The Internet Monk
"the power of opinion, the phenomenon of speech, the impact of truth"
A Webjournal edited by Michael Spencer
I Want To Be A Black Man
An Essay on Culture Envy
by Michael Spencer
SHIRT, MY HAT, MY BOOKS
I WOULD GIVE ANYTHING: TO BE YOU…
MY JOB, MY CAR, MY
I WOULD GIVE ANYTHING TO BE YOU…
MY VOICE, MY WORM,
I WOULD GIVE
ANYTHING: I WOULD GIVE TO…
Lyrics to "Michael Jordan" by Five for Fighting
To start with, if you are going to write me and say I am a racist for discussing race and culture, then I am going to write you and tell you that you are an idiot. So if we both know where we are going and no one is going to change his or her mind, then why waste the time and ink, right? I am not a racist, but I do believe we have to discuss race and culture in America, or at least we have to have more than one point of view on the subject. And on this subject, I have a long-delayed, overdue and deeply felt point of view.
I am not a racist, and I am not one of those conservatives who only knows African-Americans by way of television and sports. No, I have credentials. I grew up poor upper lower class in Owensboro, Kentucky. I lived on the white end of a black block for most of my childhood and teenage years. My schools were always integrated, with about 20 percent African-American students. They were my friends. I slept in their homes and spent time with their families, as they did mine. My high school was the city school, with virtually all the black students in our community. African-American culture was everywhere.
I am a minister and I have preached in and worked with many black churches. I am an educator as well, and for the last ten years I have worked at a school with approximately 20 percent African and African-American students from all over America and the world. I like them and they like me. I talk to them the way I will talk in this essay all the time, and no one has been more than mildly irritated. (And that was because I gave her a Larry Elder book.)
My greatest qualification? In my junior high yearbook, two black girls wrote that I had soul. I rest my case.
And speaking of soul, I know my own. I have many flaws. Racism is not one of them. If either of my two children were to date or marry an African-American, I can honestly say my only anxiety would be the reaction of certain isolated pockets of the extended family. I wouldn't hesitate to bless the relationship or perform the marriage (as long as all other important factors were acceptable.) I don't expect my liberal friends to accept my profession of racial neutrality, particularly if you examined my bookshelf, but that doesn't matter to me. My Christian faith teaches me that God sees us as human beings, made in his image, endowed with moral and spiritual ability and fallen into sin through our inherited and personal rebellion against God. That is what we are, color, culture or any other factor not withstanding.
So, do I want to be a black man? No, I just want you to read my essay. I wouldn't particularly care if I were a black man. Despite all the descriptions of the awful existence African-American men have in this country, I think my life would be similar, though probably not identical, to what it is now. If I'd been born into a single parent home, I would still be who I am, maybe even a bit better. I would have attended and graduated from the same schools. My high school employers all hired blacks, so that would not have changed. I would have attended the same college, because I went on a Social Security ride. I would have attended different churches, but I would still be in the ministry. I could have attended the same seminary, but I would have wound up working in different churches. I would still be a youth specialist. Honestly, I probably wouldn't be at my current job, but I could work here in a different job or work elsewhere and make a lot more money than I make now. My wife would have still married me. Would I have experienced racism? Sure, but I experience discrimination now, and expect to experience more as I grow older. Would I be in prison? No. Shot dead? No more so than now, I think. Would I listen to rap? I don't know. I hope not.
I don' t want to be a black man, but I do want to understand why so many other people apparently do. For instance, why are there so many people walking around talking in acquired black dialects? I hear this all the time from my students and it drives me crazy. If I came into class today and started talking like Snoop Dog, my kids would crack up, but apparently it's not that funny if you are a young white in the right social group. I want to know why 80% of rap music is purchased by young white males? Don't tell me if 80% of country music was bought by young black men you wouldn't be writing an article. I want to know why the black athlete is practically a messiah figure in America? I want to know why African-American idiots (like Sharpton, Jackson and Farrakhan) aren't treated by the media like white idiots making the same speeches and doing the same stunts? Why is John Rocker a racist and Mike Tyson merely a little tightly wound?
I want to know why black videos can be stereotypical beyond belief or talk shows like Ricki Lake can parade black sexual behavior like a minstrel show and it's not ever called stereotypical or racist? I want to know why bad music, poetry and film by African-Americans can't be called bad by the mainstream culture? I want to know why blacks saying the N word is acceptable? I want to know why slavery is trumpeted as the biggest problem in the black community, while there is virtual silence on the issue of illegitimacy? I want to know why African-American grievances are universally considered more important than the grievances of Asians, Hispanics or Christians? I want to know why comics on BET can say "Smoke Weed!" but if Jay Leno said it he'd be finished.
I want to know why blacks who succeed in school are considered white wannabes by so many blacks? I want to know why blacks telling blacks not to marry whites isn't racism, but whites telling whites not to marry blacks is? I want to know why a Miss Black America pageant isn't racist, but a Miss White America pageant would be? I want to know why a black player choking a white coach is no big deal, but a white coach calling a Mexican a Mexican is a firing offense? I want to know why we can't have Christmas but we must have Kwanzaa? I want to know why schools that change their name from Washington to King don't read about King saying Washington and the other salve-owning Founders were great men? I want to know why academics and artists can routinely say that white European Christian culture is the cancer of the planet and African Culture was a pristine Eden of sweetness, knowledge and light, till we ruined it, especially since that is a crock?
I want to know what is the incredible, mystical, ever-expanding fascination with blackness in our country? I want to know why Blacks are proud of everything in their culture, including things no one should be proud of, but whites are increasingly ashamed of everything about European and early American Christian culture that we should be proud of? Why is white Christianity a threat to freedom when it becomes politically active, but a politically active black church is one of the great forces for good in history?
I could go on and on....well, I have gone on and on, but the interaction between African-American culture and white American culture has increasingly become a matter of greater gravity producing greater results. And in the popular and political culture, the greater gravity appears to be with Black culture, a culture that, in my opinion, is on a dangerous downward spiral.
One cannot help but notice, in the interaction between African-American culture and other sub-cultures- Asian, Hispanic, Jewish- that there is a fierce instinct on the part of blacks to assert the superiority of their grievances and mistreatment. It is fascinating to me that Asian Americans, who certainly have not been universally well received in our country, have no grievance industry, no Jesse Jackson, but instead, an eager desire to express patriotism. One must be around young blacks during a display of loyalty to the flag to appreciate the difference. I have frequently seen young African-Americans refuse to salute the flag, saying "That's not my flag." Of course, such a refusal is almost impossible to picture among these other minorities, illegally immigrated middle-eastern men being the exception, of course.
So, having rolled out the problem as I see it, do I have any solutions? Yes, three bits of analysis and an obvious suggestion.
1. The liberal transformation of the federal government into a magnificent grievance machine has empowered those with the largest grievances more than other segments of society. There is no argument about the facts here. African-Americans have the largest grievance in society, right? They were brought here forcibly, ripped violently out of their homeland and the development of African culture forever interrupted. America was built by slave labor, right? The development of the American system has been dominated by the idea of empowering those who are wronged, equaling the playing field, protecting the oppressed. So it should not be a surprise, after a few decades of this approach, that the most oppressed group in our society should have accumulated an inordinate amount of power.
Should this approach to governing continue into the future, we should expect blacks, the elderly, illegal immigrants, homosexuals, the unemployed and single mothers to accrue the most power and influence. And hey! Following the "squeaky wheel gets the grease" philosophy of government, that is exactly what has happened, and I fully expect it to get worse.
Here is a scenario for you. This mindset has led to the actual overturning of elections already. So, let's say we get eight years of a liberal President and enough of a cooperative congress to throw a solid liberal majority on the Supreme Court. Given a couple of decades of this wacky direction, why not proclaim that it is time for a Black President by judicial fiat, just to rectify all those historical grievances? Oh, don't look at me that way! It's totally within the realm of possibility. If some liberal judge can turn a city over to a different mayor based on estimated racial recounts, don't think an "affirmative action" presidency is far behind. Now there is a West Wing episode for you.
Of course we don't have to go this far. We simply need to see that if government decides it is not here so much to work in the interests of the American people, as to be the advocate for aggrieved groups, then we are headed for chaos and violence in America. A politics that is responsive to money and whining is not a government as much as a curse upon its people.
What has this to do with culture envy? Move on...
2. The dominant direction of popular and political culture is to express the nature of victimization, oppression and grievance. Therefore, popular culture is particularly responsive to those aspects of black culture that express these sentiments. So what are we seeing in the mainstream of popular culture? These days, the grievance culture is going full strength. In fact, so much so, that if you don't have a grievance, if you aren't angry at being mistreated, if you don't have a list of scapegoats, then you feel very left out. Or worse, you feel responsible for all the mistreatment of these groups by your culture. So men are supposed to feel guilty about the mistreatment of women, even if they've never mistreated anyone. Heterosexuals are supposed to feel guilty about violence towards homosexuals, even if they've never told a gay joke.
This trend has certainly infected music. When I was growing up, rock bands were cocky, over confident and bragging about sex. Now, bands like Everclear and Staind are whining about their dysfunctional families and their psychiatric problems. If rock groups are angry, they are likely to just be whining really loudly about something. I may be mistaken, but I think they want us to know how miserable they are. It's the grievance virus in full assault.
The pinnacle of this sort of thing is the mother of all guilts: white guilt. Shelby Steele, in his brilliant book The Content of Our Character, says that learning how to create and manipulate white guilt has become fundamental to African-American experience. I have experienced this many times and I am utterly convinced that it is almost totally unconscious. When I ask African-American students to examine some of their beloved emotional assertions, it is fascinating to watch the conflict between rhetoric and reality set in.
For example, I was recently challenged by a young black woman on the assertion that any American can succeed in our system. This roused the usual objections that blacks are held down by a white conspiracy. Here was a young woman sitting in a private school classroom alongside many white students of every income level. She could graduate from our school and, like other of our students, attend Vanderbilt, Depaul or any number of state or private or state colleges. She is articulate and motivated in her studies and receives lots of encouragement and recognition. As far as I know, she has never been held down by a white conspiracy and likely never will. Where did she such a reaction?
"Well Spencer, you idiot, she is speaking on behalf of the experience of her people. You can't deny that black people were held down in this country. Are you stupid?"
Well, my critical friend, I would suggest that she has a number of experiences to pick from. The historical experience of African-Americans. Her personal experience. The experience of Americans without the hyphen. Why does she, an unshackled and free woman living out the rare life of an American teenager, feel that it is the past oppression of her people that is the dominant fact of her life? Might I suggest that if she were to choose one of the other expressions of identity, the popular culture (including the family and other social groups) would not reward her with affirmation and empowerment.
I mean, look at the price Clarence Thomas has paid for a choosing to abandon the dominant cultural image of a black man as a lifelong victim. Ask any young black conservative who goes against the tide within his community how much empowerment and affirmation he is feeling these days. You decide why we prefer to celebrate rappers, athletes and entertainers instead of valedictorians and executives?
Here is a parallel. I live in Eastern Kentucky where the cultural stereotype of whites is the ignorant hillbilly. Now, I can tell you that there is a lot of poverty, ignorance and degrading behavior among some elements of the population around here. Now suppose there was an Eastern Kentucky MTV. And every video featured the worst stereotypical kinds of Eastern Kentucky people. Barefoot, pregnant, toothless, living in squalor, acting like morons. I would predict that it wouldn't take long for our community, economic and political leaders to issue an outcry at those who would perpetuate such hurtful and inaccurate stereotypes.
So have you watched an hour of MTV lately? If African-Americans are OK with this, then who am I to point out that its the most offensive racial stereotyping imaginable. But I can see part of the picture: white culture can't get enough of this stuff. And if I were black, that would bother me more than it seems to bother the African-Americans I know. I mean, we have traded Cheech and Chong for two rappers in "How High?" This is progress? No, it's the celebration of victimization.
3. White envy of black culture is often approving of what is most harmful to black culture, not what would be best. Imagine we were to ask America's white young people what they admired most about Asians? Can you anticipate an answer that includes manners, hard work, family commitment and academic success? Of course. Now imagine we were to ask that same group of American young people what they admired about African-American culture? Can you anticipate the answer? That is a harder question, not because there aren't things to admire- religious vitality, resilience, eloquence, creativity- but because we know that those young white males buying all the rap music and those sports fans filling the seats aren't admiring those qualities at all. They are buying into a cultural image that often contains the worst aspects of black culture.
The idea that blacks are superior athletes may not be completely absurd, but it has been destructive to a black culture that needs its young people to set their sights on goals other than the NBA. The contribution of African-Americans to the arts is substantial, but the myth that blacks are to be taken seriously only as entertainers is destructive. I can personally attest that my black students, as a group, are ridiculously indulgent of the idea that their career choices should be between athletics and entertainment.
I will avoid the hornet's nest of exploring white envy of black sexuality, but as a community disproportionately affected by illegitimacy, STD's and poverty, the African-American community doesn't need any encouragement in what is already a terrible situation. African-American leaders can air their grievances against white oppressors and bigots all they want, but this destructive pattern of behavior is a culture destroying itself. So why, when Ricki Lake brings on black guest after black guest to parade their immoral and destructive sexual behavior for the entertainment of America, does no one see the irony and the outrage? I was always told don't believe it when a old black waiter is overly nice to you. I could say the same thing to my black friends about a white talk show host who has you on to talk about your affairs and illegitimate children.
To measure what is happening, look at the phenomenon of the Cosby show. With the success of Cosby, a classic entertainer who crossed every kind of cultural divide, one would expect a string of successful programs portraying blacks as successful and educated professionals. Instead, the Cosby legacy is an isolated event, while cable networks continue the legacy of stereotypical comedians like Martin Lawrence and the major television networks are the subjects of justified complaints of simply ignoring blacks altogether. Even BET has decided to devote the overwhelming majority of its programming to these stereotypes.
4. The African-American Community must alter its own cultural direction away from the temptations of empowerment through victimization and the approval of whites through the commercial appeal of stereotypes to the acceptance of individual achievement and success in America. So here we are: the black community needs to come to grips with the future they are purchasing by propelling themselves solely through the power of victimization and stereotype.
Destroying a Clarence Thomas betrays a kind of self-hatred with a terrible cost to the African-American community in the minds of the larger culture, and especially in the minds of their own young people. Embracing, with commercial zeal and intellectual dishonesty, the image of blacks in "How High?" is further self-destruction. Listening to BET comedians endorse and encourage drug use, I can not help put think there are elements of black culture with apparently no understanding of what is happening. By inflicting these wounds on themselves, blacks ultimately reinforce the worst racist attitudes of many Americans, and more importantly, put themselves well beyond the rescue abilities of even the most liberal government.
Reparations most be mentioned here. The notion of financial reparations to the descendents of slaves would be gasoline on the fire of empowerment through victimization. By making the current African-American population the financial beneficiaries of black slavery, the currents of the victimization culture would be super-charged. In short, everything, from racial violence and resentment to more calls for grievance based empowerment- would be expanded exponentially. Such a path cannot be taken by a reasonable society, and black leaders must call the dogs off or they will doom their community to a future of dependence, political extortion and unending hostility. (Look at the changing cultural mood as WTC families are being enriched as a result of their loss.)
I cannot close this essay and not think of Condi Rice, the President's National Security Advisor and General Colin Powell, our Secretary of State. These individuals embody everything that is great about America, and everything great about America's immigrant heritage and civil rights struggle. They are polished, brilliant, kind, tough-minded, independent and, of course, opposed by the majority of African-American leaders. The credentials of both as bona fide "blacks" has been not-so-quietly questioned. Why?
The answer is simple. Powell and Rice, like Thomas, represent a direction for the African-American community that seeks empowerment through participation in the American dream, not empowerment through complaints of exclusion. These two patriots represent a rejection of the stereotypes that have gained approval in the media and the culture. They are standard bearers for a definition of black culture that sees their place in America, not as a curse or a crime, but as a great and mysterious accident of divine providence in history, a providence that brought Africans to this country where they might participate in the greatest civilization ever to take root on this planet, and to not only suffer its worst errors, but be shaped by its highest values, and to ultimately contribute to its brightest future.
When I look at Colin Powell, I truly would like my son to be a black man like him. I would like my daughter to be a black woman like Condi Rice. But more importantly, I would like all children, black and white and brown, to become the embodiment of the human and American virtues I see in those human beings.