Commentary: Charles Ramsey and the Racial Politics of Respectability

Charles Ramsey may not fit our sanitized version of the contemporary Black hero, but he is a true American hero.

It started on Monday when a local TV news reporter in Cleveland interviewed Charles Ramsey, the man who helped rescue Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight from a decade of captivity.

Ramsey explained how he responded to a cry from a young woman at a neighbor's house, helped to break down the door and ultimately freed her from a 10-year kidnapping ordeal. With his untamed hair and missing teeth, he struck an image quite familiar in local TV news. But this was destined to be a national news story and Ramsey's appearance and demeanor did not fit the modern image of a Black man speaking on national television.

Ramsey's interview drew mixed reactions on social media. Although he was widely praised as a hero, some expressed discomfort that he had been the primary witness shown on the news. A few described him as "ignorant" and mocked his references to eating McDonald's and ribs. To them, he was just another Antoine Dodson ("Hide your kids") or Sweet Brown ("Ain't nobody got time for that") who would be exploited by the media.

But if you listen closely, Ramsey's interview was far from ignorant. It was a well-told story of his participation in the rescue. "I figured it was a domestic violence dispute," he said. "When she told me [her name] it didn't register." And after the police arrived and rescued the remaining two girls, "when they came out, it was just astonishing," Ramsey told the reporter. What's wrong with any of those words he said?

The problem is that Ramsey didn't fit our sanitized version of the contemporary Black hero. He didn't appear to be Barack Obama, Will Smith, Chris Paul or some other proper-looking, well-educated African-American man who could help convince white people that we're just like them and deserve respect and equality. His hair, his teeth, his language didn't present the image that middle-class Black people want America to see of us. In a society where minorities are still unfairly defined by the actions of the worst in our groups, we often tend to overcompensate by seeking out "respectable-looking" and "respectable-talking" spokespeople to represent us.

Ramsey also made white Americans uncomfortable by acknowledging the specter of race. After he provided the reporter a compelling first-person account of the rescue, he was asked to describe the reaction on the girls' faces when they emerged from the house. That's when Ramsey said something you almost never hear on television. "Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a Black man's arms," he said. "Dead giveaway." The seemingly uncomfortable white reporter then cut him off and ended the interview.

Ramsey's provocative claim raised eyebrows and troubling concerns about race, gender and the social construction of Black masculinity. To venture down that road, however, would expose the media's own role in perpetuating the image of Black men as predators. After all, the local 6 o'clock news frequently depicts images of young Black men, but it rarely concerns itself with the broader socioeconomic conditions facing those men, their struggles, their heartbreaks and their anguish.

When a parade of dark-skinned mug shots are shown nightly on the local news, it is any wonder we view Black men with trepidation? What made Amanda Berry so unusual to Ramsey is that she didn't. That's why Ramsey's remarks deserve further consideration.

I remember the first time I walked down a sidewalk late at night in Harlem behind a young white woman. The woman heard footsteps, turned around and looked at me. Instantly I felt I was under suspicion. Not because I was threatening to her, but simply because she was a white woman and I a Black man. Past experience had taught me to internalize the racial prejudices of the larger society. “If you can control a man's thinking," Carter G. Woodson famously wrote in The Mis-Education of the Negro, you do not have to worry about his action."

For centuries now, America has taught Black men that white women are taboo. It's a message reinforced when five Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem, the Central Park Five, were wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in New York City’s Central Park in 1989. And before that in 1955 when 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi for the crime of allegedly whistling at a white woman. And before that in 1931 when an all-white Alabama jury convicted nine Black teenagers, known as the Scottsboro Boys, for a rape they did not commit. So when Ramsey spoke of a little pretty white girl running into a Black man's arms, he was channeling all of that history.

That's why Charles Ramsey is a hero to me. Not only because he rescued those girls from their nightmare, but also because he helped to rescue the rest us from the lie that too many of us don't want to admit: race in America is all too real.


Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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