Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Welcome Home Skip

I asked a friend his thoughts about Skip Gates' recent brush with the Cambridge Police. His response: it could not have happened to a better Negro. Amused, I asked him to explain. He expounded further, saying Skip has been in the "bubble" of the Academy and, even though he writes about the African-American experience, he does not "live among us." If he did, my friend believes Skip would have been more forthcoming and accommodating when confronted with law enforcement. He would have given the police officer his name, social security number, date of birth, blood type and whatever information he needed to put forth, in order to terminate the encounter with the police officer, as quickly as he could. He would have known that, as a black man, there was nothing good to come out of the encounter by trying to effectuate his "rights." You see, most African-American men intrinsically know that escalating a police interrogation can lead to arrest, an ass-whipping or heaven forbid, death as in "Sean Bell."

But let's be clear: what happened to Skip Gates was unacceptable.

Skip has been an influential intellectual in America and deserves every accolade he has received over his illustrious career. His work incorporating DNA technology to trace African-American ancestry has been an important step in helping blacks understand who we are and, just as important, where we come from.

However, Skip has always been a company man at Harvard. When he announced his intent to assemble the preeminent Black Intellectual Think Tank at Harvard, I thought that was the statement of a confused individual. First of all, why would you want to build the preeminent black intellectual Think Tank at a white institution that erected its endowment on slavery? Why would you construct the premier Black intellectual Think Tank at an institution that triggered student protest for its failure to tenure a black female professor at its law school? But most important, what made Skip believe Harvard and its illustrious alumni would ever allow the "preeminent" black Think Tank to engage in honest dialogue about race and power in America?

Predictably, one by one, the scholars Skip amassed left disillusioned. The last and most prominent recruit, Cornel West, was summoned to former Harvard President, Larry Summers' office and told his work was subpar and was further admonished and ordered to cease recording rap records. According to West, in his book Democracy Matters, Skip effectively threw him under the bus by remaining silent. When there was a vote of confidence on Summers’ tenure, Skip backed the former president.

Although Skip has written eloquently about the black experience in America, he has chosen to live in the King’s court. There was always an intellectual distance between Skip and the black America he wrote about. Haki Madhubuti , in a searing essay, remarked that if Skip Gates chooses to write about us, he should at least come among us.

If he had shared in the day-to-day experience of everyday African-Americans, perhaps the public humiliation he faced at handcuffs of cops would have been less of a shock. Yet the only one that seems surprised that Skip was treated like a nigger is Skip. The sad truth is: most black men in America have had a Skip Gates moment.

My second year of law school, I walked down the street in my hometown, feeling really good about myself after earning 3.8 GPA at Tulane. I had a column published in USA Today and had appeared on McNeil Lehr to comment on the governor's race in Louisiana. I was feeling the difference between me and the poor, Larry English. To my surprise, a white police officer stopped me and asked me to get up against a wall and show my identification. Still astonished, I inquired why? She casually responded that there had been a report of a black man seen breaking into a car and I fit his description. I was dressed so preppy, I Iooked as if I had just walked out of Ralph Lauren's display window on Madison Avenue.

I refused the officer’s request. She flung me against a wall. An undercover white officer driving by jumped out of his vehicle and ran to her aid. He put his elbow in my back and "said motherfucker if you move, I will kill you." Just about this time, my father, who was headed to my downtown office, walked around the corner to witness my arrest. And I began to cry.

A few minutes later, a black police officer arrived on the scene. She explained to the rabid officers that I was Larry English, a former president of the city’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; chairman of the Shreveport Housing Authority and a weekly columnist for the Shreveport Journal. I was let go with no apology.

In my next column, I wrote of the incident. I received a letter from a white civil rights lawyer in New Orleans. He had lots of empathy for my degradation, but warned that there was always going to be a "oh shit" moment when the police realized that I was not only a law-abiding citizen, but one with a certain "status" in town. But he also added that if I had not been "Larry English," I would still be sitting in jail for a crime I not only did not commit, but had no knowledge of, if for no other reason that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was right.

On that day, when I was feeling so good about what I had accomplished, I was brought back home to reality of being black in America. However, even now Skip seems confused. He issued a joint statement with the Cambridge Police, saying it had been a misunderstanding, and then almost immediately, called for an apology from the arresting officer.

Skip, you can use your platform to bring down the wrath of God on the Cambridge Police. Or, you can use your incredible gifts as a teaching moment for America. You can teach her about how race, power and ignorance intersect when a black or Latino person is stopped by the police. You can use this podium to fight for the thousands of blacks and Latinos who don’t have an “oh shit” card to play. Welcome home Skip. We missed you.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Do As I Say And Not As I Do

The nomination of Judge Sonya Sotomayor has sent conservative white men into a tizzy. You would think that their domination of the United States Supreme Court for the past 200 hundred years would make the first appointment of a Latina go down a little more smoothly.

When President Obama announced Sotomayor's nomination, Rush Limbaugh called her a racist. Then Pat Buchannan of MSNBC followed Limbaugh's ignorance by calling Sotomayor a "quota queen," an "affirmative action baby" and whatever other incendiary language from the cultural wars of the 1980's his warped mind could muster.

This morning I listened to Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, question Sotomayor. His lips dripping with the bitterness of fake disenfranchisement, that seems to be the ideology of new Republican Party, he nevertheless failed to ask one literate question of the soon-to-be-appointed Supreme Court Justice. Instead, he attempted to repeatedly paint Sotomayor as a racist who would favor brown people over true Americans –translation white males.

Sessions consistently opined about "our great history of blind justice in America" and, he surmised that Judges do not bring their personal views to the interpretation of the law. That was about as disingenuous a statement as Dick Cheney saying we did not torture.

Judges, beginning with the United States Supreme Court, filtering down to the State Level, interpret the law based on their personal life experiences and political ideology. As a trial lawyer who has litigated hundreds of cases, I learned to shape my legal strategy based on the Judge's ideology and personal biases. Every trial lawyer does so, regardless of the Judge’s ethnicity.

Moreover, no President has ever appointed a Supreme Court Justice who did not, initially, share his view of the world, blind justice be dammed. To suggest otherwise, is to deny history and insult the intelligence of the American public.
Sessions' assertion of our great history of blind justice is the last grasp of conservatives who are slowly losing power, attempting to rewrite the history before they exit the national stage.

A review of court decisions over the first 200-year history of America demonstrates how blind justice was applied to minority citizens. Plessey v. Ferguson was not a blind application of the law. It was the white majority of Justices blindly applying their moral view that separate but equal was constitutional. That decision stood for over 60 years.

In 1911, the City of Richmond Virginia prosecuted and convicted a black woman, Mary S. Hopkins, for violating the city’s segregation ordinance after she moved into a predominantly white neighborhood. The Supreme Court of Virginia held that the ordinance of Richmond did not violate the United States Constitution.

In 1938, Charles Hamilton Houston, the brilliant black lawyer who laid the foundation for Brown v. Board of Education, argued a landmark desegregation case before the Supreme Court. During Houston's oral argument, Supreme Court Justice James McReynolds turned his back on Houston and stared at the wall of the courtroom. Houston would subsequently train Thurgood Marshall at Howard University, a school McReynolds referred to as that "nigger university in Washington D.C. "

In a 1990 Law Review Article, Judge Leon Higginbotham noted that in the not too distant past, appellate courts have upheld convictions, despite prosecutors' references to black defendants and witnesses in such racist terms as "black rascal," "burr-headed nigger," "mean negro," "big nigger," "pickaninny," "mean nigger," "three nigger men," "niggers," and "nothing but just a common Negro", and a "black whore."

In 1943 the Supreme Court held that it was constitutional to continue to hold innocent Japanese American citizens in internment camps on the West Coast, siding with the Government that Japanese citizens imposed a security risk. Forget the morality of the ruling, it came long after Japan posed a risk to the West Coast of America. Later Justice Hugo Black, who had written the majority opinion, stated in an interview: "People were rightly fearful of the Japanese, they all look alike to a person not a Jap."

As recently as 1986 in Bowers v. Hardwick, the Supreme Court held that the state of Georgia could punish its gay citizens for sexual acts that heterosexual couples could perform without fear of arrest. Justice Byron White, writing for the majority, stated that the court was deferring "to the belief of a majority of the electorate in Georgia that homosexual sodomy is immoral and unacceptable." White based his opinion on the "ancient roots" of criminal penalties for sodomy.

Justice Henry Blackman writing for the four dissenters, who included Thurgood Marshall, accused the majority of hiding their homophobia behind the cloak of history. In his dissent, Blackman quoted former Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: "It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. "

When the parents of the current President of the United States got married in the state of Virginia, the interracial couple would have been prosecuted for violation of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The Virginia Supreme Court, as late as 1966, said the law was consistent with the federal constitution because of the overriding state’s interest in the institution of marriage.

On today's Supreme Court sits seven white men; an Afro-Saxon and a woman. None of the white male justices ever felt the heavy weight of being treated different because of their race, gender or sexual preference.

Justice Thomas was appointed because he long ago abandoned any "empathy" for people born in his lot in life. Thomas' views mirrors his fellow white conservatives, both socially and politically.

President Barack Obama’s recently delivered a hour-long speech in Cairo that reflected his Afro-Centric view of the world. That does not mean the president is pro-black or for that matter, pro anything.

It simply means that he stands on the world stage, shaped by living his life as a person of color. He rightfully expects that Justice Sotomayor will bring balance to the court through her life experience as a Latina who has smelled the stench of poverty in a Bronx Housing Project, dealt with language barriers and lived 54 years as a person of color in America.

I suspect Judge Sotomayor will apply the law equally and without bias as much as humanly possible. But when those justices sit around that big round table, discussing the great issues of the day, I hope Justice Sotomayor will remind those six white men and the Afro-Saxon of a non-deniable fact: That Lady Justice may have a blindfold over her eyes, but she has peeked from under it over the decades when Native Americans, African-Americans, Asians, Gays and other minorities petitioned her for justice.

For all of America’s history, justice has been filtered through the lens of privileged white men, who, with few exceptions, shaped the law to benefit white men of privilege. The 21st Century requires that justice now be inspected through the lens of the beautiful tapestry of America’s diversity. We not only need Lady Justice to be blind, but we want her to be fair.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Man In The Mirror

My wife called me upset that Michael Jackson had died. My initial reaction was indifference. Who could be shocked that Jackson checked out at 50, alone in a Hollywood Mansion with strangers, doped up on prescription drugs?

Then there was his strangeness. I don't know whether Jackson was guilty of molesting young boys, but this I do know: he had an unhealthy relationship with them. We may never know the truth because the morals of the children's parents mirrored the pimps of kids on the streets of Mumbai. So it’s plausible to consider that Jackson may have been set up.

But I did not really care. Jackson had long ceased to be a value to anyone, including himself.

But somewhere over the last several days of global hysteria, I too started to mourn the loss of Jackson. I found myself playing his music and watching his innovative videos. I am not mourning the caricature of the human being who was on media display the last 10 years. I am mourning the loss of the 25-year-old who caught lighting in a bottle.

I mourned the 11-year-old who sang the blues as if he had just come home and caught his wife in the bed with another man; the kid who sang I’ll Be There as if he had fallen in love for the first time.

We forget that as Jackson grew out of his teenage years, music critics were writing him off as a just another child star who faded into pubescent obscurity. Little did they know that Jackson was about to become the seminal musical and cultural figure of the 20th Century.

I remember being at a house party in 1979, listening to the DJ spin Don't Stop Till You Get Enough. Everyone was hearing it for the first time and, as if directed by a subconscious message, the house began to dance. The DJ went straight into Rock With You and it was over. Everyone in the world knew immediately that Jackson had made the transition from cute child star to a serious artist. But none of us were ready for what was to come.

Thriller remains the greatest pop album ever. If it was released today, unchanged, it would sell 100 million copies and captivate the world as it did 25 years ago. Thriller was not just a musical milestone, it was a cultural earthquake. It was the first time white America fell unfettered, in love with a person of color. A whole generation of white children grew up idolizing Jackson and others who would follow. So for this generation, going gaga over Obama was as natural as eating your Wheaties.

Although critics, for the most part, underrate Jackson’s third solo album, Bad when compared with Off The Wall and Thriller, the singles Dirty Diana and Man in the Mirror were as good as anything Jackson had done. And for me, the Dirty Diana video captured the full range of Jackson’s talents. It is the most open display of sexuality that Jackson ever allowed the public to see. From the model exiting the limousine, with legs up to her shoulders, sauntering up and down the sidewalk to the lyrics:

She waits at backstage doors
For those who have prestige
Who promise fortune and fame
A life that's so carefree
She's saying that's ok
Hey baby do what you want
I'll be your night lovin' thing
I'll be the freak you can taunt

to the music that forever broke down barriers between Pop, R&B, and Rock; to Jackson's screeching vocals. Raw sexuality is at its peak when Jackson brings all the elements to a crescendo, ripping his white under shirt off, standing in mist, with his arm outstretched and his head pointed to the sky. Visually, it was simply stunning.

In that moment he had it all: the charisma of Elvis, the musicality of the Beatles and the unrefined sexuality of Chuck Berry, strutting across the stage.

On the day that Jackson died, the world stopped.

And the world rarely stops for any one individual. The world does not mourn Jackson because he got out of cars with no underwear; or he released a sex tape. The world is not mourning an ambiguous racial figure that was trapped in a life of turmoil.

No, the whole planet is linked in virtual grief over Jackson because of the talent he displayed 25 years ago.

Have there been better singers? Of course. Have there been better songwriters? No doubt. Have there been more important musical figures? For sure. But no one has ever been able to do it all at Jackson's level

We now know that the vessel that housed this tremendous talent was deeply flawed. But in this moment, it does not matter whether Joe Jackson is the beast Michael said he was or appears to be, even now. Nor does it matter whether Jackson was a pedophile or that he disfigured his beautiful chocolate face out of self-hatred. Over the next several centuries, all those riddles will be explored and some may never be answered.

What we do know is that those of us, who were alive over the last 40 years, witnessed something rare: A human talent who reminded us of the power of art to move a world and change a culture.

Jackson was a true Thriller, who may have also been a Smooth Criminal, but he was surely Off The Wall.