Thursday, June 28, 2007

Journalist following path of Civil Rights leaders

My friend Kevin put me up on a talented, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Miami Herald. Here, that man - Leonard Pitts - shares a recent story and run-in with some people who definitely won't fit into the target audience for Real Role Models. But I sure hope their children pick up the book someday.


Neo-Nutsies bring frustration, anger -- and joy

So, what's going on with you? Nothing much? Wish I could say the same.

As you may know if you've seen CNN or read the paper, yours truly has lately been the target of death threats and harassment from the ranks of the not-so-tightly-wrapped. This, after a June 3 column about the torture murder of a young white couple, allegedly by four African Americans. My column took on white supremacists and far right bloggers who contend that this ''genocide'' -- their word -- goes unremarked by news media too PC to report black-on-white crime.

It was an argument made for ridiculing and I did my best, pointing out that black-on-white crime, a relative statistical rarity, is not underreported but, in fact, over-reported, according to any number of studies and experts. This offended a self-professed neo-Nazi leader whose name you won't read here. So he got on his little neo-Nutsy website and posted my home address and phone number. It's been game on ever since -- 400 e-mails, dozens of phone calls, leaflets on my neighbor's driveway.

''You should be back in a damn mud and dung hut you nappy headed ho''. . .''Who's crying now, you affirmative action ape?''. . . and etcetera. The gist of this outburst: a handful of contentions, each more asinine than the last:

Pitts has no compassion for the victims. (I called the murders brutal and a tragedy and said the killers should rot under the jailhouse.)

Pitts told those mourning the murders to ``cry me a river.''(I gave that advice specifically to white supremacists yelling genocide and other stupid things.)

The murders were so heinous they were ''obviously'' a hate crime. (Actually, heinousness has nothing to do with it. Hate crime penalties come into play when the prosecutor can establish racial or religious bias as a motive, period.)

It turns out this tactic -- publishing private information for intimidation purposes -- is one these folks use frequently to silence those with whom they disagree. Which only deepens my appreciation for the sheer guts it took to be a Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham or a Medgar Evers in Jackson, speaking truth to power in a time and place where everyone knew your address, assassinations were common and you could not go to law enforcement because they were part of the problem. I'm not comparing myself to those civil rights icons. I am saying that like them, we shall not be moved.

I pity the Neo-Nutsies. How impotent they must feel. How frightened and small. So they console themselves with these delusions of inherent superiority.

I grew up in the slums of L.A. and started college at 15. I won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 and have been married to the same woman for 26 years. I'm also kind to children and play a mean game of Scrabble. So I wonder: What do these people think they have accomplished in life that makes them my better? Do they really think it's enough to have less melanin in their skin?

The Neo-Nutsies have been responsible for frustration and anger these last days. They've also been responsible for joy. Thanks to them, I've received a tidal wave of ''hang in there'' and ''we care about you'' and ''what can we do to help'' from colleagues, readers, friends and strangers all over the country. People have volunteered to guard my front door. A self-described ''big ole white guy'' I've interviewed a couple times called from Louisiana to say he had my back. Contributions have been made in my name to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Credit the Nutsies for that.

I feel a little like Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. They say you can tell who a man is by looking at his friends. Which is true. But I believe you can also tell by looking at his enemies. Apparently, I have managed to make enemies of haters, bigots and other low, pathetic men.

I must be doing something right.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Multi-Tasking or Multi-Millions?

There's a really good story about thespian Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda, Crash) in this month's issue of GQ magazine. In it, the writer discusses with Cheadle how and why he has remained out of the spotlight and, subsequently, out of the $10-to-20-million-per-picture salary range of his African-American counterparts like Will Smith and Denzel Washington. Even though many consider Cheadle's acting chops equally marvelous.

Cheadle, in short, believes actors - and for that matter, any professional - make money by doing the same thing over and over again. Tom Cruise, whether he's in Cold-War-inspired Top Gun or the alien-infused War of the Worlds, is almost always the same guy on screen. Same thing with Denzel, who's Deja Vu character isn't all that different from his Inside Man character. Cheadle, on the other hand, has tackled roles opposite Denzel (Devil with a Blue Dress), George Clooney and Brad Pitt (Ocean's 11, 12, and 13), starred in Oscar-winners (Crash, Traffic) with star-studded casts, while also taking on starring projects in Hotel Rwanda and the upcoming film about a D.C.-'70s Era Radio personality in Talk to Me opposite Cedric the Entertainer and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was also in Inside Man and will again be paired with Denzel in this year's American Gangster.

Cheadle doesn't do typical. He doesn't do safe. Cheadle is all about range. Similarly, there are some notable African-Americans whom have made both millions and careers in spreading themselves into various roles and/or fields. Will Smith went from Grammys to Oscar nominations, Jay-Z has gone from The Blueprint to the boardroom of Def Jam, and Oprah has done everything from producing her own hit TV show to a Broadway production to her own magazine and book club. Still, there are others who have been successful with range in their careers.

There are corporate executives and government officials turned authors and nonprofit managers. There are athletes turned agents and actors. There are entrepreneurs turned educators, and vice versa. There are so many out there. Unfortunately, there are so many unknowns.

Real Role Models will hopefully help uncover their stories of risk-taking and endless ambition and ceaseless drive. Then Cheadle won't have to feel like a loner.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Take Credit for Tiger Woods, And Who Else?

I'm not sure what the specific fraction is, but I believe Tiger Woods is less than one-third African-American. Somehow this has escaped the African-American community when taking credit for his major accomplishments (this weekend he finished second in the U.S. Open; he's finished 1-1-2-2 in the last four majors).

If we're willing to take credit for Woods' historic feats (as we did when he stormed the scene by winning the '97 Master's), why not take credit for those of other African-Americans?

Case in point, Condoleezza Rice. She started out in the Deep South like other notable African-Americans, Oprah Winfrey and Martin Luther King, Jr. The daughter of a minister and teacher, both faith and education were important aspects of Rice's childhood and sense of duty. Eventually, her family moved to Denver where she would go on to receive her B.A. in political science (Phi Beta Kappa honors) from the University of Denver. After picking up a Master's in poly sci from Notre Dame, she returned to Denver to secure a Ph.D. in international studies.

Dr. Rice then went on to serve in various capacities in government and higher education, including rising from assistant professor to Provost at Stanford University, where she became the school's youngest and first minority leader and helped turn around a $20 million budget shortfall into a nearly $15 million surplus in just a couple years on the job.

Simultaneously, Dr. Rice became one of America's foremost experts on the Soviet Union and German reunification (after the fall of the Berlin Wall), which helped her become a trusted international affairs and national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, who also appointed another African-American-Colin Powell (previously served as National Security Advisor to Ronald Reagan)-as the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the successful Gulf War.

When Powell was named the nation's first African-American Secretary of State by President George W. Bush in 2001, Dr. Rice was quickly named National Security Advisor. Four years later, she's followed in Powell's shoes as the nation's second-ever black or female Secretary of State. Pretty impressive if you ask me.

And aside from the Middle East policies that have conflicted the nation, Secretary Rice has earned the praise of several around the world for her commitment to Africa (see this month's issue of Vanity Fair for evidence) including her contributions as chair of the Millenium Challenge Corporation which provides much-need aid to dozens of countries around the world, including Ghana and Uganda. Even U2 frontman Bono gives her and her boss credit for upping America's commitment to improving Africa.

But even while Secretary Rice is considered one of the world's most influential and powerful individuals (both Time and Forbes magazine agree), her status and contributions are minimized by the African-American community in comparison to people like Woods and Oprah Winfrey.

Perhaps its because she's a Republican. Perhaps its because we're more familiar with successful African-Americans in sports and entertainment, but not-so-much in politics. Regardless, the first step to appreciating real role modes in the African-American community is to acknowledge them and their contributions.

Some of these role models may not have the prestige of being the Secretary of State or even being a professional athlete, but I'm sure they're worthy of our recognition just the same.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Lucky or Smart

There's a book called Lucky or Smart that I recommend every aspiring entrepreneur read. In it, author Bo Peabody recounts his story from 19-year-old college student to multi-millionaire businessman.

But the best part about the story isn't Peabody's personal story, it's his underlying message: There is a difference between being lucky and being smart, but you can be smart enough to create your own luck.

There are plenty of stories that come to mind when I think of African-American entrepreneurs who have struck gold with a mix of smarts and luck.

Will Smith, then a Grammy-winning rapper, luckily met a young Hollywood writer named Barry Medina and the two collaborated on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which launched Smith's acting career. Now, he's one of Hollywood's highest paid actors.

Sean Combs started out as an intern for Uptown Records, which had recently signed a young R&B singer named Mary J. Blige. He dropped out of Howard University and less than two years later, Combs was one of Uptown's executives and helped launched Blige's Grammy-winning and multi-platinum selling career.

Bob Johnson had an idea for a television station geared directly to African Americans in the late '70s. Eleven years later, BET became the first black-owned company listed on the New York Stock Exchange and a decade later he became America's first black billionaire. He's also the only African-American to own a major professional sports team, Charlotte Bobcats.

Obviously these men all worked hard to create their success, but you can certainly bet they also had their share of luck.

These men didn't have to read Peabody's book to garner their millions and fame, but I'm sure they'd agree that it's important to "put yourself in a position to get lucky, create the right situations for success, and take advantage of every opportunity."

That said, while we have great examples of African-American entrepreneurs striking it big in entertainment, music, and sports, I hope our readers can gain similar appreciation for the entrepreneurs and businessmen and women who will be profiled in Real Role Models.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Jump the gun and you'll get disqualified

If you're familiar with track and field, you know that there's a pretty standard rule for any racing event: If you jump the gun, you'll get disqualified.

After two Democratic presidential debates - the first in April in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and the second in Goffstown, New Hampshire this past Sunday - I wondered if African-Americans were already jumping the gun on their political support.

Case in point, Orangeburg is a city made up of 67.5 percent blacks while Goffstown has a mere 0.3 percent. Also of importance, the median household income is $25,000 more in Goffstown than Orangeburg. And Orangeburg's crime rate is some seven times higher than Goffstown's. All that before even getting into the education gap between the two.

But you would think none of this matters when you realize even the poorest blacks in South Carolina support the same frontrunners - Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards - as the wealthier, better educated, healthier, safer New Englanders.

What does this say about the African-Americans in Orangeburg - and throughout the country since places like Oakland, California and East St. Louis (both homes to some of the worst crime rates in America) share voting histories with places like Cambridge, Massachusetts (home to Harvard and MIT) and Montgomery County, Maryland (one of America's weathiest counties) - when we vote identically to people who hardly ever share our life experiences?

This is not to say that poor voters and rich voters must be different or Ph.D voters and G.E.D. voters must be separate. This is simply to say just as wealthy and well-educated voters consider the issues such as candidate's positions on taxes, healthcare and foreign policy, the African-American community must take into account these same, and other, important issues.

For the first time in modern history we don't have an incumbent President or Vice President running for the office. If you haven't noticed, both the Democrat and Republican debates have been flooded with ten candidates each thus far.

That said, the African-American voting public has an opportunity to truly weigh in on this coming election by being active and vocal about what it is we want. We may want better schools, as I'm sure those Orangeburg residents would say, or we may want better healthcare as I'm sure everyone would say or we may want less crime as I'm sure Southside Chicago residents would say.

Regardless of what it is 'we' want, it's important to take a step back from tradition...a tradition that says whoever the Democratic frontrunner is - be it Clinton or Obama or Edwards - that's the candidate we support.

Instead, African-Americans must realize the unique nature of the 2008 election. This is an opportunity to sit back and wait for the race to start before we announce the winner.

Because if we try to win too soon, we may get disqualified from the political process altogether.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Leadership goes beyond Lebron

I'm an avid sports fan. I've subscribed to Sports Illustrated for almost ten years. I fully realize that SI has an increased interest in showcasing major sporting events as the end-all, be-all and lionizing its heroes as bigger than any other humans on the planet.

This is exactly what has happened after last night's jaw-dropping performance by NBA superstar Lebron James, who scored 25 consecutive points to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers over the Detroit Pistons in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals. If the Cavs win game six, they'll advance to the team's first-ever NBA Finals.

But I had to pause when I read a column by SI contributor Paul Forrester who wrote, "how many 22-year-olds have ever taken their team this far with this much responsibility?"

I can think of some 22-year-old Army lieutenants and single mothers who have sure led their "teams" to much higher places and with greater responsibility on their shoulders.

Case in point, by the time my mother was 22 years old, she had three boys whom she was basically raising on her own (my father left us around that time). Similarly, my best friend was just commissioned as an Army officer at 22 years of age, and not long thereafter was leading a platoon in Iraq's IED-loaded fields.

While my mother is black, my best friend is actually white, but that's neither here nor there. What's important is to understand that leadership and responsibility goes far beyond the basketball court.

Michael Jordan accomplished great feats against the Utah Jazz, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks, but my mother certainly accomplished much more by raising three boys into men from such a young age. And my best friend is preparing another group of young men for another tour in Iraq.

Talk about leadership and responsibility.

So the next time I hear a journalist talk about the accomplishments of a 22-year-old, I hope it's a story about a single parent putting food on the table or a military officer bringing his soldiers back home.

Because those "teams" are far more important than anything the NBA Finals can match.