At this point, it’s not even worth taking shots at the media over the Rev. Wright affair. It’s too easy. Too obvious. And, most disappointingly, too ineffectual. Put the country’s most uncomfortable topic on the agenda, mix in election season psychosis, and add a controversial black pastor who scorns the press, and reporters’ heads apparently explode. They end up asking questions like: “How do you feel about America and about being an American?” (National Press Club moderator Donna Leinwand to Wright) or “Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?” (George Stephanopoulos to Senator Barack Obama).
There’s intelligent reportage to be done on Wright (brilliant megalomaniacs make for rich profile subjects). But that’s not going to happen any time soon; the press—and the public, too—seem to require a certain amount of distance from racially charged moments in order to make any sense of them. That’s what was truly novel about Obama’s Philadelphia speech: He was able to articulate the present moment, not just rehash the past or rhapsodize about the future.
So, given the current media blackout on reason, I’d recommend checking out a pair of recent pieces that give me hope that once the dust settles, we might learn something from this ruckus.
The first is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s profile of Bill Cosby in the May issue of the Atlantic. The controversy surrounding Cosby’s campaign for black responsibility is well-known but not necessarily well-understood. Coates sifts through the fallout to trace the divergent liberal and conservative intellectual traditions of black America, from their origins to their manifestations today. Along the way, he offers one of the more nuanced and original pieces of analysis on race in America that I’ve seen in print of late.
Part of what drives Cosby’s activism, and reinforces his message, is the rage that lives in all African Americans, a collective feeling of disgrace that borders on self-hatred. As the comedian Chris Rock put it in one of his infamous routines, “Everything white people don’t like about black people, black people really don’t like about black people … It’s like a civil war going on with black people, and it’s two sides—there’s black people and there’s niggas, and niggas have got to go … Boy, I wish they’d let me join the Ku Klux Klan. Shit, I’d do a drive-by from here to Brooklyn.” (Rock stopped performing the routine when he noticed that his white fans were laughing a little too hard.) Liberalism, with its pat logic and focus on structural inequities, offers no balm for this sort of raw pain. Like the people he preaches to, Cosby has grown tired of hanging his head.
Cosby is fond of saying that sacrifices of the ’60s weren’t made so that rappers and young people could repeatedly use the word nigger. But that’s exactly why they were made. After all, chief among all individual rights awarded Americans is the right to be mediocre, crass, and juvenile—in other words, the right to be human. But Cosby is aiming for something superhuman—twice as good, as the elders used to say—and his homily to a hazy black past seems like an effort to redeem something more than the present.
The other article comes from the Chronicle Review and looks back at a controversy more distant: the 1968 Ocean Hill–Brownsville teacher strikes unleashed after white New York City school teachers were delivered pink slips by a newly empowered black school board. What’s interesting here is writer Richard D. Kahlenberg’s diagnosis of the embattled alliances involved and how those fault lines still pervade liberalism today. The Black Power activists on the school board, who were determined to have black teachers teaching black children in a school system dominated by whites, were bolstered by support from the city’s Anglo-Saxon patricians. Meanwhile, unionized teachers (many of them Jewish) drew support from pro-labor whites and a few of Martin Luther King’s black allies. The strikes eventually ended and the union prevailed, but the rift between working class blacks and whites—between civil rights and labor advocates—that was blasted open by the politics of racial preference continues to plague Democrats today, preventing what Dr. King and others saw as a natural and immensely powerful alliance.