Common, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, and Stephen A. Smith have prescribed ways to heal racism. It boils down to this: Let Black people do the work.
It should be good news that more public figures—including Oscar-winning rap artist and actor Common and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz—are suggesting ways to address the problem of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. With so much post-racial noise and faux dreams of colorblindness, efforts to simply acknowledge the pernicious problem of racism is as refreshing as a six-dollar ice coffee on a warm March day.
It is better than nothing, isn’t it?
At least it ain’t the status quo, right?
The problem is that these two household names, while presumably well-intentioned, are dangerously off the mark in their approaches. They’re not the only ones, but because of the size of their platforms, it makes sense to start with them.
When he won the lone Oscar for co-writing with John Legend the powerful theme song for Selma, Common said in his acceptance speech:
“John and I got to go to Selma and perform ‘Glory’ on the same bridge that Dr. King and the people of the civil-rights movement marched on 50 years ago. This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but now is a symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope. Welded with compassion. And elevated by love for all human beings.”
So I was surprised and disappointed when he next made headlines for suggesting that “extending a hand in love to White people” is a solution to racism in an appearance on the The Daily Show With Jon Stewart:
“We all know there’s been some bad history in our country. We know that racism exists. I’m … extending a hand. And I think a lot of generations and different cultures are saying ‘Hey, we want to get past this. We’ve been bullied and we’ve been beat down, but we don’t want it anymore.’ We’re not extending a fist and saying, ‘Hey, you did us wrong.’ It’s more like ‘Hey, I’m extending my hand in love. Let’s forget about the past as much as we can, and let’s move from where we are now … Me as a Black man, I’m not sitting there like, ‘White people—y’all did us wrong.’ I mean we know that that existed. I don’t even have to keep bringing that up. It’s like being in a relationship and continuing to bring up the person’s issues.”
[Insert Black woman side-eye here.] Common is clearly channeling his inner Afterschool Special—he’s gone from Assata’s song to Kumbaya. Because this whole idea presumes that racism is about love, hate, or any other subjective or fleeting emotion, rather than a deeply entrenched systemic institutional form of oppression that’s at the foundation of this country. This suggestion not only shows his lack of understanding of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “beloved community” of justice and equality; it puts the responsibility on Black Americans for solving racism, further blaming Black people for persistent inequality. If only WE could love a little more; if only WE could extend an open hand rather than a raised fist. That’s Common’s message—an unholy mix of Brady Bunch foolywang and Fox News historical revisionism.
And he’s not alone in pushing the race conversation into the middle of nowhere. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, offered a pathway to racial reconciliation in the form of a hashtag—#RaceTogether—a contrived race conversation. Mercifully, he decided it wasn’t working and ended the ill-advised program on Sunday, due to the huge backlash. Endorsed by Fox’s Juan Williams and Eric Bolling (enough said?), among others, Schultz called for Starbucks to hold up a mirror to America, fostering a dialogue through coffee cups, one barista at a time. Legal challenges have failed to usher in racial justice; so have decades of struggle in the streets, education, and speech-making. So of course the secret must’ve been in hosting #RaceTogether conversations at the ubiquitous coffee chain in gentrifying neighborhoods across the country. Yeah, that’s it.
When I first heard about Schultz plan, I began channeling Dr. King: Brothas and sistas, I have a dream that one day, in Ferguson or Florida or Los Angeles or Oakland or New York City, on college campuses from Oklahoma to Virginia, with the permanence of vicious racism, with blue-on-black crime, stop and frisk, poverty, job and housing discrimination, and wealth disparities—one day right there in Starbucks, in city after city, Black latte drinkers and White macchiato drinkers, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, will be able to join hands as sisters and brothers and sing: Let freedom ring from the coffee bar!
What could possibly be wrong with expecting a minimum-wage-earning barista—usually young and inexperienced in conducting such a charged discourse, especially in a professional setting? Imagine a kid trying to simultaneously get the famously complicated orders right for grouchy, undercaffeinated lumbersexuals, hipsters, yuppies and entitled folks awaiting their fix, and engaging them in meaningful dialogue about a hot topic guaranteed to offend everyone. No wonder #RaceTogether didn’t last a week. So much for Schultz’s plan to increase his company’s stock value by staking out its place as the King of “conscious capitalism,” privatizing racial justice for the price of a luxe caffeine product at one of its 11,000 outposts.
There appears to be an epidemic of reactionary and simplistic race talk going on. Sports anchor Stephen A. Smith suggested that the Democratic Party has taken Blacks for granted, and that the antidote to that is for every Black American to vote Republican in the next election.
While the Democratic Party bears responsibility for, among other things, the school-to-prison pipelines, mass incarceration, the militarization of the police, deindustrialization, the destruction of America’s safety net, the weakening of civil and voting rights laws, the GOP ain’t the answer to ANY question. Instead of asking Black people to vote against their interests, screwing up the entire country in the process, why doesn’t Smith ask the non-wealthy White people to vote for their own interests instead of the fantasy that their whiteness will propel them into the one percent?
Clearly, Smith is not alone in sipping on the Starbucks Kool-Aid. The week began with Washington Post columnist and MSNBC contributor Jonathan Capehart’s public apology about the “lie” of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”
Back in August, Capehart wrote a sympathetic column about Michael Brown, and the movement demanding justice. In an effort to facilitate a better racial conversation, he felt the need to publicly renounce himself, on March 16:
“In those early hours and early days, there was more unknown than known. But this month, the Justice Department released two must-read investigations connected to the killing of Brown that filled in blanks, corrected the record and brought sunlight to dark places by revealing ugly practices that institutionalized racism and hardship. They have also forced me to deal with two uncomfortable truths: Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting Brown.”
In other words, because the DOJ says Wilson was justified in killing Brown, then that’s the truth—as if there isn’t a long history of injustice there. Reflecting the dangers of a CSI nation, Capehart and others have recast their investigation as unimpeachable, as a truth based in “science” and “forensics.” Heeding the call from Fox News and their GOP friends, who believe in “science” for this single moment, Capehart has offered an apology for sowing the seeds of racial disharmony. [Insert another Black woman sucking her teeth here.]
The icing on Capehart’s racial reconciliation cake rests with his conclusion that the dead teenager was “an inappropriate symbol” for the growing police murders of unarmed Black people, particularly young Black men, spreading like an epidemic across the land.
In other words, the takeaway is that in order for racial progress to happen, Black America must extend a loving hand to White folks over an expensive coffee conversation only about “appropriate symbols” of racial violence. M’kay.
The danger of Capehart doing a Mitt Romney flip flop is that it attacks the credibility of the Black victim in favor of the official narrative, which inevitably finds the White killer, the brutal cop without responsibility. Yet again, White is right. Yet again, we are left with an age-old narrative that denies anti-Black violence that blames Black America for its own death. As with the debate about “N-Word,” sagging pants, violent hip-hop, angry tones, and the “race card,” change that White America can believe in begins with changes from Black America. This sort of simplicity and dishonesty is the true enemy of racial
The latest racial reality show, starring Common, Schultz, Smith, and Capehart, is dangerous. They are not only ignoring American’s deadly and oppressive history, recasting White supremacy as a little bit of prejudice, but erasing the problematic present, flaunting their privilege of being insulated from the reality of most people’s lives. By pretending that racism is *poof!* over and done with, by focusing on individual subjective actions rather than institutionalized objective structures, policies, laws, and practices, they are using the power and influence of their talent and platforms to work against themselves and their people.
All of these examples illustrate the varying degrees that White supremacy promotes a narrative of racism that seemingly leaves America and White people with zero accountability. In promoting irrelevant “solutions” without acknowledging White privilege, entrenched anti-Black violence, or realistic remedies to the very real issues of racism in this country, there is little hope. The absurdity of their comments and suggestions about how to deal with racism neither challenge the problem nor advance the narrative. They merely cause disruptive flurries to distract our attention from the bigger more urgent issues in our daily lives.
The real problem is that rather than addressing racism, much of the focus is on how Black people react to racism and the nature of the conversation—as if that is the problem and not the result. This moves the daily and historical struggles of African Americans from the center of the conversation to reassure White people that their privilege and entitlements are safe and secure, that they will neither be blamed for racism, nor held responsible for addressing it. It is blackness itself that is identified as the root cause of the problem: Black skin, Black identity, Black history, Black reality, Black people breathing. And they all want to make it go away.
If we listen to Schultz, we just need to talk more. If we listen to Smith, we just need to get over our prejudices about the GOP. If we listen to Capehart, we just need to stop overacting and trust the justice system. If we listen to Pharrell, Raven Symoné, Morning Joe, and Fox News, racism is passé and if we just stop talking about it, all is good. If we listen to Common, we should ignore the lynching T-shirts, the racist gun targets, the ongoing police killings and beatings, the annihilation of Black communities being gentrified, and mass incarceration. We just need more love, more hugs, more extended hands, of course, over a cup of non-GMO soy Java.
Bottom line: Black people did not create this racist infrastructure or paradigm. Black people—the collective—don’t perpetuate it or profit from it like some of the self-described “New Blacks,” who are really just 21st century house Negroes doubling as overseers. White America has cornered the market on racism.
More conversations are not the answer. Silence is not the answer; better symbols and leaders are not a recipe for racial justice.
And, love is NOT the answer to White supremacy! In fact, love and racism don’t even belong in the same sentence. Racism is a form of abuse; it is based in power, ideologies of White supremacy, violence, and exploitation. With the exception of the GOP and Fox News (and countless others), would you tell a woman in a violent relationship to extend a loving hand to her abuser?
Is justice really possible through a discussion with a stranger, who is cashing in from this violent system over a cup of coffee in a public place?
The pattern is the same: First you hurt the victim. Then you shame them. Discredit their reality and override it with your own. Then you tell them that they have to fix the problem. After that, you criticize them for their inevitable failure to fix the problem, of which you are the cause. Then you demand that they absolve you, forgive you, love you, and serve as your personal diversity consultant to help you learn how not to be a racist.
And all of this while Black people are being herded into the prison pipeline, children are treated like criminals in public schools, and unarmed Black men, women and children are being publicly brutalized by officers of “the law” with no consequences. Dead children are put on trial for their own murders. The ugly truth is that most White people have hated us since 1619. Their hatred increased after Emancipation, and that hate has steadily grown since, amping up to new levels with the election of President Obama and the demographic browning of this country. And to be honest, their hearts (and that of the nation and its institutions and corporations since they are people too) don’t matter; emotions are irrelevant whereas the realities of inequality and exploitation do.
So no, I don’t have the time or the energy to educate White people about how to fix racism, when my people are being killed with impunity by cops, vigilantes, or bureaucratic policies that produce hidden holocausts and obscure the genocidal potential of White supremacy. I don’t feel like loving amid the rise of racist hate groups, increasingly dire reports on Black life, growing and overt government divestment in communities of color, the GOP’s blatant disrespect of our president, and the fact that 50 years after the March on Selma, Black people STILL do not have secure voting rights!
I need for all of them: Common, Schultz, Capeheart, Smith and whoever is next—to stick to their real areas of talent and expertise, do what’s made them famous, and stop their various forms of blaming and hating Black people. Their comments and suggestions are every bit as triggering and hateful as those T-shirts and gun targets, and the body of Otis Byrd swinging from a Mississippi tree.
They need a timeout. And they can join Geraldo, Joe Scarborough, Billy O, Sean Hannity and countless others, whose talent and expertise are mysteries, yet their hatred and blaming of Black America is crystal clear, on the sidelines. And stop asking Black people how to fix racism. What I don’t get is that for centuries, White people have been telling us how intellectually superior they are and how they outperform us (based on their own racialized measuring stick) on just about everything, and yet when it comes to devising solutions to the race problem that they created, they are suddenly clueless and incompetent. But they want their intellectually inferior, victimized, dusky brethren who suck at everything in life to give them a template and do the work for them. Riiiiight.
As the great novelist Toni Morrison said: “Crude and crass as most of it is and, really, uninformed as almost all of it is, the discourse about race is important. But the real conversation should take place among white people. They should talk to each other about that. Not with me. I can’t be the doctor and the patient.”
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