Common, Reverend Wright, and 21st Century Racism

May 19, 2011

Racism, like many aspects of our society, has evolved or transformed. We often hear that racism is less overt today, more covert and institutional. This is true. But I’m not sure if we are as adept as we should be at identifying the new forms racism takes on. An evolution that I’ve noticed is the idea that if something is seen as “Black,” or characteristic of African-American culture or perspective, it is deemed inferior or “radical.” This attitude makes up the undercurrent of conservative pundits’ professions of outrage surrounding Michelle Obama’s invitation of Common to the White House for a poetry night. This same undercurrent of “Black is radical” appeared when President Obama’s Christian pastor Jeremiah Wright made statements from a Black historical perspective.

Many people consider racism a “stain” on a history of American exceptionalism and progress, a position that makes them comfortable for it allows them to dismiss racism as a temporary anomaly to an otherwise righteous legacy of America. In taking this position of comfort, they ignore the reality that the legacy of slavery and racism is no “stain” but deeply woven into the fabric of America.

So, what exactly is so “radical” about Common? In a poem titled “A Letter to the Law,” Common expressed the widely held opinion of inner-city citizens’ that police are not there to serve and protect but to victimize. It’s not difficult to understand these sentiments, if you care to try. Take the eye-opening case of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed Guinean immigrant who was shot 19 times by four plainclothes New York City police officers. Despite the officers firing a total of 41 rounds at the unarmed Diallo, all officers were acquitted of all criminal charges. As case after case of police brutality comes to light in inner cities, it’s not hard to believe that people in these neighborhoods will harbor negative feelings about the police.

Furthermore, the outrage comes from the fact that many of these pundits and politicians don’t believe hip hop to be a legitimate art form; therefore, they refuse to see how hip hop uses metaphors to convey complex thoughts. They don’t believe there are layers to the lyrics. Consider the following lines from Common’s “A Letter to the Law”:

Stay true to what I do so the youth dream come

From project building, seen a fiend being hung

With that happening, why they messing with Saddam?

Burn a Bush, cause for peace he no push no button

Killing over oil and grease, no weapons of destruction

How can we follow leader when this a corrupt one?


Since pundits and politicians refuse to see the metaphors, the words “burn a Bush” surely must be calling for the killing of the president and not be a metaphorical dissent to the Bush administration.

In Reverend Wright’s case, his statement that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” in reference to the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center, set in motion a barrage of criticism from mainstream media. It didn’t matter to those who claimed to be outraged that his statement was taken out of context. In their eyes, any Black person who publicly criticizes the government’s foreign policies for victimizing Arabs must be radical, conveniently ignoring the fact that the government was the source of Black victimization for generations. 

I am sure many of those who claimed to be outraged by Common and Wright would profess themselves colorblind, that they are “okay” with all races. This really means that they are okay with someone being black/brown in skin color, but not what they consider to be black/brown in thought and action. To think that it is radical or on the fringe to voice negative feelings about the police or to voice disapproval of the government given these realities is disingenuous, willfully ignorant, or simply foolish.

The truth is, Common and Reverend Wright are both African-American and vocal about the African-American experience in a way that might be seen as abrasive. This is unsettling for many white people, particularly those who are either on or watch Fox News, because it forces them to evaluate their part in these injustices. As long as white people can force these voices to the margins of society (where they are not perceived as threats), they can ignore them and keep believing all is well. But when the President of the United States grants them legitimacy by association or invitation, that’s when their suppressed racist ideology begins to bubble to the surface and the campaign to marginalize ensues. 

So what are people with this suppressed racist ideology trying to purge from society? Not rap music or bombastic Black preachers, for they will quickly endorse a non-threatening version of either – take Will Smith’s mainstream popularity, for example. They are trying to purge the idea that America is still broken, that racism still exists. Many of these pundits and politicians are invested in the status quo, thus this ideology the idea that the Commons and Wrights of the U.S. might have some legitimacy poses a direct threat to their power and money. 

I challenge my readers to get to know the people of different backgrounds in your circles. Learn more than simply the names of their spouses and children, or where they went to school. Ask them, with an open mind and heart, how they feel about this country and why they feel that way. Then share your honest perspective. In doing so, you will be better able to identify the flaws in the arguments that equate differences in culture and perspective to radical ideology. That, my friends, is 21st century racism.


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