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Charles Barkley, Chris Rock, Bill Cosby (Credit: Reuters/Dominick Reuter/AP/Chris Pizzello/Todd Williamson/Photo montage by Salon)
In 1996, Chris Rock told a joke. Granted, he told a number of jokes, because he’s a comedian and that’s literally his job. But he only told one joke that would come to serve as the basis of analysis for a generation of would-be sociologists and pseudo-black-intellectuals everywhere.
“I love black people, but I hate n–gers.”
The joke here being that there is a subset of black people that are gleefully uneducated, take pride in their criminal activities, and serve as the clumsy sidekick in black America’s plan for liberation. If it weren’t for them, the n–gers, we’d all be free.
“I hide my money in books. Why? Because n–gers don’t read.”
The n–gers aren’t just unworthy of basic levels of respect, they deserve open contempt and ridicule. Because, well, just look at them!
On the strength of this joke, the centerpiece of his HBO special “Bring the Pain,” Chris Rock became a household name, and the “black people vs. n–gers” debate became as divisive as Malcolm vs. Martin.
Of course, the substance of what Rock said wasn’t new. It hewed to the same line of respectability politics that had been a part of black political life since the days of Reconstruction. Even W.E.B. Du Bois, perhaps the most important sociologist in all of American history, posited a theory for black liberation that rested on the idea that 90 percent of black people ain’t shit and could only be saved by the “talented tenth.” He later abandoned that idea, but it got stuck in our collective imagination nonetheless. Rock’s language was different, and jarring, offering a legitimacy to the use of a racist slur to describe a class of people, but even that wasn’t new. After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X reportedly said, “We had the best organization the black man has ever had. N–gers ruined it.” Malcolm’s context was different, but the rhetoric is still in line with the idea that it’s the bad black people who ruin things for the good black people.
And every now and then some black public figure will reignite this debate by repeating these tired tropes that traffic in racist assumptions of black life and culture. Enter Charles Barkley.
as black people are never going to be successful, not because of you white people, but because of other black people. When you are black, you have to deal with so much crap in your life from other black people …. For some reason we are brainwashed to think, if you’re not a thug or an idiot, you’re not black enough. If you go to school, make good grades, speak intelligent, and don’t break the law, you’re not a good black person. It’s a dirty, dark secret in the black community …. There are a lot of black people who are unintelligent, who don’t have success. It’s best to knock a successful black person down because they’re intelligent, they speak well, they do well in school, and they’re successful. It’s just typical BS that goes on when you’re black, man.
Bill Cosby said it, Don Lemon keeps saying it, Jason Riley has a whole book about it. The greatest barrier to black success, according to this reasoning, is the host of bad black people who refuse to get their shit together and would rather bring every other black person down with them than to pick up a book. The language is more polite than when Chris Rock was calling them n–gers, but not by a significant margin.
It doesn’t matter how much debunking is done, because this strain of respectability politics is easy to comprehend, fits neatly into our racist system, and has the potential to be lucrative. You won’t go broke by taking up the chastisement of “bad blacks” as a career. You may lose your soul, but you can just go buy a new one with the cash from your book deal/radio show/TV pundit gig/speaking fees.
What bothers me just as much, if not more, than the profitability of this line of thinking, is that anyone who engages in it (Barkley, Lemon, Riley or whoever) positions him- or herself as some sort of exalted truth teller, revealing the secrets black America is too afraid to face. They won’t touch the truth of how white supremacy has dictated the contours of black American life, but telling kids to pull up their pants and stop acting like “thugs” is right up their alley.
Moreover, these aren’t secrets. They’re flat-out lies. The truth is closer to what Damon Young writes over at VerySmartBrothas :