Sometimes it takes absurdity to point out an absurdity. Especially when that absurdity is unexamined prejudice.
Mine came four years ago with the until-then absurd proposition of electing a black man president. I was an Obama supporter since the primaries and was buzzing along on the “Yes we did!” high for a couple of days after the election. My admiration for the man was limitless as it seemed we’d elected a person of superior intelligence, keen judgment, and emotional maturity to the highest office in America. (I still think this, BTW, so go vote for his re-election.)
Walking down a street in Oakland during those heady days, I smiled at the black kids wearing Obama t-shirts. “How nice,” I thought, “that they now have something to aspire to.” This pulled me up short. Didn’t they have something to aspire to before Obama was elected? Even with all things economically and racially not being equal in America, why didn’t I ascribe the same potential for nation-leading intelligence, judgment, and emotional maturity to black kids in Oakland as I did to the black man now headed for the Oval Office? It was like I was limiting these kids in my own mind, assigning them to a permanent underclass just because they were urban and African-American.
Attacking absurdity with absurdity was just the point of D.L. Hughley’s Comedy Central special “The Endangered List,” broadcast last Saturday night. The show is about Hughley’s attempt to have the EPA declare the black man an endangered species.
The idea is just ridiculous enough to point out a significant American contradiction: people will band together to save whales, or trees, or Community, but not their fellow human beings, like urban African-Americans, that face consistent and formidable obstacles to their health and wellbeing.
A few stats from the Morehouse College Male Initiative and other sources:
- The black unemployment rate in September was 13.4%, versus an overall unemployment rate of 7.8%.
- Median net worth of black families in 2009: $5,677; Median net worth of white families in 2009: $113,149
- 1 in 3 black men between the ages of 20 and 29 years old is under correctional supervision or control.
- In at least 15 states, black men are sent to prison on drug charges at rates ranging from 20-57 times those of white men.
- Blacks, who comprise only 13% of the population, constitute 35% of all arrests for drug possession, 55% of all convictions on those charges, and 74% of all those sentenced to prison for possession.
- A black man is 7 times more likely to be murdered than a white man.
Hughley sets out to counter these grim statistics with the comedy attack style developed by Michael Moore, Sacha Baron Cohen, and The Daily Show. This first involves trying to get people to sign a petition to have the black man declared an endangered species. Even employing busty white sorority girls in what Hughley calls the “Bermuda Triangle of white guilt”—Union Square in New York City—he gets few signatures.
One exchange unfolded like this:
“Black men’s habitat is being oppressed,” one of the sorority girls tells a passer-by.
“By who?” the man asks.
Hughley spends time with a white supremacist to get his take on race relations and the survival of whites and blacks.
“I do the same thing for white people that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson do for black people,” the racist states confidently.
“You annoy white people?” Hughley responds.
Hughley tries to get him to sign the petition to save the black man on the principle that losing African-Americans would destroy the neo-Nazi ecosystem of hate. He doesn’t get a signature, but they do share a black and white cookie, and they both agree they hate the latest Tyler Perry movie.
A couple of segments point out with more bitter irony how systemic racism stacks the deck against African Americans. Hughley has a conversation with two young men from South Central L.A., members of the Bloods street gang. Although he’s sympathetic to the conditions they’ve grown up in (one of the kids, who can’t be older than 20, has been shot four times) he challenges them to see the larger implications of their life choices. He points out that companies like Corrections Corporation of America are getting rich on young black men not getting their lives together, as they privatize the “corrections industry.” Partially as a piece of agitprop consumerism, and partially to send a message to the young gang members, he buys them each a piece of stock in CCA, so at least if they get sent to prison, they’ll be part owners in the company.
The second piece that should make anyone’s blood boil involves the case of egregious environmental racism. Hughley visits an African-American family in Tennessee who lost their father and had several other family members get sick with cancer when a landfill moved next to their family farm. Adding to the understandable “not in my back yard” sense of violation that any property owner would feel at such a development, it seemed more than a little suspicious that the landfill was placed in a majority-black populated part of the county. The daughter of the family later found out that white residents in the area had received letters from the county warning them not to drink their well water because it would be contaminated. Black residents received a letter from the county that told them their well water was perfectly safe. With the family patriarch dying, the final insult came when they sued for damages and won, leaving some hope that they would have sufficient funds to pay for their father’s medical care. The white residents, however, were awarded their settlements right away. As the African-American family watched their father die, they had yet to receive one cent of their settlement. At this point, the petition for EPA endangered status for black men did not seem absurd at all, and Hughley had no trouble getting the family to sign on.
We’re now at a point in American history where racism hides itself well. We’ve seen this in the course of the Obama administration, where blatant statements of discrimination have been replaced with the vague (he doesn’t understand America) or the downright loony (he’s not from America). These are ways of “othering” Obama without bringing up the taboo topic of race. Environmental racism, often not as easy to spot as what happened to the family in Tennesee, is another socially acceptable form of racism. And, as I discovered, racism can be as subtle as allowing a negative status quo to continue unchallenged when it comes to the opportunity, health, and safety of people of different races and classes. Yes, the young Bloods Hughley interviewed needed to start taking personal responsibility for their lives, but if white kids of any socioeconomic status were getting shot four times before their 20th birthday, there would be community outrage and a demand for action.
Hughley’s show points out with humor, some that tickles and some that bites, that as a culture, either on purpose or simply by accepting that “that’s just the way things are,” we have assigned different value to peoples’ lives based on their race. This absurdity must end. We’ve all got to be bro life.