Is it Racist to Criticize Your Own Race?

Michael Brown
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Posted: Oct 04, 2011 1:11 PM

After Herman Cain told Wolf Blitzer that many African Americans have been “brainwashed” into not being open-minded or even considering “a conservative point of view,” he was criticized by Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher on the Anderson Cooper show. (Blitzer had asked Cain why the Republican party was “basically poison” to so many African Americans.)

According to Belcher, who is also black, Cain was guilty of making racist and bigoted comments, and Belcher challenged Republican strategist Ari Fleischer for his failure to speak out against the remarks, asking him what he would have done if Cain had said that “all Jewish people were brainwashed.” (Fleischer, of course, is white and Jewish.)

Aside from the fact that Cain said that “many” African Americans had been brainwashed (as opposed to “all”), both Belcher and Fleischer, along with Anderson Cooper, seemed to miss the whole point: Cain was criticizing his own race, not another race (or religion or ethnicity). Isn’t this the crux of the matter?

That’s certainly the case in the realm of humor, where many ethnic jokes that are considered extremely funny “within the family,” are off limits to those “outside the family.” So, a Jew can tell a Jewish joke that is quite disparaging about his people, and other Jews (and even Gentiles) will find it very funny. But if a Gentile told the same joke, it might not go over well.

It’s also the case with some ethnic terminology. Consider, for example, the volatile “n- word,” which the online Urban Dictionary states is “a term that is racist, as long as the speaker of it is not black.” So, some African Americans might use the word in a casual way with each other, but if a white person used it, they’d be called on the carpet (unless that white person happened to a hip-hop rapper!).

And this brings us back to the subject of criticism. If it can’t come from within the family, where can it come from? If I, as a white American, can’t criticize my fellow white Americans, then who can? And if a black American can’t criticize his fellow black Americans, who can? In order for criticism of your own race to be racist, it would have to cross some very serious lines.

Was candidate Barack Obama racist when he spoke to a black congregation on Father’s Day, June 15, 2008, and said that “too many fathers are missing from too many lives and too many homes”? He continued, “They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.” Was this racist?

Was Dr. Martin Luther King guilty of racism when he said, “The shattering blows on the Negro family have made it fragile, deprived, and often psychopathic”? To be sure, he was criticizing outside forces that had devastated the “Negro family,” but if a white man described a black family in such terms, he would surely have been branded racist. Who but someone like King could have made such remarks?

In August, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, an African American, got national headlines for his passionate remarks during a Sunday message to his home congregation. Addressing black youth who had been on the rampage in the city, Nutter said, “You’ve damaged yourself, you’ve damaged another person, you’ve damaged your peers and, quite honestly, you’ve damaged your own race.” Was this racist?

In words quoted across the country, Nutter said to the young people, “Take those God darn hoodies down, especially in the summer. Pull your pants up and buy a belt ’cause no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt. Nobody.”

To the moms and dads he said, “Parents who neglect their children, who don’t know where they are, who don‘t know what they’re doing, who don‘t know who they’re hanging out with, you’re going to find yourself spending some quality time with your kids in jail.”

To the fathers in particular he said: “If you’re not providing the guidance, and you’re not sending any money, you’re just a sperm donor.” Did Cornell Belcher criticize Mayor Nutter’s comments as racist? In comparison, Herman Cain’s “brainwashed” comments are pretty mild.

There is actually a book entitled, Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, by Tom Burrell, an African American and a highly successful advertiser. (Note that Burrell completed his book after Mr. Obama became president.) Is Burrell guilty of writing a racist book?

The opening quote in the Brainwashed book is from Malcolm X: “You’ve been misled. You been had. You been took.” Were Malcom X’s comments racist? Obviously not. And neither were Herman Cain’s.