Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Chris Rock, Killer Mike, and Racial Progress

Chris Rock is a comedian. He's also a really smart dude. He comes to things from an interesting perspective and he's always got something to say that's been well thought out. He doesn't shoot from the hip. I really enjoyed this recent interview with him. They cover a lot of things (including his new movie, that I think may be very good) like politics and race.

He's got a great line when asked about the difference between the black civil rights movement and the one currently happening with the LGBT community. "I always call Ellen DeGeneres the gay Rosa Parks. If Rosa Parks had one of the most popular daytime TV shows, I’m sure the civil-rights movement would’ve moved a little bit faster too."

There's a lot of good stuff there about Obama and politics in general. I've seen a few places pick up his take on racial progress.

Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.

So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

Chris Rock doesn't do interviews unless he's promoting a movie (even though he barely talks about the movie), so enjoy it while it lasts. You can find lots more Rock at Grantland, the New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and Hollywood Reporter. He can do whatever interviews he wants because he's so unavailable, but also because he's one of the few celebrities entirely free to speak his mind. He's made tons of money and his audience won't care what he says. He's also got five lifetimes worth of street cred, so he can speak honestly both from and to his place as a prominent African American.

Another person in a similar position is Killer Mike, a rapper (currently of Run the Jewels). There's a great podcast with him on Grantland. Here he engages on topics of importance to the black experience, but not in the sort of monolithic way so many of us (white people) are used to hearing it. There's only a few minutes at the beginning about music, the rest (and it's more than an hour) is unique, intelligent, and challenging for anybody.

When speaking of racial progress, I have to agree with Rock: it's about white people changing. One of the things I notice about racial discussions in this country is that they're less about race, especially among younger people. This is not the old trope about class being the new race (class will always be a divisive topic), but something different about the motivations behind our discussions of race. This is really in the generation behind me (and although I'm 33, there is at least one, if not two full generations of adults, distinctly different, younger than me), but race seems less about race. We can't deny the shocking numbers of racial disparity, but in the end, when (younger) white people are upset about Ferguson these days, it's not because a black man was denied justice, but because a human being was.

That's not to say race isn't a component and an important one (white human beings still have a better time of it in the justice department), but I think white people may actually starting to view people who look different as people first. I think (hope) this will allow for us to hear and express a true diversity of opinion. So that when Chris Rock or Killer Mike speak to the public, they can do so AS black men, but not ON BEHALF of black men.

When a black man in a suit is on CNN, 95% of the time, the audience assumes (or is supposed to assume) he's speaking on behalf of black people. It's the black opinion. That doesn't happen with white men - we all assume they speak for themselves or perhaps a specific group with whom they hold a position (like the NRA or Greenpeace). Obviously, the hope is for that to change. I'm sure even Al Sharpton would love (well, wouldn't totally mind, might be more like it) to fade into a chorus of diverse black voices with access to mainstream media.

I share all these links today in the hopes more people can gain access to the kind of perspective we don't always hear, especially in a world where everything is condensed into soundbites. There's no "us vs them" stuff here. It's two men, with their own unique identities, expressing their own individual opinions in public forum. I wouldn't necessarily agree with everything said and they certainly don't necessarily agree with each other. Race is a part of who they are, it informs their perspective and opinions, but they don't allow it to be the defining aspect of what they have to say.

Neither should we.

If we manage that, well, then it might just be some small step on whatever Chris Rock will call racial progress.

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