How do you measure racial hostility? There are ways to establish how well African Americans are doing compared with whites in, for instance, education, health, economic opportunity and social justice, as the National Urban League documented in its “State of Black America 2017” released this week.
But how do we document progress, or the lack thereof, in the ongoing struggle against racial animosity?
To bring that question closer to home, what degree of animus would lead someone to hang bananas on strings in the shape of nooses at three locations on the campus of American University in Washington this week?
It was a specially targeted act of bigotry. The bananas were marked with the letters AKA, the letters of the nation’s oldest predominantly African American sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. It was also no accident that racially based stunts with bananas occurred on the first day in office of Taylor Dumpson, AU student government’s first female African American president and also an AKA member.
But how do you calculate the depth of disdain expressed in this latest AU incident? Oh, didn’t you know? This week’s thing with bananas was not a first on the AU campus. A black female student reported last September that white students threw a banana at her, prompting a large protest on campus, according to AU’s school newspaper, the Eagle.
Is such hostility even quantifiable?
What, a small still voice cries out, is really changing?
The AU incidents, if anything, draw attention to a particularly noxious aspect of racial hostility: the misogyny against African American women — a development, by the way, that is neither new nor limited to the halls of academia.
Item: Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s insulting statement about a speech on the House floor by 26-year House veteran Maxine Waters (D-Calif.): “I didn’t hear a word she said. I was looking at the James Brown wig. If we have a picture of James, it’s the same wig.” Ah yes, focus on a black woman’s hair and dismiss her based upon how it looks. How many African American women have been down that road? Observed one woman on Twitter: “Bill O’Reilly demonstrates a challenge all Black women have to deal with: we must appeal to White mens tastes before we are taken seriously.”
Item: President Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer’s chastisement of April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, for what he deemed an inappropriate shake of her head. The African American woman dared to publicly get out of line with him. He had to put her in her place.
Item: Trump’s condescending request to Ryan, at a February news conference, that she arrange a meeting between him and the Congressional Black Caucus. “Are they friends of yours?” he asked the reporter. Trump couldn’t recognize Ryan’s standing as a journalist. He couldn’t see past her gender and skin color. He couldn’t resist the taunt.
Item: The statement by the director of a government nonprofit in West Virginia who, after Trump’s election as president, wrote on social media: “It will be so refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady back in the White House,” adding, “I’m tired of seeing a Ape in heels.” The director, Pamela Taylor, eventually lost her job.
O’Reilly, Trump, Spicer, AU’s banana wielders and Taylor: cut from the same cloth and motivated by the same objective — to denigrate African American women considered too uppity or prone to get out of line.
It takes a herculean effort for accomplished African American women not to succumb to the secret fear of being rejected, knowing that unfair humiliation is always waiting around the corner. Just as many African American men live in anticipation of the police officer out to prove his name and the potential employer itching for reasons to say no.
Such things come with the territory of being black.
There’s something enduring about racism. It rears its head in different forms and sometimes from the least expected directions. But it seems always to be there. In the form of a nasty putdown, a rejection slip or a banana.
It’s all beyond measure.
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