By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
“I am a Black man in Hollywood. In order to sustain my position, I can’t get caught slipping, not even once. I had to be perfect at all times.”
Will Smith wrote those words in a candid memoir some years back. They were perceptive and spot on.
Unfortunately, in that one dumb and embarrassing split-second in which he barged on the Academy stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock, he forgot his own words. Worse, he forgot that that misstep he warned about as a self-cautionary note, has implications far beyond just his unthinking moment of rage. It’s those implications — not the slap itself — that offer fresh teaching moments.
The attack reinforced one of the worst and most enduring stereotypes about Black males. That is the long-standing image of the malevolent impulsive, violent, out of control, even thug image of Black males.
What’s worse, two Black guys on the street or in the hood didn’t reinforce the stereotype. Smith and his victim, Rock, are two of the wealthiest, most successful, publicly visible Black men around.
In that ugly moment, Smith transformed himself into America’s racial bad boy — again. It’s the shortest of short steps to think that Smith can be depicted as a caricature of the terrifying image that much of the public still harbors about young and not so young Black males. Then that image seems real, even more terrifying and the consequences are just as dangerous.
Many thought that former President Barack Obama’s two-term tenure in the White House buried finally negative racial typecasting and the perennial threat racial stereotypes posed to the safety and well-being of Black males. It did no such thing.
Immediately after Obama’s election, teams of researchers from several major universities found that many of the old stereotypes about poverty and crime and Blacks remained just as frozen in time. The study found that much of the public still perceived those most likely to commit crimes are Black.
It also showed that once the stereotype is planted, it’s virtually impossible to root out. That’s hardly news, either.
There’s the issue of violence, and how much of society and the media implicitly condones, it revels in it, even glorifies it. This has had bitter and devastating consequences in poor, inner-city Black communities.
The chronic sordid history of murder and assaults has been the stuff of much frustration and hand wringing in these communities. It has spurred a desperate search for solutions to damp down the violence.
There’s been a near cottage industry in preaching and imploring too to end, and conducting every sort of violence prevention program imaginable aimed at Black youth. The goal always is to drive home the point that violence simply makes more victims and causes more pain in families and poor Black communities.
Unfortunately, legions of those same young persons that we try to reach with that message witnessed that violence in prime time living color on one of the world’s biggest media stages, the Oscars ceremony. More galling, far too many defended or rationalized Smith’s violent assault as some sort of noblesse oblige duty toward his wife. This just makes the job of peace advocates in Black communities working to combat violence even harder.
There’s one more thing and that is Smith’s perceptive admission that as a Black man he is always under the looking glass and must be on guard against a “misstep” that could unhinge all he’s worked to attain in Hollywood.
Smith, in that revealing moment, could have been speaking for many Blacks both within and without the film industry. Their wealth, fame, and celebrity status are no ironclad shield that protects them from being tainted and tossed aside at the first hint of scandal or bad behavior — real or manufactured.
Smith is essentially saying that there is a racial double standard in Hollywood and beyond that still holds firm for even the most seemingly rich and successful Blacks. If a mega-star such as Smith must be constantly on guard, what then does that say about how far America has really advanced down the road to becoming a racially blind, merit only society that defines and rewards success?
The Smith debacle does not give a pretty answer to that question.
Smith has profusely apologized for his rash act. He has resigned from the Academy. That does not let him off the hook.
The Academy will still render some sort of punishment to him later this month. However, in that embarrassing moment at the Academy event, Smith’s “slip” provided both a cautionary warning and a teaching moment about the always thorny mix of race and celebrity in America.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of “The Assassination of the Black Male Image” (Middle Passage Press). He also hosts the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.