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Michel Martin and civility

Editors like to think they know their audiences, but it’s not always true.  We were surprised by the volume of email answering Michel Martin’s open letter taking to task poet Ishmael Reed, the “Black left”  in general and BC in particular for our alleged lack of civility.

Here's what Janet Brown of Oakland CA had to say:

In the April 20, 2006 issue, Ishmael Reed published a trenchant and substantive criticism of black media figures who chastise and demonize blacks in ways that pander to white audiences. Among the numerous specific examples of this behavior, he mentioned journalist Michel Martin just briefly. 

This has prompted not one, but two long responses by Martin, one of which was published in the May 4, 2006, issue of BC. Her main complaint? That Reed was "uncivil": more or less saying that Reed hurt her feelings. Well, it takes a lot to make me cry. 

Nowhere in Martin's long, rambling, off-topic sermon on the virtues of civility does she actually bother to specify exactly how Reed was supposedly uncivil. Additionally, nowhere does Martin critically address or dispute the specific examples that Reed gave. Of course, Martin's entire response was a personal PR exercise in misdirection. 

Perhaps Martin means that it's uncivil to criticize Cynthia Tucker for promoting (and never retracting) false reports of generally, so-called, "bestial" behavior by black victims of Hurricane Katrina. Or maybe that it's "uncivil" to take Bob Herbert to task for trotting out that hackneyed claim about how Gangsta Rap is responsible for all the ills of American  society. 

Or it might be "uncivil" to suggest that Martin herself could have engaged in actually substantive questioning of Cynthia McKinney, reviewing the facts of the case and what are the requirements or customary – or differential – treatment of Congresspersons rushing to cast votes. Martin could have mentioned the lawsuit that black Capitol Hill police have against racial profiling and harassment by white Capitol Hill police.

But that would tend to objectively legitimize McKinney's claim, now wouldn't it? Martin could have done that, instead of questioning why McKinney changed her hairstyle or if McKinney is too "militant," thus playing to the racist white stereotypes of intelligent, strong black women as "too angry" or "too uppity." 

Perhaps Martin could have even questioned McKinney's position in – what is really behind all of this – speaking truth to power about issues of war and peace and who dies as a result of American foreign policy. Instead, Martin, a black woman, concocted a sexist, stereotyping and trivializing 'hit piece' marginally less noxious than, say, a Bill O'Reilly might have against another black woman.  Yet it's Martin that grouses about "be[ing] victimized by black career assassins" and a lack of "civility." Apparently, Martin believes that she herself is above criticism. 

Not satisfied with promoting the negative stereotyping of strong black women, Martin even goes on to more stereotyping in her BC response. Just a few of Martin's examples: 

Blacks have a "pneumonia of shredded relationships [and] uninhabitable neighborhoods." She cringes as black mothers curse and berate their children. She holds her breath as young black men curse and insult each other on the corner and wonders when the last word will turn to deadly violence. Kind-worded black women, she says, are met on the streets "with a barrage of epithets and crude sexual remarks" from "our own." Even black leftists are "uncivil," "rude," "mean-spirited" and lack "ethics." This is the stereotypical black world that Martin sees – noting nothing positive, only dysfunction. 

If civility is abstaining from criticism of certain black media figures for pandering to whites in promoting the racist demonization of black people, then it may be time for less, not more civility. 

Louisiana's Anthony Kennerson had these observations on Martin's plea for civility:

It’s interesting to see Ms. Martin calling out Ishmael Reed, CounterPunch and BC for their alleged lack of civility.  Ms. Martin seems to feel a need to throw accusations at blacks on the left while leaving those on the right alone.

Ms. Martin could not possibly have been unaware of the volume and virulence of vile and racist epithets slung in the direction of Georgia's Representative Cynthia McKinney.  Nothing that Ishmael Reed wrote on that article could even begin to approximate Neal Boortz's “ghetto slut" smack – and that was among the more printable insults.

Where was our black guardian of “civility” then?  Why didn’t we hear her voice telling how establishment media programs were selling a line about McKinney being nutty, almost slutty, dangerous and ultra-radical Black Leftist?

It seems that the definition of civility always depends on who does the defining and why.  Ruling the term “Uncle Tom” out of our lexicon as “uncivil” as Martin seems to want to do, besides being in line with current right wing complaints about the dialog African Americans have with each other, is just plain wrong.  Banning that highly useful term is a way of shutting down discussion and analysis, a way to deprive us of a potent, historically and politically loaded term to describe a kind of dangerous and politically loaded behavior.

Lana Floyd puts a cap on it like this:

I read Michel Martin's entire article.  She not only did not address Reed's points, but provided an unnecessary and condescending lecture about civility, a concept which she did not adhere to when she called Representative McKinney out about her hair.  Still, Martin has the nerve to be offended?  To accuse others of being jealous of her success?  Ms. Martin, I don't get it or you – what is your point sistah? 

More on Economic Advancement vs. Economic Development 

How many times have we read in the media or heard it broadcast or from a pulpit that “black America is the eighth or ninth largest nation in the world in spending power” and that if we just harness all that to the engine of black businesses, most of our problems would go away.  And how often is there anybody to counter that most of the gigantic but meaningless “spending power” is spent on mere survival – expenses like rent, food, diapers, health insurance, and gas to get to work.  How often is it pointed out that a huge proportion of the “spending power” is actually consumer debt, like car notes, credit card bills and payday loans?  Or that 1% of America's population owns roughly 50% of all the stocks, bonds and financial instruments, and the next 5% have a substantial portion of the rest, leaving not much at all for the rest of us to throw around in the name of community economic development, whatever is meant by that term. 

Our self-interested black business class has limited the conversation about economic advancement to their own quest for set-asides and contracts, and preaching to the rest of us about their importance.  In the real world, Roger Toussaint and the New York City transit workers union did more in a three day strike to advance the fortunes and secure the economic well-being of a greater number of black families than black America's three known billionaires, Bob Johnson, Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey have in their entire careers. 

Good examples do not go unpunished, and Toussaint was imprisoned for several days in April as a message to labor unions that would stand up for the pensions, dignity and livelihoods of their members.  BC published an open letter from Toussaint in last week's issue, and received this note from regular reader Howard Gaffney, a transit worker himself.

Not only is local 100 a predominantly Black and Brown union it has a president who has broken the mold of past presidents. Roger Toussaint is a Trinidadian, an intelligent Black man who will take no prisoners when it comes to developing local 100 into an influential positive force for ALL working people, and who looks at long term goals for justice and equality in and out of the labor struggle.

We need more Toussaints, maybe, and fewer Bob Johnsons.

“Homeless Activist” Finds A Home

BC editor and senior commentator Margaret Kimberley revisited the topic of immigration in last week's Freedom Rider, holding up for examination the strange case of “colored minuteman” and “homeless activist” Ted Hayes.  So desperate is white America for black faces who will echo their racist sentiments about brown people, that a place has been made, not only in the news, but in the Minutemen, for this hapless creature.

BC reader Joy Matkowski asks rhetorically:

Has he ever done anything as a "homeless advocate" other than attach the label to himself?

Of course nothing comes to mind, and that is the point.  As Derrick Bell pointed out more than a decade ago, the swiftest and surest way to become a noted authority on Black America in the eyes of whites is to agree with them about us.  Hence it appears that Mr. Hayes has at last found a home, of sorts.

Black Commentator is our home, of course.  We answer as much of our email as possible, some of it later than we like, and we print what we can of it in this pace each week.  Send us your best at [email protected].


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May 11, 2006
Issue 183

is published every Thursday.

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