Saturday, June 16, 2007

Black community?

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.


Hiromi said...

I don't know any blacks who are criminals or illegitimate children; all of the blacks I know are post-graduate academics.

And let's not forget the many black people we can see commuting to work every day in SUVs, for heaven's sake! You're right, where are these people that activists of many stripes ignore?

In any case, I would say that there *is* a black community, Asian-Amerian community, etc. etc., but like you said, they're not hermetically sealed monolithic units. Nor are they somehow an outgrowth of having a particular phenotype. People *choose* to identify themselves as part of a community based on their agenda at the moment (and I don't mean to use the word "agenda" as a pejorative).

So, in my case, there are times when I identify as "Asian-American." Other times, I call myself a survivor, an alcoholic, a nerdly geek, a liberal, or what have you. And there are others who I would identify as members of my "tribe" at these times. But these associations are fluid, just like they are with other people, and I'm not "stuck" in any particular community.

Holly said...

Is there a White Community? Can we make sweeping generalizations about How White People Are? Sheeeeeit, some white people aren't even white. (Actually, there's a big notion that the reason "white" is not an "ethic group" is because ethnic groups are inherently characterized by their varying degrees of non-white-itude.)

Generalizations of this extremely manipulative kind really chafe my biscuits. In some ways it's MORE annoying when it's supposed to be a form of advocacy. Who the fuck needs to advocate for an imaginary set?

Rufus said...

Hiromi- Maybe we can talk about networks instead of communities. It's interesting what you mention about agendas- I think there is a sort of agency in plugging into different networks for the advantages they bestow. I do think that all of those groups you mentioned, including the nerd tribe that I feel most comfortable with, are defined as much from without as within, and it's important to be skeptical of the social advantages we gain from acting the way that our groups are 'supposed to'.

It's interesting- I remember one of our professors, who incidentally is black, making the comment, 'It's important to remember and very true that race is just a social construct. On the other hand, try making that argument to the cop who's kicking your ass for speeding.'

Holly- I sort of thought the same thing- we don't talk about what sorts of arts are most appropriate to the 'white community' because we reconize how multifaceted, and hence how undefinable, white people are. It's like whites become 'everything else'. You couldn't imagine someone saying 'heavy metal is the authentic voice of the white community' and being taken seriously. But every other ethnic group gets its own tiny little box of 'authenticity'.

I would say that the group advocacy is necessary when a group is specifically denied a right that's open to everyone else. So the 'gay community' rallying for marriage rights is completely logical to me. Even there, however, the idea behind it is of a common humanity that is denied to a specific group.

I also think that the distinct and unrepeatable nature of every human being is the best basis that I can think of for ethics or civil rights.

Jill said...


Well written and laid out.

So, do you think that blacks are being denied things because of their skin color? Is there still a need for advocacy?

And then I have to wonder if any group can really identify as a community based solely on race or even nationality these days. Particularly when you bring in the elements of consumerism that cross so many boundaries.

Very thought provoking.

And I'm a lurker who reads your blog fairly often for the interesting commentary you provide.

Rufus said...

Thank you very much for the kind words.

I should note that we just got back from a Bloomsday event at the pub, so I'm a bit tipsy. Hopefully, this will be coherent!

I suspect, although Claire knows more about these issues than I do, that there are two sorts of advocacy that are needed:

1. Advocacy at the local level in areas that are in decline. I remember dating a girl who lived in a neighborhood in DC where half of the townhouses on the block were boarded up and filled with rats. It looked like Bosnia. There are huge swaths of Buffalo that are the same way. And New Orleans is a national tragedy, still. And you can think of dozens of other cities that are falling apart. So I think there needs to be a lot of nuts and bolts advocacy across the country, but those issues are more neighborhood-based, and definitely class-based as well. Poverty seems to be multi-ethnic in America. Incidentally, I have no idea who really speaks for poor whites anymore.

2. I think there is a serious need to push to get honest expression from all sorts of groups heard anymore. Mass media seems to have been suburbanized to death. If you're not a hip wealthy Manhattanite and her sexually adventurous yuppie gal pals, or conversely a 23 year-old frat boy, your experiences are unrecorded. So I think people need to fight to express themselves, especially if their experiences aren't what is currently seen as 'important'. I think for minorities it's even more important to tell their own stories, even if it isn't particularly successful. Actually, Hiromi has blogged about Margaret Cho before and her best material is still a revelation.

It's interesting- our friend Emily works for a very cool feminist magazine, and I really get the feeling when talking to her that publishing or creating anything that aims at being honest more than at being profitable is pretty maverick these days. But I think that people of all walks should strive to express precisely those things that they haven't heard expressed before.

I have a feeling that some of this is a bit trite. But I'll probably have more interesting things to say after a good night's sleep!

Anonymous said...

[i]I don't know any blacks who are criminals or illegitimate children; all of the blacks I know are post-graduate academics. [/i]

This sounds like Pauline Kael's famous line in 1972, that she didn't know ANYONE who voted for Nixon (in what was then the greatest electoral landslide in American history).

In any event, a thoughtful post and one I enjoyed reading. I agree with the commenters above that the term "community" is problematic for many reasons. Not the least of which is that it seems to reduce black Americans to the level of some essentialist, anthropologized 'community.' (why not just say 'tribe'?) If I were a black man (cue Tevye), I'd resent the hell out of these blanket statements about the 'community' to which I purportedly belong, with which I'm assumed to identify, etc....

- Robert

Rufus said...

Thanks for the kind words.

I openly admit that I'm judging by a fairly narrow enclave. I wasn't suggesting that a majority of blacks are professors, of course; just that the blacks I know aren't really represented by any of the cliches about the 'black community'.

I'm sure there are plenty of black criminals and plenty of white criminals, but my encounters with black criminals have been limited to movies, while my encounters with black professors have been largely limited to real life!