Jason Bullock and Cliven Bundy
David Becker/Getty Images
Jason Bullock and Cliven Bundy
David Becker/Getty Images

We’ve all heard it so many times that it’s officially a cliché—everyone who says something that offends a particular group manages to conveniently claim that he has a “friend” in that group—and it’s supposed to be definitive proof that he can’t really be racist, sexist, homophobic or insert-whatever-phobic. The gold standard cliché among all of these consists of the following words:

“But I have a black friend.” 

Chelsea Handler trotted out that defense after being called out for her racially questionable and tasteless “jokes” on Twitter during this year’s Oscar ceremony—playing the black-boyfriend card because she once dated rapper 50 Cent.

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But what’s even more infuriating than someone like Handler engaging in racially offensive behavior and then hiding behind the black-friend defense is when a black person voluntarily defends someone who has clearly caused offense and, instead of holding him accountable, becomes his black-friend shield.

Enter Jason Bullock, an African American who’s been acting as one of Cliven Bundy’s bodyguards and had this to say when asked about the Nevada rancher’s racially inflammatory remarks about “the Negro” “slavery” and “picking cotton”:

"Mr. Bundy is not a racist," he told CNN. "Ever since I've been here, he's treated me with nothing but hospitality. He's pretty much treating me just like his own family,” adding, "I would take a bullet for that man if need be. I look up to him just like I do my own grandfather.”

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It’s strange that Bullock thinks Bundy is worthy of such loyalty, particularly when Bundy has demonstrated, at the very least, that he has questionable attitudes about a certain group of people—black people—and that group includes Bullock. But Bullock is certainly not the first black person to rally and defend someone who has said something indefensible about African Americans.

Whoopi Goldberg defended Mel Gibson after he was caught on tape using the n-word, calling him a “bonehead,” but going on to say, “I know Mel and I know he’s not a racist,” because of her longtime friendship with him, which includes time spent with Gibson and her family in her home.

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Following celebrity chef Paula Deen’s admission that she had, from time to time, used the n-word, her friend the Rev. Gregory Tyson, who is African American, came to her defense, asking, “Who hasn’t used the n-word?” and then arguing, “Using the n-word doesn’t qualify you to be a racist.”

But perhaps one of the most notorious “black friends” we’ve ever seen is Joe Oliver, who made media rounds defending George Zimmerman in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin shooting. I had the chance to ask Oliver on the air if he was there to play the role of “the black friend” on behalf of Zimmerman, but I also asked him this: “Do you think it is impossible for someone to know someone who is black and to have a friendly relationship with them, and yet to not also display racially insensitive characteristics towards black strangers?”

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To which he replied:

I’m sure that could happen and be the case, but I’ve not had that experience. As far as being George’s only black friend, you know, the friends of George’s that I know are my friends, so I would have to search through them to find out how many black ones there are, but the point is, I’m here not because—I volunteered, because I know George. I volunteered because I know George was going to be in a maelstrom because he had no idea, I volunteered because of my understanding of the media, I volunteered because I’m a black man and I understand what is happening because of this story.

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Which perfectly captures what’s so infuriating about the black-friend defense.

We all have moments where we do or say something that unintentionally hurts or offends someone. But a true friend should want to help us become better people, rather than covering for us when we’re wrong. 

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So here’s my message to all the “black friends” who pop up every time there is a race scandal that ensnares one of their nonblack friends. Instead of running to defend someone who has clearly said something racist, be a real friend by saying the following: “He’s always been kind to me and to my family, and I consider him a friend. But as his friend, I am hurt and disappointed by what he’s said and done, and I hope he will work to make amends to all of those he has offended—including me.”

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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