Friday, February 11, 2005

Racism or Colonialism?

In an article on, Black speakers mention their growing frustration at peak demand for their services during the month of February, only to have their demand drop to nearly nothing come March 1. It seems that folks are okay discussing race matters in February, but not in April.

Thankfully, the story discusses both sides of the issue; those who appreciate being asked, but resent that it comes when it comes, and those who simply say no except for special circumstances. I support both sides. Race is never easily discussed anyway, so having a built-in opportunity is necessary. However, why should you be more interested in what I think in February than in January? Oh, I know. We think racism doesn't exist any more, affirmative action has made things lovely, Black people don't experience discrimination in the same numbers as before, we've just celebrated the great changes in race relations courtesy of Dr. King. Or, racism just doesn't exist north of Virginia. Oh, how wrong you are, dear reader.

Today's New York Daily News
reports that a Black firefighter, the only Black firefighter at his firehouse, found a noose lying near his fire equipment. He didn't immediately report it because there was an alarm, and he responded to it, along with the house; he did, however, wait until yesterday to report it to the Fire Department's EEO because he wasn't sure what to do. Here are possible scenarios as to how this will get played out:

  1. They'll never find who did it because scum sticks together.
  2. One or more culprits will be fingered, but they'll say it was a joke, and will either be reassigned or forced to take a sensitivity class.
  3. The firefighter himself will be reassigned to a more geographically diverse area.

Either way, a lame apology will be issued. Already, a zero-tolerance statement has been issued from the head office.

Here's the thing. According to comments from the Vulcan Society, the Black firefighters organization, incidents like this one happen because there are so few Black firefighters (3% out of 8700, or 261). Is it really because there are so few Black firefighters or is it because society as a whole doesn't want to deal with racism in a modern context? I would agree that having 261 Black firefighters serving in New York City is appalling, but no more appalling than the number of Black coaches in the NFL or Black quarterbacks, or Black NBA owners, or Black cops. According to the NYPD's information, the Police Cadet Corps, a police bridging program of sorts made up of college-educated people, 42% of the 606 cadets are Black while just 16% are White. Well, of course you'll have such a high number of Black cadets -- recruitment takes place predominantly at CUNY colleges -- schools with high minorty enrollment.

I'm thinking the issue goes further than race, and more into colonialism. I'm thinking that it's understood that racism exists, from the boardroom to local government -- why else would you invite a Black person to come talk to your organization during Black History Month; it's the right thing to do, after all. It's far more difficult to talk about colonialism; the far-more sneaky, more destructive force that slips in like carbon monoxide gas. It's easy to talk about how bad (and good) slavery was for America, but we never really talk about Europe's arrogance in simply setting up shop on a piece of land just because they believed they could (curse of Ham, and all). It's easy to look at the James Byrd case and denounce it for what it was, but not so easy to ask why school vouchers are the answer as opposed to putting that same money in the public school system. Or, why New York City, a city that throughout its history has served as a seminal destination for disenfranchised people, and has always had a survivalist edge to it, long before Frank Sinatra sang about it in "New York, New York," has an ever-growing divide between those who really can afford to live here and those who can't. What makes a Manhattan zip code worth more than a Queens zip code? What makes one Brooklyn neighborhood more affordable than another -- the presence of Starbucks?

I submit to you that colonialism, the setting up of a new state that retains its dependence upon its parent, is the issue. Yes, racism does exist. Yes, my mother told me that as a Black child in a White school, I would have to perform better, look better, and behave better because I wasn't White. I believe, however, that inviting Black speakers, special programming on t.v., newspaper inserts and the like, serves only to reinforce the parent state that White society has set up with its Black colonists. There is a smattering of syndicated Black columnists, but you'll find more op-ed pieces by Blacks during February. Movies with Black themes that don't feature a gangsta, a pimp, a druglord, or a crackhead will get the airtime they've desired. A noose left prominently with a firefighter's tools for his job sends a clear message: you're here because we say you can be, and we'll get rid of you at will. It wasn't a cartoon of a fat Black baby with big white lips, it was an instrument of death.

Carter G. Woodson wanted to set aside a week to mark the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln but hoped the week would eventually be unnecessary. Little did he know that week would expand to a full month. Let's not do away with the month, for the accomplishments of Blacks would probably be ignored otherwise. But, if we really want to learn something, or to teach our children something of worth, let's look at the dysfunctional relationship that is colonialism. I don't need you to share your appreciation of me for 28 days. I need something more. Now that's something to celebrate.


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