by Dr Boyce Watkins
They both happen to be accepted by mainstream white America, which is a rare thing for most black men.
With all of that success, there can sometimes come a tinge of awkwardness, as the rest of the black community watches the throne from a distance. They see these men living the life most people can only obtain in their dreams. This can create admiration, jealousy and curiosity, among other interesting emotions, and all of them are perfectly normal. At the same time, a bit of reflection is required to keep each of these reactions at bay.
I was concerned recently when I heard both Steves use the words “I don’t give a damn” in response to backlash they received from the black community for controversial opinions. For Stephen A, it occurred when he was accused of wagging his finger at black people and explaining to young black men that they are less likely to be harassed by police if they learn to dress and behave in an acceptable fashion.
I didn’t find Stephen A’s words to be entirely problematic, since Min. Louis Farrkhan said the same thing at our New Paradigm forum last year in Chicago. The difference, however, is that unlike Stephen A, Farrakhan is also unfraid to be honest with white America about its role in creating the racial oppression that serves to inflict untold amounts of harm on black men and women around the world.
One thing we understand from mathematics is that an equation is never balanced if you only analyze the left side without looking at the right. So, to talk about black behavior without contextualizing white oppression is like punishing a woman for slapping the man who just murdered her child, and mentioning nothing about the original homicide.
For Harvey, the questionable “I don’t give a damn” moment came when he was asked about his decision to support Paula Deen’s comeback tour by allowing her to mentor black boys at his summer camp. Many people thought this was a questionable move, in light of the fact that there are countless talented black chefs who could have used this opportunity.
So, in both cases, we have prominent, mainstream black men who’ve both responded to questionable decisions and opinions by ending their commentary with the words, “I don’t give a damn.” These are cool dudes, but that response just isn’t cool with me.
Let’s create a moment of “realness” for a second: I dare either Steve Harvey or Stephen A to confront white feminists, Jews or gay rights groups on a controversial issue and end their commentary with the words “I don’t give a damn.” If they were to use those words in response to a backlash, they’d be on the street faster than you can say the words “Roland Martin is no longer with CNN.” Roland didn’t deserve to be fired from CNN for what he did, but had he been under fire for criticizing the black community, the network never would have let him go.
Here are four reasons why, in my humble opinion, Harvey and Smith might feel comfortable telling the black community they don’t give a damn, when they would never say the same thing to whites:
1) Because white validation gives people confidence
One of the greatest, longest-held and most crippling myths in the black community is that when white people say they love you, you must be a better person. We often forget that love is not the same as respect, and admiration does not always come with independence.
Just imagine a teenage girl telling her parents that she was voted the most popular girl by the highschool football team. Her father might immediately want to know exactly why the boys like her so much. Similarly, there are lots of black people who are loved by white people for all the wrong reasons…..just point out many of your favorite toxic hip-hop artists at the BET Awards who are being paid millions to call themselves n*ggaz and talk about murdering black men in front of stadiums full of white people.
That, my friends, is what we might call “Coonin for cash,” and white people love it.
I don’t put Harvey and Smith in that category by the way, I just used that example to make my point.
The truth is that you don’t need white people to like you in order to be somebody in this world. White people hated Malcolm X, and it only served to make him great. When it was time to stand up for black Americans, Malcolm did so unapologetically and without remorse. He would only use the words “I don’t give a damn” toward his oppressors, not toward the people he was supposed to represent. But Malcolm could never have done so had he spent his time trying to get white folks to give him a television contract.
Mind you, this doesn’t mean that white validation automatically implies that you’re a sell-out. In fact, most of us have had to work for whites at some point in our lives. But if we automatically assume that being a mainstream success makes you better than the brother who’s been marginalized, we are vulnerable to the idea of leaning on white validation in order to make us whole.
Sometimes, those who receive this validation (i.e. the Jay-Zs of the world and many black athletes) get to a point where they feel that the opinion of their community no longer matters. They fold to those who have the most money and ignore those who have little. This false confidence can lead our most cherished public figures to feel that they can disrespect black people without consequence. There are many ways to respond to criticism without using the words “I don’t give a damn.” That’s just disrespectful and actually a tad bit racist (yes, black people can promote white supremacy too….in fact, some of us do it every day).
2) Let’s face it: Black people can be a tough audience
I don’t doubt for one second that both of the Steves care about the black community in their own way. One thing about being a prominent member of the black community is that you’re serving an abused people. We’ve gone through so much trauma, abuse and stress that trust can be difficult to come by, and self-hate has rarely been higher than it is right now.
These psychological challenges sometimes manifest themselves in nasty attacks on those whom we feel have a responsibility to help alleviate the suffering. This means that the richest guy in the family is going to have the most relatives asking him for money and our wealthiest celebs are going to be expected to do the most for the community.
However, there is an old saying that “To whom much is given, much is required.” So, feeling pressured is still no excuse not to give back. All of us have an obligation.
3) Because black people admire those who’ve been accepted by white people
One of the artifacts of white supremacy is that we have trained ourselves to believe, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that white people are better than we are. I can’t tell you how many black people I know who admired me more for teaching at Syracuse University than they would have had I been accepted for a teaching position at Howard University.
There are black people who will have more respect for the black vice president at IBM than they have for the hard working father of three who runs his own business. This is a risky mentality, since borrowed power is not the same as legitimate power. True wealth is not the same as transitory income. We must always know the difference. When someone gives you something, they can always take it away, and in that context, you always remain vulnerable to those who control you.
The translation is that white America is able to create black leaders at the drop of a hat because they control media (they even own Essence, BET, most major black news websites and a very, very large percentage of TV One). By choosing which black faces to put on national television, they are choosing the black people who will influence our community the most. That’s why some of the most rachet and ridiculous reality TV stars are influencing our children. Malcolm told us long ago that only a fool lets his enemy educate his children, but that’s what we do every day when we turn on the TV.
4) We worship money and anyone who has it.
One of the rules of thumb in America is that “If it makes dollars, then it must make sense.” Dr. Cornel West recently wrote an amazing piece about the fact that we’ve become so caught up in money and fame that it’s led us to devalue simple ideas like integrity, intelligence, meaning and righteousness.
As a result, we are falsely taught to worship the God of money, which means that anyone who has money is treated like a descendent of God. Threfore, we do the backward calculation, which states that a) Any form of community corruption is acceptable if it leads to a cha-ching at the end, and b) If a person has more money than me, he must be doing something right.
Both Harvey and Smith have money. I’m sure they do some good things with it. But we must be careful about teaching our children to blindly replicate the actions of those who have the most money. A bigger bank account isn’t worth the price of your soul. Steve Harvey wrote a book on how to successful, and I’d be more interested in the hard work and persistence that led him to achieve his goals than I am in learning how to get a white guy to give you a better opportunity.
I argue that we can admire our celebrities based on the content of their character rather than the size of their wallets. I won’t say, for one second, that both Steves aren’t worthy of admiration for the many great things that they’ve achieved. But we can’t get to a point that we are OK with any action or idea just because someone is getting rich in the process. We should also remember that what benefits the black elite doesn’t always benefit the black community. This is important to keep in mind.
I should say that I’ve never met Steve Harvey in person, but I know people who know him. For the most part, he appears to be a relatively decent and conscientious black man and for that, I respect him. I’ve been on Stephen A. Smith’s show several times in the past, and each time, he treated me with decency and kindness.
My desire to critique both Steves is not driven by any desire to see them fail. Rather, it’s driven by the importance of us holding our most cherished public figures accountable. Disagreeing with someone doesn’t mean you hate them, and challenging them shouldn’t mean you’re seeking to destroy them.
In some ways, we need our modern day house and field negroes working together to give each other balance. There’s nothing wrong with being in the house or out in the field, as long as you’re there for the right reasons and doing the right things with your power. Many so-called “house negroes” during slavery were crucial in helping other slaves revolt against the master. These conversations in the community are important.
We should also try to empathize with the pressures that come with keeping a predominantly white audience happy. The push for ratings can be difficult, and I don’t doubt that these guys are under a lot of pressure. But the bottom line is that our community must always come first and our success can not be expense of those we care about. In other words, EVERYONE must take the time to “give a damn,” even if they don’t feel like it.