The 'new black' won't save you from old-fashioned racism

Rapper-actor Common has been on quite a ride as of late. Ever since his big Oscar win back in February, the Chicago native has become what can best be described as a self-appointed ambassador for positive race relations, even using his Comedy Central’s The Daily Show appearance back in March to offer his foolproof solution to ending racism in America: blacks have to “extend a hand of love” to whites and “forget about the past as much as we can and let’s move from where we are now.”

Voilà! Nearly four centuries’ worth of prejudice, gone.

Who knew it was that easy?!

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Yep, Mr. Southside himself thought he had finally bridged the proverbial racial gap; that is, until this past Wednesday, when he was uninvited as the commencement speaker at New Jersey’s Kean University, in response to local law enforcement’s vocal opposition to the entertainer due to his 2000 track, A Song for Assata.

Assata, being Assata Shakur, is the current exile and former Black Liberation Army member who many believe was falsely accused and convicted in a kangaroo court of sorts in 1977 for the murder of New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster. Without going into too much history surrounding the case, the debate lies in the fact that (among other suspect judicial factors) info released later shows that Shakur had been the target of a covert FBI program, designed to destroy social movement groups seen as “threats” to national security. This has lead many to believe that Shakur stood no chance at justice during the racially-turbulent era.

So, yeah, naturally, police in the state weren’t too receptive to the university’s idea of inviting someone they deemed to be a Shakur sympathizer.

And that’s fine. Kean has every right to invite and uninvite whomever they please. However, hidden within this narrative is a lesson in pre-racial America that I hope Common now understands: being “The New Black” doesn’t make you exempt from old racism.

The “New Black” ideology is a relatively new one. Made famous by superstar Pharrell Williams during a 2014 interview with Oprah, the trendy idea seeks to deemphasize the history and influence of codified racism in the U.S. – and one’s actual race – while playing up the notion that self-determination is the key to all the goods of life, including equal and just treatment. It truly is a millionaire’s privilege. Here’s how Pharrell describes it:

The “new black” doesn’t blame other races for our issues. The “new black” dreams and realizes that it’s not a pigmentation; it’s a mentality. And it’s either going to work for you, or it’s going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re gonna be on.

And it’s obvious that Common believes in every bit of it.

So it must have come as a shock to the Glory rapper when he received the news that Kean University wouldn’t be having him as their guest. After all, he’s been on a nation-wide tour spreading the message of peace and love for the past month. He’s had to have extended enough hands by now to smooth things over, right?

Yeah, not so much.

That’s because there are two problems with the “New Black” philosophy. The first is that it’s based on an oversimplified understanding of America’s deeply racialized roots. From Pharrell to Raven-Symone, those who have publicly bought into the idea seem to have an inexplicable fascination with forgetting the past – pretending prejudice never existed (and doesn’t still exist) while making a real system of frequent injustice seem like it’s just a figment of people’s oppressed imaginations.

The second problem is that New Black believers honestly think that because they give a big smile and a handshake, years of harbored bigotry is just supposed to magically be undone – seriously? Just a quick trip through the history books would show us that racism has a tight grip on our nation, with an improbability that it will ever go away.

So it comes as no surprise that Kean University nixed him as their commencement speaker. You think they (rather, the officers) care that he’s decided to forgive and forget? Hardly. The cancellation was less about a fifteen-year-old song than it was about scoring a point in an almost forty-year old, racially motivated grudge match. Yet, Kean had no problem making Common a casualty in the conflict.

Nope, no amount of money, fame, or, in this case, loving handshakes will make you immune to the ills of old prejudices; “New Black” is still black.

Brian C. Bush is a law student with an interest surrounding the interplay between race, gender,  culture and the law. He can be reached on Twitter @BrianCB