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Michael K. Fauntroy, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, last week stumbled into an online debate with Roland Martin, a prominent and popular multimedia journalist, about the recent decision to remove Martin from CNN’s lineup of contracted pundits.
The exchanges between Fauntroy and Martin, both of whom are black and tilt toward progressive politics, didn’t rise to the level of the more famous debates between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, who disagreed nearly a century ago on the strategies for black social and economic uplift. Far from it. The Fauntroy-Martin dust-up was, by comparison, an unpleasant game of the dozens played largely on Twitter that apparently left all parties involved feeling unsatisfied and defamed.
It all began following the news that CNN was dumping Martin from its lineup of contracted pundits. Martin is a popular talking head with many black viewers, partly because of his strong and unapologetic black point of view and partly because he’s one of the few black personalities to regularly appear on those shows. Martin’s fans didn’t take kindly to the news from CNN and took to web-based forums to complain. The National Association of Black Journalists reacted to the CNN decision by naming Martin its 2013 Journalist of the Year.
Fauntroy, on the other hand, found all the laurels a bit too much, and he said so on his personal blog. In a post titled “Stop Shedding Tears for Roland Martin,” Fauntroy decried the attention being heaped on Martin and other television pundits who, he contended, lack expertise in politics or government:
Let’s resist the urge to make Roland Martin out to be some wrongly aggrieved talking head. He is a marginally knowledgeable loudmouth who was more sizzle than steak. No academic training in politics and government. No significant campaign experience. No experience as a political reporter at a major media outlet; he wrote opinion pieces at CNN. He is lucky to have had his turn. So, to those who are shedding tears following the announcement of his departure from CNN: your time would be better spent applying pressure to the cable networks to put minorities on the air who actually know something about politics and government.
In a rejoinder, Martin tweeted that, “I ought to send @MKFauntroy a LONG list of the black political scientists I’ve had on @tvonetv. Sounds like he’s mad he hasn’t been on! LOL.”
Fauntroy’s comments unleashed additional Twitter bile, mostly directed at him for saying such a thing in so harsh and public a manner about a fellow black man. Someone with the Twitter handle “@EsonBlack” asked Fauntroy, “[W]hy did you feel the need 2 write an article that bashes @rolandmartin credentials? What do u really gain out of it?” Another Twitter user with the handle @Rotankwot was more direct, deriding Fauntroy as a “hater with a PhD in political science.”
Web-based spats tend to be brief flare-ups that are ridiculously ugly and leave singed feelings that can last a lifetime. For that reason—along with the fact that I know and consider both Fauntroy and Martin friends—I was initially reluctant to wade into their fouled waters. Best to let them hash it out, keypad to keypad, while I stood on the sidelines and held their coats.
But as the war of tweets continued, I realized a larger and more serious point was going unnoticed: Why can’t black folks disagree in public and keep it civil?
Of course, black folks aren’t alone in their hyperbolic debates—have you noticed the rancor in Congress lately? Still, history suggests that when black people argue amongst themselves, the court of public opinion feels the need to support one side and vilify the other. Such was the case with Du Bois and Washington. And with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X; the former famously believed ardently in nonviolence, while the latter subscribed to a “by any means necessary” philosophy.
Neither Fauntroy nor Martin is a member of the vaunted pantheon of black icons, yet they’ve set themselves up as antagonists. To be fair, Fauntroy apologized for the “gratuitous and unnecessarily harsh” personal attack on Martin, but the damage is already done. As best as I can tell, Fauntroy and Martin won’t be exchanging Christmas cards, and I certainly won’t be inviting them to the same dinner party.
That’s the tragedy of it all: Both of them are smart, strong-voiced black men who ought to command public attention. That they disagree isn’t nearly as important as the fact that they both have something to say that the other should hear and respect. The same thing applies to any of us who might overhear a conversation between the two of them—or, indeed, any two others in this country.
A healthy discussion of divergent points of view is what makes a civil society civil. The Twitter-sphere would do well to remember that.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.
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