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Race, Responsibility and Achievement by Brad Lena

In the late 1970's, I recollect seeing a television interview with Sammy Davis Jr. He related his experience in Hollywood and the racism he encountered. His remarks, while acknowledging the historical injustice of the Hollywood caste system and blatant discrimination, took an unexpected turn. In light of the controversy regarding Tiger Woods' recent statements, actions, or lack there of, Mr. Davis' experience presents a number of points for consideration.

With his many years in the entertainment business as a backdrop, Mr. Davis recounted, with the satisfaction of one who lived to see a change for the better, the long struggle to have talented black people represented in all aspects of the industry. He remarked that there were now black writers, directors, technicians, actors, cinematographers, scene builders, etc. and it was time to make some true black cinema. Mr. Davis spoke of how he went to the bankers, black bankers, and said we’re ready to make some great black films and we need financing. The black bankers looked at him and declined saying that they did not want to finance black cinema, they wanted to bankroll the next Star Wars. I still can recall the stunned expression on his face as he recounted this episode.

In the intervening years since Mr. Davis' remarks, black participation in all fields of human achievement exploded into areas that perhaps even Mr. Davis did not envision. As black expertise becomes ever more diverse and apparent, does there come a point in which blacks can either participate in the sustenance and nurturing of the black community and culture or decline, for whatever reason, as the bankers did? That is, to take actions or make decisions independent of race without facing a backlash, of some sort, from the community. Does equality and freedom of action empower black people to ignore or practice the benign neglect of their community? If we are to judge by the reaction to Tiger Woods' position on a variety issues, racial and social, one would have to say no or not yet. Granted, Tiger Woods' multi-racial heritage may not make him the ideal candidate for this argument but he certainly illustrates the point. He chooses not to participate in the broader issues. To some, he does not have that option for reasons of race. Did those black bankers have an obligation to finance black cinema or did they have an obligation to invest where they thought they'd get the greatest return? Would thorough integration bring with it the luxury of black indifference? Historically, the dominant white culture, in addition to exploiting black people, could and did ignore the plight of impoverished and exploited Caucasians. Other segments of white society deliberately choose to assist those whites in need. The whites that did not offer assistance may have received criticism but not on the grounds of racial allegiance. Should blacks be any different? Does the legacy of slavery and institutional racism require an enduring deference and a higher plane of accountability from black people who excel in their chosen field of endeavor? Most likely, the response from the mainstream civil rights organization and current black political leadership would be a resounding yes. The historical record certainly supports such a conclusion.

Others might say that holding achievement and accomplishment subservient to race is in contradiction to the goal of being judged on the content of character and ability. Can one be black, accomplished, moral and race neutral? One of the more obscene characteristics of slavery and racism was and is the denial of the innate humanity of black people. Humanity is just that, the full expression of what it means to be a human being, the good, the bad and the ugly. Which may ultimately mean that if you're black and accomplished and wish to live on your yacht in the Mediterranean, you do so or if you wish to do nothing else but be the best golfer on the planet, you do that or if you wish to be one of the most successful women in business and devote all you energies to your business empire, you do it. And, if you wish to devote every fiber in your being in service to the black community, you do that. One may find fault or praise for these or any other example of human action but is a racial component necessary? Is it not through mastery and accomplishment that the very issue of race is defeated? After Woods and the Williams sisters who would care to make the argument the tennis and golf are games for whites? A bigot may never change his or her attitude but the power and influence accruing to those who accomplish and excel compels the bigot to tread lightly.

Some may say that this is all fine and good but does not the magnitude of the challenges facing the black community preclude or delay the option of personal independence or indifference to some point in the future? I would suggest that the question is: will the future wait for the black community? It appears, baring some political, social or economic catastrophe, that "culture," both the organic and the artificial constructs of consumerism, a multiracial populace, pluralism and a transnational orientation will imprint minds in 21st Century America to a much greater extent than historical factors from the 19th or even the 20th Century. If this is so and taking into consideration the shrinking national percentage of the black population, who is going to care about who owes what to whom? The reality is that there is an ongoing personal and psychological "disconnect" from history taking place at both the national level and increasingly in the black community. If the "reparations" movement in America succeeds, will the rest of the world really care? My hunch is no, particularly if global governance becomes a reality. The black community in the U.S. would be just one of many global constituencies to be managed in accordance with the dictates of "sustainability." For example, emerging global technocrats consider single-family housing unsustainable and seek to mandate its eventual extinction. How will philosophies like this impact the aspirations of the black community? The forward-looking members of the black community already realize these factors. Those, of all races, who are mired, of their own accord or not, in the past or crime, drugs, a fraudulent education or practice personally irresponsibility, may simply be flattened by history. It's a brave new world. The question is: how to best respond to the "new" circumstance? I'll put my faith in those who excel as human beings and through their accomplishments inspire others and their community than those who would rather manage or renegotiate the past on more favorable terms.

Brad Lena is a regular contributor to Mr. Lena is based in Asheville, NC and can be reached at

Brad Lena

Thursday, August 29, 2002

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