Several years ago, in the now (I think) defunct magazine Human Behavior, there was an article about a man who – while just listening to NFL games – could tell whether a particular player was black or white. He couldn’t watch the games because he was blind, but by listening to sportscasters talk about great plays made on the field, he learned whites made them through skill, but blacks by luck.
He noticed. Most of us don’t, but that does not mean the message has not been received: the notion that the value of black men can be so easily dismissed. That sentiment – so rooted, so pervasive it no longer requires the malice originally attached to it – is perpetuated in ways large and small, passed from one generation to the next. Whether or not we realize we are taking in such subliminal suggestions, we are. It damages all of us, but it can kill black men and boys with impunity. The grand jury decision in the death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown and the killing of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice are the most recent manifestations of this cultural virus. As if his very killing had not been enough, the devaluation of young Rice’s life was made clearer when a local news organization chose to investigate and report on his parents’ arrest records.
In the midst of these tragedies, I call your attention to an absurdity (in that you might find it absurd I would waste time even thinking about it). As stated above, the dismissing of value happens in small ways as well, but that is no small matter. It is still prejudice clouding our collective subconscious. This time it was presented in the form of an innocuous, network television advertisement for NBC’s singing competition program “The Voice”. As I write, eight contestants remain, including one woman and one black. Some ad guy or gal thought it would be cute to give them monikers for the few-seconds promo. So, there is the Soul Man; the Dreamer; the Hipster; the Heartthrob; the Tattooed Teacher; the Comeback King; the Stay-at-Home Mom; and the TSA Agent. If you were to make the obvious assumption about which one is the black contestant, you would be wrong.
(I have to digress. It’s about that whole “Soul Man” thing. That once meant being a black man, born and reared in Jim Crow America, who found solace in making a joyful noise unto the Lord in his youth, but gravitated toward secular song as an adult. You could hear every bit of that history in his voice – and more – when he sang, and when he sang he moved everyone who heard him. Yes, others who have grown up burdened by life in certain ways have had that experience infuse their art as well. Still others are mere mimics, good ones, but mimics nonetheless, and mimicry does not a “Soul Man” make).
Viewers of “The Voice” might decide for themselves what they think about that show’s singers, but they’ve already been given a nudge by the ad folk who seem to have decided how the audience should think. Despite their phenomenal voices and singing, the woman should stay at home with her kids where she belongs; the black guy should just be happy working for the TSA. No adjectives or superlatives for either of them.
Do I think the folk at NBC or its ad agency intended to denigrate the worth of that young man and convey that message to viewers? No. Am I being ridiculous to see it as an example of the prejudice the subconscious can produce? Perhaps, but I would be less so were it not for the undeniable examples of our history.
The last time I wrote about the differences in what people see when looking at the same thing was August 1, 2013. The subject was the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. Here we are again, staring into a chasm seemingly too deep and wide to bridge. It makes one wistful for the clarity of blindness.