What Black Lives Matter Could Do To Really Help Black People

What Black Lives Matter Could Do To Really Help Black People

The energies of activists and any Americans who want to see substantive progress should be directed toward promoting individual opportunity, which is this nation’s greatest strength.
John Glenn
By

Snoop Dog’s crude Instagram comments about the History Channel’s remake of “Roots” and other recent productions that explore American slavery set off a wave of aggrieved reactions. In his rant, the Doggfather basically repudiates movies that show black people being brutalized by whites. He also admonishes filmmakers to produce movies that show more flattering images of black success, and calls on “real niggas” like him to avoid watching slavery-focused epics.

All told, Snoop Dogg’s remarks broached an interesting and timely debate. For example, The Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts penned an open letter to the West Coast rapper, criticizing him for condemning “Roots” just as many had condemned gangsta rap in the late ’80s and ’90s for its profane commentary on urban street culture. The irony is that, at the time, Snoop and other artists defended their music as important social documents.

NewsOne anchor Roland Martin also lambasted the rapper/actor (who holds the unfavorably reviewed “Soul Plane” as a film credit) for not signing on to produce black indie films, which hope to offer a broader reflection of the black experience. What we have here is really a culture wars debate. As is sometimes the case, when you get beyond the rhetorical skirmish, all parties seem to be genuinely concerned with the kinds of cultural content presented to this generation.

Our Conflict Addiction

In our age of social media and instant downloads, people are right to sound off about the subject matters and images to which this generation is exposed. According to the Pew Research Center, with the aid of smartphones, 92 percent of American teens go online daily. Over the last few years, young and old alike have been fed a steady diet of mass shootings, terrorism, police shootings of unarmed black men, and violent political protests. Social media and our 24-hour news cycle have left us both informed and unnerved.

Add to that the FBI’s Semiannual Crime Statistics, which saw an increase in every offense in the violent crime category in 2015. That’s the external reality. But how we respond to it is even more important. The real problem is that we’ve become a society fixated on conflict.

Sure, everyone needs to stay informed, but being overly preoccupied with societal conflict is problematic. In the ’90s, then University of Chicago professor Gerald Graff wrote a book called “Beyond the Culture Wars.” He argued that American higher education could face the culture wars by teaching “the conflicts” (hotly debated issues) instead of trying to claim apolitical distance. Graff wanted to deal with the conflicting views students and professors across humanities disciplines hold by not ignoring the tensions over race, gender, multiculturalism, etc.

While this may not be a bad idea if you’re an English professor teaching Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” in a sophomore literature class, as of late, dwelling on the conflicts has been damaging America.

Talk Is Cheap

Americans are becoming increasingly polarized on social issues. Our divided allegiances even have a jingoism to them that often thwarts communication. That’s really the nature of identity and cultural politics. Sympathy aside, I don’t know anyone who thinks that in 2016, this or that group has come close to understanding the particular struggles of another.

That’s not, as some have suggested, because society is unwilling to talk about things like race in public or because people lack empathy. It’s just that talking about controversial issues and airing grievances, while sometimes informative and useful in the proper context, does very little to remedy social or economic reality, particularly in black communities. This is one point buried in the whole “Roots” dust-up, which I’m sure Snoop and his counterparts would agree with.

As Americans, how do we cope with the visceral conflicts that are ubiquitous across media? Some of us might switch off cable news and instead surrender an hour and a half to a screwball comedy that requires little to no emotional output. Or we might enjoy a superhero flick where some meta-human swoops in and vanquishes evil.

In other words, it’s logical to opt for a mental health break every now and then, to look for a more comforting reflection of humanity, even if it’s comic-book inspired, rather than watching real-life domestic terrorists harm innocent people. In a world where we’re saturated in conflict, many people besides Snoop are going to shun historical features in favor of lighter content in their media choices. This may provide temporary relief. But the only way to get out of the miasma of conflict is for this generation to find a way to bring opportunity back into the picture.

This a deceptively simple notion requires reframing our view of America. We have to acknowledge that, with all its challenges, America is still the land of opportunity. Conor Friedersdorf posted an email interview with a journalist named Martha Tesema. Friedersdorf pointed out that Martha was an unaffiliated supporter of Black Lives Matter. The purpose of the interview was to come to terms with why the two disagreed about the interruption tactics of the Black Lives Matter activists who interrupted a Bernie Sanders speech in Seattle in 2015. Friedersdorf’s point was that, in disrupting speeches, activists might be alienating someone whose views are sympathetic to their own.

Favoring the strategy, Tesema argued it “disrupted the status-quo and kick-started needed conversations that I was desperate to have with strangers, friends, and co-workers.” What was missing from the interview was any mention of opportunity-based solutions to the injustices Tesema wanted to rectify. Instead, she was content to see activists harp on “the conflicts.” Tesema wrongly assumes that awareness of a problem is the most important factor when it comes to solving that problem’s underlying issues. Another unfortunate miscalculation is that those outside her community (culturally and geographically) are somehow best positioned to address her concerns.

Shift the Focus to Opportunities

For any real change to happen, people have to access channels of opportunity. It does not follow that spontaneous protests will lead to anything more than dubious public policy reform. But education channels can start careers. Economic channels can reduce poverty.  Neighborhood renewal channels can restore communities.

Look at it this way: Today, there’s less policing in cities like Baltimore and Chicago, but poverty persists. Mistrust of local politics and the criminal justice system has only deepened. I’m not suggesting political channels are impotent, but the energies of activists and any Americans who want to see substantive progress should be directed toward promoting individual opportunity, which is this nation’s greatest strength.

According to the Opportunity Index, which measures factors and trends that contribute to economic mobility, overall opportunity in America has increased every year since 2011. Some of the highest-paying sectors need workers. Things aren’t perfect, of course, but the search for cosmic justice is a fool’s errand. Opportunity is a much more reliable path beyond more division and disaffection.

Some of the positive responses to the reimagining of “Roots” suggest many are not shying away from one of the country’s oldest conflicts—the enslavement of African Americans. Some believe that the new miniseries, following the influential 1970s epic, will impart this generation with a sense of profound meaning about the nature of American identity. In a self-protective gesture, others refuse to see “Roots” as broadcasting the shame of black Americans.

Then there are those who believe history is important, period—be it slavery, the Holocaust, or the Trail of Tears. Whatever the historical event, it should be viewed and reflected upon as an intellectual exercise perhaps, but it’s a mistake to attach any sort of larger social purpose to “Roots” or any form of entertainment.

Only Opportunity Can Improve Lives

This doesn’t mean that the way people process movies and music doesn’t have real social consequences. When paired with insight, guidance, and the right questions, the effect of historical portraits can be remarkable. When constrained by conditions of poverty and mediocre education, the impact can be dire. To put it plainly, there’s no guarantee that watching “Roots” will empower the average black American with enough understanding of society—or race, for that matter—to significantly improve his or her life chances. Only opportunity can do that, which is why the main thing we should glean from the “Roots” debate is that this generation of millennials needs to get beyond the conflicts to more productive efforts.

After wading through this whole ordeal, I’m left with one question. Who are the “real niggas” to whom Snoop refers in his rant—those he asks to shun “Roots”? Does he mean socially conscious black people or people who embrace American meritocracy in general? I guess it doesn’t really matter, because “Roots” won’t do the work of seizing opportunity for this generation any more than it did for the previous ones.

Still, Snoop is right to call out to people who aren’t looking to “Roots” to tell them who they are. He is wrong, though, to presume the production will leave others dejected. Ultimately, this generation will need to harness a new set of assumptions about life and liberty. But first they’ll have to see conditions clearly enough to avoid being paralyzed by conflict and grievance.

Subjects like race will likely always be a mainstay of conflict in our public discourse. So the only way to route us into more meaningful dialogue, to circumvent the demagogues and others who are obsessed with this social construct, is to tie the rhetoric of race to the reality of opportunity.

John Glenn holds a PhD in English from the University of Florida. He is now an assistant professor of English at Atlanta Metropolitan State College, and his writings have appeared in The Birmingham News, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Library Journal.

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