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In 1989, Spike Lee released perhaps his best movie, one entitled “Do the Right Thing.” While controversial at the time, the movie has since been acclaimed by numerous movie critics as one of the 100 best films ever made. It was extended the rare honor of being accepted into the Smithsonian Museum’s National Film archives of historically landmark movies. Spike Lee was nominated for an Academy award for the screenplay. Recently, the film has been further praised for describing in that film events and issues eerily similar to those in the recent killing of young black men.
Spike Lee plays a character in the film named Mookie, who works as a pizza deliveryman. Mookie works for Sal, who is of Italian descent, and who owns a pizzeria which is the center of life in the predominantly African-American New York neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvessant. Sal has two sons, Pino who intensely dislikes blacks, and Vito who is a friend of Mookie. The two sons represent the twin poles of white attitudes toward African-Americans.
The story takes place on one of the hottest days of the year. The heat adds to a simmering tension in the neighborhood which gradually builds from small confrontations, to a race tinged argument between Pino and Mookie, to a racial killing and mass protest.
One of the film characters, a man named Buggin’ Out, challenges Sal the pizzeria owner, about a Wall of Fame inside his restaurant which displays pictures of famous men – mostly Italians but noticeably lacking anyone of color. Buggin’ Out demands that Sal include on the wall photos of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other famous blacks since the pizzeria is in the middle of a black neighborhood. This issue becomes the spark that ignites racial conflict. Sal refuses the request claiming that as owner of the restaurant, he can depict anyone he wants. Buggin’ Out quickly tries to start a boycott against Sal and enlists both Radio Raheem and Smiley to join him.
Tensions continue to rise in the community with several small provocations until Radio Raheem confronts Sal about his racist attitudes all while his boombox loudly blares. Sal becomes enraged, calls Raheem the “n” word multiple times and smashes the boombox to pieces.
With Sal’s blatant racial epithets, a fight ensues. Many come to Raheem’s defense including Mookie. Pino and Sal confront them along with several white customers. The fight spills onto the street and the police are called. They arrive and a white officer places Raheem into a chokehold even though Sal is fighting too. Raheem is literally pulled into the air in a chokehold as his feet twitch and reach for the ground. He goes limp and is thrown to the ground. The police look on impassively. A police officer thinks he is faking and brutally kicks him but it is soon clear Raheem is dead.
At Raheem’s death, the crowd turns on Sal and his sons. Mookie, however, picks up a trash can and throws it through the restaurant’s front window. It is later clear that Mookie’s action was intended to divert the crowd away from attacking Sal. The protesters, however, cheer Mookie’s action and start a fire. The restaurant is soon engulfed. The police arrest most of the protesters. Once the crowd has been arrested and dispersed, Smiley, the mentally challenged man, walks into the burned out restaurant and hangs a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X on the Wall of Fame. The film ends with Sal and Mookie warily reconciling. There is a fade to black as two quotes fill the screen – one from Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other from Malcom X.
King’s quote is one of his most famous: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert.”
Malcom X’s quote offers a contrasting view: “There are plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in those positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to it, and that doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”
Viewers are left with the troubling question of just what constitutes “doing the right thing.” Turn the other cheek, OR intelligent self-defense in reaction to institutional white violence? Let’s watch the chokehold scene from the movie and compare it to video footage of what happened to Eric Garner this past summer.
(Stop this video at about the 1:30 point – if you wish.)
“Do The Right Thing” is clearly not a standard holiday story. And yet, for this year’s Kwanzaa holiday, and indeed for Hanukkah and Christmas, it seems an appropriate one for me to tell today. It is a troubling story that examines racism in all of its overt and subtle manifestations. Why are blacks disproportionately members of the underclass? How do hidden institutional forms of discrimination – like substandard education and an unjust legal system – work to deny opportunity to African-Americans? How does institutional privilege, on the other hand, give whites distinct advantages?
Kwanzaa is a non-religious holiday intended to empower African-Americans. It was specifically begun in 1966 by Ronald Karenga, founder of the Black Power movement, as a way to counter the predominance of white oriented holidays. Blacks, Karenga believed, should celebrate ideals that are unique to their heritage and to their cultural advancement. Kwanzaa, which means “first fruits” in Swahili, celebrates seven African ideals to be focused by and for the Afro-American community. They are: Unity, Self-determination, Purpose, Economic cooperation, Service to others, Creativity, and lastly, Faith. While “Do the Right Thing” is not a Kwanzaa story, we find in the film a struggle to assert African-American culture, to find pride in that identity, to fight against unjust white privilege. This sense of being marginalized, isolated, disregarded, ignored and controlled – all by white economic and police powers – are the provocations that lead to angry protest in the film and, indeed, in recent protests around our nation. Juxtaposed against such African-American anger is an often clueless white attitude that seems incapable of understanding the daily violation and humiliation many blacks feel.
What sadly seems apparent today with the recent killing of young black men and resulting protests is that Kwanzaa ideals of black dignity and pride are under assault. Despite decades of advances in civil rights, despite twice electing a black man as President, white privilege is still predominant. Kwanzaa ideals of black empowerment seem powerless.
Data released last week shows average black household net worth declining while that of whites has increased. The education gap between blacks and whites has increased since the 1960’s – over thirty percent of whites have a college degree compared to less than 20 percent for blacks. Nearly half of the 2.5 million people incarcerated in the US are African-American men – most due to relatively minor drug offenses even though whites use drugs at five times the rate of blacks. Young black males are 21 times as likely to be killed by police then similar aged white males. Sadly, we are still pondering the implicit question Spike Lee asked in his movie, what is the right thing to do?
That question seems most pertinent to white Americans. How do we do the right thing for fellow members of the human family? How do we take the ethics and values of this holiday season – those of peace, justice, equality – and incorporate them into our permanent attitudes? How do we use a holiday that honors the birth of Jesus – himself a man of color – to remind ourselves of our continued call to understand, to learn, to grow, to empathize with those who live on the margins?
I am struck by the irony that Christmas in particular celebrates the birth of Jesus who came as a liberator and spoke of peace on earth not in a simplistic turn the other cheek way, but in order to confront poverty, inequality and hypocrisy. Indeed, the mythic story of Jesus’ birth tells us of a poor family of color following the orders of white Europeans. This mythic family had to travel a long distance to be counted by whites, and they were marginalized as poor and unworthy once they arrived. Jesus’ birth, as the myth goes, so alarmed King Herod, the white Roman King of Israel, that he ordered a mass killing of young boys – all boys of color – so that he could insure the death of the one who was born to be a revolutionary. Jesus, as his birth story goes, was born to liberate all people from injustice, hate and intolerance. How many white Christians today contemplate that fact as they celebrate Christmas? How many of us as humanists see the holiday in this light? Should we not celebrate a peace on earth that is real for everyone – of being secure in one’s neighborhood, of not being unjustly killed, of economic fairness, of equal rights and equal opportunity? Two thousand years of honoring a man of color and his birth, a man who taught genuine peace between all people, and yet we still fail to practice his teachings.
Jesus, much like Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, was unjustly killed by white power. He was a radical martyred because of his words: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the persecuted. Are not such blessed people he referred to – those who are today often marginalized, feared or killed – Are they not blacks, undocumented immigrants, the homeless, people of color, the poor? I stand here as a white minister speaking to a largely white congregation. What is the right thing for us to do?
I have few answers. Indeed, my hope is that I and other whites will simply listen to African-American suggestions. Too often, well intentioned whites want to determine what blacks must do. My own intention is to continue to try to understand not just my role in helping to make things better, but my implicit role in how I have shared in the sins of racism. I, like many whites, still harbor vestiges of racism – a lack of compassion, a failure to understand, an unwillingness to see how our society extends to me advantages just for being white.
As I repeatedly say, the only way we can adopt attitudes of humility, mercy and empathy, is to simply listen more than we speak. Our opinions and thoughts do not matter as much as do our attitudes and our willingness to self-reflect and then change. All of the programs and efforts to address racism seem pointless unless we are able to change white hearts – and that change must begin in our own hearts. We must figuratively put ourselves in the shoes of others in order to perceive as they perceive, to suffer as they suffer.
Recently appearing in the New York Times was a story of a young boy born to African-American parents asking his mother if, in any interaction with the police, he could simply pretend to be white. “That’s safer”, he said. It seems he has a very light skin color. His mother lamented, but understood, his desire to appear white and forego a pride in his own heritage, culture and community.
Kwanzaa, however, seeks to address that. Many Christians are critical of the holiday because they read Karenga’s words that blacks must assert their own holiday and their own culture. Sadly, that approach would not be necessary if all people heeded the ethics of Jesus and other prophets like Buddha, Ghandhi and King. As we all know, just beneath the melanin of our skin colors, we are all the same. Even more, we all have the same universal desires for freedom, opportunity, respect and love. Our hearts beat the same. Our souls dream the same.
This holiday season, I want to deeply reflect on the ethics of Jesus – the man whose mythic birth is the substance of what many celebrate. As we hear chants of “Don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe”, might we hear echoes of Jesus as he called out from the Cross and gave voice to all people of color: “Why have you forsaken me?” His words may or may not be historically true, but they ring across the ages precisely because they were uttered by an outcast, by a man familiar with the stings of poverty and the taunts of powerful elites. If many in our society worship him, if many of us look to him as a great human prophet, why can’t we adopt his ethics – particularly towards people of color?
Perhaps most of all, I must read and understand the 7 principles of Kwanzaa – to honor them as declarations by African-Americans of their proud and unique culture. Their’s are voices calling out in the wilderness, much like of that Jesus: “Our lives matter. We are people too. We are mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who have been too long harassed and hated. We ask for dignity. We ask for justice. We ask for the simple peace on earth that all humans seek.”
Let me, let us – truly listen to those words this holiday season, this coming Kwanzaa – and deeply reflect on them.