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March 23, 2005

Happy Darkies

Yeah it's black culture again. I'm waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to America and the obsession over Schiavo to relent. Plus these 250 mile commutes are killing my blogging. But I had a pretty interesting counter-intuitive thought last night, on the highway, in the rain. We need happy darkies.

Basically, African American success is messing with our culture. We strive to achieve so much, and yet having achieved so much we are still not satisfied. As it has been demonstrated, when you control for education and the age of the mother and income, the black-white gap in the educational achievements in children is effectively zero.

So the big question is whether or not black communities sustain today's black middle class? I think not. It's because we a bit too bourgie for our own good. As the theories about nation-building go about in the post election Iraq, one theme that is consistently raised is the critical necessity for a functional middle class - people who do honest work for an honest wage. Whether they are considered an apparatchik of the Soviet system, a materialistic drone in America, or a domineering ethnic group in Iraq, stable societies (and Iraq was stable) require people well suited to keep the trains running on time. Without this, relative chaos.

Here in the states, the promised dream of good solid work and education has evaded many blackfolks who live in the defacto segregation of the inner-city. There simply isn't the economic base for much of a middle class suitable for black ambition. That's why, everywhere you look, more and more blacks in the middle class are migrating out of traditional black ghettoes.

The 'obsessiveness' of black culture in its constant comparison to white, is part and parcel of the quintessential American desire to keep up with the Joneses. It's just that for black Americans, all the Joneses are white, and we keep jonsing to be in their shoes. In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, blacks have a surfiet of desire and expectation. The existence of a black middle class is not enough. We want Oscars, we want never to be insulted even in passing or unintentionally. We want Affirmative Action for the sons and daughters of college-educated blacks. We generate these desires not because we are obsessed with race, it has simply always been the way we express our ambition in America: to live as well as the white man.

So what's left behind? Hypersegregated areas, non-white, poor, bad schools, weak economic base. The internal third world, some with folks who are incapable of seeing success in any other terms than 'acting white'.

Are these black ghetto dwellers happy? I don't think so. They may not be motivated to rise in political anger though they may give lip service to such rhetoric. But unlike the dissaffected in weaker nations, gangs don't overturn local governments. There is no political fire to spread - no black Hamas in Harlem. But so many of our black brothers and sisters are in close proximity to this dysfunction that it affects broader black culture. We are never too far from this struggle. So as I consider my own, and the ambition of my African American peers, especially in contradistinction to the lowbrow ambition of Bling I see elements of the same desire. We want to get away from the haters.

I still keep coming back to the line that Cedric the Entertainer busted out in 'Be Cool' and I hope somebody transcribes it somewhere. He essentially said that if you looked at the sum total of black cultural creations in America, you have to recognize, and the least you can do is be grateful for it and say 'thanks brother'. But nobody, politically or economically is giving thanks, and culturally all the thanks are going to hiphop. The result? A huge sense of political frustration in the black middle that keeps them falsely aligned with the interminable dissatisfaction of those at the bottom. This is wrecking hell with black politics and I think the primary cause of black political apathy.

The scary thesis that underlies this thinking is that we are basically at racial equilibrium. Whether anybody likes it or not, the capacity of blacks to advance in American society depends primarily on the political consensus. That political consensus is basically, "Do it like everybody else." In other words there are no more publicly supported initiatives for blacks that are separate. What can be fast-tracked on the public dime is means tested for class, and simply blackness alone won't do it. Ultimately, and inevitably, blackfolks are on their own.

So the political and cultural desires of African Americans at large are not satisfied with what the public at large believes we deserve. This is a source of constant irritation among progressive blacks whose ambition is frustrated. Put aside for a moment the terminal cases of ex-militants, socialists, and would-be prison prophets, there is a good plurality of black political interests whose primary interests are frustrated. The overwhelming majority of blackfolks I talk to want to slap the mother whose son was shot by cops for driving a stolen car at 4 in the morning. But they also are saying, that's our sister, frustrated that they can't really help. So you get this situation that I talked about before, that the Democrat agenda does nothing for blacks that it does for anyone else. The entire Democrat appeal to blacks is premised on the suggestion (but is it true) that everything they do benefits blacks more because blacks suffer more. So you get a series of boilerplate 'duh' comments like "We are for health care." And the best that frustrated black progressives can say is "Blacks are dispropotionately ill, therefore we have to support Democrat initiatives." It's a dumb game that even GWBush has gotten burned playing on Social Security vis a vis life expectancy. But the hypocrisy is clearly evident to me, is it to you?

So my brain addled solution considered while driving home in the rain was that we need to put the brakes on black ambition and figure out how our forefathers muddled through. Why is it that a black man in the 40s, who suffered few of the great deprivations the black left often repeats, would be satisfied with a job as an electrician or a plumber? How is it that today we get this huge inordinate focus on college-prep entrance exam test scores on a class of students that everybody knows is ill-prepared for the rigors of University? Maybe that 40s black man, that Easy Rollins character, had some of that old time religion. He had a satisfaction in being a Negro that todays African Americans are just too uppity to settle for.

The rules of scarcity limit the ability for all of us to get to the promised land. But didn't Sula find happiness in The Bottom? Didn't Celie finally get her family together? Isn't there a home for some of us in deepest, darkest Mississippi?

Where I come out on this matter personally is exceptional. I'm the guy who has just closed down his fourth (or fifth) business and walked into a six figure job. I'm the guy who lives quite happily in the vanilla suburbs where my braided daughters and braided son are all popular at school and they keep trying to get my wife to run the PTA. I'm well integrated into the upper-middle 'do we need a third sofa or should we go on a cruise instead' class. I'm also Old School and also well adjusted to the class distinctions within African America. So what I'm saying is that Bling culture is wrong and that while I'm very pleased with our surfiet of ambition, but I think we need to be more realistic about where most African Americans live. I don't believe that mainstream culture is going to give non-Cosby black middle class folks their due props, it has to come from within.

The ghetto is not where we all belong, and those like my family who got out as soon as possible sped along the collapse. I'm very concerned about those working class and lower middle class blacks. Will our traditional roots & culture sustain them against the cielings? The political consensus on racial integration is, 'just do it', which essentially means nobody is going to get off the dime for any assistance. For the millions of African Americans who *are* middle class and have those values, with a corresponding lack of middle-class institutions to support them, on the edge of the dysfunctional ghetto what is their hedge?

I think it's the Black Church, and I'm not sure what to make of that.

Posted by mbowen at March 23, 2005 12:22 PM

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This might be a related question to what I'm reading here. What if you compared some of these thoughts in this post with first generation American immigrants (with the possible difference in the acclimitization of Mexican immigrants), or second/third generation immigrants?

What is it that relates to an immmigrant's experience that propels that immigrant culture to material success, and what of those can be useful? If so, what's stopping that and how can it be improved?

Posted by: Chap at March 23, 2005 03:51 PM

I think one of African American's biggest problems is that we're so aggregated. We really don't distinguish ourselves as first-generation, second-generation as well as immigrants, especially voluntary immigrants. I mean if you look at Koreans in America, or Taiwanese, most of them came with some money in their hands voluntarily. Blacks don't disaggregate as easily. But I'm stressing class and culture and Old School so that we can, because Black Nationalism as originally concieved cannot work any longer.

(more later)

Posted by: Anonymous at March 23, 2005 04:13 PM

I have to let this one maranade a bit...

Posted by: EBrown at March 23, 2005 05:25 PM

I think about those left behind quite a lot, especially now that our local paper has run a series of articles about the hair-raising infant mortality rate in Shelby Co., TN. There's an area of Memphis that has infant mortality rates that rival third-world countries. As you say, anybody with any ability at all got up and left, but there are quite a few people left behind. The articles talked about teenagers having three or four babies, no pre-natal care, (so naturally a lot of premature births, expensive and very dangerous for the babies) with no mention of men in this community at all. Somebody's getting these children knocked up. Where's the law? Why's the community not kicking their butts? And where's our illustrious mayor in all this? - fathering his own little out-of-wedlock offspring. Oh well, at least we have a shiny new arena for our NFL team, not that we've finished paying for the previous one. Cobb, when you find a remedy, let us know.

Posted by: Laura at March 23, 2005 05:58 PM

*that would be NBA, whatever.*

Posted by: Laura at March 23, 2005 05:59 PM

I think the answer is old time religion, and I don't mind that a strong backbone of religious values is a good hedge against la vida sin corazon. But I'm not sure that's going to ever help materially. See while I understand that Black Nationalism itself is not going to raise the non-Cosby black middle class, I think an application of its values in a crossover world will work, and that can satisfy black ambition. But if the non-Cosby black middle class is only going to settle for old time religion, then there's a lot of black issues that get healed, but not cured. With us at racial equilibrium, it locks that black middle class right where they are. No progress. As a progressive Old Schooler, I'm uncomfortable with that.

See my conflict?

So I think the solution is 'Pushed Back to Strength', which means the non-Cosby black middle class abandons the South Side of Chicago and all thos Michael Jordan dreams and goes to find a nice little southern community or maybe a dying town in Montana where crystal meth has not yet taken over. That's why I'm talking about 'The Bottom'.

What's happening is that (illegal?) Mexicans are coming into these old factory towns and becoming the ragpickers and chicken pluckers. Where is the black middleclass dad who has always been a dependable postal worker, and why can't he become the factory boss? What is going to steer that class of blackfolks away from the hiphop ghettoes they don't like anyway?

Posted by: Cobb at March 23, 2005 07:28 PM

Red Lake Indian Reservations...urban black ghetto... the U.S. has been consistent in how we solve the "problem" of non-whites.


Posted by: David W. Downing at March 24, 2005 04:10 PM

"But nobody, politically or economically is giving thanks, and culturally all the thanks are going to hiphop. The result? A huge sense of political frustration in the black middle that keeps them falsely aligned with the interminable dissatisfaction of those at the bottom. This is wrecking hell with black politics and I think the primary cause of black political apathy."

Cobb - Albert Murray once observed that in this country black people don't suffer from a lack of accomplishments but from a lack of recognition of their accomplishments. In any case, I would be extremely interested if you would elaborate on your point regarding the discontent of the black middle class.

By the way, I'm sure that you are quite aware that historically speaking members of the black middle class in general have never played any significant role in the development of those activities and artifacts that we call black popular culture. The black middle class tended as a whole to keep its distance from things like ragtime music, blues, jazz, vaudeville and other forms of popular culture it considered "vulgar" and "low class."

Again, I am extremely interested in reading your views about this sense of malaise or, perhaps, ennui, among the black middle class. I sense that folks are not as happy as they pretend or desire to be and many of our people are living lives of "quiet desparation."

Posted by: ptcruiser100 at March 26, 2005 06:17 PM

When I think of the black middle class vis a vis cultural production, the first person that comes to mind is Jelly Roll Morton, who was basically high yellow and colorstruck. He didn't want to be associated with the funky jazz and sought to elevated it via skills, but he was deep in it as well. There's a parallel between him and all of the hiphop businessfolks, critics and other non-creatives with college degrees whose kids might get through college off Jay-Z's back. Basically he was a big time code switcher and closet freak. So I'm not so quick to write off the black middle class wrt their participation in the creative enterprises. Eddie Murphy may just be one man, but it takes a village. Also let's not discount black radio.

But to the main point. I think a great deal of black political frustration comes from the middle class. I don't believe that the black underclass is particularly interested in American politics anyway. Ask them what the black political caucus is, they don't know, they don't care. I think a perfect example is black agitation over the Wal-Mart issue. What you can be sure to find at every one of these grass roots political events are the college educated Marxists or street activists talking to neighborhood folks. You also might get some gang intervention specialist or someone from social services who doubles as a community activist. In other words there are a whole host of folks whose primary constituency is the downtrodden who show up with their fliers and protest schedules. (I'm not being fair, of course) What you will rarely find are PTA moms or they guy who runs the liquor store around the way. You might often find a minister who does community outreach, and some older folks who have the time in the middle of the day. But my sense of this is that you will get a largely black middle class audience and everybody there thinks that it is their responsibility to represent somebody less fortunate than them - people who don't show up. When it came to the Inglewood Wal-Mart, we kept hearing people talk about how Wal-Mart was horrible for blackfolks because they exploit the masses. But when the black woman who worked for Wal-Mart stood up and defended her employer, the silence was deafening. I think we have a very big problem doing any real self-representation and circling around to accountability. Everybody is waiting for The Black Agenda to materialize, including me I suppose. In the meantime, everyone who goes independent is some sort of 'sell-out'. Sell out to whom? Their own interests. But nobody wants to hear that because we honestly do recognize that blackfolks' interests diverge by class.

So a silent fraction of the black middle class is 'independent'. I think that means basically that they don't want to be a part of black politics as it is currently constituted. We may blame the Democrats or the Republicans, but if we had a real agenda we could play both sides. The fact that we don't means that we're waiting to be courted. And waiting, and waiting.

So black politics ends up being a moral show, without real aspects of patronage. That upsets me. It's one of the reasons I've gone Republican. I know it's about patronage.

Posted by: Cobb at March 26, 2005 07:17 PM

Fascinating discussions...I'm just an old white guy in Vista, who worked in 2 of the Phoenix "ghettos" (I don't like that term) in the early 70s. That process started when I became aware of the "Negro" problems in the mid 50s at the age of about 9-10. I also studied African-American history at UCSD. And although I now work in extremely poor villages in Cambodia, I value your discussions very highly. It was working with all the little brothers and sisters in Phoenix that propelled me to always care for the poor and eventually landed me in Cambodia.

Posted by: stan at March 29, 2005 12:50 PM

Well, you certainly have more patience than I.

I guess what I'm trying to say in anthropology-speak is that the modernization of the Negro has cost him his indigenous capacities. Granted that the Negro has done this of his own accord and much was done in the context of the modernization of America itself. But I wonder if we haven't lost some of the gumption we had back when people used the word 'gumption'.

Posted by: Anonymous at March 29, 2005 02:13 PM