Friday, August 28, 2009

Jayson Blair & the 2 Rules of Judging Black Screw-Ups

Disgraced negro Jayson Blair is in the news again. It seems that the black Leprechaun former New York Times journalist and plagiarist has reinvented himself as a life coach (notice how all the pics on his homepage are of white people). In all seriousness, if Blair is indeed on the path back to respectable negrodom, I have to applaud him.

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.


Big Man said...

Don't forget the missteps of journalistic superstar Jack Kelley...

Also, in regars to point 2, it was amazing how Blair's screwup became a chance to debate Affirmative Action in hiring, yet everybody in the media claimed that their reaction to him had nothing to do with race.

That was funny.

Mark Prime (tpm/Confession Zero) said...

When one makes a point to claim "It's not about race!" you can bet your bottom dollar that that is exactly what it's about...

When someone makes it a point to claim, "I'm not a racist!", nine times out of ten, they damn well are... But then I'm preaching to the choir, eh?

Thank you for the Chris Rock video.

It is a bit odd that Blair's new site "Life Coach" has all white people on the front page, save perhaps for the bottom pic, which may well be a black hand -underneath- a white hand, oh my, but overall it is a bit odd. Not as odd as a plagiarist being a life coach, but odd nonetheless.

Jordan said...

I'm not gonna argue race didn't factor into it, but there's a huge difference between the NY Times and the New Republic. Stephen Glass plagiarized at some magazine most people haven't heard of, Jayson Blair's plagiarism brought the integrity of the country's most famous and respectable newspaper-and by extension the whole profession of journalism-into question. That said the reaction was kinda fucked up.

Anonymous said...

Why do all the white screw ups get movies made about them? The Quiz Show and Charles Van Doren (seen as falling victim to the crass greediness of tv); The Hoax celebrating the chutzpah of Clifford Irving who wrote/made up a biography of Howard Hughes; Richard Nixon who authorized crime against adversaries; Bill Clinton who had his d... sucked by his employee; George Bush who bankrupted his companies and used his father's connections to get elected governor of Texas and then actually get elected as President! But black people aren't allowed to rehabilitate themselves much less get a movie. At least Tyson got a film but I can't think of too many black people who are allowed to redeem themselves -- Michael Jackson died trying.

gordon gartrelle said...

If Blair is sincere, he'd be a great life coach.

Would I pay him? Hell no. But I'm sure there's a market for his services.

gordon gartrelle said...


Black screw-ups don't get the same opportunities for redemption because there is no real room for complexity in black characters in mianstream Hollywood; you have your saints and your sinners.

Black saints can have flaws, especially past ones (think the Ray Charles biopic depicting his womanizing and drug addiction), but black screw-ups can never be redeemed.

But, I think that fear of a backlash from black public scolds may play a big role. The respectable negro patrol would not be happy if a Hollywood studio started bankrolling movies about black screw-ups (by screw-ups I don't mean poor thugs and dead beats; I mean middle class strivers who screw up). They'd shout, "why won't they make movies about Mary McCleod Bethune?" (well, for one, it would make about $30 at the box office.)

jayson blair said...

Excellent post. Well-written and thought out, hilarious and painfully true. Best, Jayson Blair