Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Under the Radar, Under the Influence

Sean "Diddy" Combs helped lead the "Vote or Die" campaign. Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter helped the United Nations with a "Water for Life" campaign. Tiger Woods has a learning center to encourage students to pursue fields in science and math. Oprah Winfrey has done so many good things it's hard to keep up.

But, on many degrees, these efforts remain under the radar. And, subsequently, they may be under the influence as well.

By under the radar I'm talking about within the African-American community.

For example, when a certain radio/TV show host says a racial slur spurring calls for his firing and CNN appearances by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the like it seems as if we're all behind it. Even if we don't completely agree with Jesse or Al, the black community is certainly talking about what just happened. And we're all putting in our two cents.

But when Diddy is trying to get young black people to vote or when Jay-Z is encouraging us to conserve water or when Tiger Woods is trying to improve science education, our community fails to provide traction for these issues to become important to the African-American community.

Why is this? Is it because racial slurs have more influence on us than concern for the environment or education? I need evidence to the contrary.

Sometimes I wonder if this simply means that we would rather gravitate toward issues affecting us in the media (i.e. racism, classism, etc.) because it's much easier than to acknowledge our lack of wide success and influence in the political sphere.

Barack Obama is the only black U.S. Senator. Deval Patrick is the only black governor in the country. Even the Democratic Party doesn't have any black leaders...just look here: http://www.democrats.org/a/party/ourleaders.html.

So while we have famous entertainers and athletes standing up to support pivotal issues facing 21st Century America (and with all sincerity, thank you!), we'll need more African-Americans to join them.

In short, the black community's radar must have a wider scan. Otherwise we'll remain under the influence.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Engineering Your Way to an NBA Salary

As you're watching the NBA Playoffs, ponder this: The NBA's minimum salary is somewhere in the area of $400,000.

That's enough money to buy a new house (in the 'burbs), new car and pay off student loans...not that a pro-basketball player has college loans since most of the NBA-caliber players get full scholarships anyway. But you get the point...and that's just the minimum...the average NBA salary is roughly $4.9 million.

Now that's enough - even after taxes - for a house just about anywhere in the country. Or a Bentley. That said, I can understand why young African-Americans, especially those from low-income and historically-disadvantaged (through poor school systems, what have you), gravitate toward Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson before they look up to the black school principal or the black real estate agent with ads all over town.

But the problem isn't simply that these children gravitate toward professional basketball players before professionals at anything else...the problem is that they don't realize there's anything else in the first place.

For example, a colleague of mine was recounting a story of a black student he met after giving a speech at a Pennsylvania high school. Apparently, the principal felt it was important for my colleague to know about this kid because he was a graduating senior and college is his next step in life. However, while giving the student a ride home one day, the student marveled at a black man stepping out of a luxury car and into the driveway of a micro-mansion and literally said, "Wow! Is he like a basketball player or rapper or something?"

To his astonishment, the principal replied, "No, he's actually an engineer."

This only undermines the importance of showing our youths what is possible (financial security being one component) through education, commitment to a goal, and patience.

Too often, a young black kid is encouraged to study hard because he may not be able to maintain his spot on the basketball or football team (and miss out on that $400k-plus salary one day) if he doesn't.

Not often enough is that same kid encouraged to study hard simply for the chance to one day pursue a college degree and perhaps become an engineer, doctor, attorney or school administrator.

While Michael Jordan has made hundreds of millions of dollars on the hard court, there are literally hundreds of thousands of black professionals who live comfortable, successful lives because they furthered their education and pursued careers that involve wearing suits instead of jerseys and carrying briefcases to boardrooms instead of carrying a ball to the end zone.

Similarly, while famous African-Americans like Will Smith and Queen Latifah can credit their musical talents for their lucrative lifestyles, BET founder Robert Johnson deserves more credit for paving the way for young men and women of color to be able to share their talents with millions of viewers. And as far as I know, Bob Johnson made his impact in the office, not on the stage. To the point that they too could live in mansions and drive luxury cars.

The same can be said of famous comedians and rappers like Martin Lawrence and LL Cool J, who can thank Def Jam founder Russell Simmons for his business skills and marketing savvy.

So while I do not discourage a young student from sharing and developing his or her athletic, comedic or musical talents, I do emphasize the importance of looking beyond the NBA Draft or Grammy Awards to find a career path.

And to parents and teachers: make sure to tell your children or students about men and women like the aforementioned engineer.

After all, someone has to design those mansions and stadiums for NBA players to live and work.

Friday, May 18, 2007

African-Americans in Pop Culture: Sharing some thoughts

The Cosby Show, starring Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad as Cliff and Clair Huxtable, had a five-year run as America’s top sitcom during the second half the 1980s. It was the first television show with an African-American cast to top the ratings. Considering it certainly wasn’t among the first or funniest shows to depict African-Americans, e.g. The Jefferson’s and Sanford & Son, maybe the Huxtables found their way into America’s non-black households for other reasons.

Ethnic and entertainment critics have theorized long and hard over the many reasons The Cosby Show became such a staple on American televisions, but the simple reality may have a lot to do with the jobs Cliff and Clair held, as a doctor and attorney, respectively. In fact, by portraying its stars in such respectable and admirable professions, The Cosby Show set a trend for success for other shows starring African-Americans. Family Matters featured Carl Winslow, a police officer; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air welcomed Phillip Banks as a judge; and other shows like ER and NYPD Blue had African-American actors and actresses in roles as doctors, detectives and other public service-oriented jobs.

It seems television shows, especially during primetime hours, are only willing to show the lives and careers of African-Americans if they assured audiences that “these are good-natured, hard-working black people”. Even hit movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s perpetuated these roles with Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop character Alex Foley being a detective, the Will Smith/Martin Lawrence cop flick Bad Boys, and the classic Philadelphia featured Denzel Washington as an attorney. Meanwhile, hit shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City and Cheers depict their stars as jobless, creative (i.e. comedians, public relations gurus and writers) or otherwise employed-without-significance, e.g. Seinfeld’s George Costanza.

Similar to real life, characters like Costanza and Friends character Rachel Green, played by Jennifer Aniston, can be jobless or make bad career choices without widespread damage to their ethnicity. On the other hand, both television shows and nightly news program regularly hold up African-Americans, both real and fictionalized, as representations of the entire race. High-speed car chases, post-game press conferences and music videos are just a few examples of places where African-Americans are identified as portrayals of a race encompassing more than 35 million people in this country.

Meanwhile, other “black people” movies and television shows of recent years, Brown Sugar, Waiting to Exhale, Love & Basketball, Love Jones and BET’s Girlfriends, which portray African-American as advertising executives, writers, music producers and photographers have had only mild success compared to their more formulaic television predecessors. These professions, which require varying levels of creativity, education and talent, are held by real-life African-Americans all over the country. Unfortunately, their stories are often overlooked and untold by mainstream media, especially network television shows and nightly news programs.

What does it say about America’s popular culture and the status of African-Americans in it if we are identified as cops or robbers, doctors or patients, judges or those to be imprisoned? More importantly, what does this demonstrate to young African-Americans, our children, when they seldom see their elders in positions of leadership, success and opportunity outside of a few career fields hand-picked by studio executives and screen writers?

Michael Jordan and Deion Sanders, Will Smith and Dave Chappelle, Oprah Winfrey and Tyra Banks, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. These accomplished athletes, actors, comedians, talk-show hosts, and music moguls are far more likely to be idolized by African-American youths than the African-American men and women who lead the companies they purchase from, teach at the schools they attended or start the nonprofit organizations they donate to.

Must African-Americans choose between careers in entertainment and public service or lives in crime and prisons? I do not believe so. I have heard of and met several African-Americans whom have illustrious careers as political consultants, communications experts, university administrators, Fortune executives and journalists. African-American youth, the children we must inspire and educate, need to know the stories of these individuals just as much as the oft-told “rags-to-riches” stories of the actors, athletes and characters they see on TV.

Real Role Models is intended not only as a look into the various professions African-Americans can and have succeeded in, but also as a collection of introspective, insightful and inspiring tales of drive, hard work, luck, perseverance, and pride.

Included in these pages will be the untold stories of the real Huxtables and Winslow’s, that is to be certain we share the true-life examples of African-American doctors and police officers, along with those of people like Texas women's track coach Bev Kearny, former State Department official Dr. Eric Motley, and other African-American leaders in this “land of opportunity”. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a nation without inequality. I envision a nation where we honor and embrace those overlooked contributors to Dr. King’s mission.

by Joah Spearman (January 15, 2007)

Redefine the Finish Line: Overemphasis on athletic success may limit academic pursuits for African American children

Dr. Louis Harrison Jr. remembers well when his young son was one of the fastest kids on his youth football team. It isn’t fatherly pride that keeps the memory fresh for Harrison. It’s the messages he heard directed at his son.

“People would say to him, ‘Now, don’t forget me when you make it to the pros,’” Harrison says. “And I’d think, ‘This is a kid here. You’re talking about the pros?’”

Harrison, a faculty member in the College of Education and the Center for African and African American Studies, studies how race influences physical activity and sports participation.

Harrison was more interested in seeing his son aim for college, but the experience raised questions for him. Why were African American kids given the message that they can become professional athletes when so few can? And how does this message limit the possibilities they pursue?

An associate professor in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin, Harrison is seeking to answer and better understand those questions. His work focuses on how race influences physical activity and sports participation.

“I’ve always wanted to try to get people who thought they were going to be athletes to kind of back up and get a bigger perspective,” he says, “because for most poor African Americans, it’s not sport that’s going to bring them out of poverty. It’s education.”

This isn’t always apparent to young people who look to the stratospheric success of athletes (and, similarly, entertainers) for role models. Contributing to this is the overrepresentation of African Americans in a few key sports, particularly basketball, football and track and field.

While African Americans make up 12 percent of the population, they make up 78 percent of the National Basketball Association, 67 percent of the National Football League and 63 percent of the Women’s National Basketball Association. Their dominance in these widely televised and popular sports has caused a stereotype to emerge in American culture: African Americans are athletically superior but intellectually inferior to whites.

“A lot of people have studied the physical characteristics that would give African Americans an advantage in those sports,” Harrison says, “but I thought there are a lot of social and psychological influences that we really haven’t taken a close look at.”

One of those influences may be how many African Americans have absorbed the stereotype themselves, so that athletics have become key to their racial identity.

Harrison looks at a process called “becoming black” or “nigresence,” which suggests that the individuals develop a racial identity over time. For African Americans, that identity includes recognizing they are a minority, and that while minorities may experience far less overt racism than they may have a few decades ago, subtle racism still exists.

African Americans make up 78 percent of the National Basketball Association, 67 percent of the National Football League and 63 percent of the Women's National Basketball Association. They hold very few other position in the sports industry, such as athletic director or head coach. African American athletes are among the few who seem above that racism and where the possibility of success seems limitless.

“In a society where being African American evokes so many negative stereotypes,” Harrison says, “it is easy to fathom why there would be fervent identification with a positive stereotype.”

Further, while immersion in academics may be seen as “acting white,” immersion in sports holds the possibility of being able to play by one’s own rules. Harrison points to basketball star Allen Iverson who sports braids and tattoos, recorded a profanity-laden rap album and is openly critical of his former team. His behavior might be unacceptable in most work environments, but as a gifted athlete, Iverson makes in excess of $10 million a year in salary and endorsements.

Because many African American youth see themselves as a potential Iverson, they limit the types of sports they participate in. While this may partly explain the overrepresentation of blacks in particular sports, it means they may exclude participation in sports they don’t deem appropriate.

It also makes them more likely to channel their energies into sports and away from school.

“While striving to achieve ‘hoop dreams,’” Harrison says, “many young people are having ‘academic nightmares.’”

The same hasn’t proven to be true for white athletes. Harrison conducted a study with white college students who had been high school athletes to understand the messages they’d received about race and athletics. Overwhelmingly, they reported that they were told academics needed to come before sports.

One participant, Ken, summed it up as such: “…my parents kept me grounded. They would always get on me about my grades and say well you know hopefully you play college football someday. If you really truly work, but you got to keep your grades up so you can have other options.”
One of the great needs of young African American males is to hear the message and understand the reality that for the vast majority, a sports preoccupation will not lead to an occupation. Dr. Louis Harrison Jr.

The white students also reported they were often steered away from particular sports because they were told that they couldn’t compete with African Americans. Once again, the stereotype was apparent. White students were told to go to college. African American students were told they’d excel in sports.

Harrison points out that the stereotype doesn’t disappear for African Americans talented enough to play college-level sports. In fact, the assumption is often made that the athletes aren’t as intelligent as the other students in the classroom.

Bev Kearney, women’s track coach at The University of Texas at Austin who has led her team to six NCAA national championships and 19 league titles, agrees that college athletes face tough stereotyping. She says her African American athletes are often labeled when they walk into a classroom.

“People have assumptions about the athletes,” she says. “They think they have special privileges, that they’re not the greatest of students. They think they’re only there for athletics or that they think of themselves as above everyone else. None of those things are true.”

Kearney maintains that a lot of progress has been made in talking about issues related to women, but that people are still uncomfortable talking about race. She believes it is time for that to change.

Harrison hopes his research will help. He’s worked closely with African American college athletes over the years, and he’s seen them stereotype themselves far too often.

“Part of what I do is let these athletes know that this is a stereotype, and yes, you will be stereotyped, but you don’t have to buy into it,” he says. “I always tell athletes and other students that to me, as sophisticated as athletics are today, you can’t be a dumb athlete.

“One of the exercises I do when there are athletes in my class is to ask them to stand up and explain what they have to do on a certain play. When you understand all the things they have to react to, all the formations they have to remember, all they have to be able to recognize and understand, it’s clear you can’t handle that kind of pressure without intelligence.”

According to the U.S. Census, there were 119,000 African American engineers, 45,000 African American physicians and 48,000 lawyers in 2000.As important as it is to work with college-level athletes, Harrison puts more of his focus on changing what it means to grow up African American and the messages kids get at an early age from parents and peers, on the playing field and in the classroom. Harrison is a Baptist minister, and he sees his research as an extension of his ministry.

“I see ministry as meeting needs,” he says, “and one of the great needs of young African American males is to hear the message and understand the reality that for the vast majority, a sports preoccupation will not lead to an occupation.”

Critical for him is how teachers are trained and prepared for working with children from different cultures. A lot of teachers may hold stereotypes themselves and make matters worse by telling kids that maybe they’ll become a professional athlete.

Harrison says teachers and students might start with a statistics lesson: According to the NCAA, about 1 million students play high school level football. Less then 6 percent go on to play NCAA football, and only 2 percent of those who play in the NCAA go on to the pros. In 2006, 255 players were chosen in the National Football League draft.

In other words, of all the high school players suiting up for a Friday night on the football field, less than one-tenth of one percent of them will end up in the pros. In men’s and women’s basketball, the odds are even slimmer.

Harrison says that television may continue to show young people examples of athletic superstardom, but the classroom needs to put the emphasis back on more attainable versions of success.

“On the educational side, you have to try to tell students the truth and to give them the actual numbers,” he says. “My purpose is not to extinguish the dreams but to fan the academic flames so that when the dream is over, reality is not so harsh.”

He wants to see teachers give kids tools to use in their lives, and one of those tools is to understand there are many viable options for good careers outside of sports.

In getting that message across, Harrison may find he has help from his son. The former youth football player graduated from Louisiana State University in 2002. Today he teaches school in New Orleans.

By The University of Texas at Austin (January 15, 2007)

Dr. Harrison's credentials

Louis Harrison, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin as a member of the African-American Studies Department. He also supports the Texas Longhorns, which ranks among the leading college athletic programs in the nation.

Previously, Harrison spent nine years - six as an Assistant Professor and three as an Associate Professor - at Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Harrison received numerous honors including the Exemplary Models of Administrative Leadership Award from the American Association of University Administrators in 2006 and being recognized by the LSU Seniors as a “Favorite Faculty Member”.

Harrison has written, reviewed and published dozens of articles, journals and lectures on issues relating to African-Americans, with an emphasis on athletic performance and physical education. Harrison serves on a number of national organization boards and councils including serving on the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport’s Racial Diversity Subcommittee.

A Louisiana native, Harrison earned both his bachelor’s and Master’s in Education from the University of New Orleans before receiving his Ph.D. in Kinesiology-Pedagogy from LSU in 1997. Before serving as an instructor at LSU and the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Harrison served seven years as a teacher and coach in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish School District.

Real Role Models - An Introduction

Friends and Colleagues,

Thank you for visiting the official blog site of a book tentatively titled, Real Role Models, by myself and Dr. Louis Harrison. Louis and I are very appreciate of your support as we undertake a challenging, but much-needed, endeavor of sharing the experiences, life lessons, and perspectives of black role models around the country to uplift and inspire our youth.

Although the book's title may change before it's final print, you can be sure that our commitment will remain on finding real (black) role modes who can help inspire today's youths - particularly African-American high school and college students - to be ambitious, be committed, and not to be afraid of what opportunites are available to them.

There are several books aimed at similar purposes, but Louis and I felt there remains a need for young African-Americans to want to experience the world and all its possibilities. Too often, our youth are led to believe - either by the media or by popular culture - that they must find success as athletes, entertainers, musicians or, even worse, in crime.

In the coming weeks and months, I will be posting updates about our progress in completing this book and what we gather along the way. We welcome and appreciate your support and feedback throughout.


Joah Spearman a.k.a. "JoahKnows"

P.S. I will also post relevant articles and other materials to share more about our inspiration for this book and our backgrounds.