Soledad O’Brien, LeBron James (and his foot-in-mouth manager) and Rick Sanchez all have something in common. They are persons of color whose understanding of the rules of race — or the “Rules of Racial Standing,” as law professor Derrick Bell describes them — is about as sophisticated as an amoeba’s. If you ask me, they all played “the race doesn’t matter, even if it does” game, and they all got burned in some way as a result.
O’Brien to many — mostly Black and Latino — came off as a race-baiter, while James looked overly sensitive in his understated response to O’Brien’s “Do you think there’s a role that race plays…?” question. Sanchez was the worst of all, calling Daily Show host Jon Stewart a “bigot” and insinuating that CNN and shows like The Daily Show are controlled by Jews, liberal Jews of course, but Jews nevertheless. All while scoffing at the idea that Jews are an oppressed minority in the US.
It all points to one simple problem. That many, if not most, persons of color in the public eye don’t understand — or care to understand — the rules of race in the media. This is important. For people of color cannot re-interpret these rules without understanding them first.
Derrick Bell‘s “Rules of Racial Standing,” from his bestselling Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992), is a guidepost for why independent voices on issues of race are difficult to come by, in law and in the media. But as a person of color, there are ways to re-interpret these rules to make them work in unintended ways, at least, unintended by those in the media. The five rules (and their re-interpretations) are:
(“Rule of Illegitimate Standing”) …No matter their experience or expertise, Blacks’ statements involving race are deemed “special pleading” and thus not entitled to serious consideration.
Translation: when in the public idea and asked a question on race, give an unexpected answer, one that is thought-provoking, even controversial, to at least push a more lengthy and serious discussion of race.
(“Rule of Legitimate Standing”) Not only are Blacks’ complaints discounted, but Black victims of racism are less effective witnesses than are Whites, who are members of the oppressor class. This phenomenon reflects a widespread assumption that…cannot be objective on racial issues…
Translation: While even having a DVD or an iPhone filming racist behavior or actions in progress may be ignored, having a multicultural group in support of a complaint will receive much more attention than striking out alone.
(“Rule of Enhanced Standing”) …The usual exception…is the Black person who publicly disparages or criticizes other Blacks who are speaking or acting in ways that upset Whites. Instantly, such statements are granted “enhanced standing” even when the speaker has no special expertise or experience in the subject he or she is criticizing.
Translation: Let the Tara Wall’s, Anna Holmes’, John McWhorter’s and Dinesh D’Souza’s of this world know that their opinions will not go unchallenged, that their alleged expertise on race is nothing more than an opinion sanitized for center-right consumption. That’s what blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Huffington Post are for.
(“Rule of Superenhanced Standing”) When a Black person or group makes a statement or takes an action that the White community or vocal opponents thereof deem “outrageous,” the latter will actively recruit Blacks willing to refute the statement or condemn the action. Blacks who respond to the call for condemnation will receive superstanding status…
Translation: See the re-interpretation of the Second Rule, especially in the case of Fox (or Faux ) News. One Alan Keyes or Alex Castellanos does not equal a group of progressives using their numbers, media savvy and social media as an antidote to the “one sane person of color” rule.
(“Rule of Prophetic Understanding”) …Using this knowledge, one gains the gift of prophecy about racism, its essence, its goals, even its remedies. The price of this knowledge is the frustration that…that no amount of public prophecy, no matter its accuracy, can either repeal the Rules of Racial Standing or prevent their operation.
Translation: This may be true, but there are still millions of Americans who would prefer to hear people of color and truly progressive Whites make better use of the media to dilute the piss and vinegar that is pseudo-liberalism and mainstream news these day.
There are exceptions to these rules, such as when someone White or of legitimate standing vouch for his or her otherwise controversial views. But people of color need to bend these rules, break them when necessary. All so that the answer to the question “Was race a factor in…?” isn’t, “No,” or “No, this is a colorblind society,” or “Yes,” without a sophisticated answer. This is what the media wants, not necessarily out of racism, but out of making money. In order to get what Americans need, the media it needs, people of color must resist giving the media the hype that it wants.