Free to Be Bad, Part 1

Tonight we mark the finale of one of televisions great characters:  Walter White, chemistry teacher, cancer patient, meth kingpin.  For five seasons fans have watched the slow demonic slide into the heart of evil that is Breaking Bad.  One of AMC’s breakout hits, Breaking Bad is driven by its central character. He is neither a hero, nor a protagonist.  His fantastic character arc points sharply down.  Fans come back week after week not to watch him triumph over evil, but to watch him descend into it.

Different from many crime dramas, the show doesn’t exploit the drug trade, wrap it up in cool and try to convince us of its wonderful music video like world, but it also doesn’t serve as a simple cautionary tale.  There are moments, especially early on in the show’s seasons that you root for Walt and Jesse to win, no matter how dirty a game they are playing.  What is genius about Breaking Bad is the way it takes the drug trade trope and allows us to look with fresh eyes at the complex moral choices involved.

The hood homies that typically sling on the TV block tend to be flat characters.  Full of machismo, these new-school scarface-wanna-be’s aren’t deep.  Born and bred in the hood, there is no reason given–or needed–for their behavior.  Instead, movies and TV rely on audiences being familiar with the stereotype that all black men are criminals to fill in the blanks. But not so with Walter White.

Free from the stereotypical characteristics that limit the way black and brown drug dealers are portrayed, Walter White swings from sympathetic to satanic, often within the same episode.  Now in his death throes, have no doubt that Walter White is a study in evil.  From the very first episodes to his ill-fated return to the world in tonight‘s last episode, Walt is motivated by nothing more than his ego at every step.  While he works to hide it from him family, from us–and of course himself–his selfishness and manipulative nature drive him at every turn.


His story provides an important outlet in the culture to talk more deeply about the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men.  In the rapids of TV news, crimes and the people that commit them are often defined by their race or their neighborhood.  Gang involved shooters, mass murders, even convenience store robbers lack back story.  Shows like Breaking Bad, Homeland and the Sopranos give us the opportunity to develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of immorality.  They provide us a chance to meet the monstrous in therapy, at home, in the classroom or over dinner, to consider their charming and warm sides.

Hopefully you are less evil than meth maven Walter White, but like him, we all struggle with our lesser angels.  In our 140 character world, we need more time and space to think about who we are, and who we do and don’t want to be.

Stop and Risk: Trading in Safety for Stereotypes

Everywhere you turn this summer is talk about black crime.  More than mere talk, pushing propaganda to support laws like Stop and Frisk and Stand Your Ground mean that real rights are at stake for millions of Americans.  With so much chatter about black crime and urban crime, you might be surprised to find out that the vast majority of crimes in the US are committed by whites--nearly 70 %— which makes sense when you think that the majority of the US population is White.   We all want to be safe, so who’s to blame: is crime a white problem, a black problem or something else entirely?

This week a federal court struck down NYC’s Stop and Frisk policy, citing racially discriminatory enforcement.  The policy’s defenders are crying foul, and are warning  an explosion of crime will happen when the people’s fourth amendment rights are respected.  It’s true crime in New York is at historic lows.  Before you stop and rest on your laurels, crime is down to historic lows not just New York City, but around the country, including many cities that do not have a stop and frisk policy in place, so attributing the drop to Stop and Frisk is misplacing whatever “credit” there is.  For decades scientists, sociologists, psychologists and politicians have tried to nail down that combination of factors that result in peaceful communities with no crime.  But the causes of crime are many, a complicated mash up of environment and systems, politics and people.  There is one thing the scientists do agree on: what does not cause crime is a secret gene carried only by black and brown people.

Between Stop and Frisk and the Zimmerman travesty trial earlier this summer, there’s lots of focus in the news on the connection between blacks and crime.  While no mention of race was allowed into the Zimmerman trial, defense attorneys argued that Trayvon Martin was perceived as a threat by their client.  The unspoken reason he was viewed as a threat was that he was young, black and hooded.  Because he fought his stalker and did not live to tell the tale he is painted as a brute who got what he deserved.  Back in New York, 88% of those people stopped and frisked were found to be unarmed, and innocent of any crime.    Between the two cases we literally have hundreds of thousands of African Americans who have been deprived of their constitutional rights, including their right to life in the case of Trayvon Martin.  That their rights have been trampled not by feet but by laws is the very definition of racism.

Despite, and perhaps because of, the exposure of institutional racism in our justice system, a flock of “experts” have taken to the airwaves to assure us of the link between blacks and crime that justify these discriminatory legal practices.   News programs spend an enormous amount of time scaring us out of our wits with twisted stats, while scripted shows keep playing on age old stereotypes of a dark and terrifying other crawling through our windows at night.  These stereotypes offer easy boogymen to blame but fail to reflect reality.  The all too sad truth of violent crime is that the majority of violent offenders are known to their victims, most often share the same race, and sadly sometimes share a home.Painted large in American media is the hooded thug, tattooed, pants sagging, middle finger to the world he is marked by his trappings of blackness as a threat to society.  He slinks through rap videos into the evening news.  From video games to scripted dramas, blacks are over represented as criminals in American media.  Before you cry Breaking Bad on me, consider that not only are blacks more often represented as criminal offenders, when they are they are rarely given the depth of examination afforded a Heisenberg or Tony Soprano.  Besides, when was the last time that a week of shooting sprees by white men has spurred a Fox debate on the White on White crime problem?  White criminal are often represented as having some underlying reason for their crimes.  By contrast, the black thug in news is cruel for the sake of it, killing his own boys ruthlessly while in scripted shows he kills for sport, stalking his white prey through sound stages full of darkened streets.

Just as decades of super thin models have warped our perception of the normal sized female body, so have the misrepresentations of black men manipulated public perception of the black man.  Constant characterization of blacks as thugs and gangsters leave the average media viewers with the perception that all black men are violent and out of control.  Repetitive imagry showing blacks as thugs draws a false connection between race and crime.  Add that to the number of whites reporting that they have friends of color--nearly half of whites according to one recent survey–and this leaves many white viewers without the real world reference that they need to have an informed perspective on their African American counterparts.What’s missing from the flashy crime labs and mean streets of TV crime drama are the many systemic and environmental factors that influence crime and the criminals that commit them.  There are many theories on what causes crimes as cities where they are committed, but one thing that rises to the top of the studies is the importance of social economic and environmental factors guiding communities.  In fact, research has shown that similarly situated urban environments of whites and blacks would likely result in similar rates of victimization and offense.  Factors driving the health of the community like family structure, employment and educational opportunities are the same factors that seem to govern crime.
Movie, television and news depict streets full of heartless black thugs, creating an unfair and unwarranted connection between race and crime. When we create a false perception that race and crime are linked, we not only make villains out of millions of innocent americans, we also hide the real factors that make our communities–all communities–unsafe.   As viewers we have to take responsibility for educating ourselves about the world we really live in, and untangle media stereotypes from the diverse array of black men that roam the earth among us.  Rather than supporting policies to continue discriminatory police enforcement, its time to take a real look at what we can do to make our world safer.

Oprah’s Hairy Contradiction

The September issue of O magazine tackles hair as its topic.  Gracing the cover is the perennial powerhouse    herself, killing them in a bright orange wrap dress with an Afro that would make foxy jump back.  Oprah smiles out like a radiant sun complete with waving black rays of hair.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a resident of that fabulous country Afromania, just so my bias is clear from the outset.  Bias aside, Oprah can be commended for putting natural hair in front of her legion of readers, showcasing the growing trend of women of color rocking (gasp) their own natural hair.

And as nods to naturals go, you can’t deny she looks fantastic and makes the Afro ultra appealing.
Afros have come in and out of favor as a hairstyle with its heyday in America arguably centered in the black power days of the ’70s.  After the struggle for civil rights , a new image of blacks rose up, a revolution of the fried died and laid to the side world of the mid century. The Afro was an embrace of black beauty, a rejection of hot combs, burning lye, and a story that says your real hair is ugly.  The afro was not only a return to African hair, but also to African heritage.  It came to symbolize the wider ideas of black power and black consciousness.

Search for Afro now,a days and what you’re likely to find are a host of pictures of people rocking Fake ‘fros.  Peppered in among stars and their fantasy wigs are a rainbow of Afrowigs, mostly cheap costume versions nestled in between pimp and funky disco costumes.  Far from the majesty of Angela Davis’s mane these Afros are clearly for play, for rocking in the stands of your favorite college team, or when you want to show the world just how cra-azy you are.  This once powerful symbol of black pride is relegated to the category of costume, fun and always laughable.
For those unfamiliar with the travails of black hair in a Eurocentric culture, lets just say that curls and kink are not the default image of beauty in America.  Our culture glorifies long flowing tresses, sometimes a bit wavy, more recently fish bone straight. If what happens to grow out of your head is curly, god forbid kinky, you are to go post hast to the nearest salon and get relaxed.  Black women spend half a TRILLION a year on chemical relaxers, weave, and a handful of other methods to tame their unacceptable hair. As late as, well, yesterday braids, dread, and yes, Afros grown pasta few inches were not acceptable hairstyle in the business world, the political world, or in short, the real world.  This process-ha ha- leads lots of women of color to spend many dollars and hours trying to change their hair into something more acceptable, something that fits the common definition of beauty.
Even our superstar artists and celebrities celebrate Eurocentric hairstyles.  Beyonce is glorified for her hair, even appearing in hair ads for loreal, but its not a stretch to guess this isn’t really her hair.  Most stars, like their real world counterparts kowtow to the cultur’s straight hairstyles of the runway, weaving in thousands of dollars of someone else’s hair onto their heads to ply the style.
The natural hair movement is made up of women of color who have gotten off the tresses treadmill to embrace the tuff growing out of their own scalp.  Emphasizing acceptance and appreciation of the many shades of black hair, natural hair girls provided much needed addition to th e choices for black women’s hair.  The natural hair movement has been creating a space where the Afro can be restored to its former glory.  And thank god we have Oprah to champion the beauty of black hair.
But, typical of today’s media and certainly not limited to O. Magazine, the cover has Oprah not rocking natural hair, but a wig that looks like natural hair.  Forgive me for being a bit behind on this– if the idea is to celebrate natural hair, would it not be a nice change if we saw, oh, say, some real hair?  Oprah has enough length to blow out a pretty fantastic fro, especially given that its just for a photo shoot, and doesn’t have to stand up to a day at the beach.  Instead she pops to rock a glorious but fake fog of hair.  Like her buddies at your local Halloween party, she relegates the Afro to fantasy land.
Sure the fantasy of Afros is fun and funky, but the reality of the Afro is something worth celebrating.  Like my black power sisters of the seventies, my Afro is about loving myself as I am, and realizing that beauty, far from narrow, is in each of us just as we are.  It’s also about embracing the beauty of diversity.  I don’t want to live in a colorblind world.  I want to live somewhere where culture makes our world a vibrant, and exciting to live and explore.  For that to happen, we need to begin to feed on a wider diet of images, one that shows different people not as costumed creeps, but as real people living lives as real and reasonable as any other