Host Deepa Fernandes speaks with diversity educator, poet and American University lecturer Omékongo Dibinga. In his book "Lies About Black People: How To Combat Racist Stereotypes and Why it Matters" Dibinga addresses the many myths that are held about Black people, their corrosive effects, and how to begin to overcome them.
Book excerpt: 'Lies About Black People'
By Omékongo Dibinga
Being Black in America is like being a human lie detector. You are constantly being asked or even demanded to prove that you are truly qualified to work at your job, go to school where you do, and live where you live:
“You want to be President of The United States? Show us your college transcript.”
“You want to be a Supreme Court Justice? Show us your LSAT scores.”
“You want to be a doctor? Didn’t you only get into med school because of affirmative action?”
As Black people, despite our qualifications, we are too often placed in a position to have to prove people wrong or prove that we are not lying about who we are. We are too often presumed guilty before presumed innocent. We are too often assumed to be underqualified than qualified or dare I even say…overqualified. The assumption is made first that we are not worthy of our positions. Whenever there is a conversation about a role a Black person is going to assume, there is always the qualifier that she must be “qualified,” although that term is rarely used for White males, if ever. What is it about the very sight of our skin that makes so many people (including many Black people) believe that we are inherently incapable of achievement? What is it about our complexion that leads to so much rejection? What makes so many others believe we are not worthy of what we have earned?
The most shining recent example of the constant questioning of Black qualifications comes in the form of the 2022 nomination and subsequent confirmation of Judge Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court of The United States. Judge Jackson was the first Black female to ever be nominated to the highest court in the land in the 236 year history of the Supreme Court. The court has had 116 judges in its history, including Jackson. Of those 116 judges, several were appointed with no judicial experience at all such as (John) Marshall, Taney, Chase, Waite, and Fuller. Furthermore, only half of the judges appointed in the 20th century were
actual judges prior to their appointment (Hylton 2020). More than half of the Supreme Court justices in history, 64 to be precise, never obtained a law degree (Dhillon 2014). Judge Jackson was hailed by many as one of, if not the most qualified nominee to the Supreme Court, represented by her attaining the highest rating from the American Bar Association, yet she was still treated as if her experience was a lie. She was treated like her qualifications were not real or did not matter (Stracqualursi 2022). Jackson has two degrees from Harvard including her law degree, graduated Magna Cum Laude from undergraduate school, was an editor on the Harvard Law Review, and served as a judge for almost a decade prior to her Supreme Court nomination (Southern Poverty Law Center 2022). Who is more qualified? When it comes to being Black in America, the qualifications do not matter for many White people.
I was listening to legendary comedian Chris Rock speak about his upbringing and how his parents instilled the ideals of hard work in his mind. He repeated something that most Black people have been told by their parents—you have to work twice as hard as White people. While I had also heard that phrase since I was a child, he added a part that I never heard before and it shook me to the core. He said that we have to work twice as hard to get half as much as White people. Judge Jackson was talked about by her detractors as if she was a random person off the street who just decided to be a judge one day. She was not only called a radical left-wing activist, but also a pedophile sympathizer for cases she was assigned as a public defender (Palma 2022). In the end, Judge Jackson fortunately did not work twice as hard to receive only half of a judgeship but rest assured, her decisions will be critiqued with twice as much vigor from her detractors, if her confirmation process was to provide us with any evidence.
Some of the racist actions towards Jackson included Fox’s top show host Tucker Carlson asking that Biden provide a copy of her LSAT scores, even though LSAT scores relate to law school admission, not to becoming a judge. He also asserted that her nomination was part of
Biden’s process of turning America into Rwanda and the chaos that occurred there with the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (Chen 2022). Compared to Supreme Court Amy Coney Barrett, Jackson’s résumé shines even brighter. NYU School of Law professor Melissa Murray noted that Barrett “‘did not have the same credentials [as Jackson] but she was celebrated for not being Ivy League because it made her relatable...For years we’ve been told that for Black women to be considered for positions in the upper echelons, they’d have to be twice as good…Now people like [Lindsey] Graham are saying we’d prefer that you graduated from Trump University Law School.’” You do not have to stretch your imagination to think about what the response would be in the media if Jackson and Barrett’s résumés were switched. Murray also noted that, as Black lawyers “‘We’ve all been called to present our LSAT scores at some point’” (Chen 2022).
Murray’s comments show how the level of accepted qualifications switch historically depending on the race in question. Compare the low levels of expectations of Trump versus Obama or a Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene vs. Marcus Flowers or a Raphael Warnock versus Herschel Walker. Wait! Did I just say that? We’ll get to this later, but in way too many instances, White republicans will put the least qualified Black men forward to compete against a Black democrat and almost deputize them in Whiteness until they are of no longer use to them. Think Obama versus Alan Keyes in 2004. They will also quickly choose a Black face to represent a White perspective on television, such as Candace Owens, Diamond & Silk, Jesse Lee Peterson, and Paris Dennard. This is also not new. As Malcolm X stated decades ago: “whenever a black man stands up and says something that white people don't like then the first thing that man does is run around to try and find somebody to say something to offset what has just been said.” Because the rules keep changing for Black people, we still must be twice as good but in order be Black and condemn Black people, conservative news outlets only need their Black commentators to be half as smart, if that.
One activity I have come to enjoy over the years is a good social media debate. I enjoy engaging in intellectual conversations with people of opposing viewpoints. As long as the discussions are respectful, I can talk to people for days on end. Most attempts at conversation, however, do not last more than three replies. Why? Because within the first 2-3 reactions to my posts by some commentators, my credentials are immediately challenged or dismissed altogether:
“They call YOU a doctor?”
“How did YOU get a PhD?”
“They gave YOU a blue check?”
Oftentimes we as Black people dismiss these stories because we are so used to it, as was the case with Jackson and Black lawyers. We may even laugh at it but sometimes, however, these situations can have dire consequences. In October of 2016, Dr. Tamika Scott was denied the opportunity to aid an unresponsive passenger on Delta flight DL945 because the flight attendant did not believe Dr. Scott was indeed a physician (Wible 2016). As she witnessed the emergency and started to spring into action, the flight attendant said to her (according to Scott’s Facebook post): “oh no sweetie put ur hand down, we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don't have time to talk to you.” Scott is trying to save a man’s life, and she is asked for her credentials. A little later, however, a White man approaches and says he is a doctor, and the flight attendant lets him attend to the passenger, although he showed no credentials, according to Scott.
Some White people may dismiss instances like this and say: “I have been discriminated against too,” but this is about a systemic problem and systemic consequences. This is about the fact that Dr. Scott started her Facebook post by stating “I'm sure many of my fellow young, corporate America working women of color can all understand my frustration when I say I'm sick of being disrespected.” The fact that the post received 151,000 likes, 35,000 comments, and 45,000 shares speaks to the frustration Black people feel on a regular basis. Furthermore, the flight attendant later apologized and offered Dr. Scott frequent flyer miles, leading Dr. Scott to write “I don't want skymiles in exchange for blatant discrimination.”
Excerpted from "Lies About Black People: how to combat racist stereotypes and why it matters.”by Omekongo Dibinga, PhD. Published by Prometheus Press. Copyright © 2023 by Prometheus Press. All rights reserved.
This segment aired on August 1, 2023.