Monday, April 28, 2014

Bigotry Goes Mainstream - Gauging "The Look"

The Donald
If LA Clipper's owner Donald Sterling (pictured left) wasn't much of a household name outside of the Los Angeles area before TMZ released an audio tape of his disturbing racist rant, he's certainly getting his fifteen minutes worth these days.

With people from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to the President weighing in, the story has shot right to the front of domestic news issues; as it should. It's past time the mainstream media put the spotlight on the prevalence of intolerance and racism in 21st century America.

The depth of the real estate magnate's entrenched bigotry and total contempt (and fear) of men of color is as distasteful as it is repugnant. But it's also really weird; judge for yourself, I posted a five-minute excerpt of the conversation to the right.

If, as the tapes suggest, Sterling was so incensed by the mere idea of his then-girlfriend (who is Mexican and African-American by the way) being seen or photographed with African-American men; why would he own an NBA franchise?

Obviously Sterling's views didn't just materialize out of thin air, clearly his prickly perspective was shaped and learned at an early age. But his views have manifested themselves in his professional life before. As Forbes sports business writer Kurt Badenhausen reported on Saturday, Sterling was sued by the Justice Department back in 2006 for refusing to rent apartments to Hispanics and African-Americans in the Koreatown section of LA; he settled the lawsuit for $2.7 million.

What weirds me out is the paternalistic and archaic tone he uses to talk about black people; whom he has clearly reduced to one giant all-encompassing stereotype that reveals a detached perspective warped by his own internalized prejudices.

He's right on par with law-breaking Nevada rancher Clive Bundy, whom conservatives quickly embraced as a hero-figure despite his kooky beliefs that black people would be better off enslaved; maybe Clive can be the featured speaker at the next Republican National Convention.

I mean if Clint Eastwood can talk to an empty chair for fifteen minutes on live national television, why not have Clive bring one of his cows fattened on the taxpayer's dime up on stage? He could do nifty cowboy rope tricks while he talks to the cow about the non-existence of the Federal government and the advantages of enslaving black people. I'd watch that. 

But seriously, this is a great country and I firmly believe the vast majority of Americans, regardless of race, religion or nationality, are decent folk. Lord knows none of us are perfect and some get a little more mixed up than others; but at the core this is a nation of pretty decent people.

But the truth is there are some Sterlings and Bundys roaming around out there across the vast expanse of the United States; many of whom will slip by unnoticed by the spotlight of the media - but not by those who recognize them.

My brother called me from the airport in Jackson, Mississippi the other day. He was one of the over 500 participants (educators, policy professionals and academic leaders) gathered at Jackson State University last Thursday for the annual COSEBOC (Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color) conference.

My brother, who was there to lead a workshop at the conference, told me he was sitting in the lobby of the local hotel where a number of conference participants were staying, and he was with a co-worker doing some work on his laptop. He noticed two heavyset white men who strolled into the lobby staring at him while they talked.

Now they weren't just glancing at him either; they were staring unflinchingly, giving my brother "the look." For those of you who might not be aware, "the look" is a silent tool used by people who harbor prejudices to let you know what they think of you. It's often used by people who feel compelled to share their prejudices with those they don't like.

It's not exclusive to black people by any means. I have Asian and Jewish friends who recognize "the look" too. Stop in some place where some locals don't think you belong; you may get "the look." There's a "glance" too, but it's more wimpy than "the look" and to he honest, I have more respect for someone who gives me "the look" versus just the glance.

I mean if you're going to despise a complete stranger just because of the color of my skin, or how I worship, or dress or where I come from, it takes some real balls (and no small amount ignorance) to just flat out stare at someone with the deadpan, slightly contemptuous expression that defines "the look."

My brother said he saw quite a bit of that in Mississippi last week. It's not exclusive to any one geographic area either; I get "the look" in the grocery store in Hamilton, New Jersey quite often. My office is in Hamilton and I usually do my food shopping at lunchtime because the grocery stores are close by and they're really nice. Spacious aisles, good deli, decent bakery, good selection of brands and a big pharmacy too. True one stop shopping.

But Hamilton, while a very nice community, is home to not a few people who's perspectives on black people were shaped by their (or their relative's) experiences in Trenton, NJ when jobs grew scarce, the tax base shrank, neighborhoods began to slip, impoverished pockets expanded - and crime increased.

Now I didn't grow up in Trenton mind you. Nor did anyone in my family for that matter. But sometimes, when I'm pushing my cart along, dressed professionally for work, minding my own business in the grocery store; I'll get "the look" out of nowhere.

Some old lady lingering by the eggs, an old guy inspecting loaves of bread - I'll notice them just staring at me. Not moving, not lost in thought - just staring at me with "the look" as if I am a physical  manifestation of some old memory lingering inside their minds.

I just walk on past, because as Ralph Ellison so eloquently observed, I know that I am invisible to them. They don't see the me who writes these words. They don't know where I work, or where I come from or anything about my family. They don't know I love science fiction, have a cat, or that I can play guitar and read music.

They only know the color of my skin and they can only see what that represents to them. So I'm not bothered by "the look" from the occasional clerk who rings up my groceries (I'm big on the self checkout line) because like Clive Bundy and Donald Sterling they see something that isn't there it all.

It's just a mental compendium made up of the things they observed as children, or were taught by their parents and peers, or absorbed from images in films or television - things that were reinforced by policies, or jokes or invisible boundaries.

They see skin color, or an article of clothing, or an inflection in voice and it activates their compendium - and all they can do is "look."

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