Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Bottom line: Vick did this to himself
By Jemele Hill Page 2
Dear young, black men:
Today, many of you are angry. You are angry at a society that has swiftly and vigilantly punished a superstar quarterback for dogfighting, but often looks the other way as a grotesque number of black men die in the streets. You are angry at the NFL, which has punishments some of you feel unfairly targets those who look like you. You are angry at Michael Vick's buddies and criminal cohorts for "snitching" on Vick, noting that trainer Greg Anderson, a white man, sits in federal prison with his lips sealed, protecting Barry Bonds and refusing to cooperate with authorities.
Michael Vick heightened the stereotypes of black men instead of eroding them.
You are feeling a lot of things -- some possessing merit -- but I caution you not to make Vick a martyr. Do not applaud him for taking his comeuppance like some modern-day gangster. Do not blame others for Vick's predicament when he alone should be held accountable for his actions.
Let this historic unraveling be a wake-up call for the young, black men caught up in the same lifestyle that claimed Vick. Let his prison sentence send the message that a continued allegiance to street culture successfully keeps young, black men frighteningly behind in American society.
As the Vick case shows, millions of dollars are little protection if a certain mentality remains. Until now, Vick was considered one of the lucky ones. He rose out of poverty to become one of the most mesmerizing athletes of our time. He went from nothing to millions. He wasn't the American dream, but the American reality. He had the support of a city, of a people and he struck a chord with many young, black men because they saw themselves in him -- rebellious, strong and heroic.
But Vick let you down. He betrayed you. He heightened the stereotypes of black men instead of eroding them. Racists certainly will feast on Vick, but he was the one who made himself an entrée.
You can say Vick was persecuted unfairly by the white media, say we should be more concerned with the war in Iraq than an illegal dogfighting ring or say his downfall wouldn't be a 24-hour news event if he were the highest-paid white quarterback.
But it's impossible to stand on moral high ground while trying to defend something so low. Vick did something wrong, something against the law, something disgusting and vile. Even worse, he appears to be the financial backer and mastermind behind the dogfighting ring.
I understand Vick's guilt is a tough, humbling thing to swallow because the one thing black men in this society understand is the feeling of being piled upon, discounted and discarded. Last year, several studies showed that American black men are failing at an alarming and heartbreaking rate. More than half of black men in the inner cities don't have a high school diploma. There are more black men in prison than in college. Everyone else in society -- whites, Latinos, women -- is gaining ground, but black men are falling further and further behind in virtually every category.
Black men have a history of being marginalized and demonized in the mainstream, so although your rush to defend Vick was misguided, it also was understandable.
But now that we know of his guilt and complicity, let's be honest and not use racism as an excuse. Let's not point to Rae Carruth, Ray Lewis and Leonard Little and cite their crimes -- as if wrongs can exonerate other wrongs. Racism isn't putting Vick in jail. Awful decisions did that.
Instead, let's attack this poisonous idea in the black community that equates only negatives with success. Surely, one reason Vick kept his circle of friends is because successful black people are pressured into keeping their toxic buddies around for the sake of "keeping it real" -- even though they've spent most of their lives trying to escape the street lifestyle in which many of those friends remain.
Of course, what's forgotten is that if Vick's "friends" truly cared about him, they never would have allowed him to jeopardize his freedom, NFL career and family for an illegal enterprise. A $100 million man involved in dogfighting isn't keeping it real. That's keeping it stupid.
I wanted to address this letter to young, black men because they fall victim to this mentality more so than any other group. It's not just black athletes facing a crisis but black men, period.
Vick was in a position to show that young, black men are not something to be feared. But instead of leading the Falcons to the playoffs this fall, Vick will be among the nearly 800,000 black men in prison -- which sadly constitutes half of the nation's prison population. Instead of wrapping himself in the support he received from millions of fans -- many of whom look like you -- Vick aligned himself with a destructive culture that is being indirectly endorsed as long as some African-Americans continue to make pathetic excuses for an immature millionaire.
You may not believe this, but I hope Michael Vick recovers. I hope he plays in the NFL again. I hope his comeback is just as good, if not better, than Ray Lewis'.
But mostly, I hope that, through Vick, other black men learn that society is quite capable of gobbling them up. No extra help is needed.
Page 2 columnist Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.