sure that the expressions do not go far afield and when they do, allow your self-respect to dictate what happens next. White people may be your employers, but they do not control your dignity.
Lastly, racists can be nice people. They do not have to hate you to abuse or exploit you. Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s best friend was Black. Shock jock Howard Stern has his Black co-host, Robin Quivers.
Yes, even among white racists, some of their best friends are Black.
Dr. Maruice Mangum is an associate professor in the department of Political Science at Texas Southern University.