America is captivated by Charles Ramsey’s colorful story about his rescue of Amanda Berry from a Cleveland house where she and two other women had been held prisoner for a decade. Overnight, Ramsey has become “one of those instantly compelling figures who, in the middle of an American tragedy, just start talking—and then we can’t stop listening,” as a writer wrote in The New Yorker.
Ramsey’s unwitting but spot-on commentary about race in America has been the most compelling part. Asked by a reporter how he knew Amanda Berry was in trouble, Ramsey replied:
I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway … Either she’s homeless or she’s got problems. That’s the only reason she run to a black man …
Ramsey’s explanation is rooted in Americans stereotypes of black men as lazy, criminal and someone to fear. Think of the taxi drivers who avoid picking up black men at night for fear they’ll be robbed, as noted in this ABC News story. Black men are too often “the wrong color and the right suspects,” as the New York Times put it in a review of a documentary about five black teenagers falsely accused and convicted of raping a Central Park jogger. The Washington Post has called for attention to the “vast, increasing segregation of young, African American men and boys from the promise of their country.”
With all of the pathologies heaped upon black men, it is no wonder Ramsey was shocked to find a white woman running toward him rather than away from him. Is Ramsey the one to make America realize how painful, and more importantly, inaccurate, its stereotypes of black men are?
I doubt it. But Ramsey deserves his 15 minutes in the sun as well as any financial gain that comes with it. Some are crying exploitation as Ramsey’s homespun vernacular was turned into auto tuned videos for the Internet and memes for him were created online. But the model for crime hero turned social media sensations is Antoine Dodson. The Huntsville, Ala. man’s vivid commentary to news reporters about a would-be rapist who climbed in his sister’s bedroom window turned Dodson into a YouTube sensation.
Charles Ramsey may also find himself with a larger platform. After telling a CNN affiliate:
“I’m eating my McDonald’s, I come outside, and I see this girl going nuts, trying to get out of the house.” McDonald’s gave Ramsey a shout out on Twitter and said the corporation would be in touch. The tweet was retweeted more than 8,000 times as Ramsey’s new fans debated whether he should receive a lifetime supply of Happy Meals or star in the fast-food chain’s next commercial.
I’m not worried about Ramsey being exploited by a public hooked on reality shows. I figure if America is so shocked by a black man doing good that he is able to carve out a lucrative sideline talking about it, well, at least something good has come out of the pain.