Guest Editorial…Racial etiquette and rants

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Representative David Scott, a Black congressman from Georgia, is getting pretty popular on video. The lawmaker, speaking at a recent town hall meeting on a road project in his district, has been widely described as ranting against someone who asked questions about proposed health care reforms working their way through Congress.
Today Blacks may not be expected to tip their hats or cross the street, but the expectation that Blacks will not challenge White authority, White opinions or White sensibilities remains.

It’s interesting that Scott’s words, while expressed loudly and passionately, are called a rant. The dictionary says “rant” means “to speak or declaim extravagantly or violently; talk in a wild or vehement way; rave.” If you have an opportunity to hear what the congressman said, his words are rational, but very firm and express a determination to keep a meeting from being hijacked by those who oppose health care reform.

Scott tells his questioners that the forum was set up by those concerned with a local project and that he would not allow anyone to change the agenda. The exchange occurred as the meeting was coming to a close and Dr. Brian Hill, a Georgia urologist, said he asked Mr. Scott the health care question.

“There are people in this room, who are here, who don’t want anything changed with health care…I’m listening to my constituents, okay? These are people who live in the 13th Congressional District, who vote in this district. That’s who I’ve got to respond to. Okay?” said Scott.

“That’s everybody with different opinions. So what you’ve got to understand—those of you who are here, who are talking and came and hijacked this event that we’re dealing with here. This is not a health care event.”

“If you want a meeting with me on health care I’ll give it to you,” Scott declared.

Television airwaves have been flooded in recent days with pictures of protesters who have challenged lawmakers and even disrupted town hall meetings devoted to the discussion of health care changes. The Democrats have accused the Republicans of using “Astroturf,” or fake grass roots activism, to derail reform and skew discussions. The GOP has denied the charges and accused the Dems of fearing public input in an important public policy issue—one of the most important issues that has been considered and debated this year.

Congressmen have been shouted down, hung in effigy, accused of plotting to kill elderly patients in the proposed reforms and have received death threats with these so-called discussions. Yet the “dissent,” whether real or manufactured, has been covered by the media in a serious and respectful way—even when protesters have been unruly, disrespectful and have limited the opportunity for others to speak.

The crowds, often largely White, express anger and outrage and unapologetically demand that their questions be answered and expressed their feelings without constraint.

What is wrong with a congressman standing up strongly and asserting his right to conduct business affecting his constituents? Could the fact that the lawmaker was Black and the questioners White be part of the problem?

In a very insightful lecture to close the second Muhammad University of Islam Education Conference, held Aug. 6-8 in Chicago, student Minister Ava Muhammad presented a compelling account of historical racial etiquette in this country. Blacks were to always show deference to Whites and were never to challenge White authority whether dealing with a man, woman or child, she noted. In the old days, deference meant addressing Whites as “boss” or “captain,” regardless of age, with Black men called “boy,” and Black women called “girl,” or “auntie.” Racial etiquette dictated stepping off the sidewalk for Whites, or crossing the street to allow room for them to pass. It meant riding on the back of a bus, drinking from a colored fountain, getting food from back doors and always putting on a happy face.

In the face of horrific and demeaning mistreatment, Blacks were made to wear the mask as eloquently captured by poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, who wrote, “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties. Why should the world be overwise, In counting all our tears and sighs? Nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask.”

Today Blacks may not be expected to tip their hats or cross the street, but the expectation that Blacks will not challenge White authority, White opinions or White sensibilities remains. Whether a president, a cable television host, police officer, pastor or bank clerk, Blacks are expected to make sure that the comfort zones of Whites are not violated. So when the president makes a sound assessment of a police department’s action that is “stupid,” namely arresting an elderly Black man for disorderly conduct inside his own home, a clamor arises because he has violated racial etiquette by publically assessing the errant action of small town, mostly White law enforcement agency and a White officer.

Scott was forced to come on CNN Aug. 10, defend his actions and reach a compromise with the White doctor. When was the last time any White political figure had to respect the questions and concerns of a single Black person, professional or non-professional—and publically show due respect to the concerns of a Black person in America?

The charge often hurled at Black men, women and youth is that there is “an attitude problem” or an “anger” problem. But righteous anger or indignation reflects legitimate outrage based on the level of insult, violation or injustice suffered. Anger also arises when the dignity of a person or a people has been violated. To become angered or outraged by maltreatment shows a level of self-respect and reflects a refusal to accept mistreatment at the hands of others and a certain amount of independence. As writer James Baldwin declared in the 1970s, “To be conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”

But for a society that has always deluded itself about the depth and damage done by racial oppression and exploitation any expression that pulls back the curtain and shows naked racism for what it is or challenges White Superiority, is a dangerous thing. Even if it is a few words of truth, honestly spoken.

(Reprinted from the Final Call.)

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