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.

Scott Shaw/The Plain Dealer/AP
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.'

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.

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.

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.

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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