Thursday, July 18, 2013

Not all Men can be Forgiven or Celebrated: Maleness, Race, and Redemption

Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina), Anthony Weiner (D-NY), Eliot Spitzer (D-former NY Attorney General and Governor) and Charles Ramsey. "Flawed" men according to some, but the first three have publicly begged for forgiveness and have reclaimed or are trying to reclaim their place in society. Ramsey, although doing what we typically celebrate as a good deed, cannot be seen as a hero as his prior acts seem to shadow his current behavior. His past is his current story. Consider that Sanford was recently reelected after lying about his extra-marital affair and allegations of stalking his ex-wife. Anthony Weiner, after publicly acknowledging his personal flaws that led to his sexting and eventual removal from public office, is now running for mayor of NY. Eliot Spitzer, who left office after his involvement with a prostitute was brought to light, is indicating that he will again run for public office. Charles Ramsey helped to rescue three women who had been abducted and held against their will for years. But he is abusive. Some might argue that the sins of the men are different. After all, the three white men “cheated” on their spouses and as such this is a personal matter that has no implication for how they conduct their public lives. The larger question I have is how are such decisions made? Who or what determines that the past should stay in the past and that some of us can be redeemed and others can not?

The stories of these men speak to how the intersection of maleness and race functions in American society. It shows how society determines who is worthy to be celebrated and who is worthy of forgiveness. 

Sanford, Spitzer, and Weiner, three White men, have come forward and declared their sins. The public confession of sins and asking for forgiveness appears to have become a norm in American society in general and particularly so for elected officials and other public figures.

The model appears to be:
1. Deny
2. Confess, while crying or looking forlorn (one has to have the right mix of contrition)
3. Confess sin as a means of (re)claiming public standing while promising that you know what’s best for the rest of us and/or that you truly understood why you did what you did (you have been pained as a result of your actions and have learned from this pain).

While the actions of these men have stirred conversation about the act of publicly asking for forgiveness, many have not looked at this process through a lens of race and class. This path to redemption does not seem available to Black men, regardless of social class. For some reason, Black men are unworthy of forgiveness. Part of it has to do with which behaviors become “normalized” and for which populations.

Let’s look, briefly, at the issue of sex scandals. Tiger Woods cheated on his wife. He like other men avoided, denied (to some extent), admitted, and asked for forgiveness. Some refused to forgive him. The sincerity of his apology was often discussed among media pundits. Yes, he continues to play golf, but his stature, in the eyes of some, remains tainted. Tom Brady and his “baby mama” drama has not received the same salacious coverage in comparison to others. He remains the darling of many.  Michael Vic, who was convicted and served time for running a dog-fighting ring, also followed the above script. Some argued that he should be hanged for his transgressions.  Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback for Pittsburg Steelers, was accused of sexual assault (on more than one occasion). He remains a darling for many football fans. Spitzer, after resigning, was offered a gig on CNN, he became an adjunct faculty member at City College, and he wrote a number of books. Now he’s running for political office Sanford, as I mentioned earlier was recently reelected. Weiner, after comparing himself to the likes of Nelson Mandela, has found himself to be clearly ready to assume political leadership in NY. 

Not all sex scandals, and sins, are responded to in the same manner. Some folk are given pardons and others’ regardless of how they engage the public apology process seem not to be able to access forgiveness.

The Charles Ramsey case is slightly different from the other three in the sense that he was not directly involved in a sex scandal. Charles Ramsey, after helping to rescue three women who had been kidnapped and held hostage for a decade, cannot access the narrative of “hero” because he cannot be forgiven for his prior sins. The media, following the rescue of the women, informed the public of Ramsey’s prior charges of domestic abuse. It was almost to suggest that this man had no redeemable qualities, he was not worthy of forgiveness and as such his actions could not be celebrated (no I'm not condoning inter-partner violence).

Maleness, and its intersection with whiteness, affords some men access to particular narratives and tropes of goodness that are not afforded to other men. Discussions on forgiveness and redemption of Sanford and his colleagues tend to ignore the types of regulative governance that facilitates who can be redeemed.

As Ronald Jackson (2006, 51) argues, “American popular culture is fascinated with the game of charades so much that it is has produced its own complex White solipsistic versions, one of which centers around the varied iterations of the racialized body”. Such solipsism results in inscribing the Black male body with narratives such as sexual excess and violent depravity. This is at the core as to why Black men are not deemed as redeemable and why mainstream America cannot celebrate/recognize their current behaviors, regardless of their past. It also explains why White men, with similar past, can be redeemed. Goodness is inscribed onto their bodies. Newt Gingrich implicitly used this narrative when he argued that his philandering was simply the result of his youth and therefore he should be forgiven. This was a 30 plus year old man who had cheated on his wife. He like so many of his colleagues make the claim--I made an error, but because I am intrinsically a good man—read White man—you can trust me regardless of my past.

Beyond the ideology of white solipsism, the denial of redemption also results from some not being able to see Black bodies as a site of pain. Trawalter, Hoffman and Waytz, in their study on racial bias in perceptions of others’ pain, show that “people assume that, relative to Whites, Blacks feel less pain because they have faced more hardship.” Although they focus on health and medicine, I argue that their findings are informative for helping to understand why Black men cannot be redeemed. One must feel pain, emotional pain, in order to ask for forgiveness. If Black men are some how impervious to pain and suffering then it would stand to argue that they can never move beyond their prior “bad” acts. They are unable to do such because they cannot recognize and feel the pain associated with misbehaving. 

This is why Mr. Charles Ramsey cannot be celebrated. He is not able to wrench and purge the “evil” within. It also helps us to understand why Trayvon Martin was held responsible for his own death. Simply put, Black men can never be redeemed in the eyes of some. 

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