With President Clinton’s yearlong race initiative rapidly approaching its promised conclusion this summer, a black antipoverty activist wants to screen a vicious parody of black-on-black racism before Clinton’s advisory commission on race. Tara Butler’s The Good Negro Awards portrays Ku Klux Klan members handing out Oscar-type trophies to successful blacks who refuse to give anything back to their struggling people.
A football player, a drug-dealing gangbanger, and a middle-level corporate executive are three of the more gaudy characters in Butler’s fictional but brutally honest “shockumentary,” in which the grand wizard of the KKK bestows “White Pony Awards” on blacks who mirror, advocate, or perpetuate racist philosophy.
According to Butler, the film, which she wrote and produced on a $700 budget using professional and amateur actors, was rejected for inclusion by the Harlem Week Black Film Festival because of what she views as its provocative approach to the thorny subject of black-on-black racism. (A Festival spokesman refused to comment.)
The president’s first town hall meeting on race, in Akron last December, covered a wide range of topics. Last month, Clinton met with an all-star panel of black sports figures in Houston, narrowing the focus in hopes of engaging Americans who might not otherwise want to discuss race issues. At that meeting, former and current athletes urged colleagues to do more to help blacks in and out of sports.
Six months before Clinton backed such a call, Butler had conjured up, as part of her 21-minute film, an “offensive scenario” of an ingrate football star who refuses to give anything back. Imagine this bald-faced ingratitude coming from your favorite black athlete:
“I’ve been a football player for the past six years, and I’ve made almost $150 million, and you’re goddamn right, I don’t give to black people either. Can you imagine if I gave money to blacks to open up stores or start a magazine or radio station? They just might do well. Then I won’t be the big Negro in charge for these black people to look up to. I give money, but only to white organizations because there is no competition from other blacks, and that is how I remain the big Negro in charge.”
Said the thirtysomething Butler, who also hopes to screen the film at the last of three still-to-be-announced town hall meetings on race relations: “I hope it sensitizes my successful African American brothers and sisters to the horrible reality of ghetto poverty, or embarrasses them into giving something back. It’s a way to provoke them to act. Filthy rich blacks have a responsibility to help pull the downtrodden out of hopelessness and poverty.”
Butler said her aim is to shame not only the athletes but “those millionaire blacks” who kowtow to right-wing views on how blacks should lift themselves out of poverty. She hopes her bid to sharpen the dialogue on race might unnerve anti–affirmative action activists like Ward Connerly, the controversial black ultra-conservative University of California regent who spearheaded a 1996 state ballot initiative that banned affirmative action in public employment, contracting, and admissions to public colleges and universities.
Almost three weeks after Clinton’s meeting with black athletes, Connerly and a group of prominent conservatives announced the formation of their own race-relations commission. The group will hold public forums with scholars and ordinary citizens on issues such as crime, the deterioration of black families, and the academic performance of black students.
But like historian John Hope Franklin, the head of Clinton’s race-relations forum, Butler believes that conservatives “have nothing but pain and misery” to contribute to the debate.
“People like Ward Connerly show so much hostility toward blacks; they put more pressure on blacks to make it out of poverty than they do on whites,” Butler argued. (Connerly responded: “I don’t harbor hostility toward any group. And yes, I want to put pressure on black people and every other group to work their way out of poverty.”)
Connerly also came under fire last month from Michael Dawson, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago.
“I get extremely angry whenever people like Ward Connerly evoke Dr. King in the defense of a color-blind society,” Dawson said in an interview on National Public Radio. “Dr. King, in 1967, was talking about the need for affirmative action…before most [of] the rest of us even knew what the term meant, because he knew that without affirmative action and similar programs and policies, this country was gonna be unable to meet its commitment that individual citizens could compete equally.”
Butler excels at emulating the hardcore black conservative’s response to Dawson’s argument, which is captured in the words of the film’s gridiron star: “Yes, my mother also lives in the projects, and my brother and sister are homeless, but they have to make it on their own just like I did.”
In refusing to give anything back, the black football player remains subservient to white interests. “I got this fine white woman on my arm and she doesn’t even have a high school diploma. She’s a crackhead and she sleeps with anybody and anything, but she is accepted in the white world…When I look in the mirror…I see a nigger looking at me and it scares the shit out of me ’cause I want to be white. I hate my black mother and my black kids from my previous marriage, and I never give, nor will I ever give them, dick shit…”
Perhaps this isn’t the kind of in-your-face talk Clinton hoped for when he teamed with the panel of sports figures in an effort to extend the dialogue on race. If anyone energized the discussion about black athletes who won’t use their economic clout to challenge white dominance, it was NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who suggested that black college stars should turn to black agents more often when launching their pro careers.
“Those black lawyers, agents, and managers would be handling those investment dollars,” Brown said. “Right now the black investment dollars go into other neighborhoods. We stood up, and we talk about one more black coach.
“One more black coach is a symbolic situation. Those investment dollars are the way to rebuild communities, show people that we can have racial unity, and that we understand the principles of economics.”
That angered Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, who said that many of his former players have hired white Washington sports agent David Falk.
“Unfortunately, I find it very difficult to fire David because he’s white,” said Thompson, adding that when he was a young coach “and no African American wanted to help me…David did. And David took the time to work [with] and be concerned about players that weren’t superstars. Now that John Thompson is successful and has successful players, I find it very difficult to fire David Falk because the pigmentation in his skin is white.”
Thompson, who said he has been called an “Uncle Tom” and a racist, elaborated on his outspoken support for his white friend, adding that he was “also very sympathetic” and “very sensitive” to Brown’s philosophy.
“But how far do you go? Do I pick a black dentist, do I pick a black lawyer?…Society has caused that,” he said. “Society made us racial.”
Butler said many whites told her that, after watching her film at the New York International Film Festival on April 25, they could relate to what Brown and Thompson had said. Many of them cringed at the arguments and tactics used by the actors portraying the views of prominent right-wing blacks, she said.
In the film, the KKK leader proclaims: “Many of the awardees have been in the news or making your laws. Come on out here. You are getting this White Pony Award for being one of the most dedicated Negroes in America. And we, the white pony supremacists group, love you.”
In the gangbanger’s acceptance speech, not only does he vow to continually rob the black community of its young blood by gunning them down, he evokes ghetto stereotypes that might make even the most tightfisted conservative black recoil.
“During slavery, you had the house Negro and the field Negro. Well, some say that the gang member is the house Negro because people feel we clean house for the white man by beating and killing our own people. Some even go so far as to say we’re weak-minded because we don’t…elevate the community with programs and protest rallies in order to make our neighborhoods a better place to live like the Black Panthers did.
“They call us cowards because we hide behind guns and kill women and children. Well I say that’s bullshit!…I’m tough. I must have killed around 15 to 16 women and children in the past two years. You got to be tough to do that ’cause I didn’t even know these people. I can’t read or write and I still live with my mother, who cries every night because she can’t understand why I’m standing on the corner….
“She wants me to get a job so I can give money to my four kids by different women. I ain’t looking for no job to raise my kids; they’re not my responsibility–that’s woman’s work. My job is to be a man and hang in the hood. I don’t own property or a car or credit card. But I know one thing: Mr. Pete [the KKK leader who has given him the award] thinks I’m great ’cause he owns eight prisons and every time me and my homeboys go there, Mr. Pete makes $60,000 to $100,000 a year per homeboy.”
Butler also barges into America’s boardrooms to expose how racism has affected the attitude of token “corporate blacks,” who will do anything to protect the white man’s interest in them. Blacks, she asserts, should be wary of self-promoters like “Yvonne,” the nattily attired woman who walks away with one of the Klan awards.
“I work for one of the largest companies in America,” she says in her acceptance speech. “There are over 1000 people in the company, and I’m the only black. They made me a vice president of the human resources department. My job is to sit by the door and prevent other blacks from being hired. Sometimes white people who are unaware of our policy hire blacks as receptionists and secretaries, and then it is my job to stay on top of them…
“I magnify the fact that they didn’t dot an ‘I’ or were five minutes late from lunch. I spy on them and tell my bosses exaggerated stories about them. I make around $50,000 a year and I’m not going to let another black have the opportunity to be in my position…
“The whites love it when I laugh and denounce my own people. They even rub my head and call me different from those other blacks. That’s why I’m the only black you see in the company pictures…They use my black face to show the government that they are equal-opportunity employers, and they even win awards for having my black face…I promise to protect my company like a pit bull to prevent another black from being hired. Some people ask me, how can you sleep with yourself at night? I simply say very easily, I have a job, you don’t.”
One of the more endearing characters in the film is the black TV personality and journalist “Jerry Matthews,” who sees himself as a skilled propagandist for the white man.
“We use propaganda techniques to discredit liberal whites and minorities,” he says. “We use words such as anti-family, anti-God, family values…I love it when I can ruin a life or a person’s career. With that kind of power I’d discredit my own mother. I’m not stupid. I know that America is run by one group of people, and that’s these people right here [referring to the KKK members].
“Mr. Pete has several million secret members that run the newspapers, television, [and are] judges, doctors, lawyers, and politicians. I’d rather be their slave than a black man’s equal. My job is to manipulate and redefine whatever a white liberal or minority would say, no matter how true or enlightening their words might be…
“I use fear, stereotypes, and I focus on people’s past history. Things that have nothing to do with the issue at hand…These efforts are essential to maintain a one-sided viewpoint. I make you hate the people who are being oppressed and love the people who are doing the oppressing. I exclude representatives from civil rights and public-interest groups. Let’s face it, I work in the media, which is overwhelmingly conservative [and dominated by] white males, and if I don’t report the news the way they see it, I won’t have a job.”
Butler maintains that every day blacks cop out of their social responsibility to help other blacks. As she travels around America, she says, she continues to encounter blacks who consciously or unwittingly recite what she calls “The White Pony Pledge of Allegiance.”
In the film it goes like this:
“I promise to die for the white man to stay in complete power.
“I promise to turn my back on other blacks, that are suffering and in pain.
“I promise to lie and destroy my people when they try to achieve their goals.
“I promise I will never vote.
“I promise to believe whatever the media says, without any question.
“I promise to denounce all black leaders that fight for people’s rights.”
Research assistance: Linda DiProperzio and Andrew Robertson
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 19, 1998