BET boss Johnson: Sleaze and self-loathing

April 20, 2008|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

I bet Sen. Hillary Clinton wishes Bob Johnson would stop trying to help her.

Mr. Johnson is the billionaire BET founder and Clinton supporter who embarrassed his candidate and himself during the South Carolina primary by clumsily attempting to inject Sen. Barack Obama's confessed youthful drug use into the campaign and then clumsily denying he was doing it. To judge from his latest comments, he still hasn't learned to engage brain before operating mouth.

In March, Mr. Johnson told The Charlotte Observer that he agreed with comments that forced Geraldine A. Ferraro to resign from Mrs. Clinton's campaign last month. Ms. Ferraro essentially called Mr. Obama the affirmative-action candidate, saying that if he were not black, he would not be the political phenom he is.

Said Mr. Johnson, "What I believe Geraldine Ferraro meant is that if you take a freshman senator from Illinois called 'Jerry Smith' and he says, 'I'm going to run for president,' would he start off with 90 percent of the black vote? And the answer is, probably not."

But Mr. Johnson is wrong about black support for Mr. Obama. As recently as December, Gallup pollsters found Mrs. Clinton had significantly higher favorable ratings among black voters than Mr. Obama did. Of course, that was before Mr. Obama's resounding victory in Iowa, Mrs. Clinton's gaffe about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s role in the civil rights movement, and clanking attempts by Clinton surrogates such as Mr. Johnson to kneecap Mr. Obama.

For the record, Barack Obama became a political phenomenon for the exact reason a political novice named Ross Perot did: He moved voters.

It's not just that Mr. Johnson is wrong on the facts that's galling but, rather, that he is wrong on something deeper. If you are black, after all, you are used to having your achievements - and failures - lazily conflated with your skin color. It's an easy hook for those who lack the imagination or intelligence to dig deeper.

You'd expect Mr. Johnson, as a black man, to know better. Especially since he's surely seen his success diminished this same way. You think no one ever said Mr. Johnson (who, according to a Washington Post report, went to Princeton on an affirmative-action program) only became a billionaire because he's black?

But then, Mr. Johnson has never identified too much with black folks' struggles. He once told C-SPAN that he acknowledged no responsibility to be a role model for his community.

"If I help my family get over and deal with the problems they might confront, then I have achieved that one goal that is my responsibility to society at large," he said.

And the rest of y'all Negroes is on your own.

Mr. Johnson proved his regard for his people for years by exploiting them, poisoning our kids with a video parade of gyrating backsides, gold grills and pimp values, a caricature of black life so unremittingly racist as to make the Ku Klux Klan redundant.

I pity him. He is an American success story and an African-American tragedy: a selfish, sterling example of the self-loathing so common among marginalized peoples.

On the plus side, I don't think he has to worry about being called a role model.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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