Monday, December 4, 2017

If You Can't Say Unqualified, Say Ungrateful

In 1988, a theatrical television commercial showcased two black men in profile, inches apart, shirtless, each staring the other down. Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks were fighters in their prime, undefeated over their professional careers to that point, both with legitimate claims to the world heavyweight title. The purse would be the richest in the history of professional boxing. After several seconds of silence, Spinks – still looking directly into Tyson’s eyes – mutters, “Thank you, Mr. Trump.” Tyson adds, “Yeah, thank you, Mr. Trump.” Their performance, a duet, concludes with them alternating the lines “Now we’ll see who’s the champion . . . and who’s the chump!” The Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino logo then fills the screen, urging viewers to order “Tyson vs. Spinks: Once and for All” on their pay per view system.

Both Tyson and Spinks stood to profit handsomely from the fight, their gratitude to Trump obviously scripted but probably not entirely unfounded given Trump’s role in setting up the fight and hawking the live and televised rights to watch it. Trump had paid $11 million to stage the fight next door to his Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, whose profits on fight night promised to be several times the norm. A relative newcomer to boxing promotion, Trump was learning to work with flamboyant industry personalities Butch Lewis, Spinks’s manager, and Don King, powerful black men whom he called “good businessmen” and “very honorable.” In hindsight, Tyson-Spinks may stand as the high-water mark for the respectability of the Trump brand among black people in the sports world.

It’s safe to say that we’ve arrived at the low point. In September, Trump told an audience in Alabama that NFL owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who didn’t stand for the national anthem. Since then, he has publicly sparred with multiple black sports personalities. They include NBA champ Steph Curry, whom Trump uninvited to the White House, SportsCenter host Jemele Hill, whom Trump blamed for ESPN’s ratings, and Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, who did eventually stand for a national anthem – Mexico’s. Trump’s most recent target is entrepreneur LaVar Ball. Ball’s offense? A lack of gratitude for Trump’s involvement in securing the release of Ball’s son from a Chinese jail. Trump took his scorn to a new level by calling Ball an “ungrateful fool” and “a poor man’s Don King” on Twitter.

Months before, The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb called attention to the intersectional nature of Trump’s disdain for his targets; they are not just black entertainers but rich black entertainers who have transgressed. The cardinal sin in this worldview is ungratefulness: “the belief endures . . . that visible, affluent African-American entertainers are obliged to adopt a pose of ceaseless gratitude – appreciation for the waiver that spared them the low status of many others of their kind.” The collective “ingratitude” of rich black entertainers signals to Trump and his supporters that something is wrong with the system. A society that produces black wealth without producing black gratitude must be rigged.

While the predominant framing of ungrateful black athlete has been that of the unpatriotic American, examining the conflict within the context of black labor leads to fresh insights. The most important is that the stereotype of the ungrateful black athlete is the stereotype of the bad black worker.

The ungrateful black athlete stereotype complements the unqualified black hire stereotype, ascendant since the advent of federal affirmative action policies in the 1960s. “Ungrateful” and “unqualified” are two sides of the same coin. Together, they constitute a racist double bind that impugns black workers as a drag on national economic health and development. To conservatives offended by the NFL anthem protests, “ungrateful” is a potent dog whistle that reconciles seemingly contradictory archetypes of black labor – the talented black athlete and the black affirmative action hire.

The ungrateful stereotype is needed to cast black athletes as bad workers because it is impossible to do so using performance metrics. Based on his 2016 statistics, Colin Kaepernick is more qualified than almost all of the struggling journeymen quarterbacks starting this season. Yet the stereotype has successfully kept him out of the league, prompting him to sue the NFL for collusion. Team owners can refuse to sign a player if they believe his activities will be a distraction, provided there is no evidence of collusion among them or with the league office. Even if Kaepernick wins his lawsuit, his decision to sue his place of work will no doubt further entrench his reputation as a “disgruntled employee.”

The framing of kneeling black athletes as employees foremost – rather than as American citizens, say – associates them with black workers in general, stoking resentment among white Americans opposed to affirmative action. In Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney López describes the dog whistles that call to mind “imagined losses” for white Americans. While white Americans have taken tangible social losses after the end of de jure white supremacy in the US, Haney López argues, “these interests are dwarfed by a racial imagination that often heaps blame on nonwhites for almost every reversal in the fortunes of the white middle class over the last 50 years.” Tweets or memes critical of kneeling black athletes trigger these feelings of imagined losses.

When Sports Illustrated readers sounded off on the NFL protests, many pointed to their imagined losses as workers to justify their position. “Really, who is allowed to protest at work?” wrote Cindy Robertson. “The NFL players are at work. I really don't care what they think, just play ball.” A few readers were even convinced that players were taking something valuable away from them personally. “Make yourselves feel good about rich athletes protesting inequality all you want,” wrote Keith from San Diego, “but real people in America are working hard to live decent, productive lives, and we don't need politics infused in what was once an escape.” Michael Peters agreed. “Sunday is my escape. Sports are entertainment. I need a break from all that anger and yelling and name-calling. Now it permeates my escape.” Personal discomfort during leisure time was felt as a loss by these erstwhile fans, perhaps even a theft.

Because 70% of NFL players are black, any message portraying the NFL as a business beset by labor problems strengthens the ungrateful black athlete stereotype. Trump has fed this narrative by pairing digs at “unpatriotic” players with others mocking the NFL’s unpopularity and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s incompetence. Angry fans have led boycotts of the NFL as if the games themselves were shoddy consumer goods not built the way they used to be. Goodell’s lack of leadership was blamed even for declining pizza sales. “The Commissioner has lost control of the hemorrhaging league,” Trump tweeted on Black Friday. “Players are the boss!” In this upside-down world, somebody needs to be fired.

Enter LaVar Ball. Following the release of three UCLA basketball players from custody in China, including Ball’s son, Trump balked that “LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!” Ball, it appears, was “Very ungrateful!” Three days later, Trump was at it again. “LaVar,” he began, “you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you.” Trump’s fantasy of a black father and son sharing a jail cell locates the ungrateful black athlete at a single remove from the black criminal. To Trump, Ball is just another grifter exploiting a vulnerable system – and the labor of his sons – for his own personal gain, a far cry from Keith from San Diego’s “real” hard-working Americans. Trump’s first inclination has never been to question the patriotism of his enemies but to question how they do their jobs because of who they are.

In a recent Politico story by Michael Kruse, residents of an economically-distressed Pennsylvania town revealed that the national issue that upset them the most was the NFL anthem protests. Asked if he didn’t support equality, one man shot back, “For people who deserve it and earn it. . . . All my ancestors, Italian, 100 percent Italian, the Irish, Germans, Polish, whatever . . . they worked hard and . . . earned the success that they got. Some people don’t want to do that. They just want it handed to them.” He fell short of saying how NFL players were different. Kruse closes with scene of a couple sharing their inside joke of what the letters “N.F.L.” stand for. The last two words are “for life,” and the n-word is just that.

In light of Kruse’s insightful reporting, it’s important to return to Jelani Cobb’s point that “ungrateful” is the new “uppity.” This is because, at least for now, “uppity,” like racist acronyms, is language still largely reserved for private spaces. At least for now, it’s still a bad career move for a public servant to keep a “list of no good n*****s,” especially if it includes the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. At least for now, comparing kneeling black athletes to “inmates running the prison” earns rebukes from peers and forces multiple apologies. And so “ungrateful” emerges to convey the same contempt for black people connoted by another word, one that most white Americans, only a couple of years ago it seems, would never let a journalist attribute to them.

Donald Trump did not invent the ungrateful black athlete stereotype, but he made it familiar, yoking it to bygone boogeymen of welfare queens and unqualified firefighters. The stereotype brands world-class athletes as undeserving of their station and recasts professionals at the top of their game as that black person who doesn’t know how to do their job. Maxine Waters. Frederica Wilson. La David Johnson. Barack Obama. For most public figures, the boundary of anti-black speech today is the dog whistle. “Ungrateful” is the only latest way to say that a black worker is unworthy because they are black.

Better than anyone, Trump knows that just enough people will always believe that a more deserving contender waits in the wings.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Meaning of Juneteenth to an Asian American

The Meaning of Juneteenth to an Asian American

(an address to the community of Eau Claire, WI on June 19, 2017)

To begin, I want to thank Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, Berlye Middleton, Donald Rosby, Mike Huggins, Terissa Leath, and everyone else involved in organizing this event and for the invitation to speak to you today. It’s truly my honor to stand before you on such a beautiful occasion.

The title of my talk today is “The Meaning of Juneteenth to an Asian American.” It took me over twenty years to come to think of myself in that way, as someone who identifies -- foremost -- as part of a larger community, defined on its own terms. I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect upon and share my thoughts on what Juneteenth means to me. I never would have imagined doing so thirty years ago. But the fact that I’m standing here now to tell you that story is proof that your life can always change for the better.

Not knowing who you are is what can happen to you when you immigrate to this country when you are only a year old. When your parents are grown adults by the time they arrive in America, they’re not used to thinking about themselves as not white -- because they didn’t have to do that where they came from in China. Their identity came from lots of histories, just not one about the meaning of the color of their skin. But in California, you were Chinese, because the people there insisted on thinking about you that way -- usually politely but sometimes not. And so my parents learned soon enough that they were not white and all of the things that that meant.

When we moved to Texas, I’m sure that my parents were getting better at understanding what it meant not to be white, which is a necessary life skill for people of color in Texas.

But they didn’t tell me what they had learned.

They couldn’t really, for lots of reasons. Although they spoke pretty good English, they just didn’t have any practice talking about race that way. And even if they did, they would have to tell me that I shouldn’t always live up to my own conscience but one passed down by the white majority, which was comforted by it. Moreover, to give that talk would be to second guess themselves and the bravery it took to uproot a family from its home, a place where everyone looked and spoke like you.

So I grew up having to learn about the meaning of race on my own, in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, in the seventies and eighties. In 1979, I was in the fourth grade and remember getting to miss school in the morning to go somewhere with my parents. When I returned to class in the afternoon, all of my classmates broke out in applause. I had become a naturalized citizen that day, the same year that Juneteenth became an official holiday in Texas.

When I was little, I knew that I was different from my white classmates because they would give our teacher chocolates at Christmas, and I would give her these carved soapstone foo dogs from my parents’ import business. But other than special occasions like that and the day I became a citizen, it didn’t occur to me very often to think about myself as Chinese. And when I did, being Chinese just meant being different. Not worse.

But then I hit puberty.

This is when it would have been really nice to have parents who could talk to you about what it meant to be Chinese in this country. And so I continued to learn on my own. What I learned was this: that if you liked what your white friends liked, and you were the only non-white person in their friend group, some eventually told you that they didn’t see you as Chinese. They saw you as someone like themselves. And to an awkward Chinese American kid, that was exactly what I needed and wanted to hear at the time.

I want to make one thing clear. There is a world of difference between white people expecting to be treated as human beings and white people expecting to be treated as white people. Because one immoral idea that necessarily attends the latter is anti-blackness. And so I learned that too, growing up in Texas, where enslaved black people were not freed until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Anti-blackness is not just about hate, although hate is the story we are usually told about it. It is just as often about omission. And when people and institutions keep you from knowing about the lives of black people, you have fewer possibilities for how to live your own life. You have fewer models for love and for righteousness in America. This is especially true if you are the son of immigrants -- just barely an immigrant yourself -- because you will end up making many of these decisions all on your own, guided by the institutions that be.

Growing up in Texas, I learned in history classes that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, and I didn’t learn that the Texans who died at the Alamo were slaveholders fighting against a Mexican nation that had outlawed slavery over three decades before the end of the Civil War. I didn’t read a novel written by a black person until I was a junior in college. That book was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Reading Hurston was nothing short of a revelation. An epic story about a socially-mobile black woman in the early twentieth century -- who loved black men and black women -- revealed what was missing from every other book I had read. It was almost like those other books understood only a fraction of what the world was like, and I realized then the meagerness of my own world.

My students are sometimes a little puzzled when I tell them that black writers saved my life. In our segregated suburb of Dallas, where there was only one black kid in your class, books are the way that you discover the reality that institutional racism has kept from you. If you’re a middle-class Chinese American, it’s all too easy to follow the path of institutional racism. If you choose to assimilate, your teachers praise your English, your smarts, and your industry, and you love them for it, maybe even want to become a teacher yourself.

When I say that black writers saved my life, I mean that their stories saved me from the path that institutional racism had laid out for someone like me -- an attractive path but one paved with exclusion, suspicion, and fear. The fear that I am talking about is one that leads you outside the bounds of reality, if you don’t know any better.

Institutional racism teaches white people and Asian Americans like me that random chance might steal something valuable away from you. This constant fear reminds you that anything and anyone can be a threat to what you have or think you deserve. You can live your life beholden to this version of reality, which becomes more tenable with every risk you sidestep and every milestone you reach. It’s simple. You do it by changing neighborhoods or schools, reading too much about vaccines on the internet, or not hitting like on your Facebook friend’s deeply moving political post. This is a fear borne out of a middle-class assumption that a good life awaits you if only cruel fate does not intervene. This fear exists only because the idea of the American Dream does too.

Black writers taught me that what is valuable can be taken from you not only by chance but by design. They taught me that owning this reality, while difficult and painful, is itself a liberation. It is freedom from the oppressive idea that one is entitled to comfort. Such freedom is essentially humanizing. You see the world as it is, struggle for justice when you are right, and try to love in spite of it all.

In short, black writers taught me the difference between what was real and what was fantasy.

James Baldwin discussed this in his book The Fire Next Time. He said that

People who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives the effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth -- and, indeed, no church -- can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words. If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne. And at this level of experience one’s bitterness begins to be palatable, and hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry.

James Baldwin saved me from a world of fantasy that nevertheless was ready to accept me into it, as long as my entrance was on its terms, which include subscribing to “a fear of what life can bring.” Too often, as we all know, those phantom fears can lead to suspicion, which can lead to hatred, which can lead to atrocities. Such terms, they demand too dear a price.

This fear makes authentic community impossible.

Juneteenth to me is about the need for community that rejects this fear and bears witness. The fear is not only the kind that Jeronimo Yanez felt seconds before he murdered Philando Castile. It is also the fear that a speaker feels when he utters the word murdered like this in public, and it is the fear that some must feel when they hear the word murdered in that context. These feelings mark the borderlands we inhabit between the world of fantasy and the world of reality.

To me, Juneteenth is about the authentic community that is at last possible when we know what freedom is. It is a community like this one here today. For this Asian American, Juneteenth commemorates the simultaneous struggle for freedom from oppression for not being white and also the struggle for freedom from privilege for not being black.

It is a beautiful struggle, ongoing and affirming, one I would trade for none other.

I thank you for honoring me by being a part of its story today.

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