Ghettotainment: Charles Ramsey and the rise of racial tourism

May 21, 2013

Have you heard of Angel Cordero? Neither have most Americans. A few weeks ago, autotuned video footage of Charles Ramsey went viral after Ramsey rescued three girls from captivity in Cleveland. Ramsey’s down-to-earth, offbeat version of the events made him an instant celebrity in a culture where our 15 minutes of fame are instantly accessible. They are just a Reddit upvote away.

However, Charles Ramsey didn’t act alone. In the original interview, you can closely note a subject shift when he recounts what happened; Ramsey, a born storyteller, subtly moves from "I open the door" to "we can’t get in that way." It’s because Ramsey was part of a team that rescued Amanda Berry and her fellow captives, one that includes Wintel Tejeda. Berry’s 911 call came from Tejeda's house.

In a segment with Cleveland’s WEWS TV, Cordero clarified the misrepresentation.

"The truth—who arrived here, who crossed the street, who broke the door," Cordero said. "It was me...I did what had to be done.”

After setting the record straight, the media hasn’t been that interested in Cordero or Tejeda’s stories. Journalists gravitate toward those with the most quotable version of the events. What’s packageable for the viral market gets you hits, and Charles Ramsey is hardly the first person to gain internet notoriety for having a flamboyant personality. Cordero primarily speaks Spanish, and his interviews had to be translated. Angel Cordero just isn't catchy.

However, it’s the issue of race that’s most troubling here. According to Slate’s Aisha Harris, the real reason that we don’t care about Angel Cordero is because his identity doesn't fufill our desire for racial performance. For Harris, Ramsey’s viral phenomenon speaks to the trend of the "hilarious black neighbor," where working-class heroes are made into Internet punchlines and recognizing bravery is "overshadowed by the public’s desire to laugh at and autotune his story."

Ramsey is part of an industry of folks like Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson, who found their tragedies fodder for mockery. But what purpose does re-mixing tragedy serve? When you hear Dodson’s track, does it remind you that Antoine Dodson, who fought off an intruder in his home and likely saved his sister’s life, is a hero, just like Charles Ramsey? Just because we’re dancing doesn’t mean we’re celebrating.

Although we like to think of the industry of "ghettotainment" as a new trend, it’s hardly novel. From minstrel shows to Amos and Andy, black identities have been ghettoized for decades, bought and sold for public consumption.

We're a culture of racial tourists, and a recently launched New York City venture takes the Ramsey trend to another level—ghettotainment as its most crass and heartless. According to the New York Post, the "Real Bronx Tours takes riders — mainly white Europeans and Australians — on a trip that includes stops at food-pantry lines and a ‘pickpocket’ park."

If you need convincing about the tour’s dubious intent, guide Lynn Battaglia will happily clear that up for you. When passing the Grand Concourse, which was "modeled after a Parisian boulevard," Battaglia asked, "Do you feel like we’re on the Champs-Elysées?"

Later near St. Ann’s Episcopalian church, the tour approached a line of folks waiting for access to the food pantry. Battaglia commented, "I don’t know what that line’s about, but every Wednesday we see it. We see them go in with empty carts, and we see them come out with carts full."

Battaglia, who is from Pittsburgh, shows a clear lack of engagement from the subject of urban poverty and almost no knowledge of the social conditions that have led to such structural issues. The Post reported that St. Ann’s guests were "visibly agitated by the commentary," but Battaglia didn’t care. She saw them simply as specks of urban decay, no more notable than the trash that lines the streets. I hope her bus catches on fire.

But highlighting the experiences of those who witness urban poverty doesn’t have to be dehumanizing, and these experiences best function as a participatory economy, one that involves us in the struggle of folks of color. Films like Boyz ‘n the Hood and Do the Right Thing were vehicles of empowerment for those whose voices were rarely heard, told their lives were too "dangerous" for public consumption. For others, these experiences offer a glimpse into a world we’re rarely allowed to see.

When I was a kid, we would roll up the windows and check the locks when we drove through neighborhoods like the one Spike Lee grew up in. The goal was to keep them out and us in, and when I looked outside, I didn’t see black folks living their lives, pushing strollers or hanging out on the street with their friends. I saw physical embodiments of danger.

However, the creators of L.A. Gang Tours are trying to unlock the doors that divide us.

"We can either address the issue head-on, create awareness and discuss the positive things that go on in these communities, or we can try to sweep it under the carpet," said one-time member of L.A.’s Florencia 13 gang, and tour co-founder Alfred Lomas.

Their hope was to use our cultural "fascination with gangs" as a way to "bring to life the class divisions in America." The goal is to create something that isn’t “voyeuristic or sensational," a tour that benefits the community by showing its history is of value. In addition, Lomas claimed the tour would create 10 part-time jobs for former gang members, as a way to give them other job opportunities.

Lomas isn't alone. In 2007, Beauty Turner started taking local Chicagoans on a ride through parts of the city they likely had never seen before, the whole new worlds next door to our own. Although she was criticized for "glorifying" the projects, Turner said she wanted to "tell a different story about Chicago’s notorious housing projects," one different from what they’d heard in the media about "bad" black neighborhoods. Her goal is education, and all income from the tour is donated to a non-profit.

"This was a community just like yours," Turner told tour riders back in 2007. "People stayed here, played here, lived here and died here."

The underbelly of what Tuner and Lomas are doing troubles me. I don’t like that they are using the lives of people of color (without their consent) to create lessons for white folks. I don’t like that they are turning poverty into a neoliberal safari—where everybody gets to go home to their "nice" houses in "nice" neighborhoods at the end of the day.

But I do believe that we need to change our perspectives on how we view those different from us and that begins with engagement, awareness and visibility. This is only a start.

We need to exist in each others’ spaces as a way to challenge what we think about the “other” and unlearn what we have been taught. Instead of taking the tour, we need to end the system that separates us in the first place, the mentality that labels some neighborhoods as "safe" and others as dangerous "zoos." We need to do more than unlock the door. We need to break it down.

In an article for The Guardian, David Dennis shows the costs of our continued segregation. Dennis asks why the Mother’s Day shooting in New Orleans, the largest such attack on American soil, wasn’t labeled a tragedy along with Boston and Newtown. It’s because New Orleans is predominantly black, and black tragedies don’t count in the same way others do. When we think about black folks as animals, we don't seem "them" as people, whose deaths mean as much as everyone else's.

"I've learned to redefine what constitutes an American tragedy," Dennis writes. "American tragedies occur where middle America frequents every day: airplanes, business offices, marathons. The story here is where American tragedies don't occur. American tragedies don't occur on the southside of Chicago or the New Orleans 9th Ward...These are where the forgotten tragedies happen and the cities are left to persevere on their own."

In the original interview, Charles Ramsey himself warned us of this divide. Ramsey told onlookers he "knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms."

"Dead giveaway!" Ramsey exclaimed with over-the-top gusto, and the crowd laughed. But at what? They were listening, but did they really hear his message?

Nico Lang writes about LGBTQ issues in Chicago. You can find Nico on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.