The Infinite Circle of Black Responsibility

In 2006, after being a United States senator for one year, Barack Obama made an appearance on Meet the Press. After talking about the Iraq War for a while, Tim Russert asked Obama this: "I want to talk a little bit about the language people are using in the politics now of 2006, and I refer you to some comments that Harry Belafonte made yesterday. He said that Homeland Security had become the new Gestapo. What do you think of that?" Obama said he never uses Nazi analogies, but people are concerned about striking the balance between privacy and security. Russert pressed on, asking Obama to take a position on whether some insulting things Belafonte had said about George W. Bush were "appropriate."

I thought of that interview today as I watched another interview, this one with Bill O'Reilly interviewing White House aide Valerie Jarrett. I bring it up not because it's important to be mad at Bill O'Reilly (it isn't), but because it's yet another demonstration of the rules both prominent and ordinary black people have to live with. Unlike white Americans, they are subject to an entirely different and far more wide-ranging kind of responsibility. A black senator has to answer for the remarks of every black activist, black musicians are responsible for the actions of every wayward teenager, and black people everywhere carry with them a thousand sins committed by others. That burden isn't just psychological; as we've seen in cases like those of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, it can be deadly.

Yesterday, President Obama held an event at the White House called "My Brother's Keeper," to encourage people to help create more opportunities for young men of color. Afterward, O'Reilly told Jarrett that on "the streets," there's a problematic culture. "It's not just blacks—it's the poor, and the hard core, what they call 'gangstas.'" He went on: "You have to attack the fundamental disease if you want to cure it. Now I submit to you that you're going to have to get people like Jay-Z, all right, Kanye West, all of these gangsta rappers, to knock it off."

You may laugh at the idea that disproportionately high levels of incarceration among young black men can be laid at the feet of Kim Kardashian's husband. And I'm pretty sure that crime in America predates "Straight Outta Compton," though we might have to look that up. But the truth is that Bill O'Reilly could hear a rap song about butterflies and rainbows, and the first thing to pop into his head would be "gangsta rap!" because it's black people rapping.

And in this, O'Reilly resembles Michael Dunn, the man who gunned down Jordan Davis over his music. Over and over in his jailhouse writings, Dunn references the "culture" around rap music as one of criminality and danger, citing it as the source of crimes committed by black people. So naturally, when he heard that music coming from the next car over, he thought he was about to be the victim of a drive-by, and the only alternative was to pull out his gun and start firing first.

This is about the collectivization of every misdeed committed by a black person, the way all black people are implicated and have responsibilities imposed on them. When a white man beats his children or kills his wife or robs a liquor store or commits insider trading, nobody tells Bill O'Reilly that he, as a white person, needs to do something about it. And he sure as hell doesn't go on the air and say that white people need better role models. There isn't a thing called "white on white crime," but there is a thing called "black on black crime," because crimes committed by black people are black crimes, born from blackness and soiling all black people, but crimes committed by white people have nothing to do with the race of the perpetrators; they're just crimes, no modifier needed.

My guess is that if you asked Bill O'Reilly what responsibility white musicians or white politicians have for the thousands of white crimes committed every year, he would have no idea what you're talking about. It would sound like gibberish to him. As I've written before, a big part of the privilege of whiteness is that you don't have to have responsibility for anyone else. You can be just yourself. The security guard is not going to follow you around in a store because some other white person shoplifted there last week. A TV host is not going to demand that you defend something stupid another white person said, for no reason other than the fact that the two of you are white. No one is going to think that because of the music you're playing, it might be a good idea to fire ten bullets into your car.

Creating that broad black responsibility doesn't just happen, it has to be reinforced and maintained. Nobody does it with more vigor than Bill O'Reilly and the rancid cauldron of race-baiting that is the network for whom he works. The real mystery is why the White House keeps trying to court him. They actually invited him to that event yesterday.

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