By T. Jamal Smith, WHMG TV
Movies and television shows that glamorize the grittiness of the street are billed as raw, edgy, and uncensored. Shows like The Wire, are critically acclaimed because it gives people who have never seen this type of activity an up close and personal glimpse into the lifestyle. That lifestyle is entertainment for those folks who are sitting back on their couches watching this show in high definition. The unfortunate part, is a show like The Wire, is reality for many inner city residents.
Things happen in the inner city and lower income sections of society that are unfortunate and unconscionable. Many people don’t want to see it. I often hear people say that they don’t watch the news because it’s too depressing. That statement is similar to the old adage of “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound.” Well of course it does, just like the streets. Whether you want to recognize the problems that go on in inner cities or not, they do exist.
That brings me to Michael Vick. Michael Vick was born in Newport News, Virginia, an area located in the lower eastern portion of Virginia known as Tidewater. Often times, our own stereotypes lead us to believe certain things like, Virginia is country or it’s no “hood” in Virginia or even “Virginia is The Commonwealth, no way.” Well that’s not exactly true. Just because Newport News is less than an hour away from the waterfront of Virginia Beach and it is located in the Commonwealth of Virginia, it’s not exempt from the social problems that plague many American cities. For those who don’t know, Newport News is affectionately known as Bad News. Certainly this is no badge of honor, but it is an indication of the history of problems in this town.
With that, certain cultures are developed and exist. Here’s a short example and quick history lesson for some of you who will continue to have a hard time to grasp this: There is a basic culture of distrust between the police and urban communities. This theory has been developed over a period of time. It wasn’t too long ago that police and police dogs were used as weapons against black people in the inner cities. Michael Vick is in his early 30’s (age) and let’s make the safe assumption that his mother is in her 50’s. Obviously, she was alive and around in the 1960’s when atrocities like this were taking place. This is just a small example of how culture is formed. I will spare the history lesson of public housing or projects, where many underprivileged blacks were housed. Again, this is just a brief lesson in history and culture.
Michael Vick saw things growing up that no one should have to. Unfortunately, this was the reality he lived. Certain events that occurred in these communities were socially acceptable. It’s common place in the inner city to see the fire hydrants open on extremely hot days. In the suburbs, this is taboo. Most pools available to inner city youth are publically operated and are among the first closures during fiscal crises. Milk crates on telephone poles were sometimes the only hoop available for inner city youth to play basketball. Many in suburbia think this looks tacky and terrible and are the first to call the authorities to have them removed, when this is a culture.
All of this to lead up to dog fighting. Dog fighting is an unfortunate culture that exists in mainly minority communities. Pit bulls have been deemed aggressive and have been outlawed in several towns. It’s common knowledge that these dogs are normally “put down” when they are picked up by animal control. Michael Vick came up in a culture where this act was accepted. No one is saying its right, but it’s a reason he didn’t think it was such a big deal. Animal rights activists, conservatives, suburbanites, and others have demonized Michael Vick since the allegations and his subsequent conviction on dog fighting. So much so, many wanted him banned from football.
Vick has been more apologetic than most that have been convicted of a crime and served time for it; however, Vick is still being punished. He recently received a new contract with the Philadelphia Eagles and that contract extension is worth $100 million. Vick is now the first NFL player ever to receive two $100 million contracts. Talk radio was buzzing after the announcement of this contract extension. Much of it had absolutely nothing to do with his abilities to play football, the sport that’s paying him, but everything to do with his conviction on dog fighting. These same people who may be champions of the Constitution and the Bible now completely disregard the fact that he paid his debt to society and asked for forgiveness. Will we ever forgive Michael Vick? Is he now a demon that will never have another opportunity?
There are plenty of people worse than Michael Vick. Actually I should say there are many people that have done worse things than Michael Vick. I offer a correction to that statement because many of you, who choose to judge him personally, don’t know him. He could be a great guy that did something wrong, right? Why did the late Senator, Ted Kennedy get a second chance at life. He fled the scene of an accident where young Mary Jo Kopechne died. Ted Kennedy went on to become one of the most respected U.S. Senators of his time. How about Bernie Madoff? Sure he’s in jail and never coming out, but his family still has millions of dollars that were stolen from hundreds and thousands of families. This guy did some really bad things that affected people that he never met. Yet, he isn’t the top story, nor is his family that will reap the benefits for decades and centuries to come because of his criminal acts.
What about Charlie Sheen? Did you know that he was the highest paid actor on television? This is a guy who has admitted to being on cocaine binges so bad that he didn’t have a clue where he was or what he was doing. Now all he’s doing is winning!
Then there’s Robert Downey Jr., an actor that we all probably enjoy. He’s another guy whose cocaine and alcohol binges were so shocking that we can’t believe that he’s alive.
These personality flaws or personal issues however didn’t hinder them from providing the service that they signed up for and that was to entertain us. They fought back to get their second, third, fourth, etc…chances. Why is it so difficult for us to accept Mike Vick? He’s giving us what we want, exciting football and athletic ability that comes once a generation. That’s what makes Mike Vick, Mike Vick! But he can’t shake his evils like others have and one can only speculate as to why.
But this debate is all about culture. In certain cultures, it’s perfectly normal to take a nine year old girl out hunting for black bears. Anyone ever heard the name Jessica Scott? If you doubt me, you can Google it. The news reporters dubbed her the “Black Bear Slayer” in a positive light. She’s a 12 year old from Boonesville, Arkansas who has killed three black bears; Very impressive. Even more impressive is the fact that she killed her first black bear at age nine and she used a cross bow! I’d be willing to bet if we went to the neighborhood Mike Vick is from in Newport News and told them this story, they would find it appalling or at least different to say the least. No, she doesn’t have a $100 million dollar contract, but what does that have to do with anything? This is a sport that exists within the culture in which she was raised. It’s offensive to some, but this young lady will not be doomed for the rest of her life. Why, because the culture she is in is acceptable.
For some reason or another, and you can speculate why, society has chosen what is socially acceptable and what isn’t. It’s cute that a nine year old can kill a black bear with a bow, but on the other hand it’s tragic, evil, and monstrous that Mike Vick was engaged in dog fighting. Deer hunting is a popular “sport.” You can find it on television at any given time. But that’s ok? Mike Vick, a guy who made it out of the troubled neighborhoods of Bad News, Virginia participated in something society finds inhumane. He broke the law doing what he did. He went to jail for it. He lost everything he had because of it. Then, like we as Americans should applaud, he conquered his past and recovered. He came back to be better than ever. Vick recognized what he did was wrong and he has done everything he could possibly do for other human beings to forgive him yet they still judge his every move and criticize his employer that just gave a young man another chance at life. Will Mike Vick ever have the opportunity Ted Kennedy had, which is right his wrong?
A personal story
I once took a group of approximately 40 business, political and community leaders on a tour of an inner city low income area. During the tour, which was on a coach bus, I narrated the problems that existed in the community. The spectators looked out of the large glass tinted panes of the bus windows with their jaws dropped to the ground. They were shocked that during the day, so many young children were out on the streets. They couldn’t believe the condition of some of the houses. I tried to paint as vivid a picture as I could so they could grasp some type of idea of the conditions that some of these folks lived in. This of course was just a small segment of a bigger problem. I told them some of the programs we were doing in the community to help the young people. They were amazed. One of the spectators asked me about the rumor of dog fighting in the neighborhood and without hesitation I told them “Yes, it goes on.” This of course was before MikeVick’s situation. After the tour, which lasted about 45 minutes, they thanked me for opening their eyes. This program that they were apart of lasted for over nine months. They met hundreds of influential people. At the end of their program, they selected a person to receive their coveted Community Trustee Award. They selected me. It’s just like I mentioned in the beginning, people from outside of these communities are entertained by what they see and hear. During my acceptance speech I told them that what they witnessed was real life. I told them that I appreciated the award, but it would mean more to me if they stepped out of their comfort zones in suburbia and understand what inner city and low income people face. I asked the same of the many critics of Mike Vick. He’s a man that made a mistake based on a culture that the masses have never taken the time to understand. He has triumphed back, but yet he is ridiculed at each passing moment.
Before you criticize and demonize, learn a little something about culture. It may help you understand, just a little bit, of where we all come from.