“When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different, and I felt like I did not belong. And now I’m standing here, and so I would like this moment to be for this kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere: Yes, you do. I promise you do. Stay weird, stay different, and then, when it’s your turn, and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along. Thank you so much!”
—-Graham Moore, 2015 Oscar winner for best adapted screenplay for the movie “The Imitation Game,” in his acceptance speech.
“We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850.”
— John Legend, accepting the 2015 Oscar for Best Song for “Glory” from “Selma.”
Legend’s statement is technically accurate, but misleading in many ways, inflammatory, destructive, and irresponsible.
When you heard it, did you make the distinction between “in prison” and “under correctional control”? Most didn’t—I didn’t— and that was intentional. This is deceit. Correctional control includes those in prisons, but also those in jails awaiting trial or serving short local sentences; those on parole; and others on probation. Like all the fake and misleading statistics that fly around, this one is inflated to induce a “Wow!” A person under probation or parole can live a completely normal and free life, if he or she can avoid breaking the law and some extra rules. Slavery it’s not.
That is the other aspect of the statement that is unethical: this is a loaded comparison. Slaves were enslaved due to no fault of their own. Slavery is an abomination and a violation of human rights. Prison, and other forms of “correctional control,” is punishment, and the end result of due process and personal responsibility. The number of Americans in the justice system is a huge burden on society, the economy and the culture, and needs to be addressed as a serious problem. It is not, however, primarily a racism problem, and the false comparison with slavery is toxic misrepresentation on multiple levels:
1. Blacks are not in prison for being black. You still have to break a law. The threshold remedy to having so many black men in prison is for the black community to stop producing so many criminals.
2. Slavery could be cured by banning slavery. What is Legend advocating to cure the imprisoned population problem? Banning laws? Banning prison? Banning prison just for African-Americans? The comparison is either simple-minded or irresponsible.
3. The juxtaposition suggests that the large proposition of blacks in the criminal justice system is purely a matter of racism, and white oppression…a facile, responsibility-free and hate-inducing fiction.
4. This ploy, increasingly popular in the civil rights movement as it must always find a way to pretend that progress in racial equality is an illusion in order to justify its existence—that is, income and power—suggests that prison is only a sly and sinister replacement for slavery under the guise of law enforcement.
Naturally the knee-jerk amen chorus in the media, which will always applaud accusations of racism either because they feel it’s their duty, they really do think this lamely, or they are terrified of being called racists, was delighted with Legend’s comment. Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever called the speech ” a rousing acceptance speech on the subject of racial inequality and black incarceration rates.” I hope he meant “rousing but stupid,” but I doubt it. After all, he thought Patricia Arquette’s passionate proclamation of her own ignorance about gender wage disparities was “moving.”*
Legend could have made a comparison between slavery and black imprisonment that would have generated legitimate and productive debate, and even done some good, rather than his attempt to remove responsibility for the plight of black criminals and place it on “whitey.” He could have said, for example…
“Dr. King’s courageous fight to give African-Americans the rights other Americans take for granted has still not realized its potential for our people. Two many of our young men, no longer under the cruel burdens of slavery and Jim Crow and the limits to their liberty that these imposed, abuse that liberty and rob themselves of the benefits Dr. King fought for, by breaking laws and by being irresponsible citizens. Yes, we have come a long way thanks to heroes like Martin Luther King, but his dream will remain only that if we merely replace the chains of our cruel slave masters with chains forged by our own recklessness and disrespect for the law, our country and ourselves. There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850. That is a disgrace, and it is up to us, our communities, parents and Dr. King’s successors to take the precious rights he died for and make our people, and the United States, proud of what we do with them.”
In sharp contrast were the genuinely moving words of Graham Moore. Taken together, the two statements from the same podium are fascinating and depressing. One representative, Moore, of a traditionally ostracized and marginalized group tells others, “Don’t despair! You have the power to succeed and prevail. Take charge of your life, and be everything you can be, and be a positive role model for those who follow you.” Another mistreated and long-suffering group’s representative–Legend–proclaims that his people are still victims, still disadvantaged, and still require rescue and assistance.
If these be the respective groups’ approaches, I am quite certain which one is more likely to succeed.
* In truth, all political statements by performers are irresponsible and do more damage than good, as the Volokh conspiracy recently noted. Why? Because they generally don’t know what they are talking about.