Welcome to Operation Reach B.L.A.C.K.

Operation Reach B.L.A.C.K. is a Pan-African Blog with an acronym that stands for Building Leadership Awareness and Cultural Knowledge.

The goal of this blog is to become a "Blog of Black Thought" focusing on matters of social, economic and political awareness through education (re-education), self-affirmation and cultural expression. Above all, this blog will DEMAND respect and appreciation for one another as black men and women.

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(Opinions, Observations, and Commentary)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Black in America 2 . . . Some thoughts

CNN Black in America 2 Premiere

Catch it Wednesday, July 22 at 9PM
and Thursday, July 23 at 8PM

As CNN's "Black in America 2" nears, here are a few thoughts I'm having.

Blacks and the Media:

What we’re really talking about is the blessing (or curse) blacks feel to be a spokesperson for the entire race. At the heart of many a controversy isn’t necessarily the issue being discussed, but rather HOW that issue is presented to the rest of America. Admittedly, this concern speaks more of white perceptions (or, better put, blacks’ anticipation of white perception) than the merits of the argument itself.

This often happens when discussing black relationships. Discussions get bogged down in statistics. . . X% of black men are unemployed . . . Y% of black women have never been married. If we’re not careful, both conversations can feed stereotypes of black men and women (i.e. the lonely bitter black woman can’t find a man because there’s no such thing as a good black man - I’m sure you’ve heard it before). The media must be careful to check its facts and present them in the proper context. It’s not enough to regurgitate statistics and draw blind conclusions. There are lies, damn lies and statistics. And people have gone out of their way to disprove commonly held assumptions about black men and women when it comes to relationships. Their voices aren’t always heard.

The media should also avoid distorting conversations of race to feed the 24-hour adversarial news cycle. Look no further than the media’s portrayal of President Obama’s speech on race and education before the NAACP. President Obama spoke of personal responsibility AND structural inequality. He noted the devastating impact our educational and judicial systems have had on black and brown children . . . BUT he also recognized that there are poor whites that suffer some of the same obstacles. Indeed, one could argue that his speech had just as much to do with poverty as it did race.

President Obama Addresses NAACP Centennial Convention

The President even went so far as to use himself as an example that one’s surroundings and disadvantages as a child should not define who he or she become as an adult. He spoke of all the little “Baracks” and “Michelles” out there who can be anything they choose to be if given the support and opportunity of a first class education.

It was a speech given by a black man from humble beginnings to inspire others who might encounter similar (if not worse) conditions than those he faced in his own youth.


You wouldn’t know that from some of the headlines the next day. Depending on the source, here’s what you heard:

- Obama tells blacks, “No more excuses”
- Obama plays race card, blaming whites for black underachievement (via some of the more conservative commentary)

Thus, opening the door for an entire conversation, NOT about “racism,” but instead about black pathologies. A conversation about black pathologies that will ultimately deteriorate (whether intentional or otherwise) into a discussion of black stereotype. . . the blessing and curse of representing one’s entire race.

You see, those headlines could just have easily read:

- “Obama tells youth they can grow to be President someday”; or
- “Obama warns U.S. must not fail its black and Latino youth.”

The headlines could have read:

- “President outlines Administration’s goals for education”; or
- “President urges cross-racial fight to close education gap.”

But that‘s not what the headlines said. Instead, the media clung to one talking point: Obama tells blacks to stop making excuses.

THIS is the first hurdle we must clear before we can have an honest and substantive discussion on race in America. The media is not a passive participant. It plays an active role in setting the boundaries of our discussion and framing the issues that are important for dialogue.

Though some characterized President Obama’s speech as saying there are “no more excuses” others (myself included) looked at that same speech and heard a different message: there are “no limitations.”

If we focus on the latter instead of the former, the media coverage will be much different than what we’re accustomed to seeing. If we work from the premise that there are no limits to what a child can become, then we’ll likely put more emphasis on assisting that child rather than describing his or her circumstances. We will not waste time questioning whether a child is worthy or deserving of an education. We will not waste time rehashing the problem at the expense of working together to find a solution.

If we focus on the latter we will talk TO that child, rather than talk ABOUT that child. We will examine the school system . . . we will measure the opportunity (or lack thereof) before him and ask OURSELVES what WE can do to make sure he achieves his goals. It’s the difference between pointing the finger vs. having a discussion. Are we using that child as a source of inspiration or just another statistic? Is the purpose of our discussion to come up with solutions or simply describe the circumstances?

But again, this is only the first of many hurdles. The media must be honest and open in defining its audience. For example, the title “Black in America” . . . who is it for? Who is the target audience? Are we brainstorming ways to address the issue at hand or are we simply EXPLAINING black folk to a white audience?

Blacks and the Intraracial conversation it must have with itself:

I have a different view when it comes to matters of black America’s dialogue with itself.

There is another side to this issue of “Black in America” . . . one of self-autonomy and cultural self-determination. . . an INTRAracial conversation that forces us to look in the mirror and ask:

1. Where must we defend our image?
2. Where can we do better?

In fact, I’d rather Black America’s intraracial conversation focus on self-determination and what we can do to be proactive, rather than reactive to our circumstances. INTERracial conversations, in my opinion, are more likely to discuss systemic concerns.

To be honest, there are times I doubt whether we’re ready to have an honest dialogue amongst ourselves. And if we were, we certainly wouldn’t be ready to have it on display in front of the entire world. Doing so would assume the privilege of self-reflection WITHOUT having to worry (as I discussed before) “What will white people think?” And I’ve found that many people who are quick to say “who cares what others think” are often pointing the finger at someone else rather than looking in their own mirror.

Living one’s life on constant display . . . It’s an unnatural way to live one’s life. It is an overwhelming burden to know that your mistakes and setbacks will be used to paint an entire race of people. And, in terms of an intraracial conversation, I disagree with the unfair expectation (at times self-imposed) to require that ALL black people fit some vague model of what is or is not an “appropriate” representation of the entire race. It invites a kind of monolithic approach to problem solving that I feel is both unrealistic and unhealthy. It ultimately stifles individual creativity and innovation. It silences other aspects of the black experience for some polished incomplete “talented 10th” representation of black culture to white America.

In the end, it’s not so much about defining what is and is not appropriate. Rather, it’s about finding a BALANCE in the manner by which black imagery is presented around the world. Like any other group, we have our serious and not-so-serious moments. We have our fair share of academics and buffoons. We laugh and cry like anyone else. We encompass varying degrees of emotion, sexuality, religion and politics like any other group. To define what is and is not “appropriate” is to engage in a form of culture war that I don’t subscribe to.

I won’t waste your time re-hashing my positions, rather I’ll direct you towards a few posts I’ve written that outline my thoughts:

Imus is not the issue/Imus and the dependency of reactionary politics

Black comedy and why Madea matters

Oh the possibilities. . . Obama and Black men

Blacks and Education:

Portrait of a schoolboy working in a class setting

This subject came up a couple of years ago at the State of the Black Union . . .

Simply put . . . we need more black teachers. To the extent that we can’t get more black teachers, we need to double our efforts to create spaces where we can educate our own (e.g., mentoring programs, etc.).

Besides one’s parents, the teacher is probably the most influential person in a child’s development. I personally feel that a child gains a sense of worth (or lack thereof) from his teachers that is only matched by his parents. So the question is this:

Would we see improvements in black education if we had more black teachers?

Speaking for myself, I grew up as an “exception” to the rule. I was the quiet little black boy that never got into trouble. I was even referred to as one of the "good ones" (ugh!) by a member of my elementary school. I got straight A’s and was the only black kid in my advanced classes all the way through high school. Yep, I was one of the “good ones.”

But what about the others? I saw other kids that looked like me and maybe had just as much potential get placed into “special ed” classes. And to this day, I get the suspicion that some of them were placed there for “behavioral” issues that had less to do with their ability to learn and more to do with their inability to adapt to their surroundings.

But it’s not like white students didn’t have “behavioral” issues as well. What they did have was a greater familiarity with their environment. They had a closer connection with their teachers. Some lived in the same neighborhoods as their teachers. Some went to the same church. Others knew their teachers from little league. Still, some teachers even knew their students’ parents (perhaps they were classmates years ago or belonged to the same social clubs). Regardless of the circumstances, it seemed much more likely that a white student had a more natural connection to a teacher that extended BEYOND the four walls of the school. They were familiar with the teacher as a guide, educator AND authoritarian/disciplinarian.

That familiarity is key. Why? Well, it seems that if a white child (let’s call him “little Billy”) acts up in class the teacher (often white) is more likely to know his parents and thus more likely to seek other forms of discipline before sending him off to the principal’s office for suspension. The teacher might feel more comfortable talking to Billy after school. The teacher might even be more willing to let some of little Billy’s antic’s slide on the understanding that “that’s just how Billy is.”

But what if there is no familiarity between the student and teacher? Little Billy might get a pass. But what happens when a child of color in that same situation (let’s call him “little Kwame” or “little Miguel”) gets out of line? Will the teacher feel as comfortable speaking to him after class? What about reaching out to little Miguel’s parents? Are we to assume that the same cultural and racial barriers . . . that same unfamiliarity that exists between teacher and student would not exist between teacher and parent? Does the average white parent feel comfortable speaking to a black teacher? What if that white parent had to speak to six or seven black teachers about little Billy’s “behavioral” issues? What if that white parent had the sneaking suspicion that the black teacher made cultural assumptions about Billy or gave little Kwame a break because the teacher lived three houses down the street from him?

So when addressing “behavioral” issues who’s more likely to be removed from the class and placed in “special ed”? Billy or Kwame? The kid who has a natural relationship with his teacher that extends beyond the classroom or the student who’s only interaction with his teacher is by way of conflict and discipline?

I went to public school K-12. When it came time to apply to college I was specifically singled out and called down to the guidance counselor’s office to speak with a recruit from an elite liberal arts college. Why do I mention this? Well, in other schools (private schools), that recruiter would probably set up shop right outside of the cafeteria. He would have stacks of brochures. He would collect names and contact information and invite students to visit the campus.

That didn’t happen at my school. Instead there was a distinct “Don’t call us. We’ll call you” vibe to the whole recruitment process by elite colleges and universities. The result was that a lot of students (students of color) didn’t even know about these schools let alone have an opportunity to apply. Who was outside our school cafeteria? The Military. The ROTC program was involved as well. I don’t say this to knock the military, but just to highlight the point that there are far less options in some schools than in others.

The hurdles I had to jump over and hoops I had to jump through as a black boy in public school were significant. Personally, I can’t say the average black or Latino child has the same opportunities as the average white child because a lot of us get lost in the system.

Personal responsibility? I’m all for it. In fact I think we could use more of it when having discussions amongst each other as a black community. It never hurts to encourage more parent participation in a child’s education. But, at the same time, I’ve known a few little Billy’s whose parents weren’t involved in his education either. And he got second and third chances to straighten up that little Kwame and Miguel never had.

Blacks and Prison:

Legs of inmate

Little Kwame acts up in class. He’s not given a second or third chance like Billy had. Instead, Kwame gets suspended from school. Kwame gets labeled a “problem child” by his teachers as their patience with him grows shorter and shorter each passing day. As Kwame grows older he goes from being a “problem child” to being a “threat” to society. One day, he gets into a fight in the high school cafeteria. Understand, it’s not like white students don’t get into fights either. Becky and Sarah fought last week. . . the teachers broke it up and both Becky and Sarah got three day suspensions. But for some reason, Kwame’s fight with Miguel is a little different. The police get involved.

The police are called to the school. Now, both Kwame and Miguel have something else to worry about. Not only are they removed from school, but now they both have a rap sheet. Miguel gets a lengthy suspension and Kwame gets EXPELLED for being a repeat offender (perhaps the result of a zero-tolerance policy at the school).

Kwame and Miguel are like any other kids. Give them too much free time and they’re bound to find some trouble. After all, it’s not like there’s a recreational center for the neighborhood kids to go to. So Kwame and Miguel start hanging around . . . at the corner store . . . on the blacktop. One thing leads to another and one day Kwame is caught stealing from the store. Miguel is caught with an ounce of weed in his pocket. Both are prosecuted to the fullest extent and end up in juvenile detention. Game over.

Billy, Sarah and Becky hang out as well. They hang out at the local pharmacy parking lot. They sneak a joint by the dumpsters. Billy once got into trouble for letting his friends take free food from the market he works in. Sarah and Becky got caught for underage drinking. But it’s easier to adapt when you’re familiar with your surroundings. The market owner has known Billy since he was four years old. He’s not gonna press charges when he catches Billy red-handed. Sure they’ve had a few run-ins with the police, but nothing serious. Becky’s father works on the police force and Sarah’s mother sits on the city council. Let’s just say it helps to have connections . . . connections that little Kwame, Miguel, Keisha and Maria don’t have.

The school to prison pipeline is a subject that needs more discussion in the mainstream media (it‘s something that I‘m interested in learning more about as well). Familiarity with authority (whether it be the police or a teacher) can mean the difference between a second chance in the classroom and expulsion . . . it can mean the difference between a slap on the wrist and a felony charge. . . .

“Problem children” grow up to become “threats to society” . . . and “threats to society” go to prison . . . people with prison records get released only to find that their criminal record prevents them from getting a job. The cycle continues.

I feel that one way to reverse the cycle is to INVEST in our youth. Give them something to do. Occupy their time. Invest in after school programs and community centers. Encourage parents to start community sports programs and coach little league teams. INVEST in the city’s library and sponsor weekly events for local schools and community members to get involved. In fact, why stop there? Go one step further and turn the library into a community center. Sponsor community concerts and local talent shows on the library front lawn.

Foster a sense of obligation between police and the communities they “serve.” Just as with teachers, the community needs to see police officers in a role other than disciplinarian. Even more important, police officers need to see the community in a role other than SUSPECT.

And finally, re-evaluate the laws and their disproportionate impact on communities of color. Revisit three-strikes laws, zero-tolerance policies and mandatory minimum sentencing. Place just as much (if not more) resources into rehabilitation as we do incarceration. Lessen the burden on our public defenders. Educate the community on it’s basic civil rights and prosecute officers who abuse their authority.


Regardless of the subject there’s one thing I’d like to see more of. Talk to the people. Not a pundit or an expert. Just talk to the people. We can’t fix our educational system without talking TO (not at) our children. What are they facing? What’s their biggest obstacle? Are we even encouraging our children to speak their minds. I’m guessing we’d be surprised if we just took a moment to LISTEN to each other rather than speak past each other.

We’ve got a black president and first lady in the White House. NOW . . . NOW is the time to lead by example instead of rhetoric. NOW is the time to hammer the point home: expand your options . . . Think BIGGER. Show them the good life and people will act of free will. Pointing fingers and attempting to control image (as shallow as it may be) through censorship will fall on deaf ears.


  • Robert M says:
    July 22, 2009 at 12:21 PM

    Stop making Sense!



Video: Perspective Piece