I did not hear back from Hornak, but instead from West Coast wacko and conservative black radio host Mike Green, deciding to have an identity crisis ("The Mail," 5/3). This crisis is understandable, since Green is a black Republican, a member of a party that is the repository of some of the worst racist and reactionary sentiments in the land. However, the writer also, unknowingly, underscored a phenomenon that has become prevalent in our post-civil rights era: the rise of the Pet Negro.
What is a Pet Negro? Originally, it was a term coined by Zora Neale Hurston (a Republican no less) to denote those blacks of whom whites were told to keep their hands off. Yesterday's PN was probably a minister, college president or race leader who didn't threaten the pre-civil rights status quo.
The fundamental job of today's Pet Negro?usually black intellectuals or media mavens, conservative, MOR or so-called oppositional?is either to interpret black culture to niche-market whites, or to make the kind of statements about blacks that would label a white a racist. In short, legitimate the policies of the White Overclass whether it's liberal or conservative. After all, a PN has to work for somebody.
Pet Negroes can be found across the spectrum. It doesn't matter if you're a conservative like Thomas Sowell or Alan Keyes, a middle-of-the-roader like Henry Louis Gates Jr., or new-jackers like Cornel West or Michael Eric Dyson, as long as you cite black inner-city or underclass pathologies, or black anti-Semitism, or smite hiphop buffoonery. Once you engage in the conversion ritual, the path will be cleared and the proverbial beam removed from thine eye, and the dollar bills will roll in. Believe me, it works.
Gates once wrote a piece on so-called black anti-Semitism that was published in The New York Times. He wrote that anti-Semitism was on the upswing in the black community. However, Ishmael Reed, in his book Airing Dirty Laundry, cited a poll published by the Anti-Defamation League showing that anti-Semitism among blacks has been on the decline since 1964. Yet one never heard a correction from Gates or the Times. It didn't matter: Gates had become a Pet Negro, and the HNIC (Head Negro In Charge) at Harvard's Afro-American studies department. He passed the test.
Now, citing the foibles and lunacies of some blacks isn't a bad thing per se. I don't subscribe to any sort of black orthodoxy, and do appreciate blacks who don't share my political views; I learn something about them as individuals and how they see the world. Yet there is something odious about Pet Negroes: they never critique the pathologies of whites.
Mike Green, a radio talk show host and PN, was upset about my critique of the GOP and challenged that I couldn't name one white racist who'd left the Democratic Party and become a GOPer. (Okay. South Carolina's Strom Thurmond: left the Dems and became a Dixiecrat because he was upset about Truman's position on race, and later became a Republican.) Green parroted all the standard (white?) ranting about blacks being on welfare and the government destroying the black families (I thought slavery began that). Black pathologies. Now, as a person from an upper-class background once told me, the lower class and the upper class have a lot in common. They do drugs. They have a lot of sex. They don't work. Anyone who reads Vanity Fair or any social history of elite WASPs knows that the American upper class is riddled with a whole host of problems in its lavish environs. These people don't even take care of their own children! Nannies and private schools do that. Welfare moms, however, are demonized and penalized for staying home with theirs.
Last year, the National Review reported on the Hillsdale College scandal: the president of that college, George C. Roche III, a prominent Republican family-values man, was having an affair with his son's wife for 19 years! Distraught, the woman, Lisa Roche, killed herself. Now, I doubt many Pet Negroes clucked their tongues over this form of pathology in any open forum. And that's my point: Pet Negroes are hard-pressed to offer any real critique of those who really wield power in this country. It is far easier to diss clowns like Farrakhan or hiphop headmoes.
My critique of the Republican Party raised Green's hackles because some blacks have to answer an internal question: What the hell am I doing with these people? The politics of Pet Negroes is predicated on the need to distinguish "good blacks" from "bad blacks." Said Negroes know that, as Dan Carter noted, there's a "growing tolerance among whites for blacks who share their conservative values." Usually such Negroes have to compensate for the fact that they are not white by sounding more redmeat Republican than whites. (Now you know why Alan Keyes exists.) They're like "wiggers" in reverse: they have to be more white than whites themselves. This is multiculturalism gone berserk.
Mostly, the politics of Pet Negroes is about class. From left to right, newjack Negroes have to go through all sorts of intellectual and moral contortions to stay on the good side of the White Overclass. I knew for sure that black political culture had tanked when black Dems circled around Bill Clinton during his moment of trial and tribulation. So-called black intellectuals like Toni Morrison alluded to Clinton being black. Manning Marable, director of African-American Studies at Columbia University, claimed that Clinton was "functionally an African-American politician." He's from a single-parent family, eats fast foods and plays the sax. That's black, y'all (or the tropes of blackness). Yet this political class probably didn't get anything more from Clinton for protecting his white ass. They had to protect their Pet White from the more vicious class that frequents the Republican Party. The irony is that this administration has probably done more to make sure that lower-class blacks spend more time in jail than any Republican administration ever has.
Pet Negroes are not traitors. As individuals, they are rationally responding to the demands of the marketplace. Whites who are too lazy or scared to investigate for themselves the black "other" depend on them for their services. After all, PNs know the product and are part of a noble African tradition: buying low, selling high. It's about gettin' paid.
Norman Kelley is the author of Black Heat. His next novel, The Big Mango (Akashic Books), will be published in September.