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NEITHER CAPTAIN JOHNSONS NOR CHIEFS OF DIVERSITY

CAN SUBSTITUTE FOR THE NATIONAL VILLAGE TALKING ABOUT RACE

by PUM Contributor Jack L. Daniel  

                Across the nation, millions hoped violence would be reduced when Missouri Governor Jeremiah Nixon suspended Ferguson police and sent the super-hero, Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, to “restore law and order.”  They had good reasons to believe that he would succeed because  Captain Johnson was not only of and for the people, but he also [1] had a profound understanding of the role of empathy when addressing the most serious human affairs; [2] was a highly competent community-oriented police officer; [3] had the courage of a parent protecting a vulnerable child; and [4] knew clearly that it was time for the local officers to stand down, that then was not the time for officers appearing in full riot gear and in other ways suggesting that they were going to war instead of protecting the people. 


For some, Captain Johnson’s performance was so effective they thought he should be cloned!   Wishful and naïve thinking aside, the truth is that Captain Johnson’s effectiveness for a few days cannot serve as a substitute for the ongoing in-depth discussion this nation needs about the fundamental, long-rooted race problems in Ferguson and elsewhere.  Relying on a few more “Captain Johnsons” is tantamount to focusing on what happens to be the nearest small section of a southern California forest fire rather than implementing a strategy to extinguish the larger fire threating millions of acres.  It also detracts from planning to prevent such fires. 

At the time of an explosive crisis, sending in a “Captain Johnson” also conjures up memories of “Old Massa” calling upon “Uncle Adam” when the slaves had taken up axes and picks, prepared to revolt on the plantation.  “Uncle Adam” was the old loyal slave who told those plantation freedom fighters, “Ya’ll put those picks and axes back in the barn. Go on back to the ‘quarters’ before one of you do something for which “Massa” will have to tear up your flesh with his whip.”  In keeping with Malcolm X’s discussion of the differences between the “house Negro” and the “field Negro,” “Uncle Adam” was the “house Negro” who asked, “Where ya’ll going to find a better place than this?” 

In his speech, Malcom X explained, “So whenever that house Negro identified himself, he always identified himself in the same sense that his master identified himself.  …When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he'd say, "What's the matter boss, we sick?"

…But then you had another Negro out in the field. …The masses--the field Negroes were the masses. They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he'd die. If his house caught on fire, they'd pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze.

If someone came to the house Negro and said, "Let's go, let's separate," naturally that Uncle Tom would say, "Go where? What could I do without boss?"  …That's the house Negro. But if you went to the field Negro and said, "Let's go, let's separate," he wouldn't even ask you where or how. He'd say, "Yes, let's go…"

So now you have a twentieth-century-type of house Negro. A twentieth-century Uncle Tom. …He hasn't got anybody to defend him, but anytime you say "we" he says "we." "Our president," "our government," "our Senate," "our congressmen,” …When you say you're in trouble, he says, "Yes, we're in trouble." But there's another kind of Black man on the scene. If you say you're in trouble, he says, "Yes, you're in trouble."  He doesn't identify himself with your plight whatsoever.” Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan. 23 January 1963.  http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/mxp/speeches/mxa17.html 

Regarding the Ferguson episode, were “we” in trouble, “they” in trouble, “everyone” in trouble, or a sign that the “nation” was in trouble?  Who should have put out the fire sparked by yet another killing of a Black youth by a police officer?  Instead of a “Captain Johnson” quick fix, we need to thoroughly discuss the fact that in a town where Blacks are the vast majority of the people, the elected White Mayor could not serve/save Ferguson. 

What does it mean when [1] the police officers selected to serve and secure the people could not save Ferguson; [2] the White Governor of Missouri could not speak effectively to a group of Blacks gathered in a church must less save Ferguson; [3] “All of the King’s horses and all of the King’s men” could not put Ferguson back together again and, in the midnight hour, [4] the gallant Black Knight had to be rushed in to “restore law and order?”  Among other things, it means that once the super hero restores “law and order,” then the media will cease its focus on Ferguson, Black activism will recede as surely as an outgoing tide, and Ferguson will be “restored” to an American permutation of South African apartheid. 

Relying on “Captain Johnsons” is reminiscent of what happens all too often in higher education when colleges and universities hire Chief Diversity officers.  In most cases, Chief Diversity officers are mere “gadflies” periodically pestering White administrators and others in “institutionally approved” ways. Of equal importance is the fact that in most cases Chief Diversity officers do not have significant fiduciary or supervisory responsibilities.  Whereas Deans, Department Chairs, and senior tenured faculty, for example, participate in the process of awarding tenure to a faculty member, the Chief Diversity officer is most often outside the tenure decision processes. 

In the context of the broader need for the “campus village” to have ongoing discussions regarding race relations, where are we if on a given campus the Chancellor, Provost, Dean and senior faculty members are as inept as the elected Ferguson officials and must rely heavily on their Chief Diversity officer when campus Blacks or alumni mount a protest?   If this happens, in Malcom X terms the scenario would include the modern “Uncle Adam” appearing before the Blacks, the press, and others to state, “Our university is committed to diversity and inclusion.  Where are you going to find a more committed institution?”  Such shenanigans are deserved of the criticism made by Attorney General Eric Holder.

In a February, 2009 speech, Eric Holder said, “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race. It is an issue we have never been at ease with and given our nation’s history this is in some ways understandable. And yet, if we are to make progress in this area we must feel comfortable enough with one another, and tolerant enough of each other, to have frank conversations about the racial matters that continue to divide us. But we must do more- and we in this room bear a special responsibility.” http://www.justice.gov/ag/speeches/2009/ag-speech-090218.html

 

In my opinion, it is cowardly to depend on “Captain Johnsons” and “Chief Diversity Officers” as opposed to utilizing those with the primary responsibilities for all matters related to the institution in question.  On the campus scene, it is odorous when “Captain Johnsons” and “Chief Diversity Officers” are summoned to “douse flames” and then retire to their seldom seen “quarters” until perhaps a “pomp and circumstance” event requires their presence and brief remarks to demonstrate the “institutional commitment” to the increasingly empty phrase “diversity.” 

 

Truth and reconciliation can only begin when those in the most senior roles take responsibility for their actions as did the Atlanta Hawks owner when he indicated, “I trivialized our fans by making clichéd assumptions about their interests (i.e. hip hop vs. country, white vs. black cheerleaders, etc.) and by stereotyping their perceptions of one another (i.e. that white fans might be afraid of our black fans). By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.

If you're angry about what I wrote, you should be. I'm angry at myself, too. It was inflammatory nonsense. We all may have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race, but my role as a leader is to challenge them, not to validate or accommodate those who might hold them.

I have said repeatedly that the NBA should have zero tolerance for racism, and I strongly believe that to be true. That is why I voluntarily reported my inappropriate e-mail to the NBA.” http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2190181-bruce-levenson-to-sell-atlanta-hawks-latest-details-comments-and-reaction.

In Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, for example, where we have many colleges and universities, the Chancellors, Provosts, Deans, Department Chairs, other supervisors and those supervised must display zero tolerance for racism.  High ranking campus leaders must lead frank discussions regarding race, religion, gender, and sexual orientations as opposed to passing the responsibility off to their campus diversity super heroes and centers.  They cannot wait until Martin Luther King Jr. day to utter a few pacifying words related to “judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.”  When it comes to addressing racism, campus leaders must heed the advice in Edgar Guest’s poem. 

 

I'd rather see a sermon than hear one any day:
I'd rather one would walk with me than merely tell the way.

The eye's a better pupil, and more willing than the ear,
Fine council is confusing, but example's always clear.

The best of all the preachers are men who live their creed,
For to see good put into action, is what everyone needs.

I can soon learn how to do it, if you let me see it done,
I can catch your hands in action, but your tongue too fast my run.

And the lecture you deliver may be very wise and true,
But I'd rather get my lesson by observing what you do.

For I may misunderstand you in the high advice you give,
But there is no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.

When I see an act of kindness, I am eager to be kind;
When a weaker brother stumbles, and a stronger stays behind.

Just to see if I can help him, then the wish grows strong in me,
To be as big and thoughtful as I know that friend to be.

And all travelers can witness that the best of guides today,
Is not the one that tells them, but the one that shows the way.

 

 

Jack L. Daniel

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

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