By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The much ballyhooed and long-awaited appearance by comedian Chris Rock at a theater in Baltimore finally happened, fittingly, the week before the 2023 Academy Awards. The timing for Rock’s appearance was almost carefully arranged to tie in with the awards ceremony.
One year earlier Rock and actor Will Smith staged the spectacle that shocked tens of millions of viewers. The spectacle has since gone down in lore as “the slap.” That was Smith’s physical attack on Rock for telling a bad-taste joke about Smith’s wife.
Smith was banned from this year’s Academy Awards show, suffered a momentary hit to his career and reputation, and became a pariah to many for his rash act. He has apologized a dozen different ways for his act toward Rock, to no avail.
Rock, for his part, said next to nothing about it for almost a year. Now, with his disjointed comments on a Baltimore stage, that’s changed. But irrespective of his pithy comments about the “slap,” there’s still a larger issue that is pregnant with takeaways. They go far beyond just the juvenile, enraged, momentary act of Smith.
In that one dumb and embarrassing split second, Smith and Rock managed to reinforce a couple of the worst stereotypes about Black males. First, Rock stepped way over the line, poking fun at Smith’s wife’s hair. Hair is one of the most sensitive, touchy, emotional issues among women, especially Black women.
That’s because of the long history of racial ridicule of Black hair as nappy, ugly, kinky and abhorrent. Rock reinforced that stereotype.
Now Smith: His public slap of Rock for the insult reinforced the long-standing stereotype of the malevolent, impulsive, violent, out-of-control, even thuggish Black male. What’s worse, these aren’t just any two Black guys on the street or in the ‘hood, but two of the wealthiest, most successful, publicly visible Black men around.
In that ugly moment they transformed themselves into America’s racial bad boys — again. It’s the shortest of short steps to think that Smith can be depicted as a caricature of the terrifying image much of the public still harbors about young and not-so-young Black males. When that image seems real, it’s even more terrifying and the consequences are just as dangerous.
That insidious stereotype was not lost on many Blacks. They burned up Facebook and other social media outlets, lambasting Smith for reinforcing the thug image typecast of Black men. They have not forgiven and won’t forgive him for that.
So unforgiving have many of them been that they said they boycotted his film, “Emancipation,” and anything else he’s associated with. One year later, the anger against him in some circles remains unyielding.
Many thought former President Barack Obama’s two-term tenure in the White House had finally buried 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, 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 as Black.
It also showed that, once the stereotype is planted, it’s virtually impossible to root out. That’s hardly new, either.
The police murder of George Floyd, the countless number of other dubious shootings of Black males by police, and the current crime surge that, invariably, many believe come with a Black face reinforce stereotypes. It doesn’t much matter how prominent, wealthy or celebrated the Black man is.
The overkill frenzy feeds on the criminal, or borderline criminal, antics of a litany of Black NFL and NBA stars that run afoul of the law or are poorly behaved. And, of course, everyone’s favorite stomping boys, the rappers and hip-hop artists, further implant the negative image of Black males. None of these celebrities, like Smith and Rock, are poor, downtrodden, ghetto-dwelling young Black males.
Neither Smith nor Rock really committed any crime that will land them in a courtroom and the only one Smith really hurt in the eyes of some is the fantasy image of him as the Simon-pure entertainer/actor.
But again, in that dumb, embarrassing moment, Smith and Rock represented not the best but the worst of us. The worst of the rage is still aimed at Smith. Rock has not accepted Smith’s apology one year later.
Many Blacks cheer him on for his refusal. It speaks volumes about the age we live in that one incident, one time, one place, can cause so many to draw a hard and fast line in the sand.
It’s called division and polarization. That has become the new norm in America. Smith and Rock, in their way typify, that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.