As a child of the 80s, I have indelible almost-peed-in-my-pants memories of Eddie Murphy on the stage in Delirious and Raw, but also as an actor, unparalleled impressionist, sketch comedian and unfortunate one-time Rick James musical collaborator (“Party All the Time!”). In Coming to America, a movie starring Murphy, a congenial and high-minded African prince named Akeem travels to America to find a wife that in his words will, “arouse my intellect, as well as my loins”. Akeem decides that Queens, NY is the most suitable location to find his bride-to-be. One of Akeem’s first stops in the neighborhood is the My-T Sharp Barbershop. When Akeem opens the door the black proprietor—played by Murphy—is incredulous that Saul—played by Murphy too—an old Jewish customer, would suggest that Rocky Marciano be considered the best heavyweight boxer of the ages:
“Oh, there they go, there they go. Every time I talk about boxing, a white man pulls Rocky Marciano out of his ass. That’s their one, that’s their one. “Rocky Marciano, Rocky Marciano!” Let me tell you something, Rocky Marciano was good, but compared to Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano ain’t shit!”
Fight against the smallness of systemic racial injustice
Marciano did, in fact, beat Joe Louis, but it was well past Louis’ prime as a prizefighter. In fact, it was the last fight of his heavyweight career. You might ask, what does this have to do with race relations? Well, everything. Sports have always been the easiest way of living vicariously through other people, and in a country with an almost pathological obsession with superheroes, professional athletes are the closest thing we have got to a Peter Parker, Clark Kent, or T’Challa (it’s also important to note that NBA and NFL, are 74% and 70% black, respectively). Considering Joe Louis’ boxing history, Murphy could not have picked a better example. Louis famously fought Max Schmelling in 1938 in a match that drew over 70,000 fans to Yankee Stadium and was broadcasted globally. Schmelling came to the United States with Nazi publicists in tow stating that a black man could not beat Schmelling and that the defeat would be an affirmation of the ethnic superiority of the Aryan race—interestingly, Schmelling was not a Nazi, refused to fire his Jewish trainer, and sheltered two Jewish boys during Kristallnacht. Nazis publicized that Schmelling’s winnings would go toward building tanks for the war effort. Stakes were so high in terms of public perception and national morale that Louis was invited to the White House by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and told by FDR himself, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany.” 1938, not unlike the economic and political realities today, saw economic contraction for the United States (the 37-38 recession), widespread unemployment (around 19%), and ethnic nationalism as a political and cultural norm on the European continent. To put it in a proper racial context, Maya Angelou framed the stakes as follows:
“If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.”
Much like today, it was big men like Louis that were asked to help confront the smallness of Nazi ideology. Now is our time to fight like Louis, against the smallness of systemic racial injustice, against the smallness of tidy homogeneity, against the smallness of the bully, and against the smallness that has put the knee on the throat of a country that has far more to offer than the current political and economic leadership.
The “small” man
My mother always had a certain contempt for what she would like to call the “small” man. The “small” man’s behavior could be relatively benign and is certainly a bipartisan phenomenon. More benign examples include, but are not limited to, dropping names of influential or “important” people, bragging about academic pedigree, engaging in petty “pissing contests” or one-upmanship, incessantly posting to social media, talking endlessly about how important and interesting one is, and not being able to be the subject of harmless jocular exchanges or “ball busting”. That said, the small man will usually take some compensatory measures to bolster his sense of value, size, or “manhood”. Examples include buying a particular car or truck to appear “rugged”, internet trolling, misogyny and domestic abuse, seeking positions of arbitrary authority (e.g. a hall monitor or mall cop), reducing life to a zero-sum game, and assuming weapons make the man.
It is important to note, a “small” man need not be diminutive in stature, but sometimes he might well be that too. Martin Luther King was 5 feet 7 inches tall, but he stood taller, and with more principle, than some much more vertically inclined men. Mahatma Gandhi was a wee 5’5″ when he led what would be the largest democracy in the world to independence from imperial Britain. Conversely, tall men can be small—like the kind of smallness indicative of a toddler throwing a temper tantrum in an aquarium gift shop. The smallness I am referring to is more of a mentality or attitude than a matter of height or size. Two “small” men that seem to provide the most topical examples at the time of writing this are Donald Trump and Derek Chauvin.
At 6’3″, 243 pounds, Mr. Trump is not literally small, but his bullying, self-aggrandizing phoniness, gaslighting, trolling, and well documented race-baiting are characteristic of the smallness that I am trying to get at. Like an inquisitive Great Dane being accosted by a Chihuahua in a dog park, Trump’s feeble posturing is all predicated on feisty bravado. From his obsession with crowd size, personal wealth, or the size of his hands and unmentionable parts, Trump seems to have an almost inexhaustible compulsion to inflate and broadcast his “score”, reducing life to nothing more than an unscrupulous competition. Even his carefully teased hair is an exercise in exaggeration—it is safe to assume that rain would not flatter his expertly teased coif. Mr. Trump is a person whose smallness has manifested itself in spearheading the birther movement, that is, a thinly veiled racist conspiracy theory claiming President Barack Obama is not a United States citizen. That is not to mention his now-infamous Chartlottsville “there are very fine people on both sides” remarks Mr. Trump has also vastly overstated his intellect and abilities—he has dubbed himself “a very stable genius”, and has, according to multiples sources, a preoccupation with IQ score. He even went so far as to tweet the following in 2013:
“Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault”.
Obviously, the Chihuahua analogy applies here too. Even his criticism of Biden has been couched in terms of his infantile one-upmanship arithmetic. During a presser, Trump said the following about his Democratic challenger:
“Kim Jong-un made a statement that Joe Biden is a low-IQ individual. He probably is, based on his record. I think I agree with him on that.”
Mr. Trump seems to assume that the value of a man can be reduced to a number on a measuring stick or ending balance on a bank statement. That may well be an explanation for a letter sent by his former legal fixer, Michael Cohen, to Fordham University, Trump’s alma mater, stating:
“If in the event any of his records are released or otherwise disclosed without his prior written consent, we will hold your institution liable to the fullest extent of the law including damages and criminality.”
If Mr. Trump were so confident about his alleged brilliance, wouldn’t he be more forthcoming about his academic history? If he were so wealthy and successful, wouldn’t Mr. Trump voluntarily release his tax returns? If Mr. Trump had such confidence in his performance in 2020 (against “Sleep Joe”, no less), wouldn’t he allow at-risk voters to cast their ballots by mail as they do with the active military? Sadly, his win-at-all-costs attitude is not a uniquely Trumpian phenomenon, it is baked into the American cake.
Mr. Chauvin, at 5’9″ is on the more diminutive side, especially in relation to George Floyd’s towering stature. According to the Minneapolis Police Department, Chauvin racked up 18 complaints over his 19-year career, including several citing excessive force. Seeing his mugshot immediately evoked thoughts of that guy in high school that was universally thought of as a hothead, not suitable for owning a firearm or being a mall cop, let alone working in law enforcement.
The disempowerment and eradication of black men
In contrast, “Big” George Floyd was an imposing 6’6″, or about the height of NBA legend Michael Jordan. In a revealing anecdote, Jovanni Tunstrom, his former boss, mentioned that George would “dance badly to make people laugh.” I thought her account was really striking and poignant, as there is a clear paucity of self-mocking humor and humility in our self-absorbed social media culture. It also is something that is not in the behavioral repertoire of people like Mr. Chauvin.
While the stark physical differential between Chauvin and Floyd is obvious, there has been little mention of this fact on both liberal and conservative networks. Racism is almost always seeded by feelings of inadequacy, marginalization, or victimhood. Though it has been more than 65 years, the tragic lynching of Emmett Till still provides a window into the motivations of the feeble white supremacist. What prompted Emmett Till’s murder you might ask? He whistled at a white woman in a Mississippi grocery store. For his perceived indiscretion, Till was abducted, tortured, mutilated beyond recognition, wrapped in barbwire attached to a 75-pound fan, and unceremoniously dumped in the Tallahatchie River. His mother insisted on an open casket, so parishioners could see the barbarism committed against her son. And though that happened in 1955, norms have not changed nearly as much as one might think. After all, what we all witnessed in that 8 minute and 46 second cell phone video was tantamount to a modern lynching in high definition. Mr. Chauvin may not have been a white supremacist in the formal sense, but his motivations likely had similar roots.
Jordan Peele, a prominent black auteur, has broached these subjects in his movies, especially as they apply to suburban America. In Get Out, a movie about a young black man visiting his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time, Jordan’s protagonist Chris, makes his way to a leafy non-descript suburb with his girlfriend Rose. Upon arrival, the family appears to be welcoming, educated, and progressive. The next day, a sort of garden party is hosted at the parents’ house, and of course, they invite their white friends who, though friendly, treat Chris as a sort of pet-store curiosity. The guests fawn over his physique, with one partygoer named Annalisa exclaiming, “How handsome is he,” followed by, “Is it true, is it better?” The premise of the movie—and this is a spoiler if you have not seen the film—is that these crunchy white folks are using black bodies for transplantation. In other words, they are finally able to possess the thing that they covet most of all: the bodies of black men.
Unsubstantiated rumors have started circulating online that “Big” George Floyd was in porn movies. Not surprisingly, these rumors—and I did a bit of a twitter digging—are highly correlated with the type of white men that frequent 4chan and Breitbart forums. These rumors were also accompanied by an alt-right conspiracy theory claiming that the murder of George Floyd was an elaborate hoax. These unsubstantiated claims—especially the porn allegation—exhibit the motivations that are behind many historical lynching’s and today’s porn obsessed and aggrieved white nationalist: penis envy. It is a well-established fact that lynching’s in the Jim Crow south were often the result of allegations of black men sleeping with white women. And most of those lynching’s had a standardized practice: castration and genital mutilation. Novelist James Baldwin graphically documented this practice in Going to Meet the Man, a story in which a white deputy sheriff who has performance anxiety while in bed with his wife recalls the gruesome lynching of a black man in order to achieve an erection. Of course, this has as much to do with power as it has to do with sex. Obviously, the systemic violence we see now is slightly more subtle, but the history is clear, and the results are very much the same, that is, the disempowerment and eradication of black men.
Many parents, even progressive parents that surely voted for Obama (and in Peele’s words “would have voted for him a third time”), still recoil at the thought of interracial sexual relationships. As my friend Will often quipped, “They love you when you’re scoring touchdowns, just not when you’re dating white girls.” Will and I both grew up in a pretty crunchy progressive suburb of Boston, so not a place where racism was especially evident or in-your-face (at least not if you are black), but there were always redlines that many naïve white folks, including myself, didn’t see and therefore didn’t think existed. For example, the parent-teacher association and school administrators often claimed, without any evidence, that METCO students—METCO was a program that bussed predominantly black kids from Boston to suburban schools—were bringing drugs into the school. I must admit, I knew most of the drug dealers at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School and they were ALMOST ALL white suburban kids. In an interesting twist of fate, one of the Phish-touring-trust-fund “hippies” I used to buy pot from as a teenager is now an alt-right internet troll.
The crime of The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996
As growing up in a progressive suburb proved, attitudes, like the outcome of elections, happen at the margins. And whether you like it or not, those attitudes form public policy. If the concurrent crises of public health (COVID-19) and institutionalized racism prove anything, it is that the culture of “personal accountability”, “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” and “self-help” are paltry substitutes for universal health care, universal pre-k and university education, a robust social services sector, and greater access to affordable housing. Even the progressive sub-culture of identity politics, affirmative action, and “inclusion” miss the mark by miles, and in retrospect ring as half measures that wealthy white progressives were willing to make, without having to address any of the systemic economic inequalities that have devastated black communities.
When “socially liberal” policies became a locus of liberal attention in the 90s, the “New Democrats”, led by Bill Clinton, passed “landmark” legislation that resulted in the mass incarceration of black and brown people in the form of the 1994 crime bill; a welfare reform bill—interestingly called, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—which according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities was “a major factor in the lack of progress in reducing poverty among people in working single-mother families after 1995”; and the wholesale removal of the financial regulatory framework (Glass-Stiegel), resulting in a sub-prime mortgage crisis of devastating proportions for black homeowners. In other words, liberals—then and now—were willing to adopt a new set of social norms (let us just call it political correctness), but completely unwilling to reach into their wallets and rectify clear and pernicious inequalities. White “educated” liberals got fabulously wealthy during the dotcom 90s, and subsequently isolated themselves in towns with sky-high economic barriers—like Cambridge, MA where I lived for 5 years. If you did not leave the rarified neighborhoods of Cambridge, you would have thought the world was collectively signing kumbaya. All the while, black men were incarcerated at alarmingly higher rates, black single-mothers were even more likely to be living below the federal poverty line and an educated white elite started buying property and displacing ethnic minorities in cities like New York and Boston.
Let us not forget that George Floyd’s arrest was the result of an alleged $20 counterfeit note. In other words, he ultimately died for twenty dollars. That is about an hours’ worth of parking on the Upper East Side or sandwich and latte at a Williamsburg coffee shop.
If we address the protests and Black Lives Matter movement only as a matter of policing, we will make the same grave mistakes neo-liberal voices made in the 90s and 00s. I recall claims in the late 00s parroted by McKinsey consultants that the internet revolution had “flattened” the world. The premise of this so-called “flat world” (a term coined by New York Times columnist Thomas Freedman) asserted that globalization and technology were creating a world in which competitors had equal opportunity, thereby absolving readers of any responsibility for a more humane and egalitarian political and economic system. While Mr. Friedman was remarkably familiar with Bangalore, perhaps he should have taken the C train to Bed Stuy. For those of you still convinced the world is flat, ask the people of the lower 9th ward in New Orleans if that rings true. Or even if they had internet access in the mid to late 00s. I can assure you; they will confirm that while white neighborhoods were rebuilt and rebounded, the lower 9th ward became a literal toxic wasteland.
Much of this may ring as provocative or even combative, but it is necessary that we take a very hard self-inventory of ourselves, our society, and form a comprehensive approach to this issue that does not only right the current wrongs, but addresses entrenched interests that are preventing a fair, ethical, and more humane society.