Dialogue, criticism must go both ways
Clarence Page | 7/2/2016, 12:26 a.m.
Because I’m not a regular viewer of “Grey’s Anatomy,” I didn’t know who actor Jesse Williams was until his eloquent rants about the state of race in America popped up in viral internet videos.
Now he has hit the big time. He has been widely hailed and covered for his “courage” and “speaking truth to power” in an eloquent speech he delivered after accepting the Humanitarian Award at the BET Awards on Sunday night.
It’s a stirring speech, a bracing indication of Mr. Williams’ theatrical talents, multimedia commentaries and community activism.
It also was a heartwarming speech. The Chicago-born Mr. Williams began with thanks to his parents, as cameras turned to his white mother and black father — stirring symbols of a new era of racial harmony.
He also paused to salute “black women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.” Big applause for that, deservedly so.
But from there I found his speech to be both energizing and troubling. High energy with inadequate direction to it is always troubling.
Mr. Williams has credited his biracial background with enabling him to witness America’s racial tribulations from both sides. Great. Unfortunately, only one side was expressed in his speech. Guess which one?
“Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day,” he said sarcastically, touching off big whoops with the crowd.
That’s a worthwhile point to make. I’ve made it myself after high-profile police killings and will do it again, if necessary.
But as an African-American who has listened to more speeches than you can shake a police baton at, I know that it does not take much courage to tell a mostly black audience that their biggest problem is white racism.
That’s about as challenging as telling a Donald Trump rally that their biggest problem is undocumented immigrants.
Real courage would have led Mr. Williams to say a few words to his showbiz audience and colleagues about the cultural decay and ethnic apartheid that America’s entertainment industry has promoted.
We need to talk about police brutality, job discrimination and shrinking educational opportunities. But we also need to talk about black folks killing each other, belittling the value of education and promoting the N-word in hip-hop media.
Yeah, I said it. I know that too many white conservatives have used black-on-black crime as an excuse to ignore such problems as police misconduct, even when the abuses are caught on video. I hear it all the time.
I also hear cynical conservatives attack BET, which stands for Black Entertainment Television, as self-segregation. “Why isn’t there a White Entertainment Television?” goes the sarcastic right wing cliché.
There is, folks. It’s called ABC, NBC, CBS, etc., etc. Failure to see that obvious reality explains why our nation’s racial divide persists despite our hard-won victories.
Mr. Williams did hold black entertainers accountable at one point, berating those who pray for lucrative product endorsements to “get paid for brands on our bodies.”
But to go further with black self-criticism might well have exposed Mr. Williams to the criticism that some black intellectuals like to make about President Obama whenever he strikes a similar balance in his speeches to black audiences. Folks, dialogue has to go both ways.