Many view people of African descent as inferior and treat us as such. Our only dubious consolation has been that we have been feared as well. That trepidation was largely rooted in, as A. Moore argues, White anxiety associated with the “Black male predator narrative,” our alleged thirst for vengeance, the “projection” of European’s history of violence against us, on us, rather than themselves, “moral blindness,” “Ethnic Notions” in popular culture including the media, rejection by fellow Whites for consorting with “those people,” “genetic annihilation” through inter-racial coupling, and the rise of Black socio-economic power and the demise of White supremacy.
Niccolo Machiavelli, in The Prince, stresses the efficacy of deterrence, while arguing that it is better to be feared than respected, let alone loved. If a person or persons thinks or knows that crossing you will engender quick and harsh reprisal, they are less likely to, as they say in my old neighborhood, “run up on you,” or so the theory goes. Ask the original USA “Dream Team” about deterrence. After the 1988 USA basketball team, made up entirely of college players, finished in third place in the Seoul Olympics, USA basketball, at the behest of an outraged public, recruited our finest professional players, convened the best basketball team in history, and defeated the competition by an average of 44 points in route to their gold medal victory and restoration of American preeminence. The USA not only wanted to recapture gold, we wanted to beat the competition resoundingly so as to eliminate any notion of our vulnerability. Dream Team 2016 on the other hand, over reliant on individual ability and the deterrence that the first Dream Team established, has been the recipient of unprecedented trash talk as well as downright impertinent competition, as it often narrowly defeated its opponents who neither feared nor deferred to them. Dream Team 2016 won gold yet again, but the experience is no longer stress free. As Christine Louise Hohlbaum maintains, “fear is a tricky human emotion.” It can paralyze you. It can keep you from your dreams. It can keep you small. It can also keep you safe.”
Indeed, racial deterrence, following the civil rights and Black Power eras, used to keep Black people relatively safe. Not from social, economic, and political inequality and oppression, but from racist “micro-aggressions,” bigoted loquaciousness, and naked physical aggression. If someone outside of our community suffered from temporary insanity and directed a ”funky attitude,” foul gestures, and racist words toward Black people during the 1970s when I was a kid, they were almost guaranteed a tongue-lashing and/or “ass-whoopin.”
Even my mother, an educated, demure, sophisticated proponent of peace, told me that I could expect a stern and painful rebuke at home if I ever allowed someone to call me a “nigger” without delivering my own swift and corporal punishment to the perpetrator. “Don’t ask any questions,” she commanded, “just let them know in your response that there is a price to pay.” I was taught that some lines shouldn’t be crossed. This is one of them.
Apparently more and more Black people are not taught this or they simply disagree, because the metaphorical, euphemistical, and literal use of the “N-Word” by non-Black people has reached epic proportions. Some will conveniently cite hip-hop as the source of this problem, but notwithstanding the pervasive use of the term in rap music, the historical record does not reveal Black people, beyond “respectable” elites, or any other community for that matter, using the term less then than they do now. I’m always tickled and frustrated as a historian, at the a-historical framing of the pervasiveness of the “N-Word”. In any event, at this juncture, I don’t believe that Black people are respected or feared.
Yet again, people say and do whatever they want to us, whenever they want, with no fear of institutional and personal consequence. Earlier this week, after running a stop sign causing her to nearly broadside my son and me as we left our neighborhood gym, a young White woman yelled, “why don’t you drive faster you dumb nigger”. I yearned for the good old days of racial deterrence and thought to myself, “racist vehicular valor is about as convenient as ‘keyboard’ courage.” I should know. There is a Wikipedia entry devoted to my vilification under the guise of “biography.” It was written and is maintained by malevolent and vindictive trolls, masquerading as legitimate biographers, who are committed to “destroying” me. Attempts to edit the entry with positive information are promptly “corrected” by these vigilantes and treated as “Vandalsism” by an automated ClueBot NG program. Even Wikipedia, as a White ally told me, favors White privilege.
The authors lack the nerve to own their bigotry and call me the “N-Word” to my face, so they engage in plausibly deniable racist web-rage, knowing that many in White America, Black sycophants, and a number of potential clients and employers, will not want to risk “brand safety” on me, take the time to read between the lines or place the propaganda in the proper context. Like Charlie Murphy’s Rick James, my haters are stealthy in their “habitual line stepping.” As one of my more colorful associates remarked, “the title of your entry might as well read, “That N@*%$! Matthew C. Whitaker.”
Make no mistake about it, I don’t blame White people for the demise of racial deterrence, elements within the Black community, who have sacrificed our humanity and at the altar of ineffectual and emasculating respectability politics are at fault. Overly concerned about what non-Black people think about them, their stride, dress, diction, degrees, jobs, pocketbooks, and mainstream popularity, they have abdicated what one of my mentors called the “warrior spirit,” and christened it “strategy” and “discretion”. How convenient. My question is, that may be working for you, but how is that working for us? It may be practical and profitable for some in predominantly White institutions, C-Suites seats, and powerless “advisory” positions, but most of us on the ground have no symbolic appointments, jobs, contracts, or nest eggs to lose. Even we of the elusive degrees, designer bags, and classy cars, are but one bad run away from poverty and homelessness, thanks to inter-generational systemic racism, inequity, Black double-dealers, and racist wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing.
Now, to add insult to injury, we must endure the resuscitation of random racist reprimands, internet drive-byes in disguise, and a veritable cavalcade of professional lynchings to boot. Nearly every Black man who I know, and I know many, laborers and white collars alike, have been professionally and/or publicly eviscerated in someway, with devastatingly racist over and undertones, and most of us don’t get book deals, satellite radio shows, television programs, and movie scripts in consolation, as our White male counterparts often do. Like Michelangelo’s “Christ in the Last Judgment,” even the face of condemnation and forgiveness is White.
“But Dr. Whitaker, are you promoting anger, bitterness, belligerence, conflict, and violence?” No–insert generic, obligatory and comforting abstention from “angry Black manhood”–I’m promoting realism and intolerance for all things anti-Black, from C-Suites to the streets. Racial deterrence made most non-Black people uncomfortable with dismissing, disparaging, and assaulting us, whereas such uneasiness is now on the endangered list, because we have for too long, allowed ourselves to be divided and hunted in our communities, colleges, and corporations. We must be smart and cultured, but we must also maintain certain boundaries, not simply as individuals, but as a community. Our obsession with position, propriety and the illusion of acceptance and power, has done the opposite of what many of us desired. It strengthened the prominence of some individuals in our midst, while weakening us as a whole. Like Dream Team 2016, our one-on-one game and false sense of security has made us vulnerable to defeat because human beings fear and respect formidable groups far more than amazing individuals. If Black folks want to combat the wanton open season on us, we had better move the ball, set screens, speak with our chest, and otherwise set the tone, because when racial deterrence is extinct we may be as well.