Archie Bunker Lives!
By Richard Muhammad (July 6, 2001)
Actor Carroll O'Connor was remembered in a June 26 Roman Catholic funeral mass in Los Angeles. Friends and loved ones paid tribute to the veteran actor who died days earlier of a heart attack. He was 76. While Mr. O'Connor is gone, a role he played remains with us, not only because of his portrayal of TV character Archie Bunker, but also because the 1970s sit-com icon is part of America's twisted collective psyche.
Archie Bunker is the embodiment of America's love affair with racism and penchant for toning down its affects. Mainly referred to as a "lovable bigot" by reporters and media analysts, he wasn't lovable at all. He was another reminder that problems of race and status aren't to be taken too seriously in America.
The ability to laugh at his crude insults, racist jokes and ignorant expressions was an escape valve.
It was a chance for White America to collectively excuse the views and hearts of those it loved: fathers, uncle, brothers, cousins, dock workers, butchers, bakers, cabbies, judges, police officers, doctors and bank presidents.
Archie was supposed to be a caricature for eight seasons during its CBS network run--and possibly forever in syndication. But like the minstrel shows and blackface of yesteryear and the shuffling of Steppin' Fetchit, Archie Bunker was much more than an on-screen character. He was proof that racism really isn't a dangerous thing. It might be embarrassing, or unsettling, but never dangerous.
Nothing is ever that bad for Blacks not slavery, not Jim Crow, not segregation, not racial profiling, not police abuse nor the criminal injustice system.
Archie Bunker was a harbinger of later cries of reverse discrimination from white males, who control the majority of America's political, economic and media power. He was the forefather of those who bemoan feeling besieged by political correctness because they couldn't tell the old nigger jokes, limit membership at the country club nor keep Blacks out of their neighborhoods.
His was the subtle, or not so subtle racism, that recently stirred a racial stew in Chicago, when white suburban Catholic league schools rejected playing a Black parish on the city's south side because of safety concerns.
Archie was puffy, gray-haired, and balding--kinda like a pale koala bear. He was something to laugh at, like the uncle, father, boss, or teacher whose views seemed
outdated but who really wasn't a threat.
After all Archie never lynched anyone, burned crosses on their lawns, nor led a mob pursuing a Black person down a street. Archie didn't lead the Queens, N.Y., mob that chased Michael Griffin to his death in 1986. Nor did he lead the group that killed Black teen Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, N.Y.
Archie was an old guy from the neighborhood, harmless and unable to change, caught in a time warp. Perhaps the same time warp that engulfed Thomas Blanton, who was convicted of the 1960s bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., or Mayor Charles H. Robinson of York, Pa., who is accused of leading a mini-race war that claimed the life of a Black woman shot to death by a white gang in 1969.
Or maybe Archie knew the jail house mentor of the men who dragged James Byrd to his death along a rural Texas road in 1998, scattering his body parts along the way.
Archie Bunker never led a lynch mob, but the "Bunkerish" attitude allows for modern lynch mobs that target Blacks, whether in police departments, courts or social service agencies.
Archie Bunker is guilty just as the masses of Germans who didn't light the fires for ovens during the Jewish Holocaust are guilty. Doing nothing is seen as assent. It only takes one person to light a fire; it takes a crowd to give silent approval.
Images do matter. They help to legitimize, uplift and protect or dehumanize, violate and make expendable. So the world may miss Mr. O'Connor, but don't grieve for Archie Bunker, he's alive and well.
(Richard Muhammad is a Chicago-based columnist, lecturer and managing editor of The Final Call newspaper published by the Nation of Islam and Min. Louis Farrakhan. All opinions are his alone and he can be reached at )
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