The Trouble With Friendship / Edition 1

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In this lively book, a well-known social critic draws on evidence from movies, TV, literature, and advertising to argue that many Americans have been lulled by the media into believing that racial problems can be substantially mitigated, even vanquished, by blacks and whites working together, one on one, to reconcile their differences. Benjamin DeMott believes that this position of "friendship orthodoxy" oversimplifies the causes of racism and allows us to ignore the harsh socioeconomic realities faced by many blacks in this country.

"A fresh, witty and pertinent essay on race in America. . . . DeMott advances his simple yet subtle argument in graceful, nuanced writing."-Edward T. Chase, Nation

"DeMott draws carefully and intelligently from the well of cultural evidence and delivers the boldest contribution to America's ongoing racial dialogue to come along in years."-Quinn Eli, Philadelphia Inquirer

"A refreshingly original assessment of the state of black-white relationships in the United States."-George M. Fredrickson, New York Review of Books

"DeMott argues his case persuasively in this important book, a clarion call to those still willing to consider the lessons of history before TV and advertising erase them completely."-Kirkus Reviews

"Critical reading for anyone interested in the intersections of culture, race, and policy."-Kristal Brent Zook, LA Weekly

"A uniquely fine book . . . on race relations in America. . . . A powerfully crafted call for a revolution in the way we see ourselves."-Courtland Milloy, Quarterly Black Review of Books

DeMott examines a stunning range of cultural evidence--from the oratory of politicians to popular cinema and television to scapegoated welfare mothers to some of today's most respected thinkers--to lay bare the assumptions of "friendship orthodoxy, " which maintains that racial problems can be solved simply by blacks and whites working together, one on one, to reconcile differences.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Social critic DeMott (The Imperial Middle) offers a salutary deconstruction of ``friendship orthodoxy''-the new theme of black-white commonality that, he says, prevails in pop culture and revisionist thinking and hampers moves toward racial justice. DeMott's take on ad campaigns, sitcoms, movies such as White Men Can't Jump and such authors as Studs Terkel (who calls for ``affirmative civility'') is devastating. Then he cites research comparing the U.S. to other ``caste-like'' societies and declares that caste remains-especially for poor blacks. Worse, ``nonscholarly cultural production'' has served to erase history, he states, criticizing Roots and the PBS series The Civil War for ignoring the lasting effects of slavery. Though society embraces the palliative words of such black neoconservatives as Shelby Steele, we ignore the fact that their messages of individual pride also acknowledge the need to help the poor. Thus, in a brave and potent challenge to orthodoxy, DeMott calls on the majority society to recognize its responsibilities and to endorse ``broadscale programs of development'' for blacks. (Jan.)
Library Journal
A top social critic argues that bringing blacks and whites together is not enough. Excerpted in Harper's September issue.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300073942
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/1998
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Trouble with Friendship

Why Americans Cant Think Straight about Race
By Benjamin DeMott

Yale University Press

Copyright © 1998 Benjamin DeMott
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780300073942

Chapter One

Visions of Black-White Friendship

At the heart of today's thinking. about race lies one relatively simple idea: the race situation in America is governed by the state of personal relations between blacks and whites. Belief in the importance of personal relations reflects traits of national character such as gregariousness, openness, down-to-earthness. It also reflects American confidence that disputes can be trusted to resolve themselves if the parties consent to sit down together in the spirit of good fellowship--break brad, talk things out, learn what makes the other side tick.

But there"s rather more to faith in black-white friendship than off-the-rack Rotarianism. There are convictions about the underlying sameness of black and white ways of thinking and valuing, and about the fundamental. causes of racial inequity and injustice, and about the reasons why the idea of addressing race problems through political or governmental moves belongs to time past.

One leading assumption is that blacks and whites think and feel similarly because of their common humanity. (Right responsiveness toracial otherness and full access to black experience therefore require of whites only that they listen attentively to their inner voice.) Another assumption is that differences of power and status between whites and blacks flow from personal animosity between the races--from "racism"' as traditionally defined. (White friendship and sympathy for blacks therefore diminishes power differentials as well as ill feeling, helping to produce equality.) Still another assumption is that bureaucratic initiatives meant to "help" blacks merely prolong the influence of yesteryear. (The advent of good interpersonal feeling between blacks and whites, on the other hand, lessens yesteryear's dependency.

Each of these closely related assumptions surfaces regularly in print media treatment of the friendship theme-material promoting interracial amity and weaving together concern for "the disadvantaged" and the "underclass," anecdotal evidence of the mutual affection of blacks and whites, and implicit or explicit disparagement of politics and politicians. And traces of the same assumptions appear in fraternal gestures favored by campaigning political candidates.

White candidates attend services at black churches, socialize at black colleges, play games with blacks (as when, during Campaign '92, Jerry Brown took gang leaders rafting). And candidates speak out in favor of black-white friendships, venturing that such ties could be the answer to race riots. On the second day of the Los Angeles riots, Candidate Clinton declared: White Americans are gripped by the isolation of their own experience. Too many still simply have no friends of other races and do not know any differently."

But fantasies about black-white friendship are dramatized most compellingly for large audiences in images. Movies, TV, and ads spare us abstract generalizing about the isolation of the races. They're funny and breezy. At times, as in Natural Born Killers, they deliver the news of friendship and sympathy in contexts of violence and amorality. At times they deliver that news through happy faces, loving gestures, memorable one-liners. Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump loses his beloved best buddy, a black (Mykelti Williamson), in combat and thereafter devotes years to honoring a pledge made to the departed (Forrest Gump, 1994). A rich. white lady (Jessica Tandy) turns to her poor black chauffeur (Morgan Freeman) and declares touchingly: "Hoke, you're my best friend" (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989). Michael Jackson pours his heart into a race-dismissing refrain: "It doan matter if you're black or white" (1991). Scene and action hammer home the message of interracial sameness; mass audiences see individuals of different color behaving identically, sometimes looking alike, almost invariably discovering, through one-on-one encounter, that they need or delight in or love each other.

Item: The black actor Danny Glover sits on the John in Lethal Weapon, trousers around his ankles, unaware of a bomb ticking in the bowl; Danny's white buddy, Mel Gibson, breezily at home in Danny's house, saves his life by springing him from the throne to the tub.

Item: A commercial set in a gym finds two jock-sidekicks, one black, one white--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Bird--chummily chaffing each other. Kareem bets Larry that he can't eat just one Lay's potato chip. The little devils are too tasty. Kareem wins the bet and the old cronies exit together, clever camera work and a makeup cap on Larry's head redoing them into interchangeable, dome-headed twins.

Item: The Tonight Show re-creates itself in the image of interracial bonhomie, replacing a white band with a black band, encouraging chat between white host and black second banana music director, and casually alluding to hitherto unpublicized black-white associations. (Jay Leno to Branford Marsalis: "I toured with Miles Davis.")

Item: Pulp Fiction (1994) draws together three sickeningly violent narratives by means of an overarching theme of sacrifice--blacks and whites risking all for each other. At the pivotal crisis, luck offers a white, mob-doomed prizefighter (Bruce Willis) a chance to escape; the black mobster (Ving Rhames) who's after him, is himself entrapped--raped and tortured, within Willis"s hearing, by two white perverts. Spurning self-interest, Willis risks his life and saves the mobster. (The rescued black closes the racial gap in a phrase: "There's no more you and me."

A key, early contribution to the mythology of black-white friendship was that of The Cosby Show. Without actually portraying blacks and whites interacting, and without preaching directly on the subject, this sitcom lent strong support to the view that white friendship and sympathy could create sameness, equality, and interchangeability between the races. Under the show's aegis an unwritten, unspoken,felt understanding came alive, buffering the force both of black bitterness and resentment toward whites and of white bitterness and resentment toward blacks. Race problems belong to the passing moment. Race problems do not involve group interests and conflicts developed over centuries. Race problems are being smoothed into nothingness, gradually, inexorably, by goodwill, affection, points of light.

The Cosby family's cheerful at-homeness in the lives of the comfortably placed middle class, together with the fond loyalty of their huge audience, confirmed both the healing power of fellow feeling and the nation's presumably irreversible evolution--as blacks rise from the socioeconomic bottom through the working poor to the middle class--toward color blindness. In the years before the show, black-white themes, in film as well as TV, had passed through several stages of development. One of a half-dozen milestones was the introduction, in The Jeffersons, of the first blacks to achieve middle-class affluence via entrepreneurship. Another milestone was the introduction, by adoption, of charming black children into white families--as in Webster and Different Strokes. (The "white foster parents," wrote Jannette Dates, could then socialize the youngsters into the 'real' American way."

And in the wake of the success of The Cosby Show, the eradication of race difference by friendship became an ever more familiar on-camera subject. Closeness between the races ceased to be a phenomenon registered indirectly, in surveys documenting the positive reaction of white audiences to the Huxtables; it moved to the center of mass entertainment. Everywhere in the visual media, black and white friendship in the here and now was seen erasing the color line. Interracial intimacy became a staple of mass entertainment story structures.

Consider White Men Can't Jump (1992), a movie about a white quester--a dropout eking a living on basketball courts in Los Angeles--surviving, with black help, on ghetto turf. Working first as a solitary, the young white hustles black ballplayers on their own turf, trading insults with blacks far more powerful, physically, than himself. He chides black athletes to their faces for being showboats, concerned about looking good, not about winning. He flashes rolls of bills and is never mugged. Accompanied only by his girlfriend, he walks the most dangerous ghetto streets at night, once making his way uninvited into an apartment filled with black ballplayers. He mocks black musical performers to their faces in a park, describing the hymns they sing as "shit." That an arrogant, aggressive, white wiseass can do all this and more and emerge unscathed means partly that his behavior is protected under the laws of comedy.

But the armor that counts more, here as in numberless black-white friendship tales, is provided by the black buddy. The acquaintance of white Billy Hoyle (Woody Harrelson) and bla-ck Sidney Deane (Wesley Snipes) begins badly: each hoaxes the other. Later they communicate through taunts. Black taunts white for incapacity to appreciate the black musicians whom white claims to admire. "Sure, you can listen to Jimi [Hendrix]. Just, you'll never hear him." Black taunts white for dreaming that he can slam-dunk: White men can't jump." Black mockingly offers technical aid to white: pumping up his Air Jordans for dream-flight. White jabs back hard, charging black with exhibitionism and sex obsession.

Yet the two make it as friends, form a team, work their scams in harmony. More than once the buddies save each other's tails, as when a black ballplayer whom they cheat turns violent, threatening to gun them down. (The two make a screaming getaway in the white quester's vintage ragtop.) And the movie's climax fulfills the equation--through sympathy to sameness and interchangeability. During a citywide, high-stakes, two-on-two tournament, Billy, flying above the hoop like a stereotypical black player, scores the winning basket on an alley-oop from his black chum, whereupon the races fall into each other's arms in yelping, mutual, embracing joy. Cut to the finale that seals the theme of mutual need and interdependency; black Sidney agrees to find quasi-honest work for white Billy at the floor-covering "store" that he manages:

BILLY (helpless): I gotta get a job. Can you give me a job?

SIDNEY (affectionately teasing): Got any references?

BILLY (shy grin): You.

Like many if not most mass entertainments, White Men Can't Jump is a vehicle of wish fulfillment. What's wished for and gained is a land where whites are unafraid of blacks, where blacks ask for and need nothing from whites (whites are the needy ones; blacks generously provide them with jobs), and where the revealed sameness of the races creates shared ecstatic highs. The precise details of the dream matter less than the force that makes it come true for both races, eliminating the constraints of objective reality and redistributing resources, status) and capabilities. That force is remote from political and economic policy and reform; it is, quite simply, personal friendship.

Another pop breeding ground of delusion is the story structure that pairs rich whites and poor blacks in friendship--as in Regarding Henry (1 99 1), a Mike Nichols film about a white corporation lawyer and a black physical therapist. The two men meet following a holdup during which a gunman's stray buffet wounds the lawyer, Henry Turner (Harrison Ford), in the head, causing loss of speech, memory, and physical coordination. The therapist, Bradley (Bill Nunn), labors successfully at recovering Henry's faculties.

In outline, Regarding Henry--a video store hit--is a tale of moral transformation. Henry Turner is a corporate Scrooge who earns a fortune defending insurance companies against just suits brought by the injured and impecunious. Between the time of the gunshot wound and his return to his law firm, he experiences a change of heart--awakens to the meanness and corruption of his legal work and begins a movement toward personal reform. The sole influence on this transformation is Bradley, who shows the lawyer a persuasive example of selfless concern for others.

Bradley is called upon, subsequently, to give further guidance. Back in his luxo apartment and offices, Henry Turner, aware finally of the amoral selfishness of his professional life and of his behavior as husband and father, sags into depression--refuses to leave his bed. His Wife, Sarah (Annette Bening), summons the black therapist, the only man Henry respects. Over beer in Henry's kitchen, Bradley tells his host of a crisis of his own--a football injury which, although it ended his athletic career, opened the prospect of the more rewarding life of service he now leads.

But does Bradley really believe, asks Henry Turner, that he's better off because of the accident? His black friend answers by citing the satisfactions of helping others, adding that, except for his football mishap, "I would never have gotten to know you."

The black man speaks as though fully convinced that his own turning point--his unwanted second choice of life--and Henry Turner's are precisely similar. Nothing in his voice hints at awareness either of the gap between riches and privation or of the ridiculousness of the pretense that race and class--differences in inherited property, competencies, beliefs, manners, advantages, burdens--don't count. Wealthy white lawyer and humble black therapist speak and behave as though both were Ivy League clubmen, equally knowledgeable about each other's routines, habits, tastes. The root of Bradley's happiness as he sings his song of praise to his white buddy is that, for Henry Turner, difference doesn't exist.

The predictable closer: a new Henry Turner launches an effort at restitution to the poor whom his chicanery has cheated; black-white friendship not only makes us one but makes us good.

When crime enters, fellow feeling should in theory exit. But visions of the force of friendships challenge this rule, too. They thrust characters and audiences into hitherto unexplored passages of self-interrogation and self-definition, obliging whites to clarity for themselves, the distinction between humane and racist responses to troubling black behavior. And they present the process of arriving at a humane response--i.e., one that doesn't allow a criminal act to derail black-white sympathy and friendship--as an act of personal reparation.

As in John Guare's highly praised Six Degrees of Separation (1990; movie version 1993). This work alludes to a real-life episode involving the victimization of a Manhattan family by a young black hustler, and it develops two themes. The first is that of black hunger for white friendship. The second is that of white readiness to suffer any injury if doing so is the only means of maintaining a one-on-one experience of sympathy and sameness with the other race.

Like Bradley the therapist, Paul, the hustler in the story, poses no black counterview--at the level of beliefs, tastes, feelings, or aspirations--to the values of rich whites. A man without a history,, he studies and apes white, upper-bourgeois manners--speech, accents, clothes-not for the purpose of better cheating his models but out of desire to make those manners his own. When the heroine he's hustling asks him, "What did you want from us?" he answers, honestly, "Everlasting friendship." He tells her husband, an art dealer, "What I should do is what you do--in art but making money out of art and meeting people and not working in an office."

He begs the couple to "let me stay with you," tells them, again truthfully, that an evening he spent with them--before his scam was discovered--was "the happiest night I ever had." The heroine sums it up: "He wanted to be us. Everything we are in the world, this paltry thing--our life--he wanted it. He stabbed himself to get in here. He envied us."

This black idolater of fashionable white "grace," "style," and "tolerance"--this youngster obsessed with being one of them--defines the world as the majority might wish it: a place wherein the agency of interracial friendship can create, in itself, with minimum inconvenience, conditions of relative sameness between blacks and whites. A-nd the relationship between Paul and the heroine dramatizes the imagined eagerness of whites--once they as individuals discover the rewards of one-on-one friendship--to go to any limit to preserve and nourish the friendship.

The heroine seldom wavers in her determination to indemnify the hustler for the injuries he does her. She knows the man to be a liar, knows him to be a thief, knows he's caused an innocent man's suicide and has betrayed her husband. Beyond all this she knows that, although her attachment to him is moral-imaginative, not sexual (the hustler is a homosexual), it"s endangering her marriage.

Yet, in keeping with the overarching vision (sympathy heals all), she denies him nothing--not understanding, not kindness, not the goods of her house. Word that he may have killed himself brings her to the edge of hysteria. A-nd at the crisis of the work her forbearance is dramatized as joy. The hustler, wanted for thievery, agrees to turn himself in to the police--and at once begins interrogating his white friend and victim about what she'll do to ease his imprisonment. Will she write to him when he's in jail? Yes, she promises. Will she send him books and tapes? Yes again. Will she visit him in jail? Yes. Will she wear her best clothes on these visits? I'll knock them dead."

As her pledges come faster and more freely, the pace of the hustler's importunacy quickens; he pushes her--his victim-friend--harder, ever harder, as though intent on driving her to the borders of her generosity, the far reaches of her sufferance. His demands carry no hint of racewide protest at general injustice, no suggestion of any motive except that of one individual black's personal longing for the unconditioned, unconstrained friendship of whites.

Will they-the white woman and her husband--help him find work when he's out? Will they let him work for them, learn from them, learn the whole trade of art dealing, "not just the grotty part"? "Top to bottom" is the answer. The scene mounts to a climax at which the white woman's exuberant realization that her generosity has no limits tears a burst of wild laughter from the center of her being:

PAUL: You'll help me find a place?

OUISA: We'll help you find a place.

PAUL: I have no furniture.

OUISA: We'll help you out.

PAUL: I made a list of things I liked in the museum. Philadelphia Chippendale.

OUISA (bursts out laughing): Believe it or not, we have two Philadelphia Chippendale chairs--

PAUL: I'd rather have one nice piece than a room full of junk.

OUISA: Quality. Always. You'll have all that. Philadelphia Chippendale.

You'll have all that a personal covenant, a lone white woman's guarantee, to a black hustler, that she'll sacrifice endlessly to ensure his well-being. Audiences are bound into that covenant by the final blackout, identifying with the passionate sacrament of the heroine's pledges, vicariously sharing the ideal of self-abnegating beneficence to black countrymen who long to become their friends. At its climax Six Degrees of Separation is about the "truth" that individual whites and blacks can scarcely bear not being each other. And the play's lesson is twofold: first, when whites are drawn into friendship and sympathy, one on one, with blacks, they will go to extreme lengths to suppress vexations and the sense of injury; second, once blacks are awarded unconditional white friendship, as individuals they cease to harbor any sense of vexation or injury that would need suppressing.

The message confirms, for the right-minded majority, that racism is one-dimensional--lacking, that is, in institutional, historical, or political ramifications. And the quantity of similar confirmation elsewhere in popular entertainment is, speaking matter-of-factly, immense.

Incessantly and deliberately, the world of pop is engaged in demonstrating, through images, that racism has to do with private attitudes and emotions--with personal narrowness and meanness--not with differences in rates of black and white joblessness and poverty, or in black and white income levels, or in, levels of financing of predominantly black and white public schools. The images body forth an America wherein some are more prosperous than others but all--blacks as well as whites--rest firmly in the "middle income sector" (the rising black middle class encompasses all blacks), where the free exchange of kindness should be the rule.

This America is of course remote from fact. One out of every two black children lives below the poverty line (as compared with one out of seven white children). Nearly four times as many black families exist below the poverty line as white families. Over 60 percent of African Americans have incomes below $25,000. For the past thirty years black unemployment rates have averaged two to three times higher than those of whites.

But in the world of pop, racism and fraternity have to do solely with the conditions of personal feeling. Racism is unconnected with ghetto life patterns that abstractions such as income and employment numbers can't dramatize. Racism has nothing to do with the survival strategies prudently adopted by human beings without jobs or experience of jobs or hope of jobs. It has no link with the rational rejection, by as many as half the young black men in urban America, of such dominant culture values as ambition, industry, and respect for constituted authority. Pop shows its audiences that racism is nothing but personal hatred, and that when hatred ends, racism ends. The sweet, holiday news is that, since hatred is over, we--blacks and whites together, knit close in middleness--have already overcome.


Excerpted from The Trouble with Friendship by Benjamin DeMott Copyright © 1998 by Benjamin DeMott. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Ch. 1 Visions of Black-White Friendship 7
Ch. 2 The Mystique of Sympathy 24
Ch. 3 Because We Like Them: A Sampler 43
Ch. 4 Caste Society/Opportunity Society (I): An Overview 57
Ch. 5 Caste Society/Opportunity Society (II): Local Facts 74
Ch. 6 Caste Society/Opportunity Society (III): The Problem of Change Rates 90
Ch. 7 Invisible Woman: Friendship Dogma and the Disappearance of Joyce Ann Moore 96
Ch. 8 Chicken George & Co. Versus History 114
Ch. 9 The Issueless War and the Movement That Never Was 128
Ch. 10 Clearing the Conscience (I): The Mystique of Can-Do 146
Ch. 11 Clearing the Conscience (II): A Free Choice of Life 158
Ch. 12 Conclusion: Life After Tolerance 178
Acknowledgments 193
Notes 195
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