Chris Rock’s statement about Los Angeles as a ‘Mexican Slave State’ was easily the most controversial claim he made in his recent article in the Hollywood Reporter. As a blog that focuses specifically on L.A., it certainly got our attention.
I noticed a lot people reacted when we posted a link to the article on our Facebook yesterday, and because I think it’s an important issue, I feel like I just wanted to share a little of my perspective with you, for better or worse.
In that regard here’s five thoughts I had in reaction to his article that I feel are pretty reasoned and rational.
1. Truth and Hyperbole are a Volatile Combination
Consider these two comments by two different angelenos, the first of which was the top comment in the Facebook thread I started to discuss the article yesterday evening:
“I get it. My aunt went to university in Mexico. She studied to be a teacher. When she came here she went through a G.E.D program and got her high school diploma even though she already has a degree to teach from a college. But the only jobs she could ever get is in factories or a nanny. Even though there are plenty of educated Mexican people here they can’t get work they are qualified in for various reasons.”
The second comment had the most up-votes in a discussion about the article on the r/LosAngeles subreddit:
“Slave state? No. There is a difference between working a shit job in a country you’ve emigrated to in order to give your future generations a chance to move up the social ladder and being a slave. This article is pure sensationalist bullshit.”
To me both these perspective are 100% valid. On the one hand, there are real people who are facing down real issues of poverty and social advancement, and they encounter huge impediments in that struggle. Impediments that others simply don’t have to consider. It sucks and it’s not fair and we ought to be doing things in our society to ensure that future citizens have the privilege of an equal playing field.
On the other hand, evoking the word “slave” takes it from 0 to 100 in a nano-second. It offends us, shock us, even blind us to the rational discussion we need to have about the issues at hand. It’s hyperbole, but nestled in it are shards of razor sharp truth.
2. The Timing Sure is Convenient
Chris Rock has a new movie coming out.
For better or worse, people have been / will continue to call him out for just trying to stir the pot when the publicity is clearly to his benefit.
Then again, he’s made a career of having controversial (and hilarious) takes on social subject matters. So nothing new in that regard.
3. He Said Mexicans, But Did He Mean Latinos?
The United States Census uses the ethnonym Hispanic or Latino to refer to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American heritage. So, yeah, not just Mexican. Countywide, the Latino population in Los Angeles represents just about 50% of our roughly 10 million residents.
I’ve seen comments by Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Colombians, and other L.A. residents of latin american descent calling out Rock for lumping Latinos under the label “Mexican”
Maybe he did mean Mexicans specifically, maybe he meant all Latinos.
In any case, if your’e going to make a racial argument, it’s probably good to be clear about the racial groups you’re talking about and try, best you can, not to offend the people you might be sticking up for.
4. Talking About Race is a Good Thing
I think the central issue that still divides races today is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of change. Fear of being or staying poor. Fear of social constraints. Fear of authority. Fear that is deeply embedded over centuries of cultural history.
The recents events in Ferguson and the Garner case highlight this fact more than ever. They are the embodiment of both ends of this fear. Just read Tim Wise’s latest piece for a breakdown of this gross misunderstanding of racial experience.
Truth be told most of Rock’s article doesn’t deal specifically with the controversial slave statement highlighted at the top of this article, but rather is a take down of the culture that exists in Hollywood to generally limit opportunities for people of color within the industry. And I think he makes tons of great points.
Furthermore, whether you agree or not the fact that I’m writing these words or that you’re bothering to read them is, on the whole, probably a good thing in advancing the conversation on the topic.
In my experience, the only way you face down fear is head on. Run towards it, instead of away from it. That starts with getting pointed in the right direction.
5. Every Individual is Responsible for How They Think About Race
Finally, I would say this: Don’t let a single celebrity or idea or dogmatic religion or family tradition wholly own your perspective on the world. You alone are responsible for the thoughts that you have and those thoughts will control your destiny. And collectively, our thoughts as a society will predict the course upon which we embark, the progress we ultimately make.
That said, Los Angeles has as fucked up a history of race relations as any city in the county, and not just in film industry hiring practices. It’s easy, therefore, to paint our city with a broad brush and make sensational claims that garner national headlines and tons of viral shares.
But if we want to make a difference in the outcome instead of just lamenting the current state of affairs, we need to shape our thoughts based on reflections of our experiences.
Here’s one of mine.
Years ago I used to work at the Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood. I had a job as a propositional player banking the casino games for a company whose role it was to provide an entity for players to wager against (and if you don’t understand what that means, that’s ok, few people do).
Sufficed to say, me and my fellow employees were known by the players and casino staff as “the corporation” and each corporation banker was tasked with ensuring bets were properly paid out or taken in, and that there was no funny business going on at any individual table. They even made us sew the pockets up on our dress shirts and slacks to make sure that we wouldn’t be tempted to steal any loose chips.
Like a combination of a cop and a collection agent, we shipped the losses and tallied the totals. And many were the losses.
By in large the people who were on the losing end of this eco-system were people of color; African Americans, Asian Americans, and to a lessor extent, Latinos and Middle Easterners. And the corporation? Majority white.
It was a crazy, fucked-up dynamic that has generations of infused racial tension and cyclical poverty burrowed right into the heart of it’s machinery. And yeah, I saw some shit.
Handcuffed suspects fleeing the FBI, arguments and fistfights over $20 bets, screaming matches, bomb scares, and of course the routine minute-by-minute practices of lying, manipulation, and occasionally, outright cheating.
I remember this one guy who played against us. He was a gas station owner who had a striking resemblance to a certain Nintendo villain (and a maniacal laugh to match). The corporation bankers derisively referred to him as “Wario.”
One time Wario played an all-night private game of Pan 9 against the corporation, and when his pockets were empty, his veins full of liquor, and his mind a foggy haze, he somehow slurred out a request for the casino staff to drive him to his place of business, presumably so he could access a safe and pull out more cash to continue the game.
The staff obliged.
He was back in 30 minutes, again flushed with money, and then proceeded to lose another five grand.
At best, I pitied the people I encountered. At worst, I felt absolute disdain. I wondered how it was that anyone could let themselves slide into this kind of existence. Gambling was not just a part of their life, it was their life. Their entire social network, thought process, and motivation was driven by this addiction.
I worked there for maybe a year and a half, and day in and day out I saw the exact same players, making the exact same bets, with the exact same results. Einstein’s definition of insanity, right? And the more I focused that absurdity, the more I think it kind of made me a dick.
But as my experience grew I learned one of the most valuable lessons I still hold on to today: people are people. They’re human. They have faults and demons, but they also have shared experiences. And when you can form relationships with them, understand them, and connect with them based on things you have in common, you don’t fear, disdain, or pity them. You forgo the burden of judgment. You become a little less of a dick.
The system we existed in was totally jacked up. The poverty, geography and personal history of many of the players lives I came to know predisposed them to walking the path they were now on. They weren’t willful enough or lucky enough or whatever enough to navigate the pieces on the chessboard that had been laid out in front of them. The game, both literally, and figuratively, was rigged. But as I evaluated that scenario I realized that the rules of the game don’t have to dictate the thoughts that enter my mind.
That’s my choice, perhaps the only real choice that I have in life. And I’ll say it again, thoughts really do control our destiny, both as individuals and as a human family.
And so everyday I tell myself that I need to be more tolerant, more open to new experience, and less judgmental, both about society as a whole and about the people who comprise it. And I don’t wait for that thought to occur, I wedge that thing into my brain-case, lather it with super glue and make sure it sticks.
This is how I take, what seems like kind of a depressing chapter in my life, and turn it into something positive. It’s all you can do.
This is why I choose to see Los Angeles not as beyond racial or economic repair, but rather as a glorious opportunity.
L.A. is one of the rare places on earth diverse enough, large enough, and open enough to host radical experiments on relations of race and progress. We can, and should be, an early adopter of the mindsets and practices that will become common place generations from now. Why not us? Why not now?
Of course as Rock points out in his piece, change in society and culture is really, really, really slow when compared to the span of a single lifetime. Hell, in that context it’s downright glacial.
But I intend to live my life in such a way that I contribute positively to moving the mountain, if only an inch, in the right direction. Maybe my children’s children’s children’s children might finally live in something resembling a post-racial world. But it all starts with individual people and individual acts. And the acts start with the thoughts that we choose to let enter our minds, thoughts refined by learning, taking in information, having discussions and thinking critically about the world.
At least, that’s my perspective.
What say you?
* steps off soapbox *