Friday, July 31, 2009

Reflections on Race - reading Larry Elder

I was walking through Barnes and Nobles the other day, and I came across a book that gave me pause. It was a book by Larry Elder, originally titled "Stupid Black Men", but recently re-released under the new title, "What's Race go to do with it". The book boldly asserts that we are not evolving towards a "Post-Racial" America, but rather we have long since arrived. And furthermore, that Black People (and sympathetic Whites) are the last to arrive at the party.

He correctly asserts in the book that achievement is within the grasp of all, but then makes a logical leap to a false conclusion that because there are opportunities for success, then institutional and/or structural inequalities are inconsequential. That is a non-sequitur. Just because I won the race doesn't mean we started from the same starting line. I may have just run faster than you. And indeed, that is Elder's prescription for Black America; Run Faster. A part of that resonates with me, but there's yet another part of me that finds it disturbingly counter-revolutionary. We should encourage all of our youth to succeed despite the odds or the obstacles they face; but we should not accept the odds and obstacles as part of some perverse natural order. It is the duty of our generation, as it was with those who preceded us, to knock down those doors and barriers where we find them. We should never make peace with inequality, not even as a pathway to personal gain.

I struggled to reconcile Larry Elder's toothy grin and pollyanna perspective with the comments that I regularly read in newspaper's blogs, the unabashed race-baiting of Fox News, the stories of the Valley Swim club, and so many other issues lying right before our collective eyes. I wondered, 'is he simply being self-serving?' or does he really believe that he has somehow arrived in Xanadu, the whimsical capital of post-racial America. A magical place where race simply doesn't exist, because all residents have agreed not to talk about it. One who's gates are open to all who work without complaining.

As I thumbed through the pages, I was facinated by his arguments, his language, and his tenor. The book's chapters are titled things like "Stupid Black Leaders", "Stupid Black Politicians", "Stupid Blacks and Katrina"... And I wondered, IF Mr. Elder (and those of his ilk) truly believe that we have become a post-racial society, then who would he consider his target audience? Who exactly does he intend that his message of Black stupidity would resonate with? It is an incredibly dissonant act to say on the one hand that structural and institutional inequalities and the vestiges of racism and discrimination are largely things of the past, but then market a book that openly mocks and belittles black people in a way that would be considered outwardly racist by any measure.

Now in fairness, I'm certain that Mr. Elder would disagree with that characterization of his work. He'd probably assert that underneath it all, he has hidden what he intends to be read as a tough-love message of empowerment. But as my Father once said, there is no 'tough-love' unless you first have love...

Now my moral and philosophical disagreement with the position Elder espoused doesn't mean that I believe that America is a horrible place, that we've made no progress, or that "the Man" or "the System" are conspiring to keep us down, or anything of the sort. I just know that I see people of all races, with good hearts, and of good will everyday. I am surrounded by people who believe in fairness, equality, the end of racial disparities, and the end of disproportionalities, and who are willing to work to affect change. And I can say with certainty, that people who are actively pushing for a better and brighter tomorrow don't need to be fed with platitudes and bullshit about how we're already there. People can see today for what it is, and still see tomorrow for what it can be. Certainly we've come a long way. But acknowledging society's shortcomings is a necessary step towards overcoming them, not an act of acquiescence or succumbing to a victim-mentality...

Larry - Calling out for society to join you in a conversation about the 'stupidity' of black folks while collecting a check for your efforts is race hustling. Calling upon Black people to stop being "lazy", and "stupid" and to ignore the obstacles some may encounter, is not a revolutionary call to arms; to the contrary - its really nothing more than an elaborate coping strategy Butched-up with insults, attacks, and 19th century racial stereotypes. You are the anachronism brother Elder. Sorry I can't join you in Xanadu; but I guess I'll see you when we get there.

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