Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Power, Privilege and Racism is a Toxic Cocktail That Strips People of their Humanity: Just Ask Donald Sterling

Working on a plantation
It was frightfully disturbing to watch “12 Years a Slave” on cable last week. That’s because I viewed the movie in the shadow of disconcerting news concerning Los Angeles Clippers team owner Donald Sterling. What does a movie about a free black man being kidnapped into forced servitude for a dozen years in 1841 have to do with a 21st century white business tycoon? Plenty, and it’s not pretty.

Sterling is under fire following racist comments that were recorded and obtained by the entertainment news service TMZ. On that recording, Sterling purportedly told a woman said to be his mistress (Sterling is married) to stop posing in photos with African Americans and not to bring them to Clippers games.

This is insanely ironic given that the majority of the Clippers team and its coach are African American. But it may make perfect sense to the billionaire and others of his ilk.
Sterling's alleged plantation vision

As a result of the recording, Sterling has been "banned for life" from the NBA. It will be interesting to see how "banned for life" plays out for someone as powerful as Sterling. 

              Power, privilege and racism. It’s a toxic combination. Scary too. When wielded by a financially and/or politically potent individual, it can lead to immorality and even illegality. When sanctioned by a government, it fosters system-wide injustices.

              Example: in “12 Years a Slave,” a wicked slave owner named Epps owns, brutalizes and otherwise mistreats human beings. He justifies his actions by quoting the Bible and points the letter of the law, which sanctioned the institution of slavery in Southern states.

Actor who plays slave owner
What does Epps and Sterling share in common? Power and apparently a similar state of mind. I listened to the recording purported to be the Clippers owner; Sterling seemed to be applying distinctions of humanity in much the same way as slave owner Epps.

              This isn’t the first time Sterling has been at Ground Zero when it comes to race-tinged rhetoric and discrimination.

              According to a report, Sterling was sued twice by the U.S. Department of Justice for discriminatory rental practices, systematically driving African-Americans, Latinos and families with children out of apartment buildings he owned. He settled the second case for a then-record $2.73 million penalty.

              Many people, of color and white, say we should just leave this man to his own devices. If he’s racist then that’s his own problem. Except it’s not just his problem. The man is a billionaire. That means he holds influence. He also employs people. The significance in that is his workers’ livelihoods are subject to the morality (or rather immorality) of a person who holds dubious beliefs about persons based on the color of their skin.

Billionaire who talks like he owns slaves
              He’s not alone. Consider Dan Snyder, owner of the NFL team in Washington, DC, that dehumanizes Native Americans with the offensive team logo and name. Lesson? The desire (obsession?) of money trumps respect for humanity. And that cuts both ways - for the oppressor and the oppressed: the oppressor loses his when he strips the oppressed of theirs.

One of the problems with power and privilege is that it can cause persons, businesses (corporations) and systems (i.e., healthcare, schools, judicial) unintentionally or otherwise to view humans as property or account numbers, with the bottom line being profit.

Like Epps in the movie, powerful business owners such as Sterling have the privilege to choose when to care about people or not. When they do, it’s often as not self-serving rather than altruistic. When they don’t, they still essentially remain untouched in their privilege.

Except for loss of his humanity Epps suffers no repercussion for enslaving and torturing a legally free man. As for Sterling, although his actions are nowhere in the physical realm of the heinous behavior perpetrated by the movie villain Epps, the team owner’s spirit of thought is toxic and contagious. And it is the apparent casual disregard for fellow human beings, by him and all forms of unchecked personal, business and systemic power, that scares me.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Now You See Them, Now You Don’t

It astonishes me to witness the treatment that persons with disabilities must endure. I’m referring to folks who make their way through life with a speech impediment, in a wheelchair, with a cane, wearing leg braces, fitted with a prosthetic arm, and others. Central to this treatment is their uncanny ability to disappear.

No joke. I’ve witnessed it. On the street, at the grocer, in stores, you name it. It’s quite remarkable and I’m always amazed. I’m also saddened. What makes their invisibility so significant is the way it happens. It’s the opposite from what you might think.

Most of us have seen a magician make something disappear for an audience, right? Well when it comes to folks with disabilities the reverse happens: it’s the people watching who make the person with a disability vanish. Into thin air, without even a wand. Unlike with a stage magician, it’s not the least bit entertaining. In fact it’s rude and insensitive.

A particular incident haunts me. It happened long ago, was when I was a kid. I was headed into a store when a boy walking with his mother unexpectedly collapsed and began shaking violently. I froze. Unsure of what to do, I just stood there a moment and watched.

Then it happened: the people in the store made him disappear. I was there and saw it with my own eyes. I kid you not. There was no mistaking his invisibility because people just passed right by him as if he wasn’t there.

Oh, a few looked in his direction but I suspect they were looking at his mom who was on her knees pleading for help. They couldn’t have seen the boy lying there experiencing convulsions because they would have stopped to render assistance. Right? But nobody did for the longest.

Now granted, not every able person can achieve the dubious feat of rendering another person invisible – just the one’s who’d rather not see the truth. The truth that there are people living on this planet who are not exactly like us. Don’t look like us, don’t move like us, or don’t talk like us.

“Us” being the ones who are uncomfortable with difference. Or intolerant of it. “Us” being those who mistakenly believe there is only one kind of normal. A single, inflexible standard of being. You know, that kind of nonsense.

Persons with disabilities aren’t the only ones who can be rendered invisible. Take the homeless, for instance. A person without a permanent residence can be standing right there, on a street corner in full view, maybe holding a sign. Or laying on the sidewalk, exposed to the elements. Folks move right past as if another human being isn’t present.

Women can be rendered invisible too. Maybe you’ve witnessed it. Here’s a common scenario: she’s sitting with a bunch of men and says something, maybe important or relevant to conversation. Then it happens. She becomes invisible. Or rather, the men in the room make her invisible. As if she hadn’t said a word.

Young people have it done to them too. With great regularity, I might add. They can be right there, with a group of adults, say something meaningful or from the heart, and the grownups continue as if they don’t hear a word the youth said. It’s magic. It’s also dehumanizing.

I am not immune from the affliction of rendering others invisible. I am also working diligently to stop my own unintentional (yet nonetheless hurtful) acts of ableism, sexism, classism and other forms of discrimination. The best way is by listening for understanding when a person shares how they are made to feel. Who will join me in the conversation?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Soften One’s Gaze Can Lead to a Clearer Picture

The perceived image of the typical young African American male who doesn’t take care of his kids was blown to smithereens downtown at the library. It happened in less than an hour. Three Black fathers respectively escorted their children through a secluded corner where I was hunkered down to get some work done.

All seemed of rather modest means. One by one they entered and escorted their kids through the section. With gentle, hushed tones, each dad patiently nudged his children toward selections, then filed.

The individual scenes that played out collectively moved me to tears. Well actually it was more eye-watering than an avalanche, yet the power of the moment was undeniable.

Three Black fathers does not a statistic make? Ah contraire mon ami. Remember, this is a society that has historically cast blame on and continues to unfairly stigmatize young men of color. So it should come as no surprise that a person who sympathizes with all human beings might revel at a procession of ordinary dads engaging in natural fatherly duties during the course of a typical afternoon.

Unlike what popular culture would have us believe – “us” meaning those who have no personal knowledge of, nor meaningful relationships with, any African American young fathers – men of color do in fact tend to their kids. They love and cherish them, many dotingly. Yet despite what is right before our eyes, we have been systematically conditioned (thanks to TV) to believe otherwise.

Meanwhile on the other side of the tracks, many white men proudly claim to be good fathers. Though outwardly upstanding, upper middle class types, inwardly they covet the size of their vehicles and wallets, regard wives as trophies rather than partners, and behind closed doors treat their families emotionally (and many times physically) abominable.

This brand of man abuses his family in ways that most would agree is reprehensible, yet is regarded with unqualified adoration. This is largely the case because money and social rank afford ways and means of hiding abusive behavior.

After all, how can some kid cry neglect when they live in the “right” neighborhood, go to the “right” school, rock the latest iPhone, X-Box, and whatever else that can be materially had? But it’s all merely short term balm designed to numb their children’s psyche and replace authentic parenting.

Many will cry foul that well-to-do men are being targeted. They will insist the majority of bad parenting occurs at and below the poverty line. The media says so, right? Maybe. But what happens if all the resources associated with wealth, power and position are taken into account?

You get a different picture when you remove from the equation all the assets people with means wield to conceal their true private lives. Top shelf lawyers, personal relationships with politicians and law enforcement, access to the best substance abuse clinics – all of that has the uncanny ability to make trouble disappear and re-write family history. Like magic, except it’s not; it’s privilege.

But I ain’t hatin’. In fact, I count myself as one of those middle class fathers, out there on the clock, humping day after day to afford my kids the best possible life (and protection). The difference is I don’t cast blame for society’s ills solely on those with lesser means.

Back to the library. What I witnessed there, I see on the street every single day. Young Black men loving their kids and taking care of them. At parks, in grocers and stores. In the mall and out at bus stops. They’re everywhere. I’m so glad I’ve learned how to soften my gaze in order to more clearly see them.