In 1988, I sat in an office at a local university interviewing an officer of the American Society of Black Engineers. There was an upcoming event which was newsworthy and I had gone to the interview ready to take notes on the event and its importance alone. But as I sat there, another set of questions kept coming to me, and finally, I had to ask my source about them.
That source was a very successful African America man who was not only an officer in the ASBE, but also the director of a prominent African cultural center housed at the university, located in the very office in which we were seated. He had a Ph.D. and several other degrees in various subjects and was a very intelligent and knowledgeable man.
At one point, he had brought up the subject of racism in American and the need for there to be a counterweight to it. I asked him whether, in light of the amount of racist graffiti I had seen, if there was not, in fact, a race war being waged on rest room walls. He agreed there was and emphasized that it simply pointed out the need to combat such things in this country and for everyone to be considered equal to everyone else.
Pointing out due to the delicacy of my next question that I had been a minor part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, I then asked a question that took my source aback and, for a moment, caused him to mentally flail.
"Doctor," I said, "Isn't the fact that there is something called the Society of Black Engineers divisive? I mean, if a White person, or an Asian, or a Native American wanted to join, would they be allowed? And, if not, then how is that not as discriminatory as, for instance, a Society of White Engineers?"
I could see him struggling for the briefest of moments. Then, with a little less confidence than he had before, he said, "It is, yes, but it's necessary right now, until we can get to the place where we don't recognize whether a person is Black or White or Asian or Native American. It's needed because there is still racism and along as there is, we need organizations that will look out for the rights of those who are the targets of racism."
I tried to pursue this a bit further, asking if that wasn't the same as saying that we needed to end racism by practicing it. He denied this because, he said, it was not putting one segment above any other, but just a group of individuals with common interest banding together to protect those interest.
The analogy to the Ku Klux Klan came vivid into my mind with the speed of electricity, but I knew we were running short on time and that the interview would end soon, so I had not time to begin a debate on the subject. I put it away and determined to open the topic again as soon as I could arrange a meeting with the man.
Before I could, I moved on to another paper and he moved on to another career area and I never got the chance to dig more deeply into the rationale behind his words. I more or less put the incident away and thought only dimly of it over the intervening years.
Then, while tuned to the BBC this morning, I listened to a regular program called "World Have Your Say." Authoritative guests along with a host, of course, comment on opinions taken immediately off email, text, and telephone callers the world over. The topic on this day was "Does it matter if Michael Jackson was Black?"
Now, let's ignore, at least for the moment, the whole idea of whether it really matters if it matters if Michael Jackson was Black and just go with the flow, as it were.
The focal point of the discussion was Jamie Foxx's comments at the Black entertainment Awards, ""We want to celebrate this black man. He belongs to us and we shared him with everyone else."
There were the expected responses from more-or-less expected corners, some saying that Jackson's color didn't matter, others saying it mattered a lot, and some saying that they didn't believe that Jackson didn't see himself as a Black man because of all the surgery and skin bleaching he had performed over the years.
One woman who entered a post on the comment's section of the program's website, said, She led her comments by asking, "Oh my goodness? Are you serious? This is the most pressing subject in the world?" and went on to say, ". . . When I hear an entertainer; I don't think wow, that's one great Black entertainer . . ."
Another caller said he not only disagreed with Foxx's comments, on the grounds that they were divisive and, in themselves, racist, but he also disagreed with the whole concept of there being an organization devoted to a particular racial group of artists or anything else, for that matter.
Immediately, I was taken back to my interview 21 years before.
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