Good Blacks, Bad Blacks: From Washington and DuBois to Morgan Freeman and Colin Kaepernick

Photo by 7beachbum | CC BY 2.0

White America, for the most part, makes a critical distinction between “good” and “bad” Black Americans – and a related distinction between “good” and “bad” Black behavior.  It goes way back.

During the 1960s, for example, Muhammad Ali was a “good Negro” when he seemed to be just a happy-go-lucky wise-cracking Olympic Gold Medal winner named Cassius Clay.  Most whites still approved of Clay when he defeated the “bad Negro” Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion. Liston struck most whites as an urban thug.

But when Clay became Ali, a proud Black nationalist who refused induction to help the white U.S. imperialists kill brown-skinned peasants in Vietnam, he became a “bad Negro.”  White America preferred non-militant Black fighters like Floyd Paterson and Joe Frazier to the magnificent Black Nationalist Muhammad Ali.

The great Black Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown was a “good Negro” as long as he was setting new records while staying silent politically on and off the gridiron.  Brown lost his luster in White America one year after he left football and called the Muhammad Ali Summit, bringing some of the nation’s top Black athletes to Cleveland to voice support for Ali’s refusal to be drafted.  Among the courageous sportsmen who came in for white criticism for attending Brown’s 1967 summit were Boston Celtics great Bill Russell and future NBA superstar Lew Alcindor, who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

Millions of white Americans cheered as they watched U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos take the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.  But when Smith and Carlos raised their fists in Black Power salutes on the medals podium, it was a great scandal in white America.

It isn’t just about sports, of course. The great Black actor and singer Paul Robeson was a hit with white audiences playing Othello on Broadway during the World War II. Whites cheered him then as they had in Rutgers’ football stadium during his All-American college football career. But Robeson was shunned and blacklisted because of his anti-racist and other leftist political views after the war.

The obedient Black race-accommodator Booker T. Washington was invited to dine at the White House with Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.  No U.S. President ever offered an invitation to Washington’s Black rival and critic, the great W.E.B. DuBois, who founded the NAACP and advocated militant Black challenges to white supremacism.

Harry Belafonte was just peachy-keen with white America when he was seen as the handsome, happy go-lucky singer of Caribbean folk-tunes like “The Banana Boat Song” (“Day-O”).   His Caucasian stock fell when his Left world view was reflected in his eloquent advocacy of, and financial support for, the struggle for Black equality during the 1960s.

While widely reviled across the white U.S. South, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was seen by many U.S. whites as the nice liberal, Christian, and moderate “good Negro” alternative to the ultimate “bad Negro” – the brilliant and angry Black nationalist Malcolm X – during the early 1960s.  But King’s reputation with much of moderate and liberal white America fell when his own radicalism became more evident as he moved from dismantling southern Jim Crow to confronting what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated” – racism, poverty/class inequality, and imperial militarism – in the urban North and across the whole nation.

A Black woman dedicated to the struggle against racial and class oppression and imperial war could never become a media personality beloved by tens of millions of whites.  That could only happen to a white-accommodating Black woman like Oprah Winfrey, who built a remarkable fortune on the soothing of white egos and on the embrace and advance of mass consumerism and the white New Age culture of narcissism.

Other Black women who have achieved great personal “success” because they have been willing to dutifully serve white power include Condoleezza Rice, National Security adviser to the blithering imperialist President George W. Bush; Omarosé Onée Manigault-Newman, a key assistant to the openly racist white nationalist Donald Trump going back to the days of Celebrity Apprentice; and Donna Brazile, a longstanding henchwoman for the racist white Clinton family and other right-wing corporate Democrats.

Clarence Thomas, Colin Powel, Eric Holder, and Barack Obama are shining male examples of Black political operatives who moved up by obediently serving white and imperial power.

Even Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. deserves mention here. By the middle-1990s, he was running cover for the racist white southerner Bill Clinton, the cold-blooded murderer of the young mentally disabled Black death-row inmate Ricky Ray Rector. President Clinton collaborated with racist white Republicans like Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay to kick millions of poor Black women and children off public assistance and to advance racist mass incarceration and the racist police state with his vicious “three strikes” crime bill.  During his time shuffling for the Clintons. Jackson (as Elaine Brown noted in her brilliant 2003 book The Condemnation of Little B) visited a prison to lecture Black inmates on their own supposed personal responsibility for the great American racist lockdown.

The dutiful “good Black” who knows his place and avoids revolutionary politics while helping whites get by and feel better about themselves is a disturbing Hollywood staple.  Examples include movies like The Green Mile (where Michael Clarke Duncan played John Coffey, a massive Black Death Row inmate who miraculously restored the physical and spiritual health of a white prison warden played by Tom Hanks);  the “racist fantasy buddy flick” (in the words of Kirsten West-Savali) Driving Miss Daisy ( Morgan Freeman played a dutiful white driver who sassily befriended and boosted the ego of his white lady employer in the Jim Crow South); An Unfinished Life (where Freeman served as the one-man Black life-adjunct to a bitter white rancher played by Robert Redford); The Shawshank Redemption (where Freeman was prison pal, escape partner, and psychological support for a wrongfully convicted white banker played by Tim Robbins); Million Dollar Baby (good old Morgan Freeman as trainer of a white female boxer played by Hillary Swank; and (sharing the same white director as Driving Miss Daisy) Mr. Church (Eddie Murphy is hired by a single white women dying of cancer to raise her little girl and ends up giving the rest of his life to being the narcissistic daughter’s de facto father). As the Black commentator Kirsten West-Savali wrote in a properly biting review of Mr. Church on The Root last year:

“White Hollywood is nothing if not a microcosm of white America, a place where shucking and jiving, bucking and jumping, ‘Yes, suh; no, ma’am’ Negroes are more readily accepted than their revolutionary counterparts. This country has a fetish with subservient black men that translates into adoration on-screen…This is about liberal white fantasies of saving black people from themselves even as white people are served and saved by those very same black people. It is also in keeping with the constant barrage of imagery that reinforces the power dynamic that black people are a perpetual servant class with conditional access to society. Rule No. 1: Appear as nonthreatening as possible. This is what springs from the minds of white creatives far too often—the idea of black men as invisible men used for protection, under no assumptions or expectations of equity.”

Notice the repeated reference to Morgan Freeman in the above filmography.  In Lean On Me (1989), Freeman played Joe Clarke, the Black New Jersey high school principal who won white praise by using a baseball bat to whip inner-city Black students into personally responsible shape with the “only language they understand – brute force.”  That’s the other side of the coin of obediently serving white masters in the formula for Black success: punching down on lesser and improperly socialized members of your own race. That’s Reverend Jackson ripping on Black inmates while running interference for the mass-incarceration-ist Clintons.

Now Freeman has doubled down on his service to white power by appearing in a short video put out by the preposterous white “liberal,” NeoCon, and neo-McCartrhyite “Committee to Investigate Russia.”  In this ridiculous message, Freeman plays along with the Clinton Democrats’ blaming of the racist “Goldwater Girl” Hillary Clinton’s defeat by Donald Trump on “Russian interference,” not her depressing and demobilizing racial, socioeconomic, and imperial conservativism.

Barack Obama and his handlers understood white America’s “good Black, bad Black” distinction very well.  They made sure to sell Obama as “Black but not like Jesse.”  Obama played by the white-supremacist rules.  He callously threw his classically “bad Black” preacher – the angry anti-racist and anti-imperialist pulpit master Rev, Jeremiah Wright – under the bus on his path to power. As president, Obama was careful not to push sensitive white racial buttons.  He knew those buttons were already depressed and activated by the simple fact of his technically Black identity.  President Obama steered respectfully clear of specifically Black issues and spoke in consistently color-blind words – this while protecting the power and wealth of white Wall Street overlords and advancing the white imperial project around the world, with a special new level of expansion into Black Africa.

Along the way, Obama kept alive the longstanding Black-bourgeois and white-pleasing, neo-Urban League habit of lecturing poor and working-class Blacks (“cousin Pookie” and the rest) on how to be more respectable and white. He hectored Black Americans on their need to think and act in personally responsible and culturally appropriate, Caucasian-comforting ways so that they could avail themselves of all the great “opportunity” supposedly afforded by America’s purportedly color-blind capitalist system – a system that candidate Obama absurdly described in his deeply conservative 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope (its title crassly stolen from the forsaken Reverend Wright) as the source of “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history.”

Back to sports. Behold the hot white ugliness of the openly racist U.S President Donald Trump’s recent statements on the National Football League (NFL). Speaking to the heart of his racist white base in Alabama last week, Trump went off against Black professional football players who have been kneeling during the U.S. National Anthem to protest the nation’s murderous racist police state. Trump also railed against some of the NFL’s mild efforts to curb deadly concussions – this despite the overwhelming evidence that the sport is producing a generation of men with CTE and other brain illnesses:

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired! [Applause]. You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s gonna say ‘that guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ …They’ll be the most popular person in this country….”

“The NFL ratings are down, massively…Because, if you hit too hard: Fifteen yards [penalty]!  Throw him out of the game! They are ruining the game. Look, that’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit. It is hurting the game!”

“But you know what’s hurting the game more than that? When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they are playing our great national anthem…If you see it, even if it’s just one player, leave the stadium…Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway.”

This was quite a remarkable little racist tirade.  What’s it all about?  Here’s my basic breakdown of Trump’s football comments on social media yesterday:

Black males are like 6% of the U.S. and 70% of the NFL rosters. The big plantation Boss and open racist and white-nationalist Donald Trump wants them to STFU and the league to drop any concerns it might have been forced to have about the brain damage that all too naturally and obviously results from repeated high-speed collisions on the nation’s holy gridirons. Much of the white-nationalist NFL’s disproportionately affluent and very disproportionately white (I’m guessing 85% plus in the stands) and Trumpian (pre-fascist) fan base froths along. Basically they want their good Black athletes to just blood-sport each-other to death without complaint. “Entertain us and shut up. This is your role. Hike! Oooh, did you see that hit? Wow. Hit him again harder, harder… Here come the stretchers…okay get that son of a bitch [Trump’s actual term for Black players who kneel to protest the murderous U.S. racist police state] off the field and a new one in. Let’s go.” Basically they want racist dog and cock-fighting. How badly Trump wanted to insert the word “Black” before “son of a bitch” into his Alabama football rant! If anything, the applause he got would have been amplified if he had.

The militantly and viciously white president and his fellow white nationalist Amerikaner football fans want the players to be “good Blacks,” the types who just obediently damage themselves while dutifully serving the white majority and their direct white masters.

Colin Kaepernick, a highly skilled quarterback who has been Black-listed by the white nationalist NFL’s owners, is another in a long line of public Black personalities who crossed the line from “good” and entertaining Black to “bad Black” when he dared to make a modest public statement against racism – in his case against the murder of Black people by white police officers across the U.S.

Personally, I say screw the orange-tinted beast and the NFL’s racist white fans. Let them suit up and go bash each-other’s white nationalist brains out in the stadium parking lots. These privileged Caucasian Coliseum crowds belong in giant Re-Education camps with posters of Frantz Fanon, W.E.B DuBois, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X staring down on them while they manufacture wind turbines and solar panels from sunup to sundown. Their big planet-cooking and mind-numbing SUVs and flat screen televisions should be seized from coliseum parking lots and suburban McMansions to be melted down and recycled into water, wind, and solar technology.

The task of guarding them and directing their efforts on behalf of livable ecology could be a big “ex-offender re-entry jobs program” for millions of Black Americans previously marked for life with newly expunged felony records by the New Jim Crow.

That would be some change I could really believe in.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).