If this is love, I don't wanna see hate,
If this is real, I don't wanna see fake (I'm sayin')...
'Cause I don't know how much more I can take
I know that all of y'all can relate
—"That Ain't Love," Little Brother (featuring Jozeemo)
A few years ago during a Bible study on leadership and accountability, a brother boiled down interpersonal communications to four parts. "You can speak to or about people in four ways," he said. "You can tell lies with malice. You can speak lies out of love. You can tell the truth with malice. And you can speak the truth with love. Of all of these, the best, by far, and the most difficult, is to speak the truth with love."
Those are very simple statements—on the surface. He said them slowly, clearly, and let them resonate. They still resonate with me after almost a decade.
Words are powerful. Often, what your words say about you is as important as what they say to your audience. Unless you cultivate an air of Swiss-like neutrality, your motivations become part of your message, a filter through which your words are processed. Communication equals content plus intent.
"I love black people." A lot of folks make that claim. In analyzing such statements, I generally run 'em through the matrix: Are they speaking the truth? The whole truth? Do they seem truly motivated by love and concern?
Those distinctions are important. Dealing with malicious lies is nothing new for black folks. James Watson, the famed and recently disgraced 79-year-old Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, found that pure racism doesn't play as well in 2007 as it did in his halcyon days of youth. He posited that Africans are genetically inferior, intellectually, to Westerners (read: whites).
So much for the popular fiction, promulgated by color-blindness advocates and societal apologists, that racism only comes in hoods and sheets and afflicts relatively powerless and uneducated whites. Watson is a pioneering geneticist (although none of his comments were supported in the least by science) and chancellor of the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, N.Y.
But malicious liars are a known quantity. More intriguing are those who claim to love black people, yet can't seem to miss an opportunity to condemn them. A couple of these people, Clarence Thomas and Bill Cosby, have recently published books—good timing because scathing "insider" (read: black-on-black) critiques of black America are en vogue, like fashion designers' insistence on mixing chocolate brown and that aqua blue.
Thomas and Cosby have made headlines with their respective books, My Grandfather's Son and Come On, People. Thomas has been reviled as a walking contradiction for a jurist whose actions have been far, far worse for black people, and Americans in general, than the spiteful symbolism embodied in his Supreme Court nomination by Bush the Elder to replace the legendary Thurgood Marshall.
Cosby is a towering figure in the entertainment and philanthropy worlds. His cultural influence, particularly during the zenith of The Cosby Show in the '80s, was phenomenal in creating "elbow room" for the concept of a black upper-middle-class in the psyches of Americans of all ethnic and economic backgrounds. Of late, though, he's grown increasingly vitriolic in his social "observations," seemingly crossing a tipping point between constructive and destructive criticism.
The words and thoughts of these men take on great significance in a post-post-Civil Rights era, during which two decades of half-assed remedies to centuries of social, political and economic oppression are deemed adequate for this country to smile and wave under the "Mission Accomplished" banner.
In Iraq, the death, destruction and instability are surely not the result of the illegal and immoral U.S. invasion and a catastrophic incompetence in recreating the civil infrastructure. Instead, our collective national conscience ascribes the drama to some inherent predilection to fratricide, terrorism and mayhem by the Iraqis themselves. A similar national amnesia allows us to fervently believe that black Americans occupy the lower economic and social rungs in this society, and often exhibit fratricidal and pathological behaviors out of mere happenstance, inherent defect or historical accident.
Any criticism of blacks by blacks against this national backdrop is consequently given instant credibility in the mass media, fanning the flames of our collective ignorance and intransigence like the Santa Anas in San Diego.
Which brings us back to content and intent, message and motivation. The current paradigm for discussion of issues specific to black people in America asserts that there is such a rarity of black self-criticism and introspection that any such criticism ought to be hailed as groundbreaking, courageous and praiseworthy. That is detestably absurd.
Does any other group in this country wince as much as we do while watching the evening news, hoping that the perpetrator of the sensational, bleeding, leading crime story is not "one of theirs"? And if so, do they have as much of a historical and statistical basis for these feelings as black Americans? We have more than 100 years of post-slavery collective punishment and recrimination to justify that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs—the one that tells us "he messin' it up for all of us" in response to the latest nightly episode of Negroes Gone Wild? Do white folks "own" their dysfunction? Latinos? Asians?
Devah Pager, an associate professor at Princeton, conducted a study while she was at the University of Wisconsin that used matched-pairs testing to determine that in the Milwaukee job market, a young white man with a criminal record was more likely to receive calls back than a young black man with a clean record. Unsurprisingly, a young black man with a criminal record is almost unemployable. [Read the study (PDF, 340 KB): Devah Pager, "The Mark of a Criminal Record."]
That strikes a very dissonant chord amid our national orchestra of ideas, where the prevailing melodies are the dulcet, sweet strains of "everything is fair and like it is for a reason." In a time of declining national crime statistics, the United States' incarceration rate continues to skyrocket—jailing a higher percentage of its citizens than any country—having increased 500 percent over the last two decades.
In an era when the notion of reparations for past systemic, institutional and state-sanctioned damages are politically inconceivable, black folks somehow continue to find ourselves the primary beneficiaries of compound injustice: police disproportionately target us for stops and arrests; prosecutors disproportionately charge us for crimes; juries disproportionately convict us of crimes; and judges disproportionately sentence black defendants to harsher sentences for the same offenses as whites, even when all aggravating and mitigating factors are similar.
The "telling it like it is" crowd of black folks respond to this, working through their apparent stigmatization and embarrassment with endless, withering critiques effectively saying, "Don't do crime." Well, duh. Why'd we never think of that? Is, however, due process under the law too much to ask for as U.S. citizens?
Our "selected" black leadership is largely silent on these issues because of the embarrassment factor, except for a recurring call to end the blatantly discriminatory 100-to-1 crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity. To speak on the larger implications of the prison/ industrial complex would be to—gasp—admit that we have criminals within our population just like everyone else. Get over that. No race of people on earth has thus far been able to produce a completely pristine and sinless generation, capable of inspiring all would-be oppressors, rivals and competitors to defer to them by force of sheer virtue and niceness. (See The Sentencing Project's Web page on racial disparity in criminal sentencing.)
Black people were pretty nice decades ago and getting hung from trees for their trouble. Black citizens in Wilmington, Tulsa, Okla., and Rosewood, Fla., were industrious, prosperous and communally cohesive, exemplary in every way. And they were murdered and had their thriving enclaves torched to the ground by whites affronted by their progress.
It would be stupid to think that a "truth with love" model of black-on-black social critique would or should ignore personal and collective responsibility and accountability. That's completely counter to strong and central elements of black culture that extend thousands of years prior to our appearance on these shores, and that persist to this day. It is also incorrect to attribute all black social criticism to malicious motives. Such critique is by no means the province of social conservatives, nor is social conservatism anathema to black culture by definition. That's part of our culture and heritage as well and, in concert with our unique experiences and history in this country, contributes to feelings of collective responsibility and accountability.
When we do engage these critiques, though, it is absolutely critical to assess the motivations of the critics. If one's concern for the subjects of such criticism isn't genuine, and one's ideas are born of scorn, embarrassment, self-aggrandizement or an expedient career path, that's not love. And it won't help people.