Archives for posts with tag: Race

 Last week some old, white cheating cowboy fraud said publicly what he has probably said over and over to his friends. Another super rich white bigot’s private words were reported too. In many ways this really isn’t news. 

We live in a racist nation that has perpetuated derogatory stereotypes and promoted discrimination against people of color throughout most of its history. Thankfully, we have seen some hard fought changes occur, but do we really believe we can eradicate three hundred years of bigotry and ignorance in a couple generations? I heard a TV commentator say today that our nation “needs to have a conversation about race.”  Really?

“What do you get when you send a racist to college?”  My friend and mentor, Will Nichols used to ask that question of his Black History students at Cuyahoga Community College forty years ago.  A year earlier I met this decorated World War II veteran, who had worked his way through college on the G.I. Bill. He was teaching philosophy part time then, while working full time at the post office.

As a full time history instructor Will Nichols quickly became involved as faculty sponsor for a number of African-American student organizations, and he developed the Black history courses into ones that would require senior level work of junior college level students. His rationale was that he wanted the Black students in his classes to be able to perform at a level far higher than would be required of them elsewhere.  At the time, I thought it unfortunate that as a white student in his class I had to do this extra work too. 

As we groaned over doing 50 page research papers, Nick used to say, “I won’t do it for you, but I’ll wade in my own blood waist deep to help you up so you can do it.” True to his word, he was available 24 hours a day for consultation, inviting our study groups to his apartment on the weekends to work on our papers together.

There was no Martin Luther King Day then, no Black History Month, just the same clear need in our culture to have an ongoing dialogue about our nation’s shameful history and continued behavior of racist oppression. I wonder what Will Nichols, who’s been gone a few years now, would have to say about the often repeated notion that Americans need to have a conversation about “race.”

I believe he’d say that it was an important issue, but as he smiled, waiting for the answer to his original question, he’d tell us that the crucial conversation had to be not about race, but about racism. We Americans have still not fully engaged that dialogue.

Our primary problem isn’t about misunderstanding each other’s cultures (we’ve all been guilty of that at times); our primary problem is about facing the ongoing reality of systemic discrimination. It’s about recognizing the rationalizations and denial that occur in all situations of oppression.  When your culture does something that is unacceptable, such as kidnapping someone and imprisoning them and their descendants for hundreds of years, there is only one way to feel okay about living with that.  You must justify it.

The Romans justified their domination and enslavement of Europeans and others by depicting them as animal like. The British justified their control of the Irish by depicting them as savages or sub-human. Europeans, Chinese, Euro-Americans, and other colonizing cultures all depicted indigenous peoples around the world as savages or scary beasts. The Nazi death machine depicted the Jews and Eastern Europeans as sub-human.

The opinion maker apologists of each offending culture argue that because of some flaws in the victims’ humanity, the imprisonment, enslavement, or extermination of these “others” is in the best interest of everyone involved. Stereotypes are shaped and reproduced broadly, reinforcing the perceived inferiority of the oppressed group.

The stereotypes used to justify the enslavement of African-Americans early in our history were so deeply imbedded in the psyche of white American culture that many of them continue right into the present. It is not some random accident that independent study after study show that housing, job, and justice system discrimination is still rampant in our society.  Our rationalization and denial still keep us from addressing the reality of our culture’s racist legacy.

 So what was the answer to Nick’s question?  When you send a racist to college, “You get an educated racist.” It doesn’t matter what’s put in front of our eyes to see, if we refuse to open our eyes to see it.

We can change that if we as a culture continue to find the courage to face the reality of racism and its terrible consequences.


River Smith is author of the book, A Conspiracy To Love: Living A Life of Joy, Generosity, and Power, and co-author with Victor Lee Lewis and Hugh Vasquez of The Color of Fear: A Teacher’s Manual.

And sometimes it’s about class, or gender, or age, or any other classification that causes us to be identified as one of “the others.” President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have been profiled by people all their lives, just as Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis were. That doesn’t mean that there are not also other reasons for the disrespectful behavior directed toward them. It is important, however, to face this profile thing.

 So Trayvon Martin was suspended from school at the time that George Zimmerman shot and killed him. Young Trayvon was wearing a hoodie–a symbol to some people of troublemaking. Furthermore, he was guilty of the unpardonable crime of being a young Black male on the street at night. Jordan was sitting in a van with his buds listening to some music, too loud, like most teens.  He also had the audacity to give an old white guy some lip or the wrong kind of look.

We don’t know what specific issues made the one young man, walking down the street, talking on his cellphone to his friend, a suspicious character to Mr. Zimmerman. We don’t know exactly what made Jordan Davis seem a threat to Michael Dunn, if that’s what really happened.  We don’t know exactly, but we have a pretty good idea.

This reminds me a little of my own misadventures as a teenager on the streets of Cleveland in the 1960’s. Like so many of my friends, I spent my nights walking the streets and hanging on corners for entertainment. Each evening, as I buffed my shoes and combed my hair on the way out the door, as I hit the sidewalk with the baaaadest walk on the block, clicking out a tune with my cleats, I thought about how cool I was, and I thought about meeting up with my boys, and about hooking up with some local “chicks.”  I tried very hard not to think about the police.

Unfortunately, from the first time they stopped to check me out, the local patrol boys decided that I was a troublemaker. I wasn’t sure why. Was it because they didn’t like my hair?  My spit shined shoes? My so cool walk? Or maybe it was the way I smiled when they jabbed me with their night sticks. It certainly could have been the smile. A judge later told me from the bench that he was locking me up just to wipe that smile off my face. It also could have been that hair. I was suspended at least twenty times by high school administrators who didn’t like it.

To so many people in authority I was seen as a “punk,” “a smart–a– troublemaker,” up to no good. I was somehow considered a dangerous person who was suspected as a cause of any problems that might be happening in the neighborhood.  I had to be watched. I had to be hassled. I had to be controlled. The bruises to my ribs, the pain in my stomach, the scratches on my face as I was slammed repeatedly against the police cars, were a message from those in authority. The term wasn’t in use back then, but I was being profiled.

I was in a crazy relationship that, as a teenager, I was too self-absorbed and innocent to know how to change. I was told over and over again that I had a problem with authority, when really it was the other way around. My friends and I didn’t wear the same clothes, didn’t listen to the same music, didn’t talk the way the adults did, and we didn’t respect the same norms of behavior.  We were too loud, too reckless; we were different; we were “the other,” and that made us dangerous to the people in authority. That perceived reality gave some police, some school administrators, some judges the justification to treat us without respect, without compassion, without understanding, and without justice. I didn’t know yet how the Black kids from the neighborhood next to ours were judged or treated by the authorities. I just knew they wouldn’t be safe on our streets. The authorities and our gangs would make sure of that.  Why? Because they were “the other.”  They were stereotyped. They were profiled.

So here we are now, nearly a half century later. The civil rights movement has given us decades to look at discrimination. And I wonder, can we get past our prejudices, our fears, our stereotypes to demand the same respect, same justice for the many young Black men on our streets today, that we would for any of our children. Michael Dunn evidently couldn’t. Neither, it seems, can many conservative commentators or republican lawmakers.

 River Smith is a psychologist, eco-feminist community activist, author of A Conspiracy to Love: Living A Life of Joy, Generosity, and Power, and co-author, with Victor L. Lewis and Hugh Vasquez, of Lessons from The Color of Fear: A Teachers Manual. (River Smith’s The Long & Painful Death of Chief Wahoo-drum & poetry video with archival footage)

I used to feel like I was born with a baseball in my left hand, a shortstop’s glove on the other. Sudden Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert set my blood rushing. What fun it was to watch Thunder Thornton, Frank Robinson, Bobby Bonds, Charlie Spikes, and Joe Carter. There is no ballet I enjoyed more than Omar going into the hole, leaping, spinning, and releasing; Kenny running, running, propelling himself in the air, cleat on the fence, reaching high as the ball slammed into his glove. Wow.

I love baseball. Love playing it. Love watching it. Oh, I enjoy Lebron, Kyrie and the guys a lot, and can get excited for a moment as a browns runner slides and twists his way through defenders, but I love baseball.

So it’s Springtime in Cleveland again. Time for blooming buds, lakefront picnics, buzzing lawnmowers, dreams of a pennant winning season, and Cleveland’s own special pastime, racism. For over twenty years our video collective has documented the demonstrations outside Fort Progressive (Fort Jacobs) to protest the demeaning Chief Wahoo emblem and the baseball team’s nickname, Indians.

Native Americans from around the country come most years to help educate fans about how the nickname and the wahoo serve to stereotype American tribal peoples; how the use of face paint and feather headdresses mock their religion; how the comments about the warpath and scalping totally misrepresent Native American history and culture. Incidentally, if you do your research you’ll find that probably far more Euro-Americans scalped Indians, than vice versa.

While isolated tribes and occasional individuals have indicated that they don’t mind the usurpation of their native images and words, every major national Native American organization has made it clear that sports team names and emblems are racist and foster unhealthy and misleading stereotypes of their people. After scores of high schools and colleges, and a few professional teams changed their nicknames, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) declared around ten years ago that they will not allow any team nicknames or mascots “hostile and abusive” to Indians to be displayed on team uniforms at any NCAA postseason tournament. American students all over the country and their advisors are getting it. Why can’t we?

How long do you think a team named the Cleveland Jews with a caricatured image for an emblem or the Euclid Negroes with caricatured Uncle Ben or Aunt Jemima would last? Somehow we can get that this is not okay when it comes to these groups. If we just open our hearts and widen our understanding a little more, we can see that it’s also not really innocent fun if our behavior causes young Indian girls and boys to have to grow up with distorted images and stereotypes of themselves and their families promoted all around them.

I have loved Cleveland baseball all my life. How does changing the name of the team harm my memories? How does it harm the actual tradition of playing the game? Bob Feller still played for Cleveland. Rocky Colavito still played for Cleveland. Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez still played for Cleveland. Changing the nickname of the team doesn’t change the joy that fans have had watching these extraordinary players. It does, however, reduce the pain and discomfort for thousands of our brothers and sisters. Surely we can delight in a Santana homerun or a diving Brantley catch whether the team is called the Rockers, the Steelmakers, or the Spiders. The cartoonish character on the player’s sleeve doesn’t make the play any more exciting or better.

I want to watch Yan Gomes and Cory Kluber. I want to cheer on Francisco Linder, and Urshela when he gets here, but neither I nor many other fans with conscience will ever feel comfortable paying to attend a Cleveland baseball game as long as it means insulting our Indian brothers and sisters, and their children.

River Smith is co-producer at Liberation Brew TV
and author of A Conspiracy to Love: Living A Life of Joy, Generosity and Power

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