Saturday, January 20, 2018
TV and Media

Discussion of race needs to occur away from drama

LOS ANGELES — Spike Lee casts a wary eye at my question, well aware what most journalists expect when they roll up on him and ask about the George Zimmerman verdict.

Still, after chatting up TV critics here on the film version of Mike Tyson's one-man show that he has created for HBO, Lee spared a few words for the explosion of talk about racial issues in the wake of Zimmerman's acquittal for shooting unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

"It seems these major things happen and people say, 'Let's have a town hall on race,' and it goes away," he said. "Then (something else) happens. … We must not be having a serious discussion if we need to keep having these town hall meetings."

Recalling how the biggest criticism of his film Do the Right Thing was his decision not to "provide the answer to racism and prejudice at the end of the movie," Lee gave one answer to me. "We have not dealt with slavery as a nation," he said. "Until we have an honest discussion about slavery, we will keep on having these town hall meetings on racism."

Some will reject his words, but I understand his meaning. America is still struggling with the legacy of its oppression of black people — not just from slavery, but from segregation and Jim Crow — and the inability to face those issues openly seems why race-based furors erupt every so often in the public space with little learned in between.

That's also something Joseph Phelan, a white New Yorker in his 30s, noted shortly after Zimmerman was acquitted. Phelan attended local rallies in which activists of all races chanted "We are Trayvon" to show solidarity with the frustration that no one would be held accountable for the death of an unarmed teen. What he noticed most of all was that no one was talking about the flip side of that coin for people like him: white privilege.

So he worked with friends to create We Are Not Trayvon Martin, a Tumblr and Facebook page featuring short messages written by people about what happens when some get the benefit of the doubt from police, schools, social institutions, and more because they are not black. "I am not Trayvon Martin because no one has ever put a loaded gun in their holster to talk to me," read one message on the site, wearenottrayvonmartin.com. "People have never been scared of me before they heard my voice, looked in my eyes."

"When in the mainstream media has there ever been a conversation about white privilege sparked by white people?" Phelan asked. "We touched a nerve … among a wide swath of people who not only want to talk about race, but talk about the role white people have."

That's an important turn because the great strength of institutional prejudice is denial. Too often, issues of race are seen only as issues of concern for people of color; white people are often encouraged not to believe they even have a racial culture, which makes it easy to argue that the dominance of white culture in America isn't about race.

Which lends a new perspective to CNN anchor Don Lemon's July 27 commentary on the "five things (black people) should think about doing" to improve their communities. His list, which included telling African-Americans to pull up their pants, finish high school, stop having babies out of wedlock and stop littering their neighborhoods, was headlined: "Black people: Clean up your act."

In the past, he has called such talk a diversion from the subjects of institutional racism and systemic oppression of black people.

As much as I respect Lemon (left), I think he doubled down on this distraction tactic. There is no doubt black people are disproportionately affected by out-of-wedlock births, poverty, crime, dropping out of high school and violence. But that's not the only reason some black folks are struggling; if there are no decent jobs for high school graduates, for instance, it may not matter to a young person if he or she gets a high school diploma.

Where journalists can help is with reporting that illuminates race issues outside of crisis points such as the Zimmerman trial, a point Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts made in a speech to the joint conference of the Florida Press Association and the Florida Society of News Editors in July.

If there's any legacy for media from the Zimmerman trial and Martin's death, I hope it's that Pitts' vision becomes a reality.

Because if this conspiracy of silence keeps us from dealing with race directly and honestly, no amount of pants hiking will prevent the next eruption from hurting someone else.

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