A friend of mine once referred to a prominent black conservative writer as a "blackface mercenary." In kind of a knee-jerk response, I agreed, since I disagree with most so-called black conservatives.
On deeper reflection, I asked myself: is that really a fair characterization? And then I recalled a curious little essay by one black neo-conservative writer on how hip-hop holds blacks back. It dawned on me then that there really is a simple formula to being a neo-conservative Negro columnist:
You first take small incidents out of day-to-day experience and cast them as proof of a stereotypical weakness about blacks or African American culture more broadly. Then you caustically deride black leaders as compromised victimologists who would excuse even the most absurd behavior. And finally, you praise the virtues of a "mainstream" (read: white) common sense that knows better. This is a playbook worth studying carefully since, I'm told, the job pays well.
Three events out of my own recent experiences provided me with great fodder to join the ranks of the blackface mercenaries on the right.
Consider the case of what I call the able-bodied welfare cheats. As I sat sipping coffee at Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square one afternoon, a table of three men in their late thirties or early forties sat next to me and began talking quite volubly. To my amazement, the entire conversation was about how to get money from city and state social welfare agencies and where to show up for the best free meals.
The men were each dressed in worn and tattered clothing, though not obviously homeless. Each was unshaven but looked well-fed and reasonably healthy. The whole conversation was about "working the system" and with the most distressing tone of entitlement I had ever heard from what I took to be able-bodied, middle-aged men. Take that, Jesse Jackson, you hopeless apologist for welfare cheats! I thought to myself.
If I were a conservative columnist, I would have had all the ammunition I needed for my next column! Well, all except for the fact that I am a liberal and, more importantly, perhaps, that the three men were white. Darn it!
Later that day, walking through Cambridge back to my office, I was nearly bumped into traffic by three marauding teenage boys on skateboards. To begin with, I have come to detest skateboards. These young boys had found a set of stairs to launch themselves off of and skid to a stop before hurtling into the street. Near the top of the steps, they had set up a boom box playing the worst, discordant music imaginable. This struck me as another occasion where I might write a conservative tirade against unruly urban youth. And it would surely have worked except that I am a liberal, and the music they were listening to was not hip-hop, but "death metal." And, as you might now guess, the skateboarding marauders were all white. Darn it!
The next day I caught the ACELA train from Boston to New York. When the trained stopped in Providence, R.I., three twenty-something-year-olds got on, and sat at the table opposite me and my wife. Because of their relative youth and the fact that they were all evidently enjoying one another's company, my first thought was, "Oh boy, now things are going to get loud and silly in here." I began to brace myself in angry anticipation since, to that point, the ride had been quiet and pleasant.
To my surprise, once the train started up again the two young men and the one young lady each broke out earphone headsets, iPods and notepads. For the remainder of the ride to New York, they each quietly made some notes. Occasionally one of the twenty-somethings would pull off his or her ear phones to ask a question or to have a brief chat. But, in the main, they were as ordinary and well-behaved as any group of adults on the ACELA that day (or any other day for that matter).
And I thought to myself, here is a nifty foil for my entrée into black neo-conservative discourse. The Rev. Al Sharpton could learn from this example! These neatly dressed, well-behaved young adults are such a contrast to the boisterous, ill-mannered urban denizens one normally expects to find on public transportation these days. If I were a black conservative commentator, I had all of the inspiration I needed for the next day's column. Except for the facts: again, I am a liberal, and, moreover, all three of the young people on that ACELA ride with me that day were African American. Darn it!
In reflecting on these three incidents, the double whammy hit me: first, while a sizeable chunk of mainstream America has a voracious appetite for denunciation of "black" misbehavior, there is no market whatever for denunciation of "white" misbehavior. When the latter happens that, of course, is just plain old, idiosyncratic misbehavior not worthy of distinctly racial-typing, even if somehow newsworthy. Second, there is no appetite for tales of ordinary everyday black folks just doing good. How does an aspiring blackface mercenary make money off of that, I mused?
Confirming negative stereotypes is so much more valuable than refuting them. Is "blackface mercenary" a fair characterization of neo-conservative Negroes? I suppose it all hinges on what highly selective reading of day-to-day events you want to make. And, of course, how much someone is willing to pay you for it.
Lawrence Bobo is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.