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Slate Writer Gets it Dangerously Wrong on Charles Ramsey and Racism

charlesramseyOn Tuesday, Slate.com contributor Aisha Harris posted a story titled “The Troubling Viral Trend of the “Hilarious” Black Neighbor,” in which she described how she believes the internet picks on black people and turns them into unwitting internet celebrities. There are so many things wrong with this argument that it’s hard to even fathom how it passed the sniff test with the editors at Slate, but let’s start by taking a look at this quote directly from the article:

Granted, the buzzworthy tactic of reporters interviewing the most loquacious witnesses to a crime or other event is nothing new, and YouTube has countless examples of people of all ethnicities saying ridiculous things.

With this one sentence, Harris basically discredits her entire premise. In making this connection, Harris is suggesting that the reporter who interviewed Charles Ramsey only chose to interview him because he looked like he would give an engaging interview, even though there were other “witnesses” they could have interviewed instead. By saying this, Harris is completely disregarding the fact that Ramsey wasn’t just a “witness” to the event, he was the key figure who aided in rescuing the women from the house. Furthermore, Harris herself admits there are “countless examples of people of all ethnicities saying ridiculous things” on Youtube. Let me clue Harris in on something here — that’s how the internet works. People post and share all sorts of absurd and/or funny things that other people, cats, dogs and animals of all kinds have been caught on camera doing — often with funny headlines or captions to grab the eye of potential viewers and aid in the general “virility” of the photos or clips. This is the same for people of all races — there is no conspiracy here. If you look long enough, you’ll eventually come across internet “memes” that are racist, sexist or just downright distasteful. That’s the nature of the internet.

Harris goes on to say:

It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.

Excuse me? So, Harris is saying that people became enthralled with Charles Ramsey’s interview for no other reason than wanting to see “black people perform?” It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that he was a key figure in rescuing three women who had been missing for up to a decade, and even presumed dead by some. No, definitely not that. By the same token, it couldn’t be because he gave an interview in which he spoke from the heart and didn’t seem to have the type of robotic, canned answers to questions that we often see in news interviews. Nope, it had to be because we’re all obsessed with wanting to see “black people perform.” I shouldn’t have to point out how absolutely outrageous this argument is, but judging by how widely shared Harris’ article has been, apparently it needs to be done.

In constructing her argument, Harris found three other examples of Youtube “sensations” who had gone viral online – Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown and Michelle Clark. Dodson and Brown are probably instantly recognizable to anybody who has had a Facebook account for the past few years, but Clark is a rather obscure third choice to use when trying to make the broad argument of racism against black people in “viral memes.” Harris makes the argument that Kai the “hatchet-wielding hitchhiker” (a white man) wasn’t “subjected to quite the same level of derisive memeification” as Clark, which is far from the case from what I’ve seen online. Yet, Michelle Clark was the most notable third example Harris could find of this so-called “troubling viral trend.”

Let’s not forget the premise of Harris’ article — that black people are being singled out for “memeification” to fulfill our secret desire to watch black people perform. I already explained how this is absolutely ridiculous when it comes to the internet and “viral memes,” but it applies to television as well. Just look at our country’s obsession during the 90′s with TV talk shows like Ricki Lake or Jerry Springer, or even today with shows like Tosh.0 and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” The desire to see people share their problems or make us laugh with their absurdity is something that transcends race itself. Harris’ argument is flawed inside and out.

It seems to me the real issue here is Harris had been sitting on this idea for a while, waiting for another “viral” interview of a black person to hit the news so she could pounce and tie everything together, with no regard for any coherence to her theory. In doing so, she’s doing a disservice to those of us who have been working to expose and eliminate real racism in this country. Harris took a shallow approach to an issue and tried to paint it with the broad stroke of racism, attacking each and every one of us who were fascinated by Charles Ramsey’s story and actions on Monday to help save three women from the nightmare they had been living. Sadly, it’s rather ironic that Harris ended her article by saying this:

Ramsey is particularly striking in this regard, since, for a moment at least, he put the issue of race front and center himself. Describing the rescue of Amanda Berry and her fellow captives, he says, “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway!”

The candid statement seems to catch the reporter off guard; he ends the interview shortly afterward. And it’s notable that among the many memorable things Ramsey said on camera, this one has gotten less meme-attention than most. Those who are simply having fun with the footage of Ramsey might pause for a second to actually listen to the man. He clearly knows a thing or two about the way racism prevents us from seeing each other as people.


Harris had a golden opportunity to talk about the implications of what Charles Ramsey said, and delve into the societal problems which we do still face today, which could have made for a thought-provoking and worthwhile read. Instead she only gave it a short paragraph, choosing to focus on internet memes in formulating a fluff piece of misleading nonsense. Not only is her argument disappointing, but it’s downright dangerous in how it takes the reader’s attention away from real life issues of racism and redirects their anger toward a nonexistent problem.

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Thomas Barr is a writer and activist whose work has been featured on CNN.com and other locations across the net. He works tirelessly online and off to further the Progressive movement and fight for causes close to his heart, such as Type 1 Diabetes and cancer research. Thomas is also a co-founder of Forward Progressives, and Executive Editor of ForwardProgressives.com. Be sure to check out his archives on Forward Progressives for more of his viewpoints.
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  • jennifer Jezylo

    Thank you, Mr. Barr, for succinctly saying everything that I was thinking after reading Ms. Harris’s article.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1395984824 Nelson O Figueroa

      That goes for me too. I was having a discussion regarding this very topic, and my friend threw Ms. Harris’ article into the fray. Thank you for providing me with some return fire. LOL!

  • Perplexed

    What part of the news where people have seen this woman trying to get attention in the past, only to be ignored, did Ms. Harris miss? I don’t know what part of this story and the importance of this man’s actions she doesn’t understand. Looks to me like Harris is trying to use this horrible event to get herself a little ethnic attention while at the same time insulting what I consider to be heroic behavior on the part of another person. Thank you Mr. Ramsey, and I can tell by your interviews, that you are used to people like Ms. Harris.

  • Morons

    And this column somehow passed the sniff test? It’s pretty apparent that the author does not understand the media’s influence on race and how they further stereotypes. But, that’s why this site has slow traffic.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ralph-Vendegna/1571597966 Ralph Vendegna

    Harris is a Racist Bitch. She needs to get a life and STOP her nonsense.

  • Ann Womack

    Never did I perceive Mr. Ramsey as being anything other than a human being who helped another human being and wound up involved in a remarkable situation. He handled it well, spoke well, and portrayed the altruism possessed by many and yet lacking by so many more. The press loves him, because the public loves a hero. What’s her problem? Maybe Ms. Harris should go out and do a little good for someone other than herself for once in her life.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kate-Mitchell-Gulick/1402144174 Kate Mitchell Gulick

    My biggest question..How in the world does Ms. Harris know the color and ethnicity of these people creating the memes? Could it be that she is just assuming that all these people are white? Hmmm…

  • http://www.facebook.com/lilraychull Rae O’Sunshyne

    Hi, Devil’s advocate here.

    “By saying this, Harris is completely disregarding the fact that Ramsey wasn’t just a “witness” to the event, he was *the key figure who aided in rescuing the women from the house*.”

    Recent news says that Ramsey didn’t even show up until after the door was busted in. A man named Angel Cordero was the one who helped Amanda Berry, but because he doesn’t speak English, only Spanish, he wasn’t interviewed until recently. Your statement would be more accurate as “he was -a- key figure”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/heather.wight.142 Heather Wight

    I loved the interview for 2 reasons, first that he did what he did when he didnt have to (rare for ANY American now a days) and second because he was just blatantly honest with what happened…. heres a big clue Ms. Harris… Ramsey is black and men and women of all races have different ways they talk and express things, that does not mean that he is being picked on for his “blackness”, just as if the helper had been white for their “whiteness” or whatever other label you want to use. In the end Harris loses because she has a very flawed article where she actually proves herself wrong…. In grad school my proff would fail me for writing a paper like that…how did she get it published?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Watson-Pollock/577969013 James Watson Pollock

    OK I’ll take the bait. The 3 I’m familiar with–Ramsey, Dodson, and Brown–each and all radiate a “ghetto” charm, happily putting out an amusing patois that middle class whites can feel superior to, in that in a similar situation they’d have little or nothing to say, i.e., “not be acting the fool”. But they aren’t the only scoffers. Witness Brown’s son in the back, pacing back in forth in anguish as he witnesses his mother carry on. How much does race enter the protagonists’ behavior? While there are whites who (fortunately in my opinion, as I find these spiels endearing as well as entertaining) who can pull off comparable performances, it is the reaction of whites (and asians/latinos?) to these that is in question, and whether or not it is “racist”. In order to determine that, can one check out the comments on YouTube clips? The trolls and sickos no doubt hit such clips and these efforts must be discounted. I haven’t viewed the comments sections recently but seem to recall that they were varied.

    Sweet Brown is flat-out adorable and was recognized as such by 90+%, with the occasional execrable scum peeping up. Now Antoine…Antoine has several strikes what with being a flamer, and that contributed to massive slagging. Running out of steam here…I’ll post as-is, to my regret.

  • Forrest Cahoon

    Here’s the comment I left on Harris’ Slate article:

    It’s strange; the only autotuned version of Charles Ramsey I’ve heard is Shmoyoho’s “Dead Giveaway”, which uses the line the author claims “has gotten less meme-attention than most” as its main chorus. Since Shmoyoho is also responsible for “the Bed Intruder Song”, the most popular autotune of Antoine Dodson, I figured a good test of the author’s hypothesis would be to check Shmoyoho’s channel and count autotunes of regular people. Although I don’t have the time to do a proper analysis, I can certainly say the narrative doesn’t pass the test. There are plenty of autotunes of white people, including the man who “described a car crash with theatrical flair” which the author presents as an example of a white person who didn’t get similar attention.

    But the worst problem with this narrative is that it supposes a single unconscious motive to all people (or perhaps just all white people) who enjoy these videos. That’s perhaps the most glaring stereotype to be found in this article.

  • Elove

    In

    • Fhgwqads

      Out

  • http://www.facebook.com/jbrackett75 Josh Brackett

    It sounds to me that if anyone has issues with race it may just be Ms. Harris herself. Slate should be overwhelmingly embarrassed not that they allowed this low rent rant to run under their name but that they employ someone of such narrow outlook and comprehension of the world they and we all live in. TIME TO WIPE THE SLATE CLEAN!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=30111018 Shy Cunningham

    I disagree whole-heartedly. I think this analysis is ahistorical and, judging by the wide circulation of Harris’ piece (which you noted in your article), I think most Black people would agree with me. While the internet is certainly laden with examples of dumb people, none have been as popular and modified as those of Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson, at least none that have come across my newsfeed and I think that I’m pretty stacked with FB friends of both races who share all sorts of internet video clips. Most racial scholars acknowledge society’s preoccupation with Blacks as performers since the days of minstrels. Harris wasn’t questioning the circulation of Ramsey’s interview per se but the follow-up questions and anticipation of a remix song (and a flood of photo stills with quotes for instagram that would follow — which I also expressed) that would derive of from the interview. Harris’ sentiments were expressed by other authors, scholars, and regular Black folks. Your dismissal of everyone’s concern (just because YOU don’t see it) is imprudent at best and offensive/ignorant/racist at worst. It’s like saying that the show “I Love New York” can’t possibly perpetuate the Jezebel trope about lascivious Black women because there’s a white counterpart “The Bachelorette.” Anyone with half a brain could see that the shows are presented in two completely different lights and white women, as a class, aren’t burdened with a stereotype about their sexuality, particularly not one inextricably linked to their race AND gender. I’m interested to know if Mr. Barr is Black. I did some digging and couldn’t find anything. If he isn’t, that explains this article. If he is, I am left with a world of questions. My skepticism is perpetuated by the fact that most of the agreement in the comments beneath the article is from whites. While all hands are needed to assist in the fight towards racial equality, nuances, that are present in this situation, are easy to miss if you don’t live in this skin. I am an attorney whose focus is racial justice, discrimination law, laws that discriminate, marginalized communities, and the social norms that derive from racism and this entire article is inconsistent with nearly every piece of racial scholarship that I have ever read.

    • caro

      Ethnically, I’m Hispanic, but I would say that New York is a trashy character they chose because there were other women they could have spun off for a reality show that were less dramatic. I’ve never seem the Bachelorette, but I would say that those women aren’t in it for love and have issues of their own if they think whoring around will get them their ticket to fame. I know plenty of people that mock Honey Boo Boo as they do over-dramatic Hispanic or Black characters. I study gender and racial stereotypes A LOT, so I absolutely agree that being white has far less negative stereotypes associated, but people DO see that ANY ethnicity can be negatively represented in media. Charles Ramsey, however, is a hero, and should be seen as one. He did SAVE those girls, so interviewing him was the ONLY logical answer in that situation. And TOSH.O and other web series do target various ethnic peoples.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shannon-Zimmerman/100001535492252 Shannon Zimmerman

      So basically you’re saying that because the majority of people that commented on this article are not of color, they/I we are missing what you perceive as racism? As if men and women of color are the only ones on the crap end of racism. You may very well be an attorney that specializes in racial justice, I’m honestly too lazy to look, but you’re obviously naive to the fact that whites recieve their fair share of racism.

      • Jed

        Give us a break, Shannon. If you think whites receive their fair share of racism then I suspect you’ve never left the house

    • http://mendaciousbeing.tumblr.com/ typhoeus

      “If he isn’t, that explains this article.”

      Classic.

    • http://www.facebook.com/drjohncross John Cross

      “Both races”??? Sorry, I have taught race relations for years (and I am White I have to admit–how DARE a White guy teach race relations?) and yes, there is a history of minstrels and seeing Blacks in denigrating roles, and yes this is still a highly racially charged society with lots of racists, as we can see by the reaction to President Obama in some sectors of the population. But this is anything but the case here as far as most of what I have seen. Ramsey is a hero, not a fool. His comments were real, not staged. For the most part they have been taken in that context. If you are going to insist on finding a racial insult in everything, I guess there is no way to stop you from finding it…

    • Dale Cooper

      YES. Thank you Shy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kathleenbsessums Kathleen Sessums

    I think of Mr. Ramsey as a hero in today’s times. Most people would have ignored a woman’s cry for help and he didn’t, he help kick out the door. You are correct in your statement and I believe that she is just one of the people, of several, that fuel racism due to her hate. It is so obvious. Wake up Ms. Harris, times have changed, come into the light!

  • caro

    Very smart article…The man saved those women, and all she can do is point the race card?! A hero is a hero, and he certainly is one!

  • TDuck

    Isn’t it also “Dangerously Wrong” to focus on this guy, when another guy was the one who actually responded to her? Ramsey said he heard the screaming from his couch…. Impossible. The non-english speaking immigrant id’s her as being in distress, approaches the house, wrestles with the door. Some are saying the Ramsey didn’t even show up until after she was off the porch! Isn’t it also “Dangerously Wrong” to not glorify the immigrant who prompted the rescue during a policy discussion about immigration? Or, should we just keep on allowing the media to tell us that immigrants are only capable of bogging us down, not being heros? Ramsey shot to the stratosphere for two reasons, in my opinion – 1. He, as the Slate article (perhaps not effectively) pointed out that a funny black guy is more marketable than a non-English speaking immigrant. 2. He dropped a fortune 100 company name into his trumped up tale.

    • USAmerican1

      I’m pretty sure the initial interview took place immediately after all of the press and police, as well as onlookers, started to arrive on scene. That being said, DID Charles Ramsey tell someone that he wasn’t the one who did all of this? He sure took credit for it during the interview. I don’t think the media, or anyone, is playing it off as what you’re saying here. Nobody had the full report until recently. They didn’t have it during the initial interview. So, how could they have interviewed Angel Cordero when nobody even knew that he was, supposedly, the main one who helped those girls, with Charles Ramsey arriving after the door was kicked open, again, supposedly? Also, did the captives comment and say who exactly rescued them? Did many other onlookers give credit to the fact that Angel Cordero, and not Charles Ramsey, was the one who actually did the saving? Or, is everyone just taking Angel Cordero’s word for it since, people, as a whole, seem to love to tear down heroes now-days? Is there any backup to Angel Cordero’s report, claiming that he was the one who actually saved the girls? Or is it just his word against Ramsey’s? If there is any factual information backing up Cordero’s claims, I will be the first to praise him, as I have been doing with Charles Ramsey. If there is no factual information, and it is just his word against Ramsey’s, it is hard to believe that he is not just trying to “steal the spotlight.”

      • NortheastOhioGirl

        If you listen to the extended interview, Charles says “we” at various points while being interviewed. For example, he uses it when discussing kicking the door. Cordero was later interviewed and claimed to have no interest in the media attention. Did he avoid initial interviews or did local news drop the ball? Hard to say

  • http://www.facebook.com/jailovesrach Jai-Sin Rachael Worme

    The only thing I got from his interviews is the man has a heart to help other people and likes Big Macs.

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