Hip Hop Fridays: Urban Legends - Debunking The Myth Of Acting White by Ras Baraka
I watched Barack Obama on MNBC at the National Democratic Convention in Boston. He stood tall, well groomed, articulate, and charismatic. He almost looked like he was coming from F.O.I. class. (He is out of Chicago.) He spoke eloquently and said all the right things. He was just enough for black people and right on for everyone else. He seemed informed enough about the position of black people in this country and our need to continue the struggle for democracy. He also said this couched in enough conservative rhetoric to get the RNC, on their convention webpage, to say that the only thing they liked about the DNC convention was Barack Obama’s speech and his declaration that black people knew it was time to destroy the myth that getting an education was acting white. While I truly believe that it is too early to have anything disparaging to say about Mr. Obama, and I don’t want to seemingly get in the way of an upcoming African American political leader that may do us some good, (or be labeled a hater) it all scares me. He reminds me of Cory Booker though the jury is still out. These new young black conservative democrats pop up from virtually nowhere, Ivy League educated and well versed in black quotations and Civil rights trivia. On the surface they appear as a Godsend. The new black leadership we were long waiting for, but upon further examination or if you follow the money trail you will find some strange ultra conservative folks hanging around.
In the Newark mayoral race Booker won the support of Conservative columnist George Will. Why would George Will be interested in Newark politics in the great state of New Jersey is beyond me? He also spoke at the Manhattan institute, the conservative think tank. He won national prominence as a new black reformer that was not burdened by the methods and ideas of the civil rights movement. He sat on the board of E- cubed, a Bradley/Walton family foundation creation designed to push for vouchers and destroy public schools. This based on the ideas of Milton Friedman and the Libertarian philosophy that the marketplace could even all-social problems and government programs and intervention should be as minimal as possible. Except those that would further their agenda of course as vouchers does. This kind of conservative support at best is strange. At its worse speaks to a larger strategy to begin to turn the ideas of a younger upcoming generation that has been neglected for years by its elders, against their parents. It tries to infiltrate the traditional black support of the Democratic Party. It is also an effort to begin to gain control of major cities and it’s would be base of activists that logically would seek to further the gains and ideas of the civil rights movement. More importantly, to begin to garner support for their more conservative ideas in urban centers while at the same time affecting statewide and national elections. These young charismatic leaders are almost all bred in these Ivy League schools and institutions. They are given financial support and national media attention. They sound like they fell right out of the black church and hold the trappings of young civil rights leaders but be still, and you will hear what they are really saying. The accountability speech and the responsibility speech is a means to destroy government programs, to decrease spending in education and anti poverty programs, to derail affirmative action and set asides, to make us the blame for the reason why these schools can’t teach our children or hold their interest. You can’t legislate values or fund a program that will make black children understand the importance of education, so why is the government responsible for raising your child. It’s not. So what we have to do is to get black people to love education the way they love to dance and sing. If you can’t hear the inherent racism in that…/the same black people that after slavery fought for education and established many of the statewide public school systems in the south when there were black lawmakers during reconstruction; The same black people that fought for equal opportunities in education and busing only to be met with white hatred and violence. When reading was illegal they read in secret and learned the Bible when books were off limits. I have never known a period in history when black people did not value education or did not see education as an integral part of their own salvation. Now in the era of digital technology and 90 million dollar sneaker deals, pimp my ride, corporate scandals, and not so smart presidents it definitely has become increasingly difficult to make any American youth understand the longevity and practical value of a thorough and efficient education.
What I really want to get at though is this growing urban myth that black people don’t like education, that we think being educated is acting white and somewhere deeply inherit in our culture is a lack of value for education. Maybe it came from slavery. I used to hear this being whispered from time to time at political meetings or conferences on education. Then the whispers began to grow louder, and finally Cosby, angry at why the civil rights movement and the struggle for democracy in this country did not bear the fruits expected, gave a scolding and dangerous speech at Howard University. It was dangerous because it opened the door for every nut of every nationality and their hatred for the black community. The Economists, a conservative magazine, began to recognize Cosby as a social critic. I guess they never saw “Black History Lost Stolen or Strayed.” They praised Cosby for his criticism of Black street culture and his notion that it was time to give up the excuses and blame us for having low expectations (or as the Bush calls it soft bigotry) thus low results. Cosby was no longer participating in the “conspiracy of silence about blacks’ dismal performance in school.” Its not poverty. Its not racism. Its not parity in school funding. Its rappers that are responsible for the state of black America. In fact we are the only people that have come here (well we were knocked over our head and dragged here) that have not been able to take advantage of the American Dream. As if the majority of people in this country that are poor are not white, that are failing are not white, that are on welfare are not white, that commit crime are not white, that even buy rap music are not white, that own the radio stations and communication outlets that play it are not white, that constantly cut money for education are not white.
We live in a country that does not value education or children for that matter. How many times have you seen our children in the streets shaking cans for uniforms, instruments, trips, or any other small thing that their district can’t afford. Soon they may be out there shaking cans for more teachers, or a new school building.
But constantly it’s us that devalue education. We don’t want to be white and since white people love education we logically hate it. I sat at a meeting at the High school where I work in celebration of the 5oth year of Brown V Board of Ed and listened to an alumnus of the school tell our students to write a paper investigating how we could change our culture’s lack of value for education. I was at a High school graduation in Newark and heard the keynote speaker (a black man) say, “ If people are saying you acting white because you are smart, then be the best damn cracker you can be.” The Urban League in the State of Black America attributes some of our problems in education on our “attempt to avoid acting white,” and that we believe that, “success in school is for Whites and Asian students.” Where is all of this coming from? I was a fairly good student in school and went on to Howard University I was never accused of being or acting white. At Howard I met some of the smartest people on the planet. Doctor’s, Lawyers, Engineers. My friend Jelani Cobb is a Professor at Spellman in Atlanta. He was one of the smartest out of the bunch. I can’t recall any of us or anyone else that had any sense call him white. This may be because he was an activist and organizer, or used his intelligence to further the well being of others in his community. I have been involved in public education as a teacher and administrator for over 10 years now. I have come across students that can barely read if at all to students that score over 1300 on the SAT. I can safely say that all of them believed that education was important and understood its value. Some just thought it was more attainable than others, or saw it as a viable option for their immediate lives. There is a student that attends University High School In Newark, my alma mater, he sat in the audience that graduation day and heard the speaker say to them,” be the best damn cracker you can be.” This student played basketball, he was featured in Essence magazine, and he is involved in the student body politics, and is a community activist of sorts. He is also attending George Washington University this year. I don’t think anyone at the school ever considered him being white, or thought that he thought he was white, or chased him around and isolated him because he was smart. The three doctors from Newark, Rameek, George, and Sampson all grew up in Newark, N.J. in all of their struggles and obstacles in their life as written and told in their book and lectures, none of them said anything about trying to overcome the isolation and hatred they felt for being smart or being accused of acting white. In fact people are actually proud of those that are successful. They brag of their success at family outings, at community events and public meetings. They actually believe that their success could mean progress for their community. That one day this person will come back and help others to move forward. So where did this myth come from, that has united conservative white America and the black middle class.
Conservative white America, their racist, and ideologues don’t believe in public education period. First of all a large portion of it (almost 40%) is inhabited by a growing minority population that will soon be the majority in public education. They believe that we are constantly oiling a machine that is broken; we either cant or don’t want to learn. Spending dollars to improve education in our community is a waste of funds; to be concerned or take responsibility for the plight of urban education is a mistake (while they are willing to spend billions to build schools and pay for teachers in occupied Iraq.) The ultra conservative amongst them believe that everything should be left to the marketplace and that public education is a socialist plot. It all absolves them of any guilt or responsibility to remedy some 400 years or more of slavery and disenfranchisement. That it was only 50 years ago that we were allowed to go to any school we wanted to, at least de Jure. Less than 35 years ago only 1/3 of us finished the 12th grade and a little over 50 percent finished the 12th grade only 24 years ago. That even today as I write this the majority of our children still attend segregated schools. Segregated in nationality and resources. Our struggle for education in this country has been long and full of obstacles, and it wasn’t until very recently that we even begun to marginally compete on a national level. Blaming us gives them a way out of leveling the playing field or dealing with the problems of western democracy. The Black Middle class on the other hand likes this argument because it allows them to ignore the fact that black poor and working families struggled, and shed blood in this country for inclusion and more democracy. They supported black business and bought black, they fought for voting rights and elected black politicians. They held sit- ins and boycotts to open up public accommodations for black people. They marched against schools and got dogs siced on them and their children blown up in churches to kill apartheid in America (Jim Crow) They opened up schools and universities and established Affirmative action programs. They died in all of America’s wars and came home and fought against inequality and segregation at home and demanded more representation and more inclusion and more black people on TV, on the radio, in the movies, in the schools, in business, in housing, on the board, in the hospitals, in law, and the list grows and grows. And the black people that were in position to benefit from these gains did. All of this arguably played a major role in the expansion of the black middle class their marginal power and the increased access they have to more money and resources. Could there be a Kobe Bryant, and a Shaquille Oneal, an Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, or even a Clarence Thomas and Condleeza Rice without the struggles that took place before them. The problem is that most of this new found wealth and resource has not translated into any real upward mobility for the overwhelming majority of black people in this country. In fact in some areas things have stayed the same which means they are getting worse. The majority of black children in this country still attend predominantly minority schools. These schools still suffer from resources, personnel and space. There is a national movement to achieve equity in spending in urban school districts. It can be argued that the black middle class has abandoned the continued fight for democracy in this country and have now adopted Booker T’s bootstrap theory now that they are out of the rain. In fact they have joined with the rest America to declare black people to be shiftless, ghetto, lazy, criminal, and devaluing education. How else can you explain their individual success? They are obviously doing something different than most other black people in this country. Just a generation ago “the man” was holding us back now that us has turned into you- Niggers became the problem.
Ras Baraka is Newark New Jersey's Councilman at Large
Friday, January 6, 2006