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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Friday, April 18, 2008

Real Talk About Race: Chapter Two

OK, so chapter one went well, I thought. Not everyone agreed on everything. But they weren't supposed to.

This week, let's make it a little less formal and touch on a few different topics that Pamela, one of my favorite bloggers, raised last week in the comments.

First, Pamela said she stresses at times when she observes (like in the news) a white person accused of committing a crime against a black victim.

She said that just like I worry that I'll be lumped in by the casual observer with every other young black man who commits a crime, she worries that people will automatically assume the white offender chose his victim based on their race and that it was a hate crime.

Is this a common fear among white people you know, or a common fear of yours if you're white? I'm just curious, 'cause I have a buddy who used the words "under siege" to describe how he felt when talking about this issue with black and some Latino colleagues and acquaintances. He says he sometimes feels like some black folks think race-based crime works in only one direction.

Pamela also mentioned that she gets bothered when the reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton "go on the defensive" over issues involving racial division.

Again, I'm curious about the average white person's take on this. I'm mainly curious, because I am certain there is a misconception among some white people about the reverends' relationship with working class/middle class/upper class black America. Ask the average black person who has a job and is handling his business if either of the reverends speak for him, and he's likely to tell you no. I think because we see them on TV a lot - at the invitation of these cable news channels, there is an assumption by white America that black folks fall in lock step behind those two. The reality here is the average black person doesn't put any more or less stock in what those two have to say than they do any politician.

On the other side of this coin, you see outspoken pundits like Pat Buchanan and the Rev. Pat Robertson on TV too. But I honestly don't know whether the average black person believes white people as a whole pledge allegiance to the likes of Robertson and other similar outspoken white religious bosses/businessmen who allegedly rouse rabble. I've never really heard it come up in conversation with other black folks.

Moving right along, Pamela also said she believed all crime - I believe she meant all violent crime - is hate crime.

I know what she means about that. And I tend to teeter on the fence. I know that for the purposes of law enforcement and prosecution, if you commit a crime against another person for a characteristic over which they have no control, like race, then there is a rider for additional charges that can be attached to you.

Generally speaking though, if you have so little regard for human life that you would kill, or assault, or rob someone else with a weapon, you're full of some form of hate, regardless what your victim looks like.

Maybe that's one of those first steps we take to finding a common ground: agreeing that all violent crime is hateful in nature, and barring some really, really, really convincing extenuating circumstances, should be treated the same across the board. And the "same" means identical punishments, and so on.

Or should there remain in place special, extra punishment for going after a person of a different race...because of their race?

Tough call.

So next topic is the documentary called Meeting David Wilson that MSNBC aired last week. Don't know if you saw it, but I thought it was eye-opening. It was about a young black man from Newark, NJ, who looks into his family tree and traces his ancestors to North Carolina. In the process he meets an older white man named David Wilson whose ancestors owned the younger man's ancestors. The documentary covers the research and how these men connected and slowly began to evolve into friends.

Take away all the social science and psychobabble, and I was moved by how the two men - the black David Wilson and the white David Wilson - built a cautious friendship. And speaking of psychobabble, NBC missed the boat on the town hall-type conversation about race that Brian Williams hosted after the documentary. The conversation was too lofty and too academic, and too - as my grandma would say - saditty.

On the stage they had a famous white newsie, a white author who's written apologetic books about slavery, a black poet-turned-reality show cast member-turned author-turned politician, a black professor, and a black woman who is the wife of a wealthy black man.

What they needed on that stage was a mixed panel of factory workers, office drones, etc. - middle Americans, everyday people. No eggheads. No famous people. No famous people's spouses. No people who like hearing themselves talk. Just regular people who, without reservation could have asked "why do white people...," and "why do black people...," and "why do Asian people..."

BTW, the moment I was dreading in the David Wilson documentary, the moment that was equivalent for me to the climactic point in a horror movie? It came when young, black David Wilson hypothetically asked older, white David Wilson how he'd react if the younger man requested reparations. The documentary is airing again on Saturday, April 19th, from 1 - 4 p.m. If you have time watch it to see how that part of the conversation went.

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  • I have to agree with the logic expressed here about all violent type crimes being a hate crime. Now, as to whether or not other additional charges or whatever should be added on when a crime occurs against someone that is directed because of that person's race, religion, sexual orientation, etc., I definitely believe we HAVE to keep that in there as a means to try to make more people, ALL people, aware of the wrongness of personal prejudices and bias.

    I'd never heard of the David Wilson story so thank you for sharing that information and I'm going to try my utmost to watch a rerun of it if at all possible. It sounds like a truly outstanding story.

    Thanks again to you though, James, for your efforts to try to do something to increase awareness between ALL people. We all have one voice each and if we all begin to use it, through learning, understanding, what great things we can accomplish then as ONE.

    By Blogger Jeni, at 2:10 PM  

  • I have to try to catch the David Wilson story (no DVR)- hopefully it will air again.

    I CAN'T STAND Tom Joyner of late. EVERYTHING has become racial to him. Everything. Flowers - trees.

    Question: why is acceptable (if it is indeed acceptable)for Black people to call White people of any age, "White boy or White girl"? I hear it all the time and I've been told it's a term of affection.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:21 PM  

  • I've never thought Jesse or Al spoke for all black people. I have wondered why nobody ever tells them to sit down and STFU, though.

    By Blogger SWF42, at 3:30 PM  

  • I do see any violence towards any one individual or group as just hate and then I subgroup it based on the underlying, if at all convincing, circumstances that may indicate that the crime was racially motivated.

    By Blogger C, at 11:14 PM  

  • Any speaker expressing views that are extreme represents that extreme politically, and not the whole spectrum. Pat Robertson tends to represent the Religious Right, Pat Buchanan tends to represent the very Conservative right, Al Sharpton tends to represent the far liberal left, and so on. Each one has their own slant, appealing to their particular market, be it black or white, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, Ann Coulter lover or hater (it's very hard to find someone who loves her today).

    I'd say that you, James Burnett has a larger following, covering more races, than the above speakers, and possibly as many or more 'followers' because you are more moderate, and hence appeal to a larger audience. I still say you and Dave Barry could be the next Executive Administration, now that you're thirty-five and have attained political maturity Federally (for the Presidency or Vice-Presidency). To simplify, I believe that blacks, whites, yellows, browns, and stripes and polka dots who read tend to also think, and tend to the middle ground.

    I believe there are crimes of opportunity that evolve into problems of collateral damage and there are crimes of passion which evolve into crimes of hate, and then the true crime of hate.

    I hope to see the show this afternoon. I'm not sure I contributed very much this time, you covered an immense amount of material.

    By Blogger The CEO, at 2:08 AM  

  • "Is this (the belief that white on black crime is automatically a hate crime) a common fear ... of yours if you're white?"

    No. It's not a FEAR of mine. Just one of my pet peeves.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 6:29 AM  

  • White people rarely target blacks for crime. I mean, people don't like to talk about it but black men are seven more times likelier to murder than white men and white on black crime (street, not institutional) is virtually unheard of.

    By Blogger M@, at 6:21 PM  

  • In grad. school, I once wrote a law paper for a professor who said he was a former Black Panther. I argued in favor of hate speech as free speech and I'm particularly interested in how European countries clamp down on free speech when it comes to race.

    Anyway, I also argued in another paper that hate crimes are absurd b/c hate is involved in all violent crime. I mean, hate crimes make distinctions among people (perpetrators) based upon race--and that's racist.

    If you beat someone maliciously, the penalty should not depend upon your race and motive. And that has nothing to do with the degrees of crime, let's say first degree murder versus second--which does make sense to me.

    By Blogger M@, at 6:34 PM  

  • Frankly, I hope for a day when nobody discusses race at all.

    If a guy whacks someone just because he wants some cash for crack, then he ought to get punished. If a guy whacks someone because he doesn't like the color of his skin, that guy ought to get punished- and his parents out to have the pee-whopping shit slapped out of THEM for not raising their kid right. When you coming to Chicago so I can show off my "black friend" to all my buds? (Duck & run...)

    By Anonymous og, at 8:46 PM  

  • Hi! I watched the documentary today and totally felt the same way you did - wishing there were non famous or "ordinary" people on stage. One thing I was thinking about Chris' Rock wife was when her daughter asked her how come she didn't have long hair like her best friend, and she said she had always told her how proud she was as a mom to have had a little girl with afropuffs, (which I thought was kind of a cute word), but as a mom, I thought, well, I don't know, because maybe it looks like you straighten your hair?! C'mon mom!! And this is just coming from a mother of two daughters - pretty much when they are little, all they want to look like is YOU. That's why they get into your makeup and dresses! And if her daughter wanted to know why she didn't have long straight hair, well, I think Malaak should have looked in the mirror and thought, oh, maybe I'm being a little hypocritical. Anyway, I digress. I came across your blog because I googled blogs on Meeting David Wilson. I am a 44 year old white (that sounds weird typing that) mom that was raised down South, but now lives in the Pacific Northwest. I like the fact that Barack Obama opened up this discourse into race and I feel like I am really learning something new. I do think that racism is fading away from generation to generation though. My daughter and her friends seem to have no problems or issues relating to their Asian or brown friends. I hear a lot of Asian Pride and they make fun of each other's "racial stereotypes". I just finished reading Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States", and wish I could win the lottery so I could just go establish charities of educational and musical learning for poor youth. I think the line that made me think the most today was hearing that black youth have it especially hard, because there is concentrated poverty. But, thank you for writing your blog. It's very interesting.

    By Blogger Damsel, at 2:14 AM  

  • About the reverends... we had a discussion about that once right? I'll like to clarify, because what you said that time made me think. I think it's not so much that Sharpton and Jackson (and their local equivalents, the Currys, etc) represent the wole as that they fashion themsleves to represent the whole, much like the Cuban hardliners do.

    And if there's no alternative, reasnable, moderate -or maybe even just as polarizing but to the other extreme- voice out there on the media, then who are the rest of the population going to use as reference? There are counterbalances to Robertson and Buchanan. Who's the counterbalance to Sharpton? Bill Cosby? Bill Cosby seems to me has a hard enough time getting his message out without being yelled at.

    I get that we shouldn't demand an "official black position" on universal issues like crime, but it seems that most people look for one. Maybe it's ignorance or just it's the way we have been conditioned. And when all they find is Sharpton, then that colors their opinion.

    Great posts.

    By Blogger Alex, at 2:54 PM  

  • Jeni, you flatter me. But I appreciate it. I'm just trying to instigate a conversation.

    Jali, MSNBC replayed the David Wilson documentary on Saturday afternoon. I'm sure they'll do it again. And you're right about your question. If people addressed us, black folks, of any age as "black boy" and "black girl" we'd go nuts. I like to think I'm pretty even keeled. I'd even go nuts. On the other hand, I don't call even my closest white friends "white boy" or "white girl." I could, I'm sure. And they'd be fine. But why call them that, when we have so many other "fond" names we call each other. Good point though on a bit of hypocrisy.

    SWF42, I think the reason your average, middle of the road black person never thought to speak up and tell the reverends to pipe down is 'cause we never thought it was necessary. If it is necessary, it means that our fears of being lumped in are true: we're all considered responsible for other folks who share our ethnicity or skin color. And if that's true, then I want the average white person to start speaking up and telling rabble rousing white "leaders" to pipe down. That won't happen though, 'cause the average white person is not going to take ownership of the words of one waaaaay out there white leader.

    C, that seems logical. I have no gripe with that.

    Monty, you flatter me again. I'd love to serve as Dave's Veep. I'd whip the Senate into shape. And like I told C, your philosophy is logical, which, in my book, means solid. People who read tend to have more open minds. I'm not talking politically. We're all gonna divide ourselves politically based on our moral beliefs. I don't know if that'll ever change. But I mean the other stuff. Readers, in my experience, tend to be more willing to hear the other guy's side.

    Sarc, I'm intrigued. Tell me more. Is it a pet peeve, 'cause you don't think law enforecement officials give enough serious thought to the possibility that some black on white crime is racially motivated, rather than financially or otherwise? Or is it because you feel like officials jump to the conclusion that it's always racial when it's white on black crime? Educate me.

    Matt, to your first comment, let's be specific if we're gonna toss statistical data around. I don't think anyone would try to debate you in that there is a much higher percentage of black on white crime than white on black in the U.S. And in some communities the actual numbers are much much higher too. However, to say that white on black crime is rare does not present a complete picture of violent crime in this country. I might have included motivations in your assessment. For example, as much as it is the assumption of race being a motivator in white on black crime annoys Sarcasticynic, federal crime stas are clear: the vast majority of white on black violent crimes - few as those crimes may be - are racially motivated. I don't know what stats you have, but I'll put the FBI's Uniform Crime Report up against them any day.

    As to your second point, I'm still not sure I fully agree about punishments. I agree that all violent crime is hateful in nature. But I'm still on the fence as to whether their should be additional penalty when the motivation is race. I'm leaning toward yes, not because I'm thin skinned about race stuff, but because I think it's extra vile to attack someone for a characteristic they have no control over. Would you not wanna give a crook an extra few years in jail if he beat an armless man Because the victim had no arms? I would.

    Og, you and me both on your first point. To your second, like I told Matt, I'm on the fence on the punishment issue. And to your question, I'll be in Chicago for about a week in July to attend a journalism conference. Let's talk about connecting when we get closer to that time. I'd love to meet your friends, long as they don't mindd hanging out with a Southerner;>)

    Damsel, that's a great point about Chris Rock's wife's hair. She's surprised her daughter wants long flowing hair. And yet she, herself, has long, flowing straightened hair, not the Afro puffs she wanted her daughter to be proud of. Great point. And thanks for coming by. Come back often. And tell your friends to also. The subjects on the blog vary all week. We just started this once-a-week race discussion. But Burnettiquette is flavorful all week long!

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 8:44 PM  

  • It's neither, James. And I'm not talking about LE officials. An observation I've made is that some blacks of my acquaintance believe all white on black violence must be of hate. I get peeved when I hear them talk like that, specially when I feel it's untrue.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 9:32 PM  

  • Ah, I get it Sarc. Well, I can't speak to your acquaintances' motivations for feeling that way. However, statistically - and I'm talking about data from such sources as the FBI's Uniform Crime Report - most white on black violent crime has a racial(ist) element to it. It's not a pretty thing to admit, but the stat goes along with what Matt pointed out: that whites are several times more likely to be the victims of violent crime at the hands of blacks than the other way around. That's one issue. The second issue is why? And if you believe the numbers, notwithstanding what Mark Twain said about statistics, then most white on black violent assaults have race as a motive. Again though, your black acquaintances may not be aware of these stats. So I can't speak to their motives for feeling the way they do. When I see in the news that a black person has been assaulted by a white person, I admit that the question crosses my mind as to whether, when all the details come out, it will turn out to have been a racially-motivated crime. But the thought is usually fleeting, and I wait to hear the facts. I can't explain it. Maybe it's something inbred in me from hearing bits and pieces of history from time to time from much older relatives. Do your acquaintances ever explain to you why they always make that assumption?

    And Alex, I apologize for skipping you in my earlier reply. I missed your comment.

    Your memory is correct. We did hash this one out in an older set of posts.

    And I still partly agree with you, and partly disagree. I get what you're saying about counterbalances to the reverends. However, I don't get why the average black person should have to speak up and denounce them. Figuratively endorsing or condemning a group spokesman seems to be something that's only expected of ethnic minorities in this country. I love everybody, but I just don't see the same kinds of calls for white people to condemn a white blowhard who has acccess to microphones and TV networks. I may be wrong. That's just my shaded observation. Anyway, thanks for the compliment. I'm gonna keep this up each week, as long as we can all have a civil discussion...or until I get bored;>) But I'm sure that'll be a little while yet.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:12 PM  

  • Oh, and Matt, I forgot to add in my reply to your first point the statistical motivations for black on white crime. If I'm gonna give one side, I have to give the other. Most of your criminal databases suggest that most black on white violent crime is financially motivated, not racially motivated. Regardless, we still agree that it's all violent crime and should be dealt with sternly.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:16 PM  

  • All crime is a form of 'hate', or supreme disregard of other people at the very least.

    If the aim is that all people should treat people as people - regardless of shape, colour, size, nationality, preferences, anything else - then would extra penalties for various specific-hate-related stuff help matters? (Though I can see that ignoring something won't necessarily make it go away.)

    eg: Should there be extra penalties for racially motivated attacks? I'm inclined to say 'no'.
    Why? You're making an even bigger issue of it if you do apply the extra penalties. & I thought the idea was to get rid of racism. & other 'isms'.

    But then, maybe I would say that, being white & all! (Not to mention in the UK, so I don't know much more about the situation in the US than what I've seen on TV or read - you're a great source JB)

    By Blogger Bronchitkat, at 6:10 AM  

  • Bronchitkat, you made a great argument. I'm still on the fence, but maybe for the moment I'm leaning to the no-extra-penalty-side.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 9:04 AM  

  • yikers! Freaked me to see my name in your post.

    Racists ruin it for the rest of us - whichever side from which they sling it.

    I never want to be blind to rainbows. God made us all beautiful. I should be allowed to appreciate the difference -- enjoy it --- walk into a room of people who are unlike me and bask in the wonder of it all.

    By Blogger Pamela, at 9:27 PM  

  • Pamela, well said!

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 9:32 AM  

  • You know what would be better than a panel on television? A convention. An honest-to-jeebus convention in which middle America of all races was invited to engage in a no-holds-barred question and answer session of each other. Provided that nobody behaved like a jackass and baited their fellow conventioneers, it could be kind of cool to get everyone in a room together so we could just ask each other honest questions in a venue in which nobody would be offended or hurt at being asked.

    Your paragraph about thinking that black folks are in lock-step with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton reminds me of something my nextdoor neighbor did a couple years back; before Hillary had announced her candidacy, our neighbor (a black man) asked my husband the die-hard Republican what he thought of Ms. Clinton.

    The two of them "argued" for an hour (it was one very long car ride for this registered Libertarian) about Hillary Clinton-as-potential-president when our nextdoor neighbor finally turned to my husband and, with a very sly grin says, "I'm just joshin' you man. I'm registered as a Republican. Don't tell me you thought I was a Democrat... maybe you think I like Al Sharpton too?"

    It was a pretty funny "Ha!" moment.

    By Anonymous Steph, at 9:37 AM  

  • Outstanding post/series James, your perspective is refreshing

    By Blogger sgh, at 3:32 PM  

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