CASHMORE, Ellis. Beyond Black. Bloomsbury Academic. 2012.
Only a few decades ago, being black in America seemed to be as much a curse as being colored in South Africa, or a dalit in India. Ever since the Civil Rights movement, things have changed. But, apparently, these changes have been really huge. Back in the 1920s, no white person in his right mind would have had any fantasies about being black (maybe those fantasies would be about having sex with blacks, but that is a different matter); after all, who would want to be in danger of being lynched, who would want to be the embodiment of ugliness?
Today, white kids are fascinated with African American culture. White Ali G (not a real character, but the satire nails it) is desperate to be black. But, of course, it’s all about sports and entertainment. Ali G does not have the slightest interest in Frederick Douglass or even Martin Luther King. His fascination is with Snoop Dogg, Beyonce, Michael Jordan, and so on. As a teenager, I went through something similar: to me, everything about black consumer culture was cool, whereas white America was boring. And, of course, I wasn’t alone in this: most of my peers were also fascinated by the ghetto, and we all had some desire to be black (very much as Ali G).
Now, as a man in my thirties, I don’t have much interest in African American culture, and I have come to discover that neither do my old High School buddies. This, it seems to me, is revealing: black America is appealing to teenagers, but not to adults. Why? In part, because blacks have achieved power in those things that are banal and attractive to teenagers (sports and entertainment), but have not achieved prominence in things that are more crucial (politics, finance, science, politics, etc.), and that are usually more attractive to adults (although it could be argued, as Neil Postman once did, that American adults are becoming increasingly infantilized).
Ellis Cashmore’s book analyzes the shift of blacks’ positions in American culture. His main thesis is this: white America has allowed blacks to hold some symbolic power in sports and entertainment, but this actually a kind of opium (my words, not Cashmore’s, I can’t help using the Marxist terminology) to hold them down. Ever since the 19th Century, whites have been fascinated with blacks’ everyday life, but want to watch only at a distance. This continues to go on today: white suburban kids delight themselves with hip-hop songs about the ghetto, but are not in the least concerned about doing something to improve blacks’ conditions. Michael Jordan becomes an icon of consumer culture, but only as long as he just jumps and does not say anything incendiary about slavery and racism; white kids are fascinated by African American slam dunks, but not by Richard Wright’s novel denouncing racism (this last example is mine, not Cashmore’s).
If there was ever an original counter-cultural movement in hip-hop, it was long ago swallowed by corporations. Rap music is the new minstrel show, in which artists amuse white audiences forming an alliance with white capitalists. Beyonce may earn some of the shares, but the real beneficiaries are white CEOs who further enrich themselves by making blacks degrade themselves, and amuse white audiences in a superficial contact with African American life.
On the surface, Obama’s presidential election is a major change. This is no longer about sports and entertainment. But, Cashmore points out that, in fact, it may well be. Obama is a branded president; just another celebrity whose position may very well be along the lines of Denzel Washington. In the same way that Michael Jordan became a sales’ icon, Obama may well have been the perfect candidate for a country increasingly fascinated with black culture; but once again, this was possible only as long as the black candidate does not come over with rage over the wrongs of the past. Cashmore highlights Shelby Steele’s very interesting thesis, according to which, Obama was the perfect agent to drain white America’s guilt: there is a major desire to overcome the wrongs of the past, but only in a rather superficial way.
So, there it is. Apparently, history has come to an end in America (in a Fukuyaman sense): whites have made peace with blacks, and America is now a post-racial society. Not so, says Cashmore. Yes, blacks have achieved symbolic power in some spheres, but on the ground, life is as tough as ever for African Americans. There are significant statistical discrepancies between blacks and whites, when it comes to health, wealth, crime, etc. Racism is alive and well.
Overall, I agree with Cashmore’s analysis. But, I do wish to point out some disagreements. The book gives the impression that whites are mostly to blame (it does not say so explicitly, but I did get that sense). Sure, white capitalists have been perversely clever to recruit some blacks, turn them into celebrities, and attempt to give the impression that race is no longer an obstacle, and on top of that, make a huge profit by injecting consumerism into African Americans’ lives. But, I think black leadership is also to blame. The character with which I sympathize the most in this book is, Bill Cosby: the great comedian insisted that black failure may no longer be blamed all on racism. And as a defender of conservative values, he also denounced that consumerism and fascination with rap and basketball will not get African Americans far, either. What is truly needed is, as Cosby famously argued, a massive reform in African American culture: stronger parental responsibility, self-reliance, work ethic, valuing of education, and so on. Cosby was seen as a sellout for playing a successful doctor in his show, But, this is precisely the problem: black culture seems reluctant to accept positive role models, and seem much more content to continue defending O.J. Simpson. Black bookish kids are accused of “acting white”, and black leaders do not seem to care about it.
Cashmore points out the statistical discrepancies between blacks and whites when it comes to prison, health, wealth, and so on. I do not subscribe to the biological explanations of Hernstein and Murray in The Bell Curve for these discrepancies, but I do think that, to some degree, America is a meritocratic society, and in a sense, these discrepancies are not proof of racism. The fact that some ethnic group has some privileged place over another ethnic group is not, in itself, proof of discrimination. There are far more Brazilians than Sweden in high-level football leagues, but no one would say FIFA discriminates against Swedes; if fair competition got them there, there really is nothing to complain about.
Likewise, the fact that there is a larger proportion of blacks in jails, I am afraid, is not evidence that the penal system is intrinsically racist. Sure, as Cashmore points out, maybe the war on drugs targets especially blacks, and this increases their number in prisons. But blacks could very well be more prone to crime. Actually, I think this is the case, indeed; leaving anecdotal cases aside (such as the Rodney King affair), American cops do not strike me as particularly racist (Jared Taylor has offered compelling evidence that, in fact, there is very little racism in police departments).
Blacks’ inclination toward crime needn’t be due to biological reasons (lower IQ or higher testosterone, as racialist J.P. Rushton infamously argued). But, it could very well be due to cultural and historical reasons: blacks may feel historically cheated, and this alienation pushes them into crime. Yet, at the same time, black leadership has been too self-indulgent in victimized rhetoric, and has not motivated their followers to push forward. On this point, I fully sympathize with Dinesh D’Souza’s analysis in The End of Racism.
The question is whether or not whites have achieved comfortable positions through fair competition. They obviously had an unfair head start over blacks, and affirmative action may have been necessary at first, and Cashmore seems to sympathize with the idea that, in order to overcome racism, affirmative action is most needed. But, I am very skeptical of affirmative action today. I have a great concern that, in its current state, affirmative action does not create a meritocratic society, but rather, destroys it. Surely, the debate over affirmative action requires more attention, and the jury is still out. But, in the meantime, it seems to me there are more urgent things to do. And, I would argue that those things have been aptly delineated by Bill Cosby: decrease fascination with consumer culture, tone down victim-playing, increase self-reliance, and stress education and familial responsibility.