An Open Letter to Will Smith

by Ewuare X. Osayande

Recently, in response to the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, you were quoted in London’s Daily Express as stating, "It was as if some part of me was validated. It was something that I've known for a long time that I couldn't really say: 'You know guys, I really don't think America is a racist nation.' I know that I feel like that sometimes but I just don't believe that. There are racist people who live there but I don't think America as a whole is a racist nation. Before Obama won the presidency I wasn't allowed to say that out loud because people would say: 'Oh yeah, of course for you, Mr Hollywood!'"

As someone who is often referred to as the most famous actor in the world, you must be aware of the power of your opinion and the influence it can wield on the world stage. We live in a time when facts hold less weight in the court of public opinion than unqualified, off-the-cuff remarks made by celebrities.

Yes, we were all overcome with joy and utter jubilation as we witnessed the election and inauguration of the first Black president of the United States of America. It was truly the most historic event in our generation. But for us to now profess that this one act was so compelling as to turn a country that owned and sold Africans as slaves for almost one hundred years since it declared itself a nation, that fought a Civil War to determine if it would keep them enslaved, that then rendered them second-class citizens and sanctioned segregation and the terrorism that came with it for another hundred years, and that spent the last forty years fighting against their advancement through every sphere of American life, into a nation that is not racist is a thing of fantasy – like your films. These historic and current events were not the actions of isolated white supremacists. They were the government-sanctioned policy of the United States of America. Why would you make such an irresponsible statement that only adds confusion to an already frustrating issue that most people of color must contend with on a daily basis?

The fact is that you could only make such remarks because you have removed yourself both physically and psychologically from the everyday reality faced by Black people and other people of color in this nation. World-famous Black actors before you, such as Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte, couldn’t separate themselves as easily due to the legislative and social constraints of Jim Crow. But now, because of their struggle and the blood sacrifice of Black people, you can and have separated yourself from the very Black community that nurtured you and supported you, only to turn around and make a statement that only works to soothe the guilt-ridden conscience of a nation that continues to downplay its legacy of oppression and the toll that legacy has taken on those of us who are Black, Brown and poor. To use the platform bequeathed to you by the Civil Rights Movement to deny the legacy of racism and its continued persistence amounts to a slap in the face to each and every Black person that died and continues to die due to the reality of racism. Your comments add insult to the injury of racism that most of us experience each and every day.

When was the last time you visited your hometown of Philly? We have a Black mayor here, our third in fact. Yet, racism is no less real now than when white Gov. Rendell was sitting in city hall. Our cities are no less segregated today than when George Wallace declared “segregation forever” from the steps of the Alabama state house in 1963. The remedies for this social ill will take more than the single act of electing a Black man to the nation’s highest political office. It will take a generation of acts to repair the more than a century’s worth of social damage and degradation that the Black community has reaped in these United States.

What about the cop-killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland this past New Year’s Day? What about the kidnapping and torture of Megan Williams? What about the acquittal of the officers that shot and killed Sean Bell? Jena 6? Katrina? These are just some of the racist events that made national headlines. The list could easily go on. And while we’re at it, Will, last I checked, most Native Americans still reside on reservations. Mexican immigrants are still being targeted for deportation while the red carpet is laid out for European immigrants. Arabs and Muslims are still being profiled at airports and stereotyped in the media.

Do you not realize that there are those of us still fighting the racism of a country that continues to treat most of us as second-class citizens, and that discriminates against us on the job, in the neighborhood, at the banks, in the hospital, in the courts, in the schools? Do you not realize that this is a country that continues to deny so many of us equal protection under the law when we are lynched, terrorized, tortured, murdered and otherwise mistreated or misrepresented? The election of Barack Obama hasn’t fundamentally changed any of this. And as great a man as he now is, invested with the power of his office, he, alone, can’t change it either. In fact, he is no less threatened by that same reality himself! Why do you think he has the tightest security detail of any president in U.S. history?

Your comments make a mockery of the self-determination of our community against a nation that has throughout its history denied our very citizenship and humanity. By denying the reality of racism, you also deny the strength of character, the persistence of will, and the power of Black people who have fought against it. Coincidentally, your comments also deny the very audacity of hope that lit the match of Obama’s own determination to be the president in a United States that didn’t believe that a Black man could win.

Furthermore, your comments only work to falsely confirm the conservative attitude that continues to hold sway in this nation. Your denial of this country’s racism doesn’t challenge the status quo desires of certain whites and wealthy people of color who are quite comfortable with things as they are. Taken at face value, your remarks defend the racist proposition that any problem Black people experience in this nation must be of our own making and doing. America remains in denial as to the actual state of racial progress. Your comments only work to rock this nation into a deeper slumber. If America is to be freed from its racism, it must wake up to the work that is yet to be done. Otherwise, we all might be in for a rude awakening.

No, Will, unlike the characters you portray in your films, people of color in this country do not have the privilege or luxury to exist without a walking awareness of race and what that means in a country that at any given moment and without any warning can remind us of racism’s truth in all its cruelty and brutality. No, we cannot afford to pretend or play make-believe. In our world the bullets are real as is the racism.

Just as racism still existed after slavery ended, and racism still existed after Black people won the right to vote, so too racism still exists, even after the election of the first Black president. You don’t measure progress by the exceptions. Rather, progress is measured by the rule. And the rule for most Black people and other people of color in this nation and around the world is that racism is all too real. The sooner this nation breaks out of its denial and comes to terms with this truth, the sooner we will be able to address it and do what it takes to eradicate it for good.

Ewuare X. Osayande (http://www.osayande.org/) is a political activist and author of several books including Commemorating King: Speeches Honoring the Civil Rights Movement and Misogyny & the Emcee: Sex, Race & Hip Hop. He is co-founder and director of POWER (People Organized Working to Eradicate Racism). He can be reached at OsayandeSpeaks@hotmail.com.

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