Sunday, August 24, 2008

Guest Rant from Ambassador Zaid Hydari

Mr. Nos and I recently ate Korean barbecue together and as usual, our jive resulted in some points to ponder. He asked me to elaborate on one of them as a guest to rovingstorm – I welcomed the opportunity to rant.
As if the 2008 presidential campaign has not repeatedly forced us to question whether or not race continues to play a role in our (inter)national psyche – 2 recent events highlighted perfectly that we are certainly far from fully overcoming widespread notions of the past.
Take for example the recent photograph of the Spanish National Basketball team (silver medalists as a result of the Redeem team) – pulling the skin around their eyes so as to make them more flat and horizontal. No one on the team, or the Spanish advertisers for whom the photo was taken, found the gesture to be offensive. Are you serious? It’s the Olympics for God’s sake…a union of the entire world’s people through sport. Not a forum for displaying stereotypes and revitalizing the basis for discriminatory treatment of the past. What’s next – European teams wearing blackface during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa? Of all the controversial elements to the Beijing Olympics, I found the Spanish Basketball photo fiasco to exhibit how issues of colorism and racism go well beyond our national borders – see recent NY Times Editorial (Brent Staples, As Racism Wanes, Colorism Persists, Aug. 22, 2008) for oodles of thought-provoking and shocking analysis.
The second thing that smacked me in the face recently as a little off is the soon-to-be-released film Lakeview Terrace. I know I’m not the first person to think of this, or even write about it. A July 30 article by John Horn hit the LA Times and touched upon the racial themes, complete with first-hand thoughts of lead actor and resident badass Samuel L. Jackson. Although I’m afraid I don’t fully agree with the angle that Horn took, I do admit I haven’t seen the movie yet - but the preview does a hell of a job reinforcing racial stereotypes and fears. Having grown up in the suburbs myself, I know that affluent suburban neighborhoods generally are not made up of large contingents of African-Americans or other minorities (other than the “model-minority” Asians of course – an equally inappropriate and distorted title). You can’t help but get the sense that the new residents in the film (Chris and Lisa Mattson) are shit-scared of their neighbor – in large part, because he’s Black. Sure, the new residents are a mixed-race couple themselves. But that just seems to legitimize the fear – its not wholly based on race – after all, Chris is married to a Black woman. Somehow I don’t buy it – the personalities seem to reflect racial stereotypes to the T – Black males are violent, unfriendly, unaccommodating, and to-be-feared, and White males just want to live in peace.
Yet another twist – Samuel L. (Abel Turner in the film) is also a cop! Sure – that introduces an unexpected theme – no one to turn to to seek protection or justice. Those entrusted with the duty to protect are the ones perpetrating the terrorizing of innocent newcomers to the neighborhood! Once again – could just be a compelling plot line used to bring enthrall the audience – but what it also does is take attention away from the growing problems with police departments across this country. Take racial composition for example –major US cities have police forces that are not reflective of the people living amongst it. The LAPD, according to data from 2000, was 46% White and 14% African-American. The NYPD: 65% White and 13% African-American. Both departments have been struggling to meet recruitment levels, and you can bet that the higher up you go in the force, the less color you see. Not to mention police shootings or stop and frisk practices that are glaringly racist – policies that emanate from the top, where again, Black representation is less than at lower ranks.
Perhaps the film aimed to challenge people to think about racism as not always being a White against Black phenomenon. That’s fair – its not. But we haven’t come to a place in society where the systematic disenfranchisement of minority communities has been reversed so as to allow for equal access to the opportunities that facilitate socio-economic success. Until it is – and until suburban neighborhoods – at least in a city as diverse as LA – are racially diverse – films like Lakeview Terrace will come across to me as simply reinforcing a White fear of moving out to the Burbs with the intention of starting a family and living the dream – all to be disrupted by the crazy Black neighbors.

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