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OpEd: Ben Affleck, Slavery and the Need for Black Friends

Ben Affleck appears on NBC News' "Today" show.
Ben Affleck appears on NBC News' "Today" show.Peter Kramer / NBC NewsWire via Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

In case you missed it, Ben Affleck has been the subject of a strange controversy surrounding his appearance on the Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr.'s "Finding Your Roots" specials on PBS.

If you've never seen the show, it's the modern day DNA fancified version of "This is Your Life" where Gates takes celebrities through their lineage and lets them know how many other celebrities, historic figures and occasional nobodies they're related to. Thanks to the Sony Hack (The gift that keeps on giving to journalism) it was revealed that upon finding out that his family once owned slaves, Ben Affleck asked Dr. Gates and PBS to cut that part out of the special. They agreed, and this became a mini-scandal, which is a shame because this whole affair was totally avoidable if Affleck had any real black friends.

First let's dispense with the more technical and professional problems with this entire affair. It is problematic that PBS, a news organization, and Skip Gates a renowned historian, were willing to edit actual facts from a story because a high profile interviewee had a problem with the content.

It's ugly, it's unpleasant to think about, but it's the damn truth that the vast majority of African Americans know everyday and we don't get to re-write the script.

Didn't we just go through this with Bill Cosby? It would be one thing if Affleck had only agreed to do the show with a "Nothing embarrassing about my family clause," which would have been ridiculous but at least agreed upon in advance. It's something else entirely to submit fully to the process but then want to do a post-hoc edit because he didn't like what he found out. But again, these are technical and professional issues that can be debated during graduate seminars at the Columbia School of Journalism. The bigger story is how we even got here.

Clearly Ben Affleck doesn't have any black people on his staff of managers, public relations people or personal circle. This is not an insult, but a conclusion drawn from his reaction to the news that he had slave owners in his family. If he had any black friends, or prominent staff members they probably would've calmed down the room of concerned white liberals and informed them that not one black person in America would hold Affleck accountable or blame him for having slave owning ancestors.

This is the quintessential example of white privilege, (even progressive white privilege) that even well-meaning white people are able to create crisis out of realities that black people have to live with everyday. Ben feels bad that 200 years ago his family used to own slaves so he wants that stricken from the record. Must be nice. Most black folks are very aware of the fact that unless you're an immigrant, you are descended from American slaves and likely some even more brutal version of Epps and Patsy's relationship.

It's ugly, it's unpleasant to think about, but it's the damn truth that the vast majority of African Americans know everyday and we don't get to re-write the script.

Now he's getting the public side-eye because as everyone knows, the cover-up is worse than the 'crime.'

But it goes a little bit deeper than that, a conscious voice, a black voice or a voice with any knowledge of community thought outside of Hollywood elites might've also put Affleck's fear and panic in context. Ben Affleck does movies like "Argo" and he's going to be playing Batman. He's not Michael Rappaport, or Justin Timberlake or some other white celebrity that draws heavily upon an African American fanbase for their success.

Moreover there are literally dozens upon dozens of celebrities, (let alone politicians) whose families owned slaves. 200 years ago the families of Anderson Cooper, Bill Paxton, Pastor Rick Warren and Paula Deen (her FAMILY not her…but we had to double check) all owned slaves. Not to mention George W. Bush, John McCain and yes even President Barack Obama can all trace their lineage back to families that participated in America's 'peculiar institution.'

Half a google search would've allowed Ben to realize he wasn't alone - not just amongst celebrity historic slave owners but the fact that tons of white American families owned slaves. Yes, he like most white Americans benefitted indirectly from slavery, but unless PBS also revealed that he's a 200 year old vampire Ben Affleck is not PERSONALLY responsible for slavery. He's not special, it's history. Just own it.

Likely the greatest shame in all of this is the missed opportunity. Affleck has some pretty significant progressive bonifides, fighting for equal rights for minorities, Muslims and the LGBT community publicly and consistently. His mother marched during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's. Had he been smart, or had his historically wise black friend been available to talk him off the roof, Team Affleck could've spun this PBS story into a HUGE plus professionally.

Instead of begging Skip Gates to hide history behind closed doors Ben Affleck could've aired the segment and said: "Wow, in only two generations my family went from owning slaves to marching with Dr. King to stop the oppression of African Americans. Just goes to show how change DOES happen, and I'm proud that my family worked to battle sins of the past."

Cue the mic drop, Skip Gates fist bump, and 18 months from now Affleck is receiving an NAACP Image Award (in case he didn't know what that was, his black friend would tell him it's a big deal).

But alas, he missed that chance, now he's getting the public side-eye because as everyone knows, the cover-up is worse than the 'crime.' Who knows, maybe in the future Ben will get a black friend who will keep him from making a mistake like this again. I hear nowadays there's more and more of them showing up in Hollywood.