Commentary: Racism 101: How to Talk About Everyone From Richard Sherman to Barack Obama

Six dos and don'ts about modern racism.

Posted: 01/21/2014 02:31 PM EST

Mid-January marks the start of our annual six-week educational course about Blackness in America. It starts with Martin Luther King's birthday on Jan. 15 and continues through the end of Black History Month in February.

This year, from football to fashion to fraternity parties, innovative people are finding brand new ways to show off their racial insensitivity, and far too many of them just don't get it. Although some of this stuff should be obvious by now, apparently it's time for a refresher course in racism 101. Yes, despite what the Supreme Court thinks, racism is alive and well in America and abroad. So with that in mind, I've prepared a basic list of six dos and don'ts about modern racism.

1. Do feel free to disagree with Black people, just as you would with anyone else, but don't insult them with racial stereotypes in your criticism. We saw this with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman this week as the Stanford grad's post-game outburst was quickly twisted into evidence of widespread Black thuggery. It's the same thing that happened to unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin when he was gunned down two years ago and happens with just about any young Black man society chooses to demonize and stereotype as a reflection of a violent culture that apparently does not afflict whites. Remember, it is possible to criticize Sherman's over-the-top speech Sunday night without calling him a "thug" or the N-word.

2. Do celebrate Dr. King's birthday, but don't do it with cheap stunts that trivialize the significance of his message. In the past week, we've seen MLK twerking posters, MLK costume parties and MLK Black Sales. But if you know anything about Dr. King's message, why would you choose to associate him with a gang sign, a basketball jersey or a watermelon cup, as students at an Arizona State University frat party did? And even if you sincerely wanted to celebrate King with a holiday sale, which is quite common in a capitalistic society, why would you hold a 25 percent discount on the Black things in your store? Dr. King didn't just care about Black people. He said "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." And the idea of selling Black things on a holiday to commemorate a person who fought against the legacy of slavery seems tone deaf, at best. Do your homework people.

3. Uh, don't pose for a fashion magazine while sitting on top of a half-naked Black woman. Does this even need to be said? Apparently so, as Garage Magazine editor-in-chief Dasha Zhukova thought it would be good publicity to create a new degrading image of a Black woman subjugated by white power.

4. Don't exploit MLK Day by trying to accuse Black people of using some fictional idea of a "race card." Yes, I know she's a desperate washed-up politician searching for attention, but Sarah Palin's MLK Day Facebook post on Monday received more than 45,000 likes, which means there's a lot of ignorant people out there who need this class. "Mr. President," she wrote, "in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. and all who commit to ending any racial divide, no more playing the race card." But race is not a card for Black Americans. It's real life experience. It's only considered to be a "card" by those people who see America's racial history of slavery and segregation as a subject to be avoided in their own cynical game of false equivalence.

5. Don't assume that Black people talking about race makes them racist. I'm not sure Palin has gotten to the level where she actually reads magazines yet, but she's very practiced at talking out of her buttocks without exposing herself to silly little things like facts and information. Thus, it's possible her latest comments could be a response to a recent New Yorker interview where President Obama talks about how race may affect his poll ratings.

"There’s no doubt that there’s some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a Black President,” Obama told the magazine. Sounds pretty obvious to me, but today's Fox News viewers believe racism only happens to innocent white people who are losing their jobs to unqualified African-Americans and being sucker-punched on the streets by menacing Black thugs. But there's more to the president's interview. He also said "there are some Black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a Black President." Again, very reasonable and probably true. But to rabid anti-Obama conservatives, it's proof the president benefits from affirmative action. In reality, we can't overcome racism if we're not willing to talk about it.

6. Don't be surprised when Black people vote against you after all the racist things you say about them. This week, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a Michigan Republican, was quoted about his theory of Detroit, the Blackest city in America. "What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and the corn," said Patterson. Is there any wonder Black people aren't lining up to vote for his party?

Sadly, all six of these rules come from incidents that have taken place just this month. But if we follow these dos and don'ts, read a little history and observe some basic common sense, we might be able to make it through the course without too many more teachable moments.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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