With all the problems facing African Americans, it is hard to believe the amount of time that is being wasted debating the merits of Quentin Tarantino's hit new "comedy," Django Unchained, and its use of the N- word. Some critics resent the movie's comedic depiction of slavery as disrespectful to the scope and tragedy of slavery. They also are offended by the movie's liberal use of the N-word, reportedly uttered at least 110 times by someone with the time, energy and interest to count. Still others have suggested it was inappropriate for Tarantino to even make the film because he is white. Led by award-winning filmmaker Spike Lee, some have chosen both to critique and boycott the film without even watching it. I should disclose that I have seen the film and it's not of the caliber of Roots, Amistad, or even Rosewood -- and it wasn't meant to be. Unfortunately, this debate isn't about the film's artistic merits -- it's about the use and frequency of the N-word. It's time to bring this unproductive conversation to an end.
A quick reality check is in order. Like it or not, during slavery African Americans were referred to by slave owners using the N-word. Being called the N-word was really the least of our problems. It was far down on the list after being considered property, held in bondage, raped, mutilated and murdered. Fast forward to today. How many times in a day do you think African Americans use the N- word to refer to each other? I think most would agree the N-word is uttered exponentially more than 110 times. Let's take it one step further. How many times in a day are African American women and girls referred to as witches with a "B" by an African American man professing his love and affection? If you are thinking too many times, you are right.
While language is important, the unfortunate truth is that the words in question permeate a part of the African American culture through movies, rap music and comedy routines. Let's remember that when the late Dorothy Height, former president of the National Council of Negro Women, and other leaders championed these issues and challenged music industry leaders, she received little support. Django reflects the rampant use of the N-word both during slavery and today and remains the least of our community's problems.
Unless urgent action is taken, a significant segment of the African American community will become an endangered species. We have enormous problems. In a society in which we are constantly bombarded with messages, African Americans have only limited, precious, media capital to focus the nation's attention (and our own) on issues of importance to us and we can not waste it. Discussing how many times the N-word can be used in a movie before it becomes offensive is unworthy and distracting to the many and deep challenges facing African Americans that deserve our urgent attention, energy and financial resources.
What should we be talking about instead? Among the long and growing list of problems plaguing African Americans is:
• Unemployment: While the larger economy has started a tepid recovery, African Americans, especially men, continue to face double digit unemployment, 13 percent. Without jobs, many of our communities are forced to a marginal existence relying on the informal and illegal economy for survival.
• Homicides: Yes, our community is justifiably outraged when young men like Trayvon Martin are killed by people of other races or questionable police actions. However, our kids are killing each other in record numbers in urban areas such as Chicago and Philadelphia while our larger community remains relatively silent. The retaliatory gang violence is spiraling out of control. Where is our community's unconditional support and advocacy for gun control, recognizing that it is our kids who are disproportionately dying every day?
• Health: The physical health of our community is in dire jeopardy. Our children are being born prematurely, regardless of income, and diabetes is rampant, currently the fifth leading cause of death.
• High School Drop Outs: While there has been some marginal improvement, we have a long way to go. Only 52 percent of African American males graduate from high school in four years. If we do not improve on these numbers and the number obtaining advanced degrees, the African American community will be unprepared for a future that requires competency in math, science and technology.
• Incarceration: It is estimated that one in six black men have been incarcerated and one in 100 women are in prison. Prison is the new slavery, and it has become the unstated economic development engine for rural America.
The reasons for the conditions facing African Americans are complex. They are rooted in a history of systematic racism and injustice which helped to create a dysfunctional subculture within the African American community. This dysfunctional subculture is at war with and is undermining the dominant, mainstream African American culture that values education and the American dream of upward socio-economic mobility. This subculture accepts lower educational expectations and labels kids who excel in school as "acting white" and fair game to be targeted for violence. This subculture also has come to accept the widespread violence in poor African American communities as normal. People in these communities live in fear of simply walking through their neighborhoods and are scared to speak out against illegal activities in their communities for fear of retaliation. While there will many who will disagree and perhaps vilify this assessment, this is actually the uncomfortable discussion that the African American community must force itself to have if we are to exist and thrive in a competitive global 21st century society. We simply must summon the courage to have this discussion without recrimination or worries about what the white community or other communities might think, say or conclude about our discussion.
As President Barrack Obama prepares to start a second term, the African American community should be organizing to present its agenda to the president, Congress and the American people. The forthcoming national debate about where and how to cut billions of dollars to health, education, job training and housing will have profound implications for our community. We are not prepared to effectively engage in this discussion. We have crucial organizations in need of financial support such as the NAACP, Urban League, UNCF and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, among other local and national organizations. Rather than generating buzz that will only send more people to the movies, how do we get people to send meaningful contributions to the organizations that will help strengthen our communities and accurately tell our stories? We have urgent work to do to save our community. Wasting time discussing Django while the African American community falls over the cliff is not one of them.