John Ridley's Niggers
The ideas in John Ridley's Esquire article were certainly provocative but they were not fresh. For decades, upper class and middle class African Americans have been highlighting the pathologies of the black underclass as a way to both distance themselves from such behavior, and to blame poor blacks for their poverty. These "successful" African Americans accept the false dichotomy between "good blacks" and "Niggers." Nigger, for them, is a class-based slur, a way of saying, "You are not my brother, you are less than I am. You are contemptible, raggedy, and ghetto, a victim of your own immorality and ineptitude -- blaming whites for what ails you. I am not one of you; I am better than you. You don't educate your children or pay your bills; you don't have a job, you are ill-bred, and you are a walking crime spree. You are a nightmare. You give decent black people a bad name. Look at me: I read, speak in a monotone, make a steady paycheck, talk intelligently, and act civilly. I have dreams. Bill Cosby was right about you. I'm tired of your poor, ignorant, thuggish ass." Ridley placed those ideas in a national magazine.
In 1996 Chris Rock, an African American comedian, hosted a Home Box Office (HBO) special, Bring The Pain (Rock & Truesdell). Rock drew huge laughs from the mostly black audience with his rant about the difference between black people and Niggers. Rock said: "Who's more racist: black people or white people? Black people. You know why? Because we hate black people too. Everything that white people don't like about black people, black people really don't like about black people. It's some sh*t going on with black people. "It's like a civil war going on with black people. And there's two sides: there's black people, and there's niggers. And niggers have got to go." Rock may have been joking, but Ridley was not.
Ridley's essay validates a claim that I have made before many audiences, namely, the problem with the word nigger is not simply that blacks routinely use it but rather that many African Americans believe that niggers really exist. The question, "How do we stop Americans from treating us as niggers?" is replaced by "How do I keep from becoming a nigger?" Here I put words into Ridley's mouth, "The best thing black people can do for niggers is not to become one."
If you are convinced that some people within your community are indeed niggers, then questions arise, the first being, how do you know one when you see one? Recently, I facilitated a workshop in Virginia where almost all the participants were African Americans with advanced university degrees. We were discussing a shirt that I brought from the Jim Crow Museum that had young black men depicted in stereotypical ways: pants sagging, carrying music boxes, looking threatening -- and one fellow urinating on the street. When I asked the workshop participants to tell me what they saw, several said, "Niggers." For the next hour we discussed what that word meant to them. I can summarize their beliefs this way: niggers are real; they can be men or women, but the scary ones are usually young men -- the women mostly hurt themselves with unwanted pregnancies; most niggers are poor, lazy, and ignorant; niggers are no-good, trifling victims who constantly complain; Washington, D.C. is full of them; and, finally, none of the participants in the room were niggers (though one person quipped with unintentional irony that I had obvious sympathies). Their depictions of so-called niggers sound like the portrayal that was offered by Ridley (2006) in the first paragraph of his essay:
"LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING ABOUT NIGGERS, the oppressed minority within our minority. Always down. Always out. Always complaining that they can't catch a break. Notoriously poor about doing for themselves. Constantly in need of a leader but unable to follow in any direction that's navigated by hard work, self-reliance. And though they spliff and drink and procreate their way onto welfare doles and WIC lines, niggers will tell you their state of being is no fault of their own. They are not responsible for their nearly 5 percent incarceration rate and their 9.2 percent unemployment rate. Not responsible for the 11.8 percent rate at which they drop out of high school. For the 69.3 percent of births they create out of wedlock."
It is a struggle for me but I try to be objective when I facilitate workshops; however, near the conclusion of the session I felt compelled to preach:
"Who told you that some of us are niggers? Were the four little girls bombed in a Birmingham church, niggers? Were they? Were the brothers and sisters who suffered in the civil rights movement niggers? Do you remember them -- beaten with batons, kicked, bitten by police dogs, stomped, knocked against walls by power hoses, jailed, kidnapped, raped, thrown in rivers, eulogized before crying neighbors. Was Rosa Parks a nigger? No, then neither is the young sister with the baby on her hip."
And when I finished someone asked if I had ever lived in a large city and when I answered no, the looks on their faces said, "Ah, then you don't really know what you are talking about."
Who is Ridley calling a nigger? For much of his essay his scorn appears to be directed toward the "black underclass," however, he gives statistics that are reflective of the entire black American population. For example, he says that niggers are responsible for their 9.2 percent unemployment rate, but that rate looks a lot like the rate of unemployment for all blacks. The recession of 2001 raised the unemployment rate for whites from the 3.5 percent figure of 2000 to 5.2 percent by 2003. During that same period the unemployment rate for African Americans jumped to 10.8 percent. Was Ridley suggesting that all unemployed blacks are niggers? What about unemployed whites? In 2007, the unemployment rate for blacks was 8.3 percent. That figure exceeded the pre-recession low and was more than twice the unemployment rate for whites. Goldman Sachs estimated that a new recession (and one is coming, if not already here) would increase the national unemployment rate to 6.4 percent by 2009 ("U.S. Economics", 2008). For blacks, they estimate that the unemployment rate would rise to 11 percent (Austin, 2008). Again, when Ridley used national unemployment data for all blacks (and not data specific to the black underclass) he implies that any black person who is unemployed is a lazy nigger.
Again, who are Ridley's niggers? While discussing Condoleezza Rice and her accomplishments, Ridley mocks Rice's critics as "Niggers and old-school shines." He directs specific criticism toward Julian Bond. Next, Ridley, in his defense of Colin Powell, said,
"Predictably, niggers immediately abandoned him. How could any self-respecting black man want to run from the Liberal Plantation? Never mind that he was a self-made modern American hero who openly espoused the value of affirmative action. Old-schoolers tagged Powell with the usual left-wing racist jabber. Powell was a sellout. A Tom. In a particularly ugly rant, Harry Belafonte infamously alluded to Powell as being a house nigger."
So, Ridley says that African American critics of Rice and Powell are niggers. Does nigger mean liberal? Calling liberal blacks niggers is the flip side of calling conservative blacks Toms. Julian Bond and Harry Belafonte are not the imagined niggers that Ridley derides in the beginning and conclusion of his essay -- but they are thinkers and activists whose policy recommendations offend Ridley, so even though they are hard-working and accomplished they become niggers by association, "courtesy niggers," if you will.
Ridley's essay begs another question, "If there are real niggers what should happen to them?" Ridley talks about "the deal forced upon the entrenched white social, political, and legal establishment when my parents' generation won the struggle for civil rights. The Deal: We (blacks) take what is rightfully ours and you (the afore-described establishment) get citizens who will invest the same energy and dedication into raising families and working hard and being all around good people as was invested in snapping the neck of Jim Crow." In other words, if you stop discriminating against us we will stop being niggers. We will assimilate: walk like, talk like, vote like the dominant group -- flatter whites with our imitation of their lives. Ridley claims that poor blacks and their liberal enablers have reneged on the Deal, and their punishment should be swift, certain, and harsh: successful blacks should abandon so-called niggers, treat them like outcasts. In Ridley's words,
"It's time for ascended blacks to wish niggers good luck. Just as whites may be concerned with the good of all citizens but don't travel their days worrying specifically about the well-being of hillbillies from Appalachia, we need to send niggers on their way. We need to start extolling the most virtuous of ourselves."
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was not in Memphis representing "ascended blacks," no, he was working on behalf of garbage workers, most of them black, who complained that they worked too hard, for too little money, in unsafe conditions. Ridley's approach to the poor is different. Dr. King cared deeply for the poor and his compassion grew out of his religious convictions. He did not employ shunning as a way to influence, encourage, or coerce normative behaviors. He did not exalt the "most virtuous of ourselves" to embarrass and shame the "worst of us." He did not treat black people, any black people, as niggers. Ridley has the right to call for shunning -- avoidance, Meidung, or as he puts it, "send niggers on their way" -- but he does not have the right to link his ideas to Dr. King and the civil rights movement and expect to not be challenged.
I have criticized often and hard the simplistic interpretations that both liberals and conservatives offer about the serious social problems that confront America generally and African American communities specifically. Too many liberals seek to blame all problems on institutional hierarchies, policies, and practices; and too many conservatives would have us believe that if individuals would simply work hard all their problems would go away. These crude, one-dimensional approaches make good television talk show debates but they do little to move this nation toward solutions. The truth is that racism is still real, that it continues to limit what sociologist's call the "life chances" of peoples of color, meaning the opportunities to get power, prestige, property, and presumed worth. Ridley and other conservatives rarely account for (or count) institutional racism, that is, the existence of systematic policies and practices within society's institutions, that have the effect of disadvantaging certain racial or ethnic groups. Yes, individual racism and institutional racism are real, but they do not account for all the social problems that confront Americans of African descent. All the racism in the world cannot keep you from reading a book as evidenced by the secret schools that blacks used during slavery. Anti-intellectualism thrives in too many African American communities. There are too many unwed mothers, many of whom are teenagers -- in poor black communities where the crime rate is obscenely high. The African American community, as a whole, faces significant social problems and many of those problems are made worse by self-defeating and group-defeating behaviors.
But Ridley is wrong. There are no niggers. Zero. None, not a one. A young brother, pants sagging, talking loud, flunking out of school is not a nigger; no, he is a young brother, pants sagging, talking loud, and flunking out of school. And the best thing that Americans -- all Americans -- can do for him is not to avoid him but to create a society where he has every chance to succeed and nurture him to success. Taking down Jim Crow signs does not mean that the dominant group kept its end of the Deal. That is naive. And the best things that young brother can do are study, sit at the feet of elders for wisdom, treat himself and others with respect, and work with vigilance and diligence. He needs to believe -- and live in a society where there is reason to believe -- that he is good, that his good dreams will not be deferred, seek his contribution, and do this in a society where some people, blacks and whites, believe that he is a nigger. He must ignore the rappers, movie makers, comedians, and book writers who tell him he is a synonym for nigger. That young brother, heaven help him, has got to do better and got to be the best he can.
Nigger is a social construct and an ugly one at that. It is a venomous insult. Ridley's essay did not convince me that some blacks are niggers, only that he thinks so. Nor did he educate me about the significant social problems faced by blacks. I grew up near Highway 45 in Prichard, Alabama; I have seen the kind of poverty that would make many Americans throw up. The only solution he offered is repugnant to me: "send niggers on their way." I do agree with him that Rice and Powell are deserving role models, but so are some of the poor folks near Highway 45. Of course, he is right to complain about the tendency among some blacks to summarily dismiss African American conservatives as "Toms," "Oreos," and "Aunt Jemimas." But how does calling name-callers niggers fix that? Much of the African American response to Ridley has been of the ad hominem variety -- attacking him personally. (see, for example, Williams (2006)).I tried to focus on his ideas. I will conclude with an excerpt from the essay that I co-authored with Phillip Middleton, "Niggers and Caricatures."
"There is a direct and strong link between the word nigger and anti-black caricatures. Although nigger has been used to refer to any person of known African ancestry, it is usually directed against blacks who supposedly have certain negative characteristics. The Coon caricature, for example, portrays black men as lazy, ignorant, and obsessively self-indulgent; these are also traits historically represented by the word nigger. The Brute caricature depicts black men as angry, physically strong, animalistic, and prone to wanton violence. This depiction is also implied in the word nigger. The Tom and Mammy caricatures are often portrayed as kind, loving "friends" of whites. They are also presented as intellectually childlike, physically unattractive, and neglectful of their biological families. These later traits have been associated with blacks, generally, and are implied in the word nigger. The word nigger was a shorthand way of saying that blacks possessed the moral, intellectual, social, and physical characteristics of the Coon, Brute, Tom, Mammy, and other racial caricatures."
I use the word nigger in discussions about race relations and when I'm describing artifacts to guests visiting the Jim Crow Museum, but I will never call a black man or woman a nigger, in anger or jest, because that word embodies all the venom and opprobrium that this nation has directed against Africans and their American descendants. I will not use this slur to prove that I am assimilated, successful, or "ascended." Almost from the moment in 1619 when John Rolfe purchased "twenty Negars" to work on his Virginia tobacco farm, we, the darker Americans, have faced a society that believed that we were cultural inferiors, good only for mocking and menial labor. Nigger has been a stigmatized label, and a justification for treating dark people as inferiors. No, I will not call any person a nigger and I will not treat any person as a nigger. And, while I am on this thought train, let me say that I abhor the use of the word trash to refer to poor white people. I guess Mr. Cleotis Williams was right when he said to me in 1973, "Little David, don't stay poor; Americans don't like poor people."
Curator, Jim Crow Museum
April 1, 2008
Austin, A. (2008, January 18). What a recession means for black America. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved from http://www.epi.org/publication/ib241/.
Ridley, J. (2006, November 30). The manifesto of ascendancy for the modern American Nigger. Esquire. Retrieved from http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ1206BLACKESSAY_108.
Rock, C. (Writer), & Truesdell, K. (Director). (1996). Chris Rock: Bring the pain [Television broadcast]. In Bull, T. (Producer). New York, NY: Home Box Office.
U. S. Economics Analyst (2008, January 18), 08 (02), 3.
Williams, L. (2006). The Negro-cons deal with the devil. African American Literature Book Club. Retrieved from http://aalbc.com/reviews/thenegro-cons.htm.