The rapper Common made waves during a recent appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart when he offered his take on race in America. It isn’t nearly so simple.
By Stereo Williams
His words were laughably empty and insulting to the current climate, the history of black ambition in the face of tremendous cultural oppression, and the reality of institutional racism; but they also represented a vocal cadre of black celebritydom that is calling for the black community to basically “get over it.” With the racial conversation in the national spotlight, stars like Williams, Kanye West, and others aren’t addressing racism in as much as they are deflecting the conversation.
Rapper/actor Common appeared on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart last week to promote his new film Run All Night. Alongside singer-songwriter John Legend, the Chicago rhymer won an Oscar in February for “Glory,” the theme song from the Martin Luther King biopic Selma. While discussing the legacy of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and the current tensions, Stewart expressed what he’s seen from white people who are resistant to discussing structural racism.
“There’s a real vein of anger, like ‘Hey, man—I didn’t have slaves!’” Stewart stated. “But they’re not talking about that, they’re talking about a power structure.”
Common, while not countering Stewart’s statement, offered his perspective on the way to heal wounds that have existed on American soil for centuries.
“We all know there’s been some bad history in our country. We know that racism exists,” the star conceded, before adding, “I’m…extending a hand. And I think a lot of generations and different cultures are saying ‘Hey, we want to get past this. We’ve been bullied and we’ve been beat down, but we don’t want it anymore. We’re not extending a fist and saying, ‘Hey, you did us wrong.’ It’s more like ‘Hey, I’m extending my hand in love. Let’s forget about the past as much as we can, and let’s move from where we are now. How can we help each other? Can you try to help us because we’re going to help ourselves, too.’ That’s really where we are right now.”
Celebrities like Common and Raven-Symone are but ambassadors of the growing New Black culture that Pharrell became the unwitting poster child for in his now-infamous Oprah interview. “Upward mobility,” sayeth the New Black, “that is the promise of America and because I have achieved—you can, too.” They conveniently romanticize their climb to wherever they are in their lives and careers, telling themselves that they got there via personal drive and ambition that is unique to them. But structural obstacles kept most of their peers stagnant in socio-economic standing; these stars achieved in spite of racism—not because it doesn’t exist. So it is dangerous to put the onus on the oppressed people, as if you believe no one cared to climb the ladder until you came along. Poor public schools and overpriced housing mean that things aren’t really designed for you and your peers to “make it out.” You can’t be “exceptional” without being an exception.
The New Black perspective sounds like an old black pathology. Exceptionalism and respectability have never saved us from the oppressive weight of racism. We’ve always achieved greatness in a country that doesn’t see value in blackness beyond a commodity; maintained dignity in a land that has consistently dehumanized and stigmatized who we are. White supremacy often insists that black people prove themselves exceptional just to share a table with white mediocrity. It is not for black people to extend a hand; it is for the privileged and the powerful to remove their boot from the community’s collective neck. These celebrities seem to be disconnected from the pulse and spirit of many of their peers, but their voices resonate far and wide in pop culture. And more black celebrities should take the struggles of the community at least seriously enough to not offer condescension, rhetoric, and smug dismissals when confronted with the realities of race and racism. Those with the biggest pulpits can’t continue to preach the gospel of positivity, condescension, and denial. It was deflecting when Bill Cosby gave his infamous “Pound Cake speech” in 2004 and it’s deflecting now. It’s an old routine.
When you think about it, there isn’t much “new” about New Blacks at all.
Q&A: John Legend on race, Common, Sam Smith, 'Blurred Lines'
By Mesfin Fekadu
Legend: Oh yeah, I heard a little bit about it and I understand what he's saying because I do believe that part of us ending racism is us seeing each other's humanity and learning to love each other, even if we look different or worship differently or live differently. But I think it's not enough for us to extend the hand of love. I think it's important that that goes both ways. It's important also that we look at policies we need to change as well.
It's important for us also to fight for certain changes that need to happen. And one of those issues that I really care about is education. But also another one is incarceration, which is what I talked about at the Oscars. And mass incarceration is a policy that's kind of built up over the last four decades and it's destroyed families and communities, and something we need to change. And it's fallen disproportionally on black and brown communities, especially black communities, and it's kind of a manifestation of structural racism. So when you think about that kind of thing, it's not enough to say we need to love each other, you have to go behind that and say we need to change these policies, we need to fight, we need to protest, we need to agitate for change.
Survey: most white Americans think people talk about race too much
By German Lopez
A YouGov survey of nearly 1,000 Americans found that 57 percent of white Americans think the nation spends too much time talking about race, while 49 percent of black Americans hold the opposite view.
The majority findings don't necessarily reflect the opinions of all black and white Americans. YouGov found some dissent within both groups: 18 percent of white Americans said people don't talk about race enough, while 18 percent of black Americans said people talk about race too much.
Still, the findings continue a trend of surveys that show white people tend to see race as less of an issue than their black counterparts do. Previous decades of surveys from the Pew Research Center found that black Americans express lower confidence than their white counterparts in police's ability to treat black and white people equally.
For more on the subject, see Race at the 2015 Oscars and Pharrell Apologizes for Headdress.