Monday, April 04, 2016

The Myth of the Good Negro, Revisited

A well-regarded news anchor was recently fired for making racially insensitive remarks. Wendy Bell, formerly of Pittsburgh’s WTAE-TV station, posted controversial opinions to her personal Facebook page. Though her post was not exactly artfully worded, I believe what she wrote is not nearly as offensive as some believe. Bell’s indiscretion can be an instructive exercise in deflating and discrediting a persistent myth, that of the Good Negro. Instead, it has been transformed into another condemnation of what can or cannot be expressed in an Internet forum.

First we must define what is meant by a Good Negro. Writing in November of last year, the attorney Nikki Johnson-Huston states:
I have always been what is considered to be a “good black person.” I have a diverse set of friends, a home, a nice car and three graduate degrees. I’ve traveled the world, from France to India, New Zealand and beyond. I am happily married to a white man who loves and respects me, and his family loves me and has supported our relationship from the beginning. Many have said to me that I am a credit to my race.
Professionally, I am a well-respected tax lawyer and a leader in my community. In fact, I have been supported and mentored by many people who do not look like me. The people who know me will tell you that I am not angry or a race-baiter. I have been an incredibly lucky person who grew up in poverty and even experienced homelessness, but with hard work, the social safety net and mentoring, was able to build a good life. I am living the American “Post Racial” Dream.
The problem is this narrative doesn’t tell the full story of my life. It doesn’t tell you that for too many people in my community, I am the exception and not the rule. Black Americans are some of the most talented and ambitious people that I have ever met, but for many, their spirits have been crushed by a lack of opportunity.

Having formally spelled out what is meant by a Good Negro, now we can address the flaws in Ms. Bell’s argument. A professional, one forever in the public eye, should have known better than to post what she did. But her larger point, though highly incorrect and oversimplified, is nevertheless very commonplace. Bell sought to make sense of a complicated situation by resorting to a kind of lazy logic. Who among us, black or white, can attain a full sense of the perceived flaws and challenging problems within the black community? Even venturing an educated guess on this explosive issue can invoke charges of racism. Stating an opinion either way is quite dangerous.  
The mother of five’s post also praised a black teen she saw working in a Southside Works restaurant. Bell described the employee as a “young, African American teen” who was “hustling like nobody’s business” as he carried plates and picked up scraps that had fallen to the floor. Bell also applauded his attitude. ”He did all this with a rhythm and a step that gushed positivity,” she wrote. “He moved like a dancer with a satisfied smile on his face. And I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He’s going to make it.”

Bell’s commentary sought to draw a contrast between a Good Negro, the aforementioned hardworking teenager in a restaurant, and the Bad Negroes who commit violent crimes. She began her post by condemning African-Americans living in a violent hell of their own creation, offering a solution in the form of character-developing toil and self-discipline. If we are to be truthful, many Caucasians believe the same thing. In some respects, it’s a little like the old pull-onself-up-by-one’s-boostraps fabrication. Often a gaffe reveals what many think, but few dare to verbalize.

As this line of thinking goes, African-Americans are almost wholly to blame for their present condition. They should get their house in order first by looking within themselves and then resolving to do better. The best attributes are already present and these impulses should be further encouraged. The very worst parts of black identity should be cured like a debilitating disease.

Some idealistic whites continue to believe in the widely debunked white savior complex, the idea that well-meaning white folks can somehow redeem their black brethren by way of example. In this case, examining her remarks more closely, Bell does not support this particular definition of racial uplift. Her remarks reveal that she feels powerless over a situation that causes her great discomfort, even if her conclusions are wrong.
“You needn’t be a criminal profiler to draw a mental sketch of the killers who broke so many hearts two weeks ago Wednesday,” Bell wrote:
I will tell you they live within 5 miles of Franklin Avenue and Ardmore Boulevard and have been hiding out since in a home likely much closer to that backyard patio than anyone thinks. They are young black men, likely teens or in their early 20s, They have multiple siblings from multiple fathers and their mothers work multiple jobs. These boys have been in the system before. They’ve grown up there. They know the police. They’ve been arrested. They’ve made the circuit and nothing has scared them enough.

Black comedian Chris Rock brushed up against the same subject in a controversial 1996 comedy routine.

Rock began his routine by asking his audience, “Who’s more racist? Black people or white people?” Answering his own question, he concluded, “Black people, do you know why? Because we hate black people too!”

“There’s two sides. There’s black people and then there’s n*****s. And n*****s have got to go.”
The controversy caused by Rock's constant use of the word "nigga" led him to remove the piece from his act. In a 2005 60 Minutes interview, Rock said: "By the way, I've never done that joke again, ever, and I probably never will. 'Cos some people that were racist thought they had license to say n****r. So, I'm done with that routine.

It appears that no single racial or ethnic group has proposed an adequate and fair solution. Everyone has done a laudable job of spelling out the problem, but resolutions are nowhere to be found. As for myself, I don’t think Wendy Bell should have been fired. The punishment must fit the crime, and the easiest possible solution is to lop off a few heads, rather than correcting and enlightening. If she’d resorted to the kind of language and highly offensive racial stereotypes that have felled some, then that would have been something very different indeed.

In her own mind, I’m certain Bell believed she wasn’t being racist or racially insensitive. Pulling an award-winning broadcaster off the airwaves with little justification only prolongs the problem that no one ever wants to confront directly. We can’t continue to skirt this issue if we really want it to go away. We must engage in dialogue with each other.

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