With fascination, I've noted the recent popularity
of these television commercials featuring the smart Black guy.
You know what I mean, the intelligent, "articulate"
and "clean" man of color, someone you wouldn't mind
inviting to your home for dinner. In the commercial, he is invariably
called upon to provide technical expertise on some complex matter,
whether it involves the specifications of the latest model computer,
information on selecting an insurance policy, or giving crucial
I suppose I should be satisfied that we have
improved in the media depictions of people of color, somewhat,
that Black men are finally portrayed as something other than
criminals, buffoons, the hired help, etc. To be sure, these
ads, creations of Madison Avenue, rightly suggest that there
are many Black men out there from which society could learn
a great deal. However, in the real world in which most of us
live, Black men are rarely heard. Most of society has very little
to say to Black men, and believes there is very little, if nothing,
that they can learn from them.
To be sure, there have been many who were willing
and eager to give advice, but society has refused to heed their
message. For example, in the 1960s, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Fred
Hampton, Medgar Evers and others had much to say to America,
and much advice to give. But their message was unwelcome, and
the messengers were assassinated. And a number of whites at
that time who openly asserted that society must listen to what
Black people have to say, were murdered, maimed or otherwise
African American men are the nation's universal
scapegoat. They are the most likely to die, the most likely
to be undereducated and the most likely to be unemployed. Many
whites fled the cities to get away from them, so that their
children would not go to school with them, or even worse, date
Through unjust laws, Black men, along with their
Latino counterparts, are the majority of the nation's prisoners.
And they comprise the most incarcerated demographic in the world,
America's attempt to lock up its race problem — out of
sight and out of mind — and throw away the key. In a country
where each of the 50 states bans dog fighting, and rightly so,
men of color are chained up and put down like dogs, and men
and women of color often are not even respected as much as dogs.
Black men in particular are stressed over the
badge of criminality they must bear. The nation's tough-on-crime,
law and order apparatus is mobilized primarily against them.
When they are born, there is a presumption of their guilt. Society
places an insurmountable burden on Black men to prove that they
are not a criminal element, which is why they are likely to
receive longer sentences for the same crime than white men.
Even the clothes associated with young Black
men of the hip hop generation - saggy jeans - have been prohibited
by law in some parts of the U.S .
A white man with a criminal record has an easier
time finding a job than a Black man who has had no brushes with
the law. And as anti-racism activist and writer, Tim Wise notes,
a Black man with a college degree makes nearly $20,000 less,
or nearly half his white counterpart, while a white with a masters
degree earns 10 percent more, and a white with a professional
degree earns $30,000 more.
Based on the longstanding assumption that two
or more Black males gathering together in public constitutes
a criminal conspiracy, the Black Codes were enacted during Jim
Crow in order to control Black men's daily affairs. Studies
have been funded to prove that Black men possess an innate wolfpack
mentality and penchant for violence. America is the department
store within which African American men must navigate, constantly
monitored, followed and scrutinized, and always presumed to
be up to no good.
And today, we can see the intergenerational nature
of this criminalization process. As six Black teens were arrested
and indicted in Jena, Louisiana, facing hard time for fighting against
raw racism under the "white" tree, eight former Black
Panthers were arrested and indicted, based on illegal evidence,
old, unsettled scores and trumped up charges, four decades in
In this election season, it is plausible that
almost none of the interchangeable empty suits that are the
Republican presidential candidates will have any contact with
Black men, much less acknowledge their existence. That is why
many of them have run away from the presidential debates on
Black and Latino issues. It is doubtful that a number of Democratic
candidates have a clue as well.
Certainly, an individual such as Mitt Romney,
marketed as the whitest man with the whitest family in the land,
has no need to concern himself with what Black men are thinking.
And surely Rudy "9-11" Giuliani had no concern for
the many Black and Latino men who were killed by the police
under his watch as mayor of New York. For this crowd —
which, curiously, seems to believe it can win by playing to
the base and ignoring this nation's ascending majority —
policy towards people of color is of a punitive nature, whether
it is war against Arabs and Muslims at home and abroad (and
apparent Arabs and Muslims), deportation for Latinos, elimination
of civil rights, voting rights and affirmative action for people
of color in general, and more imprisonment for all of the above.
(Of course, our white brothers and sisters of
meager means do not fare any better under a hypothetical G.O.P.
administration. However, the regressive conservatives throw
a bone to that segment of the electorate in the form of the
race card, naked homophobia and criminalization of women's rights,
the war on terror, the war on crime, creationism, guns, and
other divisive distractions.)
The Black guy in the commercial seems to serve
a role for a society that is in denial. He soothes the collective
guilty conscience by reminding America of the progress we've
made, and providing proof that racism and racial inequity are
a thing of the past. "This smart Black guy is managing
my stock portfolio and building me a computer, he's doing well,
so why does he need affirmative action?" the argument goes.
"The civil rights movement was a long time ago, and we
live in a colorblind society, so why should this guy get any
breaks over my kid?"
There is a racial disconnect in America, and
it is enormous. A recent study by Ohio State University of white
people's understanding of the black experience suggests that
many whites are clueless. When given a hypothetical involving
an oppressed minority group in a fictional country that mirrors
the Black experience, whites estimated that the group deserved,
on average, $1 million in compensation. But when posed the same
question with regard to African Americans, the estimate dropped
And according to a survey by the Associated Press
and MTV, 72 percent of whites between ages 13-24 say they are
generally happy with life, as opposed to 56 percent of Blacks
and 51 percent of Latinos. Among participants of color in the
survey, the most important key to happiness was lack of money
woes, while whites said that a good family was the most important
factor. Further, 28 percent of people of color believe race
will hurt them in their search for a better life, while 20 percent
of whites feel their race will help them get ahead.
So, the next time you see a smart Black guy in
a TV commercial, ask yourself a question: how much better would
this country be if we actually listened to what the real-life
Black people have to say?
Columnist David A. Love is a lawyer based in Philadelphia,
and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project and McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
He contributed to the book, States
of Confinement: Policing, Detention and Prisons (St. Martin's
Press, 2000). Love is a former Amnesty International UK spokesperson,
organized the first national police brutality conference as
a staff member with the Center
for Constitutional Rights, and served as a law clerk to
two Black federal judges. His blog is at
here to contact Mr. Love