Thursday, January 19, 2017

Steve Harvey and that “Coon” Thing

One of many negative characterizations of Steve Harvey after he met with Donald Trump

Sometimes celebrity-hood can be a fickle and cruel beast. One day a celebrity can be loved by all and the next, hated by many. Take Comedian, talk show and Family Feud host, Steve Harvey. After meeting and participating in a photo op with President Elect, Donald Trump, he became the target of immediate condemnation. Charges range from labeling him a “sell-out” to dismissing him as an outright mediocre “coon.”

The latter is the ultimate insult from black folk aimed at black folk. Think Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or Trump’s confidante and soon-to-be public engagement officer, Omarosa Manigault.  Harvey, the most recent high-profile African American banished to “Coonville” is understandably upset.

"A lot of y'all hurt me. I didn't expect the backlash to be so fierce,"  Harvey told listeners of his radio program, the “Steve Harvey Morning Show.

"A lot of y'all hurt me. I didn't expect the backlash to be so fierce..." Harvey said on his radio program

Before I address the “backlash,” let me say this; Steve Harvey-putting it bluntly-is a grown-ass man who has the right to meet with whomever he chooses. Yes, he met with a politician whose stereotypical comments about black people and black neighborhoods has repulsed millions. But that doesn’t justify the automatic revocation of the mythical “black card” nor does it rationalize questioning his loyalties to black people.

That said, Harvey did sort of set himself up for wide-spread criticism. He was the one who emerged from the meeting gushing about Trump’s character and goals:

“I walked away feeling like I had just talked with a man who genuinely want to make a difference in this area,” Harvey wrote on Twitter. “I feel like something really great could come of this…I would sit with him anytime.”

Harvey underestimated the level of distrust blacks have about Trump. The comedian stood before media cameras detailing how, before they got to the crux of the meeting, he and Trump talked about golf and the celebrities they know. Then he explained how Trump got Ben Carson, his new secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), on the phone to talk about housing.

Surely, Harvey knew blacks would scrutinize a telephone meeting between a comedian and a brain surgeon who both have no experience in public or affordable housing. Harvey is no fool. He’s media savvy enough to know that Trump has been meeting with a bunch of high-profile Negroes to offset the perception of racial insensitivity.

Marc Lamont Hill, the Morehouse College professor and frequent CNN commentator spoke to this.  Trump’s “outreach” meetings with black celebrities and athletes, like Harvey, Kanye West, Jim Brown, and Ray Lewis, Hill said on CNN, are "condescending" and "demeaning."  The professor pulled no punches in defining black celebrities as "a bunch of mediocre negroes being dragged in front of TV as a photo op for Trump’s exploitative campaign against black people.”

"...a bunch of mediocre negroes being dragged in front of TV as a photo op for Trump’s exploitative campaign against black people.-Marc Lamont Hill on CNN

Harvey’s feelings are justifiably hurt. But it’s his own fault. He struck a conciliatory tone with Trump at a time when his fans have no interest in reconciling with him based on the stereotypical things he’s said about blacks and their neighborhoods. Harvey spoke highly of Trump around the same time Trump was demeaning prolific civil rights leader, Congressman John Lewis and the fifth district of Georgia he serves.

Trump suggested Lewis spend more time “fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results.” 

"All talk and "no action" was the way Trump defined political icon John Lewis in a recent Twitter War

Not only is it insultingly dismissive to describe an icon of the civil rights movement since the early 1960s as a no-action politician, it’s blazingly ignorant to define his whole district as “crime-invested” simply based on its black population. As writer,
Jamiles Lartey, wrote in a the Guardian, Trump’s definition of Lewis’ district falls way short of reality:

Lartey interviewed Nikema Williams, co-chair of Georgia’s Democratic party and Atlanta resident: “Not only is it unreasonable to say – it’s false and a flat-out lie. Atlanta is a booming city. People are moving here from all over the country,” Williams said, adding, “It (Trump’s rhetoric) speaks to the disconnect he continues to have with the black community. Any time you want to ask him about the [community], he refers to the inner city. Not all black people live in the inner city!”

Harvey failed to address or bridge the disconnect between blacks and Trump. In detailing his meeting, Harvey spoke of what Trump told him but gave no indication of what he told Trump (other than their mutual love for golf and celebrities, of course). It seems Harvey allowed Trump, the ultimate flim-flam man, to pull him out of his lane. Harvey and Trump are both entrepreneurs. Harvey knows influential black people. He knows where they live and what they’re doing to help people of their hue. The comedian who once lived out of his car in his early years knows a thing or two about struggle and opportunities afforded to those with talent but no resources.

It seems Harvey allowed Trump, the ultimate flim-flam man, to pull him out of his lane. 

Much of the criticism would have been muted if Harvey spoke to his and Trump’s mutual strengths and talents. Things would be different if he said something like: “Look ya’ll, we discussed your concerns. We talked about the power of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and I’m going to do my best to recruit the talents of those I know and seek the government and private resources to get the job done.”

Still, I’m giving Harvey the benefit of doubt. Maybe he was caught off guard when he visited Trump Tower. He stated that Trump is open to his mentoring efforts across the country. He added that he, Trump and Carson have just started their dialog and they will look for programs and housing that help “our inner cities."

Harvey knows influential black people. He knows where they live and what they’re doing to help people of their hue. 

On his radio program, Harvey reminded his fans that he’s from “the hood” and has a long history of doing his “part for years for boys and girls.” That’s true. The mission of his charity founded by Harvey and his wife, the Steve and Marjorie Harvey Foundation, is to provide outreach to fatherless children and young adults. According to “Look to the Stars” a website that provides information on celebrity giving, the Harvey’s foundation “promotes educational enrichment, one-on-one mentoring and global service initiatives that will cultivate the next generation of responsible leaders.”

So let’s try to be optimistic for a moment. Harvey could be a part of historic change in the civil rights movement. Let’s assume Trump is really interested in more than just “talk, talk, talk” and diversionary photo ops with high-profile black people. Let’s believe that Harvey will be prepared to talk about what he really knows the next time (if there is a next time) he meets with Trump. Let’s imagine Harvey showing up with a long list of celebrities with charities aimed at uplifting youth and minority groups. Let’s imagine he’s accompanied by folk like John Legend (Show Me Campaign), Alicia Keys (Frum Tha Ground Up), Oprah Winfrey (Harpo Productions and Leadership Academy for Girls).  

Let’s try to be optimistic for a moment. Harvey could be on to historic change in the civil rights movement. 

Harvey could flip the script and become a pioneer of black entrepreneurism in politics if he introduces Trump to black entrepreneurs and philanthropists with social and economic empowerment experience and real, substantive plans. Some participants could include Eddie C. Brown (Brown Capital Management), Robert F. Smith (Vista Equity Partners), Richard D. Parsons (Time Warner; Citigroup) or Charles Phillips (Phillips Charitable Foundation).

Harvey could become a pioneer of black entrepreneurism if he introduces Trump to black entrepreneurs and philanthropists with social and economic empowerment experiences and substantive plans.

Harvey deserves a little slack.  I remember a day back in the 1980s when two, fresh-faced St. Louis comedians-Cedric the Entertainer and my nephew Chuck Deezy-stopped by my house to say “farewell.” They were heading to Hollywood to hook up with Steve Harvey. A couple years later, I saw them on TV, in movies and living the LA La Land experience. I could be wrong, but I attribute their ascent to Harvey’s help and guidance.

It’s too early to toss Harvey into the trashcan of coonerism. For me, the jury’s still out and Harvey has the chance to negate the negatives. Hopefully, he won’t let his hurt feelings distract him from his stated goals of helping Trump help black people.

Who knows, in time the backlash may turn to backing and wide-spread support. The Family Feud may end and the savvy King of Comedy may reclaim his role as a trusted and beloved ambassador for the people who cheered him on for decades.  


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Black Mayor Part II: The Other Part of the Equation

Earlier this month I posted a commentary about the need for a black mayor in the upcoming election. As expected, some folk took offense to the premise. “Race doesn’t matter,” they protested. It obviously does. As I noted, throughout Mayor Slay’s term in office, politicians have been re-segregating the city with tax perks designed for already rich developers in already stable, already majority white neighborhoods. The voices, needs and concerns of black residents have been rendered irrelevant. The city has been consistently ranked as one the most violent in America and the current mayor has been MIA in the fight to address poverty, black unemployment and all the other societal and economic ills that fuel disproportionate crime, high school drop out rates and hopelessness.

Most of the push-back came from whites. I respect their sentiments but it left me wondering who these people are and whose opinion they represented. Yes, our region is polarized but many whites I know seem to be equally as passionate about building strong diverse neighborhoods. They comment affirmatively and share what I write. They donate and/or volunteer to help my nonprofit, the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). They don’t outwardly flinch when I express the need to invest in black communities or find ways to empower black people to address disparities that impact their lives, children or neighborhoods. In fact, I find it stunning that some white, far south side aldermen seem to be doing more to inform the public and dismantle the established system of white privilege than some black aldermen who’ve allowed the city to basically ignore their wards and constituents for years.

So, yeah, in this election, at this time, I think a black mayor is needed in a city that’s grown comfortable operating under a segregated umbrella.  However, I emphasis again, voters shouldn’t base their opinions on skin color alone. We should support the candidate who has the moxie to shake things up and convince white voters that black social and economic progress won’t harm them. In fact, it may help us become a more diverse, eclectic, safer, and culturally relevant region.

With that said, we should discuss something else. African Americans don’t have the luxury of waiting for the president, Congress, state representatives, aldermen or a new mayor to come up with a plan to save us. Those of us busting our butts to educate and employ at-risk youth; address homelessness, build affordable housing, develop stronger, safer neighborhoods or those trying to create a powerful, healthy food system in the city need to come together. We need to demand-not ask-that the next mayor provide the same opportunities and resources to us that they've gifted to rich developers, sports officials and tony, segregated neighborhoods.  

We need to demand-not ask-that the next mayor provide the same opportunities and resources to us that they've gift to rich developers, sports officials and tony, segregated neighborhoods. 

Why is this important? Well, maybe it's best to answer with a short story:

The year was 2009, months after the inauguration of President Barack Obama. I was still a Metro Columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Through my union reps, I learned managers were manufacturing a case to fire me. I won’t go into all the sordid details here but I will admit their actions led to a huge opportunity that wound up planting the seed for SPP.

During the madness, I received a call from Tavis Smiley. The public TV commentator also owned his own book company. Tavis was familiar with my work. He asked if I’d be interested in working as a researcher and consultant with one of his writers, Tom Burrell, author of Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.  With the offer in mind, I instructed union officials not to fight for my job. With the help of my ex-wife and my activist friends we held a press conference. I resigned from the PD and accepted Tavis’ offer.

Brainwashed by Tom Burrell

Working in Tavis’ world, to me, meant that I’d be in the midst of the nation’s top black thinkers. Keep in mind, this was right after the country elected its first black president.  Finally, I thought, great, positive change was about to happen in America’s urban areas.

I couldn’t have been more naive or more wrong. At the time, Smiley, Al Sharpton and a bunch of other black leaders were embroiled in a huge, petty fight over whether Obama should say the words “black agenda”…or not. I was Burrell’s guest at the 2010 Chicago symposium Tavis hosted that included, Dr. Cornel West, the Rev. Jessie Jackson, Minister Louis Farrakhan and other prominent, black intellectuals.

2010 "We Count" forum participants

I was beyond frustrated that this influential group spent more time defending the need for a “black agenda” than defining or articulating their own agenda. Surely, this group could come up with a plan based on their expertise, connections with black people, their knowledge and outcries about the centuries-long plight of African Americans.

I will always be grateful to Tavis for offering me the chance to get inside his head and contribute to some of his books as well as other authors under the SmileyBooks label. But I can’t get past the fact that black leaders absolutely blew the chance to present Obama with a detailed, budgeted inclusive agenda that would improve the lives of, arguably, America’s most disenfranchised demographic.  The experience led me to the conclusion that I should try, in my own way, to create a program aimed at empowering black youth and revitalizing black neighborhoods in my own city. Thus the birth of SPP.

On a much smaller scale, black mayoral candidates, along with white supporters, have a beautiful opportunity to change the trajectory of a segregated city. However, the onus isn’t just in the hands of a new mayor. If there is to be a real agenda for positive, inclusive change, those of us who are connected and concerned must design and articulate that vision.

In my Nov. 9th St. Louis American commentary, I  argued that the city already has dedicated, committed individuals and groups (black and white) working to make serious, sustainable change in North St. Louis. We’ve put in the sweat equity but have been basically ignored by short-sighted politicians. 

I’m pleased that there are ongoing debates that allow candidates to explain how they will lead the city in different directions. However, I’d like to see a different kind of forum. I’d like to have those of us working in the trenches tell the candidates what we’re doing and what we need to enhance our collective endeavors. After we speak, I’d like those candidates to tell us how our plans fit their platforms. I’d like to see them compete for our votes and/or support by telling us how they can bring us the same creativity, vigor and resources that’s been doled out to downtown, central corridor or other areas of development in the city.  

I will float this forum idea among the individuals I mentioned in the American commentary. Anybody interested in hosting such an event, please let me know. Despite push-back from some readers due to my call for a black mayor, I believe there’s enough progressive and engaged whites who aren’t afraid of the possibilities. They live or work among black people. Some south side aldermen and voters have and are supporting black candidates. I don’t want to see black leaders and voters blow an opportunity to do locally what we didn’t do nationally with the Obama administration. 

I’d like to see a different kind of forum....(where) candidates tell us how our plans fit their agendas. I’d like to see them compete for our votes or support by telling us how they can bring us the same creativity, vigor and resources that’s been given to downtown, central corridor or other areas of development in the city.  

As the title of Dr. West’s book reminded us, “Race Matters.” We can argue about this all day long but I prefer to work with those who get it. I want to collaborate with those who aren’t afraid to speak up for diversity in a racially-diverse city. I want to surround myself with those willing to inform and challenge mayoral candidates to rise above racial complacency and political impotency. I want to stand with those benevolent, engaged and enlightened individuals willing to challenge the status quo and do the hard work of ending the segregated mindset in our city.