Friday, May 23, 2014

Stephen A. Smith: Mark Cuban is just being honest. Get over it

Mark Cuban said he would cross the street late at night if he saw a “black kid in a hoodie” or a “white guy with a shaved head and lots of tattoos.”

The “hoodie” reference rekindles memories of a hooded black teenager holding a bag of skittles and ice tea, while walking in his father’s gated neighborhood.  He was killed that night. It’s too soon to cite an example connecting hoodies, black youth and fear.

Trayvon Martin’s death exposed the power of perception.  Cuban’s honest analysis reminds us of how prejudices lead to dangerous outcomes.  Be it walking across the street, refusing to hire a person, or shooting a person due to fear, first impressions go a long way toward determining what happens next.

Cuban claims bigotry is something we all carry.  He admits it shows up in his life and among people working for him.  Rather than fire them, Cuban sends them off for diversity training.  He gives them a chance to learn from their mistakes.  He says it’s best to teach lesson versus kicking the can down the road.

Cuban’s comments reflect the knotty nature related to dealing with bigotry in the workplace.  Given bigotry is deeply engrained in human nature, what’s the big deal? That’s Cuban’s position.

“I also try not to be a hypocrite. I know I’m prejudiced. I know I’m bigoted in a lot of different ways,” Cuban said. “I’ve said this before. If I see a black kid in a hoodie at night on the same side of the street, I’m probably going to walk to other side of the street. If I see a white guy with a shaved head and lots of tattoos, I’m going back to the other side of the street. If I see anybody that looks threatening, and I try not to, but part of me takes into account race and gender and image. I’m prejudiced. Other than for safety issues, I try to always catch my prejudices and be very self-aware.”

Is Cuban correct to assert that we all have prejudices impacting our daily decisions? If so, who is liable for the pigeonholes formed to keep people at a distant? 

ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith said those criticizing Mark needed to "grow up."

"I took no issue whatsoever with what Mark Cuban said," Smith said on ESPN’s First Take on Thursday. "He happens to be correct."

“I’m sorry, I don’t see a problem with that whatsoever. I don’t think there’s any ethnic group in America that should take issue with it as a personal affront to them as if he was isolating them or talking about them. He was simply being honest, forthcoming and very open about some of the fears and prejudices that he may have.”

Cuban is just being honest.  He helps us by sharing his personal views.  Is it that simple?  Is Smith right in granting Cuban a pass after using hoodie to reference his own bigotry?

What is implied in our granting space for a person to admit they are bigoted in a lot of different ways, and that all of us are confronted with the same?  Should we embrace our bigotry as a reflection of our humanity, and blame others for fueling our bigoted ways.

If I have prejudices against black boys wearing hoodies, it’s up to those boys to stop wearing hoodies.  Is that the answer to all forms of bigotry?  Rather than exposing bigotry for its evil consequences, are we to assume it as normative, and attack those who bring our prejudices to the forefront?

Smith argues a practical approach to confronting bigotry and prejudice.  He wants black boys to pull up their pants and put on a suit and tie.  He embraces Cuban’s position as real talk about how black people need to take responsibility for how they are perceived by others.  Bigotry and prejudice, in the mind of Smith, is the responsibility of the individual to overcome.

There’s truth to Smith’s claim.  It is up to the individual to create distance from those fixated in a culture that correlates dress with behavior.  Smith’s call for personal responsibility challenges youth to dress in a way that helps ease the apprehension of those carrying prejudices?

“It is about how you present yourself,” Smith said on Friday’s broadcast of First Take. I’m trying to educate you on the minefield that you face.”

Smith claims black people are too busy pointing the finger of blame while not taking responsibility for what it takes to be a success. He says Cuban is correct to draw attention to his prejudices and bigotry around black boys wearing hoodies.

Smith’s position may be correct, but it offers space for people to remain comfortable with their bigotry.  If we all have prejudices, and that may be true, it is up to others to make concessions.  Bigotry is not about a system of thought rooted in misconceptions about a group of people.  It’s about the failure of that group to capitulate to the demands of those with the power to open doors to success.

Cuban offers an explanation for the existence of the bigotry of people like Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers.  All of us have issues with bigotry and prejudice.  Sterling is no different than the rest of us.


The conclusion is simple.  Since all of us have issues, deal with your own rather than throwing stones. 

To that Smith offers a recommendation to black youth.  It’s your fault for failing to make the necessary adjustments.

Conclusion: bigotry is your fault.


  1. PART ONE:
    If I’m summarizing your essay correctly:
    • Mark Cuban is a bigot and thinks we all have some form of bigotry, and you think he is asking for this to be a normative position
    • Anyone responding in some adverse manner to the way one dresses, acts, or appears is “blaming the victim”
    • Steven A. Smith thinks that how you present yourself matters in life, but you don’t
    • We should all be free to appear any way we like without the consequences of non-conformity
    • Prejudice can lead to adverse outcomes

    None of these are new questions in life. From the start of humanity in Africa, we were genetically coded to not trust those who were different from ourselves. It was a survival instinct that worked well in the hunter-gatherer tribal societies in which we lived for thousands of years. Not until agrarian farming was attempted and not until the local population densities required humans to work together, did culture override the preservation need for distrust.

    Fast forwarding to the present, what is it that defines a nation-state if not the need for preserving a shared cultural experience and life? This remains true, even for a nation of immigrants coming from a variety of cultures. So, what is often derogatively named “conformity” may actually just be society’s way of establishing trusted norms. And, please note that “society” can be national and local. Those that stray from the norms must then prove that their non-conformity is benign or helpful. As societies develop, what was once considered non-conforming may even become the new normal. Such is evolution.

    Cuban, Smith, and yourself (indeed, much of the community) often conflates the use of the terms prejudice, bigot, and racist. So, let’s agree on common terminology.

    Prejudice – Making a decision before coming aware of the relevant facts of a person, case, or event. Judging a person or thing based on its appearance or other factor (race, religion, class, age, etc.).

    Bigotry – A bigot is a person intolerant of opinions, lifestyles, or identities different from their own.

    Racism – By its definition, racism is a belief that race is the primary determination of human traits and capacities. This may or may not be associated with a belief that a particular race is superior.

    Now that we’ve reviewed genetics, social history, and some terminology, perhaps we can discuss Mark Cuban and Stephen Smith’s lack of adverse reaction to his comments. I have heard, both personally and from discussions in your columns, African Americans state that all whites are bigots and racists, just some worse than others. Cuban just expanded that notion of bigotry to ALL people, regardless of classification. I think they’re all using the wrong word.

    Surely, there are true bigots and they are found all over the world. As noted in the first paragraph, some of this is genetically encoded. How far they carry their intolerance of those not like them (“the other”) varies from country to country. Such bigotry is also seen in the major world religions. Thus, bigotry is the source of many wars and conflicts.

    What Cuban and Smith were mainly saying was not that everyone is a bigot, but that everyone has prejudices, some self-realized and others not. It is human nature to seek patterns in life’s events – what is dangerous and what is not. Is it a leaf fluttering in the wind or a dangerous animal about to pounce? This seeking of patterns causes us to trust what we know and delay trust about what we don’t know until it proves benign. This works both ways. Ted Bundy and Bernie Madoff could easily prey upon their victims because they conformed. A tattooed gang member would elicit the opposite response.

  2. PART TWO:
    In life, we make choices about our safety all the time. Most of these choices are rational due to experience and some due to prejudice. A black driver keeps to the speed limit because he thinks that he is more likely to be pulled over for speeding than a white driver. A woman walking down the street at night will avoid any group of men regardless of race. A mother in Crips territory doesn’t let her son wear Bloods colors. An older person may carry a gun because they no longer have the physical capability of defending themselves. Cuban’s comments about acting on fears reflect both prejudice and rational fears that we all possess. To act against those fears out of a sense of political correctness is unreasonable. If you make a mistake you could be dead. To act on the fear is a safer decision, even when not yet supported by the full facts. Stephen Smith acknowledged as such. Why you vilify both is beyond me.

    Perhaps it was Cuban’s injudicious use of the word “hoodie” to reflect one of his concerns that touched a nerve (I don’t hear an outcry over his concern over the tattooed bald white guy). Cuban has already apologized to Trayvon Martin’s parents over the seemingly personal reference. The use of the term is relatively inconsequential to the larger argument.

    Does how a person dresses reflect their personal traits, bad or good? On average, the answer is yes. How we choose to appear in public is a conscious choice whereby we are sending a message about who we are and what’s important to us, or by simply stating what group we identify with. The lawyer in the expensive suit wants to appear serious and powerful. The doctor in the white coat is signifying his status to be trusted in your health care. The woman entering a nightclub dressed in bra and panties is most likely looking for sex. The Goth kid in black is trying to send you a message that he’s an individual and not conforming to society’s ideals. The tattooed gang member in gang attire is sending you a message that he’s a tough guy and not to be messed with. One of your prior blogs noted that Hampton University’s business school was enforcing a dress code to prepare their graduates for the financial world they were entering. You groomed your dreadlocks to indicate your pride and solidity in a black heritage, but later cut them when you worried they were interfering with your job search because potential employers might see them as portraying a different message than the one you intended. Stephen A. Smith is involved in a program that prepares students for job market that may not appreciate the degree of individuality the students would prefer. He isn’t saying that bigotry is their fault, but he is saying non-conforming from the societal norm has consequences that all of us, regardless of background, have to contend with. First impressions count, because there may be no second impression. That is a reality we all deal with in this imperfect world. .

    So, do we all have to conform to modes of dress? Of course not. But we should be prepared to be responsible for the outcome of our choices. We shouldn’t claim immediate victimization when either society as whole or individual persons react negatively to our choices. Not everyone knows exactly what a person’s reasons are for dressing in a manner different from mainstream society norms. Nonetheless, people are genetically and socially programmed to hold their initial judgment until their concerns are allayed. Yes, that’s usually a prejudicial judgment and occasionally a bigoted one, but it may be a rational choice as well. We just don’t always know what prompts their judgment, nor should we prejudicially judge someone for making it until we know it isn’t a rational choice. And, I agree with you that some of these judgments that all people make can have adverse consequences. But ignoring these judgments can have adverse consequences as well.