IN the ideological warfare between liberals and conservatives, African-Americans exist as a kind of Rorschach test, an enigma to be solved in the context of their disturbing exceptionalism in a country obsessed with its own exceptionalism. Blacks have been in this country as long as its earliest European settlers. Why haven't they, well, for lack of a better phrase, quite measured up? Why do they lag behind whites and seemingly behind all the other immigrant groups to have come here? To white liberals like Tom Wicker and Benjamin DeMott, African-Americans are incorruptible victims, sanctified by their long history of suffering at the hands of whites, and stigmatized by the legacy of slavery and a virulent, unending white racism. As many conservatives see it, all the problems of blacks are essentially caused by an inability to fit in to the culture in which they live and an inability to stop seeing themselves as victims -- an attitude that white liberals encourage them to maintain.
In short, the liberal believes that whites are the problem, the conservative that blacks are the problem. Any thinking black person must sit between these contesting categorizations, which have existed since antebellum days, feeling something between bemusement and contempt. Although blacks at various times, under various circumstances, may prefer one explanation to the other (usually, though certainly not always, the liberal's to the conservative's), the truth about blacks is to be found not in the middle ground but, paradoxically, in both views simultaneously, and in neither of them. The race problem is not really understood if it is seen as a white problem or a black problem. It is an American conundrum.
Americans do not like protracted problems or problems that suggest a limit to their power. Part of this is bound up with the belief of both blacks and whites in American exceptionalism -- the idea of this country as a redeemer nation, a New Jerusalem. Americans also do not like to face the liberating possibilities of the profound historical tragedy within themselves; hence white neo-conservatism on the one hand, Afrocentrism on the other -- ideologies of tragedy avoidance or sheer escapism.
Tom Wicker, a southerner and thus more believable as a sincere white liberal because he was reared amid the worst kind of racism, has in essence written a defense of the moral and political superiority of the welfare state, apparently the only kind of state in which blacks can thrive. (Conservatives assert that the welfare state has been the utter ruination of blacks.) His book argues that white America has reneged on its promise of integration and full justice and economic parity for black Americans in the 1960s and 1970s -- a promise implicit in the Brown school-desegregation decision of 1954 and explicit in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- as it reneged on full citizenship and political parity for black Americans during Reconstruction. What has happened, Wicker asserts, from the time of Richard Nixon through the time of Ronald Reagan, has been a steady retreat on the question of civil rights and black advancement, for reasons of expediency on the part of white politicians at best, or of wretched cowardice on the part of white civic leadership at worst. The country is as racist as it ever was, and the white population is still selfishly, even pathologically, venting its anger at and fashioning its scapegoats from the least among us -- African-Americans. Now, this thesis is hardly new. Andrew Hacker and Derrick Bell are among the latest to sell a great number of books having anguish and outrage about the black condition as a theme. Of course, no one is very happy with race relations in the United States, the sorry state of which was supposedly revealed, according to Wicker, by the public response to the O. J. Simpson verdict. In fact, Wicker's indictment has a measure of merit and truth in it. Nonetheless, there are a great number of problems with this book.
"If racial integration is to be revived as essential to a secure future for America, an effective new political party forthrightly working for economic justice will be necessary," Wicker writes in Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America. "African-Americans," he says explicitly, "must build a new political party." (Who could be more expert on the issue of economic justice or a better advocate for it than the very group that has suffered the greatest economic injustice? is, I think, Wicker's reasoning.) Then we would have the usual populist assemblage of poor whites, other racial minorities (after all, Wicker reminds us, whites themselves will be a minority come 2050), and the like -- that is, people who are "likely to encounter some degree of economic and racial disadvantage."
Frankly, it is incomprehensible to me how black people could solve the problems of isolation and alienation they face in the political realm (Republicans and Democrats are chary about a black political agenda and even, to some degree, about the black vote itself) by forming their own political party, which would seem to do nothing more than institutionalize their isolation and alienation as a disaffected minority.
wishes to be an accusatory book (against whites), but it is in essence a lazy book. For instance, Wicker says that "the growth of the black middle class was largely lost to view [of whites] in the lurid new visibility of the underclass remaining in the ghetto." Yet how does one explain the impact of people like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan, and of the barrage of images on television and in advertising of a seemingly happy and broad black middle class -- images that have encouraged whites to believe that some blacks have indeed made it?
Blacks strike the white imagination in largely contradictory ways: as huge success stories and as the underclass of criminals and welfare cheats. An analysis of this contradiction is needed, but the book does not provide one. Wicker states, "It's plain now that those inner-city blacks noticed mostly when they appear on the nightly television news as perpetrators or victims of crime will be with us for years to come." But since most nightly news shows, both local and national, have black reporters and even black news anchors, why won't their images stay with "us" just as long? And if inner-city blacks are seen largely as criminal, how much have they participated in their own degradation through the marketing and commercialization of their cultural expressions, hip-hop and rap? These exploit the image of the black male as outlaw and deviant to titillate the white suburban mind and to give black culture, for the black consumers of this product, some supposedly subversive, radical edge. Changing crime into political resistance, marginalization into a broad expression of humanity and liberation, has been a romantic preoccupation of the bourgeois intellectual since long before Foucault and the postmodern sensibility. In other words, blacks have historically been far too willing to accept distortions of themselves, because they see themselves culturally as whites see them: in intensely romantic terms.
In speaking of the connection between the black image and criminality Wicker does not mention that Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Wesley Snipes, Laurence Fishburne, Jim Brown, Sidney Poitier, Paul Winfield, Yaphet Kotto, and Will Smith have all played cops or government agents in movies or on television. What impact has this had on the image of the black as criminal? If it has had none, why?
The book suffers greatly from this lack of consideration of the difficult contradictions in American culture. There is no serious thinking here. In a footnote Wicker suggests that although Lincoln thought that blacks should be sent back to Africa, he never suggested that whites go back to Europe. But Lincoln would have thought that sending blacks back to Africa was humane, because they had been brought here against their will (unlike whites) and may very well have wanted to go back. (Of course they did not.) Also, Lincoln believed that as a recently freed people with no education and what appeared to him to be servile habits, they stood little chance of surviving in direct competition with whites.
There are a number of other questionable assertions in this book. Wicker makes much, for example, of the following double standard: black leaders are forced by the white media and the white establishment to repudiate the oddball, racist, and crackpot speakers among them (which is true), whereas white leaders are not required to do so. This does not seem quite true. One has only to consider the response to Al Campanis's notorious remarks about blacks' "lacking the necessities" to be baseball managers and executives; the suspension of the Cincinnati Reds' owner, Marge Schott, for racist remarks; or the overwhelming mainstream disapproval of The Bell Curve to know that blacks and their sympathizers can exercise power in this realm of repudiation as well. Once again, what is needed is an examination of how the complicated business of group repudiation of racist ideas works in our country.
In speaking about sellouts, Wicker writes, "An African-American clearly would have a difficult task succeeding materially in American society (save perhaps in sports or show biz) without joining, to some extent, in the values and attitudes of that society -- as a minor example, without dressing conventionally." Surely many whites, too, feel that they must "sell out," not be themselves, in order to get a job or pursue a career in the mainstream. That is what all the talk of conformity in the 1950s and surely the countercultural revolt of the 1960s was about. Selling out in order to make it is an issue that transcends race. Obviously it is even more difficult for blacks, in part because the opportunities to sell out are fewer and the demand for conformity is more charged. Dressing conventionally, Wicker suggests, is a white custom. Yet blacks have a long history of manners, etiquette, dressing well. What Ralph Ellison referred to as "elegance" is not foreign to black experience.
The overall problem with this book is that Wicker chose not to provide a deeply focused look at race relations and liberalism in this country. He did not interview dozens of people from various walks of life and in various locations to give their perspectives on integration and liberalism. He did not read -- or at least did not provide evidence that he had read -- all the books, conservative and liberal, about race and the pros and cons of integration that have come out in the past ten or fifteen years. If he had done this, Tragic Failure might have been an important book, instead of a sloppy, ill-considered one that says nothing new and does not condemn the failure of the national will to effect integration or defend liberalism nearly as well as the work of Jonathan Kozol and William Julius Wilson, for instance. This book largely turns on the fact that a white southerner wrote it and in a rather bellicose way calls other whites incorrigible racists -- which they may very well be, but that does not solve much of anything. And, of course, he charitably excuses black folk of all complicity after the fact, which is a form of rank patronization. Even the oppressed are not immune to stupidity, opportunism, greed, demagoguery, and a complex form of connivance in their own suffering.
BENJAMIN DeMott's The Trouble With Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Race is more interesting, in part because DeMott's concerns are largely centered in the cultural realm, where most people find the real heat and light about race. It is also a more interestingly reasoned and argued book than Wicker's. DeMott's basic case is that through films, television, advertising, and other cultural products a "friendship orthodoxy" has arisen, in which the relationship between the races has become intensely personalized, the persistent dogma is that the races are essentially the same, and racism is regarded as the viewpoint of a psychotic fringe, a marginal expression that whites, once they are awakened, fight and defeat through their good will. Racism thus has no connection to power relations, to the purpose and coherence of American institutions, to the very sense of the nation as a political and social entity. In these dramatizations blacks bring no brutal history of oppression to the table and whites no sense of advantage from having had them to oppress. Everyone is more or less innocent, and after a few rough moments a kind of recognition of common humanity is achieved and we all go off together into that great, gettin' up, biracial morning. As far as it goes, this thesis about the representation of race relations and racial history in American popular culture is correct. But, alas, it does not go very far.
DeMott's marks are too easy. To condemn as fantasies most current Hollywood films with major black characters misses two points. First, Hollywood films are always about fantasy human relationships, whether they deal with man against the dark forces of society (film noir), marriage and sex (the romantic comedy, the screwball comedy, the domestic drama), or so-called social realism (the "problem" film, the protest film). Few American films have ever shown "power relations," "institutional influence on the formation of character," or other Marxist constructs. The fact is that race fits in with all these other relationships and gets dramatized in pretty much the same way. I am not sure that white America is trying to avoid anything more with race films than it is trying to avoid with films on any other subject. What is important is how race fits into this larger overall pattern; but DeMott simply describes the pattern, very incompletely and without the kind of historical rigor that would have given his argument value. A consideration of the careers of Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier in the 1950s alongside the careers of Hattie McDaniel, Stepin Fetchit, Clarence Muse, Willie Best, and the cohort of black comic actors of the 1930s and 1940s would have made his point far more powerfully and vividly. Poitier thought what he was doing was a matter of dignity, although DeMott would complain that his films were early versions of the black-white friendship fantasy. But McDaniel thought that what she was about concerned dignity as well, which is why she said she'd rather play a maid than be one.
Second, DeMott picks films like White Men Can't Jump and Regarding Henry, which are easy to analyze in the way he chooses, as friendship fantasies -- but these are not expected to be anything more, politically, than, say, The Terminator or Casino. And, of course, why should they be anything more? What about a look at, for example, the blaxploitation movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which many blacks believe saved Hollywood financially and claimed, at times, some sort of social relevance? What about an examination of the black filmmaker in Hollywood and how he or she dealt with the "friendship orthodoxy"? Why are American films generally disposed not to deal with personal problems as having political and economic origins? Is it because of the ideology of individualism that so permeates the culture and that everyone -- black and white -- believes?
Another historical and cultural point DeMott misses is that, as David Riesman described in his classic work, The Lonely Crowd, post-industrial society, in particular America after the Second World War, is other-directed -- that is to say, concerned with personal relationships. The prevalence of the other-directed social character goes a long way toward explaining why the race problem is depicted as it is in our cultural products and why many blacks and whites are satisfied with that form of depiction. Why does DeMott not talk about any of this?
The racial friendship fantasy is not some recent Hollywood invention; it dates back to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), both premised on intense friendships between people of different races. The friendship fantasy is deeply entwined with our concept of slavery itself -- with one of the nation's worst political and social crimes. Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" brilliantly explodes the idea of interracial friendship as a delusion. What lies behind the utopia of racial fusion is the horror of race war, Melville tells us. DeMott does not talk about any of this; he does not show that he is especially learned in the details of race in this culture. Those who are interested in this subject should read Melville.
The Atlantic Monthly; February 1997; Whatever Happend to Integration?; Volume 279, No. 2; pages 102-108.