Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why I Wrote Koontown

Black people are inherently inferior. This is not something you would often hear anybody say outright—if at all. That would be racist, and we live in a time when even devout racists get offended if you actually call them “racist.” The closest we tend to get to such utterances is the coded intimations of the Newt Gingriches and Rick Santorums of the world talking about how blacks prefer welfare to actual work. (If that were so, Uncle Sam owes me over 25 years of backpay.)

Yet, the message of black inferiority is still something being transmitted today. Like air, water, and high-fructose corn syrup, it simply permeates the culture. We take no more notice of it than we do inhaling the carbon-monoxide air of our car-driven country.

Television news constantly feeds us reports of black criminality, black underachievement, black addiction. Our entertainment industry gives us a steady diet of black depravity, shoveling pimps and hustlers and playas and thugs down our throats. We can watch them on our televisions, in our movies; listen to them on our radios, iPods, and smart phones; we can read about them on our Kindles and Nooks and even—heaven forbid—actual books and thrill to their tales of violence, greed, and penicillin-resistant promiscuity.

Even science gets into the act. Phrenology may be dead, but so-called studies and statistics thrive. They tell us black kids can’t keep up academically. Drugs consume the ghetto. Jails are overflowing with black misery. Over 60 percent of black men without a high school diploma will wind up in prison. Some even say there are more black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850. On top of all that, black men are even the least hirable demographic in these here post-racial United States.

Hell, with all these problems, no wonder we are constantly assaulted by those images I mentioned earlier. That we are just as likely to see black thuggery on our TV screens as we were the token black friend in a ‘90s sitcom (whatever happened to those?). That hip-pop (what I like to call ironically “commercial” rap) still pounds us with talk of pimping, hustling, dealing, murdering, and misogynating. That 80 percent of the books published for, by, and/or about blacks is urban or “ghetto” literature. After all, all these portrayals reflect the culture, mirror the reality of life in African-America.

Except, of course, they don’t.

As has been noted, 80 percent of African-American books published today are what some call ghetto lit. One would think that a corresponding percentage of black folk actually live in the ghetto. Well ... according to the 2010 Census, only 30 percent of African-Americans today live in majority-minority neighborhoods.

Educationally, the good folks at Freakanomics (and other studies back them up on this) have found that achievement is not race-based—but class-based. Middle- and upper-class blacks score just as well as any other child of their socioeconomic background no matter their race. Conversely, poor kids of all races score equally poorly. Studies have also found that the rates of triflinity (n. the act of being or the moral structure that leads one to actually be triflin’) are the same across the races.

On the crime front, data have shown that rates of criminality between whites and blacks are also the same. Black men make up about 40.2 percent of the prison population with roughly 846,000 of us in the system, and, in 2003, the Bureau of Justice Statistics predicted that 32 percent of black men born in 2001 will be spending time in prison (I guess the Justice Department had just unrolled their 30-year business plan, or something). Still, out of a population of some 18 million black males, 846,000 is hardly representative. And, with all due respect to Ice Cube, there may be more niggers in the pen than in college (I can’t particularly speak on that one), but there are actually more black men in college (919,000) than in prison. And all due respect to Dr. Michelle Alexander, who claimed that there are more black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850; there were only about 1.8 million black men in America in 1850. To compare the black population of that time with today’s, which is 10 times larger, is a bit disingenuous. Less than five percent of black men are imprisoned today. In 1850, less than five percent of black men were free.

Now, I’m not saying that everything in our black communities is honky-dory and that we’re living in the Days of Ripple and Roses. What I am saying is that we African-Americans continue to be treated by the dominant culture (as well as our own) as a monolithic whole and that treatment is overwhelmingly negative.
How can 80 percent of our books be ghetto lit when only 30 percent of us live in majority-minority neighborhoods—ghetto or otherwise? How can so much of our music celebrate thugging, pimping, robbing, and stealing, when such a small percentage of us live such a life?

Now, I’m a satirist. I write novels. I understand the role of fantasy in entertainment. I personally do not get into “conscious” vs. “unconscious” (or whatever the term), “positive” vs. “negative” debates. Life’s more complicated than that. Besides, a good story needs both heroes and villains. A really good story muddies up the distinction. But, as a writer, I also respect the image. I believe that images have power, can move people, and, if repeated enough, affect the way people think.

Does the persistent image of black inferiority have power? Judge for yourself. It has power enough to allow Gingrich and Santorum to say what they did and be taken seriously. In some quarters, people believed Limbaugh when he suggested Obama got into Harvard due to affirmative action.

As stated before, black men are the least hirable demographic. When an employer sees a “black” name on a resumé or application, do thoughts of criminal behavior, drug abuse, and/or intellectual inferiority dance like watermelons through their heads? Do they subconsciously check their wallets or purses when that black applicant walks through the door? Wonder if they speak Jive? When they look at that applicant’s credentials, do they think, “Affirmative action”?

Recently, the National Education Policy Center found that, though black and white school kids are equally trifling, 28 percent of African-American middle school boys are suspended or expelled as opposed to only 10 percent of their white counterparts. This is apparently due to the discretionary behavior of the disciplining adults and not the individual child’s actual offense. Could that disciplinarian be looking at that little black boy and be thinking of his future thuggery? That that boy isn’t going to amount to anything, anyway, and they might as well nip whatever it is in the bud?

From what I understand, the “justice” system treats black teens much the same way. After all, blacks and whites commit the same rates of crimes. Yet, black men are six and a half times more likely to see jail time than any white man ever would. What could be going through the arresting officers’ minds? The judges’? The jailers’? Could it be the same thing that passed Dr. Walter Quijano’s lips when he testified in the Duane Buck trial that black men possess a little known gene called “future dangerousness”? (It’s apparently found in the melanin.)

Is the disproportionately punative treatment black men receive in this country due to the fact that T.I. and Lil Wayne rap? Of course not. Should it? Well ... there is a price to pay for those two’s existences. But that is artistic.

Seriously though, ever since the first master complained about the first nigra slave stealing his chickens, African-Americans have been dealing with negative portrayals of themselves. And those negative images have often been racist in nature and used to reinforce and justify African-Americans’ oppression and dehumanization. Do these images serve the same function today? I would be the last one to say that. As I said, today, even the Grand Wizard of Aryan Nation United States (A.N.U.S.) would be screaming, “Who you callin’ ‘racist,’ nigger?!” So, I’ll leave that up to you.

Meanwhile, as a satirist, it is up to me to examine those images, poke and prod them, take my incisive “wit” and twisted “humor” and slap them up, flip them, and rub them down, to slice them open and start pulling until the chitlins come pouring out into the light of day. That is why I wrote Koontown Killing Kaper with all its offensive language, grotesque imagery, and absurd humor. ‘Cause, if you ask me (and Lord knows, you didn’t) today’s pimp, gangsta, playa who’s movin’ weight, bodyin’ niggas, and runnin’ this here pimp game is about as representative of today’s African-Americans as the happy coon on the plantation just a-pickin’ and a-grinnin’ on his banjo and doin’ the cake walk and singin’ his Africanized Irish ballads fo’ massa was representative of the dusky Ethiopians of the 1850s. And, if I can make fun of those Amos ‘N’ Andy portrayals of yesteryear, I most definitely need to make fun of their modern equivalent. ‘Cause boy, to tell de troof, there do be times when I’se utterly and completely regusted.


  1. I like your points; I recently joined as a newspaper correspondent & want to write an article on Charles Wang . This is the summary of him; he started his career at early age, now he is the co-founder of Computer Associates International, Inc. (later renamed to CA, Inc., then CA Technologies) and owner of the New York Islanders ice hockey team and their AHL affiliates, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He also donated over $50 million dollars to the State University of New York at Stony Brook for the construction of the Charles B. Wang Center. Is there anting else I am missing?

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  3. It seems like there should be a comment here about the book, so...

    Great job. These images and stereotypes are all-too-pervasive in society as a whole, and all-too-hidden in any "progressive" discourse about race. I applaud Bill for picking the scab and giving us a chance to really talk about the hard stuff.

    -Irxs, Red Emmas Bookstore Coffeehouse

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