article was first published in the Winter edition of ColorLines
magazine, now on newsstands.
historical foes of Black America are engaged in a new and multi-layered
strategy to subvert the general political consensus that has prevailed
among Blacks since the dramatic death rattles of official Jim Crow,
in the mid and late Sixties. Begun in earnest only a few years ago,
this heavily-funded, media-driven campaign seeks to undermine existing
African American political structures by creating the appearance
of deep class and age divisions within the Black body-politic.
Hard Right's New Black Strategy is, essentially, an enterprise of
subversion and stealth. Its immediate goal is to shatter the remarkable
degree of public unity around core issues that has evolved among
all significant demographic cohorts of African Americans. Blacks
remain the bulwark of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party,
and the only ethnic group that can be counted on to oppose
the Right agenda as a near-solid bloc.
Right's aim is to subvert, not convert, Black America. Ample funds
have been made available to create confusion as was evident during
the past year's electoral contests in New Jersey, Alabama, and Georgia.
Corporate interests poured $2.8 million into Cory Booker's attempt
to unseat Newark's Sharpe James, outspending the mayor by half a
million dollars. The same network, supplemented by a furious assault
from pro-Israel lobby groups, knocked out Representatives Earl Hilliard
and Cynthia McKinney. In all three races, corporate media were actively
allied with corporate cash, providing millions of dollars in free,
shamelessly partisan coverage.
are everything in this game of images and impressions. Any and all
divisions among Blacks - real or imagined, perceptual or concrete
- are described as fundamental, and immediately exhibited as proof
of the dissolution of the Black Consensus. Two easily flattered
cohorts have been targeted by this most cynical strategy: the Black
"middle class," very loosely defined so as to encompass
all who are anxious to believe they are members; and Black youth,
also ambiguously described as the hip-hop generation.
media, both groups are artificially pitted against an equally amorphous
cohort, the Civil Rights Generation(s), defenders of an "irrelevant"
and "out-dated" Civil Rights Agenda - which turns out
to be very much like the actual Black Consensus on a broad range
of unfinished political business.
Hard Right's New Black Strategy holds special dangers for young
African Americans, the most media-dependent generation in human
six and a half years, beginning in August 1986, I owned and hosted
"Rap It Up," the first nationally syndicated hip-hop music
show, broadcast on 66 commercial radio stations.
any other host, my mission was to add value to my program's product
- the performers and their records - for consumption by the listening
audience. These consumers were also my product, since I gathered,
counted and sold them to the advertisers who paid the bills, mainly
record companies. That's how commercial radio and television work;
both the audiences and the performers are products, commodities
for commercial trade.
hosts attempt to add value to their performers and flatter their
audiences. We tell audiences how smart and hip they are, and we
interpret and embellish the utterances of performers so as to give
their words the appearance of weight, enduring meaning, intrinsic
I proclaimed that each rapper's attempt at serious social commentary
was deeply profound: MC So and So is "droppin' science!"
the syndication moved into the 90s, I grew concerned at the deepening
strangeness of the hip-hop milieu: an excess of young entertainers
with delusions of grandeur; too many fans who seemed to think that
they were the artists; kids whose freestyle rhymes consisted mainly
of stringing one brand name after the other.
America's hip-hop generation has been convinced by the social engineers
of market capitalism that they are a very special and unique demographic
- and who would disagree? Youth are, of course, precious to humanity
in every epoch. Their value is inarguable, as repositories of the
future, and as the most active elements of any society.
communities are particularly dependent on their young people - who
else will achieve all those murdered dreams? But, what happens when
a generation of the oppressed is disconnected from its immediate
past and left to the tender mercies of its direct enemies? This
is the prospect facing the Black hip-hop generation, many of whom
have been rendered politically impotent through an enthusiastic
embrace of their own commodification.
is a death-grip that threatens to fracture the community's political
coherence. Bombarded by blandishments from merchandisers, flush
with illusions of power based solely on market status, Black youth
have become vulnerable to political appeals from anyone offering
attention and flattery.
critic Mark Crispin, among a raft of experts featured in the February
2001 PBS Frontline program "The Merchants of Cool," described
today's mass marketing machinery this way: "It closely studies
the young, keeps them under very tight surveillance, to figure out
what will push their buttons. Then it takes that and blares it back
at them relentlessly and everywhere."
Cunningham, a young Black man with the title of Senior VP for Brand
Strategy andPlanning at MTV, agreed that the "current generation
[of youth] is history's 'most marketed-to.'" This is bad news
for Americans of every ethnicity, but young Blacks, on the strength
of their world-rocking cultural inventiveness, have earned the cruelest
distinction. As the universally recognized "cutting edge"
demographic of popular American youth culture, Blacks are wooed
in qualitatively different ways than the general youth population.
White youth emulate Blacks - a marketing fact. It can be argued
that world youth emulate African Americans. Marketers ply
Black youth with messages for gear, liquors, beverages, and other
lifestyle products, in hopes of launching a general market trend.
In many product categories, far more attention is focused on the
Black youth market than is justified by the group's spending power,
which is significantly less than that of whites of similar age.
Marketers are investing in crossover effects with worldwide potential.
intimate courtship of Black youth involves every form of flattery
that the corporate marketing mind can devise. Like no previous age/race
cohort, a large chunk of the hip-hop generation has been made to
believe that they need do nothing to merit attention and praise;
simply being part of their age and ethnic group - the hyper-valued
demographic - is enough. Corporate marketers have relentlessly taught
them so. Thus, Black youth embrace their own commodification, basking
under the corporate marketer's loving gaze, believing themselves
to be a powerful, autonomous force.
truth, they possess only the power to buy, and to influence others
to buy. They have achieved a certain market status - not
the Right and its network of funders, armed with their New Black
Strategy. This media-driven offensive is radically different from
the Right's previous attempts to influence African American opinion:
Right's] Black-related activities were largely limited to funding
compliant African American academics, and to subsidizing single-person
front organizations such as Ward Connerly's California operations
and Robert Woodson's Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Attempts
to legitimize Black Republican vehicles such as the Center for New
Black Leadership proved ineffective among the Black populace at-large."
of the Poisoned Tree, April 5.)
Bradley Foundation, of Milwaukee, author of much of the national
Republican Party's social program, hatched a new game plan, deployed
with devastating effect in 2001- 02. Rather than continue to tinker
on the peripheries of the Black body-politic, the Right would cultivate
and bankroll nominal Democrats as stealth candidates for office.
Win or lose, the votes garnered by these mercenaries would be interpreted
as proof that the Black Consensus is crumbling.
year's Trojan Horse trio were Cory Booker, unsuccessful candidate
for Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and triumphant congressional candidates
Arthur Davis, in Alabama, and Denise Majette, in Georgia. Hard Right
money made them viable challengers; the corporate media provided
the post-mortem: the Black Consensus is dead. African American politicians
and organizations no longer "represent" Black opinion.
media made a fetish of supposed Black middle class disgruntlement
in the Alabama and Georgia contests, while alienated African American
youth were trumpeted as regime-changers in Newark. Booker, a 33
year-old Harvard-trained lawyer and first-term councilman, raised
in an overwhelmingly white suburb, represented a "new generation"
that would wrench control from "civil-rights oriented"
and "machine" politicians like 66 year-old Mayor Sharpe
became the national poster boy for a general Black political house
cleaning, one that would sweep away aging officeholders and "out-dated"
ideas. Reactionary columnist-prince George F. Will proclaimed that
Booker got his ideas from white conservatives, whom Will
proudly listed. No matter. Booker was declared authentic, a genuine
expression of youthful Black aspirations. Corporate media gave hardly
an inch of exposure to the candidate's well documented ties to the
Bradley Foundation's political network, the machine that enabled
Booker to vastly outspend a four term incumbent, the most influential
Black politician in the history of the state.
Right's young front man nearly won, without having to articulate
a single issue of substance. In the last weeks of the campaign,
he polled well among younger "likely voters" in the majority-Black
city, pulling even with Mayor James. In the real world, that meant
a 53-46 percent victory for the James camp; younger voters didn't
show up on Election Day. Sharpe James won every Black ward, including
Right and its media allies proclaimed victory, anyway. They had
succeeded in creating the public perception of fundamental divisions
among Blacks along generational lines. They had manufactured a political
"fact." Although the media itself had cleansed the campaign
of all issues except age, their "experts" and analysts
filled in the blanks: Black youth are chafing under an older generation's
rule, they are "independent" and "pragmatic,"
and reject the "civil rights" agenda.
Bradley-scripted dictum became received wisdom, the gospel according
class African Americans are, on the whole, less vulnerable to corporate
propaganda. It is they who created and control the "civil rights-oriented"
organizations that shaped the battered Black Consensus. They will
not readily abandon the "major core issues" identified
by Harvard political scientist Martin Kilson: "racist practices
in housing, job markets, income/wealth patterns, educational opportunities,
health patterns, and the criminal justice system." Affirmative
action, a key element of the Black Consensus, is an essential factor
in Black middle class mobility. Trojan Horse candidate Denise Majette
rode a white wave to victory over Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney
in Dekalb County, Georgia, this summer, but she picked up less than
20 percent of the largely middle class Black vote.
the hip-hop generation is not so well-grounded; critical thinking
is the corporate marketer's first victim. It should be expected
that slickly packaged, flattering lies would resonate most effectively
among the "cutting edge" component of the "most marketed-to"
Booker, whose political allegiances are antithetical to the interests
of Black youth, remains a popular figure among a number of self-styled
hip-hop generation journalists. One of these writers will serve
as my straw man.
Kitwana is a former political editor of The Source magazine
and author of The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis
in African-American Culture. In an interview with Salon.com,
Kitwana was asked to explain the political differences that he believes
cleave the generations.
people in our generation, if they're working class and have a job,
are probably living with their parents. That is a dramatic difference
between this generation and the previous generation. The older generation
has not taken enough time to try to understand what's unique about
the hip-hop generation," Kitwana said.
previous generations, you could have a working class, low-skilled
job without a college degree and you could still buy a house, go
on vacation, and own a new car. For our generation that is not true.
If you don't have a college degree, your job prospects are low.
You can get a minimum wage gig with no benefits and an income that
will be below the poverty level, you can join the military, or you
can get yourself a gig in the underground economy."
is not a single honest, socially conscious Black person who does
not know that employment security is eroding; that young people
are entering the work force at low wages; that housing costs are
becoming prohibitive; that benefits are disappearing; that the underground
economy is expanding. Note that Kitwana's list of problems plaguing
youth falls entirely within the "major issues" outlined
by Dr. Martin Kilson, the 72 year-old Harvard political scientist.
key phrase in Kitwana's complaint asks the listener to contemplate
"what's unique about the hip-hop generation." Over and
over again, self-identified members of this generation return to
the subject of their uniqueness, like a mantra that contains
some over-arching truth, some self-evident meaning that demands
the attention of others.
role would Kitwana assign the civil rights generation, as the elders
make way for this "unique" demographic cohort?
you look at the '60s generation, young national political groups
like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Black
Panthers were helped in some way in terms of getting resources in
order to create those organizations. Whether it was entertainment
figures financing those groups or the older generation groups. The
Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for example, was very
effective in helping to get SNCC off the ground."
author and purported intellect of his generation, insults and utterly
mangles his own people's history without a qualm. Believing he has
said something factual and profound, Kitwana demands that others
tithe his generation so that they might assume their rightful places
the Right is listening, and they certainly are, checks will soon
be in the mail. This is the kind of "alternative" Black
leadership they can live with - disconnected, self-absorbed, and
disdainful of the race and its legacies.
will end with an assessment from MTV's Todd Cunningham, who speaks
with great affection for the "most marketed-to" generation:
understand the way brands are built. They understand the arc that
a brand goes in terms of its lifespan, of huge popularity to dying
out or regenerating itself into something else."
and too many of his peers see themselves as a kind of premium brand,
rising inexorably on an arc to power. The older brands are dying
out. That's all they think they need to know.