We white people have no business criticizing black civil rights leaders for how they choose to discuss black leadership within their own community.
That’s the whole entire point I’ll be arguing in this article. If you are a member of the black community, then I apologize for the misleading title; it doesn’t apply to you. There’s only so much space for communicating complex ideas in these titles here. As a member of the black community your opinions regarding Green Party vice presidential nominee Ajamu Baraka’s reference to President Obama as an “Uncle Tom president” are perfectly valid and important in my book, whether for, against, ambivalent or indifferent.
In Wednesday night’s Green Party town hall, CNN moderator Chris Cuomo asked not just Baraka, but also Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, to describe their position regarding the inflammatory comment. Baraka, who is black, stood by his comment in the context that it was made. Cuomo, who is white (and incidentally also the son of a former New York governor and brother of a current New York governor, so let’s just say a teensy bit embedded in the political establishment), seemed to imply that there is no possible context in which such remarks could be considered appropriate or understandable. Jill Stein, who is also white, defended her running mate’s comment, saying she’s “glad we have an opportunity to go beyond sound bites” about these issues.
“I understand Ajamu’s passion, his frustration and his struggle,” Stein said. “And I also understand his transcendence and the way in which this is a challenge to us all right now — to both feel the passion of our struggle but also to be capable of transcending it and connecting with each other, healing our wounds and forging a bigger vision and a bigger community.”
Which is all well and good; we’d expect nothing less from such an artful wordsmith and brilliant social commentator as Dr. Jill Stein. Nevertheless, I found this to be the one bit of disappointment I experienced while watching her otherwise flawless performance Wednesday night.
What Jill Stein could have said, and in my humble opinion should have said, is “It’s none of my business.”
“It’s none of my business, Chris Cuomo, son of former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and brother of current New York Governor Andrew Cuomo,” is what my perfect, batting-1.000 fantasy Jill Stein might have said.
“Ajamu Baraka is an intelligent and well-respected civil rights leader in the black community, with a strong and influential voice within the Black Lives Matter movement,” she might have continued. “I’m a white Jewish lady from Massachusetts. I’ve got no place commenting on the inner workings of a community full of people whose circumstances I cannot understand, who face challenges I’ve never had to face. If the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement want to call attention to certain issues using controversial terms, that’s their business. The last thing the world needs is one more white person telling the black community how to deal with their problems.”
It really does throw a huge monkey wrench into the healing process of American race relations when white people tell the black community what they should be doing. Imagine being a young black man in America today, having to deal with all the problems you already have to deal with and seeing all the horrific things you’d be seeing in the news involving the senseless, violent deaths of people who look like you at the hands of the people sworn to protect and serve them. You start talking to other members of your community to figure out what’s going on and what can be done about it, and you enter into an ongoing dialogue that’s going on from coast to coast all around America, sharing ideas and trying on different ways of looking at this terrible situation.
Then imagine some white person coming in and telling you you’re doing it wrong. Some white person who’s never known your challenges, never known what it’s like to live from birth to adulthood as a black person in America. Some white person poking their head into your world, the troubles of which are mostly caused by white oppression and white supremacy, and being told to discuss your community’s problems the way the white people think you should discuss them.
Imagine what that would do. Imagine how that would impact what you’re trying to work on. Now instead of focusing on ideas and solutions and healing our nation’s gaping racial wound, you’re focused on this presumptuous, obnoxious person who just intruded into your world.
It would be good for America, I think, if we white people could stop inflicting this sort of thing on the black community. When it comes to black civil rights issues, we need to do less instructing and more listening. Offering our opinions less and empathizing more. Not quibbling over what words the Black Lives Matter movement chooses to use when discussing where their movement is at and what needs to be done, but finding out how we can actually help.
Thanks for your time.
[Image via AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin]