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Opinion

Cleveland's Charles Ramsey: hero, or black stereotype?

What's behind the media and popular fascination with Charles Ramsey – the man who helped rescue three women held captive in the Cleveland home of Ariel Castro? It appears to be less because of his heroism than it is from amusement over a certain stereotype of a black man.

By Theodore R. Johnson / May 9, 2013

Charles Ramsey speaks to media May 6 near the Cleveland home where three missing women were reportedly held for 10 years by Ariel Castro and rescued with help from Mr. Ramsey. Op-ed contributor Theodore R. Johnson writes: 'While there’s much of Ramsey’s persona to delight in, glorifying stereotypes can have serious repercussions' and 'influences how society views blacks as a whole.'

Scott Shaw/The Plain Dealer/AP

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Alexandria, Va.

Monday’s liberation of three women in Cleveland ­– Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight – held in captivity for about 10 years by accused kidnapper Ariel Castro is rightfully the center of significant national media attention. Charles Ramsey, the man who claims to have come to their rescue, has been lauded as a hero.

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It now appears Mr. Ramsey may not have been the first on the scene or the only hero in the rescue (neighbor Angel Cordero says he arrived first). But Ramsey’s account – and his persona – has gone viral. Just as quickly as he launched into action on Monday, the caricaturing – intentional or not – of Ramsey as a stereotypical black man began.

Riddled with the candor, colloquialisms, and cadence of a particularly African-American dialect, his description of the rescue to a local TV news anchor, coupled with his appearance, became instant fodder for the social media machine. It was not heroism that caused the interview to go viral, but amusement at the typecast unfolding before our eyes.

This portrayal has overshadowed the act of heroism that should be at the heart of Ramsey’s story. While there’s much of Ramsey’s persona to delight in, glorifying stereotypes can have serious repercussions. Studies have shown that imagery, even if fake or inaccurate, works itself into our memories and can affect our behavior. And the disproportionate coverage of African-Americans in local media as poor, uneducated criminals, for example, influences how society views blacks as a whole.

Ramsey’s original interview has been viewed collectively more than 3 million times on YouTube, and played throughout the day yesterday on local and national media stations. Mentions of him on the most popular social media sites paired heroism with hilarity.

Declarations of his valor were accompanied by rote recitations of phrases from his interview, such as “I’m just eatin’ my McDonald’s,” “I barbecue wit’ this dude….We eat ribs and whatnot,” and perhaps most famously (and tellingly), “Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms – something is wrong here.”

The audio of the interview has already been auto-tuned and set to music – the Internet equivalent of a seal of approval for its viral status. Reading of the transcript alone would probably not elicit much of a chuckle. The fascination is with the visual of the stereotypically animated, wide-eyed, dark-skinned black man with straightened hair and disheveled clothes. Ramsey’s valiant act played second fiddle to the image of a superficially indigent, uneducated black man eating ribs and listening to salsa.

In his book “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” James Loewen writes that heroification “is a degenerative process that makes people over into heroes” to such a degree that our perception of the individuals are forever altered.

Likewise, de-heroification (the de-emphasis or demotion of heroism) is also a degenerative process. It consists of subjugating heroic deeds to trivial characteristics, whether intentionally or unintentionally. In the case of Ramsey, stereotypes are overshadowing his alleged accomplishments. The knight in shining armor is demoted to court jester.

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