In recent weeks there have been a number of news stories about young black men who were accepted to numerous elite colleges, including any and all of the blue chip, Ivy League schools of their choice. All of these positive news stories have provided a welcome respite from the usual fare, the portrayals of black youth as dangerous thugs, uneducated, unproductive, and a criminal element.
To be sure, as perhaps the most vulnerable demographic in America, black men have it hard. We are demonized, scapegoated and vilified, and the prisons are more than ready to accommodate us. And yet, we succeed against all odds. We always have suffered, and we always have demonstrated excellence. But I wonder, just for a second, for all of the black boys who are cultivated and supported, how many more are discouraged from succeeding on purpose?
The acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson never ceases to illuminate and educate whenever he opens his mouth, and remarks he made five years ago about the shortage of women in science are no exception. Answering a question about the predominance of male scientists and whether it is genetically related -- as former Harvard president and Treasury Secretary Larry Summers suggested -- Tyson used the opportunity to speak to the barriers facing African-Americans such as himself when he was growing up.
I've never been female, but I've been black all my life and so let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective. I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expressions of these ambitions. All I can say that is the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist was, hands-down, the path of most resistance through the forces of society.
Tyson noted that whenever he expressed this interest in becoming a scientist, teachers steered him towards athletics, throwing curveballs at every turn. And now one of the most prominent scientific minds around, this African-American man had aroused suspicion at the department store.
Now here I am, I think, one of the most visible scientists in the land. And I look behind me and I say, "Where are the others who might have been this?" And they're not there. And I wonder: Where is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not simply because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn?
The forces of society to which Tyson is referring are engaged in a collective effort. Certainly, individuals such as Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, and Nevada rancher-turned-conservative folk hero Cliven Bundy do their part with their racist rants and dehumanization of people of color. Surely these men would love to stifle the aspirations of black children if they had half the chance and the power to make it happen. The former profits from the labor of young black men in a black basketball league, yet does not want black folks at his basketball games. And the latter believes the "Negro" was "better under slavery" than "under government subsidy."
Meanwhile, others -- hate groups, militias and the like -- use violence and physical force rather than simply hateful words alone to make their point.
Ultimately, these angry individuals are characterized as a small, isolated group of nut jobs, often dismissed as innocuous when someone is not out there defending them. However, they are emboldened to make such statements and take certain actions because the path has been cleared for them. The national climate is shaped by policy makers who make the laws, and those with the money and power to purchase those laws.
Offended as I am by Donald Sterling's statement, I care more about his long history of discriminating against blacks and Latinos. I am concerned when Rep. Paul Ryan invokes Charles Murray, speaks of a culture in the inner cities where men do not work, and then has the power to legislate his racism. Further, I am outraged when Justices Scalia, Thomas and the rest of the Supreme Court's reactionary bloc uphold affirmative action bans and gut the Voting Rights Act, halting racial justice while declaring that racism is over. Gerrymandering, voter ID and Stand Your Ground are what racially offensive statements look like when codified into law.
An African-American presidency does not make a post-racial society, but creates a racial backlash. Throw in some micoraggression for good measure. At a time when the country is browning, some people do not like what they see, so they want to take their country back. If you require proof, you need only recall Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's disrespectful finger wagging at President Obama. Or take a look at a recent exchange between Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Attorney General Eric Holder.
Black men are the perennial defendants, guilty until proven innocent of no crimes in particular, and everything in general. A jury of their "peers" comes in the form of a stacked deck, or a mob, the all-white or predominantly white jury in which the peers have been removed from the jury and silenced.
I know that as a parent of a black child, it is my responsibility first and foremost to nourish, nurture and validate him. For all of its promise, this nation presents a harsh climate for black boys, and it always did. At the same time, I must hope for an America where the resistance to my son's success is no longer normalized. This is not the 1950s, but sometimes it sure feels like it.