Why “Black Middle Class” Is The Ultimate Oxymoron

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***Maya Francis offers her take on Jamelle Bouie’s recent piece about the difficulties we (Blacks) have with being truly upwardly mobile***

Someone managed to find a photostock picture of Black folk in fair isle as the accompanying photo for this article about what happens when Black people make a little money and come up in the world. It’s a weird photo, mostly because the kid in the center of it looks like the kid from Everybody Hates Chris, the dad looks like Ronald Clifford, and the caption, which mentions “substantial pockets of poverty” is used to frame this photo of smiling-ass Black folks. Photostock of Black folks is hard to come by, so I’ll allow it, especially since this rant has nothing to do with anything I have to say. I just wanted these thoughts acknowledged.

DeSean Jackson was cut from my hometown’s football team essentially because he’s a headache. And, apparently, part of this headacheness is due to the people he knows from back home. Whether its true that Jackson’s people pose a problem in his life is irrelevant. The point is, Jackson was expected to get a new set of friends because he became successful, a practice also known as “selling out.”

The reality is that many successful Black folks are just a stone throw away from poverty, either because they’re newly arrived in their own success, or because the bounty of success hasn’t spread over their entire family tree. And so while buppies have taken on the sacred ritual of mimosa toasting downtown during Sunday brunch, they also drive to their grandmom annem’s house on the south side during holidays when it’s time for the whole family to get together.

And when they leave grandmom annem’s, they go back home…which is also on the south side.

A “nicer” part of the south side, perhaps. But, for many of us, the “nice” part of our neighborhood and the “hood” part of the neighborhood are separated by half a football field. Sometimes just a backyard.

Jamelle Bouie writes:

“The key fact is this: Even after you adjust for income and education, Black Americans are more likely than any other group to live in neighborhoods with substantial pockets of poverty…It’s tempting to attribute this to the income disparity between Blacks and Whites. Since Blacks are more likely to be poor, it stands to reason that they’re more likely to live in poor neighborhoods. But the fact of large-scale neighborhood poverty holds true for higher-income Black Americans as well. Middle-class Blacks are far more likely than middle-class Whites to live in areas with significant amounts of poverty.”

Consider this: When looking for a place to live (rent or own) do you consider the racial demographic of the area?

Not sure about y’all, but being the fly in the ointment is something I can accept in school and the workplace, but I don’t want to deal with it at home. Fact is, Black neighborhoods tend to be mixed in their income level, where culture is the bonding factor. But, for outsiders, this also conflates poverty with Blackness, rendering them one in the same.

Culture is a bonding factor for White folks, too. Consider also White flight in cases where upwardly mobile Blacks move to non-black neighborhoods. Again, because the face of poverty is Black, there is only so much mobility that happens. Starbucks aren’t being built in well-to-do corners of Negronia [(c) the homie Jamilah Lemeiux]; money, access, amenities, follow along racial lines, putting an economic chokehold on people of color.

So back to Jackson. It’s unfair to assume that wealth would create any level of distance for Jackson socially, as it very rarely does for Blacks in other aspects of their lives. Richard Sherman wrote a great piece outlining how absurd it would be to think that he would. As any Black folk with a modicum of success could tell you, you can never go home again, but you can also never leave home.

You can follow Maya @MF_Greatest. And, if you don’t do that, she will follow you. Like, in real life. She will literally follow you to your house. 

I Have No White Friends (And I Think I Know Why)

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As our wedding date approaches and the planning becomes more and more likely to drive us insane — not insane in a Hannibal or Huck sense, but more of a Will Graham or Radiohead “I’ll be waiting. With a gun and a pack of sandwiches” sense — we made a concerted effort last weekend to detect the main source of stress so we could at least attempt to rectify it.

The verdict? The invite list.

Along with making you the worst person ever, the list is directly involved with the three biggest stress inducers.

1. How many people are we inviting?

2. Who will we invite?

3. How much will all this shit cost?

After debating just saying “Fuck it” and eloping and inviting everyone to a Waffle House in Washington County for the reception, we considered trimming the list. As I glanced through it to see which of her, er, our family and friends could be expendable, I noticed something:

Out of the 200 or so people we have coming, only one is White.

Actually, that’s not completely true. Six are White. But two are married to my cousins, one is one of my dad’s old co-workers, and two are that hybrid Persian/Kardashian off-White that doesn’t really count as White. But, between the two of us, only one of our closest friends is White.

It’s not like we’ve lived segregated lives. We’re both from the Whitest major metropolitan area in the country, we both went to racially diverse high schools and predominately White colleges, and we both interact with many White people on a personal and professional level. We also both have White friends. And we both like hummus. But, the wedding list suggests those friendships are limited.

Although the discovery surprised me a bit, this dynamic isn’t particularly unique. While light beer commercials and The New Girl might suggest otherwise, most of us are very exclusive — reclusive, even — when it comes to the racial make-up of the people closest to us. When it comes to close friends, we all tend to stick to our own kind.

Salon’s Brittany Cooper wrote on this last year, and suggested that our country’s complex racial politics often make it too difficult to maintain close friendships with people who don’t share a racial and/or cultural tie. I don’t disagree with her. But, after considering both personal experience and anecdotal evidence, there’s something I want to add.

When thinking about the White guys I’ve known who were comfortable hanging with a group of brothas and the Black guys I’ve known who’ve had no problem being the perfunctory token Black guy, they each had something in common with those friends: Women. More specifically, an attraction to and/or willingness to date a certain type of woman.

Basically, the White guys legitimately close with multiple Black guys were also interested in Black women, and the Black guys cool with frequenting all the “White” bars, clubs, and parties were also interested in dating White women.

I’m not suggesting they sought out these friendships just because of their dating interests. (Although, I’d totally watch a movie about a Black guy who pretended to be friends with White guys just so he could get closer to White women.) I think that who we’re romantically/sexually interested in has a substantial role in determining our adult friendships. This seems impractical, but it’s actually organic. Pragmatic, even.

Adult friendships are usually cultivated through shared activities. You like each other and you like doing many of the same things, so you spend time with each other. When you’re single, the potential of potential romantic opportunities present often determines these activities. This is one of the reasons why you might be more likely to hit one of the “Black” happy hour spots after work instead of one of the “White” ones, or why the weekend gallery crawl might interest you more than the beerfest. You just know that the type of person you’re attracted to is more likely to be there.

Even thinking of the types of activities and events I’d usually attend when I was single, a single White guy looking for a sorority girl-type was not going to find her at any of those spots. And, when I had White co-workers, as much as I appreciated them inviting me out with them, the perpetual lack of sistas — and the lack of sistas interested in Black men — there limited my enjoyment.

Also, this phenomenon is deeper than race. The White guys into sorority-girl types and the White guys into the ironic hipster types probably wont be spending that much time with each other either. And I doubt the sistas into Donald Glover are going to be frequenting the same spots as the ones interested in someone more Weebay Brice-ish.  

There is a definite benefit to both expanding our horizons and not crafting our fun around the idea of romantic potential. No one would deny that. Unfortunately, by adulthood most of us lose the type of stamina and curiosity that requires.

We still haven’t decided who we’re going to cut from the invite list yet. But, we do know one thing: We’re keeping all six of the White people. It’s the least we could do, right?

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”) 

Circling The Wagons With Marcus Smart

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Last summer, I got pulled into a conversation about President Obama, crime, and George Zimmerman that I totally did not want to have. Well, let me rephrase that. I did not want to have that conversation at that time. I was at a bar with some friends, and I was in “get a couple drinks, and talk shit about Yeezus and YouTube strippers” mode, not “get a couple drinks, and discuss racially sensitive issues with this conservative White guy I’m cool with” mode. But, it happened, and I wrote about it. 

During this conversation, he matter-of-factly said that “Black people never criticize Obama”, and he cited a few polls and anecdotes as proof. When done making his point, I corrected him. Take a trip to any Black gathering, whether it’s a popular barbershop or a NSBE happy hour, and you’ll hear all types of things said about the president…and his wife. (The kids remain off-limits.) Most opinions shared will be positive, but even the lauds are often wrapped in snark. It’s not that we don’t criticize or even curse him. We just don’t do it in front of White people like you.

I mean, yes. If you’re criticizing President Obama’s stance and/or activity on an issue that has nothing to do with his Blackness (gay marriage, perhaps), then yeah. We shouldn’t have much problem agreeing. But if you’re criticizing his competency or attitude or intelligence — basically, anything where your opinion may have some race-related influence — then no. Even if we actually agree with what you’re saying, we’re not agreeing with you.

Anyway, before writing this, I watched the footage of Marcus Smart pushing Jeff Orr, again. I actually saw it live while at a bar Saturday night. Between then and now I’ve probably seen it a couple dozen times.

My feelings about it have remained the same. Regardless of what Orr said, Smart was in the wrong. This doesn’t absolve Orr of any wrong. Shit, it doesn’t even make him less wrong than Smart. But, while what Smart did was understandable — anyone who’s ever played ball in front of that many antagonistic people has had that urge before — you can’t retaliate like that. There are situations when a physical confrontation is necessary. Just not then. (And no, it doesn’t matter what he actually said to him.)

So yeah, Marcus Smart was in the wrong. As was Richard Sherman when he offered that fake-as-an-eight-dollar-bill-ass handshake to Michael Crabtree, then talked shit about him on national TV. Oh, and Kanye is a f*cking asshole, Obama has been disappointing, Drunk in Love is the only track off Beyonce worth a damn, and OJ did it.

All topics I have no problem discussing with other Black people. Or people I trust enough to get it. But once you leave the nest and start hearing criticisms caked in coded language (i.e.: “he’s a thug”, “her music isn’t really art”, “he’s acting like a child”, etc), you circle the wagons. And sometimes you circle even when you know you’re defending something or someone you don’t actually agree with.

If I bring up the Marcus Smart incident with Panama or my dad — or even one of my White teammates from college — I’ll be honest. Because I know the conversation will not occur in a context-less vacuum. It’ll be nuanced, raw, and real. If random White bar guy wants to talk about it, and he includes “…just like those NBA guys” or “he acted like an animal“, he’s not getting completely honest me. My feelings about and connection to the macro issue — his feelings about Black athletes and Black people — will overshadow my feelings about the micro.

Later this evening, I’m going to attend the third session of the pre-marriage counseling class we’re taking. As I mentioned before, nothing I’ve heard so far has been new or surprising. But there’s been one theme repeated ad nauseam. Probably to drive home exactly how important it is to a healthy marriage.

(Paraphrasing) “You and your partner need to be a united front. Regardless of the disagreements you might personally have with each other, when facing the rest of the world, you need to have each other’s back.”

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Macklemore’s Real Problem With Black People

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Imagine a world where…

1. Justin Bieber and Beyonce performed together at a major event

…and…

2. During the show, Beyonce “accidentally” made an obscene gesture that kinda, sorta seemed planned by her and Bieber

…and…

3. When questioned about the gesture, Bieber threw Beyonce under the bus, allowing Beyonce to receive all the negative press by herself

…and…

4. Within the next several years, as Beyonce continued to suffer from the public relations hit, the Black community would begin to embrace Bieber while collectively forgetting about her.

Seems completely far-fetched, right? I’d even say that it was impossible. Like, not f*cking possible in a million Pharrell years. But that would make me a liar. Because this exact thing happened 10 years ago. 

Janet Jackson may not have been as big then as Beyonce is now, but she was close. And Justin Bieber today might not be as big now as Justin Timberlake was then, but he’s close. But those are minor details. The major detail remains the same: Black America collectively “forgave” a 20-something White male for his role in effectively ending the career of a Black music icon.

There are myriad theories for why this was able to happen. You could argue that Janet was already on the downside of her career, and this was just a nail to a coffin that had already started to close. You could argue that the entire controversy was just another example of the double standard for male and female and Black and White performers. You could even say that Janet was blacklisted because she was the one who actually had a body part exposed.

While each theory has some truth to it, none really explain why Black people have been so quick to embrace Timberlake. I mean, he’s on every Black awards show, he works with the best Black artists, and he’s the White celebrity crush for like 17% of Black women.

The answer is simple: Timberlake has talent.

That’s it. Talent is the great neuralyzer; powerful enough to make us forget and forgive anything. It makes us liars and hypocrites. Excusers and enablers. Things we say that really, really, really, really, really matter to us like integrity and loyalty and even racial solidarity stop mattering once someone is talented and cute and makes us laugh with his dick in a box.

He’s cool with us because he’s cool.

Timberlake isn’t the only example of this happening. I’m sure many of us can think of suspect stuff we’ve let slide because of how much we liked a person’s music or movies or pizza. It happens to me, too. Quentin Tarantino has a long history of saying and/or doing racially problematic things, but I look the other way because I love his movies.

All of this helps me understand what’s happening with Macklemore right now.

Macklemore is literally everywhere right now. And by “Macklemore is literally everywhere right now” I mean “Think pieces tying Macklemore to White privilege and disingenuousness and cultural appropriation are literally everywhere right now.” Seriously, on my way to the bathroom earlier, I tripped and fell over a 1,100 word long piece comparing Macklemore to John Boehner and Joseph Caiaphas. It was sleep on the floor. I gave it a granola bar.

He has become both pop culture’s and Black America’s punching bag of the week. I even joined in the fray during the Grammys, tweeting that he was the only Grammy winner where the “get off the stage” music is better than his. 

While the heat he’s receiving now will eventually die down, one thing is certain: He will never, ever, ever, ever receive the same type of embrace from us that Timberlake or even Eminem does. Never, ever, ever, ever. He’s not quite the male Miley Cyrus. But, as far as him symbolizing “everything that’s wrong with the music industry” and “White people stealing shit again”, he might as well be.

Which proves (again) that we’re all hypocrites.

The only thing really separating Justin Timberlake and Eminem and Robin Thicke — all White artists who’ve been embraced by Blacks despite doing and/or saying some racially problematic things — from Macklemore is that we think Macklemore sucks. We don’t diss him because of appropriation or undeserved Grammy wins or Instagrammed messages to Kendrick Lamar. I mean, we say that we do, and we do a very good job of seeming upset about that stuff. But, when you consider that some of the White artists we embrace have done much worse, the Macklemore hate comes down to the fact that we think his music is simple, saccharin, and stupid. If he was a little more talented, a little less awkward, and maybe a little more handsome, we could be convinced to look the other way. But he’s not, so we don’t.

Perhaps you don’t agree. Maybe you believe it’s not just about talent. That Macklemore comes off as fake and Timberlake seems authentic so that’s why we embrace him. And, you know what? I believe you.

Actually, let me rephrase that. I will believe you if you can do one thing for me: Name the last Janet Jackson LP.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

“White People Crazy” — Funny or Offensive? (Or Neither? Or Both?)

My verdict? Slightly funny and slightly offensive. Basically, it’s “Hangover Movie Funny.” (“Hangover Movie Funny” = “the type of funny where something is more funny in theory than actually funny.“)

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)