A Failed Attempt at Humor Takes a Racist Turn

Friday August 15, 2003

Deep in the East Bay Express's Gary Coleman for California Governor issue, you find an interesting, and disturbing, passage:  

“[W]e’re pretty sure [Coleman’s] got the black vote tied up in October,” reporter Chris Thompson writes. “After all, who else are blacks gonna vote for—Bill Simon? … [B]lack voters will finally have someone they can believe in and will turn out in droves. Our analysis: Coleman wins big in Oakland and Richmond!” 

I suppose Mr. Thompson and all of my good friends over at the Express thought this was funny. I don't.  

I’ll return to that point in a moment, but, first, some background. A few weeks ago, working on its theory that the gubernatorial recall had caused California to “reclaim its rightful place as the wackiest state in the union,” the East Bay Express decided to join in the fun. They called former child actor Gary Coleman (from the old series “Diff’rent Strokes”) and asked him if he wanted to run for governor in the Gray Davis recall election this fall. When a surprised Coleman agreed, the Express sent out its editor and several reporters to collect the 65 necessary signatures on a nominating petition, paid the $3,500 filing fee, and got Coleman on the ballot. Last week the newspaper devoted their entire cover and news section to their caper, using it, as they wrote, to show “how absurd [California] politics have become.” 

It’s difficult to complain about the circus in town after you show up with greasepaint and a clown nose on your own face. Further, one wonders why the folks at the Express felt they needed to intervene to make that point, since there were several odd entries among the hundreds of California citizens making noise about filing to run for governor, including porn businessman Larry Flynt, porn actress Angelyne, and the watermelon-smashing comic Gallagher. Still, the East Bay Express’s reputation as a serious journalistic effort is its own to build or squander, as it sees fit.  

My problem comes with their choice of a black individual to use as their object of ridicule. Two centuries after our arrival in California, no African-American has served as governor of this state and only one has come close to winning—former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who lost in 1982 and 1986. This is not because no African-American has been qualified to serve as governor in the 250 years since California became a state. It is because a majority of white Californians have not yet demonstrated that they will vote for a black candidate for governor. They might laugh about this in certain parts of eastern Contra Costa County. In certain parts of Oakland and Richmond—the places where Mr. Thompson says that there’s no choice but the ridiculous Gary Coleman—it’s probably not so humorous.  

The nomination of Mr. Coleman—whose character on “Diff’rent Strokes” was a barely-disguised reprisal of the old eye-rolling, mouth-poking black minstrel caricatures of the nineteenth century—opens the door for a descent into black-ridicule humor. The deliberately absurd picture of Coleman on the cover of the Express , grinning like a tom-fool, buck-and-wing coon from one of the old Harper’s slavery-day cartoons is a good example. For many of my generation, it is a hurtful reminder of the infamous photo of a slack-jawed drool-lipped, bleary-eyed old black man with a sheriff’s cap on his head, passed around by white Alabama and Mississippi racists back in the mid-60s to “demonstrate” why black people should never be considered for political office.  

Now comes this week’s East Bay Express “Bottom Feeder” column by Will Harper, which features a headline takeoff from one of Coleman's trademark “Diff’rent Strokes” sayings: “Whatchoo Talkin’ ‘Bout, Gary?” The use of apostrophes and misspellings to recreate language is only widely used in this country these days with African-American dialect. It’s used so often with African-American speech that my friend, Mr. Harper, probably didn’t consider its historic roots—the attempt to justify slavery by insisting that African captives were too stupid to grasp the intricacies of Western speech and therefore, by inference, Western technology and civilization. (Think for a moment of the national shouts of anti-immigrant bigotry that would have ensued if the Express had used that same technique to try to recreate the speech of Austrian immigrant Arnold Schwarzenegger.)  

Once you begin rolling down this road of ethnic “humor,” however, it’s hard to stop. In an item in their recall issue on why Californians should vote for Coleman over Schwarzenegger, the Express writes that “Schwarzenegger wasn't even born here.” Eight years after Prop 187, it’s another thing that’s simply not funny.  

Am I saying, therefore, that the folks at the East Bay Express are bigots? Nope. Just that their “Gary for Governor!” caper gave a lot of aid and comfort to people who are. One wishes that my good friends over there had thought a bit before they pulled the trigger on this issue. This one hurt, guys.