29 May 2009

Can Minorities Be Racists?

My buddy often watches the news on the TV he has in his office while he eats his lunch, which means that I am apt to get hot and bothered phone calls from him right when I am trying to enjoy reading the paper in peace while eating my own midday meal.

"Hey man" he yelled into the phone yesterday, "can you believe this? They're calling Sotomayor a racist!"

He caught me before I'd read the New York Times, but it just so happened that I had perused a USA TODAY with breakfast, so I had an idea of what he was talking about. "Now you get to see what all those think tanks are really there for - to manufacture ideas and talking points and buzzwords to sway the political discourse."

"But a racist?" he said. "I thought black people - I mean, minorities - can't be racist."

"If you're looking for a definition," I said, "in my mind a racist person has to have power, or access to power. So, if you have an Attorney General who is black, what he says starts to mean something different than if he is just a guy in the public. Or the president. It used to be that we could count on being powerless to shield us, but now that things are changing, I don't think we can automatically say "black people can't be racist" anymore.

My buddy mused over that one for a minute before going to another topic. And just like that, I saw that the changes in the political landscape these past few months was starting to trickle down to our everyday lives.

What did Sonia Sotomayor say that has conservative talking heads calling her a racist?

"Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.

Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement.

First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise.

Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."

From the Judge Mario G. Olmos Memorial Lecture in 2001, delivered by Sonia Sotomayor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law

It is this sentence - "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life" - that has sparked the latest debate over our first Hispanic Supreme Court nominee. Within the context of the entire speech she gave, one could argue that she was simply trying to explain why her Latina identity is important. Professional spinmeisters who reside deep in the bowels of the Democratic Party machinery are hard at work right now trying to recast this statement in a way that makes its message more palatable.

I think she said what she meant, and she meant what she said - given that all other things are equal, the experiences gleaned from the perspective of being a minority in this country provide minorities with a broader knowledge base than that of a mainstream American. Almost every Downtown Brown I know feels that they have seen more of life than their white counterparts, even if they have essentially had the same upbringing.

When there was no way in hell any minority could be a state governor, or U. S. senator, or Attorney General, or Supreme Court justice, or the president of the United States, we could say things like Sonia Sotomayor said with impunity in our efforts to balance our own mental scales. Even though the reality is that most of us will never sit on the Supreme Court, or command the nation's military, or control the country's federal prosecutors, we are still as minorities going to have to begin to manufacture new ideas and talking points and buzzwords of our own in order to more accurately define our relationship to today's America.

19 May 2009

Colson Whitehead Steals My Lunch Hour

Colson Whitehead has been stealing my lunch hour all week. His latest book, Sag Harbor, couldn't be any more frank than it already is about the life of upper middle class black teenaged boys. I usually read the New York Times for lunch, but this week I couldn't tell you if we are invading Bangladesh, or selling our nuclear warheads on EBay. Or whether President Obama has issued the Los Angeles Lakers a playoff bailout, complete with rules changes, so they can get into the NBA finals.

Since it is graduation week around my house, I was already in a nostalgic mood, reminiscing about my own graduation from high school twenty five years ago, recalling all of the pains and pleasures and promise we all had back when we stood on the cusp of the rest of our lives. Whitehead's book has reawakened subterranean memories, stirring the dust from the long forgotten details and rituals that suburban black teenagers like me practiced as if our lives depended on them.

A disclaimer here - I am an unabashed fan of Colson Whitehead, warts and all, having been seduced by the sly prose and ingenious premise of his first novel, The Intuitionist. I had to work with him a bit on John Henry Days, although I could see how he was following in the footsteps of Delillo, and to a lesser extent Pynchon, with his rambling narrative in that book. And even though I was disappointed by Apex Hides The Hurt - upset, actually, at the idea that my man had been reduced to reproducing his amazing authorial voice for literary Scooby Snacks - I have read it four or five times, mostly because it resides in a place of honor in my favorite bathroom.

So I felt a little bit like a groupie when I handed over twenty five dollars last week for a copy of Sag Harbor. I knew right away this book might be different, because when I got home, a gaggle of the Resident Diva's friends were all perched around the island in the kitchen. Not only did one of them open it up - she actually read a paragraph or so before handing it back to me with a sage nod. For high school seniors who have become allergic to anything remotely academic in these last few days before they get their diplomas, a gesture like this was unprecedented.

Why do I like what I've read so far so much? Because Whitehead has taken one of the most maligned subsets of black America - that cohort of well educated bourgeois professionals who are themselves descendants of well educated bourgeois professionals, the kind of black people who make the Obamas look like new money, they who are the mostly pale skinned and squiggly haired tribesman who coexist amongst the rest of us - and masterfully connected the lives of this bunch of beach house owning black folks to the rest of the tribe.

Never one to dwell on the physicality of his characters, he simply assumes for the most part that you know these things, and pretty much sticks to the storytelling. The other thing that keeps you in the ballgame is the way he leaves all the adults, their problems and their pettiness at the far periphery, describing them mostly through scathing anecdotes and brief asides.

The music, the lingo, the yearnings and longings are all so authentic you feel he is telling his own life story. Which he is, in a way. But to connect his fictional recollection to my life, which was about as middle of the road middle class as it got - we ate steak on Fridays, but we never had filet mignon; we had cable TV, but no premium channels; our ranch house had central heat and air, but no rec room; we owned a small lot at a South Carolina beach, but no beach house - was the hat trick that he has pulled off in spades.

My buddy's cousin, who went to college with us, was a Sag Harbor child. But to my South Carolina raised mind, which only understood the pecking order between Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, and held a vague understanding of the social significance of Martha's Vineyard and The Hamptons, the way she would say "our house on Sag Harbor" was interpreted by my Low Country sensibilities to mean "my parents are struggling to pay two mortgages instead of one".

The people around me at lunchtime probably think I am crazy. When I'm not laughing out loud at something, I am talking to the book. "This brother broke down Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force!" The thing that is most compelling is the way Whitehead pulls no punches, none at all. His description of the peculiar teenage black middle class methodology we all used to use when we first began to string together curse words was so accurate he could have been reading my mind.

So if you've got twenty five dollars laying around, buy this book. Because there is nothing like reading the work of an author who knows how to tell a story, and knows the story he's telling.

15 May 2009

Diamonds In My Own Backyard

The good thing about a blog is that, in an otherwise mundane week for news, you can write about other things that you think are more important.

The two things that piqued my interest this week more than Miss California, the president's commencement speech at Arizona State University, or the blowout scoring in the NBA playoffs were items I found right in my blogroll.

First up - Jason Campbell, hereby known as "Dr. Jay".


Jason has ascended to that rarest of academic heights by being awarded his PhD about a week ago. I don't know how many black men will earn doctorates in 2009, but I do know that the number of ALL blacks achieving this educational milestone in 2006 is somewhere around 1,650 - so it would be safe to say that this years crop is a pretty small number.

A long time ago, back when I was in college, I used to think about becoming an English professor, but spending the amount of time that I did in the department getting my bachelor's degree cured me of that notion. The men, none of whom were black or Indian or anything other than WASPs and Jews, seemed to be from another planet. Although there were a few PhD's in my neighborhood growing up, and we lived near a college campus, there was something about these men at my alma mater, men who seemed to be overly cloistered from the world, that caused my desire to wane.

So it is with a sense of awe and nostalgia that I salute Dr. Campbell, who has persevered in spite of the long odds against the completion of his entire program of study. I hope the toolbox he brings to the table culturally as well as intellectually will inspire young black men contemplating a life of scholarship the way I was that there is life after the dissertation.

The second thing that caught my eye this week is a profound statement about the direction in which our media, and by extension our society, is headed that was on The Flack last week. The Flack really isn't a political blog, but Peter Himler, a veteran New York public relations professional, reveals so much about the massive effort that is at work in the advertising world practically around the clock in an attempt to control and predict our behavior in order that others may profit from our malleability that I just had to include his blog on my list.

One of his latest posts talks about the latest thing in marketing is something he calls "journalism 2.0" in his article "Forget Journalists. It's The Algorithm" :

It involves the confluence of three big digital drivers: advertising, algorithms and content creation:

    "...former MySpace Chairman Richard Rosenblatt has spent the past three years refining a set of algorithms that it uses as a guide for mass-producing content that it publishes on its many Web properties."

As I understand it, Mr. Rosenblatt's company, Demand Media, creates content, not based on a journalistic assessment of what's news or newsworthy, but instead on an algorithm that matches (and attempts to monetize) consumer and advertising demand for a given topic.

If I were you, I would be afraid of anything like this. Very afraid. Maybe you aren't willing to admit how limited your mind is, but I am. If the only information I could ever get was only the information I wanted, how could I learn anything new?

To paraphrase motivational speaker Earl Nightingale, these two bloggers I've spotlighted tonight are just some of the "diamonds in my own backyard."

07 May 2009

Getting Down At Weezy's

Our new hangout spot is a place called Weezy's Movin' On Up Jazz and Barbeque Cafe. Right around the corner, it's a jazz and R&B nightspot located right in the middle of button-downed John's Creek, Georgia. The owner is a cat named Sanford Sanford, the son of the late Louise Sanford, who you will know forever and ever as Louise Jefferson, the wife of drycleaner George Jefferson on the seventies sitcom The Jeffersons , a show whose reruns seem to be playing continuously on a cable channel somewhere thirty years later.

The show is especially poignant for me because my father, who is a lot taller than Sherman Hemsley, owned a few drycleaning stores in the seventies and eighties when I was growing up. And my mother had a faint resemblance to Isabel Sandford. But we didn't live in a high rise - the biggest residential building in our town had eight stories and was home to all the down on their luck divorced men and families on Section 8 vouchers. We lived in the suburbs, such that they were in a town whose population was less than 20,000 people. My parents, unlike the Jefferson's, did not spend a dime on themselves. And the drycleaning business itself was work of the W-O-R-K variety, something I do not miss to this day. But you heard the jokes anyway.

The royalties from The Jeffersons must be good - Sandford Sandford doesn't let you get in the door without seeing his tribute to his mother. Housed in a former country style barbeque restaurant that used to be a hangout for several players from the Atlanta Braves, the place reminds me of the VFW back in my hometown, with red walls, red carpeting, red ceilings, and red curtains that cloak the stage.

The only political slant I can see coming in this entire post is that Weezy's serves an "Obama Burger" - two beef patties, two strips of bacon, cheese and two onion rings. I had to laugh when I saw it on the menu - there is no way in the world the real Obama would come within ten feet of a cholesterol bomb like this one. The food Weezy's has is good, but the music is really why you come to a place like this.

Maybe it's middle age, maybe it's the other things you have to do with a teenager in the house, or maybe it was just that the places we enjoyed were all the way down in Buckhead, almost twenty miles south - whatever the reason, S. and I haven't really hung out much in the last few years. But one Friday night about six weeks ago, we decided to try Weezy's out since we needed to eat anyway. We ended up closing the joint down.

Sandford is a big man who makes you think of Ving Rhames when he's in a good mood. When Sanford isn't wandering around, chatting up his guests and making them feel comfortable, he is on stage playing the bongos. We were sitting in a booth at Weezy's last weekend, listening to the music and gnawing on some damn good chicken wings, when I wondered out loud "why do we like this place so much? I didn't wait for S. to say anything, but answered my own question. "I think we like it because there are so many black people in here." I guess we've lived in this land of Starbucks and blonde soccer moms so long that it almost feels normal to see only one or two black faces in the grocery stores and bookstores.That and the music.

But these aren't the black folks you think of when you think of Atlanta - the high gloss, high toned Downtown Brown types who get elected to be mayor or are the CEO of an emerging growth company or have just gotten back from modeling in Europe. Nope, these are the people who populate the suburbs - the 40% of us who are I.T. specialists, or H.R. staffers, or middle managers in the myriad of businesses that crisscross the northside of the Atlanta metro, people who go to church almost every Sunday, coach their kids soccer teams, and find time to volunteer with our local civic organizations. Which means it's not the party crowd you think about when you think about Atlanta. In fact, most of the people look like they are from the same kind of small towns that S. and I are from, a sentiment that was underlined a few weeks ago when the singer for one of the bands talked about his hometown, and it turned out to be the same one I'm from.

Occasionally, S. is wistful when the band is playing. A piano player herself, who grew up on all the old jazz standards, she often wonders what it would have been like to be a performer instead of a corporate attorney. the best band we've seen, in my opinion, is the Ike Harris and Friends band. The front man is a riot, and he really knows how to work a crowd. But his best attribute is his ability, even as a young singer, to invoke the raspy, country boy rawness of Otis Redding when he sings "Try A Little Tenderness", which he delivers with all the gusto of the man himself.

In some ways, Weezy's is reminiscent of the place where S. and I first met, although that place was more of a dance club than this spot, which encourages dancing but doesn't seem interested in becoming known as a dance hall. Which is good, because I am getting to like it just the way it is. So if you find yourself in John's Creek, Georgia one Friday or Saturday night, come on in. Who knows - you might even see the Brown Man himself grooving to the sounds.