| After Bush won re-election, many on the white
left went into a self-serving identity crisis. Have we lost touch with
the Christian fundamentalists? And the whole
war thing, maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all, killing them before they
kill us. Howard Dean says he now supports the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and all
but a handful of Democrats in Congress voted for the new war budget.
As far as the liberal intelligentsia goes, Time just named Ann Coulter
one of the “100 Most Influential People,” and then an issue later gave her
the cover (April 25). Coulter is the rabid white woman ranting blithely on
all the rightwing TV talk shows about the evils of civil rights, women’s equality,
environmentalism, and Arab people. She says that “Arabs lie,” “women
are not too bright,” and that desegregating the public schools has led to “illiterate
students knifing one another between acts of sodomy in the stairwell.” The
publisher of her book Slander had to retract five of her many inventions
of fact after the book was initially printed. Time speaks of her as “iconic.”
The U.S. trade deficit keeps growing. It’s now about 6 percent of the GDP,
more than 600 billion per year. The Japanese and the Chinese together own 44
percent of the U.S. foreign debt. The dollar, like everything else about the
society, is greatly overblown and destined to shrink back to its normal size,
as it continues to do every day. The U.S. middle class is the smallest among
the wealthiest nations of the world. Italy and Spain have more middle class
people than does the U.S. Forty percent of the U.S. population lives in poverty,
and the vast majority goes from paycheck to paycheck. The average American
hasn’t seen an increase in their real wages for the past twenty years and owes
$12,000 in credit card debt. The number of long-term unemployed who are college
graduates has tripled since 2000. According to the Los Angeles Times, one in
five of the long-term jobless are college graduates.
A recent survey of U.S. high school students indicates that 80 percent cannot
locate the U.S. on a world map. BC just reported that more than half of all
black students in the U.S. fail to finish high school while close to 80 percent
of whites are issued diplomas; it seems these are the same white students who
can’t find their own country on the map.
Robert Fisk has reported firsthand from Iraq that, in more than two years
of fighting, the U.S. military has been unable to secure even one road outside
of Baghdad. Bush is indeed the worst president in the history of the country,
below even the most mediocre such as Reagan and Bush’s own father. But isn’t
the real question: where did all this mediocrity come from? What’s the root
The way out of mediocrity, as any sports coach will tell you, is competing
against someone better than you. On this note, look at how terrible is the
state of white American athletics. The only good white American athletes today
are in golf, tennis, soccer, hockey, and track and field where the competition
is openly international. And it’s not simply a matter of money, as the Williams
sisters proved incontestably. That’s a red herring. It’s about open international
In the major U.S. national sports that are protected from international competition
such as baseball, football, and basketball – team sports in which white kids
rarely compete directly any more with not-white kids when they’re learning
their skills – there is a shocking dearth of new white talent. For example,
the formerly “smart white” positions, such as catcher, point guard, and quarterback,
have been taken over by Latinos and African Americans, mainly because of resegregation:
the increased protection of whites from not-white competition.
Never competing against anyone other than themselves, whites have produced
a plantation sports entertainment system that is a total bore compared to the
NBA, MLB, and NFL of the 1970s and 80s. In the 70s and 80s the real effects
of desegregation could be felt in every game, between a fourth place Detroit
Tigers team versus a third place New York Yankees squad, for instance. Lightening
fast Ron Leflore leading off for the Tigers, straight from Jackson State Penitentiary,
looking out at an all-African American New York Yankee outfield: Roy White,
Mickey Rivers, and Oscar Gamble. And we need not reminisce about the great
battles between the Bad Boys and MJ, or Kareem and Magic against Bird and McHale.
Nobody will be taken seriously who tries to argue that the NBA today is worth
watching for more than the last five minutes of a game, even in the playoffs.
In popular culture, it’s very different because there’s no way whites can
avoid competition with blacks, and so a lot of country music is really good
and always has been. As we know, Elvis stole his music from black bluesmen
such as Big Boy Crudup. The hit that launched Elvis was “That’s All Right,” a
Crudup original. Musicologist Arnold Shaw notes in his massive history of R & B, Honkers
and Shouters, that “That’s All Right” was Elvis’ first release on Sun
Records “and as close to Big Boy’s phrasing, blue notes, and high tessitura as
he could make it” (p. 33). This direct competition was good for Elvis and it
made him and the flock of other white artists after him, from Creedence Clearwater
Revival down to Elton John and Rod Stewart (each has in common a cover of “That’s
All Right”), step up their game. Of course the black artists they competed
against were robbed of the riches they produced, but the issue here is how
to climb out of mediocrity, not the filthy machinations of racist industry
CEOs and their lawyers, which is a long story fully documented by Shaw in his
Contemporary white rock, whether you prefer it or not, is far from mediocre,
as is white comedy. Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, and Will Ferrell are superb comedians
precisely because they came up in direct competition with black comedians.
In the world of hip hop music and culture, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, the
Wayan brothers, Chris Rock, Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters, and the Kenyan
runners, any white person seeking to make it in these fields has to prove themselves
against superior not-white competition.
The general pattern is that where you have equal, open, non-racial competition
between people, you find a diverse array of talent and great parity between
opponents. No dynasties and no wretched stinkers, just healthy competition
as in the NHL, the World Cup or the U.S. Open in golf and tennis. Is that why
they cancelled the NHL season? They must have been setting a bad example for
U.S. workers. Moreover, notice the increase in black NHL players. Contrary
to popular opinion, there have been few blacks in the NHL not necessarily because
of white racism but because the black communities in Canada are tiny. (The
black population of Canada is around 660,000, less than 1 percent of its total
population.) The same cannot be said for all-white NASCAR or professional bowling,
the two most ridiculous excuses for sports entertainment on the market.
The worst mediocrity in U.S. society is labor consciousness. Despite increasing
our labor productivity by 82 percent over the last decade, our wages have gone
up just 9 percent. All this wealth was transferred directly to the top one
percent of the population, which currently owns and controls 40 percent of
it and is ready to loot $1.5 trillion from the Social Security Trust Fund.
Yet there have been no great strikes and no major political confrontations
in the U.S. between labor and capital. These facts need to be looked at in
the context of white male protectionism, studies that are done only by African
American intellectuals. The white radicals are completely lost on the question
of U.S. mediocrity. Typically they confuse symptoms for the origin: for example,
when they say that poor whites are morons and therefore they merely re-elected
a moron like themselves. But if poor whites really are morons, what has made
them this way?
By fighting against desegregation and the civil rights agenda, white workers
have been working hard for their own pungent mediocrity and bland homogeneity.
People talk about “the politics of fear,” but the real fear is not Muslim terrorists.
The real fear is an old fear, the mother of all U.S. fears: that whites will
one day have to compete against equal or in many cases superior opponents,
namely black folks, who have been competing intensely and without protection
for the past 300 years against everyone in the entire world. Just take Tiger
Woods: what nationality hasn’t he defeated already? Who will be next?
Often this fact is born out best in one of the most advanced forms of individual
competition, the construction of a novel. Ishmael Reed wrote once that “writing
is fighting,” and he had in mind this concept of a healthy multiethnic U.S.
competition among working people. In fact, it was Reed who coined the term “multiculturalism” back
in the 1960s, although hardly anyone ever credits him for this advance in human
thought. And more than any other U.S. writer, it has been Reed who keeps excavating
the root of the U.S. mediocrity problem.
For example, he says sharply in his novel Japanese by Spring (1993),
through the character of Professor Chappie Puttbutt, that “No matter how high
a white may rise in this society’s intellectual circles, with few exceptions
they’re still monolingual and culturally restricted crackers” (p. 108). Later
in the novel, Reed puts it more geopolitically, and prophetically, through
the Japanese nationalist Dr. Yamato:
“No wonder they’re behind in every important field. Biotechnology. Superconductivity.
Robotics. Microchips. That Hobble telescope. Sent it up without even checking
it. No wonder you Americans are so dependent. The world’s largest debtor nation.
Obsessed with a welfare mentality. Your products are shoddy… We Japanese are
tired of keeping you afloat. Backing your treasury bills… And now you’ve gone
into the gunslinging business again… One day, you’ll engage a small nation
with a generation of weapons superior to yours, and then your cities will be
under attack. After all, in your Westerns, the gunslinger is always bested,
ultimately, by an upstart” (pp. 143-4).
Perhaps the most gripping moment of Reed’s novel is when his plot forces Dr.
Crabtree, a PhD in the Western classics, to either learn Yoruba or retire from
the profession. Dr. Crabtree opts to keep his job. Here’s Crabtree reflecting
on the experience to a room full of angry colleagues who were challenged in
a similar fashion:
“Thank you for opening my head. I thought that it was dead. But you know,
it wasn’t dead. I was starving it. I was depriving it of intellectual nutrition.
I needed a new head on. We can always learn something. We don’t have to stop
learning… It was my stupid arrogance, my devotion to these standards that we’re
always talking about that prevented me from embarking on this wonderful adventure.
Learning this new language. Discovering Yoruba. I haven’t had so much fun since
I learned how to play poker. I have learned a language that transports me to
a culture that’s two thousand years old. Have they ever produced a Tolstoy?
They have produced Tolstoys. Have they produced a Homer. They have produced
hundreds of Homers. We were just too arrogant to find out. We’re always condemning
rednecks, but do you know who the real rednecks are, gentlemen? We are. Not
the people who drive the pickup trucks and listen to Hank Williams. We should
be the ones to lead our students and our country to new intellectual frontiers.
Instead, we’re like the archaic Dixiecrats of the old South, but instead of
yelling segregation forever, we’re yelling Western culture forever” (p.
Reed writes what he calls “neo-hoodooo aesthetics,” and his novels are among
the best that U.S. literature has to offer the world. In closing, I want to
draw attention to the importance of African American imaginative writers who
are frequently left out of the great public debates of our times such as this
new one, termed by the economist Robert Pollin “the contours of descent,” a
reference to the pathetic U.S. economy.
In the 1980s, August Wilson saved Broadway from empty theater mediocrity.
In the 1970s, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Gayl Jones staved off U.S.
women’s writing from the offensive launched by reactionary feminism. They showed
compellingly in their fiction that women do just as much damage to each other
as men do to them, that it’s time to face this reality and change it. Read
Morrison’s brilliant essay “Cinderella’s Stepsisters” for the theory. Morrison
also single handedly rejuvenated the study of American literature by advancing
the thesis in Playing in the Dark that the “Africanist presence” in
the U.S. tradition is what brings to life otherwise insipid stories no one
would ever read. In the 1960s, Amiri Baraka rescued U.S. poetry from the lifeless
pentameter and stale imagism; the beatniks are impossible without his jazz
aesthetic. In the 1950s, James Baldwin put U.S. writers on the world stage;
it wasn’t Saul Bellow. In the 1940s, Richard Wright gave the U.S. a new name
in epic literature.
In the 1930s, which is where the U.S. economy today appears headed, Langston
Hughes made the African American folk tradition an internationally beloved
and widely emulated form of expression. When he would travel to Latin America
and the Caribbean, everyday people on the street recited famous Hughes poems
back to him. In Mexico, the muralists worshipped the ground he walked on. The
Soviet Union invited him to make a blockbuster movie about race in the U.S.
Cuba’s national poet Nicolás Guillén credited Hughes with inspiring
his immersion in black Cuban music and dance culture, and a few years later
Hughes translated Guillén’s best poems into English in a volume entitled Cuba
Libre. In the 1920s, Dr. DuBois contradicted once and for all the myth
that the U.S. could never produce a Marx or a Freud. The Souls of Black
Folk remains the fulcrum of U.S. sociology and his concept of “double
consciousness” is one of the greatest contributions to modern thought. Wasn’t
it Walter Mosley who revived the detective novel, which was starting to lose
its rebelliousness? How can you be a white man and an outsider at the same
The bringers of doom and gloom want us to believe that people have stopped
reading, so why pay attention to writers any more? This could be one of the
most reactionary arguments being made today. More than anything, we need to
raise our writers to prominence again. For example, people have stopped buying
poetry, you can’t give it away, except the dead white alcoholic Charles Bukowski.
He still sells. But people used to read poetry. Look at Dudley Randall’s Broadside
Press in Detroit. They once published millions of poetry books. But then Baraka
and the other leading innovators were isolated and charged with “black racism” and
anti-Semitism. Today Baraka is read widely all over Europe but not in the U.S.
Also, we need to remind white American radicals that they wouldn’t exist today
had it not been for African American writers. Do they imagine they can avoid
falling into the pit of U.S. mediocrity without studying systematically the
work of black intellectuals? We’ll find out soon enough, for the race to the
bottom is reaching the finish line.
Jonathan Scott is an Assistant Professor of English at the City University
of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College. He can be reached at [email protected].