How Marshall Henderson Gets Away With Being Marshall Henderson (Participation)

How Marshall Henderson Gets Away With Being Marshall Henderson

On Sunday night, we said goodbye to Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson, college basketball’s most exciting troll, a sort of human “u mad bro?” who did everything to antagonize his opponents short of popping motorcycle wheelies at halfcourt with their girlfriends riding pillion. He and the 12th-seeded Rebels lost a heartbreaker to 13th-seeded La Salle, 76-74, and when the buzzer sounded, Henderson stalked off the court with two middle fingers raised.

Later, radio host Danny Parkins asked him for an explanation. Henderson told him, “Someone yelled that my sister is a whore and said something about cocaine.”

The incident occasioned some tsk-tsking here and there, but by that point it’d been well established that Henderson was a temperamental figure—”outspoken,” as CBS put it—and the two middle fingers seemed perfectly in character. The lines had been drawn on Henderson. You either love him or you hate him. We’d already reached the “Marshall being Marshall” stage of raffish sports anti-heroism, improbably.

But then, everything about Marshall Henderson is improbable. He messes with any racially essentialist expectations of what a white basketball player is supposed to be. He’s an incessant shit-talker who tosses up 30-footers, rarely passes, and has a conspicuous lack of “hustle” stats. He tokes an invisible joint after made three-pointers. He drinks a lot, even during the NCAA tournament. He tweets photos of himself blacked out or with groupies, and calls them hoes. He has a rap sheet. He’s a coach’s kid with a known history of clashing with coaches. Marshall Henderson by all rights shouldn’t exist. And if he were a black athlete, he wouldn’t—not as far as big-time basketball is concerned.

Henderson is consciously at odds with the prototype. Every team has a little white guy who can shoot threes,” he told one interviewer (incidentally, his grandfather, Lonnie, is a full-blooded Choctaw). “I’m trying to make a difference.” Nor is he Aaron Craft, a better player on a better Ohio State team who best embodies the white-guy type—unassuming, outwardly humble, fundamentally sound. After his game-winning three against Iowa State on Saturday, Craft joked in his postgame presser that instead of dreaming of big shots as a kid, he fantasized about taking last-second offensive charges. He then left, saying that he had to study for an organic chemistry test. The kid doesn’t have to do any maneuvering. He’s exactly what we expect him to be.

“Craft is perfect. He plays the right position. He plays with the right amount of effort,” CBS Sports’s Gregg Doyel wrote the other day, wondering why Henderson was so seemingly beloved. Then Doyel dropped the mask entirely. “And,” he continued, writing about Craft, “he has the right demographics. Why those demographics elicit such dislike, I can’t say. But earnest Aaron Craft is the one we’re going to hate.”

But basketball is complicated. Craft isn’t perfect. He has a weird, canted little flick of a jump shot, and he can’t really create his own offense. Those are fundamentals, too, and so is Henderson’s ability to tear around screens and jack 11 three-pointers a game in the face of game plans expressly designed to chase him off the perimeter. Craft is no more fundamentally sound than Henderson and no less determined to humiliate his opponents (if you’ve watched him play defense or try to thread a pass between a guy’s legs, you know this to be true); he’s just better at the valorized, “white” aspects of the game.

Doyel’s column, while seemingly harsh, was only making a point about etiquette, and it was ultimately forgiving. “Kid, I’ve been you,” Doyel wrote. It’s hard to think of him offering the same sort of empathy to, say, LSU’s Honey Badger.

In fact, keep Tyrann Mathieu in mind when you read about Henderson’s past. Henderson was a good student and highly rated shooting guard playing in his home state of Texas under his father, Willie. He was courted by schools like Gonzaga, Notre Dame, and Stanford his senior year but ultimately chose Utah. Before graduating in 2009, though, Henderson attempted to purchase $800 of marijuana with counterfeit money, and exchange a further $100 of the fake cash for real currency.

During his tumultuous freshman year, which included a one-game suspension for sucker-punching a BYU player, the Secret Service came knocking.

“They came to Utah and they were like, ‘Blah and blah and we got this and surveillance camera,’ and I threw up,” Henderson told the Clarion-Ledger. “That was my first thing, because I thought I was done for.”

He wasn’t. In 2010, Henderson was charged with misdemeanor forgery in the incident, but he dodged federal court and received a two-year probation. That spring, Henderson also decided to transfer, saying, wonderfully, that coach Jim Boylen’s rules didn’t mesh with his “individualism.”

From there he went to Texas Tech, where he redshirted then transferred again without ever playing a game. He spent his third year destroying junior college basketball at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, leading the team on a 36-0 national championship run. Finally, he transferred to his third (and likely final) Division I program, Ole Miss. Just last year, he spent 25 days in jail for violating his probation after a drug test found traces of cocaine, pot, and alcohol in his system.

Chances are, you didn’t know much, if any, of this. Until Saturday, when sportswriter Bomani Jones pointed it out on his Twitter account, Marshall Henderson’s Wikipedia page didn’t even mention his run-ins with the law. And Sunday’s broadcast team of Marv Albert, Steve Kerr, and Craig Sager played the usual word games in order to skirt around his rap sheet. They called Henderson “flamboyant,” “fiery,” “emotional,” and “magnetic”; they mentioned his past only once, when Albert said, vaguely, “He was put on probation, and went to jail for a month.” There was no mention of the blow or the pot or the funny money. In print, Henderson might get the occasional slap on the wrist from the likes of Doyel and Seth Davis, who called his showboating “classless” back in January, but Henderson’s personal history sits apart from the story of his play, as it should, and as it rarely does for black players who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. No one’s calling Henderson a thug or a gangster. He’s “paid his dues,” some say. “He had to find the right program,” as Kerr said on Sunday. He’s still young. He’s gotten his shit together. He’s proven that he’s capable of change.

Let’s imagine the counterfactuals: If Henderson were black, the arrest alone likely would have ended his NCAA career. An attempt to pick up 50-plus grams of marijuana using fake currency isn’t exactly a mere youthful transgression. Would a black 18-year-old have gotten off with just probation? Would he have gotten another chance to play Division I ball?

If that hadn’t killed his career, wouldn’t the punch and the subsequent falling out with his head coach have sealed the deal? He’d have been another selfish hothead, a punk, and if somehow he found another D1 program to take him in, his subsequent failed drug test and his month in jail would’ve ensured he’d go down in the ledger as a druggie and criminal, too. Not worth the trouble, they’d say.

We can get a good idea how this would’ve played out from Ole Miss itself. In January 2012, Rebels coach Andy Kennedy dismissed two players from the team—leading scorer Dundrecous Nelson, and a freshman named Jamal Jones, both of them black—following Nelson’s arrest on charges of possessing drug paraphernalia. Nelson and Jones had been caught smoking weed, according to the cops.

“It’s a shame, really,” Kennedy said. “It’s a shame. There’s a process that I don’t feel like is needed to get into, but you get to the point of no return. Obviously the most severe thing you can do is dismiss someone from your program and that’s where we are.”

That same semester, Ole Miss announced that Henderson would be joining the team. “Marshall is an outstanding shooter who will immediately bring some much-needed scoring to our backcourt,” Kennedy said.

Or compare the refreshingly gentle handling of Henderson’s missteps with the coverage of Mathieu.

Mathieu, in case you’ve forgotten, was crowned the top defensive player in college football in 2011, like Henderson an undersized athlete getting by primarily on balls and guile. But Honey Badger was kicked off the Tigers before the 2012 season for a series of failed drug tests that found traces of marijuana in his system. He withdrew from school and went to rehab, before enrolling again at LSU later in the fall, with hopes of playing in the 2013 season. On Oct. 25, he was arrested again for possession.

What followed was a shitstorm whipped up mainly by the media, who turned a commonplace story about recreational pot smoking into a narrative about a troubled black athlete on the verge of entering a very dark wood. Sports Illustrated‘s Thayer Evans and Pete Thamel, in maybe the single dumbest piece of sportswriting last year, went so far as to compare the Honey Badger to his father, Darrin Hayes—a convicted murderer who is serving out a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole. They wrote:

If the crossroads he has arrived at — between redeeming his football career or squandering it, between old loyalties and new priorities — feels familiar to him, it should: Three decades ago his father came to the same point and washed out in a spiral of drugs and violence.

Mathieu has never done time. He’s never killed anyone. He smoked pot. Synthetic pot. Shitty pot.

Mathieu played along with the narrative. What choice did he have? He cut his trademark blond hair (standard protocol for black athletes with legal issues now), and ESPN pursued and aired a Mathieu mea culpa, in which the 2o-year-old cried and apologized for partaking in a drug already legal in two states and decriminalized in over a dozen more. “I abused myself through marijuana,” he said, through tears.

Mathieu will likely get drafted this year, but his story is already set. In five years, a decade, as long as Mathieu is in the public eye, he’ll be stuck in a state of suspended animation: the former drug user, the criminal on a path to redemption. The broadcasters won’t try to dance around the language. And right now? Not worth the trouble, they’re saying.

Even if he never rolls another blunt and turns into one of the premier defensive backs in football, Honey Badger won’t outrun that story. Henderson, however, is past the counterfeit money, the marijuana, the punch, the cocaine, the month in jail. He flipped us the bird on Sunday, but he’s already past that, too. He’s retained the kind of freedom everyone wants but only some people in public life can ever enjoy: the freedom to move on.


The Problem With White Dolls (Participation)

The Problem With White Dolls

I met my first Cabbage Patch Kid at show-and-tell in Kindergarten. Julie Jones brought in the cherubic April Lynn and passed her around. There must’ve been something slightly creepy about the way I fondled the doll’s shiny plastic head and crunchy blond ringlets because before my time was up, Julie snatched her out of my hands. It didn’t matter, I was already in love — I had to have one.

After months of constant whining, my mother finally capitulated and drove us down to Toys-R-Us. I raced toward the Cabbage Patch Kid aisle, and I distinctly remember my heart dropping when I gazed up at the rows of dolls. They were all black. I don’t remember this next part, but my mom said it was terrifying and humiliating — I apparently screamed at the top of my lungs, “I don’t want a black doll! I want one that looks like meeeeee!!”

Never mind that Cabbage Patch Kids, no matter the skin tone, looked nothing like my five-year-old self; I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have a white one. My mom recalls grabbing me and making a beeline for the exit; apologizing along the way for her terrifying child. I can only imagine how awkward it was for every person we passed.

As a white girl, my experience even at five-years-old was that dolls were supposed to look like me. As Lisa Hix explores in her excellent essay in Bitch, little girls of color in America have a very different experience. In a new documentary by Samantha M. Knowles, Why Do You Have Black Dolls?, Debbie Behan Garrett, the author of Black Dolls: A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion, speaks about the importance of black dolls.

I’m emphatic about a black child having a doll that reflects who she is,” Garrett says. “When a young child is playing with a doll, she is mimicking being a mother, and in her young, impressionable years, I want that child to understand that there’s nothing wrong with being black. If black children are force-fed that white is better, or if that’s all that they are exposed to, then they might start to think, ‘What is wrong with me?’

The need to see ourselves and our experiences reflected in the media we consume and the toys we buy is important for our sense of self. That need is only amplified for black girls, who are so often underrepresented and underserved.

On average, black kids don’t receive the same level of care — resources, food, shelter, heat, healthcare, education, safety, police protection — as white kids. Examples are everywhere. Nearly 1 in 3 black children live in food insecure households as compared 1 in 6 white kids, and the let’s not forget the racial disparity in education. Let’s talk about gun violence and black children — how they are disproportionately subjected to it, and yet it takes an act of mass violence against mostly white people for the U.S. to finally start putting some solutions on the table. School shootings are always horrific, but it’s not the full story to ignore the fact that from 2008-2009 (latest firearm injury data currently available), black children accounted for forty-five percent of all child gun deaths in the United States, despite making up only 15 percent of the child population.

All that comes down to: Black children have it tougher, and that’s a real problem in the United States. Our culture values white children above others, and we need to course correct stat; being thoughtful about the toys and media all children consume can help to impact positive change.

That’s what this is really about — whose childhood counts; who is worth investing in. That’s why a little girl with origins in the Indian subcontinent is playing with three blond Barbies and feeling “less than” should make us hang our heads in shame. Making sure kids of all colors play with these under represented dolls of color is not an empty gesture or stupid political correctness — it hits girls when their sense of self is developing. This is not conjecture; if we look back at the Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll experiments from the late 30s/early 40s, it’s clear to see that children are affected by race and the dolls they play with. These experiments were repeated more recently with similar results.

Don’t get me wrong; dolls aren’t perfect. They can represent beauty ideals that hurt girls — I’m looking at you, Barbie — but there are plenty of dolls that empower. I’m white in a racist culture, and I have all the luxury that affords me. I can buy dolls that look like me.

Moreover, the expectation is that dolls will look like me. But we need to change that expectation; white girls need to play with dolls of every color so that they can grow up to be thoughtful white women. We live in a culture that values white people and their experiences highest of all, and investing in diversifying their first interactions with media and toys can go a long way to teaching them that the world is filled with all sorts of people. It will help them develop empathy and eventually help them to understand that their experience is not the only one.

Another woman in the documentary says “You see, I think women know they’re beautiful. But when you see a doll, [you think] ‘yes I know I am because someone made enough thought to create this.’ That’s what it’s about, it’s about loving who you are.”

That’s especially important today, when a precious nine-year-old black girl can be called a cunt, and just casting an angelic black actress in a popular role is enough to send white people into racist fits.

None of us lives in some bubble where racism doesn’t affect us. My 16-month-old mixed-race niece lives with me, and I love her so much that it makes me finally understand why parents are OK with their 30-year-old kids living in the basement — I never want to not be with her. I have the privilege (for lack of a better word) to live a life that doesn’t include being a target of racist hate. I want my niece to know what that’s like, too. That’s how I know black dolls matter.

Why Black Dolls Matter [Bitch]

Out of One Gram of Marijuana, a ‘Manufactured Misdemeanor’ (Participation)

Out of One Gram of Marijuana, a ‘Manufactured Misdemeanor’

Published: March 21, 2013

For marijuana smokers in the right neighborhoods, there is no need to go out for supplies. A dealer-businessman will come right to the door, sit at the dining room table and open a box that looks as if it could be used to display herbal tea choices in restaurants. This particular case, however, is used to show varieties of cannabis — weed — and the businessman will annotate the flavor and potency of his offerings. Bought and smoked behind closed doors, the pot in such transactions has almost no risk of attracting attention from law enforcement.

That was not the system used by Joseph Griffin, then 18, one summer night in the East New York section of Brooklyn. He walked a few blocks down Herkimer Street, made a purchase and headed back to smoke it at home.

“The plainclothes officers pulled up, and they asked me where I was going,” Mr. Griffin said. “I said, ‘Home.’ They jumped out. They was patting me down. He went into my pocket and found it. Then they put the handcuffs on.”

Mr. Griffin spent the night in one jail or another, taken from the precinct station to central booking and then to the courthouse in Brooklyn. Up to that point, his case had absorbed the energy of two police officers, a desk sergeant, a clerk who processed his paperwork and fingerprints, a driver who transported him to booking, other officers to secure him in the pen awaiting his appearance, a Legal Aid Society lawyer, an assistant district attorney, a court clerk and a court reporter to transcribe the proceedings.

Also, a judge, who instantly dismissed the case.

How much pot did Mr. Griffin have in his pocket that night?

“I had a blunt,” he said.

Just one?

“Yes,” he said.

How much did it cost?

“Five dollars,” he said.

A blunt, or marijuana cigarette, contains about one gram of marijuana, about the weight of a dash of salt. Mr. Griffin had been charged with the lowest-level misdemeanor on the books, Section 221.10, Subsection 1 of the New York State Penal Code. That statute makes it a crime to burn or openly display even small amounts of marijuana.

Since Michael R. Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, no crime has been more frequently charged: more than 440,000 people have been arrested solely on this misdemeanor charge. Whites use marijuana at higher rates than other racial groups, studies have found, but are rarely accused of “openly displaying” it. Depending on the year, 85 percent to 90 percent of those facing that charge are African-American or Latino. Most are under 20.

These are called “manufactured misdemeanors” because carrying marijuana in a pocket or bag is not a crime, but a violation. In New York City, when people are either searched or told to empty their pockets, the marijuana becomes open to public display, and therefore a misdemeanor.

These arrests are a tumorous outgrowth of the stop-and-frisk practices and are now broadly recognized as scandalous. No public official defends them. Yet they remain out of control.

The police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, issued an order in September 2011 telling officers not to arrest people unless they were actually displaying the marijuana. The arrests briefly dropped, but were back in high gear for most of 2012, said Steve Banks, the lawyer in charge of the Legal Aid Society, which is now suing the city.

Every district attorney in New York City, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Bloomberg, the state sheriffs, and every other major law enforcement agency have endorsed changing the law to make it a misdemeanor only if a person were actually burning — smoking — the pot. The changes were proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Nevertheless, it became clear on Thursday that the law would not change during the meetings of the Legislature to decide a state budget.

The proposed reforms “got caught in the horse trading and political posturing,” Assemblyman Karim Camara, a Brooklyn Democrat, said. At one point, he said, the Senate Republicans offered to permit a vote on the marijuana reforms in exchange for increasing the number of bullets allowed in an ammunition magazine, to 10 from 7. “I think it’s unconscionable,” he said.

Almost all of the misdemeanor marijuana arrests are in New York City. “The way it is being viewed here is that the city should correct its problem,” State Senator Martin J. Golden, a Republican representing Brooklyn, said.

Although he does not want the state to “send the wrong signals” on a substance that is far more powerful than it was a decade ago, Mr. Golden said change appears inevitable. “I do believe if it hit the floor of the Senate, it would pass,” he said.

Racist Tweets Rock NY Fire Department (Participation)

Racist Tweets Rock NY Fire Department

The ouster of the commissioner’s son for tweeting about Jews, blacks and “Obama lovers” highlights diversity issues.

Three FDNY firefighters responding to a fire on Dec. 26, 2012 (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Late Monday, news broke that an aspiring New York firefighter would resign from the city’s fire department, where he was working as an EMT, because of racially inflammatory tweets. Making the matter even more newsworthy and shocking is that the author of the offensive tweets is the son of the city’s fire commissioner, Salvatore Cassano.

Joe Cassano’s targets included Jews, blacks and “Obama lovers.” His missives include the statement, “I like jews about as much as hitler,” and during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday he tweeted, “MLK could go kick rocks for all I care, but thanks for the time and a half today.”

He also tweeted the term “shwoog,” which is a slang term for the n-word, according to the Urban Dictionary. In addition to his father’s prominent role leading the Fire Department of New York, Cassano’s tweets drew attention because the FDNY has struggled with diversity for years.

Though the NYPD has been the subject of countless tragedies, controversies and lawsuits related to accusations of racial discrimination — from the Abner Louima case to the Amadou Diallo shooting — the FDNY has struggled in a less high-profile but significant manner as well.

According to a 2010 Village Voice cover story, “New York’s fire department may, in fact, be the whitest large institution run by a major city in the United States. Your chance of becoming a firefighter in New York if you aren’t white, Irish, or Italian, and come from a family of firefighters has traditionally been very slim.”

Just last year the city was ordered to pay $128 million to black and Latino applicants who alleged the city had used a special entrance exam to intentionally exclude them from the FDNY. Quoting from the lawsuit at the time, CNN reported, “According to the most recent census data, black residents make up 25.6 percent of New York City’s population; when this case was filed in 2007, black firefighters accounted for only 3.4 percent of the department’s force. In other words, in a city of over eight million people, and out of a force with 8,998 firefighters, there were only 303 black firefighters. This pattern of underrepresentation has remained essentially unchanged since at least the 1960s.”

The U.S. District Court judge also ruled that the city was to hire 239 black and Latinos.

The Village Voice noted that in a city in which 35 percent of the population is white, 90 percent of the fire department is white. By comparison, the NYPD is more than 16 percent black and 18 percent Latino.

The FDNY is far from alone in grappling with diversity issues. As of 2000, while just over 8 percent of the nation’s firefighters were black, and just over 8 percent were Latino, blacks made up more than 12 percent of the U.S. population, and Latinos 16 percent.

During her nomination process before she was confirmed for the Supreme Court, one of the most heavily scrutinized lower-court cases of Justice Sonia Sotomayor was a 2009 case involving allegations of reverse discrimination at the New Haven Fire Department in Connecticut. In Ricci v. DeStefano, a white firefighter sued after the results for the exams necessary for promotions within the department — an exam he passed — were thrown out. The department did so in an effort to adhere to Title VII of civil rights law, which strives to prevent conscious and calculated discrimination, as well as unintentional discrimination, and therefore requires employers to take into account the racial impact of promotion and hiring decisions. No black firefighters passed the exam.

Though Sotomayor was one of the justices who rejected the appeal of Ricci, the white firefighter, when the case went before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Ricci won.

But ultimately, testing seems to be merely a symptom of a larger problem when it comes to diversity and the FDNY. It is a career notorious for being one in which fathers help sons get jobs, brothers help brothers and uncles help nephews. Having institutional support can go a long way, in everything from applying to the FDNY to prepping for the notorious exam and simply having the necessary support network to get through it all.

Understanding this, Commissioner Cassano previously met with aspiring African-American firefighters to discuss some of the department’s diversity challenges. He didn’t know that soon his son, whom he was apparently trying to fast-track into the department like so many fire department-connected fathers before him, would emerge as one of the institution’s most high-profile diversity challenges.

To his credit, Commissioner Cassano didn’t try to pass the buck, and had this to say of his son:

“I am extremely disappointed in the comments posted online by my son Joseph, which do not reflect the values — including a respect for all people — that are held by me, my family and the FDNY. I have worked hard for many years, as have so many people in the agency, to make the FDNY more diverse and inclusive. There is no place — and I have no tolerance — for statements that would harm the good reputation we enjoy due to our honorable service to all New Yorkers.

“As a parent, this is very painful for me, but I believe my son has made the right decision [to resign],” Cassano continued. “I love him very much, and with the support and love of our entire family, we will get through this together.”

Keli Goff is The Root’s political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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The Trouble With Justin Timberlake’s Appropriation of Black Music (Participation)

The Trouble With Justin Timberlake’s Appropriation of Black Music

Justin Timberlake performs at the Brit Awards on February 20, 2013 in London. Photo: Matt Kent/Getty Image Entertainment

by Jamilah King

I have a confession to make: I really like Justin Timberlake.

And I really like “The 20/20 Experience,” which dropped Tuesday and is on pace to move 800,000 copies this week, according to Billboard.

As an aging backpacker just starting to lighten up to Top 40, I wasn’t able to say this kind of thing very recently. My turning point came last summer hanging out with a group of friends at a hipstery bar. It was near closing time but they were the political sort so we were talking about The World’s Important Things—until “LoveStoned” from Timberlake’s “FutureSex/LoveSounds” came on. I lit up and I thought I was the only one, but then I noticed one of my homies singing along. “I really like Justin,” I admitted with a shrug. “I do too,” she said. As we laughed about it, I felt the same exhilaration I once did when bonding with socially conscious health nuts who made late-night trips to McDonald’s. We knew we weren’t supposed to like him but we did like his music. And that, for reasons both absurd and obvious, was a problem.

My ambivalence toward Justin is, to a large degree, a matter of aesthetics. But it’s also rooted in a very real anxiety about white artists “borrowing” black music and style then taking a break when it becomes inconvenient. Yes, Timberlake has rightfully earned his place among modern pop music legends, but he also embodies the historical mistrust that exists between white performers and black listeners that dates at least as far back as Elvis Presley’s 1950s foray into what was then called “race music.

Changing Clothes

Justin Timberlake entered the industry as a kid on Disney’s New Mickey Mouse Club, he went on to front the hugely popular boy band ‘N Sync and gained lots of media attention for his supposedly chaste romance with Mickey Mouse castmate Britney Spears.

For Justin, launching a successful solo career meant exiting the boy-band space occupied by white crooners like the Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees and entering one dominated by black R&B and hip-hop artists.

With production by Timbaland, The Neptunes and P. Diddy, Timberlake’s solo debut, “Justified,” thrived on his novelty: He was the white boy with the bleached blonde fade and vague hip-hop swagger who could really sing the black music he unabashedly recorded. Image-wise, he picked, chose and performed suave and often provocative black masculinities embodied by the likes of James Brown, Michael Jackson, and Prince. For that he was richly rewarded; the album sold more than 7 million copies worldwide and he won two Grammys, ironically for Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

But when shit hit the fan after the 2004 Super Bowl when he exposed Janet Jackson’s nipple on live television, he was able — after making a public apology on CBS — to easily revert back in the public’s imagination to the wholesome white boy who made pop songs for teenage girls. And that’s what becomes tricky with Justin, that his whiteness acts as both an entryway into a popular culture and a buffer against its criticisms. Janet’s career, on the other hand, stagnated. (Black comedy legend Paul Mooney famously dubbed the scandal her “n*a wakeup call.” And Chris Rock blamed her exposed “40-year-old breast” for creeping censorship in American television.)

20/20 Vision

Over the six years since Justin Timberlake recorded “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” he’s been able to do few what pop artists can: stay relevant. The new album picks up where he and longtime collaborator Timbaland left off then expands the ideas. Most of the tracks are about seven minutes long, throwing the proverbial middle finger up at the idea of the catchy, three-minute standalone that’s become the industry standard. Timberlake’s new work doesn’t even comfortably fit into the confines of pop music. The influences are vast, ranging from the hip-hop infused R&B of the first single “Suit & Tie,” featuring Jay-Z, to the Afrobeat influence of “Let the Groove Get In.” Nearly every track has what’s become Justin’s signature emotional change-up, in which the tone, melody, and somtimes message of a song directly contradicts everything that came before it. Much like the video announcing the album’s arrival where Timberlake doesn’t sing a note, “The 20/20 Experience” comes from a place of artistic confidence and freedom.

Creative Freedom

Justin wouldn’t likely have that musical freedom without his work in very white Hollywood. Despite early, notable flops (“Black Snake Moan,” “Alpha Dog”) he’s been able to build a movie career, generating Oscar buzz by playing Sean Parker in the “The Social Network,” doing raunchy, satirical comedy opposite Cameron Diaz (“Bad Teacher”), and straight-ahead romantic comedy opposite Mila Kunis (“Friends With Benefits.”) Without Hollywood, his wedding to Jessica Biel might not have landed them both the cover of People magazine. He’s also hosted “Saturday Night Live” five times, a testament to his comedic chops and a larger-scale Hollywood visibility that he wouldn’t likely have access to without his whiteness.

Of course, this isn’t all Justin’s fault. He’s just the latest and most newsworthy example of a phenomenon that’s existed as long as black people have been making art in the Americas. It’s neither a reason not to enjoy the “20/20 Experience” or rallying cry to keep others from doing the same. But as his first album in six years gets the notoriety befitting a Justin Timberlake Experience, it’s worth at least acknowledging all of the experiences that have gone into making it possible.