Performative activism, MLK and the BET Awards: A look back at the week in race and culture

(CNN)This is going to turn into CNN's weekly newsletter about race, culture and their intersections. Created by Leah Asmelash and Brandon Tensley, this newsletter hopes to offer a window into how history can, and should, inform people's lives.

But this isn't a dry history textbook. Our aim is to help readers engage in the challenging conversations on race by introducing them to more contemporary pieces of culture that will entertain and illuminate as much as they educate and inform.
For this week, we highlight Hulu removing a supposed blackface episode, revisit Martin Luther King Jr.'s final essay and take a look at the BET Awards, which were exactly what we needed.

This week in culture

    Leah: Did you hear about Hulu pulling that episode of "The Golden Girls," with "blackface"? Any thoughts?
    Brandon: Yes! I did hear about that -- and I think that it's BANANAS.
    L: OK, explain! So many TV shows have been doing this. What makes GG different?
    B: For one, in that particular GG episode, the characters -- Rose and Blanche -- aren't actually in blackface. They're wearing mud masks and freak out because they think that somebody might mistake the masks for blackface. The episode is about white anxiety when it comes to race.
    Hulu's decision seems like a reflexive one instead of a rigorous one that might prod audiences to think more deeply about race, or about the enduring impact and influence of cultural artifacts.
    L: Right! It just feels like Hulu missed the point? They're pulling the episode because they think that it'll get backlash, without doing any real grappling with the issue. Kind of like ... the NBA saying that it will paint Black Lives Matter on its courts?
    B: Lordt. Yeah, I sort of rolled my eyes when I read that announcement. It's not that visible signs of solidarity aren't important. It's that, too often, that's where support for a marginalized community ends -- with a cute gesture. I'm curious to see if the NBA, which historically has been a very activist-minded organization, supports the Black Lives Matter movement in other, more substantial ways. But what are your thoughts?
    L: I agree. So much of this moment feels super performative to me. Some NBA players have asked not to resume the season in light of the protests, and yet the commissioner is forging ahead -- ignoring these complaints (presumably because of money). There's also a lot of dark irony in the fact that the majority-Black NBA will be exposing its players to the coronavirus on courts that literally say that their lives matter. It's like the NBA is activist-y when it suits it. Kind of like how that Houston realtor group said that it'd stop using the phrase "master" in reference to bedrooms and bathrooms, when that's not really the main problem people are worried about.
    B: Are there any other recent examples that jump out at you as cringey?
    L: WHERE TO BEGIN. I'm a sports fan, so I keep going back to the Washington NFL team, which is quite literally named after a Native slur. On Black Out Tuesday, they released their little statement saying that Black Lives Matter, but if they truly believed that Black lives matter, they should believe that Native lives matter, too. Which makes me think: How can you say BLM when your name is a slur? One doesn't match the other.
    B: My pessimistic takeaway from all this is that these sorts of moves are more about protecting brands than about supporting lives. Show is nice. Substance is better. As so many people have been saying, this moment feels different. Hopefully the responses from organizations will be different, too.

    'A Testament of Hope'

    If you think that the ongoing protests are just about police killing Black men and women, you're missing the point. They're about so much more: about ending mass incarceration, about investing in housing programs. You can't separate one from the other.
    A good place to start to understand how everything is interconnected is with this essay from Martin Luther King Jr., "A Testament of Hope," which made the same point in 1968. Because, alas, we've been fighting the same fight for more than half a century.
    "The black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes," King wrote. "It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws -- racism, poverty, militarism and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society."
    In addition to revealing the radical dimensions of a civil rights icon who's often flattened to his non-violence mantra, the essay helps us to understand why the current Black Lives Matter protests, fueled by years of organizing, feel so impactful.
    Following the police killing of George Floyd in May, demonstrators haven't just been condemning the latest manifestation of American racism; they've been aiming at, to use King's own words, the very roots of social control. They're aware that advocating for Black Americans can't be teased apart from, say, ending police militarization, or from investing in economic justice broadly. King reminds us that it's here, in this expansive vision of liberation, where hope lies -- where the most momentous change starts.

    Recommended for your eyes and ears

    For the last week, we've had Beyoncé's "Black Parade" on repeat. It's not just because it's a defiant celebration of Blackness (that's expected from Beyoncé). It's also because every listen is a revelation. Each reference -- to a Baobab tree, to an ankh charm -- sends you on a journey to learn more (if you don't already know) or to appreciate (if you do).
    If you're interested in the rigorous study of race, you're hopefully already familiar with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. For The New York Times Magazine, she wrote a cover story, "It Is Time for Reparations," about how it's "the lack of wealth that has been a defining feature of Black life since the end of slavery."
    It's the sort of long read that will make you take the long view of the moment we're in.
    The latest season of Slate's Slow Burn podcast charts the rise and reign of David Duke, a white supremacist who became a cultural force in the 1980s and '90s. But his influence isn't relegated to the past.
    The power of this podcast is that it goes deep into how his ideas continue to cast a heavy shadow over politics today.
    And definitely check out Don Lemon's new CNN podcast "Silence is Not an Option," on which Don digs "deep into the reality of being Black and Brown in America, and explore what you can do to help find a path forward."

      Around the office

      CNN's Lisa Respers France covered the BET Awards on Sunday and had this to say about why the ceremony was particularly poignant this year: "The BET Awards have always showcased Black America's entertainment and culture, but, amid a global pandemic and racial justice movement, this year was different. ... Opening with a rousing remix of the Public Enemy hit 'Fight the Power' and ending with a moving rendition of 'Something Has to Break' from gospel artists Kierra Sheard and Karen Clark-Sheard, the BET Awards hit a note for every mood suited to the times in which we are living."