Hip-Hop: The Essential American Art Form
Hip-hop has long been a key American art form, but why has it just recently become widely accepted as such? I talk about this with Young Guru at Chicago Ideas Week.
Hip-Hop: The Essential American Art Form
Hip-hop has long been a key American art form, but why has it just recently become widely accepted as such? I talk about this with Young Guru at Chicago Ideas Week.
Sean P. Jackson of the Black Republican Caucus of Florida, MSNBC contributor Touré and NBC’s Katy Tur discuss Donald Trump’s claim that Hillary Clinton started the birther controversy.
Donald Trump is a zombie candidate. He’s still moving but he’s politically dead. He’s damaged himself too much. My friends in cable news don’t want you to think the race is over because the horse race is good for business–this is their peak time!–but I’m sorry, Trumpy is toast. There’s just not enough non college educated white men to elect someone who’s losing among college educated white people and Black people and Hispanic people. But this is only the beginning of Trumpism. It won’t die on Election Day.
A tribe has been found, a leader identified and that leader loves media attention. And he knows how to spew fear and loathing to massive effect. Soon enough there will be a TV network broadcasting Trump’s pronouncements and the paranoid ideas of the kooky conspiracy theory loving far right. I can see it now. “Tonight on Trump. At 8pm it’s Sean Hannity” Is Bill dating Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansen? And did Chelsea have four plastic surgeries to hide who her real father is? We’ll discuss.” At 9pm it’s The Mr. Trump Show: “Hillary is the worst President ever. America regrets not electing me. Everybody says that. Believe me. Someone go tell the Second Amendment folks to go do somethin about it. Heh, heh, heh. Just kidding, folks! But if you kill Hillary I’ll all pay your legal bills. Believe me.” And at 10pm Alex Jones “Is Hillary a person or an alien in human form???” Yeah, you’ll get a little hatred, a little disinformation, a little White Lives Matter. They’ll attack the rest of the media and the rest of the GOP. They’ll air Ann Coulter, Chris Christie, Roger Stone, Duck Dynasty, David Duke, and even Katrina Pierson: “Vietnam was Hillary’s fault!” The nightmare that is the Trump campaign will survive the election and continue haunting us for years to come. Fear the walking dead. (Artwork provided courtesy of Mitch O’Connell/Chicago.)
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Toure interviews Lady Gaga about her writing process, her desire to be famous, her love for Andy Warhol and Madonna, humor in her music, her stance on bullying and homophobia, and more.
Please, I beg you, stop using the bankrupt and meaningless term “post-racial!” There’s no such thing as “post-racial.” There’s no place that fits the description “post-racial America.” There’s no “post-racial era.” It’s a term for a concept that does not exist. There’s no there there.
We are not a nation devoid of racial discrimination nor are we a nation where race does not matter. Race and racism are still critical factors in determining what happens and who gets ahead in America. The election of Barack Obama ushered in this silly term and now that he’s begun running for re-election, I’m here to brusquely escort it out of the party called American English because it’s a con man of a term, selling you a concept that doesn’t exist.
“Post-racial” is a mythical idea that should be as painful to the mind’s ear as fingernails on the chalkboard are to the outer ear. It’s an intellectual Loch Ness monster. It is indeed a monster because it’s dangerous. What people seem to mean by “post-racial” is: nowadays race no longer matters and anyone can accomplish anything because racism is behind us. All of that is false. But widespread use of the term lends credence to the idea that all of that is true—I mean, why would we have a term for an idea that’s not real? In that way the lie becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and thus feeds the notion that it’s O.K. to be somnambulant about race or even aggressively dismissive of it.
Race is like weather — we only talk about it when it’s extreme but it’s always there.
If, as “post-racial” suggests, race no longer matters, then we no longer need to think about race or take the discussion of it seriously. In this way the concept becomes a shield against uncomfortable but necessary discussions allowing people to say or think, “Why are they complaining about racism? We’re post-racial.”
This barrier to conversation is dangerous in a nation where race and racism still matter very much. A place where black unemployment is far higher than white unemployment, where profiling and institutional racism and white privilege and myriad other forms of racism still shape so much of life in America. If we don’t need to discuss race then it’s allowed to fester and grow unchecked like an untreated malignant tumor. Race is an issue every American must care about. It’s not a black issue, it’s everyone’s issue. It’s relevant and important for whites because we all live here together and because the issue hurts everyone. If your neighbor’s house is on fire, or gets foreclosed, you have a problem. If your neighbor’s soul is on fire you have a major problem.
Only through being aware of racial disparities and talking about race can we have any chance of forward movement. Because nowadays there are many white people who are not racist, who are perhaps anti-racist, but who still benefit from white privilege without even meaning to. So you may not be racist but still receiving the spoils of racism. That still doesn’t make you racist. But it makes you part of the system and reveals why it’s also your responsibility to interrogate and examine how our society works and be aware of the biases that keep white supremacy functioning. The term “post-racial” is the enemy of communication, understanding and progress. (“Post-racial” is not at all synonymous with “post-black,” a term from the art world that explains modern black identity and the complexity of being black today and is the guiding force of my book “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?”)
“Post-racial” is just one of several terms that only pervert and distort the discussion of race and give people who wish to disrupt the conversation a place to park their ideas. Others include “race card” and “reverse racism” and “race baiter.” The naïve term “race card” always refers to a black person racializing a situation that the person using the term thinks doesn’t need to be racialized. It’s as if race was not part of the situation, and no one was being black or white, and everybody was being color blind, and whistling sweetly, until a black person came along and ruined everything by pointing out race. But race is like weather—we only talk about it when it’s extreme but it’s always there.
Interestingly, “race card” is never used to signify a white person using race—as they do when they use the term race card thus trying to repudiate or silence discussion of race. I wonder why that is. The ludicrous term “reverse racism” has been around for a long time but has gained new force in this era in which people use the term “post-racial.” It seems to function like some sort of rallying cry. “We no longer need be cowed by your accusations of racism! We have the antidote! We have a concept called reverse racism! Whenever you cry racism we’ll retort reverse racism! Then we don’t have to take you seriously! Muahahaha!”
From a linguistic standpoint the term is meaningless: something is either racist or it’s not. Reverse makes no sense. There’s no stipulation within the definition of racism that it need be white to black. Ultimately this is another term that seeks to replace potentially productive discussions of race with noise. “Race baiter” works in the same way, as an attempt to reject the conversation about race.
I suspect “post-racial” was born benignly from the hope that Obama’s electoral success meant that the racial problems that have long plagued America were over. Kumbaya. Surely Obama’s victory revealed something had changed in America, but it was not a signal that we’d reached the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mountaintop world where race no longer matters and equality has been achieved. During the Obama administration “post-racial” and “race card” and “reverse racism” have run amok like gremlins in the language, obfuscating race and making discussions about it harder. America still has so much work to do regarding race and racism and “post-racial” is only making that work harder to do. That’s why “post-racial” and its cohorts must be stopped posthaste.
Thank you, Touré
If you’re wondering why hip-hop has often been angry, sneering, nihilistic and dystopic, you can blame the war on drugs, and how it feels to be on the wrong side of it.
President Nixon announced a war on drugs, but it was President Reagan who started the modern battle in 1982, when hip-hop was in its infancy. This fight would not only shape the black community but also mold hip-hop, a music and culture whose undercurrent remains black male anger at a nation that declared young black men monsters and abandoned them, killing any chance they had at the American Dream.
As Nas rhymed on the recent song “Triple Beam Dreams”: “I would be Ivy League if America played fair.” Instead, he’s trapped in a virtual prison. “New York is like an island, a big Riker’s Island,” he says in another recent song, “The Don.”
In the early 1980s, most of the socially conscious hiphop records mentioned drugs as one of the many problems affecting black Americans, not the central one. When they did touch on drugs, they were almost always depicted negatively; doing drugs was a character failing, and the songs usually portrayed the speaker as a bystander trapped in a ghetto, observing it, not participating in its ills. They were like griots, storytellers. Take Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” which begins: “Broken glass everywhere!” — a mirroring James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling’s “broken window theory,” which holds that a building with broken windows invites serious crime because it signals neglect. The song offers a litany of societal ills, with drugs being just one of them.
Run-DMC’s 1983 hit “It’s Like That” follows that pattern, discussing inner-city troubles from a bystander’s perspective and focusing on economic woes, not drugs. “Unemployment at a record high,” Run begins, and he and DMC go on to rhyme about dropouts, homelessness and street violence, never overtly mentioning drugs.
Grandmaster Melle Mel’s “White Lines” from 1983 is one of the few early hip-hop songs to deal directly with drugs. Mel focuses on cocaine rather than crack, which was not yet a major problem in American cities. Mel speaks in the first person and breaks the bystander norm, taking on the role of a user, although ultimately as an artistic device rather than truly implicating himself as later MCs would. And he uses the song to implore listeners to avoid cocaine — unlike so many future MCs who would try to make selling and using drugs look sexy.
Hip-hop’s journey between those two mind-sets happened as the unemployment rate among black men soared to twice the level among whites, passing 21 percent in 1983. A year later, the FBI’s antidrug funding increased more than tenfold — just in time for the start of the crack epidemic in 1985. (That’s right, the war on drugs was declared before the crack epidemic began.) The battle helped bolster Reagan’s tough-guy image; he was a valiant hero fighting wild black criminals. “Blame Reagan for makin’ me into a monster,” Jay-Z rhymed on the 2007 song “Blue Magic.” “Blame Oliver North and Iran-contra/ I ran contraband that they sponsored.”
The prevalence of drugs alongside the dearth of jobs made joining the drug trade hard to turn down.It was a road many young black men chose because they lacked better options. Crack, a sort of fast-food version of cocaine, allowed some the chance to earn as much as they would have by owning a McDonald’s franchise, when their only other option was working at one. The crack trade allowed some young men to support their families. In the 2001 song “Renegade,” Jay-Z rhymed about being a young dealer in the 1980s: “My pops left me an orphan/ My momma wasn’t home/ Could not stress to me I wasn’t grown/ Specially on nights I brought something home/ To quiet the stomach rumblings/ My demeanor 30 years my senior/ My childhood didn’t mean much, only raisin’ green up.”
MCs who grew up in the 1980s would brand themselves veterans of the drug trade because drugs dominated their economic possibilities, and those of an entire generation of young black men. But by the end of that decade, hip-hop had been transformed in response to a world filled with crack, rich and ruthless drug lords, militarized police forces, a level of violence not seen in the country since Prohibition, prison sentences as long as basketball scores, and lives ruined by a drug that was insanely addictive.
By the mid-1990s, the U.S. incarceration rate was the highest in the world, damaging or destroying countless black families. Studies show that the number climbed from the 1980s, when less than 500,000 Americans were imprisoned, through the 1990s, when more than 1.5 million were locked up. (Many of those who contributed to the rise were black men ensnared by the war on drugs: In 1995, 16 percent of non-college-educated black men in their 20s were incarcerated, and the percentage rose in the decade that followed.)
Instead of stories from detached bystanders, hip-hop swelled with gruesome first-person accounts of selling, addiction, gangs, guns, the police and prison — from KRS One, Ice-T, Public Enemy, Kool G. Rap, N.W.A. and others. These were tales from the war on drugs. In 1991, De La Soul released “My Brother’s a Basehead,” the true story of rapper Posdnuos’s brother who became a crackhead. The song is a metaphor for how crack invaded the black community. By then, the stories had to be in the first person — the drug was literally in the house.
Hip-hop is the product of a generation in which many black men did not know their fathers. How did these fatherless MCs construct their masculinity? For some, it was by watching and idolizing drug dealers. Many would make it as rappers by packaging themselves as former dealers — either because that is what they were or because that’s who they revered. I’m talking about the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, the Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, the Clipse, Rick Ross and others. By then, it seemed as though an MC needed to claim drug-trade stripes to earn acceptance among hip-hop’s elite.
In her 1999 book “The Color of Crime,” legal scholar Katheryn Russell-Brown speaks of the myth of the “criminalblackman,” coining a new word that smashes together two concepts already linked — incorrectly — in the American consciousness. The criminalblackman is supposedly the source of all crime, proof of the natural connection between race and criminality. She pointed out that, in the 1990s, whites comprised 70 percent of those arrested and 40 percent of the incarcerated, but that white crime did not reverberate outward to say something about the character of all white people. By contrast, black crime suggests something is wrong with the entire race.
Bizarrely, hip-hop embraced this notion. Why?
It’s a classic psychological strategy. As Michelle Alexander writes in her recent book, “The New Jim Crow,” embracing your own stigma is a political act, “an act of resistance and defiance in a society that seeks to demean a group based on an inalterable trait.” These men saw themselves in a nation that assumed they were criminals — so they went with it. As Redman said in his 1998 song “I’ll Bee Dat!”: “If you gotta be a monkey, be a gorilla.”
This strategy also encompasses the challenges, or possibilities, of product marketing. In the 1980s, hip-hop’s primary audience was black, male and urban. In the 1990s, as in this century, young suburban white men were hip-hop’s dominant audience; they bought more of the music than any other demographic.
When its audience was black, hip-hop embraced black nationalism, Afrocentrism and social consciousness; it was rebellious and almost always antidrug. After the audience whitened, many MCs embraced criminality and sold the image of the criminalblackman. Black nationalism was out, embodying drug dealers was in.
Hip-hop could have grown into a challenge to the war on drugs but instead accepted it as a fact of life and told bluesy, or braggadocious, stories about its part in it. In the 2010 smash “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast),” Ross enthusiastically embodies the drug dealer and in the chorus, likens himself to two gigantic drug-world figures: “I think I’m Big Meech! Larry Hoover! Whippin’ work! Hallelujah!”
Eight talking points about the potentially fatal condition of being black.
About a year ago, Charles Ramsey, the chief of police in Philadelphia, was at the bedside of a fallen officer who told him a chilling story. The cop had interrupted a robbery and stopped the suspects, but got shot in the process—a bullet grazed his temple. When Ramsey asked the officer exactly what happened, the cop said he saw the suspect’s gun and, for a split second, thought of Ferguson and the unrest over police killings of people of color. He hesitated, and that’s when he got shot.
Last month, FBI director James Coney argued in a speech at the University of Chicago Law School that criticism of police has led to a change in how cops perform their jobs, and he said that has contributed to a spike in crime. Comey said, “So the suggestion, the question that has been asked of me, is whether these kinds of things are changing police behavior all over the country. And the answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know whether this explains it entirely, but I do have a strong sense that some part of the explanation is a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement over the last year. And that wind is surely changing behavior.”
At first blush, that struck me as bullshit. I refused to believe either part of Comey’s assertion: that officers are policing differently and that that has led to a rise in crime. In reality, crime fluctuates in much more complex ways than that. The idea that the Black Lives Matter’s critiques have made cops more, let’s say, reticent to do their jobs seems to contradict thetough and unrelenting mentality I’ve always associated with police. Even Chief Ramsey questions whether the so-called ” Ferguson effect” is real. “There’s no data to support it, one way or another,” the chief has said.
So I called two officers I know in two major cities who spoke to me anonymously. At first, both said that yes, in fact, the protests and the criticism of policing and the general media firestorm around it has had a significant impact on how officers feel and how they behave.
State of Emergency: Ferguson, Missouri
One of the officers I spoke with is a veteran in a major city and a leader in his department. I asked him if the Ferguson effect was real and right away he said, “Absolutely. It’s in the back of their head,” he added, referring to the protests and the consequences some cops have had to face. “Real cops who are used to doing the right thing and arresting the right people are now mindful of being caught on video doing something that they’re supposed to be doing, but doesn’t look good. That split second of should he do this or not, that could get him hurt.” The officer added that he could see where some cops might view their job as too risky, and police less aggressively as a result. “If you were in a job where you’re being crucified no matter what you do, why would you do it?” the officer said. “We’re going to get paid the same, whether I put my hands on this guy or not. If I put my hands on this guy, I risk my career, I risk all kinda punishments, what’s the point?”
I’m told many officers feel like they’re constantly at risk of being virtually crucified because, they say, they just aren’t supported in this current political environment. To them, cops have to do ugly-looking police work that makes sense in context, but a video that excludes said context is often what goes viral. And then the local mayor and police chief usually side with the victim because that makes good political sense. The officer might then get fired, embarrassed, and maybe even jailed—left out to dry so that #BlackLivesMatter can collect a scalp and a politician can look good by giving it to them.
I spoke with another veteran officer, one who’s working in a mid-sized city and used to be in the military. “In law enforcement,” he said, “when cops feel like the command has their back and they’re supported, they tend to do more. But I think some cops feel like they may be thrown under the bus. They’re waiting to be the one on channel five. They’re like, ‘What do you want me to do? I’m coming to work, I’m trying to do what’s right, if I stop somebody, I automatically got 20 cameras on me, I’m being accused of being racist, especially if I’m white. So you’re asking me to put my life on the line every day and if I make one mistake, I’m going to be all over the news and I’m gonna be fired and my family, my livelihood, everything could be taken away from me in a split second, all over a mistake? Cuz of a mistake I could lose everything.’ I think that does stop people. It makes people pause. When I don’t have support from my command staff, how can I go out and do my job to the fullest of my capacity? I might be the next one on the chopping block! I don’t get paid enough to be bait. I don’t get paid enough to worry about getting indicted. That’s scary. The stronger Black Lives Matter gets as a unit, the more power they take away from the police.”
Still, both officers insisted they have not seen officers shying away from duty. “The guys I work, with we go out and we do what we gotta do,” one of the officers said. I keep hearing this over and over from officers and from people who work with them:
Officers are upset with the lack of political support they’re getting and they feel under assault, but in spite of a very hostile climate, they continue to do their jobs. “It hasn’t slowed us down and I think there are a lot of people like us.”
Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Ciar
The Ferguson effect isn’t real. Phillip Atiba Goff, a UCLA professor who studies policing, echoed that finding in his research. “I was in Chicago recently talking to officers,” Goff told me. “One said, ‘A lot of us are worried that we’re not gonna get union support or department support and we’re going to get fired in order to respond to public criticism.’ I said, ‘OK, but are you not doing your job?’ ‘Oh no, I’m doing my job.’ ‘So you still respond to calls?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘And you’re being proactive in the community?’ ‘Of course, I do that. Oh yeah. It’s harder. We signed up for a really difficult job and I’m not a little boy. I go and do my job and I do it well, but I have to say all the media makes it harder.'”
Goff says the idea that cops are de-policing, or having a work slowdown, is an old one. “This is not the first time a claim like this has been levied against law enforcement. Whenever law enforcement gets criticized in a national lens, this argument comes up. Studies have found no relationship between the concern that law enforcement feels and them not doing their job and that police behavior did not contribute to any uptick in violent crime. This is not a new argument and it’s never been right ever before.”
We need to police the police and the only ones who can truly do that are the people.
Goff pointed to a Harvard study that followed the LAPD as it was monitored by the Department of Justice while under a consent decree.
Officers told researchers that they were afraid to make stops for fear of being punished and that the changes instituted because of the consent decree were impeding their ability to do their job. Some suggested that de-policing might occur. The report found the opposite. “We must ask if the fear of punishment—whether or not connected to the consent decree—is holding the LAPD back from enforcing the law? The answer appears to be an emphatic no. When we turn to the actual use of police powers, we see that the LAPD has been increasing both the quantity and the quality of its enforcement activity. De-policing, in short, does not appear to be a problem in Los Angeles under the consent decree.” Stops per officer increased 39 percent and there was little change in the racial distribution of stops, showing again that even though officers were reacting emotionally to being criticized and asked to change, they still went out and did their jobs.
The officers I spoke with said a lot of cops are stressed and anxious and feeling like they’re trapped in a game they can’t win. The ubiquity of cameras and the strength of Black Lives Matter has increased police accountability and raised the pressure on their already-difficult jobs. Citizens nowadays are more emboldened, they say, more disdainful and more disrespectful. “You have to look at the community and the police as being in a marriage,” one of the officers told me. “But she cheats. I cheat. She doesn’t support me. I come to work and put my life on the line, but i don’t trust her and she don’t trust me. Most of the time we’re around each other it’s on bad terms. And then my parents, the politicians, are takin’ her side and not supporting me.
“So i’m in a marriage where my wife and my parents don’t support me, and my wife is more boisterous than ever because she sees my parents don’t support me,” he continued. “So when I ask her for a meal, she throws food at me! And I can’t leave this marriage. That’s kinda what it feels like to a lot of cops.”
Photo via Flickr user Blind Nomad
It seems natural and understandable that American police officers could be emotionally hurt by the critiques being thrown at them and could be stressed by the extra pressures being put on them. I buy that. But the police cannot be so sensitive that they are beyond criticism. And we see that the men and women who patrol the streets are not as hurt by the criticism as their leaders suggest. In spite of everything, the police are still vigorously policing. They tend to have a deep sense of duty and they know they signed up for a difficult and dangerous job, so making it more challenging does not phase them. But we also need to police the police and the only ones who can truly do that are the people. That is what Black Lives Matter is attempting to do. But if BLM has increased the sense of accountability that’s laid on the police and thus shaved away a bit of their power, then you know power must fight back. And I can’t help but wonder if the FBI director’s comments were meant to make people believe that BLM, not police brutality, is the real problem; that they’re the ones raising the temperature so much that cops are at risk, which puts citizens at risk. In reality, the Ferguson effect appears to be nothing more than ploy to delegitimize BLM and poison their message.
Sometimes white people vex me. Maybe they confuse you, too. Maybe you’re a white person who is sometimes confused by white people. A lot of white people have told me they’re befuddled by the actions and perspectives of other white people. I hear you. What confuses me? I think it’s the utter lack of awareness of how race in America truly functions. In the midst of a national policing crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to will into existence a sense of value for black bodies and some white people respond, “Why are they so anti-white?” That’s dumbfounding to me. I wonder, how could they be so clueless? When white people question why blacks get to say certain words or make certain jokes that whites can’t or when white people ask where is White History Month or when white people question why they have to pay for the racism of their ancestors, it’s offensive and infuriating and it’s also confounding.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’s astounding new book, Between the World and Me, he refers to white people as “dreamers” to evoke the sense of them being not fully awake, like sleepwalkers. I’m not sure if white people are like sleepwalkers, or more like ostriches, consciously burying their heads in the sand, hiding from reality. And that’s exactly what vexes me the most about white people: their reluctance, or unwillingness, to recognize the vast impact their race has on their lives and on the lives of all those around them.
Modern white Americans are one of the most powerful groups of people to ever exist on this planet and yet those very people—or, if you’re white, you people—staunchly believe that the primary victims of modern racism are whites. We see this in poll after poll. A recent one by the Public Religion Research Institutefound 52 percent of whites agreed, “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” A 2011 study led by a Harvard Business School professor went deeper to find that “whites see race as a zero sum game they are losing.” That was even the name of the study.It showed that over the last five decades both blacks and whites think racism against Blacks has been slowly declining, but white people think racism against whites is growing at a fast rate. White people are increasingly certain that they’re being persecuted. The study also notes, “by any metric—employment, police treatment, loan rates, education—stats indicate drastically poorer outcomes for black than white Americans.” White perception and the reality are completely at odds.
Why is it that some white people feel like they are the primary victims of racism? And why do they feel like giving any bit of liberty to black Americans means they are losing something? And why should I be an unpaid armchair psychiatrist interpreting the feelings of white people when I could just ask them? I mean, they’re all over the place and available for study in their natural habitat. So I did my own unscientific poll, asking several white people to help me understand white people. Based off the responses, I found three primary explanations for why so many white folks feel like they are the true victims in America today.
Isn’t Whiteness Less Valuable Now?
For some white people, whiteness seems less economically valuable than it was decades ago. It’s as if white privilege doesn’t take you as far these days in the same way that a dollar doesn’t go as far as it did in your grandpa’s time. Back in the Mad Men-era, if a white man showed up, he got a good job that let him take care of his family. No more, they say. But understanding the reasons behind that are hard. A woman who asked not to be named said, “Being a reasonably hard working white male no longer entitles you to respect or a middle class lifestyle. This has mostly to do with structural economic dynamics including increased competition globally and the decline of unions, but it’s a lot simpler to blame it on the black person or Hispanic person who got the job that you think was supposed to be yours.”
Jon Dariyanani, co-founder of a software start-up called Cognotion, echoed that sentiment. “It’s much easier to believe that the reason the middle class life is slipping away from you is because some lazy group of people are soaking up resources and blocking the way, than to believe that it is caused by globalization and bad macroeconomic policy beyond any individual’s control. ‘Anti-white’ racism relies on an economic anxiety that is almost entirely a fantasy.”
It’s definitely easier to blame a person of color than it is to try to understand how faceless global economic forces have screwed you over. You can’t see global economic forces working, many people don’t understand them, and who specifically are you supposed to blame? Besides, blaming black people is as American as Apple computers.
Is Whiteness Ending?
Throughout American history, white has been the dominant race. That is ending. Demographers say that by 2043 there will be fewer white people than people of color in America. We will become a minority-majority nation. Among children under six, it has already happened—there are more kids of color than white kids. I imagine this impending end could seem frightening.
Tim Wise, anti-racist educator says, “When you’ve had the luxury of presuming yourself to be the norm, the prototype of an American, any change in the demographic and cultural realities in your society will strike you as outsized attacks on your status. You’ve been the king of the hill and never had to share shit with anyone, what is really just an adjustment to a more representative, pluralistic, shared society seems like discrimination. When you’re used to 90 percent or more of the pie, having to settle for only 75 or 70 percent? Oh my God, it’s like the end of the world.” But as white people lose their dominant status, the meaning of whiteness in America will have to change significantly.
What Is Racism?
Some of the white people I talked with feel like many white people lack of a deep understanding of race and racism. Tim Wise said, “Whites are used to thinking of racism as an interpersonal thing, rather than institutional. So we can recall that time we got shitty customer service by a black person, or had some black person make fun of us for something, and we think, ‘we’re the victims of racism now,’ paying no attention to the ongoing systemic imbalance in our favor.” This is in part because the nature of privilege is that you don’t have to think deeply about your privilege if you don’t want to.
Erikka Knuti, a political strategist, said, “Part of white privilege has been the ability to not know that your privilege exists. If you benefit from racism, do you really want to know that?” I can see where it would be uncomfortable for people to admit that their lives are shaped by unearned advantages, especially in an environment where those advantages may be beginning to slip away, but the blindness itself is a part of the problem. White people have duties as part of the American community. They must be honest with themselves and their co-citizens and admit that white privilege shapes a lot of life in this country. They must understand that the truly pernicious, life-defining sort of racism is not interpersonal, it’s institutional. The systems that shape who lives where, who gets educated, who gets jobs, who gets arrested, and so on, these things shape lives, and they are all heavily weighted in white people’s favor. To ignore all of that is to misunderstand America. If white people admit those things, it will be plain that they are not, in any way, victims.
Calling yourself color-blind is not progress—it’s insulting.
I am not urging white people to feel guilty, I’m saying be more honest. As we move toward a nation where white people are less dominant, it will be critical that white people stop being racial ostriches, or sleepwalkers, and deal forthrightly with what it means to be white. Many white people say they have a strong desire to not discuss race because there’s a chance they could make a mistake and end up somehow looking racist. But a lack of discussion about race leads to a lack of sophistication about race.
Sociologists speak of race-averse (homes where race is not discussed) and race-aware households (homes where race is openly discussed). Children who grow up in race-averse homes tend to have a more difficult time dealing with race when they get older because they have less experience wrestling with it in their youth. White people are, by and large, living in race-averse communities that support their desire to not discuss race and thus often ending up struggling with how to deal with this complex, nuanced, emotional subject. This is not progress. Calling yourself color-blind is not progress—it’s insulting. Engaging with race, making serious efforts to understand race, understanding how systems shape our world and how white people consistently benefit from those systems to the detriment of others, and rejecting the backwards notion of white victimhood—that is the path to progress.
It started as so many great ideas do: on a Saturday morning, lying in bed watching SportsCenter, and talking to strangers on Twitter. I don’t think any of this would’ve happened if Twitter hadn’t been invented. So I’m on Twitter and some white person asked something like, “Why do black people always make it about race?” These are the kinds of moments that threaten to ruin my day, enraging me with a sentiment that is as grossly inaccurate as it is clueless: Black people don’t make situations about race—most situations are racialized whether or not someone points it out. And the real point is not whether we choose to acknowledge or ignore the impact of race, but how white privilege defines all aspects of American life.
So I tweeted back: “The problem is not that blacks make everything about race. The problem is that white privilege shapes America.” That, of course, led to people demanding that I define white privilege, which is also infuriating because it basically means I’m being asked to prove it exists.
I could have just told them to read Peggy McIntosh’s famous 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which remains one of the clearest texts on the subject. In it, McIntosh, a white women’s studies professor, lists 50 daily instances in which white privilege impacts her life, including: “I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color;” “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group,” and “If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.” But I didn’t want to send a link only to get back the dreaded tl:dr.
Plus, I felt like being more confrontational. I kept thinking, Shouldn’t these people be explaining this to me? For me to tell white tweeters about their white privilege would be the equivalent of blacksplaining their racial experience. Surely white people must be aware of the ways in which their whiteness helps them, ways that I couldn’t possibly understand unless I painted my face white like Eddie Murphy in that old SNL skit.
On Motherboard: Nathan Drake’s Superpower? White Privilege
Now, I know that part of having privilege is not having to question, or even be aware of that privilege—in that sense, asking a white person to define white privilege is like asking a fish to tell you about water. But I wanted to do it. I wanted to make things awkward, to talk about a subject you’re not supposed to talk about in public forums. I wanted to make people uncomfortable because I wanted them to be real with me, and real with themselves.
So, knowing that I was about to start a shitstorm, I tweeted: “If you’re a white person who’s aware of how white privilege has helped you, can you tweet me about that? Tell us how it’s helped you.”
The first several responses I got were positive, and pretty constructive.
If you’re a white person who’s aware of how white privilege has helped you, can you tweet me about that? Tell us how it’s helped you.
That second one really made me feel like we were living in two completely different worlds. It made me feel like where whiteness conveys so much credibility that even tattoo sleeves and red dreads weren’t enough to stop the power of white privilege when he showed up to work at a venerable blue chip company. Then someone pointed outthe difficulty of actually seeing white privilege, admitting that sometimes people aren’t aware they have it.
If you’re a white person who’s aware of how white privilege has helped you, can you tweet me about that? Tell us how it’s helped you.
People tweeted stories about police leniency, about how their whiteness had helped them out when they needed a business loan. Some said they noticed that their whiteness makes their opinions seem more valuable, that it means no one assumes they are incompetent, that no one questions the legitimacy of their college scholarships. And as the conversation developed, the feed got even more candid.
If you’re a white person who’s aware of how white privilege has helped you, can you tweet me about that? Tell us how it’s helped you.
@Toure where do i begin? my existence is based on the privilege my birthmother had 50 years ago, she had choices black women didn’t have.
One of the most interesting responses came from a user calling himself @Muscogulus, who mentioned that white people speak to each other about their whiteness in code. Yes, someone was actually admitting that white people sometimes speak to each other in a private language meant to perpetuate difference.
Eventually, the feed took a darker, less productive tone.Tons of people were responding, but most were attacking me, and denying the existence of white privilege. People accused me of suggesting that white people don’t work hard, which isn’t true. I don’t think that white people just get handed random stacks of money like they did to “white” Eddie Murphy. I believe that successful white people work hard, but that they are also aided by whiteness—and that these two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive.
This last argument was common, with people attacking the concept by fixating on examples of unsuccessful white people and/or successful black people. But this is silly: Just because someone isn’t able to capitalize on their advantage, doesn’t mean they don’t have it. If you lose after starting the game with a two-touchdown lead on your home field, it doesn’t erase the fact that you started out ahead. Louis CK put it well when he said, “I’m not saying that white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better.”
Still not sure that being white is clearly better? Let’s talk about Tom Brady.
After a while, the conversation devolved into racist smears, so I moved on. But I wanted to go deeper on the subject, beyond Twitter and the weird ways it dictates and messes with our social interactions. Because I loved learning how white people saw white privilege helping them. It was like learning about the hidden rituals of a secret society.
So I cold-emailed and texted my white friends, out-of-the blue. Like, we haven’t talked in a week or six months or whatever, and then, boom, there’s a text from Toure: “Hi. Can you tell me how white privilege has helped your life?” But I had faith my friends could roll with it. Some politely declined to respond, but most of them went deep. Many of them asked to not be named or to be identified by just their first name. And many of them said things that surprised me.
One of my oldest friends, Eddie, whom I’ve known since first grade, spoke of the impact on his self-esteem—a lifetime of watching movies and TV shows in which the hero was white had conditioned him to see himself at the center of the world, to feel efficacious and empowered. “When you go to a movie and there’s a beautiful woman and the person who wins her looks like you—that’s big,” he wrote. “You feel like you fit within the dominant paradigm of what’s desirable and normal. These films are made about your experience. You’re the white guy. They’re made from your perspective. That’s big. That makes you feel central.”
If you lose after starting the game with a two-touchdown lead on your home field, it doesn’t erase the fact that you started out ahead.
Another friend spoke of how whiteness helped him professionally. “I feel like so much of my career has been about people taking chances on me, putting faith in me, etc.,” he told me. “I have had basically four different careers—all really interesting and challenging—and I’ve gotten the chance to transition to each and show what I can do, based on people giving me those opportunities. I’m not blind to the fact that for many non-white people, getting a big break ‘on faith’…is essentially unheard of.”
Linda Tirado, author of Hand To Mouth: Living In Bootstrap America, a book about her life in poverty, said white privilege gives her greater latitude to express herself. “Anger is one of those things we’re culturally more comfortable with if it’s coming from white people,” she said. “I wouldn’t have a career at all if I weren’t white—I’m too angry. I’m allowed to cross more lines.”
The comments made it clear that whiteness conveyed a greater sense of freedom than I had even imagined. The rules are different if you’re white, the boundaries are wider. You can get second and third chances; you can be anti-social, dreadlocked, tattooed, and still get the job. And the results aren’t just limited to opportunity, they also affect the way people feel about themselves.
When you’re white, you don’t have to worry about getting rejected from a sorority because of your race. Watch Black, White, and Greek, VICE’s documentary about segregation at the University of Alabama.
Other people I spoke to pointed to the accumulative advantages of whiteness, not simply in their interpersonal interactions, but the effect that white privilege had over time, allowing families to accumulate wealth over generations and create the types of safety nets that can make life a little easier, letting them start a business, pay for college, buy a home.
“All my success can be attributed to my white privilege,” a lawyer named Kailey told me. “I grew up in an economically unstable household, yet I still attended above-average public schools alongside middle and upper-middle class students. A black family with the same socioeconomic background as my family would be much more likely to live in a community of concentrated poverty, with under-resourced schools and fewer opportunities for social or economic mobility.”
Jeff Smith, a friend and former politician who now teaches policy and advocacy at the New School, expanded on that idea. “I wouldn’t call my family rich, but we are definitely comfortable,” he said, “and that is largely due to the real estate my parents own—a house and an apartment building in affluent sections of town.”
Smith, who served the better part of a year in federal prison and recently published the book Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, added that while his white privilege didn’t stop him from being incarcerated, it helped immensely after his release.
“White privilege was never more important to me than when I came home from prison,” he told me. “I now had a big strike against me in the labor market, one that most don’t recover from. And frankly, it wasn’t easy for me. It’s hard to put a finger on exact moments where this was the case, but I’m quite sure that being white and highly-educated helped make my mistake and prison term less damaging in the eyes of many.”
“It’s like the reverse of the old saw, ‘What do you call a black man with a Harvard MD? ‘N—-r.’” Smith added. “This was more like, ‘What do you call a white ex-con who happens to have a PhD?’ Dr. Smith.”