Ken Cockrel column excerpts

Sep 24, 2008 at 12:00 am

No Honeymoon in Detroit
by Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr.
Sept. 1, 1993

In my job, my colleagues and I spend a lot of time fundraising and writing grant proposals. Not an easy task, as anyone familiar with this process knows. But once you actually get the money you're asking for, what's even more difficult is implementing the objectives of proposals which sound great on paper but can be difficult to pull off in real life. In fact, there's an old grantsmanship joke that goes like this: "The good news is we got the grant, the bad news is ... we got the grant."

I'm reminded of this joke when I think about the challenges the person who is elected the next mayor of Detroit will face.

I've got to imagine that, in some ways, the next mayor is going to feel very much like the hapless fundraiser who came up with that joke. The new mayor will then be expected to execute all those wonderful campaign promises that sounded so good when listed in full-page newspaper advertisements or when uttered as sound bites in 30-second television commercials.

I can very easily picture the new mayor waking up the morning after Election Day and asking, "What have I gotten myself into?"

It's no secret that my own father had been considering a run for mayor prior to his death in 1989, but I often wondered why he, or for that matter anyone would want the job.

One would have to have a fierce commitment to the city of Detroit and a sincere belief that one person can make a difference. Or you'd have to be a little bit crazy.

Or maybe a little bit of both.

It boggles the mind to think of the laundry list of problems, ranging from a crumbling infrastructure to a crime problem that many citizens perceive to be out of control to rampant unemployment.

Let's say right up front that despite what the legions of Mayor Young-bashers may say, the seeds of many of these problems were planted and had taken root well before he even took office. But that won't make dealing with them any less strenuous for Young's successor.

Many of the candidates have advanced agendas for improving the city and, as in any election, promises have been made. Implementing those same campaign promises once you've won the seat you've sought is another story. For example, placing more police on the street and revitalizing the city's neighborhoods are sound ideas, but they beg the question "How?" — especially in a deficit-plagued city like Detroit.

Detroiters are also going to have to be realistic about what they can expect from a new mayor, particularly during the first year or so. Whenever a new administration takes office in a problem-plagued setting, there's always the thrill of change and, accompanying it, the tendency to expect the new mayor, governor, president or whatever to "turn things around."

Remember President-elect Bill Clinton's inaugural address and all that talk about the need for "bold" and "experimental" change? Remember all those campaign promises that were either drastically altered, compromised or sent to the political twilight zone of "review by special committee" (which is really code for "Let's just tell them we're studying it and hopefully after a couple of months they'll forget about it")?

Clinton's national service proposal (his domestic Peace Corps-type program) and community-development bank proposal have both been dramatically scaled back; national health care seems to be in limbo; and let's not even get into what happened on the issue of gays in the military.

Don't get me wrong. I voted for Clinton last November and have no regrets about doing so. Besides, look what are alternatives were. The only thing that scared me more than four more years of George Bush was the prospect of four years of H. Ross Perot.

But I do think the American public has been handed a reality check in terms of what a new administration can initially do when dealing with entrenched power structure and overwhelming domestic problems.

Can we really expect things to be much different here at home for a new mayoral administration?

I think I know the answer the world will find out for itself after the November election.

I will make this prediction: If you thought the honeymoon between President Clinton and the American people was short, the honeymoon between the new mayor and Detroit's citizenry is likely to end before both parties even leave the wedding chapel.

Don't stand so close to me
by Kenneth V. Cockrel, Jr.
April 27, 1994

This column is an interesting footnote to the one I did two weeks ago on the media stereotyping of black men. A week after writing that column, I had an experience which demonstrated how pervasive such stereotypes are.

I was on the Wayne State University campus and had stopped at an automatic teller machine to withdraw some money. I waited in line with another man who was ahead of me. At the machine, a young Asian woman was completing her transaction. A few moments later, the man in front of me walked off. I stepped forward a few feet, at which point the woman at the machine looked back and did a nervous double-take.

"What … did … did you want to talk to me or something?" She stuttered.

"No," I answered. Just waiting to use the machine."

She turned back to the machine and the ensuing moments were followed by her nervously looking over her shoulder, shuffling her feet and, at one point, dropping her keys.

By now, I knew what was going on. She turned back to me and asked, "Why are you standing so close to me?"

"Look," I said. "Nobody's gonna bother you. If you've got a problem with where I'm standing, you need to work it out on your own."

She turned back to the ATM, finalized her business and ran off (literally).

To put this in perspective: There was nothing in the least bit threatening about my behavior or appearance. Since this was on my lunch break, I was wearing a suit — so I guess I didn't look like a rampaging psychopath (although they usually look pretty normal anyway).

In fact, had I been dressed in my usual casual wear — which for me is baseball cap, baggy jeans, hooded pullover, motorcycle jacket and engineer boots — this woman probably would've seriously panicked. After all, if the sight of a black man in business attire terrified her, the sight of one looking like an escapee from a rap video probably would've prompted a heart attack.

Even more bizarre, this incident took place not on a deserted street at night but inside WSU's Student Center during lunch hour, when there are usually around 500 people eating lunch, playing cards or standing around talking. And six people behind me were also waiting to use the ATM.

Despite all this, this woman took one look at me and assumed I'd come to mug or rape or pillage and generally be unpleasant.

Now I'm sure there are those of you who'll scoff and say, "How do you know it was because you're black?"

Well, it might have something to do with the fact that the white guy who'd been standing even closer behind her moments earlier before stepping out of line hadn't received the same treatment.

And this was a familiar experience to me. I've lost count of how many times I've stepped on elevators and watched white women clutch their purses or been followed around stores by nervous-looking clerks.

It's a common experience for a lot of black men. Most of the time, I shrug it off. Other times, that's tougher to do.

After being demonized so much, it's almost tempting to let the perception become the reality and say, "You think I'm gonna rape you? Fine. I'll rape you. It's what you expect, right?"

This is the danger of negative stereotyping that is so pervasive that people forget that in 90 percent of the violent crimes committed, both the victim and the assailant are of the same race.

Often they are related or know each other.

This means that if you're a white person who fears young black males, you should be more afraid of your cousin Chet then Tyrone from the Jeffries projects.

What's ironic is that the woman in the incident I described, because she is Asian, is likely subjected to her own set of crude stereotypes. How many times had people assumed she was a poor driver? Or that her parents are convenience store owners who cheat their customers? Or that she excelled in mathematics and computer science simply because of her birthplace?

Here was someone who'd likely been stereotyped herself stereotyping me. Her behavior was symptomatic of the cancer that is eating away the fabric of this country.

I'd like to end this column with some grand, uplifting pronouncement. But I can't think of anything, except to say to that young woman at the ATM machine and all of you out there like her:

Stop and think and, for Christ's sake, just chill out.

The True Meaning of Malice

by Kenneth V. Cockrel Jr.
Oct. 27, 1993

Now that everything but the shouting is over in the year's most talked-about trial, namely the "Malice Green case," I've just gotta say something.

In fact, I've got several somethings to say.

During the trial, the sentencing and the aftermath of these events, I found myself:

• Concluding that media coverage of the trial and the sentencing was for the most part fair and not exploitative. But I also sensed a slight disappointment on the part of the TV media for the lack of any "L.A.-type" outbreaks of violence that would have made for juicy news footage: "Still no sign of trouble here on the streets of Detroit … dammit!"

•  Overhearing a white female co-worker decrying what she saw as the martyrdom of Malice Green: "They've built a shrine for this man," she said. "I mean, he was no angel." True enough. But that didn't justify his being beaten to death like a rabid dog.

•  Hearing a white Ontario resident ask incredulously why anyone would name their kid Malice during a phone-in-segment on WJR at the close of the trial. Gee, d'ya think maybe he missed the point?

•  Hearing an African-American man claim that "justice was not served" during a phone-in segment on WCHB after ex-officers Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn were found guilty of second-degree murder and the third ex-cop, Robert Lessnau, was acquitted. This man, who admitted he was calling on a car phone, went on to state that African-American males will continue to be objects of police brutality and oppression.

Now I know he was speaking of African-American males in general, but somehow the idea of a black dude hurtling down a local freeway and railing on about "oppression" on a car phone that probably cost a couple hundred bucks seems more than a little contradictory.

• Seeing news stories featuring Detroit police officers, most of whom would not show their faces but who were clearly white, explaining on television newscasts that their jobs were going to be made much more difficult in the wake of the two guilty verdicts.

"You're gonna have to constantly watch your back and watch what you do and how you do it," one officer said.

Maybe now these officers will understand the tension many African-American males feel when they see those familiar red-and-blue lights flashing in their rearview mirrors.

• Reading this entirely appropriate quote from former Black Panther Ron Scott in the Detroit Free Press at the conclusion of the trial: "I feel upset with many blacks. … They were upset with Malice Green but they don't respond with the same fervor to the continuing murder of young people in the city. I think black-on-black murder should be our next issue."

• Reeling over the idiocy of the current petition drive to secure pardons for Budzyn and Nevers.

Wake up, people! These guys killed a man.

Whether you believe Green's death was intentional or just an unfortunate case of an already-bad situation which escalated to an even more horrible extreme, the end result was still the same — a man was killed.

As I listen to the supporters of Budzyn and Nevers (almost all of whom, not incidentally, seem to be white) prattle on and on about what fine officers and human beings Budzyn and Nevers are, I start to sense a subliminal message that, while hidden, should be obvious to most African-Americans.

I got that same sense following the Simi Valley jury's acquittals of the four officers charged with beating Rodney King last year. The underlying message I'm getting is that despite the evidence, despite overwhelming proof that a crime was committed and despite the fact that two people were convicted of that crime, it doesn't matter.

To the Simi Valley juries of the world and to the folks who think cops (especially white cops) should be subjected to a more lenient standard of justice than everyone else, what happened to Rodney King and Malice Green really doesn't matter because black men's lives don't hold the same value as those of their white counterparts.

You may think I'm wrong, but ask yourself this: If Malice Green had been white, would anyone be collecting signatures to pardon Budzyn and Nevers? Or better yet: If Green had been white and Budzyn and Nevers were black, would the same people behind the current petition drive be calling for their pardons or for their lynching?

As Aresnio Hall would say, "It's one of those things that make you go, 'hmmmmm."

And that really is the bottom line.

Uncle Tom Suburbs

As a Detroit resident, I believe that African Americans who are better off than their peers, regardless of where they live, have an obligation to participate in activities whih benefit or aid in uplifting others. Those who don't are deserving of whatever criticism they may get.

But to make blanket statements which label every African American who moves to the suburbs a "sellout" is to ignore the existence of those suburban African Americans who donate time and money to Detroit-based charities and  volunteer/community groups.

Merchant$ of Rage

Ya gotta wonder if maybe it isn't time to declare a moratorium on gangster rap music, or to use the more appropriate hip hop vernacular, "gangsta rap."

Yes, gangsta rap — that genre dominated by swaggering, snarling M.C.s with (supposedly) big dicks and bigger guns – may need to be either abolished or at least given a much-needed shot in the arm. No pun intended.

The Twinkle in Dad's Eye

My son will be growing up in a world where conditions are harsh and getting worse all the time, a world where African-American males are overrepresented in the criminal justice system as both victims and offenders. It's a world where the number one cause of death for young African-American males is murder at the hands of another African-American male, and where African Americans make up, respectively, 40 percent and 48 percent of the federal and state prison populations even though we represent only xx percent of the general population.

In short, a world where African-American males are an endangered species.

For my wife and I, our challenge will be to raise our son to become a man as opposed to another statistic. It won't be an easy job.

But it will be a labor of love.

Shut 'Em Up, Please

Eddie Murphy's singing voice is not just bad. It is indescribably bad. It is the sound of a cat being mauled by a lawnmower, of long fingernails being dragged across a blackboard, of metal being rent and torn. I was reminded of something someone once said about Nat "King" Cole, something along the lines of "He sang, women swooned." Eddie Murphy's voice has that same effect, but for all the wrong reasons.

The Somalia Puzzle

Don't get me wrong. I don't agree with the "fuck everybody" isolationism of demagogue and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who seems to think the United States should erect a mile-high wall around its borders and closer its eyes to the world. But you have to question the motivation behind a $20 million (and still counting) operation aimed at Somalians when the country doesn't have a stated policy for dealing with its own homeless problem.

You have wonder why the anarchy in Somalia seems to take precedence over the violence in cities like Detroit, which has made murder the leading cause of death for young African-American men.

You Too?

I knew that my friend's wife had been wanting to move out of the city for some time but he was reluctant. He was swayed after he recently witnessed a gunfight between two men from the window of his apartment. I told him I was sorry to see him go but I understood where he was coming from.

My friend is like a lot of others in my peer group. We occupy that twilight zone between the MTV and the VH-1 generations. We've outgrown our youthful rebellious periods when we did all sorts of dumb-ass things that could have sent us to the hospital or the morgue.

A lot us are also married and having children. And that's really the key. When you're a single male, you're willing to risk more and accept more. When you've got a wife and child, like my friend does — and as I do — your tolerance for certain unacceptable conditions goes way down.

Or as my friend said after watching that gunfight, "There was a time I would have loked at that and said, "Wow, that was pretty wild" and went about my business. But now … the last thing I need is for my wife to be walking down the street with the kid and catch a bullet."

I can identify with this because there've been times when I've thought about taking my wife and son and getting out. Like when our garage was broken into for the second time this year, or when I'm awakened from my sleep by gunshots in the not-that-far-away distance, or when I see an unfamiliar car cruise past our house one time too many.

Black History should be more than just a month

After all, no one seems to have a problem with Black History Month, but instituting mandatory multicultural curriculums has been a bone of contention in public schools and  on college campuses. Apparently, some people don't have a problem with confining the study of other people's history to one month, but taking about teaching it to their kids year-round and they get nervous.

I've never liked the concept of America as a melting pot, as the term "melting" implies assimilation and a loss of identity. Not surprisingly in this age of political correctness, some critics have begun to use the term "tossed salad," suggesting a mixture of ingredients (people) that maintain their attributes while being part of a whole.

The time has come for us to recognize not only that the ingredients making up this nation are more than just black and white, but also that Black History — and indeed the history of all ethnic groups in this nation — is more than just a month.

Thoughts on the N-word

Let me tell you this story. I was coming out of the drugstore when this high-school aged boy came out behind me and, apparently recognizing a friend who was headed down the street, shouted after him.

"Yo nigga, wassup?"

The other kid kept on walking.

"Yo nigga, wassup?" the shouter repeated.

The other kid walked on.

At this point, the first kid became visibly frustrated. He ran down the street caught up with his friend and clapped him on the back.

The walking kid stopped and turned around.

"Man, didn't you hear me?" the shouter asked.

"Yeah," the first kid answered calmly.

"Then how come you didn't stop?"

"Because," the first kid answered in that same calm tone of voice, "my name ain't 'nigga.'"

At the time I didn't really think a whole lot about the exchange, as I was too wrapped up in my own business. I went home and never thought about it again.

Until recently, when I was hanging out with a friend and it occurred to me to relate it to him.

"That's deep," he said when I finished. "Hey, can you imagine if everybody did that?"

"What do you mean I asked?"

"Well," he continued, "if like 50 percent of balck people just walked away or refused to ackowledge the word 'nigger' whenever they heard it, after awhile the other 50 percent would have to stop using it too, I guess."

"Then that word would probably just die, right?"

"Yeah," I replied, "I guess it would."

It sounds deceptively simple but it does make you stop and think.

Forgotten voices of black life

If extraterrestrial were brought to Earth and exposed to nothing but films like "Juice" and "Menace II Society" and books like "Monster," they would probably leave the planet convinced that all young black males are sociopaths whose only form of expression is violence.

I don't see myself represented in these films or in these books, and I know I'm not alone. What about all the young black males who aren't selling drugs, raping or killing, or rotting away in jail cells?

It's almost as if Hollywood and the publishing industry are unwilling to recognize that not every black man grew up dodging bullets in South Central Los Angeles or Brooklyn's Red Hook housing project. Not every young black male out here is simmering with rage or expressing that rage through violence.