Monday, July 18, 2016

Of snowballs and dead black men. The wider meaning of Alton Sterling.

Already millions of words of punditry have been expended on the past week's unappetizing smorgasbord of dead cops and black men, so I'm not going to pile on with the usual fare. I'll just add a few words that you probably haven't heard amid today's uber-PC media coverage of "America's racial divide." What I want to talk about is Alton Sterling and the fatal snowball effect of living a life of varying degrees of lawlessness.

To begin with, I'm going to guess that Sterling was not a private contractor employed by Sony Music, thus the CDs he was selling outside a convenience store were bootleg and illegal (an enterprise that reminds me of Eric Garner and his "loosies"). Sterling also, as a former felon, was barred from carrying a gun, yet on the night of his death he had recently obtained one "for protection." That in itself is a crime that easily could've put him behind bars for a time. What's more, he apparently brandished his new accouterment to an annoying passerby that night; the brandishing incident, another infraction that might've drawn an especially severe sentence given Sterling's record, led to a 911 call to cops. The two cops who responded had faced prior allegations of "excessive use of force." Whether they were trigger-happy on this night we'll never know.

We do know that when the cops confronted Sterling, a struggle ensued. Here again I'm going to hazard a guess, that the struggle ensued because Sterling's greeting for them was not, "Hey fellas, feel free to just reach behind and cuff me." So Sterling is tackled and there's a flailing melee, in the course of which one of the cops noticesor Sterling reaches for?—the gun. There's no ambiguity about what happens next: One of the cops pulls his gun and shoots the 37-year-old father of five dead in the street. 

I'm not sayingAT ALLthat the man deserved to die, or that his singular black life didn't matter. I'm saying that he set in motion a chain of events, a snowball effect, that had a tragic outcome. That snowball effect, more than America's racial strife, explains why Alton Sterling is dead. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Firewalks, sweat lodges, cancer ads and Donald Trump.

Out today, one of my better short pieces on the trouble with our national fixation on a positive mental attitude.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Unleash the smart editing within.

As many of you who follow the SHAMsphere will know, Tony Robbins suffered a bit of a setback during Thursday's "Unleash the Power Within" event in Dallas. Although it was nothing on the order of a James Ray catastrophe, dozens of the 7000 participants got major hot-foots during Tony's signature Firewalk Experience; some had to be hospitalized. Which is how I happened to end up on last evening's World News Tonight with David Muir. 

Not actually me, present-day, you understand. Rather, ABC in its infinite wisdom dredged up a clip of an old interview I did with Dan Harris for GMA. During the course of that chat I gave an extended explanation of the physics behind the firewalk: why it's a carnival sham, if you will, and why it usually works if set up and run as it should be. At the end of my explanation I tell Harris that given what I'd just outlined, if appropriate precautions have been taken, "Your feet aren't on the coals long enough to get burned." 

Those 11 words were the only ones ABC ran last night. And without any set-up, coming immediately after images of people who did indeed get burned, it kinda made me look like an idiot or, worse, a Robbins defender instead of the studious debunker I was trying to be on that long-ago day with Dan Harris. 

Sometimes it's not enough to "just spell my name right," as the old adage about publicity goes. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

An Open Dialog on Race: One Man's Contribution

I came of age in the early '70s in a pair of realms, football and jazz, that were heavily integrated, if not dominated by blacks. As one of my jazz cohorts once gibed to me on-stage, “My man, up here you're the nigger." (Decades later the spicy line would be voiced by Guy Torry to Edward Norton in that classic laundry-folding prison scene from American History X.) Yes, I'd imagine I've enjoyed my share of white privilege, although I can recall one excellent job that I'm fairly certain I lost due to academia's diversity-mania. But overall I think I grew up as free of actual prejudice—which is to say, consuming racial malice—as any white guy from New York's five boroughs. I'd venture I am freer of said malice than some of the black talking heads one sees each night on TV. 


As I cannot presume to speak for white America, I will not present what follows as a “white manifesto.” I will, however, tell you what this one white male in his seventh decade rejects (and in at least one case resents) about the tenor and substance of the canon from today's black leadership.

I reject the use of the term mass incarceration to sanitize the misdeeds of the roughly 290,000 blacks who are in state prisons not for being caught with a dime bag but for committing violent felonies. (Toggle to page 15 of linked material.) That includes some 68,000 murderers. (Page 16.) Federal prisons may be a separate story due to overzealous enforcement of drug laws, but still contain thousands of people who were incarcerated one at a time, not en "masse," because they are individually dangerous. To hear the activists tell it, our jails are full only because roving goon squads of cops like to barge into college libraries to waylay black students as they cram for their MCATs. That kind of politicized sugar-coating must cease.

Which is why I also reject being coerced by #BlackLivesMatter (working in tandem with sympathetic/spineless major media) to accept as martyrs young men like Mike Brown. Even the U.S. Department of Justice, despite pointed marching orders from the Obama administration, did not dispute that Brown committed an act of thuggery in a convenience store and then tried to wrestle a cop's gun away from him after some mid-street confrontation. Brown's death was as tragic as the loss of any young life, but it's not allegory or metaphor for a corrupt police establishment or an uncaring American public. Those to whom black lives truly matter would rail against the elevation of a Mike Brown to folk-hero status. (What kind of role model is that to uphold?) Even when Eric Garner was killed—a gross police overreaction if not a homicide, in my view—he was selling illegal cigarettes and then he mouthed off to the cops who called him on it. Regardless of your color, when a cop confronts you, stop what you're doing. Not every such encounter is a Rosa Parks moment. Don't escalate. Worry about sorting out any possible injustices later. That's precisely what a senior (black) police officer told W. Kamau Bell in a recent episode of the comic's highly original and eye-opening CNN show United Shades of America. The cop told Bell, more or less (these are my words, not his):

'A street corner in the middle of the night is not the place to take a stand for civil rights, especially if cops arrive with sirens blaring and appear to be under the impression that you just raped someone.' 
Similarly, I reject the widely promulgated notion that any and all transgressions by blacks are attributable to the irremovable stain of America's original sin, slavery. Even if there is some truth to the meme, it's unhelpful to undercut personal responsibility in black youths who are already straining to find their way in a (presumably) hostile society. Why make our kids feel trapped in some grim destiny or provide a ready-made alibi for all failure? (I find it frankly heartbreaking that current literary darling Ta-Nehisi Coates frames his nihilistic book, Between the World and Me, as a letter to his teenage son, Samori.)

I reject the idea that opposing today's black sociopolitical agenda is a form of racism. Having never owned slaves, I'm disinclined to be taxed in the name of reparations. Nor do I wish to see my children and grandchildren penalized by coy hiring imperatives that reduce to codified discrimination against non-minorities. Although affirmative action per se has fallen out of favor as both a phrase and a tactic, it is giving way to a stealthy corollary concept, disparate impact, that may be worse. This legal theory is invoked to micromanage outcomes when data suggest that a “protected class” is underrepresented in a given setting, even though the practices of that setting are “facially neutral”
that is, not discriminatory in any patent, intentional sense. Institutional redress and financial settlements may result. That strikes me as wholly unsupportable public policy; had it been applied in the jazz of my youth, there would've been an awful lot of white cats bringing suit. My thinking in this area does not justify antagonism from black America. Although some who oppose the black agenda are surely racists, such opposition is not ipso facto racism—no more than my distaste for Hillary Clinton is ipso facto misogyny or my general preference for foreign cars indicates some covert animus against Detroit.

Finally, I reject and resent the idea that I am obliged to abide obvious black racism. (Anyone of Caucasian persuasion who has attempted to wade into online discussions of race knows of what I speak.) Don't be disrespectful to me because you think my whiteness automatically disenfranchises me or makes me “part of the problem.” I agree to make no a priori racial assumptions about you if you agree to make none about me.

Dr. King would've asked—demanded—that much.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Killing blacks softly with their dirge.*

Let us agree from the outset: We do not, any of us, want to see one more black child shot in the face in reprisal for his parents' missteps in gang culture. We do not want to see any more black adults shot, either. Nor do we want to see blacks in disproportionate numbers suspended from schools, or incarcerated, or otherwise denied the multifarious blessings of our American society. At the same time, I am sick to death of hearing all of those ills, and others, blamed solely on white society and the enduring legacy of "America's original sin," slavery. Not only do I think we've reached a point where we must stop such talkReconstruction was a very long time agobut I'm quite sure it's counterproductive, as it gives young blacks a ready-made excuse for poor performance...a morose mantra to keep repeating to themselves. The worst kind of self-talk. This is analogous to my objections to the fundamental theme of Alcoholics Anonymous, as enunciated in SHAM: When you tell people that they're victims of an incurable disease, have you not made them feel like helpless victims and thus undercut the empowerment with which you're supposedly imbuing them? 
Even if there's a kernel of truth to it, why reinforce their inclination to descend into martyrdom? Mention it in passing, perhaps, and then move on to what they really need to know to do better.

This is why I get so impatient with the likes of literati darling Ta-Nehisi Coates or CNN's insufferable, one-tune Sunny Hostin. If nothing is the black man's fault, then whence the black man's motivation to pull himself up by his bootstraps? If it is always white America who bears the blame, then wouldn't that also make the problem white America's to solve? All we succeed in doing via this kind of thinking is altogether disenfranchising the black person, each individual black person, from any personal stake in his/her own outcome. 

(Interestingly enough, when blacks excels, we give them all the credit. We're only stingy when it comes to apportioning blame.)

That's why I'm so annoyed about this article that I recently came across on Pro Publica. Again here, it is the gun (and the lack of national action on gun control) that accounts for inner-city crime...not the black hand holding the gun. Just as it is racist teachers or uncaring administrations who are responsible for all those black kids who are suspended (or who, later, drop out of college), and it is maleficent cops, juries and judges who are responsible for mass incarceration. To listen to Coates and Hostin, or even slightly less histrionic black columnists Leonard Pitts Jr. and Clarence Page, you'd think no black dude ever actually held up a liquor store or shot up a rival gang hangout.

The federal prison system has its well-document DEA-based problems stemming from the infamous Crime Bill, but state prisons are not full of young men who were caught with a joint! And if blacks sometimes do receive harsher sentences for "the same crimes" committed by whites, research suggests it's because they arrive for sentencing with two or three priors. That makes a difference, folks.

You know, every single day in the American court system, people of all hues are found guilty of violent crimes despite horrific personal circumstances that are far more immediate and personally relevant than a three-centuries-old legacy of slavery. I've said this before, but look at Charlie Manson's upbringing, or the bio of so many violent sexual predators, and tell me that the contextual factors in their coming-of-age had nothing to do with their turning out as they did. But we've made a compact with ourselves as a society that people, especially felons, must be held individually liable for their actions. We can't incarcerate society or their parents or their siblings or the nasty SOBs who bullied them in the schoolyard.

If you transgress, you are responsible. And you must face the punishment. We accept this as it relates to white perpetrators.

It is long past time to take that same approach in dealing with black America. Yes, as that video of the killing of Laquan McDonald appears to show, we have a policing problem. And yes, as the video of that cop hurling that teenage black girl off her chair suggests, there are issues of fairness in schools as well. Few would dispute this. White privilege is real. But there are also issues with blacks themselves, and some of those issues are factors in the prejudices that blacks may encounter from teachers, cops and others in positions of authority. There are factors in the way too many black kids are raised, and in the peer pressure too many feel to reject supposedly white conventions like education, proper grammar, etc., and in the need (among some black youths) to be loud and lewd and rebellious and even belligerent...all of which we too often are wont to dismiss as "cultural differences." The girl who got tossed from her chair, after all, refused to get off her cell phone despite repeated requests, and also gave lip to both the teacher and the (overreacting) officer. Whether or not that's a cultural difference, it is also an unacceptable level of defiance that speaks poorly of her prospects going forward. That self-defeating nonsense must stop. And leading black voices must come out and say so, instead of reaffirming ancient resentments and effectively teaching black kids to be contemptuous of white society and its conventionas Coates, notably, does in his book, Between the World and Me, which he frames as a letter to his son. God help us all.

If #BlackLivesReallyMatter, such considerations must be a part of any legitimate "dialog on race" that leading black voices and the liberal elite keep calling for. Or else we'll still be trying to have that dialog on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and beyond. 
* If you don't get the reference, Google Roberta Flack and "greatest hits."