by Davey D
Ever since the George Zimmerman verdict was read finding him “not guilty” and justice for a murdered Trayvon Martin was denied, there’s been a nationwide outcry for us as a country to sit down and have a serious conversation about race. This directive was underscored the week before last when President Obama gave his “off the cuff chat” about Trayvon. Whether we agree with the president and his policies or not, part of what he noted was true. He encouraged us to have these conversations on race locally at home, amongst friends, at church and amongst our colleagues at work.
For the past week, we at KPFA have been doing a number of shows highlighting not only the need to talk about race, but also highlighting the work of racial justice leaders. Many have been doing the work long before Obama’s remarks or this verdict came down. They ranged from Dr. Joy Degruy, who speaks about intergenerational trauma, to the work former KPFA programmer Donald Lacy is doing with his play “Color Struck” to the films made by local filmmaker Dr. Shakti Butler.
For those of us who consider ourselves progressive, forward thinking or revolutionary and stand in opposition to oppression, we have a responsibility to recognize that our conversation on race goes beyond the individual and deals first and foremost with what is systemic. Some call it institutional racism; others call it the system of white supremacy. Key words are “institution” and “system,” meaning they must be dismantled, and that will come when we make a commitment and create space for folks to do and continue doing the hard and necessary work.
This means that as we have this conversation on race, no one is immune or should be immune. This conversation requires constant self-reflection and examination for everyone – the police, the education system, the healthcare system and the media. Hence even right here at progressive KPFA, the conversation on race must be had.
The role of media in shaping attitudes and understandings we have of people – in particular Black people – is historic with far-reaching negative results. One could make the case, as we have done on our airwaves, that Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant before him, along with countless other victims of state violence, were killed because they were seen as less than human. Negative institutionalized depictions led to them and Black people in general being seen as animals to be contained, surveilled, policed and feared.
Again, such inhumane imagery was shaped by media, which means that if there is any place where a conversation on race must take place continuously, it is at radio and TV stations – including KPFA. This conversation we at KPFA must have on race is not about someone running around calling folks bad names. We have to look at what’s systemic.
We have to look at whether or not we are being inclusive. We have to look at whether or not we are allowing a variety of voices – in particular, a variety of Black voices – to have a seat at the table and feel like they belong.
We have to look at whether or not we as an institution are guilty of doing what has been done historically, which is play by two sets of rules – one that makes comfortable and empowers majority culture and one that punishes and disempowers Black people and other folks of color.
Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant before him, along with countless other victims of state violence, were killed because they were seen as less than human. Negative institutionalized depictions led to them and Black people in general being seen as animals to be contained, surveilled, policed and feared.
One of the purposes of this message is to raise those questions. The case around JR and his unprecedented suspension for over 20 weeks raises these important questions.
According to the reports, JR has been suspended because he talked station business on the air and said some things that were unflattering about some of the on-air folks.
First, let’s put this into context. What JR did was not the first time in the long history or recent history of this station that dirty laundry was aired and particular individuals made to feel uncomfortable. What’s “dirty laundry” to some is truth and clean sunshine to others. What do I mean by that?
Well, here at KPFA, in the past, when so-called dirty laundry was aired on numerous occasions, it was cheered, encouraged and deemed an important line in the sand around free speech.
People at KPFA aired dirty laundry when there were attempts to take over the station back in 1999.
Over the years, dirty laundry was aired when unpopular managerial figures were brought in.
Just two months ago I myself was invited to be on the airwaves of our sister station WPFW to talk about the recent moves by them in Washington, D.C., to move their studios inside the radio home of Clear Channel. Folks were livid. They consider Clear Channel to be the evil empire, yet this is what management wanted.
Hence there were a number of hosts at WPFW who took to the airwaves and let it all hang out. The show that I was on lasted over an hour with callers talking about how messed up things were. That was dirty laundry. But it was dirty laundry everyone – Black, white, Brown etc. – could agree with, so there was no issue. There were no suspensions.
But when dirty laundry is aired about racism and unbalanced practices resulting in people made to feel uncomfortable or toes stepped on, then it’s a problem. When that happens, a second set of rules gets applied. That’s unfair. That’s got to change, that’s why we are having a conversation on race in front of this media institution.
This is not about whether or not someone likes JR or agrees or disagrees with his political position on issues. This is about making sure everyone plays by the same set of rules.
Two years ago folks in KPFA came on the air and talked about the management, after they decided to remove the popular Morning Show and make cuts to the News Department. The public was alerted to what was deemed an unfair move and wrongdoing. Some people talked about this on air, others had it included as news items to be read along with other issues of the day. When that happened, many cheered.
That was called being transparent. That was celebrated for informing our listeners and giving them the opportunity to send in donations or not send in donations. At the time many opted to hold on to their money, resulting in the station having financial problems.
When dirty laundry is aired about racism, then it’s a problem. When that happens, a second set of rules gets applied. That’s unfair. That’s got to change, that’s why we are having a conversation on race in front of this media institution.
Two years later when JR makes a public appeal about what he sees as wrongdoing and unfair practices, it’s deemed an affront worthy of suspension by the same management that two years ago was publicly put on blast.
Things have got to change. Everyone has got to play by the same set of rules. That’s one of the first things we must do to eradicate institutional racism at KPFA.
Everyone has got to play by the same set of rules. That’s one of the first things we must do to eradicate institutional racism at KPFA.
Second point: Another thing to keep in mind is that when talking about race, we have to understand the systems of power that come into play. So if the game is rigged from the inside and one group of people have support and institutional backing and resources to highlight their grievances and further their agenda, it means that those who are disempowered and want to challenge the status quo are likely to find their concerns falling on deaf ears. The playing field evens up when folks go on the airwaves and alert the community to wrongdoing. Some call it transparency. I call it keeping it real.
Third point: We must make a commitment and find ways to include marginalized voices in the community. We try to do that at Hard Knock, but we by no means are even near being able to accommodate and meet the demands that are out there.
JR and his show helped open additional doors. He’s been helping add additional seats. He’s been helping make sure those we missed or may have overlooked have access and get a seat at the table. This is important.
Hard Knock radio was an important first step at KPFA. Ten years later, after years of institutional resistance to change, we got the Morning Mix. JR was a part of that, was doing great work and bringing new voices to the forefront. To have him suspended for 20 weeks is not only about having the individual gone, but also the community he holds it down for.
At KPFA, we as a station should be growing, not shrinking down. We as a station should be adding more voices – especially as we have this Trayvon Martin case, a hunger strike inside the California prisons and increased incidents of police terrorism.
JR was doing great work and bringing new voices to the forefront. To have him suspended for 20 weeks is not only about having the individual gone, but also the community he holds it down for.
More space and airtime is needed to highlight the voices and perspectives of those most afflicted. JR has played a key role in doing that and must be supported. It’s time he be allowed back on the airwaves. It’s time we draw up a new set of rules that are transparent and fair to all.
Listen to Davey D on Hard Knock Radio Monday-Friday at 4 p.m. and his Morning Mix show every Tuesday at 8 a.m. on KPFA 94.1 FM or kpfa.org. He can be reached at email@example.com. Visit his website, daveyd.com, and his blog, Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner.