Black politics gone haywire.
The answer lies in the desperation and programmatic bankruptcy of current black politics, the racial perfidy of American liberalism, the cynicism of the corporate media, and the hideous rightwing shift in the political culture.
There no doubt were statistically significant differences in the ways that white and black American populations reacted to the Simpson saga from the beginning. At the least, black people tended to be more sensitive to the incident's potentially allegorical use in service to the hoary tale of sexualized black bestiality.
The first racial-perception gap appeared as black people reacted to the historical truth that in the court of public opinion, white criminals are individuals, whereas blacks' crimes always imply collective guilt. Claus Von Bulow was just a rich man who killed his wife for her money and got off, thanks to a high-priced legal team that overlapped O.J.'s. No public fretting about whether he represented a homicidal lust for gratuitous wealth among white men. Many blacks, though inclined to see the Simpson case as simply another celebrity murder, were worried that it would be treated as much more. Experience can be a master teacher.
Before long, the spin began to take shape. Black New York Times reporter Don Terry has complained about the media's invention of O.J. as a "black icon," noting that black Americans didn't even watch his films on video rental. References to Othello began popping up, and Newsweek diagnosed him as suffering--because of his social prominence and ghetto origins--from racial "double consciousness," a condition made trendy in recent years by English professors.
As both political scientist and citizen, I'm deeply suspicious of public-opinion polling. It's as much a device for creating as for measuring popular attitudes. And the Simpson case exemplifies how cynically our mass media play the opinion game.
Early in the saga, there was considerable evidence of multiracial fan support for O.J., as there is for any celebrity on the verge of falling from grace. To some extent, it reflects one of the culture's appropriately perverse accommodations to the kinds of insecurity and hollowed-out lives generated in this era of capitalist social reorganization--vicarious identification, to the point of artificial personal intimacy, with those on whom the public spotlight shines, especially in tragic circumstances. We've seen numerous examples over the past fifteen years: the throngs wailing and waving goodbye outside the funeral of Lisa Steinberg, the celebrated victim of fatal child abuse; the crowds who wanted to do the same for Susan Smith, only to turn instantly into a lynch mob on learning that she killed her children.
It struck me that many of Simpson's cheering supporters also were representatives of the batterers' lobby, men who identified with him as a guy who should get a break. Whatever else they were, however, they were multiracial.
After Fuhrman's racism came to light, though, the racial-difference angle began to dominate the spin. And public-opinion polling ratified that angle by telling people how they should see the case and what positions they should take as members of their market shares. Black patter increasingly revolved around whether Simpson was going to be framed by the L.A.P.D., and white patter converged on whether a black culprit would escape punishment by crying "racism."
The Simpson trial became a racial Rorschach because the media made it one. They force-fed us the case 'round the clock, all the while proclaiming like sanctimonious heroin dealers that they were only responding to demand. It was inescapable; I know because I tried from beginning to end to ignore it.
But the different racial reactions were not uniform. Many whites saw things as the jury apparently did, add many blacks continued to view Simpson as a likely murderer. The message that "blacks see x where whites see not-x" amplifies an insidious, increasingly audible theme in the society at large: that black people are an alien population, separate and apart from the "mainstream" of American society.
The public hand-wringing, and the mass-mediated crocodile tears over the spectacle of black jubilation and white dismay over the Simpson verdict, made a perfect segue to coverage of Farrakhan's Million Man March. Not only was the theme of fundamental black separateness the same, but the march seemed to indicate that blacks, or men anyway, are uniquely defective, and only they have the capacity to correct themselves. The path to rectification lies through moral rearmament and patriarchal assertiveness. This line, cooed with fawning concern, fits perfectly with the bipartisan retreat from social justice and equality.
I got a good, close look at media framing of the Million Man March because for the week before it I was swept by a deluge of requests for print and broadcast sound bites as a Farrakhan critic. Only opposition that objected to Farrakhan's racism was newsworthy. No space was made available for challenging the event's fundamentally victim-blaming and patriarchal premises, which reporters and commentators treated as noncontroversial and valid. The debate around the event's gender politics was reduced to a simple inclusion/exclusion axis.
There was no interest in exploring the deeper sexism, the view of men as proper heads of families and communities, that underlay the call for the march in the first place. And that's no surprise because the self-help undercurrent, the call for black men to "atone" and to take "responsibility," fits quite nicely with the consensus that black people are themselves at fault for their problems.
The call to responsibility does triple duty for reactionary interests. First, it acknowledges the myth of distinctively black male irresponsibility--even in the act of challenging it. The idea of gathering to embrace responsibility validates that sorry explanation of poverty and inequality. It shifts the discussion away from public policy to bootstrapism and Burma Shave bromides for remediation. This came through clearly in announcements from the podium that the march wasn't a protest march, that the congregants hadn't come to protest anything (actually, as a friend of mine aptly noted, it was the first protest in history where people gathered ostensibly to protest themselves).
Second, there is a characteristically nationalist synecdoche between "I" and we" that shapes the language of collective pathology and pain. This slippage between singular and plural poses as self-castigation when in fact it is used to castigate others. The marchers who showed up to belie the stereotype aren't at the same time pledging themselves to atone and begin acting "responsibly." Presumably they're already doing so; otherwise they wouldn't be effective as stereotype smashers. They're calling on other, less exemplary brothers to mend their ways and join them in doing right as black men. This black, male `we' is in reality a "they"--the same "they" that drives victim-blaming underclass ideology. (And what are we to make of an event that projects Marion Barry and Ben Chavis as avatars of male propriety?)
Third, beneath the unctuous, pro-forma tones of apology and tender concern for black women's need for relief is a resurgent demand for pride of patriarchal place, for priority in community life. The call for black men to adopt their proper leadership role is another old chestnut among nationalists, who ironically seem to take their ideas about black gender relations directly from Daniel Moynihan's racist and misogynist 1965 Report on the Negro Family.
The Million Man March is Farrakhan's bid to move into the mainstream of black politics. He wants ultimately to be designated by white elites as the National Black Leader, the new Booker T. Washington. This is a very dangerous prospect because his line coincides so well with the rightist consensus about black Americans that his notorious anti-Semitism may be all that stands in his way. And he's trying to sanitize his image on that one.
It's not far-fetched to imagine that he could be installed over at least an element of the "bantustanized" black population. The fact that the mainstream media in effect joined the promotional team for the march and insistently embraced its conservative message underscores this danger.
The spin coming from almost every quarter now is that it's good that black people are prepared to take their destiny in their own hands and recognize that government can't do it for them. The nationalist/bootstrap line, which dominated the march, papers this perspective with a superficial race militancy that comes off like populist radicalism. It isn't. It.s an old program that assumes the white supremacists' view that black Americans aren't real citizens and don't have equal claim with other citizens on the use of government to better their lives. Bootstrap nationalist rhetoric acknowledges the premise in its refusal to use possessive adjectives in describing black Americans' relation to public institutions, its incessant talk about how we don't need/can't rely on the government (never "our government") to do for us.
Why is there so much apparent black support for this effort? Farrakhan himself said at the Capitol that Gingrich and the Republicrat Congress were the march's real organizers. He was largely right, even though he intended the false modesty of the self-ordained messenger of God. And it's not only the Congress. On every front in American society now we see a revanchist racism gaining momentum.
David Duke's candidate is now almost a shoo-in to be elected governor of Louisiana. Old-fashioned white supremacist Kirk Fordice already occupies Mississippi's gubernatorial mansion. Pate Philip, speaker of the Illinois Senate, publicly and explicitly singled out black caseworkers in the Department of Children and Family Services for attack, charging that they lack a "work ethic."
Incidents of astonishing individual racism--in both word and deed--seem to be spreading like a prairie fire, and one best-selling, seriously regarded book after another argues, with increasing bluntness, the case for natural black inferiority.
An entirely justified sense of desperation increasingly shapes black politics, and under such conditions people naturally will look for hope wherever possible. Playing on that tendency to no particular end is what has kept Jesse Jackson (yes, I'm dissing him again) afloat in national political life.
This desperation is fueled also by the capitulation of academic and Democratic liberals to rightist racism, which Stephen Steinberg catalogues eloquently in Turning Back: The Retreat From Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy. It is reinforced also by the collapse of credible alternatives in conventional black politics. Watching the procession of elected officials--several of them conservative or neoliberal mayors--testifying at the march, I was struck by the subtly self-serving undercurrent to their ringing endorsements of self-help. Public officials' exhortations not to rely on government amount to instructions not to expect much from them. "You have garbage in the streets? Then organize a community-cleanup campaign."
Identification with Simpson and identification with Farrakhan are cut from the same cloth.
Both replace direct civic action with the passive, vicarious investment of group aspirations in the fate of some individual who is held to be under racist attack. Both beckon us to disattend to the public decisions being made around us and instead embrace oceanic good feelings and empty symbolism. During the mediated frenzy over the Million Man March, for instance, Republican Governor William Weld of Massachusetts eliminated AFDC for all teenagers across the board, and the U.S. House of Representatives pushed forward a yet more draconian crime bill--without public attention.
What many progressives still don't want to admit is that Jesse Jackson designed the pattern for this kind of pseudo politics, or, more accurately, he updated it from Booker T. Washington for a televisual age. And that brings us to black progressives' anomalous enthusiasm for Colin Powell.
The white left has always had much greater difficulty than it should in figuring out when black public figures move from world views and agendas that are genuinely consistent with left political vision and when they don't. As I've often argued, it isn't enough to assume that any black person willing to hang out with the left is a leftist. Moreover, failure to go beyond that assumption, all too often in the face of evidence contradicting it, rests on its own version of racial bad faith: the presumption that black people are so alien in their politics and needs that "we" (that is, white people) can't make judgments about them and their points of view.
For those who know his politics, it's no surprise that Roger Wilkins enthused in The Nation and The New Yorker about Colin Powell (in quite the same kind of gushing superlatives he used about Jackson in 1984 and 1988, I might add). His oppositional political orientation doesn't go far past race as an issue, and even not in a radical way on that front. Wilkins, Henry Louis Gates (author of The New Yorker's celebration of Powell), and others give rise to a paraphrase of Lenin: the black petit bourgeoisie, if left to its own devices, can develop only affirmative-action consciousness.
Powell's support for affirmative action is all that distinguishes him from the black (and white) retainers at the American Enterprise Institute, but that's all it takes to make him a middle-class black hero. Wilkins and the others see him as one of us," a member of their fraction of the black middle class, who embodies a particular petit bourgeois model of accomplishment and racial identity.
Nor is it inconsistent that Cornel West touted Powell in The New Yorker article and has been twisting himself like a pretzel, overtaxing his prodigious capacity for doubletalk in rationalizing Farrakhan's gambit. As Stephen Steinberg argues, West shares a perspective on poverty and inequality with Farrakhan, underclass ideologues, and the bipartisan national center-right consensus, a view that is conservative, simple-minded, and nasty.
How much longer can leftists look the other way while West prattles on about "collective clinical depression," rampant "nihilism," and calls for a "politics of conversion" and a "love ethic" Even after watching him strain to defend the Million Man March's patriarchal foundation and soft-pedal Farrakhan's fascist politics? And it's not surprising that Ron Daniels, the left's bargain-basement 1992 version of Jesse Jackson, worked at Farrakhan's right hand and aggressively defended the march's patriarchal premises. His roots in black politics always grew out of conservative nationalism.
How much longer will the pretense endure that West's understudy, Michael Dyson (the Reverend Hiphop Porkchop), has any politics or commitment to principle of any sort in the face of his preening around the stage and his contention on national television that the march actually was against sexism and homophobia?
None of us can afford the opportunism reflected in this pattern of willful blindness, but least of all can those trying to advance left interests in black politics. The left public sphere is the only significant one to which we have access, and progressive forces in general face perhaps the gravest challenges that have confronted us in living memory.
We need to think tough-mindedly and concretely about political strategy under these truly frightening conditions. White leftists have to start thinking about politics among black people as an arena in which they're personally invested, bringing as much critical judgment to bear in that domain as any other and not falling for platitudes and essentialist rationales for retrograde politics.
There is no individual or handful of individuals who carry collective racial aspirations or who can express "the black community's point of view." Anyone who claims otherwise is a liar. And believing that claim is a foundation of racism.
Finally, we all have to recognize the difference between militance and radicalism. Fuzziness about that distinction is what has always sustained fascists, along with at least tacit support from mainstream clites. We can see all too much evidence of clite support, which we can't control. We have to work conscientiously to clear our own minds and practice.
Adolph Reed Jr. is a professor of political science at Northwestern University. His column appears in this space every other month.
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|Author:||Reed, Adolph, Jr.|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1995|
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