Recently a friend sent me this Chris Rock video and asked me what I thought of it.  She was appalled by it but many of her friends and acquaintances liked it. Admittedly humor is a multi-leveled thing and viewers take different things out of it. This is the problem with ironic art.  This is especially true of African American humor where a subordinate (the fancy word is subaltern) hides their criticism of the dominant culture in code or behind masks. On the surface this is about how black behavior either one’s own or that of a companion may precipitate police beatings.

On one level it can be seen as a criticism of black behavior; on another an inventory of police overreaction, both of which lead to the beatings and by extension the shootings that have become an epidemic. As a criticism of black behavior it is aimed both at the black community and to those whites who believe this stereotypical behavior is shared among most African Americans. In these roles it becomes a revelation of a ‘dirty little secret” that the license of humor allows to be aired.

For black folks it is an exhortation to clean up their behavior albeit a humorous and satiric one. This is nothing new. Recently we have heard it from Bill Cosby, Barack Obama and most recently Al Sharpton in his “eulogy” at Michael Brown’s funeral. These exhortations at least have the virtue of claiming that African Americans have some control over their lives by modifying their behavior. The problem here is that it is not true. Oh it is certainly true that among a group as diverse as African Americans we all know someone who would behave in these ways. What is not true is that it makes the difference between being treated fairly by the police and being beaten or being hired and not being hired or being suspended from school and not being suspended or getting ahead and being left behind. Study after study has shown this. Individual behavior does not alter the stereotypes to which most African Americans are subject. No matter how well one behaves at some point someone is going to judge you by the stereotype and not your behavior. This makes all the self-flagellation about black behavior moot.

For whites, even those sympathetic to the African American cause, it allows them to breathe a sigh of relief because these stereotypes have indeed crossed their minds. To have as major a validator as Chris Rock confirm and excuse these perhaps subconscious but at least hidden thoughts, is a blessing. Comedian Dave Chapelle walked away from a multi-million dollar deal for the continuation of his comedy show when he realized that his popularity was because others had taken his humor in the wrong way. They were taking it as a confirmation of their stereotypes rather than the send up of them he had intended. Perhaps Chris Rock will one day realize that his humor is a double edged sword. Perhaps not.

The other side of the Chris Rock video is that these, let’s call them quirks of black behavior, provoke a gratuitous violent reaction among police officers. This is the subversive subaltern view of the dominant power structure. Chris Rock is also saying that these behaviors among African Americans may trigger [not an accidental use of the word]  behavior by police but it in no way justifies it. In each example the black behavior falls far short of what it should take to lead to police violence. Taken as the satire that I believe was its intent, the video mocks the idea that there is a “proper” mode of behavior by blacks that will not lead to police beatings.  Even the most trivial of black “mis-behaviors” may bring about dire consequences. Indeed this is the problem with all the “it’s their own damn fault” arguments. Blacks never know what behaviors will set off the police, even innocent ones may do so. The safest course is to avoid the police altogether. However some contact is unavoidable given what must be done to survive in the inner cities and the mission of the police.

The black litmus test for racism is “Would a white person have been treated the same way?” When simple acts like jaywalking or walking in the middle of the road may bring about police action in black neighborhoods when no one would even care in white ones, when belligerence by whites may or may not bring about police violence, when vague descriptions cause innocent blacks to be stopped and detained when whites would not be, when black behavior is viewed more suspiciously than whites doing the same thing, then we have a racial problem.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply