Everyone has an opinion about protests. Dissents splash our screens and news media, announcing expressions of anguish, defiance, and indignation regarding political and social bias and oppression. To feign neutrality or indifference to these outcries is to suppress one’s own emotions or defend against identifying one’s true sentiments.
The latest provocative event in a spate of newsworthy demonstrations involves football player Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem before the start of a game. The quarterback has chosen to stand for a different cause—that of objecting to police treatment (alleged mistreatment) of minorities. Colin Kaepernick has also publicly sported socks depicting police as pigs. As well, he has spoken out about his beliefs and resentments regarding inequality and mistreatment of minorities in America.
Predictably, his actions have been polarizing. The protest has magnetized to one side those offended by his seeming disrespect and entitlement and to the other side those defending his right to free speech and sympathetic to his cause. I suspect that those against Kaepernick resent what they perceive as upstart disrespect, dishonor, and arrogance, while those in support of his actions secretly relish his rebellion, moxie, and belief in the legitimacy of his cause.
The rallying call is for the rights and value of minorities in general, but it is specifically black Americans who have been the lightning rod for much of the recent volatile social protests and clamoring. Police shootings of African-Americans in recent years have catapulted race, inequality, and differential justice into the spotlight of controversy. Racial issues, values, behaviors, and emotions remain a crucible for attitudes, identification, and the confusion and incongruities that characterize American social order, politics, and economics.
The Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum in the wake the horrifying violence that won’t recede. The movement seeks to “broaden the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state… about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.” (from http://blacklivesmatter.com)
Black pride movements are not particularly new (although, realistically, before the 1960s, blacks who spoke out or who were even perceived to be contrarian or “uppity” received swift and blatant comeuppance and overt excommunication). The last half-century has witnessed a variety of black identity movements bringing to the public forum the inequities surrounding race in American culture, institutions, history, and law.
It can be argued that such “progress” is laudable, overdue, divisive, and regrettably not enough (depending upon one’s identity, patience, and degree of humility).
In perspective, let’s remember that black lives have always mattered! Despite racism in our country (not unique to the U.S., although, as with many matters, America’s brand careens with excess), the quest for recognition, inclusion, and power within the society has continuously mattered to minorities, to millions of caring people and to God, our creator!
Yes, there is injustice. If it is disproportional to certain disenfranchised groups, then the assertion or conclusion that those who are disenfranchised or discriminated against don’t matter is emotionally biased, illogical, and not borne out by the love, caring, and inclusion, felt and extended by people of all stripes, colors, and ethnicities. No argument that discrimination has been more pervasive against certain minorities—and I know it rankles to remind the biased militant that Hispanic, Asian, and Jewish lives, etc. also matter.
In the matter of lives mattering, let’s review some terms relevant to the grievances upon which protests are based. A bigot is someone who thinks or expresses intolerance, resentment, or superiority based on class, race, sex, or some social or biological category. Bigots justify and rationalize their conscious beliefs.
A racist is someone who harbors or internalizes intolerance, resentment, or superiority based on class, race, sex, or some social or biological category; moreover, the person who is racist may not be aware of his intolerant or discriminatory thoughts or actions or of how his words or actions are perceived or interpreted by others as racist.
Discrimination (in the legal and social meaning) most often refers to treating a class of people differently based upon their class standing, preferential or social acceptance, or ethnic grouping. Of course, there are laws against such discrimination. In certain contexts, however, discrimination is reasonable and desirable. For instance, we discriminate when we select food, clothes, vacation destinations, and cars and base our choices on accrued past experiences. It’s totally rational to have likes and preferences and to pursue these penchants. In other contexts, discrimination that reflects prejudice and irrationality is undesirable and is most typically destructive and hateful.
Prejudice, in the final analysis, boils down to preconception or prejudgment. It seems that the current grass roots protests embodied in the Black Lives Matter movement fervently express the indignation at what appears to be systemic discrimination based upon prejudice (conscious or otherwise).
Critics on one side point not only to the alarming incidents of shootings, but to the statistics that portray highly imbalanced rates of arrests, stops, shakedowns, and judicial dispositions for minorities (flagrantly aimed at the black population). Critics on the other side point out that these statistics are based upon the actual incidences of crimes that are committed at a much higher rate by blacks (usually against blacks and correspondingly affecting the black populations in cities proportionally). For a clear explanation and review of this perspective, read Heather MacDonald’s The War on Cops (2016). Whether or not you buy Macdonald’s data and arguments, her book provides, at the very least, a detailed recounting of the changes in urban police practices over the last two decades in response to governmental sanctions and investigations, as well as media coverage. MacDonald chronicles some of the law enforcement programs and police modifications in New York City, such as “Broken Windows policing” and The Trespass Affiliation Program (also known as TAP or Clean Halls). It was chilling for me to read MacDonald’s report on the lawlessness and drug dealing that pervaded the Mount Hope section of the Bronx, because that was where I grew up!
The violence in our society is increasing. There is social unrest and disorder that touches most lives and communities. Protesters and organized groups are voicing utter frustration and outrage regarding those police departments and police officers that have a track record of egregious and violent disregard of the basic rights of black people and other minorities. The incidents that have come to light only recently (and, undoubtedly, there are so many other such incidents) highlight the conflict between the thankless duties of law enforcement and the inherent prejudices that result in profiling and excessive force.
The challenges in policing are monumental. Gang sponsored violence is proliferating at an alarming rate. People are shot for the most trivial of reasons or are caught in crossfire. Cops are beleaguered and afraid. In response, they resort to a modus operandi of “(excessive) force” to maintain control. In many areas of the nation, it’s a battlefield in the streets with gangs facing off against the police, while young, essentially law-abiding teenagers are caught in the middle and are being profiled and hassled or killed by both sides. Prisons are bursting at the seams. Sociopathic gang members are inured to the consequences of their actions. They don’t fear prison. The traditional nuclear family is heavily eroded in the ghettos. And there’s no escape from the projects for law-abiding, aspiring middle class minority families. Gangs and an omnipresent drug culture pervade every aspect of life. It’s a catastrophe.
And yet, despite the war in the streets, the rampant prejudice, and the discrimination that seeps through the laws prohibiting it, black lives do matter and have always mattered.
Black lives mattered when Abe Lincoln “freed” slaves. Black lives mattered when Billie Holliday sang Strange Fruit to depict lynched blacks hanging from trees. Black lives mattered in 1954 when the United States Supreme Court (in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.
Black lives have mattered in a myriad of insuppressible expressions, loud and quiet, that give voice to caring, equality, and making a difference. Let me tell you about one of those voices, the protest of Greg King, nearly fifty years ago.
Greg King was my basketball teammate on the Bronx High School of Science varsity squad. After Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, Greg refused to stand for the national anthem during our school assembly. Greg was a high school junior at an elite public school. He was one a handful of black students in a dominantly white school population. Greg was not paid, nor was his protest televised. Because Greg was a leader, other students—black and white—followed his example. Greg was presumed to have an “angry attitude.” But dismissing him or quashing him was problematic because he was all around exemplary. Greg came from an “underprivileged” background. He gained admission to the Bronx High School of Science because he passed a rigorous exam, same as all entrants. Race was not a factor. His matriculation was an admission of brains, not of white guilt.
I liked Greg, and also resented him a bit—not because he was black, but because he kicked my ass on the basketball court and he was a far more conscientious student than I was, all other factors being equal or unequal. He was a role model, a person of upstanding character. People looked up to him; when he sat down in protest, people took note. Greg’s minor sedition (at a time when such expression was more than merely frowned upon) announced that he was not only a popular athlete and scholar, but a black American who was wounded as well by the bullet that killed his namesake, the other King. That Greg remained seated was clearly his way of silently saying, “How horrible what happens to black people when a little opportunity is doled out,” and his response affirmed that he wanted much more!
I don’t remember how I felt about the protest or about how much I supported Greg. What I do remember is that his stand (“seatedness,” actually) confronted me with a difference between us that I normally didn’t think about: Greg was black, and I was white. Yes, I know that color is always a factor, even subconsciously; but friendship, collaboration, and “brotherhood” tend to make the color factor less prominent or important. This is especially true on the court, on the battlefield, in marriages, and many other venues of engagement.
The problem for me was not Greg’s “blackness” or his “attitude.” It was that he declared a difference, an individuality that demanded to be respected and honored—and that declaration created a separation between him and me, the markers and boundaries of his individuality and sensitivity—that I’d not felt before. The challenge was to love and accept Greg King just as I had before he took a stand and to listen and evaluate his stand because of my connection with him, the merits of his protest, and the nature of his character.
Black lives have always mattered—because lives matter, and a percentage of lives are black, and a percentage of lives have been downtrodden, oppressed, and undervalued. This is not new, yet it remains a challenge to our morals, values, and our humanity.
Kaepernick’s protest has been measured in part by the yardsticks of economics and self-interest: how will it affect his income? Was he foolish? Impelled by puerile brazenness? Trying to gain attention or impress his girlfriend? Deeply motivated by a cause?
Though Kaepernick caused waves, his actions were surely not antisocial. This athlete did not use his prominence as did Ryan Lochte, the Olympic swimmer who let us all down by his misbehavior in Brazil. Nor did Kaepernick’s protest disrupt traffic, instigate violence, or cause economic obstruction (except maybe his own), although he is still guaranteed a salary of $11,000,000 this year. Another key point must be raised about the possible motivation for his actions: Kaepernick is adopted, and one of his birth parents is African-American. (This issue is examined in greater detail later in this essay.) He came forward to announce his hurt, his beliefs, and his insistence upon change (though what specific changes would make him pledge allegiance are heretofore unclear).
The bottom line is that Kaepernick’s celebrity cuts both ways as he becomes controversial: his success and leadership as a football player will be weighed against and along with his political dissent. His performance on the field is likely to determine the extent of tolerance for his outspokenness and opposition. There’s bound to be criticism from within his ranks and beyond about his football playing and his politics. Now, he’s put himself in the crucible where his athletic performance and social activism are interrelated.
Black lives mattered to me thirty years ago when I took a professional stand and protested the effects of a California Supreme Court ruling that I believed (and still do) discriminates against blacks and violates their rights to equal treatment.
In 1979, U.S. District Judge Robert F. Peckham ruled that standardized intelligence tests (IQ tests) discriminated against blacks in that the public schools used these tests as a basis for identifying and placing black students disproportionately in special education classes (specifically classes for the mentally retarded). In the 1980s, an appellate court took this a significant step further by banning the use of these tests entirely for black students in the state of California. In my view, this goes beyond “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” Whereas ensuring care in educational placement and culturally relevant factors in assessment bespeaks prudence and validity, disallowing the use of these carefully researched tests—developed, refined, and re-normed over decades—blatantly discriminates against blacks. This is so because it deprives blacks of accessibility to the best instruments available for cognitive measurement. Social discrimination is an evil, but psychometric discrimination is an attribute of tests that is critical for accuracy, validity, and reliability. Outlawing the use of these utilitarian and precise instruments because they were sometimes used in a systematically discriminatory and incompetent educational system is like throwing out thermometers because some people have had bad medical care.
I have used, interpreted, and developed tests for over forty years. I have assessed children and adults of all ages and dozens of cultures (and languages, using interpreters and limiting test interpretations where necessary, due to legitimate validity concerns involving language or culture). When one really examines the science and empirical evidence of these tests, the notion that intelligence tests are inherently racially biased against blacks is pure nonsense. To prohibit their (public institutional) use for black Americans is to promote a profound injustice in that it deprives black students of access to the very best assessment tools.
Let me share with you what I did in protest.
In the 1980s I was commissioned by a school district to comply with the judicial ruling by combing through voluminous student school records and redacting with a black magic marker any references to these IQ tests for black students. When my protests against the absurdity and detriment of this decree were stifled, I took thorough action. I redacted (crossed out) so many references, that the selected original student records of blacks looked like evidence of vandalism and graffiti. This is because IQ scores are so highly intercorrelated with achievement scores, that to redact one group without the other would be unfaithful to the mandate.
When confronted about my actions, I was prepared. I defended my methodology by using statistics (after all, that’s what tests depend upon, and I had taught graduate school statistics at two universities, including as an Assistant Professor at Cal State). I pointed out the correlations and reliability coefficients common between measures of intelligence and measures of achievement. The overlap and saturation between “ability” measures (those items on intelligence tests) and achievement measures (tests that measure reading, writing, math, and other academic performance levels) is strikingly high. In other words, smarter people tend to do better academically. (This is why these tests have what is called predictive validity.) Therefore, in order to fulfill the mandate to vacate black student records of information correlated with their IQ scores, I deemed it necessary and professionally responsible to get rid of achievement scores that intertwined with and reflected ability scores. My purpose was to level the playing field in assessment for all students, while maintaining integrity about education and measurement that the school districts and judicial system seem to have lost.
Yes, black lives mattered— and so did black magic markers!
As you can imagine, I was banished and I suffered financially and socially for my principled stand. What I did was professionally ethical and scientifically correct—but it was highly politically incorrect.
Here is an irony: to this day, although intelligence tests are still banned and inadmissible for black students in public education in California, it is possible to equivocate on some students’ “blackness.” A student who is the biological offspring of one black parent and a parent who is not black gets—for the purposes of educational “hot potato”— to be either black or non-black by choice. How cool and paradoxical! The schools haven’t figured out how to resolve that quagmire. So at least in some cases in the public sector (and fortunately for those with access to the private sector), blacks may still be on equal footing.
By now, you may have clues about my difficult agenda in addressing the degree and history to which “black” lives matter and the conundrum inherent in separating versus assimilating blackness.
Praise God that at least the “old racism” is antiquated. In many respects our nation has made great progress. Jim Crow is dead, there are no separate “colored” bathrooms and water fountains, and interracial couples are common and accepted. This has led to increasing mixed heritage offspring and confounded the American obsession with delineating “blackness.” We assume blackness to be genetic; but genetics can literally be a mixed bag. Blackness may also involve other qualifications.
Measuring blackness is an American pastime. Since colonial times, “blackness” points are allocated based on things like skin tone, diction, education, affluence, activities, attire, acquaintances, upbringing, and family. And the scorecard is used by Americans of all stripes to determine whether the owner of that voice deserves an audience, before even dealing with the merits of the message. That’s why it isn’t hard to find people discussing Kaepernick’s mixed-race heritage and upbringing, even though that may bear less relevance than his ideological and emotional indignation. Whether conscious or not, critics assessed his worthiness to be the carrier of a “black message.”
Kaepernick is the son of one black parent and one white parent. He was raised by two white parents after his own birth parents weren’t willing or able to raise him themselves.
The irony is, in the face of being told one isn’t black enough, American life constantly reminds black people that their blackness is being assessed, and that certain situations call for just the right dose of blackness. But the recommended dose of blackness is always in a state of flux, depending on the audience’s sensibilities.
Not only is this a phenomenon as American as apple pie, it’s one that goes straight to the top. In America, we can bestow Bill Clinton with the prestigious title of “America’s first black president”—a moniker Clinton loved even though novelist and professor Toni Morrison called him that because of how he was treated over his sex scandals. (“The first black president” reflects the history that Bill Clinton, although white-skinned, had earlier lived a life similar to that of many black men in America. But it’s also largely an epithet that reflects the fact that he, as a successful white man, nevertheless faces an environment similar to that faced by successful black men, where there is a systemic environmental tendency to demean their accomplishments and latch onto any of their failures, no matter how small. In the case of black men who rise out of poverty or troubled households, it’s the system of employers or the business community or law enforcement, who all persistently treat black men as somehow being more worthy of suspicion or scrutiny. Clinton’s upbringing bore stereotypical tropes of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, and a McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.)
Amazingly, ten years later, we could ask then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama when he decided he was black, as 60 Minutes anchor Steve Kroft did in 2007. Yes, that really happened. “Well, I’m not sure I decided it,” Obama replied. “I think if you look African-American in this society, you’re treated as an African-American.”
Obama isn’t immune to the black-o-meter; neither is Kaepernick, and neither are the millions of Americans who may be varying degrees of blackness, depending upon their actual heritage.
To strengthen my argument about the “blackness” of lives that matter, I risk recounting an “off-color” joke. I hope it doesn’t offend you, but instead highlights the parodies that obstruct social justice and sensibilities. I heard this at a live off-Broadway performance by Jewish comedian Jackie Mason (incidentally, also an ordained rabbi) when Barack Obama was campaigning for his first term of presidency:
“Some people are upset that a black man may become President. I don’t think it’s a relevant issue. First of all, it’s hard to determine how black he really is. If you ordered furniture in a black color and what was delivered looked like Obama’s skin tone, you’d send it back.”
Perhaps this was a disingenuous dig at Obama, a low racist blow by a white Jew… or perhaps it also raises the absurdity for the basis, justification, and continuation of racism.
I’m not impartial to this confusion. I have a daughter who’s half African. She’s the child of my current wife who begat her with an African Muslim. (Sorry, Jackie, we’re not sending her back.) Let’s add some more ethnic bias: it’s a matter of Jewish law that Jewishness in inherited through the mother. My wife (our daughter’s mother) is Jewish (That’s because her mother was Jewish—actually was in a Nazi concentration camp). So our daughter—though half African— is Jewish. Now, my first wife (with whom I bore two sons) was not Jewish. Before we married, she “studied” and converted to Judaism. But technically, our children are still not Jewish because of the native bloodline. So, I have one surviving son who is not Jewish and a stepdaughter who is half African, but Jewish. And none of my children were any good at basketball, whereas I, the white short Jew who could jump, excelled at this sport.
Oy vey! Cut a brother some slack!
Let’s get back to King and the Kaepernick-King effect. Martin Luther King exhorted that “a man be judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.” I’ve not been in touch with Greg King since shortly after Martin Luther King disappeared. Yet I have confidence that Greg King, as an individual of respectable character and courage, has gone on to live virtuously and contribute to the lives of others.
I coin the term, Kaepernick-King effect, to denote the conundrum that popularity and respectability may become tarnished when you differentiate yourself as an individual with vulnerabilities, values, and strongly held principles. There is often blowback when you take a stand and renounce the quest to please everyone.
If you are a vegetarian or you don’t particularly like dogs or children, you will offend some folks. When you sacrifice the security and comfort of camaraderie and acceptance to announce what’s important, you risk social ostracism and personal separation from those who matter to you.
For decades, I’ve taken a vociferous stand against the mainstream medical drugging of our population. Pills for attention, pills for sleep, chemical dependency as the conventional sanctioned treatment for anxiety and depression. And these are brazenly prescribed for the ordinary afflictions of the multitudes leading lives of quiet desperation. Try being progressive or politically incorrect and you may end up in a mental hospital or a gulag. (Read Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other dissidents.) On the other side, I conservatively rant against proponents of free love and marijuana use.
My mission is to save souls spiritually and to improve brains developmentally in a society that trammels both aspects of our humanity. For my efforts, I take plenty of hits from the establishment, as well as from rogue character assassins.
I’m just a blogger with professional standing, stepping out to announce that black lives have always mattered to sentient, caring people. Speaking your mind with integrity is risky, whether in the media or in a marriage and family. And all of it matters, regardless of race or origin and independent of whether it involves inequality, oppression, personal grievances, or emotional trauma. Your circumstances and persona may determine how much you have to lose and how much your adventure stands to help others gain. When you speak out, you’re on your own.
What is my motivation in stepping out and venturing my opinions on controversial topics? You decide.