Why I Called Herschel Walker Coonish: The Right of Black People to Call Out their Traitors

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Editors’ Note: This article has been held until after the Georgia runoff election so there would be no suggestion of a political endorsement.

Since Donald Trump’s incursion into US politics in 2015, deprecation and intimidation have become pervasive. Trump and his MAGA fascists have launched an assault on the rule of law and the tattered shreds of a “herrenvolk  democracy” (one controlled by people of one race or ethnicity). They have harassed poll judges, banned books, intimidated librarians and school board members, and violently attacked those who advocate for an egalitarian multiracial democracy.

Trump’s forces have brought his nightmarish vision and politics of threat to Champaign-Urbana. After my twice-a-month column, “RealTalk: A Black Perspective” appeared in the News Gazette on Sunday, October 23, conservatives and far-right forces began assailing me, my departments at the University of Illinois, and members of the UIUC administration with “derogatory and inflammatory” emails and calls for my dismissal.

One such email I received reads, “So [Herschel] Walker is ‘coonish,’ huh? Well jig-a-boo, you’d know “coonosh,” you monkey mother fucker. Head back to Nigeria or Ivory Coast, or Tanzania, or whereever [sic] you came from. We don’t want or need you here.” Another, sent to the African American Studies Department (AFRO), referred to it as a “‘coonish’ organization” and threatened, “Fire him immediately or suffer from anonymous, you have been warned.” A voice mail left with AFRO states, “Professor Chihuahua, your little dog. Did you really say that Herschel Walker is kunish? My, that sounds like something a really stupid nagger would say. That means you you’re really stupid.”

These and a score of other such rants by MAGA white supremacist acolytes were apparently in response to “White Supremacy in White and Blackface 2,” the second of two columns critiquing white supremacist candidates, including Black Republicans suffering from internalized racism, who were running for public office. The first email and the voicemail reveal the irrationality of American fascists. Both ostensibly seek to reprimand me for what they perceive as a racial slur against Walker. However, neither person can control their racial antipathy. So, ironically, while presumably denouncing me as a racist, both Walker supporters hurl racial epithets at me.

The faux anger expressed by the far Right in fascist publications like Breitbart and Turning Point USA’s College Fix crashes on the rocks of reality. It’s absurd for genuine white supremacists to condemn someone else as racist. They take such a stance for manipulative political purposes.

Jemele Hill takes issue with Walker “bolstering his political standing by repeating right-wing stereotypes about irresponsible Black fathers, he plays right into those same stereotypes.” She further questions the motivations of his conservative white supporters, stating, “I can’t help sensing some condescension in Republicans’ elevation of such a buffoonish candidate. Does Walker embody what they think Black men really are?” Many Black people believe Walker’s performance and behavior embody the demeaning tropes white Americans indiscriminately ascribe to all African Americans.

Indeed, Walker embraces the coon appellation. In May, he discussed the prevalence of Black folk referring to him as such, saying that’s “ok . . . because raccoons are smart animals.” Contradictorily, later in September he admitted, “I’m not that smart.” Two days before my column appeared he reaffirmed his embrace of the coon metaphor.

Before my observations, Elie Mystal, a correspondent at The Nation and MSNBC guest commentator, described Walker as “an insult to Black people” and “an animated caricature of a Black person drawn by white conservatives.” Other Black commentators describe Walker as “embarrassingly unqualified” and assert that we, Black folk, are “ashamed every time he opens his mouth.”

Despite the fact that, or actually because, he is, in Black conservative John McWhorter’s view, “ill-qualified,” Walker is the darling of MAGA white supremacists. His electoral base is composed almost entirely of far-right white Republicans. Exit polls shows only 8 percent of Black voters cast their ballots for Walker. Conversely, 70 percent of white Georgia voters selected him.

I called Walker “incompetent, subliterate, and coonish” because he is. A simple perusal of his comments on climate change, the number of states in the US, or his explanation of gun violence demonstrates his lack of competence. In terming Walker subliterate I mean he is not interested in knowledge, that he’s adverse to history and science. Again, his statements condemn him.

A few people have asked if I regret calling Walker coonish. No, I do not; I fervently believe it was the right metaphor to describe a Black person like Walker. Note that I did not refer to Terrance Stuber, the Black MAGA election denier and opponent of expanding voting rights, as such. Near as I can tell, he is simply a far-right Trump acolyte, an enemy of the people, but not a buffoon.

A coon is a buffoonish Tom. At one time, it was a racial stereotype of what film scholar Donald Bogues describes in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks as “no-account n—–s, those unreliable, crazy, lazy, subhuman creatures good for nothing more than eating watermelons, stealing chickens, shooting crap or butchering the English language.” In the early years of the new millennium Black activists “repurposed” that 19th-century slur into a description of a clownish betrayer of the Black “nation within a nation.”

According to legal scholar Brandon Simeo Starkey, “a coon is a Black person who puts on a specific performance for white people—a performance whereby a Black person says things or performs acts to ingratiate himself or herself in exchange for the social rewards white folk can grant.” Walker displays the Tom’s usual faithfulness to white folks but adds a disgraceful buffoonish performance. Thus, coonish is an apt characterization of Walker.

In an attempt to absolve whites of contemporary structural racial oppression, Walker denies its existence, “You’re not a racist unless you’re 185 years old in today’s world”. At a September campaign rally, he told his nearly all-white audience, “We use Black power to create white guilt . . . “I’m going to tell you a secret. Don’t let the Left try to fool you with this racism thing, that this country is racist.”

I called Walker coonish because like all Toms he denies racial oppression which his policy choices continue, and his performance is frankly embarrassing and an insult to those of us who crave liberation, justice, equality, self-determination, and social transformation. I called Herschel Walker coonish because he’s a tool of cynical white supremacists who seek to use him to hurt us.

Presumably in defense of their Black puppets, the fascist MAGA movement has launched a mean-spirited threatening assault on the right of free speech and academic freedom in C-U. We should be clear that this type of attack can and will be mobilized against all who oppose racial oppression, class exploitation, antisemitism, patriarchy, Islamophobia, and homophobia.

Historically, Black people have always condemned intraracial traitors. It is important to affirm the African American people’s right to identify a political agenda and to engage in intraracial criticism to defend it. We maintain the right to non-violently and without use of intimidating tactics to criticize group members who undermine and harm our collective group interests.

Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua is a Black/Africana Studies scholar-activist who uses historical methodologies. He teaches in the departments of African American Studies and History at UIUC. He has been engaged with local and national Black liberation movement organizations since his teen years; he is currently an organizer for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM).

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