ANTIRACIST DISCOURSE, GENDER, AND THE POLITICS OF RESPECTABILITY
The issue of airing our dirty [laundry] becomes more painful to us [Black people]. It’s because blacks’ image in the media is a negative one, and people feel that under no circumstance should we talk about these things [violence against women in the Black community] in a public forum.
[Many Blacks] are bothered that black men "are being used as the poster children for every domestic issue around": sexual harassment (Clarence Thomas), date rape (Mike Tyson), child abuse (Michael Jackson), domestic violence (O. J. Simpson). That white men—from Senator Bob Packwood to Woody Allen—have also been accused of sexual misconduct is irrelevant; with a white man, it is an individual matter, but when a black man is implicated, the entire race may feel impugned.
-E. R. Shipp129
What I’ve tried to suggest is that there is a relationship between the privileged victim of status of Black men in antiracist discourse and the construction of O. J. Simpson as a racial victim in the antiracist discourse about the Simpson trial. I have argued that the gendered nature of Black political symbols and cultural narratives helps to explain the support O. J. Simpson received from certain segments of the Black community. As Eleanor Holmes Norton suggests, to many Black Americans it was not O. J. Simpson per se who was on trial but rather "every black man."130 The Simpson case came to symbolize police excess and criminal injustice, and Simpson came to represent "another Black man being put down by the system." The construction of Simpson as "another Black man" is intended to make a statement not only about racism in the criminal justice system but also about the endangered status of Black men: does the Black community want to send another Black man to jail, particularly when there is evidence of police misconduct?
Part of the problem with the construction of the Black male victim icon in antiracist discourse is its basis in "innocent" or "respectable" images of Black men. Thus, the propriety of a particular legal or political strategy is sometimes measured by whether such a strategy manifests a positive or a negative representation of Black manhood. But, as the O. J. Simpson case illustrates, this approach does not always make sense. To concede that O. J. Simpson abused his ex-wife (i. e., to recognize that he is not "innocent" of domestic abuse and in this respect represents a negative, "unrespectable" image of Black manhood) is not to deny that he might have been a victim of racism. Both could be true. Thus, Simpson’s racial victim status should not depend on whether he physically abused his exwife. Yet the "innocent" or "respectable" image of Black men seems to be precisely what some antiracist proponents want to preserve. They are reluctant to confront and resolve issues that seem to confirm the image of Black men as violent and sexually aggressive. Professor Zook provides a good example of this in her recounting of a conversation she had with a member of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund:
More than twenty-three years have gone by since Shirley Chisolm’s failed Presidential campaign, but today, black feminism is not only a shunned political platform; it has become the great unspoken. When
I talked to [a member] of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, she chided me by speaker phone. Writing about black feminism only "contributes to the Willie Hortonization of black men,” she said, and warned me to "think hard” before embarking on such an "injurious” path.131
The "innocent” or "respectable" Black male image is considered to be essential to Black civil rights agendas. "[I]n a society where Black men are vilified as animalistic and violent, shining a light on the abuse of Black women often is seen as adding fuel to the fires of racist stereotypes.”132 Because of these concerns–which might be characterized as a politics of respectability–Black female writers have sometimes been criticized for airing dirty laundry about Black male physical and sexual aggression of Black women, even in the context of fic – tion.133 Moreover, this concern helps to explain why Black civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP and the National Rainbow Coalition, have not seriously addressed domestic violence.134
Although the concern that antiracist discourse not compound negative stereotypes of Black men should not become an absolute principle, it is politically legitimate; "many predominately male abusive behaviors never arrive on the national agenda until a Black man is available to take the rap.”135 Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of The Assassination of the Black Male Image, makes this point well:
Sex harassment—although it should have been of concern for many years—became an issue because of Hill-Thomas—two Black people. Child sexual abuse, which certainly should have been an issue for many years, became a national focus because of Michael Jackson—a Black man. Date rape—Mike Tyson, a Black man. Now we have domestic violence and maybe, worse, spousal murder—O. J. Simpson [a Black man].136
Hutchinson’s observation relates to the problem of how Black men are represented in popular culture: negative images of Black men are rarely balanced by more positive images.137 There is justifiable concern about the extent to which a Black civil rights agenda compounds the negative representation of Black men. The question, though, is really how that concern ought to be negotiated, not whether it is appropriate to formulate an antiracist agenda such that "[t]he struggle against racism. . . compel[s] the subordination of certain aspects of the Black female experiences."138 Domestic abuse cannot continue to be the Black community’s "dirty little secret" because of legitimate concerns about the Black male image. Challenging the negative representations of Black men does not require the obfuscation of domestic abuse by Black men. That O. J. Simpson became a racial victim in a way that obscured the violence he inflicted on his ex-wife should be cause for concern.