Disgraced negro Jayson Blair is in the news again. It seems that the
Reading the many news reports on Blair’s new career made me remember how thoroughly he screwed up his last career. These reports also remind me how mainstream media depict Blair’s blackness as central to his deceit and his shoddy work.
The predictable way in which the Blair case played out in the media gives us an opportunity to illustrate the two broad rules governing how black screw-ups are perceived (and therefore judged) in mainstream American public discourse. These rules also shape how black folks respond to black screw-ups.
A version of the first rule is stated at around the 5 minute mark of this snippet from Chris Rock’s 2004 stand-up special Never Scared:
Rule 1: A black person who screws up is attacked more severely than is a white person who screws up.
In Rock’s corollary, “only the white man can profit from pain.” The words “wrongdoing” and “incompetence” can often replace “pain,” but the point stands. Rule 1 is what responsible black parents instill in their children when they state, “you have to be x times as good as a white person in order to succeed” (whether x is 2 or 5 or 10 depends on the parent, the place, and the year).
In popular discourse, Jayson Blair has become the poster boy for plagiarism. When I see this yoke placed on the lone black writer among the dozens of contemporary mainstream writers busted for plagiarism, my antennae go up (think also of high profile black offenders becoming the poster children for corruption and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system).
The journalistic fraud of former New Republic associate editor Stephen Glass was arguably as impressive as Blair’s; nevertheless, the public was more sympathetic to Glass’ fictionalized (auto)biographical novel The Fabulist as well as the movie it spawned, Shattered Glass than they were to Blair’s opportunistic literary cash grab, Burning Down My Master’s House. Glass certainly received his fair share of loathing, but, as evidenced by the sneering undertones pervading the reports of Blair’s new career, there is a little something extra in the condemnation of Blair.
Those who point out Rule 1 are often accused of “playing the race card,” which is supposed to imply a refusal to hold black people personally accountable for their self-inflicted woes. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Rule 2: The misdeeds of any black screw-up are attributed not just to that lone screw-up, but to black people as a whole.
Rule 2 is significantly more pernicious than the first. One of the biggest advantages of being white is having the luxury of being treated as an individual—for people who aren’t white, the sins of any become the sins of all, while the good deeds of any are exceptional and are used to denounce the masses (“you’re one of the good ones;” “why can’t the rest of you be like so-and-so?”).
Mainstream media framing the Blair affair as a black mark against affirmative action is an example of Rule 2 in action. This framing is hardly surprising coming from conservative opponents of affirmative action, but the affirmative action meme has also featured heavily in liberals’ accounts of the scandal, though sometimes merely as a foil. Such an interpretation calls into question the qualifications and character of all people of color and, most insidiously, undermines formal attempts to address systemic exclusion.
Rule 2 can also bolster the notion that the failures of a black screw-up can be attributed to some inherently flawed aspect of black culture (e.g. homophobia, misogyny, violence, anti-intellectualism).
Contrary to popular opinion, black people are the harshest critics of black screw-ups. Even though black people know the rules are unfair, the attitude seems to be that if you’re too reckless or stupid to ignore the rules, you get what you deserve. It should be noted that this attitude is not borne of defeatism or internalized self-hatred, but of individual and collective self interest: black screw-ups make us all look bad.
There is often black pushback against both rules, however. Black people may relent in their criticism of a black screw-up when it appears that whites are giving the knife in the back of that black screw-up an extra twist. Since explicit, anti-black animus has been driven from public discourse, these impulses must be either coded or channeled into publicly acceptable outlets. Black people can usually sense when white folks are criticizing a black screw-up in order to vent their anger toward black people in general.
I am willing to forgive Blair’s past screw-ups, and I wish him much success in his new endeavor, but since the rest of us are penalized for his missteps, he’d better not screw up again.