While talk of the 2010 BET Awards will surely grace the plastic coatings of many water coolers for weeks to come, there is easy doubt that pop culture dialogue will lead into any constructive policy discourse. And should it? It is Black Entertainment Television – placing italicized emphasis on “Entertainment” should grimly remind folks of the embattled network’s struggle to introduce serious news programming. Some will argue that it’s a deliberate aversion, particularly since founders Bob Johnson and ex-wife Sheila Johnson sold the asset to media conglomerate Viacom in 2000 for $3 billion. Viacom’s just not that interested in the public affairs angle. An April Daily Beast interview with Sheila Johnson was fairly blunt in that assessment:
“Don’t even get me started,” says the 60-year-old Johnson, who has since divorced and remarried (charmingly enough, to the Virginia circuit court judge who presided over her divorce). “I don’t watch it. I suggest to my kids [a twentysomething daughter and a college-age son] that they don’t watch it… I’m ashamed of it, if you want to know the truth.”
“When we started BET, it was going to be the Ebony magazine on television,” Johnson tells me. “We had public affairs programming. We had news… I had a show called Teen Summit, we had a large variety of programming, but the problem is that then the video revolution started up… And then something started happening, and I didn’t like it at all.
Hence, there was little surprise when the controversial network decided to use convicted batterer Chris Brown as the central attraction for the show’s Michael Jackson Tribute. Not enough Jackson’s legacy – albeit still larger than pop – was already stained by the circumstances surrounding his death and child molestation allegations in earlier years. BET appears too pressed, and much of the popular Black entertainment world with it, to push the “Chris Brown Redemption Tour” narrative. Why is that?
The only explanation is the fan base – or an audience both willing to purchase Brown’s albums and eager to indulge in tabloid chatter. Plus, with the beating of ex-girlfriend and star songstress Rihanna still fresh in the minds of many, we’ve entered a bizarre realm where it’s socially acceptable and the center of comic relief to savagely pummel a woman’s face.
The point here really has nothing to do with Brown’s transgressions or his personal story, although that obviously plays deeply into the inner demons plaguing him for life. And it really has nothing to do with whether or not he’s forgiven or if we’re witnessing sincere regret. It’s a real sense that many did not get it while trapped in the hype of forgiveness – blinded by our understandably natural instinct to distrust and resent mainstream media distortions of Black men. But, in this particular instance, larger themes were missed, a tragic event relegated to an isolated TMZ moment. It’s a disturbing reflection of the larger community’s lack of compassion for domestic violence victims and a failure to consider just how serious the problem is for many Black women.
The Institute for Domestic Violence in the African American Community presents very sobering and alarming figures on the amount of violence inflicted on our sisters, mothers, wives and daughters:
African American women experience intimate partner violence at rates 35% higher than their White counterparts and 2.5 times the rate of men and other races. African Americans account for a disproportionate number of intimate partner homicides. In 2005, African Americans accounted for almost 1/3 of the intimate partner homicides in this country. Domestic violence affects all Americans, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status. However, this threat has disproportionately dire consequences for African American women.
It is, sadly, repeated on the broken bones, bruises and ruined lives of thousands of women who, unlike celebrities with near unlimited resources, are faced with few options while chased by abusive men. Adding insult to injury is the insensitivity of a court system bent on hustling cases through an overloaded docket rather than assessing each one in a manner consistent with law, civility and human rights. The national silence on this issue is deafening despite the fact that one in every three women can expect physical abuse from a male partner.
As deafening is the lack of Black political and public policy response when we consider the impact of domestic violence in the African American community. Femicide, most times perpetrated by intimate male partners, is the leading cause of premature death among Black women between the ages of 15 and 44 with near fatal femicide contributing to long term injuries and conditions. Brown’s performance is celebrated as talented comeback with little to no focus on the prevalence of abuse in Black homes and how both police and courts routinely succumb to institutional racism, chauvinistic tradition, batterer manipulation and outright incompetence.
The selection and subsequent celebration of Brown for that moment presents a tremendous setback for victims. Watching the abuser adulated by adoring fans offers batterers a symbolic victory to continue their violence with little remorse and abundant tolerance from the larger community (“If fam can get away with it and get cheered on a national stage, what’s stopping me?”). And it sends a message to our youth that the consequences, if any, are mild. No wonder elected officials possess little courage to address it. The public, in essence, appears to endorse it. With this issue, many seem to delightfully revel in their ignorance of it – as was the case on Sunday night.