Okay, well like many Americans, the idea of talking in a public forum about race strikes me as being nearly as enjoyable as being submerged in a pile of manure and run over by a steamroller. However, since nobody reads this thing besides Holly and Greg, I think I'm at least a little bit safe in discussing this editorial by Heather McDonald. McDonald is supposedly an expert on race in America, so I assume that she's read more about it than I have. To be really honest, I don't read a lot of books on America anyway, much less ones about the present day. Therefore, let's assume that she has more knowledge on the subject than I do.
McDonald begins the editorial by noting that Hallmark has a line of cards for African-Americans; this isn't exactly surprising since I've noted that 'multiculturalism' helps nobody as much as it helps marketers. She also notes, disapprovingly I might add, that the African American line includes a sub-genre of cards for Mothers on Father's Day. She is rightly appalled at the tackiness of Hallmark exploiting the problem of absentee fathers in the 'black community' as a means to make money. If capitalism was capable of any sense of propriety, they might have passed over this particular tragedy in silence, but they can't. One wonders when they will start making cards for poor inner-city communities marking stillbirths.
At any rate, there are two issues here where I disagree slightly with McDonald: capitalism and the black community. Let's start with capitalism; as far as I can tell, McDonald sees Hallmark as opportunistically exploiting a preexisting 'tragedy' and notes that this is their right to do, as it is hers to disapprove. However, I'm not entirely sure about this. I don't believe that companies like Hallmark created the problem of absentee fathers; however, I'm not convinced that mass culture doesn't play a reinforcing or normalizing role in regards to social problems, or perhaps more controversially, if it doesn't broaden their scope and make them more mainstream in the same way that it makes certain annoying slang impossible to escape.
I've always hated the critique of 'the media' as being responsible for all social ills because I feel that people should be able to think for themselves. Yet, anyone who spends much time among people in their teens and twenties has to have shared the sense I get that, if MTV ran a show entitled Yo! Let's wear cat shit as an accessory!, there would be plenty of kids walking around with dried cat excrement pinned to their lapels. I live in a working-class town in which young people are utterly convinced that aping the style of inner city 'gangsters' is completely ''authentic'', in spite of the fact that they are mostly white, Catholic, eastern European immigrants to Canada. Again, I want to stress here that I assume that fathers abandon their children because they are total douche bags, and not because they saw it on TV. However, I'm also skeptical that mass media plays no role whatsoever in normalizing certain types of behavior and simply takes its cues from the ''community'' or ''culture'' at large.
Which brings us to the subject of ''the black community''. Let me just state the controversial part right now: I'm not entirely convinced there is such a thing. Or, at least, not in the way that it's been understood generally. For liberals, the ''black community'' is seemingly a confluence of social forces- that is, it's shaped to such an extent by economic, social, and cultural forces originating from the larger hegemonic white community that is could be said to have been constructed by the larger community. I find this argument to be insulting and infantilizing for most of the reasons that conservatives do- it removes agency from people who in actuality cannot be truly empowered in any real way aside from agency. And it replaces individual agency with state initiatives. Have I mentioned how little I believe in social engineering yet?
However, conservatives like McDonald seem to think of ''the black community'' as a hermetically sealed world apart from the larger society, a sort of incubator of crime and illegitimacy. It grows its own pathologies and then is supported in them by elite liberals and feminists. I don't buy this argument either for at least three reasons:
1. I don't know any blacks who are criminals or illegitimate children; all of the blacks I know are post-graduate academics. I find that the strangest thing about the co-called black community is that these people are defined as being somehow outside of it, supposedly by blacks themselves, but also in a very real way by whites. They are somehow unworthy of comment by worried white conservatives, young white kids who adore music about blacks murdering each other, or bourgeois white couples who romanticize the non-cerebral, ''freedom'' of blacks. And so, they are invisible.
2. Therefore, I suspect that the so-called ''black community'' is largely a dystopic fiction created more than we'd like to admit by white fantasies about who actual blacks are. This isn't to say that blacks aren't responsible for their own actions. However, when people worry about the image created by hip-hop music, for instance, they ignore the fact that it is an industry that is largely driven by what suburban whites want to buy. In other words, it's entirely possible to imagine a white upper-middle-class family in which Junior listens gleefully to musical fantasies about murdering black men on his CD player, Dad pontificates about the ''cultural decay of the black community'' on his blog, and both parents troll the Internet for ''black studs'' to add a bit of spice to their sex life. The idea that this in no way impacts the lives of actual blacks, whose culture is supposedly self-originating and self-sustaining is absurd. The fact that ''authentic black experience'' is circumscribed by black peer pressure is well-documented by now. Less often noted is how circumscribed and defined that experience is by white fantasies.
3. Lastly, is it really possible to talk about isolated communities anyway, especially as Americans eat the same foods, buy the same clothes, and share the same mass culture? Can we talk about communities originating their own values, traditions, and culture in isolation from each other? Even absentee fathers (who again I think are douche bags!) are, in some sense, taking part in a romanticized image of 'black freedom' that whites and blacks have celebrated for centuries in this country. This isn't to suggest that they aren't responsible for their own actions. However, the idea that you can isolate one group of people as a sort of cultural leper colony and argue that its illnesses are completely self-originating seems as patronizing as the liberal argument.
In the liberal argument, blacks aren't considered to have any agency of their own, while whites are assumed to have that agency, and so autonomous responsibility. In the conservative argument, blacks aren't considered to have any commonality whatsoever with the larger culture for reasons that aren't even made clear; they are a world apart. Both arguments assume some essentialized difference, and inferiority, in contrast with whites. Both arguments make this essentialized inferiority the basis of a fictionalized community. To be really negative, I fear that Americans share no culture whatsoever aside from the culture that is the product of mass capitalism- and that so-called ''communities'' are just 'product lines' within that capitalism.
But then we still have to admit that the puppets pull the strings, so to speak.