New Black Spokesmen

We’re coming up on an election year and with all the talk about candidates already, there are some offices not getting nearly enough discussion time. Aren’t we about due for a crop of new black leaders? Seriously, I’m tired of our current spokesmen.

Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, these keepers of the flame, are too transparent for words. Of course they came trotting out when the Don Imus mess gained some traction. We know who they are and what agenda drives them: attention-seeking politicians striving for the perception of relevance. They are the equivalent of ambulance chasers, picking the pockets of all involved as they run from whatever controversy the two start or fan, before they move on, whether or not the actual conflict has been resolved. They are a Civil Rights protection racket.

Traditional “black leadership” has had to come up through the civil rights machinery. Which means they’ve clung to the same tactics, trying to fight the same battles, with little adaptation to new issues. The good reverends have appointed themselves as gatekeepers for new leaders to come up, giving and withholding their blessing as they see fit. However, besides lining their own pockets, what has their leadership produced?

Don Imus being fired wasn’t a win (actually, I think of this much like Bobby Knight in Indiana University. He had pulled so many stunts in his history, so that it wasn’t so much his last stunt which got him canned, which wasn’t that bad–especially for Knight–but it was more like the culmination of his acts). Sponsors pulling out was the only reason Imus got fired. Don Imus isn’t defining anyone. His opinions don’t affect my self-esteem. How many of “us” were in his demo audience to begin with? In fact, I wouldn’t have heard about it except for people bombarding me with how I ought to be offended. Had there been true outrage, it wouldn’t have taken so long for him to be suspended, much less fired. As the advertisers went, so did he.

And that still leaves our black spokesmen with an uncomfortable elephant in the room. Drugs, crime, education, teen pregnancy – we can’t exactly march on those problems. There isn’t a convenient enemy nor an easily solution, but these are the hurdles we, as a community, currently have to clear. They aren’t sexy problems, only the most relevant.

Of course, all this assumes we actually need a spokesman. For that matter, it assumes that we speak as a united block. We don’t and we aren’t. At one time, we needed voices because we weren’t being heard. Now we can be heard. We don’t need the good Reverends, not in their spokesman roles. In my less cynical moments, I assume both men have done a lot of good. Some of it behind the scenes and they simply use their higher profile to draw attention to certain problems. However, perception is king and racism is their industry. Considering the problems they seem to draw the media to, it seems like they have more of a stake in racism continuing. I’m all for fighting injustice where you see it, just don’t solely fight for opportunities for legitimacy and relevance.

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Imus, A Mess

Not too long ago, a group of athletes got in trouble for some locker room humor that got out of the room. It was a black coach nick-naming a group of his white athletes. I chalked the incident up to an inside family joke offending the sensibilities of those outside the family. After all, sometimes diversity shocks people. Let me word this delicately: When you leave what you know, the people you’re familiar with and are suddenly plunged into a more diverse atmosphere than you are used to, sometimes jokes can be used embrace the differences. They can make you feel embraced. Humor, though sometimes inappropriate, cuts through to a common core and can sometimes point out uncomfortable truths and diffuse tension.

It’s about context.

Jokes you make within family that sound horrendous when someone outside the family hears them, much less, repeats them. We can speak one way with our “boys”, one way with our family, and another way in public/on the record. Still, we have to always be mindful: some language and images need a “handle with care” label attached to them.

Which brings me to Don Imus. We’re nearly a week into this growing imbroglio. Many times, I’m likely to give a pass to a slip of the tongue. Who among us hasn’t ever said something stupid that we (immediately) regret? When that person’s entire m.o. revolves around being controversial in order to get attention, especially in an effort to be funny, I’m that much less likely to be shocked.

However, humor can be a dual-edged pitard: I’m sure Michael Richards thought he was being funny.

Frankly, I haven’t listened to his show because his act never interested me. The main reason I am at all familiar with him is because he so often makes the news due to something he has said. After so many offenses, he rather struck me as an equal opportunity offender. None of which excuses his referring to the women of the Rutgers basketball team as “That’s some nappy-headed hos there, I’m gonna tell you that now.” With brutal efficiency, he’s managed to be both racist and sexist in his efforts to cling to the dream that he is somehow still relevant.

Still, the curious slow boil of the situation has been fascinating to watch. Now that Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are on the case (and NOW just chimed in, a week late), all of the usual suspects have chimed in which guarantee me taking this seriously.

Let’s face it, this is business as usual for all parties involved. Imus has been suspended, his wrist appropriately slapped, and is going on his apology tour (which I’m sure will be sincere, not a desperate bid to keep his job and/or sponsors happy). After that, therapy won’t matter. The number of his black friends won’t matter. Firing him won’t matter. Not to me. The debate over the appropriateness of some language is the take home lesson.

Seeming double standards aren’t fair (“how come THEY get to say that but I don’t?”), but they are the reality of the world we live in, the grown up world where adults understand context. You don’t always get to say what you want, when you want to say it. Well, you can, but be prepared to face the consequences of your words. My brother may call me an idiot, but you better not in front of him. There are some words and phrases “off limits” to certain folks in certain contexts, situations resolved by the offended parties speaking up and reprimands given. The danger of pushing people’s buttons is that sometimes they push back.