The 7 kinds of Kanyes

OPINION: Long before the rapping shoe salesman began making headlines, there were negro know-it-alls who made a name for themselves by berating Black people in order to affirm the principles of white supremacy.

Photo illustration by Michael Harriot/theGrio (Photos by Alex Wong/Paula Lobo/Jason Davis/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio

“There is another class of coloured people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs—partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances because they do not want to lose their jobs.”

— Booker T. Washington

Aside from the n-word, calling me the “real racist” and suggesting that I return to Africa, this quote from Booker T. Washington is a mainstay in my email inbox. Apparently “race-baiters” like myself make a hefty profit by either playing the “race card” or “the victim.” In the minds of these Caucasian race experts, I ride around in a chauffeured limousine all day concocting ways to blame everything on nonexistent white supremacy. Although my bank account does not reflect this conjecture, there is one other problem with this theory:

White people believe this stuff.

The peer-reviewed research on racial inequalities in education, criminal justice and economics does not matter. The consensus from Black scholars, experts and activists on the ground is inconsequential. White people in America are the constituency most unqualified to analyze racial issues critically. Yet, they truly believe that white supremacy is just a collective fever dream held by most Black people. Instead of using data, facts and science to prove that they are correct, they mostly rely on another “class of colored people” that Washington failed to mention. 

When “the Great Accommodator” stood in front of white people and insisted that “the wisest among my race understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly,” he was not unique. Long before Washington condemned his Black contemporaries for their brazen outspokenness against racial terrorism, legal subjugation and inequality, Black trailblazers had charted a path in a business more lucrative than race-baiting and identity politics combined:

Telling white people what’s wrong with Black people.

There have always been Black people who made careers as mascots for #TeamWhitePeople. Long after enslaved Black people risked their lives learning to read after working from sunup to sundown before their parents were sold down the river or raped by the Founding Fathers, these Black trailblazers made money confirming the basic precepts of white supremacy. But, we have evolved since people began insisting that Black America could defeat systemic racism if they just focused on education, family and how far their pants hung below their waists. Although their motivations, techniques and approaches may vary, these righteous reprimanders all confirm the basic precepts of white supremacy using a common, three-part mathematical formula:

  1. White people are smart.
  2. Black people are dumb.
  3. Therefore, the only thing keeping Black people from achieving true equality is Black people. 

While this might be the most simplistic version, it is not exclusive to Black conservatives. When Kanye West and Stephen A. Smith made their primetime debuts on the official outlet of white nationalism, they were just the latest examples of a new breed of Black people skinning and grinning under the spotlight provided by the white gaze. However, it is wrong to put Killer Mike in the same category as Candace Owens. While Herschel Walker and Kanye might both suffer from brain issues, they are not alike. While they all, to a certain degree, serve whiteness, they each have different motivations, goals and beliefs. 

So let’s take a closer look at who belongs in this league of unextraordinary negroes, in no particular order:

1. Bootstrappers

Also known as: True Believers. African Americans. “One of the good ones.”

There are Black people who actually believe in the principles of conservatism. 

Like Kanye, these people have usually achieved a measure of personal success by working hard, valuing education and adhering to family values. Bootstrappers don’t deny that racism is real; they just believe it is rare and—even when it exists—it is not impossible to overcome if one doesn’t “play the victim.” They cannot reconcile the existence of systemic inequality with the reality of their individual success, so they become disciples of the “bootstrap philosophy.” 

To be fair, there is nothing wrong with believing one can outwork 400 years of history, social injustice and constitutionally enshrined discrimination to become a brain surgeon. It becomes problematic when this credo is used as a strawman to undermine and discredit efforts for racial equality. It’s OK for Tim Scott to believe America is not a racist country. It’s not OK for him to use that perspective to undermine police reform. Condoleeza Rice is free to believe that critical race theory makes white kids feel bad and Black kids feel less empowered. But her Blackness is used by her fellow Republicans to justify their efforts to eliminate Black history from school curriculums. 

How to spot them: They are easily identified by the things they hate, including Obama, “playing the victim,” the race card, identity politics, welfare, government handouts, socialism, the “elite” and cancel culture…

But only when Black people do it. When white people do it, it’s perfectly fine.

Examples: Kanye West. Ben Carson. Sage Steele. 

2. Counterfeits

Also known as: Grifters. Tools. Con(ye) artists. 

While most conservatives don’t take their political, economic or social advice from Black people, they are always willing to pay a Black person who is willing to serve as a cudgel for white supremacy. Not only is the job very enticing, but for spotlight seekers who don’t have many career options, demonizing Blackness offers a path to celebrity. 

Ultimately, I don’t have much ire for these people because they have managed to leverage their Blackness into something that they need. Despite her lack of education, training or experience in politics, Candace Owens managed to become the GOP’s poster child for everything wrong with Black people by hating everything Black, including her edges. What were Omarosa’s job prospects before she rode the anti-Black MAGA train to a position in the White House? Can you fault Lil Wayne for stumping for Trump in exchange for a pardon? 

These people were not recruited into the conservative club because of their expertise or talents. Their existence alone serves as a shield for conservative anti-Black policies and, in turn, they got something they need. And no, they are not tokens because tokens have value. 

Their Blackness is used as counterfeit currency.

How to spot them: They appear at CPAC and love Tucker Carlson. They rail against “hip-hop culture” and “oversexualized women” but are cool with “locker room talk.” They warn us about the loss of masculinity and hate feminism.  

How to spot a counterfeit: While they claim to be independent thinkers, the opinions of counterfeits never differ from the opinions of most white conservatives. They are most recognizable by zooming in on their hairlines. The men never have sharp line-ups, and the women don’t tend to their edges.

 Examples: Kanye West. Darrell Scott. Katrina Pierson.

3. Free Thinkers

Also known as: Contrarians. Egomaniacs. “ButWhatAbout…”

What Kanye and others refer to as “free thinking” is actually just narcissism disguised as intelligence. We all know someone who takes the opposite side of every issue. They don’t read books, but they claim they “do their own research” and don’t trust the mainstream media. Free thinkers aren’t necessarily conservative; they are usually just untethered from any philosophy, including reality. For instance, out of curiosity and a desire to book him on my now-defunct podcast (this was before Black people listened to podcasts), I once attended a lecture by Stephen A. Smith where he tried to convince Black people to vote Republican in one election

The 2016 Trump election.

Even before Stephen A. Smith cozied up to his anti-Black buddy on the anti-Black network, he used his position as ESPN’s Black, free-thinking, screaming uncle to criticize everyone Black, including Colin Kaepernick, Malika Andrews, and Black women who begged their boyfriends to punch them in the face. Although Smith warned Jemele Hill about “stepping outside our lane” to criticize the president, he ran away from his own advice like his hairline is running away from his face:

See, a free thinker can do that!

Ultimately, these devil’s advocates aren’t just egomaniacs who think they are smarter than all of the Black people they scold; they also believe that white people are smarter than all the Black people who actually read books and know things. They are not smart; they simply have deluded themselves into believing that their contrarianism is a form of intelligence. 

How to spot a free thinker: They often ask why “the mainstream media isn’t talking about” something they read in the mainstream media. They make appearances on Fox News but will never sit down with someone who knows things. They wonder why “Obama didn’t do anything for Black people” but never ask why Republicans do so much for white people.

Examples: Kanye West. Jason Whitlock. Katrina Pierson. 

4. Dummies

Also known as: Intellectually challenged Americans. Outsider. Former NFL player… 

Let’s be frank: Some people aren’t smart. 

There are people like Candace Owens who don’t know the things she purports to know. There are people like Stephen A. Smith, who don’t know as much as they think they know. Some people don’t read books, while others are just on the lower spectrum of intelligence. 

To tell the truth, Kanye isn’t any dumber than many of our white elected officials. If Donald Trump can become president, why shouldn’t Herschel Walker have the opportunity to serve in the highest legislative body in America just because he has scrambled eggs for a brain? Is Lil Wayne any less informed on politics than Jesse Lee Peterson? There are plenty of white Kanyes, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jim Jordan and, perhaps the least educated person in politics, Lauren Boebert.

And, like their dumb white counterparts, the only reason Black dummies are given a position of prominence among conservatives is that they all exist to advance the agenda of whiteness.

Now that’s true racial equality.

How to spot a dummy: They claim everything is in the Constitution, including “all men are created equal” and the right to be dumb. They get most of their information from YouTube. They will dismiss actual facts by saying: “That’s what they want you to believe.”

Examples: Kanye West. Floyd Mayweather. Herschel Walker.

5. Trolls

Also known as: Clowns. Shuckers. Jivers.

The difference between a troll and a dummy is the difference between Kanye and 50 Cent. 

No one on either side of the political aisle takes them seriously, but Kanye truly sees himself as a knowledgeable political voice. However, when Fiddy endorsed Trump, he wasn’t doing it as a “thought leader.” He doesn’t care about politics, nor does he pretend to. He cares about 50 Cents. He f**ks with people. That’s his whole deal. 

Trolls are less concerned about political outcomes than staying relevant and the spectacle of it all. They are in it for their own self-interest. 

How to spot them: They are starved for attention and will believe “all publicity is good publicity.” Most trolls have very robust social media platforms to share their shucking and jiving routines. They love beefs. They preface their political statements with: “I don’t care about politics, but…”  

Examples: Kanye. Azalea Banks. Pastor Darrell Scott. Diamond. Silk.

6. Counterrevolutionaries

Also known as: Leftists. Socialists. BLM Leaders.

These people are the least conservative people of the bunch and are usually considered “pro-Black” who are unwilling to serve on the “Democratic plantation.” In fact, their political ideology often leans further left than most progressives, but because they are also “free-thinking” narcissists who imagine themselves as intelligent, they truly believe they have a better way to free Black people than anything smart, experienced Black people who are actually doing the work could come up with in 400 years of trying. Their strategy partly depends on the idea that all the other Black people are wrong, so they become unwitting handmaids of right-wingers because they share a common enemy. 

Killer Mike is the Michael Jordan of counterrevolutionary Kanyes. He would tell you that he is as revolutionary as his music, but he is simply one of the greatest strawman builders of all time, which would be fine if he didn’t wield his well-enunciated but shallow sophism to elevate white supremacy at the expense of Black people. 

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with his position on Black gun ownership, but Killer Mike chose the NRA’s anti-Black platform to do it. Telling Black people that they should be involved in politics is fine, but Killer Mike chose to do it with Brian Kemp—whose entire career is based on keeping Black people out of politics. When Killer Mike glazed over the GOP’s anti-Black politics during his long-form lovefest with Herschel Walker, it not only helped legitimize Walker’s candidacy, it made the Republican Party appear less racist. After all, if a pro-Black revolutionary like Killer Mike isn’t concerned about the GOP’s white nationalist policies, can they be that bad? 

But Killer Mike’s biggest problem is the problem with all Kanyes. Instead of focusing on disrupting political, economic and social systems, they stand in front of white people and tell Black people what’s wrong with them. Instead of talking about Georgia’s racist voting legislation, he thinks gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams needs to be more like the “Wizard of voter suppression.” He went to a convention of Black activists and told them: “You ain’t ready to oppose nothing. You are as a part of this system as any white person gentrifying in this city.” 

And none of this means that Killer Mike or other counterrevolutionaries don’t care about Black people. But their ego-inflated sense of self-importance always manifests in telling Black people that we are doing it wrong, which becomes fodder for conservatives who believe that everything Black people do is wrong. 

Because counterrevolutionaries are just doing it wrong.

How to spot them: Counterrevolutionaries describe Black people who know more than they do and are putting in actual work against right-wing politics as “blue checkmarks,” the “Black elite” or “Democratic pawns.” They LOVE to meet with the opposition to show they’re willing to “listen to all ideas.”

Examples: Kanye West. Ice Cube. Briahna Joy Gray.

7. Opps

Also known as: Self-haters. Kewns. Trump’s Blacks.

Some Black people are filled with so much self-hate they have convinced themselves that all Black people are bad. Opps are unabashedly anti-Black and actively work against every Black movement for freedom or justice. Although they claim to be free-thinkers or true conservatives, they never have an opinion that disagrees with the general consensus of white people. They are not very difficult to defeat because white people don’t particularly like opps. However, even if you can manage to defeat them all, you have to fight the big boss:

Clarence Thomas, King of the Opps.

The Uncle Ruckus of the Supreme Court doesn’t just love white people and conservative values; he is more racist than the most virulent white supremacist. He has never cast a vote in favor of the Voting Rights Act because he hates when Black people vote but loves when white people overturn elections. When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Thomas looked at the decision from his fellow right-wingers and said: “This is cool, but it doesn’t have any racism in it.” Then he wrote his own separate concurring opinion. 

As Kathleen Parker points out: “Thomas isn’t despised in the Black community because he’s conservative. Many dislike him because they see him as a hypocrite and a traitor.”

How to spot an opp: They always bring up Black-on-Black crime, Black Lives Matter terrorists and “leftists.” Their spouse is always white (Not everyone who dates outside their race is an opp, but most opps only date outside their race). They’re rooting for everybody white. Opps oppose Black people.

Famous opps: Kanye West. Winsome Earle-Sears. America.

Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.

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