When White Men Mess Up, All Is Forgiven

Whether it’s drugs, thugs or a bruising football loss, the media find a way to forgive and forget.

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Philip Seymour Hoffman

GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/GettyImages

This was not a great week for white men. And what we may have learned is a lesson that should be obvious but is not always apparent, with the media spotlight usually affixed on people of color and their poor choices or misfortunes. 

The lesson is that white men can succumb to drugs, even if they happen to be among the most celebrated actors in Hollywood; they can unravel and threaten lives of innocent bystanders without provocation, even if they walk the halls of Congress; and they can decisively lose a Super Bowl and not be attacked for a lack of acumen or intellect. 

White men can do all this and still awaken with the protections of privilege and entitlement and, most important, the benefit of the doubt. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman, a respected and talented white male actor, succumbed after a long battle with heroin, aka “smack.” He allegedly died alone in his apartment with a needle in his arm. A few months ago, one of the stars of Glee, Cory Monteith, overdosed in a Canadian hotel room. And though you don’t hear of many black men on smack, we are often exposed to images and statistics to show that black men are disproportionately abusing drugs or serving time for it. 

Yet the reporting on these stars is more often than not tinged with sympathy over their angst-ridden struggles with rehab and relapse, a romantic longing for the lives they lost and the turmoil they lived. One died in a pricey hotel room, the other in Greenwich Village.

Last week we saw one of the most boorish displays of bullying by a white male politician, Michael Grimm, who also earned his “thug” stripes for threatening to physically injure a reporter. Contrast that with the boisterous response of Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman, whose name has now become synonymous in some circles with thuggery. Sherman will likely be hounded forever for his isolated “crime of passion,” but Grimm’s impropriety is already forgiven and forgotten in the annals of history.

This past week, the state of New Jersey served as a backdrop for poor leadership in politics and in sports. Gov. Chris Christie spent the week on the defensive for what he did or did not know about George Washington Bridge-gate, and there was a considerably poorer display of offensive skills shown by Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium during Super Bowl XLVIII. Manning was obviously out of sync with his team on Sunday night, and Seahawk Russell Wilson outwitted Manning every time he got the ball.

However, on Monday morning, the game’s narrative was more focused on Manning’s stellar legacy and his fifth MVP win, with not one major media outlet challenging his intellect or dexterity over such a woeful loss. And this is as it should be in an ideal world, but had the tables been turned and Wilson had lost, he and his team, including Sherman, might have suffered a tongue-lashing similar to what Donovan McNabb had to endure after Super Bowl XXXIX, when he could not lead the Philadelphia Eagles to a victory. His loss was only by 3 points, 24-21, yet immediately after the game, the criticisms flooded in from all angles, with little or no attempt to find his many redeeming qualities. Even McNabb himself admits that he is probably the most criticized quarterback in NFL history.

In support of the Seahawks’ victory Sunday night, there was a collective exhale heard around the world. For many men of color, the Seahawks’ victory served as redemption for the unsubstantiated hypothesis that has sullied the history of the NFL for years: the notion that black men have the brawn to play football but lack the brains to lead teams successfully as quarterbacks. Wilson proved to more than 111.5 million football fans around the world that a black man is not only capable of leading a team to victory but can also display the postgame humility that is not usually associated with black sportsmen.

Yes, this week was a bad week for white men, but this is not something to celebrate or even mock. Instead, the behavior and lack of leadership displayed by our white male counterparts this week, and the subsequent reporting, further prove that there is plenty of work to be done in the way of equality and parity for black men who are constantly under the scrutiny of an unforgiving media spotlight.

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