The Useful Idiocy Of White Racism

Natalie Hopkinson zeroes in on something that's always been in the wind, with regard to Cory Booker, Barack Obama, and this "new generation" of black pols--the since that this golden (literally) bunch will save the niggers from themselves:

Newark Mayor Cory Booker was furious about the 8,000-word Esquire magazine profile of him and his beloved city. "I exploded," he says in the new documentary, Brick City, "with just, rage, when I read it." The 2008 article described Booker's heroic quest to awaken the "city of zombies" and the "Goddamn Zulus" residing in Jersey.  Indeed, it was a stunningly racist portrait of Newark and its leader, written by Scott Raab, an accomplished (white) writer you'd expect to know better. When he wasn't summoning violins with purple prose about "cannibal," "animal" violence,  he was anointing Cory Booker as a green-eyed Magical Super Negro, swooping into battle with "old school ghetto despots" to save the "feckless negritude" of Newark. 

You know, typical, stereotypical, welcome-to-the-jungle reporting--Booker as the Great Yellow Hope...

It was an interesting time to complain, as seconds earlier, Cruz had been grilling Booker for their monthly local call-in radio show, and Brick City documentary film cameras recorded the whole exchange. The much talked-about five-part series (directed by Mark Benjamin and Marc Levin and executive produced by Forest Whitaker) debuted last week on the Sundance Channel and will have its encore starting Saturday. Even when he's complaining about the media, to the media, while being filmed by another member of the media, Cory Booker has a message he needs to get out...

Booker knows as well as any other black person in Newark that the endless hagiography being spilled about him since his 2006 election is simplistic and plain inaccurate.

As he told Cruz: "The reality is there are heroes all over this city. I struggle to match their greatness every single day." 

Later, he promised that "we are on pace to make Newark the model for urban transformation."

"We are going to rewrite the books on crime. Newark, New Jersey."

"Look at who is coming to Newark now. Businesses are moving here. Law firms are coming to our city."

Still, as inspiring as Brick City can be, it trades in some of the same Super Negro tropes that were in the Esquire article. In both, Booker willingly plays the role of urban safari tour guide. For the Brick City crew, Booker ignored Cruz's counsel and gave them access for months on end. 

Like Nat (I think) I have some sympathy for Booker. His appeal (like Obama's) trades, in some respect, or some really odious racial thinking. The Esquire piece, (which, as Nat notes, refers to Newark's "feckless negritude," calls Sharpe James a "ghetto despot," and repeatedly refers to random residents as zombies and Booker as Will Smith in I Am Legend) is ugly. Booker, himself, has denounced it along with its white knight pretensions. But at the same time, he must know that a sector of his white support comes from people who really do consider Newark a pit of "feckless negritude," who really do think Booker dethroned a "ghetto despot."

It's a tough position. Obama noted a few months back how, whenever he talks about race, reporters ignore his structural critique and skip right to the "Put away the Playstation" part. As I've said, I've got no problem with "Put away the Playstation." Moreover, Sharpe James is a crook. But there is this sense of being used as a cudgel in someone else's fight, a fight that doesn't simply object to buffoonery and demagoguery, but objects to buffoonery and demagoguery from blacks.

Here is the catch--these are the modern black politician's useful idiots. The calculus holds that it's worth trading time as their cudgel, if it can improve the lives of actual black people. If significant numbers of whites need to believe that Booker and Obama aren't "like the others," that they are "a different kind of black," in order to support them, then I'm not sure what to say. You can hate me, now--as long as your hate comes with a side of health care.

You guys know what this is--Someone, somewhere, will be about the business of washing and disabusing racists. But it's a tiring role, which some of us just don't want to play.

UPDATE: Link fixt.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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