But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been in vain. In fact, I worked harder that all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God in me.
1 Corinthians 15:10
There but for the grace of God go I.
John Bradford, (1510-1555) Evangelical preacher and martyr
My Dear Readers,
Next Monday is the first Monday of the month, so we will, as usual, post the next episode of Bobbi’s Saga, the story of a woman’s recovery from repeated sexual abuse as a child and the trauma she continues to suffer from it. As a result, today’s blog, will be the last new posting for 2015. These final weeks mark the third year since we started this blog, and I want to thank you, my dear readers, and my hardworking staff for all of the support and encouragement that you have shown me this year.
As I prepare for my annual hiatus from writing this blog, I want to return to a discussion about racial stereotypes that started with last week’s blog. In that blog, Fear and Stereotypes: It’s Not (Really) About You (11.23.15), I wrote about a middle aged black attorney who, due to others’ internalized stereotypes about the sexual inclinations of black males, was forced to resign from his law firm. I wondered how other black males reacted when they read the article. Did they see themselves being victimized in the same manner?
I wondered whether other black men were saying to themselves “That could have been me. How many of them thanked God that it didn’t happen to them? How many of us black males really realize how we walk on eggshells every day, while we work our jobs along with the dominant majority?
This is not an unfamiliar story regarding Black males who have the potential to be successful or influential. But, is it worth it? How do you respond to the stress of going into work day after day with the potential to lose your job due to misconduct that exists only in the mind of your accusers?
The attorney’s career was destroyed due to gossip and the rumor that he was a physical threat to women in the workplace. Even if he hadn’t actually done anything, those rumors suggested, the simple reality of his presence around women may trigger urges that he could not control. Either way, for the safety of the workplace, he had to be removed from the organization.
How do people come to these decisions? If you take the premise that simply because of this particular race and this particular gender, urges to attack women are present, then the decision makes perfect sense. However, believing that premise means that you have to believe quite a lot of things about what it means to be black. Other than a specific color, it is connoted in negative terms. The word black is often used in situations that are tragic and disastrous; to describe the state of mind of a depressed person, full of gloom and misery; to describe emotional feelings such as anger and hatred; or the state of being evil or wicked.
The disdain attributed to the word black is evident in the manner with which white Americans, and American society in general interacts with black people. There are a few exceptions where black refers to something positive, such as “being in the black” and “Black Friday,” the beginning of the holiday shopping season, but in general, the more prevalent use of the word describes negative things.
When applied to black people, such harsh views have led to the conceptualization of black males in terms of antiquated and just plain made-up stereotypes and generalizations about African Americans and African American culture. In the early 19th century, black people were portrayed as being joyous, naïve, superstitious and musically inclined, which played to the advantage of white slaveholders, who could justify slavery by saying that the slaves were “happy” with their lot in life. In 1844, the US Secretary of State and slaveholder John C. Calhoun argued that there was scientific proof of the necessity of slavery:
“The African is incapable of self-care and sinks into lunacy under the burden of freedom. It is a mercy to give him the guardianship and protection (slavery) from mental death.”
Stereotypes of black people changed immensely following the end of the American Civil War in 1865. African American slaves as a whole, now free, were seen in terms of violence; that they would jump at any chance to murder and mistreat white people in general and in particular, sexually abuse white women, and they could do so because they possessed superhuman strength and sexual virility. It was these stereotypes that so inflamed the fears of whites that they created “citizen protection groups” such as the Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1865, and continued to fuel fear and hate for the next 125 years, giving birth later to the era of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation.
Although the influence of the KKK has diminished in modern times, and racial segregation has “legally” ended, many of those same stereotypes continue to play a role in modern society. Today’s media has played a key role in not only reinforcing these stereotypes, but also enhancing the fear that comes with it.
In film, black males are overwhelmingly shown in a stereotypical manner that promotes notions of moral inferiority. In a study conducted in 2001, that identified male roles and actors characterized by race, it was found that when it comes to:
- Using vulgar profanity: black males 89% white males 17%.
- Being physically violent: black males 56%, white males 11%
- Lacking self-control: black males 55%, white males 6%.
The news media is guilty of this as well. Black males are more likely to be appear as perpetrators in drug and violent crime stores on network news. It was in the 1980s the news media regrouped its stereotypes of black males shifting into primary images of drug lords, crack users, the underclass, the homeless and subway muggers. It’s only been in the last ten years that the news media has begun to show a spectrum of good black men along with evil black men.
Stereotyping not only impacts black males; it also creates stress, panic and anxious feeling for their families. Consider the fear that lies in the hearts of black mothers and fathers about their sons either driving, walking or simply “chillin’” on the streets now at risk of being swept up and stopped, detained or arrested simply for being black and male and fitting the white mental stereotype of what a gang member looks like.
In stereotyping there is the assumption that “white” is good and successful, where black is not good and leading to failure. There is also the assumption that if one is good, then good things will happen. If one is bad, then bad things will happen. The problem with this belief is that it also assumes that the reverse is true: that if bad things happen to you, then there must have been something bad about you that brought it about. The trouble is that that reasoning is leveled at black people more than it is leveled at white people. Given this, it is easy to see why your average black male questions why they should even attempt to succeed when regardless of their success, they can expect to be always greeted with questions, doubts or suspicion.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a well-known African American professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, returned to his home in Cambridge on July 16, 2009 after a trip to China. After locking himself out of his home and finding another way to enter it, Gates was arrested by police in his home, after a neighbor called 911. Why were the police called? From the description of the person who made the call, the perpetrator wasn’t Henry Louis Gates, Jr., or a Harvard professor, or a world-renowned author, but simply a “black male” who was out of place in the neighborhood. The only reason the caller could fathom for this to happen was that this black male had to be burglarizing the residence.
The assumption that led to the arrest of Dr. Gates is reinforced with the conceptualization of white privilege. While the term privilege typically connotes the enjoyment of enhanced or additional advantages that others do not have, the privilege that is referred to here is subtractive: whites do not have to deal with the systemic disadvantages that blacks and other ethnic minorities experience, such as higher unemployment rates, and closer scrutiny and violence from police. The term privilege, in this context, describes the freedoms that white people may not recognize they have, such as the presumption of innocence, the ability to speak freely without threat of violence, and the affirmation of their own worth, simply because they are human.
Where white males have “unlimited privilege,” there are times when “limited privilege” is granted to a small group of black males. These males, often successful and wealthy African American people, receive a message from the dominant majority that even though he is still prone to the “characteristics” (read: stereotypes) of his race, his training, education and accomplishments have made him “acceptable” to the dominant majority, and thus, worthy of this limited privilege. However, there are four unwritten yet very important caveats to this gift:
- You must never, ever forget your place, which is always at the bottom of the pecking order. You will be reminded.
- Although you are accepted as a member of the group, your membership can and will be challenged and possibly revoked at any time by those holding unlimited privilege.
- Once revoked, it can be earned again, but you will remain under intense scrutiny by members holding unlimited privilege with the expectation that you are repentant and or/silent about what has happened to you and whether it was just or not.
In essence, this is what occurred to Dr. Gates at the time of his arrest. It was reported that Dr. Gates reacted angrily towards the police officer upon answering his door and after being directed to produce identification to prove he was the owner of the spacious residence. Based on Dr. Gates’ irritated tone and arrogant refusal to produce the demanded identification, the police officer arrested him, charging him with “obstruction of justice.” During the arrest, this proud, educated, well trained black man was treated just like any street thug who got mouthy with the police.
What are the psychological consequences that Dr. Gates faced after his arrest?
- He may have felt humiliated due to the media circus that broadcasted this incident around the world for his students, friends, family, and colleagues to see.
- Even through the charges were dropped, the arrest, fingerprints and mug shots will be maintained in the federal National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, and will remain there even past his death.
- Each time he leaves or enters the country, or is stopped and questioned by the police, the information regarding the police explanation, not the overall context, of the arrest will be made available through the computerized records of the NCIC.
- Gates will continue to relive the traumatic memory of being arrested for the rest of his life. Among the memories of his impressive achievements, he will also keep this in his memory and will take it to his grave.
Although he was likely aware of this already, Dr. Gates simply received a reminder that regardless of his status or his achievements, he is still a black man, and will be judged by the beliefs and stereotypes of black men, whether they are true or not. His limited privilege was revoked. He may have had the ability to believe that he had the ability to be given the benefit of the doubt, or to be allowed to be human and emotional, but at the end of the day, that is not something that is available for a black man.
Concluding Words – Dr. Kane
There are lessons here regarding racial stereotyping, gossip and rumors that we as black men can benefit from.
- To be successful with school and workplace politics: decide after careful consideration who to trust. Then trust with caution and consistently verify.
- Respect all, love all, yet remember that trust is earned, not given away to the undeserving.
- Once burned, we learn. If we do not learn we only assure ourselves that we will be burned again and again and again until …we learn.
- Betrayal is based on intent. A true friend will never betray you; a betrayer can never be a true friend.
- To err is human” is a common expression, but we should not believe there is always room for error. In some cases there is no room for error. None.
IN THE END, LET YOUR GOOD WORKS AND ACTIONS SPEAK FOR YOU.
MY BEST TO YOU ALL.
I will see you at the crossroads… as our journey continues.
Dr. Micheal Kane