“If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there’s a guy that has tattoos all over his face, white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere, I’m walking back to the other side of the street, and the list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of.”
There is much to consider in Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s now-controversial statements. Cuban said the quote above during a recent interview with Inc.com. Cuban was commenting about how far America has come with regards to its tolerance of different views and lifestyles. While he acknowledged that America has made great strides, he stressed that, “We are all prejudiced in one way or the other.”
Note that it is the black male’s attire and the white male’s skin art that informs Cuban’s biases, not merely the skin color of the males in question. That is to say it is plausible to assume that Cuban would not have made the same comment about a black male in a suit walking down the street or a white male without tattoos.
This is common sense. There are many who commit crime in America who often appear a certain way -- hooded or tattooed. Thus people will necessarily associate that attire with criminal activity. This isn’t to say that all who dress or look this way are necessarily criminals. But the association is understandable.
These associations and stereotypes tend to mimic reality. So, we can work to change these stereotypical perceptions by changing the reality of the situation in question. Thus, Cuban’s comments offer us in the black community an occasion for deep introspection and contemplation over how we can work to achieve that goal.
Some could disagree with my analysis. For example, Charles M. Blow writes in The New York Times of Cuban’s comments, “This casual ascribing of intention, based solely on appearance, draws on deep-seated suspicions constructed over a lifetime of subtle and sometimes overt racial conditioning.”
Perhaps this is the case but as suggested earlier, I contend that racial conditioning is only partly the reason for Cuban’s biases. Perhaps Cuban is drawing on previous experiences and observations that make him consider changing his route -- like a plethora of black males who have committed crimes while wearing hoodies; or a large amount of white males with tattoos covering their faces who have committed violent crimes.
Of course, this is pure conjecture; I have no idea where Cuban actually derives his views. But many who watched Mark Cuban’s interview -- like Blow himself -- would vouch for Cuban’s integrity and moral decency. Blow writes of Cuban, “... [H]e, as an owner, has tried to identify people with 'prejudices and bigotry' and to help those people see their flaws and correct them. That, without question, is a noble position and path of action.”
CNN’s Michaela Angela Davis also referred to Cuban as “trying to have an honest conversation about bias.” Thus, it seems implausible to conclude that Cuban was simply a bigoted racist making prejudicial statements because he despised young black males who wore hoodies. And while reality-induced biases would not excuse Cuban’s tendency to prejudge others based on appearances, they do give greater context to his comments and provide one with a greater understanding of how he came to form his conclusions.
This understanding that Cuban’s comments were derived largely from appearance -- and not merely race -- was ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith’s main point. On the show First Take, Smith stated that, “Presentation matters. How you look matters. How you carry yourself matters. And for anyone that wants to tell you it doesn’t, I’m gonna tell you they’re full of it and they know it.” Smith went on to suggest that the black community has a duty to not merely play the victim card, but instead take responsibility for its actions.
Yet, Georgetown University Professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson challenged Smith’s contention that the black community’s alleged dearth of responsibility was relevant to the discussion at large. He argued that while community action was certainly necessary, the larger issue was the American system of institutionalized racism:
“Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t say to black people, look, white folk want you at the back of the bus, now you can argue against that or you can accept that. He said, ‘I’m not going to accept it. In the mean time, what I’m going to do is mount a movement that will challenge the inaccuracy of the perception of black people and we have to do our best to make sure that we live up to the best goals and ideals which is what you’re [Stephen A. Smith] talking about, but he also challenged the system.”
Dyson apparently did not realize that in making this statement, he was actually proving Smith’s point.
Dr. King refused to accept the premise espoused by his white counterparts that blacks were inferior. He did not “also” challenge the system as Dyson states. Rather his challenging of the system was proof itself of his refusal to accept it and proof that blacks were not inferior. Blacks were treated inferior. But we were not in actuality inferior.
Dr. King’s nonviolent civil rights movement was proof positive that blacks would accept nothing less than complete freedom. It would not have been enough -- as Dyson eloquently stated -- for blacks to merely bemoan their inferior status and do nothing about it. If we proclaimed that we were free but were being treated unjustly and then did nothing to change our status, we would not have truly been free -- or we would not have acted upon the dictates of our own conscience. Every aspect of our lives would instead have continued to be dictated to us by our white counterparts. Thus, it was not enough for us to merely think to ourselves that we were free. We had to act out that freedom.
The assertion of the collective black conscience via the civil rights movement was this expression of our freed state. Then, we did not merely speak about what was rightfully ours. We willed it into fruition.
This is precisely what Stephen A. Smith was suggesting when he contended that there was an onus upon the black community to take responsibility for its actions. It is not enough for us to merely bemoan the fact that our black males in certain attire are automatically perceived to be thugs and criminals. We insist that they are not, but this is merely our word. If, in our hip hop culture, we hold in high esteem the black hooded male who acquires wealth through illegal means and murders his black counterpart, what right do we have to be shocked when others perceive us in the very manner we portray ourselves?
None of this is to say that we should not challenge our white brothers’ and sisters’ perceptions. Stereotypes should constantly be challenged and questioned. While Cuban’s biases against black males in hoodies may be understandable, they would never justify the murder of an individual dressed in that attire. This bias, for example, certainly played into the death of Trayvon Martin: George Zimmerman initially reported Martin to the police because he looked “suspicious” since he was dressed in a hoodie. Thus, Cuban was right to apologize to Martin’s parents for being insensitive to the use of the word “hoodie.”
Yet one cannot help but wonder if there’s a certain paradox at play. Community leaders protested the racial profiling of Martin. Yet they did so while marching with celebrity rapper Jay Z, who has profited off of perpetuating the very “gangsta” image Martin was perceived as exhibiting before he was killed. Is there a lesson to be discovered here? Must we not -- in addition to challenging our white counterparts to change -- challenge ourselves as well?