Author John L Jackson, Jr., tells us in his preface about a successful television personality who suddenly and mysteriously walked away from his hit show and a multi-million dollar contract. I have to admit that I’d never seen David Chappelle’s program, had no idea that Chappelle was a comedian, black, or controversial. The story of his impetuous departure, however, and the reason for it turn out to be even more intriguing than the rumored explanations for his behavior.
While taping a skit in which Chappelle played a character in blackface, the actor noticed that a white crew member was laughing. That’s certainly what a comedian hopes for, and yet Chappelle senses that this particular person was laughing derisively, “relishing these racial stereotypes in a destructive way.” For Chappelle, it was a turning point in his life that required him to step away from his hard-earned success and reevaluate the impact of his work. Whether or not the crew member was really exhibiting racism remains unknown; Chappelle’s perception of the event as a discriminatory act may or may not be accurate.
It is that nebulous world in between that is the point of Jackson’s Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness.
Not so long ago, a black man starring in his own television show was unthinkable. Now we have civil rights laws aimed at ensuring non-discrimination, and black television stars are so common and unremarkable that I’d never even heard of this one. Doesn’t that prove that racism is a thing of the past? Was David Chappelle reacting to his own paranoid delusions? Whether or not the white man’s laughter came from a racist core, Chappelle’s sense of being laughed at had a profound effect on his response.
“When racism was explicit, obvious, and legal, there was little need to be paranoid about it,” Jackson tells us. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, before it became illegal to discriminate, black Americas could be very sure of where they stood – at the back of the bus, generally. But while certain behaviors can be outlawed, it’s impossible to regulate thoughts or opinions. We can’t eradicate racism by signing a bill. An unforeseen side effect of civil rights legislation is that bigotry and racism have gone underground. Obvious signs of racial discrimination may not be socially or legally acceptable, but the attitudes are still alive, albeit transformed into a more insidious form.
Jackson reminds us of a classic Saturday Night Live skit, ‘White Like Me,’ in which Eddie Murphy disguises himself as a white man to infiltrate the world of white America. He discovers that things are different when there are no black people around, that white people “aren’t spitting out racist epithets… they actually aren’t treating individual blacks all that badly. They’re just treating one another much better.” No one is violating anyone else’s civil rights, white Murphy discovers, but neither is there equal treatment for both groups.
“De cardio racism is about what the law can’t touch, what won’t be easily proved or disproved, what can’t be simply criminalized and deemed unconstitutional.” It’s about laughter or a look or a tone of voice that clearly convey racism or sexual harassment, for instance, but that can’t be explained to a court or to other people. In fact, attempts to explain the disturbing or threatening nature of such acts can leave the victim looking like a hypersensitive whiner.
Jackson is an anthropologist, trained in the exploration of culture and the effect of its subtler components on the larger community. In this instance, he makes a compelling case for the truth and validity of racial paranoia, as well as its detrimental effect on the goal of racial equality. Filled with relevant examples from popular culture, Racial Paranoia is both an entertaining read and a call to attention. “The first step to take in combating de cardio racism and racial paranoia demands admitting that they exist,” Jackson tells us. Thoughtfully presented and spanning a broad range of examples, Racial Paranoia comes close to laying bare this wispy form of prejudice. More importantly, Jackson makes it possible for readers to get a glimpse of what is driving much of the mistrust between members of different cultures, and thereby to understand how we might go about achieving a truly egalitarian society.