Monday, November 8, 2010

Racialized Thinking: Bringing Up Race For No Reason

There is a shade of difference between racialized thinking and racist thought, usually the former occurs with the absence of conscious insidious intent. The latter usually involves a negative thought about someone or a group based on their perceived racial identity. Racialized thinking is when race enters someone's thought process for no logical reason.

How does racialized thinking play out?

Let's take a discussion of three movies in a Hollywood film site,

In an article on the opening week of three films - Megamind, Due Date, and For Colored Girls - see if you can determine a specific difference in how the audiences for the three films are discussed (they are discussed in the same order as in the article, from highest grossing to lowest).


"Megamind," which scored an A- CinemaScore rating, played evenly with auds aged both over and under 25, with slight preference among women (57%).

Due Date:

With males constituting 53% of its audience, "Due Date" saw 59% of its opening come from moviegoers under 35.

For Colored Girls:

Lionsgate's "For Colored Girls" skewed heavily toward adult African American females, with 87% of moviegoers over 25, 81% African-American and 82% female.

Why is race only discussed for one of the three films? Unsurprisingly, the film with the predominantly black cast and black director? I have never seen Variety make a point of noting when an audience "skews heavily" towards a white audience.

In some ways, this is a subtle way of indicating that certain groups are "the other", implicitly making white "normative" (it's a reflection of the instance I noted in one of the screenshot comments in my prior entry, where I point out to an Atlantic commenter that he/she inexplicably distinguished between "people" and "the black community", as if these were mutually exclusive groups). There is an odd tendency in the mainstream media to present matters without race involving white people, but to always point out race where it involves other people. This is racialized thinking.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Accepting The Lie Even As You Fight For Truth

It's rare that I criticize the same media source twice in so close a time frame, but Ta-Nanehisi Coates has struck again with another highly inflammatory quote hidden in the middle of a piece on policing, worse than his attempt at attributing what he imagined to be Malcolm X's gender position into a statement about Malcolm's definitive thoughts regarding women.

The first paragraph of the piece is fine, but the second paragraph is where Coates starts going off the rails. First, he inexplicably states that he initially ignored reports of NYPD engaging in disproportionately stopping and frisking Blacks and Latinos to meet citation quotas (and the story of a NYPD officer who alleges he was institutionalized for failing the meet quota). After this puzzling confession, Coates suddenly (and even more inexplicably) states "If [B]lacks and Latinos commit most of the crimes [in New York City], it stands to reason they'll be overrepresented among the stop and frisks." There are huge sections of New York City that are almost entirely white (particularly in Staten Island and Queens), so how could anyone with any remote understanding of the demographics there believe that Black and Latino offenders comprise the majority of criminal acts *committed* in New York City (as opposed to the number or arrests or convictions, which are controlled by the discretion of officers who arrest and prosecutors who file charges)?

Starting a hypothetical with the words "If blacks and Latinos commit most of the crimes..." is as wildly unprovable as starting a hypothetical with the words "If the government ships in all the drugs...". One is a widely accepted and unproven stereotype and the other is a mass-media derided and unproven conspiracy theory. Coates, as a mainstream journalist, would never proffer the latter premise, but is comfortable proffering the former. Why? No study has definitively proven that Blacks (capital B, by the way, Mr. Coates) and Latinos commit most of the crimes in any American city, because there is no reliable way to track every crime committed in any geographical area. Any impartial (read: non-racialized) observer is intelligent enough to realize (1) that crime includes every act prohibited by local, state and federal statutes in a locality and (2) that in New York City, Blacks and Latinos could not possibly comprise the majority of the people violating those statutes, which criminalize everything from insider trading to jaywalking. So, why would Coates present such a ludicrous hypothetical?

When confronted on the issue in the comments section, Coates confessed that "obvious falsehoods crept into my thinking", but he does not endeavor to explicitly state the falsehood of the claim that "Blacks and Latinos commit most of the crimes [in NYC]", nor does he explain the (perhaps more troubling) issue of how this falsehood crept into his thinking at all.

These questions don't even begin to reach larger societal questions, such as how such a falsehood could be presented, without stating that it was false, in a piece on a respected media site. Or how none of the persons who commented on the piece (present company excluded) responded to the presence of such a bold-faced lie or challenged it, despite a massive number of responses.

Update: He banned me from the comment section after I thoroughly, yet politely, deconstructed the shortcomings of his piece there. My response that was deleted and apparently led to me being banned went as follows:

The post is weakened by your explicit failure to *explicitly* note that the statement "Blacks and Latinos commit most of the crimes in NYC" is a falsehood. The piece would be strengthened considerably if you noted that in brackets somehow. Otherwise, your piece presents, unchallenged, the same falsehood that leads to disproportionate arrest and prosecution of Black and Latino citizens in New York, feeding a monster of a lie that leads to the problem you decry as the central theme of your piece.

Absent that explicit denunciation of that statement as a falsehood, the source of your shame is also a mystery, beyond some inexplicable initial decision to ignore the first wave of reports on this story. Stating directly that Blacks and Latinos *do not* commit the majority of crimes explains why focusing inordinate police resources against these communities, out of proportion with their actual criminal activity, is both morally wrong and counterproductive to the maximum success of any crime-fighting strategy.

I just realized something: funnily enough, even in this reply, you do not explicitly state the idea that Blacks and Latinos commit the majority of the crimes in NYC is a falsehood. You just say some unnamed falsehood crept into your thinking. Sigh.

Or view it as a screenshot (oh, he didn't think I'd be able to preserve that?):

American censorship and refusal to debate, even politely, at its finest. If you can't win, find a way to stop the other side from speaking. Sad.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ancestor Worship vs Context vs Blemishing Legacies

There is a fine line to walk when one revisits the legacy of a beloved historical figure. In the black community, we have often seen our beloved figures demonized in the press, so a defensive reaction to protect those figures from "attack" is completely understandable. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at the Atlantic, endeavored to take another look at revered Black leader Malcolm X's political beliefs in a multi-part series on After reading his piece on Malcolm's gender politics, which focused on a handful of passages in the four hundred-plus page Autobiography of Malcolm X (which in itself only tells part of the story of Malcolm's politics, inherently, due to space limitations). After reading his piece, I tweeted to Coates that a few passages were not sufficient to explain Malcolm's entire gender philosophy. He urged me to blog a response, which I now endeavor to do.

The first passage from the autobiography that Coates relies on to form his opinion on Malcolm's gender politics involves Malcolm explaining what johns told prostitutes working for him when he was a pimp about their wives. This is third hand information, based on a sample size of men who frequent prostitutes, hardly a good source for inferring the personal beliefs of a revered figure like Malcolm.

The second passage cited by Coates mostly involves Malcolm reflecting what prostitutes think of men, also not pertinent to Malcolm's personal views, but there is a bombshell at the end of the passage, presumptively from Malcolm directly (we'll assume Haley transcribed this correctly): "All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: they are attracted to the male in whom they see strength."

Malcolm wasn't known for qualifying his statements and that one is as overarching as a generalization can get.

Unfortunately, Coates doesn't spend much time ruminating on that quote and, even more unfortunately, spends no time at all putting it in context with the time in which this statement was made, before the modern feminist movement and at a time when male/female relationships were still being placed in the context of man-as-breadwinner/woman-as-dutiful-housewife throughout the mass media. Would Malcolm have made the same statement in 2010 after decades of feminist protest, writing and scholarship and a sea change in media representation of women? That is doubtful, in my mind (but we'll never know, unfortunately).

Coates then goes on to make a huge generalization before presenting the next passage in his piece, stating as an introductory remark: "I think this passage is fairly typical of Malcolm's attitude". It is hard to determine how someone who never met Malcolm and is relying solely on one book written by the source "as told to" a third party (Haley) can reliably draw an inference on whether a passage is "fairly typical" of the attitude of a man who passed away 45 years ago. Stretching logic at this level should never be acceptable in a major media outlet. In any case, the prefaced passage in question continues the theme of the prior quoted passage about male domination:

Now, Islam has very strict laws and teachings about women, the core of them being that the true nature of man is to be strong, and a woman's true nature is to be weak, and while a man must at all times respect his woman, at the same time he needs to understand that he must control her if he expects to get her respect.

It is unclear whether Malcolm's interpretation of Islam above is filtered through the teaching of the Nation of Islam (whose beliefs were not in Malcolm's lifetime considered mainstream Islamic interpretation by any source I can uncover). What seems more clear, however, is that his understanding of gender roles fits in quite well with the media portrayal of gender roles in his time and, if minimal female participation in Congress and most positions of power at that time are any indication, this interpretation appears to be the mainstream male view of the mid-sixties. At this point in his piece, Coates briefly places Malcolm's statement in historical context ("It was not an atypical thought at the time."), then abruptly implies, conclusively and without proof, that Malcolm's views were somehow harsher than the contemporary views of the time ("But from The Autobiography, there is this sense that, even in the Nation, Malcolm was seen as particularly harsh in his views of women."). This conclusory statement is made without citing any evidence that Malcolm was considered the "harsh(est minister in the Nation) in his views on women" or whether his views were harsher than those held by other popular figures (spoken or unspoken) in the general milieu of sexism that pervaded popular American thought at the time. Considering that Malcolm was actively training ministers at mosques throughout the Nation of Islam infrastructure, it's hard to accord second-hand accounts that Malcolm was harsh with the conclusion that Malcolm was the harshest to some unreasonable degree (it would be more likely to assume that the ministers Malcolm trained would be fairly in line with his own speaking style).

Near the end of his piece, Coates makes two leaps of logic that are almost wholly unrelated to the text of the Autobiography. His first leap of logic involves Coates essentially putting words into Malcolm's mouth about "detesting" dominant women, words that are not based on statements made in the Autobiography or any other source, when Coates states, "...his older sister exactly the kind of 'domineering' and 'demanding' woman whom he seemingly detests." How can an argument be made that Malcolm "seemingly detest[ed]" women of an independent character, when the cited passages only seem to state Malcolm's belief in patriarchal family structure, a structure generally promoted throughout mass media portrayals of gender at that time? There is a stark difference between reinforcing popular patriarchial thought of one's time and "detesting" independent-minded women. Coates covers this distance in a single leap of logic, without seeking further sources to back his claim.

Coates makes his second leap by arguing that while Malcolm effusively praises his sister Ella in the Autobiography, he does so because "[i]t was almost as if to Malcolm, Ella wasn't really a woman." This, again, is based on no statement in the book or any other source. It is purely drawn from Coates' imagination. It is fine to imagine what one's historical heroes might have thought, as long as you attribute these musings to your own imagination, not to the person about whom you are imagining.

Coates' journey to re-contextualize Malcolm might be more fruitful if he seeks more sources than the Autobiography and perhaps interviews people who knew Malcolm, in order to form a more comprehensive view of the man of whom he writes. A man as complex as Malcolm X deserves a more in-depth analysis than what was presented in Coates' piece, especially before one comes to the damning conclusions Coates reached in his piece regarding Malcolm's gender viewpoint.

Addendum: Coates is an old comrade of mine from my Young African Writers Association (YAWA) days at Howard University. The YAWA experience centers around constructive criticism and I write in that spirit, so readers should respect him as such. Steel sharpens steel, however, and legacies must be contextualized properly, so here we are.