A week after the great debate over whether Charles Ramsey is an American hero or another American casualty of media-induced racial stereotyping or both after helping save the lives of the three kidnapped Cleveland women, one thing is now clear. Ramsey has done the seemingly impossible. He's turned racial stereotyping on its head. First, there's the racial stereotype that was dredged up and endlessly rehashed about Ramsey. His appearance fit the typecast image of an impoverished barely illiterate, clownish and buffoonish ghetto dweller. This was topped off by the speedy revelation that Ramsey had a criminal record which included of all things, domestic violence. Even Ramsey's pronouncement that he would take no reward money or donations for his act but would donate any money collected to the women to help them get their lives back was greeted with skepticism that this was just a con to get more attention, and a bigger payday down the road.
Each of these stereotypical hits on Ramsey was snatched at because of the long, savage, and repeatedly pile-driven totem image of poor black men as crime, drug, and violence-prone predators. It's further reinforced by the grossly disproportionate number of African-American males that pack America's jails and prisons. Ramsey himself seemed to give some credence to the colossal terror that some whites have about black men with his quip that "I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran to a black man's arms, Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway."
But even in the rush to pick at Ramsey and his past, and the furious debate over just how he should be viewed, a breakthrough truth emerged. That is that millions of Americans across all racial and gender lines warmly hailed Ramsey not as a hero, or a noble man who did a noble act, both of which certainly apply, but just a real human being with no pretensions who has played the card's life dealt him to the best of his ability. This was evident in the enraged backlash on websites, blogs, and in editorial comments from a legion of writers. All were incensed that race was even mentioned in the Ramsey story, and even more enraged at the notion that Ramsey was a racial caricature.
The debate over Ramsey and racial stereotyping became a debate not so much because he could be construed as an archetypical reinforcer of the worst subliminal fears and overt prejudices about black men. It became a debate because it seemed to mock the notion that America in the election and reelection of President Obama had become a post-racial society. The gaping disparities in education, incarceration, education, health and wealth, and poverty between blacks and whites is overwhelming proof that America is still light years away from attaining the lofty post-racial America dream. The case can even be made that Obama is a near textbook example of the racial exceptional African American. This is the penchant of some whites to make artificial distinctions between supposedly good and bad blacks. It's apparent in the unthinking, infuriating, insulting, and just plain dumb crack made to some articulate, well-educated blacks in business and the professions that they are different than other blacks.
The notion of a racial exceptional black stems from the ingrained, but terribly misplaced, belief that blacks are perennially disgruntled, hostile, and rebellious, and are always on the lookout for any real or perceived racial slight, and they ache to pick a fight over it. African Americans who don't fit this brash, outspoken, faintly threatening type have been touted, praised, even anointed over time by some as the reasoned voice of black America.
This, however, doesn't negate the fact that a significant number, perhaps a majority of whites, do not reflexively associate the old crime, violence, and dereliction stereotypes with even the poorest, most downtrodden blacks. This in part reflects the fast racial changing demographics in America, an America that's well on its way to becoming a majority-minority country within the next few decades. It's also in part due to a half century of change in law and public policy that has made any public expression of racism taboo. The penalty for crossing the line is an instant smack down of the offender.
Ramsey then was a prime benefactor of the evolution of racial thinking in America -- an evolution that's a continuing work in progress. But it's an evolution that's in forward motion. The next step in that evolution is to reach the point when an African-American male such as Ramsey with all the top heavy baggage he carries does a good or better yet a bad deed and will not be the butt of endless debate about the role of race in his or her actions. He will be seen as just a good or bad man, hero or villain, without putting a racial notation in front of hero or villain. But for now Ramsey and his act and the overwhelming public defense of him stood racial stereotypes on their head.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new ebook is How the NRA Terrorizes Congress--The NRA's Subversion of the Gun Control Debate (Amazon). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.