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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.

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Stereotypical imagery of African-Americans is nothing new. Some of the bestselling novelty items in early 20th century America were postcards – called coon cards – covered with cartoonish picaninnies, depicting blacks with over-exaggerated features engaged in mindless pursuits.

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Both then and now, studies show that stereotypes are internalized and slowly assumed to be more true than not, especially when there is not sufficient personal experience or information to counter them. Then, when we see such stereotypes play out in reality, it confirms the imagery we already have in our minds. This seeming validation is not easily cast aside. It can even serve as a sort of mental reward for “properly” assessing a person or situation. The end result is a focus on the perception instead of the person.

One need only think back to previous Internet sensation Antoine Dodson. In 2010, he became a household name after a flamboyant and lively interview – also auto-tuned to an iTunes bestseller – that outlined a break-in at his home and notoriously warned everyone to “hide your wife, hide your kids” lest they fall prey to the criminal still at-large.

What was lost in the guttural laughter at his persona was that Mr. Dodson, on hearing his sister being attacked in her bedroom by a would-be rapist, burst in to stop the assault and save her from harm. Dodson was a hero, a fact all but completely lost in the glee of a real-time stereotype.

It wasn’t long ago that the black community cringed when the “wrong” person was interviewed on television. Many of us lamented any confirmation of stereotypes and wondered aloud why it seemed that the “educated and presentable” among us never seemed to be chosen to represent the race in front of the breaking news cameras.

But we live in a brave new world where social media and an interconnected nation turn a 30-second spot into a full-fledged 15 minutes of fame.

Certainly, even for all his bravery, Ramsey is not above reproach. Some outlets reported earlier this week that he has served jail time for three separate felony convictions for domestic violence and that his record also includes convictions for drug abuse, criminal trespassing, and receiving stolen property. These earlier transgressions haven’t negated his appeal, however – or his apparent act of heroism in rescuing the three women in Cleveland.

And we should enjoy the culture, and associated wit, that beams from his presence; it’s part of the character diversity that makes America exceptional. But when our enjoyment of Ramsey turns to implicit ridicule (even if good natured) and overshadows a heroic action true to the core of the American value system, we must pause and consider whether we think of Ramsey more as a hero or as a stereotype.

One thing is certain: There are three women reunited with their families who have no doubt that Charles Ramsey and the other neighbors who came to their aid are heroes.

Theodore Roosevelt Johnson III is an active-duty Navy officer, writer, and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. His work has appeared in a variety of publications including The Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, NBC’s The Grio, and The Hill. The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US government.


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