Reflections on race and reflexive response

April 04, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - I'll be honest. I have trouble seeing Robert Kelly as a victim. The singer, professionally known as R. Kelly, stands accused by Chicago authorities of child pornography, the chief evidence of which is a videotape that allegedly shows him having sex with an underage girl. Similar charges in Florida were tossed last month on a technicality.

So, while Mr. Kelly is certainly entitled to the legal presumption of innocence, he hardly seems like a fellow who should be greeted with trophies and applause. Both of which he received during the recently televised Soul Train Music Awards. Indeed, Mr. Kelly's legal troubles over the last two years have barely slowed his career. His music continues to rack up multiplatinum sales, and in January he was nominated for, of all things, an NAACP Image Award.

It's emblematic of something that makes me sad and, paradoxically, proud. I refer to the way the black community circles the wagons when one of our own is in trouble.

The impulse isn't that difficult to understand. Our history has taught us to be suspicious of "justice" and expectant of unfairness. It has made each of us a mirror for the difficulties of the other. So one of us in trouble becomes all of us in trouble.

Honesty compels me to confess that I have been a beneficiary of that impulse; years back, I wrote a column that made a valid point but used an obnoxious and racially incendiary tone in doing so. The piece raised an almighty ruckus. Folks demanded my head on a pike. And that was just my friends.

In the midst of that, I got a call from a black woman representing a group whose name I've since forgotten. But I'll never forget what she said: she'd heard a rumor - unfounded, as far as I know - that I was going to be fired. She said her group was prepared to hold a protest rally in front of the newspaper.

It was one of those moments when you wouldn't trade black for anything. I told the lady her offer was unnecessary but greatly appreciated. I've always been warmed by the thought that people, my people, were so ready to go to war on my behalf.

Unfortunately, we are often indiscriminate in that readiness, expending energy and political capital regardless of who is in trouble or why. Regardless of anything, except that he or she is black.

And here, I'm thinking of Tawana Brawley, who some of us supported even after her claim of abuse at the hands of white men had been discredited. I'm thinking of O. J. Simpson, whose case became a black "cause" even though he cut his visible ties to the black community years before his arrest. I'm thinking of Jermaine Jackson, crying "racism" on behalf of his brother Michael. And never mind that br'er Mike has undertaken to scrape every last trace of black - and man - from his face.

And yes, I'm thinking of Mr. Kelly, who stood on the Soul Train stage mouthing platitudes about God while the audience showered him with applause.

I understand supporting a favorite performer when he or she is in trouble. I also understand being so bound by misguided notions of racial loyalty that one supports without thinking, supports past the point when conscience and common sense would suggest otherwise. It makes us seem ... predictable. And reflexive.

We - blacks - ought to be more thoughtful about who we choose to rally around, ought to be less automatic in leaping to the defense. Yes, we are forgiving people in a forgiving nation. But we need to grow beyond the notion that someone deserves our support because he is black and in trouble.

After all, we've spent 400 years trying to get white people to understand that black is not a flaw. Sometimes, though, we ourselves forget: It's not a character reference, either.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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