Kanye West is not crazy. In fact, I like to think of Mr. West as the racial barometer of the nation, his outburst being the measurement of the woes facing our nation that are often inaudible by others. For me, Kanye is the truth. While he may be eccentric and emotionally drained at this point in his career, I am not prepared to dismiss his outburst at the MTV Video Music awards as a Hennessy filled rant. Instead, his actions are a revealing look into the countries current feelings around racism.
“Kanye West was right”. Those were the words on t-shirts being sold in Brooklyn following Kanye’s graphic exposure of the Bush administrations inability to support the displaced people of Hurricane Katrina. We all remember the way Kayne’s face looked as he shocked the world, and even himself, by saying “George Bush does not care about Black people”. At that moment, his words spoke to the feeling that many were having about the racial disparities following the hurricane.
Moving forward to 2009 and Mr. West has taken the microphone from a sweet faced young White girl who sings country music and believes that she has taken an accolade from another more deserving Black artist during the MTV Video Music Awards broadcast. Silence filled Radio City Music Hall as everyone gasped. Was his timing just off? Perhaps it was the fact that he was expressing his feelings about the disrespect being shown in the awarding of a girl who represents the epitome of white America?
Perhaps Kanye was reverberating an unspoken feeling about what is happening around race relations in America. Let’s be honest, there is nothing new about Black people pushing for equality and justice. The struggles of racism in the 1960’s and ‘70s ushered in civil rights legislation that supposedly removed barriers to success for African-Americans. Black people were told that if they could not succeed, then it was their own fault and with that a new lexicon of coded speech began to include words like ”melting pot”, “culture of poverty” ,“war on drugs” and “welfare queen”. This new language replaced open conversation about racism and forced our racial lens to erode.
With all the subtleties in language around racism in America we have been struggling to give voice to the structural realities of racism that are still holding our country back. The structural arrangement that perpetuates racism is no accident. Lee Atwater, chief strategist for President Regan’s administration, gave a telling interview to Alexander Lamis, a political scientist, laying out the strategy of that administration. In the interview, Atwater explains that “You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Enter “Post Racial” America. This phrase has become the definition of our nations complicated history around the fight against racism and the misdirection of language that was used to lull us into a belief in a faux “color blind” society. Yet for all the musing around the term “post racial” we can’t help but realize that the moment we elected Barack Obama our nations President we ran squarely against what it means to really be in a “post racial” country.
Week after week, we have seen attacks against people who, by all standards, are qualified and above reproach. None are more glaring then the attacks against President Obama. From the New York Times cartoon that illustrated a monkey being shot with a caption that refers to finding someone else to write the stimulus bill to the outrage people felt during the healthcare townhall meetings to Rep. Joe Wilson calling the President of the United States a liar during his address to the joint session of congress. Even Professor Henry Louis Gates, a noted Harvard University academic, gets arrested while trying to open the door of his home. We can feel the ripping of the seams on our “post racial” America and people are mad- real mad.
As Kanye West took to the stage and pulled the microphone from White America’s hand he could have been saying that Black America is not going to stand by and watch a more talented and more justly deserving Black person being disrespected - or he could have been just a jerk. But I like to think that he was not even talking about the disrespect shown to Beyonce but rather he was signaling that Black America is tired of the disrespect shown to the best of the best – President Obama.
Submitted by: Jessica Norwood
The ideas relayed in this opinion piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the Emerging ChangeMakers Network or its membership.
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