This rhetorical question was raised by a Ferguson official, insinuating that the presidency of Barack Obama would be short-lived. Though the 2012 election would prove otherwise, that a black man can hold down the job of President for more than four years, it makes me wonder why anyone would say such a thing to begin with. The answer might be found in a stereotypical forgone conclusion.
Black men are incapable of holding down a steady job. Everybody should know that, right? Maybe this hypothetical situation can explain.
HYPOTHESIS: If the boss were an alumnus of Oklahoma University’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and he had the discretionary power to hire, fire, and promote, because the Right to Work laws allows him to do business without being unimpeded by the federal overreach of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, a black man would have no guarantee of a job. The At-Will doctrine means that he can be terminated at any time, for any reason or no reason at all. And everybody knows, from recent news reports, that the above fraternity on OU’s campus disfavors blacks, right?
Now if a black man were tardy for work because he was targeted by the Ferguson police, stopped repeatedly, removed from his car, searched, and cited, wouldn’t his work record suffer? Of course, even the detaining officer would know that.
And suppose every time he gets a paycheck, he has to pay blood money to the municipal courts in Ferguson, Missouri for traffic fines and fees. If the citations pile up unpaid, he would be arrested and probably lose his job, another fact not lost on court officials. Now suppose again that the judge is also an alumnus of Oklahoma University’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, with the same racial sentiments shared on videotape. What chance does a black man have in holding down a steady job for more than four years?
ANALSYS: Although we may not find this exact scenario in any given situation, the general features of its elements can be found in today’s headlines. Putting forth this hypothesis makes it sound like an overt conspiracy against black people. And everybody knows that is not true, right?
But that is how subtle racism works, and also why someone could snidely remark with confidence: “What black man holds a steady job for four years?” Overall, it does not look like racism, just a simple case of racial bigotry, smattered here and there, but nothing conspiratorial. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity students just look like the average Joe college kid saying and doing some stupid things, like college kids do. But the frightening reality is that Old Joe will grow up to become tomorrow’s captain of industry, a judge sitting on the bench, or a police officer patrolling the streets. And, according to this fraternity’s current attributes, these kids will become like those already in power, insofar as “the apple does not fall too far from the tree”.
Why are the parents of these college kids not outraged? Why aren’t they condemning their children as hoodlums and thugs? And who is going to say these wayward kids are the product of poor parenting and a troubled childhood? It’s not their fault, like father, like son.
No, it is not simply a matter of double standard. College kids don’t make this stuff up out of the sky blue. It is a tradition handed down, from generation to generation, and taken as a given. They are taught this way, that black men are lazy and cannot hold down a steady job. The empirical proof of their inferiority is their high unemployment numbers. They are taught that the employment rate is an unbiased operation of the job market, rather than a factor of who does the hiring, firing, and promoting. No, to see it this way would be to recognize their privileged status, as opposed to their merits.
They do not see justice meted out in partial ways. The same drunken revelling that they and their peers engage in, as part of their rite of passage, for which they receive only a slap on the wrist, is turned upside down when the same behaviour is observed by African-American youth of the same age.
Racism is more than simply racial bigotry using the N-word. It is about power and privilege. The singing and chanting of the videotaped OU students is merely an outward expression of jubilation celebrating the reign of white supremacy, as evidence by the use of the racist slur. This is nothing new, and neither am I overly appalled at it, because I have seen it before, and every day of my life since.
EXPRERIENCE: In 1966, some Zeta Tau Alpha sorority pledgees on the campus of Arlington State College painted themselves up in blackface and celebrated the tradition of Old South Week. The men dressed up in their gray Confederate regalia, hung nooses around the necks of their blackface school pals, and paraded them around campus on leashes. It was an innocuous mockery of the Emancipation and an affront to black students on campus.
In the fourth year of desegregation, we took on Johnny Reb and his Confederate tradition, in a battle to Drive Old Dixie Down. The first referendum to abolish the Rebel theme failed in May 1965 by an overwhelming majority vote of the student body.
Only two months earlier, Jimmie Lee Jackson was killed in Selma, Alabama for leading a voter registration drive. Other than the University of Alabama where Governor George Wallace had vowed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever”, Arlington State was the only other campus where the Confederate flag flew at the top of the staff.
The first march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, spurred by the martyrdom of Jimmie Lee, culminated on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. The second march, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began on March 9, but was prevented from completion by a federal injunction. The third march reached the Alabama State Capitol on March 25. But the victory was short lived because the same day, civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo was murdered on the back roads of Alabama. And later, on August 20, 1965, Jonathan Daniel was martyred in Hayneville, Alabama.
On August 11, 1965, the Watts riot broke out in Los Angeles, California, after a racially profiled traffic stop. The Watts riot was dubbed Alabama on Avalon, probably because Police Chief William Parker described the protesters as being like “monkeys in a zoo.”
In October 1965, a group of 8 or 9 black students staged a demonstration around the flagpole on ASC campus, supported by 15-20 white students and one college professor. Political Science professor Dr. Alan Saxe boldly removed the Confederate battle flag from its pole. In so doing, white students became infuriated and want to turn to violence. There were counter-demonstrations in the small town of Arlington, Texas.
After a series of student referendums, on September 1, 1965, Arlington State College became a part of the University of Texas System and by 1967 the school’s name changed to the University of Texas at Arlington. In 1968, almost three years after the first protest, alas, the Student Congress decided to remove the Confederate flag from the student center.
CONCLUSION: The 50th anniversary of the Selma march and the recent events of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma bring us full circle back to where we began, without so much as even touching the underlying issue of racism. Yet, we see it alive in brief glimpses of clean-cut college kids singing and chanting racial slurs on a bus. We see it in recent emails of Ferguson officials and discriminatory law enforcement against minorities in cities across the country, and disparities in employment.
Then someone has the gall to say “race has nothing to do with it”, while someone else has the audacity to ask “What black man holds a steady job for four years?”
But anger waxes old. And even if it were possible to get incensed again after 50 years non-stop, the same people in denial would accuse a black man like me of being a racist, although I am in control of nothing but my being.