I just read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article, The Cosby Show. In it, he discussed a long reported piece he wrote back in 2008 when he followed Bill Cosby around the nation on one of his hectoring tours to tell the African American community that their problems were all their own fault. This is what Coates refers to as “respectability politics”; I wrote about it in another article recently, The Failure of Respectability Politics. But I was struck by a phrase he used in today’s article, “Twice as good.”
The idea of the phrase is that African Americans — or any oppressed group — have to be twice as good as white majority. And if they are, then the white majority will accept them, “Kumbaya” will be sung, and all will be good in the land of the free. The major problem with this is that it is a fantasy. It treats racism, and power politics more generally, as though it were rational. But it isn’t. The colonists didn’t start slavery based on skin color because they saw that dark skinned people behaved badly. And so the idea that hundreds of years of white privilege will be wiped away by African Americans being “twice as good” is just outrageous.
Consider one of my favorite examples: the guy who cut you off. Suppose you hate Latinos. If you are driving and a white guy cuts you off, he’s just a jerk. But if it is a Latino, well, isn’t that entirely typical of Latinos — they just don’t know how to behave! Now if a Latino stops to allow you to merge into traffic, well, that’s the exception. In general, Latinos are the last people do that! Racism is a system of confirmation biases. It simply exists and whatever data is available will be used to justify it.
So unless the African American community can be perfect — which is impossible — there will always be blacks for whites to point at and say, “Isn’t that typical of blacks!” And it doesn’t matter in the least how untypical of blacks “that” might be. And it certainly doesn’t matter how many “twice as good” blacks are there as a counter example.
Part of the problem is that successful and “morally pure” blacks become, at best, a kind of subset. Whites can think, “Blacks are terrible, but there are those special blacks that break the mold.” And all that means is that any given African American is presumed guilty until he is shown to be one of those “good” blacks. So the whole idea behind “twice as good” is racist — it is built upon the same toxic idea as white privilege is.
The fundamental issue is why African Americans have to be twice as good. In White Like Me, Tim Wise spends a lot of time talking about how many chances he has received in life. Is there any definition of fairness that includes countless do-overs for a white man and zero for a black man? Telling a young African American to be “twice as good” is not necessarily a bad idea. He does live in a racist society and he will be held to a far higher standard. But to tell the African American community the same thing is madness. It isn’t the solution to racism; it is just more of it.