'Everybody Wants to Be Black Until the Police Show Up'

06/15/2015 06:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016
AP Photo/Nicholas K. Geranios

The controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal in Spokane, Washington, is the latest example of America's craziness and hypocrisy when it comes to race.

Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of African-American history knows that for decades under slavery and thereafter, persons who were in fact biologically "Colored" or "Negro" but who were physically indistinguishable from a person who was considered "white" often "passed" as white. Then, in the 20th century, segregationist states enacted legislation prohibiting anyone who had even "one drop" of African ancestry from legally being considered white.

The current controversy, however, raises other fundamental questions. For example, does a person whose ancestry is not Black have the "right" to exercise the option of living their lives as a "Black" person in America? And, more importantly, to what extent does that choice provide such a person with any advantages or privileges that are not available to other Blacks, who, because of their biology, have no option but to live their lives as Black?

Looking back over the history of the struggle of African Americans to be treated as first-class citizens with all the rights and privileges accorded to white people in our country, it is not unreasonable to ask why anyone who is white would choose to be regarded as an African American. The immediately obvious answer is that someone is unlikely to make such a choice unless they thought it would provide them with some advantage or advantages that they would not otherwise have if they continued to present themselves as white in society and in their community.

Presumably, if Ms. Dolezal wanted to be accepted as a Black person in Spokane and elsewhere, she must have calculated that this was better for her than continuing to present herself as a white woman.

Eldridge Cleaver, in his memoir Soul on Ice, written while he was in Soledad prison in California, describes what he calls the "bleakness" and "sterility" of being white in America, without "soul." He suggests that this was one of the reasons that so many white youth were engaging in militancy and adopting some of the cultural language and dance styles of Black people during the 1960s. And, of course, the founders of Def Jam Records can attest that a significant portion of their rap record sales have always come from white youth.

Years ago, many Black people whose physical appearance gave them the option to "pass" as white did so to take advantage of greater opportunities and privileges available to white people than would be available to them if they presented themselves as Black.

There was a story that circulated some time ago within the Black community. Allegedly, a former Gestapo officer who had been involved in certain war crimes was found to be living illegally in Detroit. The story goes that when he was convicted, the sentencing judge came up with a unique form of punishment, telling him that he could could go to Leavenworth Prison for 20-plus years, or he could live free in Detroit -- but with a caveat: He would have to undergo certain medical procedures that would make him look like a Black person for the rest of his life. Supposedly, the Gestapo officer elected for prison over living as a Black man.

Back to Rachel Dolezal. People are beginning to suggest that she be compared to Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, the former Olympic decathlon star who recently transitioned from male to female. But the comparison denies the authenticity of Jenner's journey toward resolving years of inner conflict and asserting her true identity as a woman.

Ms. Dolezal's challenge was that, for yet-unknown social, cultural, and/or political reasons, she wanted to be regarded as a Black person. But in presenting herself as such, she runs the risk of engendering resentment among Black people, whose first reaction could be that she is exercising an option that they do not have.

A Black guest on Melissa Harris-Perry's show on MSNBC put the controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal in the context of the reality of being Black 24/7 in America today. The guest commented, "Everybody wants to be Black until the police show up."