The Perils Of
Selective Decency

What we’re seeing in Ferguson, Missouri, and what we see every day on sports TV programming are related.

Earlier this week, I drafted a similar — though not as terrific — examination of race to Greg Howard’s on Deadspin. Only my piece was about sports, and my ultimate theme was that decency — rather than specifically America, or cops — was not for black sports fans. It concerned ESPN’s rash of suspensions of on-air personalities and the messages those suspensions sent, which ranged from encouraging to odd, from selective to farcical.

I’d just arrived in a new city, to work a new job. The internet wasn’t set to be activated until Thursday. I hadn’t yet sent the piece to my editors. Then my computer died.

Despondent, I sat quietly and racked up data fees on my phone monitoring the public, emphatic and depressing invalidation of the silly notion of “Post-Racial America” as it unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri. As I did, it struck me that these stories — the one I’d lost and the one unfolding in Ferguson — were linked. They are both symptomatic of the same diseased, prevalent perspective. So I sat down and wrote an entirely new piece …

Contempt and indecency are dished out in seemingly infinite helpings to blacks in America. There are startling, obvious examples, like Michael Brown being gunned down and left to fester in the sun. Then there are more subtle — though still insidious — examples, like ESPN’s much-publicized suspension of Stephen A. Smith.

As co-host of ESPN’s First Take, Smith’s cast into a role as expert on the black community. (AP)

I took no issue with Smith’s suspension, nor the widespread criticism he received for his poorly-worded commentary on female complicity in male violence against them. But I almost (not quite, but almost) felt sorry for him, because he reminds me of a trained Orca at Sea World: ESPN had been giving him bigger and better treats every time he jumped through the hoops of shallow social criticism or balanced the ball of black cultural pathology on his nose. In that context, I understood his initial shock and indignation when his treat suddenly was swapped out for a punishment. He simply was exhibiting the asinine behavior his handlers have encouraged, and which the audience usually applauded.

ESPN long ago decided complex, sensitive social issues were grist for the ratings mill. It wouldn’t have taken more than minimal coordinating to get someone on air to articulate a comprehensive, informed viewpoint on Ray Rice’s suspension as it related to larger societal discourse on domestic abuse and misogyny. The network, though, rarely demonstrates interest in comprehensive, informed viewpoints, instead attempting to reduce even complex and sensitive social issues to an easily digestible highlight clip. Ergo, Smith was given his long, dangerous leash, and it was impossible to then set aside skepticism when network higher-ups expressed surprise and disappointment that he inevitably got tangled in it and started to choke.

Smith was suspended, ultimately, for being indecent. He was forced to issue a public apology after multiple missteps. It was all deserved, but it left me wondering: Where is my apology?

For years I’ve tuned into ESPN to get sports updates, only to be bombarded — on air, in print, over radio waves — with commentary by Smith and others fueled by antiquated, offensive notions of black cultural pathology. Examples range from the leadership capability of black athletes from single-parent homes being legitimized as a talking point, to the discussion of Richie Incognito calling Jonathan Martin a “half n-gger” shifting abruptly to the culpability of “the black community.”

Smith’s contribution to this noxious brand of victim-blaming and race-baiting is particularly galling because he is cloaked in the cheap, threadbare garb of a voice of “the black community.” But Smith damn sure wasn’t raised in my community, and he doesn’t represent my concerns or experiences, nor those of the bulk of blacks I know. Plus, blacks as individuals take offense to white people discussing “the black community” as a monolith; why then be fine when a black person commits the same sin?

In truth, Smith’s main, flimsy credential to wax pseudo-philosophical on how blacks should feel is that he has dark skin. He’s not a clarion voice of any community; rather, he’s a low-rent provocateur. He doesn’t have a Ph.D. in sociology or African-American Studies; he wasn’t a social columnist with years of attending pertinent conferences under his belt; he hasn’t been analyzing data or studying the most current and thorough articles and books on these subjects. He has no bonafides, but he’s allowed to — encouraged to — discuss race and society because he tends to say things that reinforce popular, base notions of black people in general, and black athletes specifically.

No other group has to deal with condescending, contrived spokespeople like this. Can you imagine a cartoonish WASP constantly penning pieces with sloppy historical takes and blanket indictments of “white culture” along these lines:

The elephant in the room is that we’ve been raised within a culture that gives a nod to the exploitation of others: we manipulated the Native Americans; enslaved blacks and had them work our fields for our own profits; forced the Chinese into building our railroads; pay Mexicans less than a living wage under the table to work 80 hour weeks at jobs few others want. Of course we have to question the NFL’s handling of CTE — white people don’t seem to have basic empathy for those they view as different, as lesser. Which leads us to another question: are whites fit to coach? To lead men?

Media personalities as caricatures of other races or faiths would be out of a job practically before hashtags demanding their ouster were conceived, but I’ve read and heard and watched similar takes regarding black athletes for years. It’s sickening, it’s indecent, and it’s evil. It has to change. Decency is a value, and as such shouldn’t be contingent on the market share of the offended party, nor the literal or cultural capital they wield.

One of the brilliant aspects of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was the Breedloves living in a store window. It was symbolic of how black life is always on front street, to be picked apart. Our dysfunction cannot be tucked neatly away, in outwardly lovely homes on tree-lined streets with the curtains drawn tight, or in the offices of doctors who double as family or friends, far from scrutiny and often off public record.

This hit me hardest when I attended what was then ranked as one of the best colleges in America and saw “good” children of upstanding, wealthy white families doing copious amounts of drugs, binge drinking, passing around STDs like gossip, and using the “morning after pill” as casually as a breath mint. Later I went to graduate school in a town that hosted a nearly all-white student body which was perpetually drunk, loutish, violent, and boasted a percentage of (reported) rapes that put even other big universities with popular sports programs to shame. But I never heard or read a peep in either place about any possible cultural issues, or white dysfunction. I did, however, read and hear an unquantifiable amount about black cultural pathology during that time, often from the same people who were perpetuating dysfunction.

The key footnote in Brown vs. Board of Ed. was made by black psychologist Kenneth Clark, who posited that segregation was as harmful to a majority group as it was to a minority group. In other words, whites in America tend to view integration as an ameliorative measure for blacks, when it was meant to ensure the psychic health of the entire country. What Clark understood was that a collective white superiority complex in this country was just as damaging to whites as it had had been to so many blacks.

Few remember Clark’s footnote, and fewer have heeded it. When some whites do wrong, they view themselves and their children as — to quote my private high school Headmasters’ rationalization — “good kids making bad decisions.” But when black people do wrong, they are reaffirming what whites already knew: they were never good in the first place.

This disturbing rationale can be taken a step further, to a level so warped that it’s difficult to process: when a black person has something awful and unthinkable happen to him/her, (s)he can garner less basic sympathy than a white person who does something awful and unthinkable. This is what makes some whites in this country so frightening: they are doggedly and blindly determined to preserve a false sense of innocence. As James Baldwin wrote, “no one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.”

It’s this belief system that allowed some white people to see Trayvon Martin not as a teenager walking home with some Skittles, but as a weed-smoking thug who deserved to die. It allowed the same people to view a photo of George Zimmerman with a bloody nose and a cut on his head and conclude that his life was definitely in danger. Ferguson teenager Michael Brown’s narrative shifts from a tragic victim of abusive police power to a shoplifter and gang member; protesters with their hands in the air become rioters; people on their own streets, in their own yards, become trespassers. Meanwhile, a white police officer wielding an automatic rifle and betraying both his civic duty and the constitution openly refers to the citizens of his own town as “animals” while dismissing a reporter’s inquiry.

Baldwin also wrote “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” This ignorance of innocence has turned our country into a horror show that can’t be changed so long as everyone is busy pretending they don’t see it.

A rally in Washington, D.C. for Michael Brown. (AP)

Ferguson is now our figurative fork in the road. I do not invoke the words of MLK lightly, but it is up to the decent among us to choose where we go from here: community or chaos? We have a chance — indeed, a duty — to elevate the discourse on race, class, media and human dignity. We absolutely must force conversations about the larger implications of the spirit and philosophy that demeans so many blacks and relegates us to the scrap heap in this society. And no one, including ESPN, can afford to allow the public faces of their network to cater to the lowest passions and biases of a public in social crisis.

It’s in all of this that Howard’s sentiment resonated with me in the same way that a moment from Baldwin’s uncollected essays did. In trying to sort through the unsolvable riddle of white American contempt for blacks, Baldwin expressed a final exasperation, concluding there was nothing a black person can do to convince a white person of his/her fundamental equality. He wrote — I’m paraphrasing here — trust me, I’ve sat at the bar and ordered every respectable martini there is. His point was that racism cannot be cured by assimilation, good behavior or sophistication, because it’s a fundamentally illogical disease of the heart and mind.

Despite this, I believe plenty of America already is for blacks, and plenty of white Americans can see the sickness that has displaced the best human instincts of empathy, fairness, respect and decency in many of us. An ultimate, resolute cynicism will never be a solution, and would undermine the decency and caring shown by a large number of my white friends. But we need help. We cannot go it alone. We are tired. The harping on black cultural pathology, the victim-blaming, all of it has to end. There’s a thick tension hanging in the air. We need help, cooperation, and fellowship.

When W.E.B. DuBois asserted all art is propaganda, he had his mind on importance of a group controlling its collective narrative. The images and ideas that make their way around television, run in newspapers, and dominate popular film and literature influence societal discourse to an incalculable extent. Propaganda — that is to say, the public presentation of narrative — allows unfounded opinion and flimsy belief systems to dictate experience and slant observations rather than have experience and observations inform conclusions. And what we see and hear on television — whether via news, films full of one-note black characters, or ill-conceived social commentary on ESPN — contributes to events like those in Ferguson.