I received an odd text from an African-American friend this week who wanted to offer his take on the plight of “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett.
When I opened his text I saw no words, only a picture. It was a photoshopped edit of Smollett’s anxious face sitting behind the wheel of O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco as a column of police squad cars trailed behind him.
The photo was a riff on Simpson’s infamous 1994 low-speed chase. The doctored image became a social media meme after Smollett was arrested by police this week for allegedly faking a racist hate crime against himself.
But there is another parallel between Smollett and Simpson that hardly anyone is talking about.
Simpson was able to rally support for himself during and after his murder trial by “deciding to become a black man.” He attended black churches for support, huddled with civil right activists, said he was a victim of a racist conspiracy – he did everything but don a dashiki.
Smollett, too, has claimed he is a victim of white racism and gained initial support from black leaders. But in a new era where Donald Trump is in the Oval Office, Bill Cosby is in jail and R&B singer R. Kelly is headed to court, Smollett may soon learn that the rules have changed for black celebrities caught in deep legal trouble.
He may discover that his race card has expired.
There was a time when the black community gave unconditional support to black public figures who invoked racism, but Smollett’s case is already showing how that script is being rewritten.
Blacks are becoming more savvy about the difference between “authentic blackness” and “strategic blackness,” says Tanya Hernandez, a professor at Fordham University’s School of Law in New York City.
“The contemporary Trump world means we don’t have the luxury to be uncritical about who gets our communal love and support,” says Hernandez, author of “Multiracials and Civil Rights: Mixed-Race Stories of Discrimination.”
Hernandez says the black community and its allies cannot continue “to carry brothers who act in ways that call into question the existence of real violence and bias.”
“We are literally being killed,” she says, “and there is no room to carry parasites.”
Doubling-down on blackness
There’s an inside joke in the black community that we’ll forgive anything as long as an embattled black public figure follows a well-worn script. I’ve seen it in action. I’ve felt its tug.
I was living in Washington, D.C., when Marion Barry, a former civil rights activist, was caught on film smoking crack with a prostitute – while he was the city’s mayor. When the FBI crashed into a hotel room to nab him in the act, Barry uttered the line that would follow him the rest of his life: “B—- set me up!”
Barry, though, had a Plan B – he played that race card.
He started saying he was a victim of a racist media, once said his accusers were trying to “lynch” him, and began wearing Afrocentric garb. It worked. He resurrected his political career after many of his black supporters forgave him. And he won a fourth term as mayor in 1994.
I’ve seen this story play out time and time again. I get the impulse. Barry, for example, was more than his flaws. He risked his life for racial progress. Not many people can say that. Some of us black folks figured that we, not white people, get to decide who our leaders are.
Yet this attitude can lead to some surreal situations when black public figures who rarely seemed like allies suddenly discover their inner-Black Lives Matter when their careers falter or they face legal trouble.
Remember Michael Jackson?
The late pop star’s relationship to his blackness was so ambiguous that you could literally see it in his face. But he, too, doubled-down on his blackness when times got tough.
When he began to feud with his record labels and his album sales declined, he teamed up with civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton and the late attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. and charged the recording industry with stealing from black artists. He accused a record company chairman of using the n-word. He even briefly aligned himself with the Nation of Islam, a black separatist religious group.
Even Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas played up his racial victimization after he was accused of sexual harassment. Thomas had spent much of his life lecturing blacks about not thinking of themselves as victims of racism. But when his nomination to the high court faltered, he declared that he was the victim of a “high-tech lynching,” a rhetorical move that put his critics on the defensive.
Of course, to say this behavior is confined to black people would be wrong. And in many cases brown and black people are right when they claim racism. We’ve seen plenty of videos to back that up in recent years.
But all sorts of groups use their version of the race card.
“When the walls are closing in on you, you will use every tool you can. Black folk are no different,” says Wes Jackson, founder and executive director of the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival.
“Knowing that the boot of white supremacy and the invisible hand is always on your neck, some claim it when they need a pass. Others ignore it when it gets them into country clubs and galas. No different than a sinner seeing Jesus once the judge bangs the gavel.”
There’s another reason why the race card never seems to expire. There’s been a tradition in the black community of not airing our dirty laundry. We’re not supposed to criticize our public figures. Like athletes on professional teams, we’re supposed to keep our mess in-house.
I remember what happened when I crossed that line. After I wrote a story critical of a black leader, I received an email from a famous black writer who had befriended and mentored me. It read: “That was a houseboy article you wrote. I bet your white editors are glad.”
We never spoke again.
When you lose Charles Barkley, you’ve lost Black America
Yet now we’re in an era when we’re so disturbed about so much real racism our tolerance for fakery is getting thin.
This is a challenge Smollett faces.
It may help that he has never tried to distance himself from his black identity. Though he is biracial, he has talked proudly about his heritage and is known for speaking out on racial as well as gay and lesbian issues.
But that’s not helping him much right now. It’s striking how quickly so many black figures are starting to question him.
The rapper Cardi B said Smollett “f—ed up Black History Month” and that she’s “disappointed” in him.
Sharpton said Smollett should face “accountability to the maximum” if it’s discovered that he was lying about the alleged attack.
The black filmmaker Tyler Perry said he was “lost for words” after hearing about Smollett’s arrest and that “to stoke fears and raise racial tensions is wrong.”
NBA Insider host Charles Barkley’s savage riff on Smollett went viral. (“If you’re gonna break the law, do not write a check. Get cash, man.”)
This willingness to take on black figures is bigger than Smollett. You can see it in the changing fortunes of two other black celebrities: Cosby and R. Kelly.
The beginning of the end for Cosby started with a public attack not by a white racist – but by a black comedian, Hannibal Buress, who called him a rapist.
One of the first people to go after R. Kelly about his alleged mistreatment of underage women was not a white prosecutor – it was another black comedian, Dave Chappelle, in his famous “Piss on You” video. Kelly was indicted Friday on 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse involving four victims in Chicago. Kelly has denied the allegations against him.
Hernandez, the Fordham law professor, says this shift started years ago with Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, the woman who accused him of sexual harassment – an accusation Thomas denied. Black leaders criticized black women who supported Hill. Then the black community watched as Thomas “stabbed us in the back” by aligning with anti-black conservative Supreme Court justices, Hernandez says.
“Cosby and R. Kelly don’t get to take black love for granted because we learned a hard lesson with CT,” Hernandez says.
There’s another reason black people seem more willing to openly criticize those who play the race card – a change in the media landscape.
Jenn M. Jackson, a black queer feminist and activist says there’s always been vigorous debate in the black community about our leaders.
What’s different now is that so many more voices can be heard, she says.
“What we do see now is that we have platforms to allow that critique to bubble up, and we have now more visibility,” she says. “We have more people who have podcasts, we have Black Twitter, so now when they make a critique people are listening.”
People like Smollett can’t just don some Afrocentric clothing and invoke vague racial conspiracies to get the black community behind them anymore.
More black people are seeing this truth:
When we unconditionally protect every black public figure, we sometimes end up doing something far more damaging – not protecting the people in our community who need it the most.
“People are willing to be truthful and real and say, ‘Yes this person looks like us, but we’re going to call it out because it needs to be called out,’” says Jeffrey Gardere, a commentator and psychologist who teaches at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City.
“We’re not going to coddle, hide, we’re not going to ignore anymore. You see that with the allegations against R. Kelly.”
Smollett’s path to redemption?
If the O.J. approach doesn’t work as well, where does that leave Smollett?
There is one group even more marginalized than blacks or the LBGQT community.
Gardere says if it is proven that Smollett staged a hoax, he won’t be angry or disappointed. He would be concerned as a psychologist that Smollett would do something so self-destructive and bizarre.
“It would speak to maybe severe emotional trauma and other issues that have never been truly addressed,” Gardere says.
Smollett’s story has veered from discussions about race, sexual orientation and politics. But if it’s true that he perpetuated a hoax, Smollett may be able to get the black community and others to rally behind him by talking about another subject, Gardere says.
“Even throughout this bizarre thing, he’s made a lot of positive and very intelligent statements about being African-American and being part of the LGBTQ community, Gardere says. “But he may have to bring a third part into this, and that is the importance of mental health. Maybe that will get him, if he did this thing, the proper redemption.”
Stay tuned. There may be more twists in Smollett’s story in the months ahead. But we can be assured of one thing: The next time a black celebrity tries to get out of a jam by playing the race card, the black community won’t simply respond with unconditional support.
Instead they may send him or her a new message:
Your race card has been declined.