As hundreds of thousands continue to protest in the wake of George Floyd’s death, America’s latest racial flashpoint has moved beyond just policing and into more complicated areas. In recent conversations, some friends dismissed the notion of “systemic” or “institutional” racism. One declared that only individuals can be racist. Another asserted that systemic racism hadn’t existed in America since 1964 (the passing of the Civil Rights Act).

It’s a complicated topic, but a brief trip down memory lane — to, of all places, a 1983 David Bowie MTV interview — helps explain how systemic racism can play out.

Bowie had been a face of the early “I want my MTV” promotional campaign and during the exchange, it becomes easy to forget who is interviewing whom: Bowie asks VJ Mark Goodman why the station didn’t play more videos by black artists. Defensively, Goodman tries to explain programming.

“We have to try and do not just what we think New York and Los Angeles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest, pick some town in the Midwest that will be scared to death by Prince (who we’re playing) or a string of black faces and black music.”

“That’s very interesting; isn’t that interesting?” Bowie responds. Goodman continues: “We have to play the music that an entire country is going to like.” Falling back into the then-official reason MTV used for not playing black artists (it’s a “rock ‘n’ roll” station), Goodman wonders what a group like the Isley Brothers or Spinners would mean to a 17-year-old.

Bowie seizes on that notion and ask, “I can tell you what the Isley Bros or Marvin Gaye mean to a black 17-year-old — and surely he’s part of America as well?” It’s a jarring question and Goodman agrees.

Bowie calls Goodman’s viewpoint “rampant” in American media and asks, “Should it not be the challenge to try and make the media far more integrated, especially, if anything, in musical terms?” Goodman’s example that that is happening: He notes that MTV was now playing more white groups — that have a black sound!

The look on Bowie’s face is priceless.

Ironically, within six weeks of this exchange, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” would be ubiquitous on MTV. Whether an overnight conversion or — as the story goes — the result of Jackson’s record label threatening to pull all its videos unless MTV started playing him, nothing would ever be the same.

Even so, the nearly 40-year-old clip helps explain systemic racism. Goodman would never consider himself racist. Nonetheless, he admits that decisions were made to intentionally exclude videos by black artists — due to the perceived existence of racist beliefs somewhere. They could be as close as Poughkeepsie or as far as “some town in the Midwest” with residents who are scared of “black faces.”As we would say today, this is saying the quiet part out loud. An institution (corporation), acting in its financial self-interest, uses the existence of racism as its rationale.

Famed comic book writer and editor Jim Shooter, who broke into the medium as a 13-year-old, tried to introduce a black character into DC’s Legion of Superheroes (which had green, orange and other-hued beings) in 1965. His editor shut it down, from fears that Southern wholesalers would reject that and refuse all other DC comics. Indeed, this fear supposedly kept DC from even putting a black character on a cover for years. Point being, once you get enough individuals or “institutions” (independently) acting in a way that is exclusionary to those of another race — not because that individual or institution might be racist but because of an assumption that racism elsewhere will have a deleterious impact on that organization’s bottom line — well, that’s one great example of systemic racism. And, of course, to an individual losing an opportunity, job or house, it matters little whether it was due to racism or fear of racism. The result is the same.

Yes, 1965 was 55 years ago (and 1983 was 37 years ago). Today’s culture is far more diverse. But go to the end of the interview. Goodman discusses differences in eras: “It’s not like it was in ‘67, when you’d say, ‘I’m not into that, but you are and that’s cool.’ Now, it’s, ‘You’re into that? I don’t like YOU.’ And that’s scary.”

Want to know what’s really scary? With contemporary examples of systemic racism abounding, how perfectly Goodman’s words fit 2020’s temperament.


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