Chad Dion Lassiter walks the talk against racism in America

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER In physical stature, in his work helping people, in his opinionating, Lassiter stands above and is hard to miss.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER In physical stature, in his work helping people, in his opinionating, Lassiter stands above and is hard to miss.
Posted: July 09, 2013

CHAD DION Lassiter is one opinionated dude.

You may have read his musings on local news pages or heard him express them on TV. Recently, he was on Comcast's "It's Your Call with Lynn Doyle," where he defended blacks' use of the n-word.

"Jay Z saying it is different from Don Imus' and Paula Deen's saying it, and a cop saying [it] when you're looking down a barrel of a gun," Lassiter said on the show.

Lassiter is among a new crop of progressive black intellectuals such as HuffPost Live host Marc Lamont Hill, The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, Drexel University's Chuck Williams and the University of Connecticut's William Jelani Cobb. Weaned on hip-hop, these Gen Xers are a new breed of thinkers.

The imposing Lassiter stands 6 feet, 6 inches tall, has six tattoos, including one on the inside of each wrist, and sports distinctive, oval-lensed eyeglasses. A veritable quotemeister, he has something to say about every current issue.

The 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teen gunned down by a neighborhood-watch volunteer?

"An American tragedy," said Lassiter.

The flap over celebrity chef Deen's use of the n-word?

"An unwarranted distraction."

The Supreme Court's recent rollback of the 1965 Voting Rights Act?

"The re-emergence of historical tactics to disenfranchise the humanity of black people."

The budget crisis in Philly schools?

"The continuance of educational apartheid."

See what I mean?

In the House

Providing social commentary is just a side hustle for Lassiter, 41.

Since 2011, he has been executive director of the Red Cross House, a University City-based recovery center for Philadelphia-area families displaced by disaster. He has shaken things up at the House, arranging for new computers for residents and bringing in experts to improve the food and to teach healthy eating. He also teaches three classes at West Chester University dealing with race relations and diversity.

Lassiter is married to Wanda Lassiter, a nurse who heads the nonprofit FAMILY Inc. They live in East Mount Airy.

"Chad represents a different model of public service and public intellectual," said Marc Lamont Hill. "He's not just a talking head. He's a doer. He prioritizes doing.

"A lot us [public intellectuals], when a crisis breaks out, write a really interesting article or wait for one of the networks to call us. . . . Chad asks, 'What can I do to make it better?' Chad finds a way to get right in the center of things to fix it. That's unusual and special."

Last week, I stopped by Lassiter's office at the Red Cross, where we chatted about everything from George Zimmerman, who's on trial in the Trayvon Martin killing, to white privilege. And, yes, we talked about the n-word, given all the headlines about Deen, who's lost major deals with Walmart, Target and others.

With some stuff, I found him to be on point. Other times, Lassiter lost me. But whatever you think of his views, Lassiter represents a definite perspective.

"I could give a damn about the number of marks on George Zimmerman's body when there's a dead, young, black male . . . this is black humanity and you can't treat us any type of way," he said,

And as for folks who want to pick apart Rachel Jeantel, the sometimes attitudinal witness who testified last week at Zimmerman's trial, Lassiter said, "Let's not get caught up in the attitude. Let's not get caught up in the imagery. Let's listen to what she has to say."

Listening to him, I couldn't help but wonder what the Red Cross think of his sometimes controversial views.

"In terms of the Red Cross, we don't deal with politics, but what we do deal with is getting things," said Renee Cardwell Hughes, chief executive of the Red Cross of Southeastern Pennsylvania. "Chad is a person who gets things done."

The caring business

Lassiter was in elementary school when his mother moved the family, including an older brother, from Olney to Los Angeles. He managed to avoid beat-downs by local gang members by helping them with their homework assignments. Even back then, he wasn't afraid to flex his intellectual muscles.

"Ever since he was a young guy, he always had a heart for people who were less fortunate," recalled his mother, Marilyn Lassiter, 72, a retired IRS manager.

"I saw that in him when he was young," she said. "When we lived in L.A., he took some clothes out to give to one of his buddies. Everything he's done has always been in the caring business."

After moving back to Philly and graduating from Olney High School in 1990, he enrolled at Johnson C. Smith, a historically black college in North Carolina, where he was one of just a few male students studying social work.

By 1995, he was back in Philadelphia, counseling kids at Palumbo Elementary School and, later, at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He also worked as a researcher in a project that helped young black males channel their anger through basketball and martial arts, and in a program for students at risk for health problems.

After getting a master's in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, in 2001, he helped found Black Men at Penn School of Social Work to attract more African-American males to the field. One of Lassiter's former professors, Walter D. Palmer, suggested that the school hire Lassiter to teach about American racism. He taught there for several years.

"This guy is one of the best professors in this subject that we've ever had," Palmer told me last week. "He really gets it."

By 2006, Lassiter had his first op-ed published in the Daily News on the n-word and was on his way to making a name for himself in media circles.

Over the years, he's become one of my most reliable go-to experts on topics ranging from the sanitization of Huckleberry Finn to teen motherhood.

After Imus referred to some Rutgers women's basketball players as "nappy-headed hos," Lassiter organized a campus forum at Penn to sensitize students.

He and other members of Black Men at Penn went to South Philly High in 2009 to work with students after tension escalated there between African-American and Asian students.

"Most social workers get one piece of it - theory or practice," Palmer pointed out. "Some people will be all theory or all philosophy."

Luckily, for Philly, Lassiter works both ends of the spectrum.


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

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