In the past several weeks, we have witnessed “two Black men in a Cadillac” being accused of kidnapping a White woman. The truth was that the woman had voluntarily gone to Disney World and could not tell her husband. He would find it hard to believe that she would go to Disney. It was easier, she reasoned, that he and indeed the world would believe that Black men in a Cadillac would kidnap her. After all, according to her logic, we have a reputation for that.
We also learned that yet another plain clothes Black police officer was shot by one of his colleagues who mistook him for a criminal. We also mourned the shooting and killing of a security officer at the Holocaust Museum by a White supremacist. Leading me to ask the question: “Where can a brother go to get his reputation back?”
Ever since “Birth of a Nation” it has been popular to portray Black men as thugs and criminals. Despite the passage of time, these image have not faded from memory. Instead, they have been used to justify racial profiling of suspects leading to the crimes of “Driving While Black,” “Walking While Black” and “Shopping While Black.”
These stereotypes apply to Black men no matter our position, education or social status. The impact of this societal marker is a sullied reputation in the minds of society as a whole. Thus, the fact that we have achieved great success and/or education does not exempt us from having our reputation come into question.
Let’s be clear that Whites are not exclusively responsible for the racial caricature of Black men as criminals.
Also bearing responsibility are some hip hop artists and scores of young Black men who would rather show us the crack of their behinds than the power of their brains. The result is a reputation for violence and base vulgarity that is coming close to being beyond repair.
First, there are simply too many White people in America, who, with reckless abandon, act on their closely held racialized stereotypes of Black men, resulting in our murder and further marginalization. What is even more disturbing is that the White people of whom I write simply refuse to admit their fidelity to the racial stereotypes. Instead, they choose to blame the routine occurrence of the murder of Black plain clothes officers by their White colleagues as “mistaken identity.” If this is to be believed, why don’t Black plain clothes officers mistake White plain clothes officers as criminals in as high a number?
Second, Susan Smith, Charles Stewart and other racially conscious criminals understand that their stories have more currency with law enforcement if the alleged perpetrator is a Black man. To be sure, both Tawana Brawley and Crystal Gail Mangum blamed their assaults on White men and both lied. Both women relied on stereotypes. The question, however, is whether their reliance on stereotypes has sullied the reputation of White men in general. Do people see White men more so as criminals now as they did before the allegations? Are Black women likely to claim that they have been abducted by White men in order to cover up a crime? Do White women clutch their pursues when White men are in the elevator with them? Most likely not. This is because in the United States few people have internalized stereotypes of White men as prone to random violence as a result of their race. They have, however, uncritically done so with Black men.
Third, some hip hop artists, athletes and other Black celebrities are also complicit in perpetuating the stereotype of Black man as criminal and thug. One need only look at the penis-centric image of the gangsta life purveyed by the people of whom I write. They are among the most crotch-holding, gyrating images anywhere. There is no excuse for the violent lyrics, misogyny and overreliance on the feigned masculinity they use to make their living. Their profanity-based brand of Black male masculinity is nothing more than a modern day reincarnation of the images that we fought so hard against in the Jim Crow era. The plantation has gone digital, virtual and viral. So while they crank out their latest hit, they also sell out the reputation of Black men knowingly and willingly and then decry racial profiling. Have they no shame?
Fourth, young Black boys and men have bought into the Black man as thug reputation in alarming numbers. Many of our young Black boys are choosing to fail in school because they confuse masculinity with thug life. For them it is not about how hard you study, but how hard you are. Half-dressed and half-educated, they enter a world that has already decided their fate based on a reputation that is part racist, part undeserved and fully difficult to overcome. The reputation of Black men as strong, responsible, intelligent, contributing members of a sometimes hostile American society is close to extinction.
So, where does a Brother go to get his reputation back?
Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a ‘post-racial’ America and an associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.