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A Frank Discussion in Black, White, and Gray

A little more than fifty years ago, there was an extraordinary moment on TV’s All in the Family. Yes, even before the recent passing of the wonderful Norman Lear, the Toteboard has been spending a lot of time thinking about extraordinary moments from fifty years ago. Perhaps it’s because the days have turned short and cold, or perhaps it’s because the global situation continues to turn ever more depressing. Or perhaps it’s just because some extraordinary moments seem even more extraordinary fifty years later.

 

For Toteboard readers who are too young (or too old) to remember, All in the Family was one of television’s first “topical” sit-coms, a show that somehow maintained its comic veneer while plunging smack dab into the guts of the pressing social and political issues of the day (and, presciently, of days yet to come): racial and religious tensions, gun violence, gay and women’s rights, trans-phobia, unmarried cohabitation, sexual dysfunction, menopause, rape, and death (and that’s only in the first two seasons). The centerpiece of the ensemble cast was Archie Bunker, a bigoted, blue-collar, sketchily educated, hot-tempered, self-described “regular American,” who came off as oddly sympathetic, even lovable at times, thanks mainly to the complex and nuanced portrayal by Carroll O’Connor. To this day, numerous historians and critics still describe Archie as the the single most important TV character ever.

 

The extraordinary moment occurred during a daring episode entitled “Gloria the Victim,” when Archie’s young-adult daughter Gloria narrowly survived an attempted sexual assault. But the Toteboard moment has almost nothing to do with that central story line – rather, it figures within a ludicrous subplot about the evening’s dinner plans going awry. The episode established at the outset that Archie had been eagerly awaiting a special dinner entrée of foot-long hot dogs, a blue-collar delicacy his long-suffering wife Edith had purchased sometime earlier from an ethnic specialty shop. Unbeknownst to Archie, Edith hadn’t had enough space in the freezer to store a dozen feet of franks, so she had asked the Black next-door neighbors, the Jeffersons, to babysit the foot-longs in their freezer. But unfortunately, when Edith went to retrieve the hot dogs, she learned that Louise Jefferson had been defrosting her freezer earlier in the day, and that the family dog (who is never seen or mentioned in subsequent episodes) had gobbled up the entire bounty that had been thawing on the counter. Naturally, Archie was outraged, and utterly heartbroken.

 

If you have followed this nonsense so far, the key moment occurred in the aftermath of both plot devices. A police detective came to the Bunker home to interview Gloria about the assault, crudely warning her about the likelihood of blame-the-victim courtroom tactics in the event she decided to press charges. During this conversation, an apologetic Henry Jefferson came over (his better-known brother George had not been introduced yet), and offered to go cross-town to Hinklemeyer’s to buy some replacement frankfurters. Archie was fine with that, as was the detective, who enthusiastically handed Mr. Jefferson a fiver and asked (or rather, instructed) him to get “a couple of feet, unless they’re cheaper by the yard.” Henry disappeared on the errand, and the conversation continued, until the detective suddenly thought to ask Archie for a reality check. “That colored guy . . . is he really coming back with those foot-long hot dogs.” “Don’t worry about that,” Archie reassured him, “he’s one of the good ones.”

 

And that is the extraordinary moment.

 

What makes it so extraordinary is that in the ordinary twisted landscapes of Archie-land, Henry Jefferson was not, in fact, “one of the good ones.”

 

To walk this back for a moment, the whole “one of the good ones” language appears (and has appeared) in multiple historical contexts, where those in the self-appointed in-group identify selected members of one or more out-groups as somehow more acceptable or legitimate. In the US, of course, it is whites who have enjoyed the prerogative to make the determination which Blacks somehow stand apart from the rest. But there has historically been something especially poisonous about white Americans employing this manner of “praise” in describing “select” African Americans. Most immediately apparent is the embedded implication that the “good” Blacks are the exceptions, that they deviate from the common expectation that (as Atticus Finch put it), “all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women.” And perhaps most importantly, in the language and assumptions of American racism, the “good ones” are the Blacks who “know their place,” the ones who don’t “get above themselves.” Even supposedly innocent uses of the “one of the good ones” label are always implicitly hierarchical, demeaning, and even infantilizing

 

The striking thing about the All in the Family interaction is that Henry Jefferson’s character was clearly not a man who “knew his place.” While his nephew Lionel often got a kick out of indulging Archie’s stereotypes with exaggerated shuffling and jiving, Henry was never servile, or even deferential. He called out racism when he saw it, and he gave to Archie as good as he got, often couched in his own brand of humor (“I feel like the straight man in a white minstrel show”). And as if that wasn’t enough, he had no qualms about claiming that God “built” Blacks better than whites, and insisting that God, and Jesus, and Santa Claus were all Black. That’s definitely not a Black man who “knew his place.”

 

And yet, Archie developed a grudging, albeit sitcom-ish, respect for him –  “we’re practically friends,” he would at one point volunteer with a totally straight face. Although it’s never explicitly stated exactly why Archie has come to respect him, the implication is that it simply grew from ordinary neighborly interactions, and from Archie’s observation that Henry was an honest, hard-working, devoted family man. And to get to see up close a Black man who embodied those qualities, well, that was a revelation for Archie. It was Henry’s dignity and integrity, and even his demand for respect, not servility and deference, that made him “one of the good ones.”

 

But of course, the Toteboard is not suggesting that the NAACP was going to start handing Archie a lifetime achievement award anytime soon. Archie still experienced his respect for Jefferson in the context of a thoroughly racist worldview, and still expressed that respect in thoroughly racist language. At this point, offering an ethical appraisal of Archie becomes a bit more complicated. Do we praise him for his obvious evolution, or dismiss him for his stubborn racism? Or do we sidestep the conversation by relegating him to the ambiguous category of “a mixed bag?”

 

What complicates matters further – and the Toteboard will be astonished if you expected things to turn in this direction – is the simple human reality that it can be almost epistemologically impossible for any person to recognize and discard problematic aspects of a deeply ingrained worldview. The brilliant Confucian philosopher Tu Wei-ming has often noted that Western modernity has been significantly shaped by the philosophical ethos of the Enlightenment, which, despite its revolutionary contributions, also bequeathed a legacy of certain intellectual shortcomings and moral blind spots. What’s more, Tu argued, Western attempts to rectify those intellectual and moral deficiencies have historically come from squarely within the post-Enlightenment worldview, and thereby inadvertently replicated the very problems they were trying to remedy. This is a point that is well worth careful rumination and reflection. Tu often illustrated this through an amusing anecdote: At one point during the Red Scare, local police were instructed to arrest communists, to arrest all communists, regardless of whether they were Marxists, or Bolsheviks, or Maoists, or Trotskyites, or socialists, or whatever – just arrest them all, they were told. While one policeman was hauling a woman off to a paddy wagon (yes, the Toteboard knows that term has fallen out of favor), she struggled and protested furiously. “I’m not a communist,” she pleaded, “I’m an anti-communist!” To which the policeman simply replied, “I don’t care what kind of communist you are.”

 

Tu is certainly correct that most contemporary Westerners are generally unaware of the ways they view the world through Enlightenment eyes, not simply in terms of specific ideas and values, but also with regard to elemental patterns of cognition and perception, i.e., the basic mechanisms through which we sort and organize reality (feel free to engage the Toteboard privately for further conversations about this point). So believe it or not, Archie Bunker actually had no idea that he was a racist, or that he processed the world through racist eyes. In refuting accusations that he was “prejudiced,” Archie in an earlier episode granted that Sammy Davis Jr. had “no choice” about his “being colored” (i.e., it wasn’t his fault) and praised him for overcoming the “unequalness of his color.” And he was truly constitutionally unable to recognize the mockery in Davis’s response: “Look, if you were prejudiced, Archie, when I came into your house, you would have called me a ‘coon’ or a ‘nigger’ (yes, they said that on family prime=time TV in those days). But you didn't say that. I heard you clear as a bell. Right straight out, you said, ‘colored.’" And so perhaps that is what made Archie sympathetic. His racism was not primarily from malice, as much as it was from ignorance. But even more so, he just lacked the cognitive apparatus to make sense of the world any other way. He was, in effect, a creature of his time and place as much as we are all creatures of Modernity.

 

Which brings us out of the television world, and back to reality. One of the big cultural issues of the day is how to assess historical figures with mixed legacies, as well as contemporary figures who are fiercely on the right side of important matters . . . except when they weren’t. How should the historical record treat the man who composed the Declaration of Independence and spoke passionately against slavery (i.e., the other Jefferson), but owned hundreds of slaves during his lifetime and had no qualms about porking some of them and even fathering several of their children?  What do we do with a senator who worked tirelessly for women’s rights and access to healthcare, but who also may have done his fair share of groping? What do we do with the author of a well-loved political blog who is infuriated when he revisits how condescendingly women were treated during his formative years, but was not above snapping the bras of a few female classmates during those same years? Do we emphasize the accomplishments and relegate the failings to a footnote? Or do we tear down their statues and rename buildings and tune their accomplishments down to a whisper? Certainly, there is no shortage of people arguing either side of this conundrum, and a lot of them are arguing their positions pretty loudly and emphatically.

 

And so it may not surprise you that the Toteboard is prepared to take a firm, unambiguous position on these questions and, by implication, other analogous morally ambiguous contemporary issues.

 

The Toteboard’s unambiguous position is that these types of issues will not be resolved in a single blog post, let alone a succession of social media factoids and sound bites, or split-screen television newscasts of ideologues shouting at each other. Sorry, there’s just no magic bullet.

 

What the Toteboard is suggesting here is that the only way to address these matters in a healthy, constructive manner is to embark on a process for which our culture, and its institutions, are not currently well equipped. The process begins with the uncomfortable acknowledgment that some matters are hard, that they may bring up competing moral interests, that they do not lend themselves easily to simple black-or-white declarations, and that they may not resolve quickly or cleanly. And then the process involves honest, civil, extended, public discussion, where intelligent people make a genuinely good-faith effort to engage matters openly, with a willingness to consider the voices of various stakeholders, and without a reliance on ideological presuppositions, result-driven arguments, premature resolutions, or sloppy compromises. In short, the Toteboard wants more adults in the room. And wants that room to be bigger, and more durable, and its temperature to be a lot cooler.

 

Unfortunately, the state of contemporary American discourse has not really advanced much beyond that of Archie Bunker and Henry Jefferson blowing raspberries at each other five decades ago. The sites where we would most hope to find sober, intelligent dialogue – religion, politics, academia, journalism – have become so infected by ideological tribalism and amoral neo-liberalism, that those actors genuinely trying to serve the public good are struggling just to get enough oxygen. In short, we as a culture really need some space to figure all this stuff out, and it just seems really difficult to find that space.

 

The late Fred Rogers used to counsel children to “look for the helpers” during times of crisis. But some recent critics have suggested that many adults have adopted this meme (which was not originally intended for them) as a coping mechanism against these toxic, adversarial times, and in so doing have slipped into a state of numb, helpless, complacency. Not having spent much time in the Neighborhood, the Toteboard is somewhat agnostic on this one, but to be honest, it is feeling pretty downbeat about our world’s chances of rising above the tensions and hostilities that seem to permeate the air so thickly. But hey, if Archie could recognize a “good one” when none of us would have expected it, well then, who knows?

 

 

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