This week’s guest column comes from a fellow colleague and someone whose thinking often mirrors my own, Dr. Anthony Samad. His column this week on Paris Hilton and Isaiah Washington really speaks to the issue of race in America.
There’s no drama like Hollywood drama. Yet, in two different situations, two different extremes played out to show how race in America offers great disparities in opportunities to correct social wrongs.
The lessons of race in America continue to frame how we perceive each other and how the institutional systems react to those who violate law and social protocol.
First, I want to say that there are much more important things in the world than Paris Hilton. This hyper-intensive media coverage of the adventures of a blonde bimbo hotel heiress sums up what popular culture has become, in terms of how the media feeds our minds irrelevant "garbage" for intellectual sustenance.
The life and times of Paris Hilton knocks war, poverty, space shuttle launches, and of course, political controversy off the front pages of newspapers in America. With an attention span of a five year old and celebrity fever feeding our intellect, no wonder President Bush was able to pull the wool over the eyes of most of the nation. Since when is Paris Hilton violating probation and being sentenced to 45 days in jail really a "news item?"
When celebrity justice made a mockery of the criminal justice system. That was worth paying attention. Paying our debts to society for running a fowl of the law, has always been part of the American nomenclature. Except if you’re a celebrity in America. It’s common knowledge that celebrities rarely do time. And if they do time, it’s often soft time. Drug and alcohol "rehab" frequently was the alternative to jail time. It’s now a running joke.
Enter Paris Hilton, a known "party girl" with a penchant for wild parties and alcohol, who got caught driving drunk, had her driver’s license suspended and was on probation, now set out to make a joke of the criminal justice system by blatantly defying a court order not to drive. Caught again, Hilton who could afford to be driven from L.A. to New York (by taxi) if she wanted, showed her blatant disregard for the system by showing up in court, painting herself as "a victim" and to the surprise of all was sentenced to 45 days in jail (which she only had to serve 23 days). Now in L.A. County jail, you can pick your jail, "buy up" your accommodations and do your time. Not Paris Hilton, after three days-she ends up back home and a national firestorm ensues. Why? Because a spoiled rich white girl somehow manipulated the system, again. The public finally recognized celebrity justice as social injustice when double standards afford the rich and famous numerous opportunities to break the law and avoid jail.
Media activist Najee Ali, who had to do his whole 45 days for the same violation (driving on a suspended license, not the DUI), went ballistic. And he should have. Yes, the jails are overcrowded, but there were a lot more low level offenders that could have been released before Paris Hilton. The corrections system got straight up fronted off the court system, and we can’t have that, can we? They usually work in collusion. The point is, Hilton did nothing the system wanted her to do, and still got "all the breaks" (loopholes and technicalities) the system could afford. The public objected to what was clearly preferential treatment, Paris was sent back to jail (to do her full 45 days) and all is well with the world again. Or was it?
The same day, another firestorm concluded when actor Isaiah Washington lost his feature role as part of the ensemble cast of the top rated television show, Grey’s Anatomy. Washington, who created the firestorm by choking "Dr. Dreamy" (Patrick Dempsey) and coincidentally commenting that he was "not his little ‘fa**ot’" like another cast member who was in the closet at the time (but has since come out), had been trying (and managing) to repair his reputation over the past six months.
But the altercation became secondary to Washington’s perceived "homophobia," and Hollywood being an industry run by…well, you know, weren’t going to rest until they had Washington’s head on a platter. They first put the "angry Black Man" jacket on him, which goes on anyone articulate enough to redefine themselves and defend their views. White boys with anger issues, like Sean Penn, Johnny Depp or Alec Baldwin, are "rebels," "bad boys" or complexed. Black men always have to be angry. I’ve had it thrown on me a couple times myself. It’s a tough one to shake, and the more calm you get-the more people try to provoke you. They asked Washington to take anger management "rehab," which he did, then they provoked him again at the Golden Globes when Washington denied what he had said-and the standard in Hollywood is to deny everything-even when you know it’s true.
Well, Washington again was held to a different standard and his denial of course brought out gay and lesbian activists wanting Washington to come in touch with his gay-sensitivity side, asking him to meet with them, renounce homophobia and do public service announcements, all of which, again, Washington did. All of this was done in the attempt to restore harmony among the cast, knowing how networks resist tampering with successful formulas, and the Grey’s Anatomy cast is not the first cast to feud while in the top ratings spot. And he was not the only one to snap off camera, and go into a rage. The only difference between him and Alec Baldwin, who is also on a top rated show and has also gone through numerous forms of counseling, is that NBC stood by him. Only Baldwin berated his own child and not a whole segment of the population (I suppose). Still, Baldwin, who’s punched photographers (and anybody else who gets in range) doesn’t have an "angry white man" jacket on him. The parallels here are the stunningly similar, but their outcomes are far from the same. It’s about how many life chances one gets to succeed (or fail).
Clearly the assumption here, whether stated or implied, was that if Washington-who is a central figure in the primetime drama-conformed and renounced his evil (socially impolitic) ways, he would be welcomed back for another season. Well, surprise, surprise, he’s not coming back-even though he did everything ABC asked him to do (causing his publicist Howard Bragman to suggest they made Washington "jump through hoops" for nothing), and it still netted him no reconsideration. Why? Because the black man in American society rarely gets a second chance at anything-much less a prime opportunity. Washington publicly showed remorse and appreciation for the support he received during this controversy at the NAACP Image Awards earlier this year, but the "powers that be" never forgot what he said or what he did. Washington had earned his "Uppity Ni**er" status as far as they were concerned and his lynching (exit from the show) was now inevitable. No "good behavior" credits could be earned on his tainted, but repented, slate. He was served up. Paris Hilton, on the other hand, is still being viewed as a victim of her own celebrity-not as an unrepentant lawbreaker. Sympathy for her is overflowing. For Washington, it’s, "Oh well." The paradox here goes beyond just celebrity. It’s about life chances, historical racial intolerance and disparities in opportunities. Hilton had (and has) many chances to fail. Washington had just one chance to fail. It’s one shot and out for the black man.
Both Hilton and Washington were losers in the outcomes of their controversies. Mistakes were made by everybody, but one got more opportunities to correct their mistakes. One just got more opportunities to "lose" than the other. One deserved to lose because she complied with nothing asked of her, while the other one didn’t deserve to lose because he complied with everything that was asked of him. One got all the breaks (none of which she deserved to avoid jail), while the other got no breaks (and deserved at least one, a chance to return for one more season). Just another day in the life of Hollywood, and the racial construct of America.
There is no drama like Hollywood drama, and race drama, in America. When combined, it’s over the top, in ratings and reality. Some things never change and are as plain as black and white. They just manifest in newer, more contemporary forms. And there is no injustice like celebrity injustice.
Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum (www.urbanissuesforum.com) and author of the upcoming book,Saving The Race: Empowerment Through Wisdom. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com