In Memphis, the new four-letter word – RACE

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For years I subscribed to the notion of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt!” It was a mantra that helped a young boy cope with name calling and “check sessions,” so that even as you were getting talked about or “checked” you were cool as a cucumber – as long as the person didn’t put their hands (or feet) on you.

As I grew into adulthood, I had many a lesson that disproved that notion. And certainly over the past several weeks, we’ve all been schooled in the power of words and the repercussions of choosing them poorly.

Against the national backdrop of the Donald Sterling saga, we had two unscripted local monologues captured on camera for continuous replay, consideration and deliberation; the first by Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks and the second by my Fox 13 “Insider” counterpart, Andrew Clarksenior. I’ll deal with the latter first, as I was directly a part of the discussion with Clarksenior, and the first to check him on his comments.

The Memphis chapters of SCLC and Rainbow PUSH have called for Fox 13 to remove Mr. Clarksenior from the airwaves, or at least admonish him in some way for his reference to people living in blighted areas as “animals.” Some perceived his comments to have been directed specifically at African Americans. While I don’t know whether his comments were thusly directed, I will say it was and is wrong to refer to any group of human beings in such a derogatory manner. Certainly it is shameful for a Black man, as Clarksenior certainly is, to refer to other Blacks as such.

Taking the entire television news segment in context, a reference to race by anchor Darrell Greene established that, based upon the words of the Rev. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., blighted neighborhoods were “largely a Black problem” given the racial and economic make up of Memphis. Clearly the tone was set on some level that it was a conversation primarily about Black people.

For Clarksenior to deny that is less than genuine. However, the bigger understanding of his view came in our off-air discussion, where he shared his experiences with his brother in the rental home/landlord business and how those experiences shaped his views and frustrations on the issue. Having built and renovated homes, they found themselves dealing with tenants without the understanding of how to maintain a home and without the experience of ever having to do so.

I shared with him my experiences in the same business, confiding that in many instances you have to teach your tenants how to take care of the property, how to take pride in the property and why it is so important. He called it liberal coddling and unnecessary; I called it protecting my investment, teaching people to be self sufficient (how to fish rather than giving them a fish) and just plain smart; the absolute right thing to do.

Ultimately, his “animal” comment was born out of a set of experiences. Was it out of line? Yes! Does he deserve to be shut down because of them? No, not at this point, yet he must accept responsibility and be held accountable for the words. Words that hurt, harm and in the eyes of some justify the continued vilification and denigration of people of color. Words continue to impact how people are seen by others and yes, even how they see themselves.

Certainly the best example of this is the ever-controversial “N-word,” used as a tool to sub-humanize a group of people and make it easier to treat them as such. No matter how you try to sugarcoat it, change the spelling, change the application, reference etymology (i.e. Negus), it is an ugly vile word used to justify the second-class and inhumane treatment of African Americans.

Even in the use of the “N-word” among Black folks, it has negative impacts. It is easier to shoot and kill a person you consider an “N-word” than it is your brother or sister, a man or woman. It is easier to hate on, dislike or otherwise have disdain for a person that you dehumanize with terms such “N-word,” insurgent and terrorist. Therein lies the primary issue taken with Clarksenior’s comment and why we must be ever cognizant and diligent about our use of words.

That brings us to Commissioner Brooks and the story relative to her exchange with Pablo Pereyra, her comment to Commissioner Chris Thomas and the entire controversy surrounding her words at last week’s commission meeting. She admonished Pereyra for what she perceived to be equating the Hispanic-American experience with that of African Americans. She referenced wearing a bed sheet when speaking to Thomas and clearly came perilously close to dropping an F-bomb when speaking to Commissioner Mike Ritz.

Like Sterling, and to a lesser degree Clarksenior, Brooks has been vilified for her words. She’s been called a racist, unprofessional and an antagonist, among other things. For some in this community, Brooks is seen as a fighter, a rebel (with a cause) and an independent thinker and actor. Depending on your lens and life experience, she can be seen as one who gives you hope or makes you ask whether there is any.

Does she deserve a measure of challenge for the way she handled the matters? Yes, again we must be held accountable for our words and actions. Her impromptu history lesson was accurate, although probably inappropriate for the venue. There is a unique experience for African Americans – compared with other groups of people in this country – that shapes current conditions, systems, challenges and opportunities. Life simply does not happen in a vacuum. You don’t plant a seed one day and wake up the next and have a 50-foot oak tree. You have to account for the conditions under which the seed was planted, how it was nurtured, the condition of the soil and all the experiences that determine the long-term condition of the tree. Similarly so is the human condition.

Much like Sterling and Clarksenior, Brooks’ words and action were born out of her experiences. Reared during the turbulent ’50s and ’60s, she sees the struggle and fight in all she does. Well known for speaking her mind and holding no punches, she has been a fighter as a public official and it seems that’s the only way she knows. Where diplomacy and statesmanship should be the order of the day, she has shown a tendency to bull her way through, angering and antagonizing at times to get results. The story of her ultimate success is still being written. It does already include the successful effort in getting a federal review of the Juvenile Court in Shelby County, leading to many sweeping changes in how that court does business.

Some have intimated that Brooks’ outburst might negatively impact her Juvenile Court Clerk election campaign and maybe the candidates that choose to embrace her. Yet, it might do just the opposite.

But the big picture isn’t about Brooks, Clarksenior or Sterling. It’s about whether we have gotten so far apart on the issue of race that we cannot have an open honest dialogue about it. It seems that when anyone even mentions race they are vilified. It seemingly has become the norm to dismiss legitimate instances of discrimination and systemic racism by labeling those that would challenge such as racist or “playing the race card.”

Many journalists have taken the easy route, admonishing Brooks and discussing the negative impact of her “racist outburst” on her campaign. Where is the challenge to the facts that exist in Shelby County relative to race: Shelby County is over 50 percent African American, yet African-American businesses receive less than 0.01 percent of all business receipts in the county.

For most of the last general election cycles, Democrats have out-voted Republicans 1.21 to 1, yet Democrats have lost miserably in countywide elections. That’s an indication that white Democrats have simply chosen not to vote for black candidates.

I can quote numerous other statistics and figures that clearly demonstrate the systemic racism that holds back the progress of this county. This is the real discussion that needs to be held. Regrettably, it appears that now – on all sides – we’d rather stay in our place of comfort and convenience than deal with the issues.

The fear of challenging and changing systems or just being labeled a racist appears to be holding back a more substantive conversation and certainly stagnating action on the issues around disparities and equity.

Yes, it seems race is truly the new four-letter word. The only path to progress is to deal directly with the “R-bomb.”

(TSD President/Publisher Bernal E. Smith II can be reached at besmith@tri-statedefender.com.)

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