Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban took much heat for speaking plainly and boldly about race, more particularly racial stereotypes. He said he'd cross the street if he sees a black kid in a hoodie and a white guy with tattoos and a shaved head coming his way. Forget the tattooed, bald-headed white guy. That was a throwaway line that had no meaning, since few instantly hightail it to safety at the site of this character. And Cuban didn't feel the need to tweet an apology to any Aryan Brotherhood or Neo-Nazi namesake for his blanket labeling of them as inherent menaces to society.
Cuban, however, did tweet Trayvon Martin's parents and apologize if his words were taken as a direct or oblique inference to Martin. It was well that he did. Because a compelling case can always be made that it was not the hoodie that got Martin killed by rogue, self-appointed vigilante George Zimmerman, but the fearsome stereotype that Martin's wearing of it conjured up in the mind of Zimmerman and countless others.
This was plainly evident in the non-stop avalanche of veiled and not-so-veiled hints, innuendoes, digs, and crass, snide, accusing comments, remarks, slander and outright lies about Martin's alleged bad background in the days after the killing, and the months that preceded the trail, and the over-the-top subtle and not-so-subtle play on them by Zimmerman's defense attorneys, and his resultant acquittal.
The pantheon of stereotypes and negative typecasting of young black males such as Martin that Cuban honestly fingered had deadly consequences with Martin. Put plainly, it's the shortest of short steps to think that if an innocent, Martin can be depicted as a caricature of the terrifying image that much of the public harbors about young black males, then that image seems real, even more terrifying, and the consequences have been just as lethal consequences for other black males.
The hope was that Obama's election buried once and for all negative racial typecasting and the perennial threat racial stereotypes posed to the safety and well-being of black males. It did no such thing. Immediately after Obama's election teams of researchers from several major universities found that many of the old stereotypes about poverty and crime and blacks remained just as frozen in time. The study found that much of the public still perceived those most likely to commit crimes are poor, jobless and black. The study did more than affirm that race and poverty and crime were firmly rammed together in the public mind. It also showed that once the stereotype is planted, it's virtually impossible to root out. That's hardly new either.
In 2003, Penn State University researchers conducted a landmark study on the tie between crime and public perceptions of who is most likely to commit crime. The study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of blacks with violent crime. This was no surprise given the relentless media depictions of young blacks as dysfunctional, dope-peddling, gang bangers and drive-by shooters. The Penn State study found that even when blacks didn't commit a specific crime; whites still misidentified the perpetrator as an African-American.
Five years later university researchers wanted to see if that stereotype still held sway, even as white voters were near unanimous that race made difference in whether they would or did vote for Obama. Researchers still found public attitudes on crime and race unchanged. The majority of whites still overwhelmingly fingered blacks as the most likely to commit crimes, even when they didn't commit them.
The bulging numbers of blacks in America's jails and prisons seem to reinforce the wrong-headed perception that crime and violence in America invariably comes with a young, black male face such as Martin's. It doesn't much matter how prominent, wealthy, or celebrated the black is. The overkill frenzy feeding on the criminal or borderline criminal antics of a litany of black NFL and NBA stars, that run afoul of the law or are poorly behaved, and of course, everyone's favorite stomping boy, the rappers and hip hop artists, further implant the negative image of black males.
Cuban tried to drive the point home that racial stereotypes stir irrational fears, even terror, in millions. However, this can't be admitted in polite company and Cuban's claim that he and everyone else is a bigot badly misses the point. A person's individual dislikes and prejudices can't be equated with the kind of racial stereotypes that imperil black males, such as Martin. But Cuban still gets a high mark for at least recognizing that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.
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