Tuesday, May 08, 2007
(Reading between the lines of Editorialist Don Erler)
FOR MY STUDENTS, who may have never tasted the bitterness of overt bigotry and may be confused about the debate on racism, it has always been our desire that you would grow up in colorless society, where you are judged by the content of your character and not the color of your skin. It was our desire to phase out racism as bigots died off. We knew, from the outset, that it would take a whole generation. And still, it continually resurrects itself in the most inconspicuous ways.
Let’s look, dispassionately and objectively, at one of the ways of how.
Heretofore, we have examined semantics and the role of language- how it constructs the logics behind our thinking, how it impacts our nervous system, and now how subtleties and nuances convey subliminal messages. The case example here is an editorial written by Don Erler, president of General Building Maintenance, which appeared in today’s Star-Telegram (“The Loyal Opposition Controversy”, 5/8/2007). His political commentary carries a lot of subtle nuances that speaks one thing to one part of the reading audience while yet speaking something else to another audience.
Erler concludes by applauding “progress wherever you happen to find it”. But his characterization of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as “race hustlers” takes us back to the time when Martin Luther King, Jr. was called “Martin Luther Coon”, a kind of southern humor prior to his death in 1968.
What is a race hustler? I don’t know, but I hear a lot of white people using that phrase in Texas, and I don’t like what it seems to imply. What I read, in the context of its usage, is similar to the picture I get of an ambulance-chasing lawyer. It suggests that whenever race is an issue, that certain black leaders exploit the situation for personal or political gain. Needless to say, this is how all black leaders of the past have been discredited through mass media propaganda, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Erler makes no accidental choice of words, insofar as he is a skillful writer and a frequent editorialist for the Star-Telegram. After my reading this phrase in print, I am faced with the challenge of how to explain to my black students what a “race hustler” is? Surely, it would be easy for a “more educated and qualified” white school teacher to explain it to his or her students. Nevertheless, I quiver to think that some black child will actually ingest this piece of propaganda and become brainwashed into thinking select black political leaders are “hustling” African-Americans. But this is exactly what Erler would have his readers believe.
My challenge is to undo the brainwashing and set the record straight. Whether some people accept it or not, the main concern here is the innocent mind of the black child, because this kind of propaganda, in the past, has turned into self-hatred.
Fact is, there are no such thing as a “race hustler” and no such thing as a “race card”. These are semantic inventions designed to carry a negative message aimed against certain black leaders. It reminds me of when Elvis Presley was asked why he sang “Negro music” in the 1950s, he angrily responded that all black people could do for him was shine his shoes and buy his records. For that statement, I never bought an Elvis Presley record and, in our sight as black children, he was never the “king of Rock ‘n Roll”. This contrived title was stolen from African-Americans who deserved it more than he. The myth became an icon. The lie became the truth. Say it often enough (race hustler), it becomes a reality.
Catch-phrases like “race hustlers” and “race card” only pacifies the conscious of the bigot and perpetuates a culture of self-denial when it comes to the existence of racism. On the other hand, it inflames the indignation of intelligent African-Americans, who can read between the lines. The play on words is a play on public sentiments toward racial stereotyping, similar to shock jock Don Imus, who was prominently mentioned in Erler’s article six times.
According to Erler, Imus should have been considered a friend of minorities (since he supports a summer camp for sick children, more than half being minorities). He should have been considered an ally of the race hustlers because he gives airtime to their issues and political persuasion. By protesting and forcing Imus removal, Erler implies that minorities lost an ally, that the race hustlers shot themselves in the foot. But then who needs enemies with friends like Imus?
While everyone concentrates only on Imus use of slang commonly used by hip-hop rap artists, people forget about his comment that the (white) Tennessee basketball girls were “cuter” than the (black nappy-headed ‘hos) on the Rutgers team. It may not seem like a big deal to others. But after a whole generation of undergoing a mass psychological renaissance, we finally convinced ourselves that “black is beauty”. Such a slip of the tongue in reference to beauty, heard over the airways by millions, Imus returns us to the era in time when we first coined the phrase, “I’m black and I’m proud”. Once again, black is ugly and white is cute.
As for his use of street language that belongs in the back alleys of the ‘hood, there is street justice. And, we know what would have happened had Imus said such things in the secret world of the ghetto. The same would happen to me. The sisters, not the brothers, would have slipped all the taste out of his mouth. Civilized black men know better than to call a black female what Imus did. Only pimps get away with using such language, and only then because they carry guns and bodyguards.
If there were a solution to a double-standard for using sexist insults, let Imus take his flap to the streets, in the alley, with the rest of the refuse. Here it is not a matter of race as it is a fact that garbage belongs with garbage. However, instead of letting Imus stew in his own juice for something he said out of his own mouth, and letting street justice run its course, defenders of Imus excuse him only on the basis of his race. Why else would people write hate-mail to the innocent girls of Rutgers who were the object of his insult? Surely, two wrongs do not make a right. And covering up for wrong is not a guiltless offense. No, we cannot rationalize the wrong done by Imus. And, we will not stand by let people like Erler pawn off these subtle catch-phrases to satisfy bigot appetite.
Nip it in the bud at its inception, and it will not come back to haunt you in the form of political power. So goes my advice to my students, based on 60 years of observation.