Steve Perry tricked us.
We all thought he was “one of us” to put the phrase colloquially. But actually, after all is said and done, he’s not. He’s one of “them.” By one of “them” I’m referring to that “we are respectable Negroes” ilk that has been getting some traction lately in the press. Seeing as how WordPress still hasn’t gotten the bright idea on how to imbed links coming from major news sites like MSNBC, here’s the link below. Check it out and come back.
Following the fallout from CNN host Don Lemon cosigning with Bill O’Reilly on things that black people need to do in order to be successful, the black blogosphere erupted mostly in unison and the concept of the politics of respectability entered the discussion. Now this was something I’ve talked about quite often here on my blog and I saw it for what it was, but it was finally a discussion that had some wind beneath it’s wings to raise it to the national conscience for the time being. As Don Lemon seriously suggested that black men should pull up their pants, stop saying the “N” word, value education, and stop having babies as the salve to the problem in the black community, many focused on the ludicrous nature of the first and last of his suggestions.
Enter Steve Perry.
Steve Perry was clapped back by the rest of the panel and Melissa Harris Perry as well this past Sunday on Melissa Harris Perry’s morning show when he suggested that there was a dual misdirection at the hands of the left and right wing. While the right wing was shifting toward these racial charged memes around sagging pants and black single parents and teenage mothers, the left is focused more about white people killing blacks [perhaps surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin? Police brutality cases? Random acts of racial violence? I'm not sure what Steve Perry was alluding to] rather than the black on black violence. Melissa, the other Perry in the room, said that was what pissed her off the most about the misdirection, and I couldn’t agree more.
At that moment, it was when I decided to classify Steve Perry as one of those “them” I described earlier.
I did a fair number of rants following the verdict of Travyon Martin that were found on my Facebook page and my Twitter page, and I found that most of them were in response to the insipid misdirection that the right wingers had decided to take. Rather than discussing structural problems with how race is perceived and the notions of white privilege, the conservatives held fast that the verdict was fair under the law and Juror B37 was there to corroborate those sentiments and ultimately it the Al Sharptons of the world who decided to make this case about race.
It got worse when the right wingers and Fox News with the help of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity decided to ask why aren’t we talking about the black on black crime and wait for it: the teenage mothers and black babies born out of wedlock. Aside from the fact that they suddenly became experts on black culture and black life, those blowhards didn’t even try to do the intellectual work to make those random statistics make logical sense. And for the record, they don’t make sense, and Tim Wise even took the time to deconstruct the half attempt they tried in his usual stinging (and unending) rhetoric.
Here’s where Steve Perry’s bait and switch comes into play.
Steve Perry looks like he knows what he’s talking about. He plays the role he talks about; not only does he espouse the politics of respectability he acts on them as well. Perry is always seen clean cut, clean face, clean suit and he typifies exactly what a “safe” black man would look like. The bait and switch is that he presents himself to many in the black community as a champion against the structural problems that threaten the black community from education disparities to economic barriers and the like, but still situates himself as one very much who has bought into and profited the privileges he had from the same system. To be honest, I wouldn’t be shocked if Steve Perry voted for Mitt Romney in the last elections.
Perry stepped onto the scene in the wave of new black professionals who had written books and started blogs that emerged circa 2008 as the country fetishized blackness the way one hoards toe sucking pornography clips appearing on the Oprah Show and CNN’s “Black in America” series and education and black kids was certainly something that the country subconsciously, yet feverishly, fixated itself. Perry presented (bait) himself as new, innovative and capable of doing something different; someone who saw the “bright spots” and capitalized on them in his school in order to make a difference.
I was one of the people that initially thought perhaps charter schools were the way to go, especially after watching how abysmal the Orleans Parish Public School district had managed failing schools before Katrina. Then when the Recovery School District came in and pulled a land grab move with the majority of those schools, there has been no significant changes. Perhaps the schools are failing as bad as before, but New Orleans school children aren’t getting some grand stellar education on par with public schools in wealthier districts throughout the country. That is to say, I’m no more a fan of charter schools than I am of public schools at a fundamental basis.
Nevertheless, I am a product of a public school and I turned out fine. The vast majority of my friends went to public schools and even when I got to a private college, the majority of the students went to public schools. My point is that the models for decent enough education that’s not scraping the bottom does exist in the public school model. And as a taxpaying citizen, I firmly believe in the institution of public education. That being said, I’m sure the switch was probably always there, but I noticed it a bit earlier this year when Perry said he was in favor of school choice.
He can miss me with all that.
School choice is a privilege that is not accessible to all, at least not in a real sense. Growing up in Chicago, one large school district actually, I still wasn’t allowed to attend the likes of Lane Tech or Northside Prep because of my zip code: I lived south of 12th street. School choice isn’t this panacea that we make it out to be, no more than charter schools either. I think the challenge that many who decided to do the intellectual heavy lifting is the discovery that, as Mychal Denzel Smith said on the MHP Show, what we face does not have easy answers let alone an easy diagnosis. Salamisha Tillet flat out said it’s intellectually lazy to focus on the issue of pants sagging and I couldn’t agree more.
Steve Perry represents the old guard of the black community in the sense that he seems to err on the side of oversimplyfying and reducing systematic problems to that which falls in the broad spectrum of respectability politics. Do not be mistaken, he is not alone! Somewhat famously as World War I was drawing to a close, the Chicago Defender the leading black newspaper at the time published “Where We Are Lacking” in response to the noticeable increase of blacks moving from the South to Chicago in the past seven years. On May 17 of 1917 (some sources say 1919) the Defender published this article about how to help the Southerners transfer from rural living to urban dwelling. Here’s some of what was printed:
THIS PAPER does not like to appear in the role of a common scold, yet it would be recreant to its
duty if it did not call attention to some acts of flagrant conduct on the part of our people. Among these
there is none that stands out so offensively as the practice as corner loafing. It is not an uncommon thing
to see a crowd of two or three hundred young and old, idly gaping about the corners, and especially at the
ENTER THE CARS QUIETLY, have your fares ready, and ask for your transfer at the time of
paying your fare. This is a rule of the street car company, and the conductor must see to its enforcement,
so far as transfers are concerned, or lose his position. Once inside the car, sit quietly and avoid loud talk
with your neighbor. Above all things do not attempt a conversation with any one at the opposite end of
the car or several seats removed from you. The other passengers are not interested in what you have to
say, and the way you say it may give offense.
[EDITORS NOTE: Maybe this is why this existed >>> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PUiE2E6moc ]
It is evident that some of the people coming to this city have seriously erred in their conduct in public
places, much to the humiliation of all respectable classes of our citizens, and by so doing, on account of
their ignorance of laws and customs necessary for the maintenance of health, sobriety and morality among
the people in general, have given our enemies ground for complaint. We consider it absolutely necessary
that a united effort should be made on the part of all law-abiding citizens to endeavor to warn and teach
those who by their acts bring reproach upon the Colored people of this city to strictly observe the laws,
city ordinances and customs and so conduct themselves as to reflect credit upon themselves: by so doing
it will disarm those who are endeavoring to discredit our Race.
Then there’s a list of “Don’ts” that seem to be nearly exhaustive:
Don’t use vile language in public places.
Don’t act discourteously to other people in public places.
Don’t be made a tool or strike breaker for any corporation or firm.
Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into street brawls.
Don’t use liberty as a license to do as you neighborhood.
Don’t allow children under 15 years of age to run the streets after 9 o’clock p. m.
Don’t get intoxicated and go out on the street insulting women and children and make a beast of yourself — some one may act likewise with your wife and children.
Don’t make yourself a public nuisance.
Don’t encourage gamblers, disreputable women or men to ply their business any time or place.
Don’t congregate in crowds on the streets from them their work.
Don’t appear on the street with old dust caps, dirty aprons and ragged clothes.
Don’t spend your time hanging around saloon doors or poolrooms.
Don’t live in insanitary houses, or sleep in rooms without proper ventilation.
Don’t throw garbage in the back yard or sleep in alley or keep dirty front yards.
Don’t violate city ordinances relative to of street cars.
Don’t forget street car conductors are bound by rules of the car company which the law compels them to obey.
Don’t allow children to beg on the streets.
Don’t allow boys to steal from or assault peddlers going their rounds during the day.
Don’t oppose police officers in the discharge of their duty; you should be the one to assist in keeping the peace.
Don’t be a beer can rusher or permit children to do such service.
Don’t abuse or violate the confidence of those who give you employment.
I took the liberty of highlighting and emboldening the ones that most illuminate my point, but to give some context as well. Granted it troubles me that “us folk” have been acting ignant on public transportation for nearly a century, this was an ad mixture of teaching rural people how to live in the city and respectability rules. PEople that were used to throwing slop jars out in the yard from living in the country had to learn new protocols undoubtedly. What I thought was interesting is that while they admonish people from hanging around “saloon doors and poolrooms” those same saloon doors and poolrooms were indeed black owned businesses (maybe white owned property though). And it equally troubled me that even 100 years ago we were telling our young people what’s proper protocol of interacting with police.
Fast forward to Steve Perry, he seems to operate off of this black conformity ideal straight from 1917 that says comporting ourselves in a certain way, and dressing a certain way will serve to “disarm those who are endeavoring to discredit our Race.” I think the last 96 years have taught us that that was a false olive branch on which we hung many of our hopes for racial reconciliation in this country. I think what’s even sadder of the old guard of respectability politics is that they continue to update this list and have made a few revisions. The saloons and poolrooms have now become clubs and sports bars and the black community has added forms of music to that list: at first it was the music of the jazz age, which moved into the blues and then R&B and rock and roll hit the scene and most recently it’s been music birthed out of this hip hop age. Some trace a decline from the onset and claim we’ve never been right since, and others seem to forget the hidden Richard Pryor stand up LPs collecting dust or the 45s with Marvin Gaye singing “Sexual Healing” was considered “too far” for their generation.
Regardless of us looking back through the lens of history, the concept of “too far” was always considered the end of the world for that generation, but last I checked, the world has not ended and we are certainly still here.
What the black community needs are persons who are willing to do the intellectual heavy lifting when it comes to bringing successive generations into the full global community. While white college kids at Oberlin College are discussing the notion of “preferred gender pronouns” and grappling with new concepts of gender norms beyond the binary, far too many segments of the black community are focusing on pathologizing its people into in pigeonholed stereotypes and outmoded concepts of respectability.
I think what I feel is the most damaging about the politics of respectability is that it fundamentally is done out of not offending white people’s sensibilities. I have never seen a mass of people engage in such cultural posturing in order to send tacit clues to white people that “we are safe Negroes” than I have seen with blacks in this country. I do get where it has come from, but over the last few decades it boggles my mind how many times blacks will bend and contort to appease the sensibilities of white people. Don’t get me wrong, I do it myself. I fully participate in “codeswitching” at times when I talk to certain people. However, the older I get the more tired I get in doing so: this is how I speak, black accents and all, but I know I speak clearly enough to be understood so either get down or lay down!
Is not Steve Perry and the like tired of always having to take care of white folks?
Two articles that have surfaced shortly after the George Zimmerman verdict have illuminated this concept. The first “Black Folks, It’s Time to Stop Taking Care of White Folk” shows to what lengths blacks automatically some times (read have been trained) to go out of our way to appeal to the larger sensibilities of white society. Clutch Magazine posted “15 Things Blacks Must Do to End Racism” which acts almost as a satirical take on the Chicago Defender article from 1917.
I dare make the claim that we will never be a full part of this society as long as we accept a second class status in society. While under the law in many cases we have the full citizenship rights, but we lack many of those de facto privileges ranging from not having to be followed in a department store, to the stop and frisk policies that automatically state because of the intersection of (1) one’s race and (2) one’s appearance you are suspicious. Just recently in New York City, plainsclothes cops are under fire for the treatment of an off duty police officer who they pulled out of his car and refused to believe the identification that he produced. Mind you this was no ordinary off duty cop, but the highest ranking black cop in NYPD who is a three star commissioner.
According to reports, over 145,000 persons were stopped under the “stop and frisk” policy with the majority being Hispanic and black. When the conservative factions point out that blacks are more likely to be criminals it’s because of policies like this that lead to higher arrest rates. Please believe that if these same tactics were enforced in white suburbia cops would find the same amount of drugs that they may find on one’s person. Not to mention, our enforcement of these “street” crimes totally paint blacks and Hispanics as monsters yet and still hundreds of white collar crimes happen every day and the criminals get off scott free!
The fact that our skin color automatically means we get different treatment does not nor should not translate in us having to change how we think, look and act. Our self determination (Kugichagulia) is not incumbent upon how the larger society views us: that is not a problem we have to own, that is theirs and theirs alone! Oprah recently told Entertainment Tonight about her latest encounter with racial prejudice when going into yet another store in Europe where she asked to see a purse and the sales associate told her “too expensive” as if to say that she could not afford it. Even in those moments, when your skin color has the power to speak more loudly than your checkbook, it lets us know that we should have no choice to be who we be and be it to the best of our ability.
I leave you with this:
I hope Steve Perry gets this concept.
Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL
P.S. Someone make sure Steve Perry gets this and reads this!