I Was Raised on Spike Lee Joints, But He’s Doing More Harm Than Good

Like Bill Cosby before him, Spike Lee is disturbed to see a black cultural space he once loved headed toward extinction. But his tirade felt about a decade late.

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Director Spike Lee sits in his seat prior to a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden in New York City, April 20, 2013.

I have a theory about Spike’s race rant and it starts with the New York Knicks. I know it sounds outrageous but hear me out. After winning their division and making a promising playoff run last year, they’ve taken two, maybe three giant steps back into laughingstock land. They’ve been bedeviled by injuries and on the wrong end of more close games than even the law of averages can explain. To make matters worse their starting point guard — arguably the worst one in the league — is facing a gun charge, and their franchise player may very well decide to opt out of his contract this summer. I won’t even get into the salary and draft situation. Suffice it to say, as bad as the Knicks are now this may only be the beginning.

Now, in case you didn’t know — or didn’t care to know — Spike Lee is more than just the team’s number one celebrity fan. How many fans can say they played a starring role in a 30 for 30 film about one of the greatest sports rivalries of the 1990s or participated in the team’s official free agent recruitment campaign four years ago or was appointed an unofficial ambassador during last year’s Brooklyn Nets welcome tour. Spike is as much a fixture at Madison Square Garden as Carmelo Anthony and gets more camera time than the Knicks City Dancers, who I hear have been all-but banished.

Why is this relevant? Because I have to believe  that the Knicks’ sorry season is the the real reason one of my cultural heroes blew his fuse. It’s the most plausible explanation I can come up with — so until I hear otherwise I’m going with it.

Let’s get one thing clear: Everything Spike said is common knowledge in 2014. I’m part of social media group made up of 20-odd college-educated black men in their 30s and 40s scattered across the United States, and frankly we have deeper conversations about race on a random Wednesday afternoon. This isn’t to criticize Spike as much as it is to suggest that my friends and I are experiencing the reality of urban displacement firsthand. In fact, anyone who lives in the vicinity of a “vibrant” or “revitalized” community has stood in the crossroads of the old and new at some point and felt a twinge of guilt.

It’s impossible to live in an “up and coming” or already arrived neighborhood and not wonder where all of the people who lived there went or why it got so run down in the first place. We all know perfectly well that income and wealth disparities rooted in racial discrimination and bias persist in our society, and that those disparities determine who can afford to live where,  send their children to good schools, and influence government agencies to enforce the law. We also know with certainty that the real-estate industry considers whiteness the gold standard. Yet we all simply tolerate this as an ungovernable consequence of the free market. At most, Spike used his pulpit to unsettle all the urban enthusiasts committed to saving the underprivileged and the environment who are yet perfectly content to benefit from a real estate status quo that regards the presence of too many black people as bad business.

And maybe that was his point. I can write articles about the contradictions of urban revitalization and the need for economic justice until my pen runs dry and a few people will tweet it. He lobs a string of f-bombs at a lecture to express a similar sentiment and I wake up to the local news anchors up in arms about it. Why is no one similarly offended by people being priced out of their neighborhoods by greedy landlords? Why is no one even remotely pissed off by housing discrimination (which still goes on, by the way)?

In a way, I was actually a little embarrassed for Spike when I watched the video. His tirade felt a decade late and a class analysis short. It reminded me of Bill Cosby‘s unfortunate crusade against certain elements of black culture. If you recall, a few years back Cosby, another of my childhood heroes, started lecturing poor black folks about how to live their lives. Like Spike, he was coming from a place of deep love for black people and a desire to see black culture thrive. Like Spike, he completely neglected a structural analysis of the arrangements that produce and reproduce inequality. And, like Spike, he probably did more damage than good to himself and his cause.

Yet, if you think about it, fear is the underlying thread connecting both of their campaigns. In their own way, they both see the black cultures and spaces that they once knew headed toward extinction and have lashed out in protest. Cosby blames it on people within the community who don’t respect their own history enough to pull up their pants and get an education. Spike blames it on people entering the community who don’t respect the existing culture enough to learn the learn its history.

Crudely articulated or not, Cosby and Lee are both asking questions that are vital and unique to this moment in time. As America “tans,” what will be the role of black cultural identity? After all of the struggle to get here, who will fight to maintain its presence? Who will tell its stories and carry on its traditions? It’s a question that last month’s New York Times spread on Howard University’s cloudy financial picture asked as well. The article wondered how struggling black colleges would continue to survive with tighter budgets, stricter federal aid requirements, and more competition from elite institutions for top students. Others have simply wondered whether so many — there are 106 — are even necessary.

If this is the discussion that Spike ultimately hopes to provoke — and, for the record, I do believe that it is in my heart of hearts — then I’m willing to see him through this rocky chapter. I was raised on Spike Lee joints. His early films were the defining events of my middle and high school years. I credit him for helping me love who I am and where I come, for wanting to go to college, and for providing a nuanced, complex, and candid perspective on contemporary American race relations that, frankly, I have yet to see surpassed on the screen. For that he’s earned the benefit of the doubt from me. And probably from you, too.

Dax-Devlon Ross is the author of five books, a contributing writer for Next City Magazine and a nonprofit education consultant. You can find him at daxdevlonross.com.