The ‘I have a black friend’ defense – just another bit in Anthony Cumia’s shock jock routine

The dance goes something like this. A Phil Robertson, Jason and David Benham or Anthony Cumia says or tweets something that is controversial, racially charged or just plain rude. His employer (and Dr. Laura and Paula Deen aside, it’s usually a “he”) condemns, and, sometimes, fires him. Fans cry foul and start a petition, boycott or counter-offensive to the original offensive behavior. And away we go. Wait awhile and a black friend eventually enters the picture –an actual picture, in Cumia’s case.

Robertson’s musings about homosexuality and the happiness of African Americans in the Jim Crow South got him tossed from and then reinstated on A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” when supporters, from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin to the show’s millions of fans, flexed their ratings muscle. The Benham brothers weren’t so lucky when their views on homosexuality made them lose their gig on an HGTV home show before it got started.

FILE - In a April 26, 2006 file photo, radio shock jocks Greg “Opie” Hughes, left, and Anthony Cumia, right, leave CBS Radio studios in New York. (Louis Lanzano, File/Associated Press)
FILE – In an April 26, 2006 file photo, radio shock jocks Greg “Opie” Hughes, left, and Anthony Cumia, right, leave CBS Radio studios in New York. (Louis Lanzano, File/Associated Press)

The jury and the lawyers that will inevitably follow are still out on the saga of Cumia and SiriusXM, plus fans bearing petitions. In a Daily Beast interview, Cumia said he doesn’t regret how everything has played out after his late-night Times Square picture-taking excursion.

According to Cumia, a woman who objected to the attention got physical. He didn’t call the police, but he did go off on Twitter with insults that quickly curdled into racially charged and misogynistic name-calling. The woman was African American, and Cumia’s rants became all about race and all black people, not just this one woman and his judgment that she overreacted to his unwanted attempt to photographer her.

What happened after his employer decided his comments crossed a line he had straddled before and let him go was familiar.

Some supporters cite First Amendment rights, as they always do in such cases, until someone helpfully points out that freedom of speech does not mean freedom of speech without consequences. You have the right to say or Tweet whatever you want and others have the right to object and be offended. Depending on what the contract says, your employer has the right to forgive or fire. I know few people who could insult colleagues or toss a string of vile invective at potential clients and come into work the next day as though nothing had happened.

In Cumia’s case, his history of similar behavior was part of the defense, as in “you knew what you were getting and you shouldn’t be surprised.” But does an employer get to decide how outrageous is too outrageous?

Then there is the charge of political correctness, the most overused term ever, as though there is anything new or edgy or brave about racial insult. Yawn. Hasn’t anyone taught the bully boys that comedy and satire work best when you go after those in power, not groups that have been the topic of endless put-downs, none of which are original?

It’s as though a shock jock’s railing against “those minorities” is cathartic for people who harbor resentment against a black or Hispanic boss or a female colleague and can no longer get away with saying something mean out loud because of those pesky rules against creating a hostile workplace environment. It’s thrashing around in a playground where the bully gets away with it.

I’ve always wondered why so many fight so hard for the right to insult people.

“You say that word – why can’t I say that word.” It wasn’t called political correctness when I was growing up but manners, taught by parents and authority figures. I don’t love the smiley face but must it be replaced with a sneering one? I wonder what life lessons these guys are passing on to their children, if they have any.

It’s not that people were so much less sensitive in the “good, old days.” It’s just that they dared not object. Black people had to endure all kinds of slurs with a smile. Now minorities and businesses, because of good intentions or a look at the bottom line, dare to object, people who have never had to listen are forced to – and some don’t like it one bit. Do they keep a black friend around for cover? Leave the poor guy alone; he probably has better things to do.

The funny thing is, those that complain about people being too sensitive are the most sensitive when someone – anyone – has the temerity not to agree with them, not to laugh at their jokes.

So those to who call Cumia truth-teller or get a charge out of his inability or unwillingness to hold his tongue or his fingers on the keyboard, own your love of the black joke, justify demeaning taunts and put-downs of women, if you must. But don’t insist that everyone has to agree. You also have the right to complain to SiriusXM and cancel your subscriptions and see what happens. That’s America.

And that photo with a black buddy Cumia shared on Twitter, the one he said was just a “goof”? It has been done so often, most everyone already knew how much of a joke it really was.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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Mary C. Curtis · July 10