A few weeks ago I was on Morning Edition talking about Obama's response to Trayvon Martin's murder. I wanted to emphasize the constraints Obama faced as he tried to meet the needs of black constituents. And I did so, in part, by referring to the thin line blacks negotiate in integrated spaces in general, comparing his attempts as President to my own attempts as a faculty member on a predominantly white campus.
In hindsight I wish I could've come up with a better analogy. It's not simply that I shouldn't compare being President to being a professor. It's that making that comparison in this specific case takes away some of the real politics involved. The decision to, for example, argue that helping unemployment in general helps black people (it doesn't) instead of taking a more targeted approach, is NOT the decision to wear a suit everyday to work instead of jeans and a hoodie…so some students will take me seriously. This isn't to downplay the real constraints people of color have to make in negotiating our everyday lives. But I still wish I could've taken that back and said something different.
However, given what I DID say, I got an interesting letter in the mail last week. No return address:
Dear Professor Spence,
I listened to your interview on N.P.R. on 3/30/12 about Trayvon Martin. The young man’s death
is an absolute tragedy; Zimmerman should be arrested and tried in a court, with counsel, consistent with
On the other hand you, my friend, are totally full of horseshit. Your fear of racism or racist on
J.H.’s campus is unfounded. J.H. is one of the most diverse & tolerant schools (SAFE) on the planet! If
anything you are paranoid. You are far more likely to be mugged by a black man off campus!
Let me tell you where you ought to be afraid! Not from white folks or cops, but from young
black men, especially in the larger cities. Those niggers would shoot your liberal, black ass for a pack of
gum. Black on black crime is rampant & out of control! Ok yes, you probably blame it on the white
racism or institutional racism, or some “vestige of slavery imposed on blacks by the cultural memory of
violence against black slaves.” Perhaps even unemployment on poor housing. ‘WRONG.’ IT IS OUT OF
CONTROL BLACK MEN BEING VIOLENT!”
I AM BLACK. Man, it ain’t the crackers killing us. It is us killing us! I am from Charlotte, N.C. The
mayor is black, the police chief is black, the school board is controlled by blacks, the county manager is
black, and the brothers here are killing each other – about 2 killed per day. O.K. make a big deal about
Martin & tell the world how you suffer being a black man at JH but man you’re not telling the truth
I originally thought the letter was written by someone white. I only know one black writer who routinely spells "nigger" with an "er" rather than an "a" (Ta-Nehisi Coates). I imagine most of us spell it the way we PRONOUNCE it–with an "a". But it could conceivably be someone black. I don't believe this represents a sign of "self-hatred" if it is. Rather the letter reflects the very real fact that many black people bear a great deal of resentment towards poor/working class black men and women. And experience a great deal of frustration because (black) local government officials don't seem to be able to do much to improve their quality of life. This is definitely the case in Detroit, and appears to be the case in Charlotte.
As I've noted before I believe this conundrum is the central issue in black politics.
With that said though I've never been mugged or been fearful of being mugged/attacked/jacked by the black men I see on the way to work, on the way home, or when I'm out and about in the neighborhood outside of Hopkins, or when I'm out and about downtown.
I have, on the other hand, been racially harassed at Hopkins. It only happened once. And I'm not necessarily "fearful" of it happening again–I can handle mine. But that once was enough.