Black civil rights leaders have long supported ethnic identity politics and prioritized the integration of political institutions, and seldom has that strategy been questioned. In False Black Power?, Jason L. Riley takes an honest, factual look at why increased black political power has not paid off in the ways that civil rights leadership has promised.
Recent decades have witnessed a proliferation of black elected officials, culminating in the historic presidency of Barack Obama. However, racial gaps in employment, income, homeownership, academic achievement, and other measures not only continue but in some cases have even widened. While other racial and ethnic groups in America have made economic advancement a priority, the focus on political capital for blacks has been a disadvantage, blocking them from the fiscal capital that helped power upward mobility among other groups.
Riley explains why the political strategy of civil rights leaders has left so many blacks behind. The key to black economic advancement today is overcoming cultural handicaps, not attaining more political power. The book closes with thoughtful responses from key thought leaders Glenn Loury and John McWhorter.
About the Author
Glenn C. Loury is the Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences and professor of economics at Brown University. His books include One by One from the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America; The Anatomy of Racial Inequality; and Race, Incarceration, and American Values. Among other honors, he has been elected a distinguished fellow of the American Economic Association, a fellow of the Econometric Society, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and a member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.
John McWhorter is associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of The Power of Babel, Doing Our Own Thing, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, The Language Hoax, Words on the Move and, most recently, Talking Back, Talking Black. He is a regular columnist on language matters and race issues for Time and CNN, writes for the Wall Street Journal Taste page, writes a regular column on language for the Atlantic, and hosts the Lexicon Valley podcast at Slate.
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False Black Power?
By Jason L. Rildey
Templeton PressCopyright © 2017 Jason L. Riley
All rights reserved.
The Civil Rights Distraction
* * *
ONE DAY IN FALL 2002, I opened my newspaper to read that the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were upset over some dialogue in the new hit movie Barbershop. The nation's most prominent civil rights activists had threatened to call for a boycott of the ensemble comedy unless the filmmakers agreed to issue a public apology and delete the offending material from future DVD versions. I looked up from the paper and chuckled to myself. Perhaps there was something that could better recommend a film to me than Jackson and Sharpton not wanting me to see it, but nothing came to mind immediately. Not then and not now. I grabbed a jacket, headed to the theater, and caught the next showing. I laughed from beginning to end and left the multiplex with a renewed appreciation of the diminishing relevance of a civil rights old guard personified by the likes of Jackson and Sharpton.
The controversy turned out to be excellent publicity for a relatively low-budget film aimed primarily at black audiences. Barbershop was the top money-maker at the box office the weekend it was released. Written, produced, and directed by blacks, it's set on Chicago's crime-ridden South Side and features a nearly all-black cast. The story centers around Calvin, an exasperated young husband whose wife is expecting their first child and who dreams of opening his own music studio but is stuck running a barbershop he inherited from his father. The plot is predictable for the most part — Calvin, who's played by rapper-turned-actor Ice Cube, eventually comes to appreciate his inheritance — but nobody hails Barbershop because of the storyline. Rather, the film's main appeal is the dialogue: free-wheeling verbal exchanges that Calvin's esoteric crew of barbers — including old-timer Eddie and ex-con Ricky — have with one another and their customers. Topics cover not only sports and music and women, which you'd expect, but also topics like race relations and dating and urban crime. The sharp, edgy comedic riffs are often insightful and sometimes shock you with their bluntness.
The movie isn't overtly political but its social conservatism is unmistakable. Characters celebrate self-help and personal responsibility while refusing to be condescended to or pitied. The overriding ethos is that blacks can and should be advancing by dint of hard work, not white guilt, and it's largely their own fault if they aren't. "Black people in this country are some of the richest negroes on the planet," says Ricky to a young black man who blames his inability to find a job on racism. "Everywhere you look, there's opportunity." After one customer, a dim-witted small-time crook, announces that ancestral slavery has "ruined my whole life," and another suggests that blacks demand reparations from the government to improve their lot, Eddie interjects that blacks already receive government compensation for slavery in the form of welfare payments and affirmative action. Ricky takes the antireparations argument even further and insists that today's black ghetto culture is the more significant impediment to group success. "We don't need reparations. We need restraint," he explains. "Don't go out and buy a Range Rover when you livin' with your momma. And pay your momma some rent." Ricky isn't finished. "Can we please, please try to teach our kids something other than [rap music] ... and please, black people, be on time for something other than free [admission] before 11 at the club."
In the film, Ricky's listeners nod in approval and applaud. So too, I noticed, did several other black people sitting nearby in my Brooklyn theater. I was stunned by the exchange. It wasn't the sentiments expressed — those are commonplace among everyday blacks, if not among their self-appointed spokespeople. The surprise was to hear them being voiced by black protagonists in a mainstream Hollywood film, which was much less common. Here was a work of fiction that required no suspension of my disbelief. I readily recognized this place. My father took me to this barbershop on Buffalo's struggling east side as a boy. It's the clip shop I frequented — when I still had hair — on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn after moving to New York City in my twenties. It's where black people from all backgrounds — the college grad and the high-school dropout, the businessman and the bus driver — gather and make observations that are as raw and heartfelt as they are politically incorrect. Two minutes of film dialogue had produced a more honest conversation about race than ten-thousand-word magazine essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson or a dozen panel discussions on CNN, where talking heads dance around uncomfortable truths, and expressing Ricky and Eddie's views about the black underclass might get you escorted from the premises by building security. In this sense, the entire movie's message is an affront to black leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson as well as the liberal intellectuals who trade on the notion that black America is all but helpless in the face of an oppressive white society. The can-do attitudes on display undermine the agenda of a black political elite that benefits from portraying underprivileged minorities as perpetual victims in need of more government remedies.
The scenes that set off the reverends — and which, thankfully, remained in the DVD version — are surprisingly innocuous given all the fuss they generated. The cantankerous Eddie, who's played by comedian Cedric the Entertainer, pokes fun at Martin Luther King Jr.'s philandering and downplays Rosa Parks's famous act of disobedience in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 by pointing out that she was far from the first black person to refuse to give up a seat on the bus. In the same scene, Eddie also insists that O. J. Simpson "did it" and that black motorist Rodney King had it coming for resisting arrest. When an appalled customer warns Eddie that Jesse Jackson better not hear him talking like that, Eddie responds, "Fuck Jesse Jackson!" Eddie's irreverence produces some of the movie's biggest laughs.
The veracity of Eddie's remarks isn't really the issue. There's not much doubt that King strayed, according to his contemporaries and biographers. And what really distinguished Parks, as Eddie explains, were her ties to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), not her willingness to ignore a racist law. At least three other blacks in Montgomery alone had been arrested earlier in 1955 for defiant behavior similar to Parks's. It's also worth noting that in neither scene do Eddie's rants go over well with onlookers, who either challenge him or howl in disapproval of his outlandishly disrespectful tone. Nevertheless, Sharpton compared the film to the FBI's efforts to discredit Dr. King in the 1960s and even took offense at the Rodney King crack. Jackson insisted that he was unbothered by the attacks on himself and was merely defending the film's other targets because they couldn't defend themselves. "The filmmakers crossed the line between what's sacred and serious and what's funny," he said at the time. "I could dismiss the comments about me, but Dr. King is dead and Ms. Parks is an invalid." Maybe so, but even fellow liberals thought Sharpton and Jackson's objections were silly and unnecessary.
Typical was the response from Washington Post columnist Donna Britt, who questioned the "logic that tells Jackson and Sharpton that jokes in the movie 'Barbershop' merit public complaint and censure. All because the No. 1 comedy, which celebrates an inner-city barbershop, does what black, white, brown and yellow Americans do in real life every day: Poke fun at folks whom we admire." Indeed, a photo of Jackson, a Chicago resident, is displayed on the wall of the barbershop in the movie. Britt added that "it takes nerve, assuming your displeasure is shared by millions and implying that some offhand lines in a sweet movie can smear a dead hero or defenseless invalid." When she asked a friend why Jackson was wasting his time on an issue like this, the response was, "Because it's his job." That friend sounds like Eddie.
Fifty years ago, Jesse Jackson's job was fighting Jim Crow. Today his job is to maintain his own relevance long after America's civil rights battles have been fought successfully. To stay relevant, Jackson, Sharpton, the NAACP, and the civil rights establishment prefer to present black Americans as an aggrieved group whose problems stem mainly from the actions of others. And they insist that black advancement is contingent on direct-action protests and political solutions. It's no wonder that the country's most prominent civil rights activists had little use for a film that depicts black men discussing what they could and should be doing for themselves instead of what others should be doing for them.
The popularity of Barbershop led to two sequels, both of which continue the barbed social commentary of the first film. Barbershop 2: Back in Business, released two years after the original, includes several scenes that flash back to the 1960s. In one, Black Panthers are parodied as suicidal sociopaths, while another shows Calvin's father and a young Eddie protecting the barbershop during the 1968 Chicago riots that followed Dr. King's assassination. "This ain't right," says the father while staring out of his shop's front window at black looters setting ablaze cars and businesses. "We should be honoring the man's memory. We shouldn't be doing this." The movie also features a crooked black politician named Lalowe Brown, whom Eddie derisively refers to as "Lalowe Sharpton" — perhaps in a bit of payback for Al Sharpton's previous boycott threats.
The third installment of the series, Barbershop: The Next Cut, landed in theaters in 2016, the final year of Barack Obama's presidency. The movie introduces several new characters, including a black barber named Rashad, who has a teenage son with discipline problems, and an Indian American barber named Raja, who says things like, "Maybe we need to stop waiting for the government to step in and save us and we need to start saving ourselves." In addition to debating Obama's legacy, characters discuss fatherhood, child-rearing, sexism — the barbershop now doubles as a beauty salon — urban violence, and high-profile shootings of black males.
Like the previous films, we get a humorous glimpse at what blacks sometimes discuss — and how they discuss it — when whites aren't around. We also get a realistic presentation of a cross section of black thinking on hot-button issues. Diverse black viewpoints aren't regularly represented in mainstream news outlets, where the politically liberal view is presumed to be the black view, and the opinions of more conservative blacks are downplayed or ignored altogether.
In the third film, the clip shop now has a "No Guns Allowed" sign on the wall, and the main plot centers on efforts to reduce the city's epidemic of black-on-black crime — a storyline that once again requires no suspension of disbelief. In 2016, Chicago recorded more than 4,300 shootings and its highest murder rate in two decades. The overwhelming majority of shooting victims were black, and more than 99 percent of the shootings were carried out by civilians, not the police. Protest groups want us to focus on the behavior of law enforcement, and the media too often does that, but it's obvious that young black men in places like Chicago live in fear of being gunned down by other young black men, not by cops. "It's not up to me to decide what activists should protest, but after years of dealing with the realities of street violence, I don't understand how a movement called 'Black Lives Matter' can ignore the leading cause of death among young black men in the U.S., which is homicide by their peers," wrote a retired New York City police detective in 2015. "Since 2001, even as rates of violent crime have dropped dramatically, more than 90,000 black men in the U.S. have been killed by other black men. With fatalities on this scale, the term epidemic is not a metaphor. Every year, the casualty count of black-on-black crime is twice that of the death toll of 9/11."
Nationwide, crime has fallen on average from where it was in the early 1990s, but in recent years violent crime is up on average in the most populated cities. And whichever way crime is trending, low-income minorities still bear the brunt of it. In a 2016 Gallup poll, 53 percent of all respondents said that they worry "a great deal" about crime and violence, which was up from 39 percent two years earlier and at a fifteen-year high. Moreover, respondents who were low income and nonwhite expressed by far the most anxiety, which makes sense given that they are by far the most likely crime victims. "More broadly, those with no college education are roughly twice as likely as those with a college degree to worry about crime," reported Gallup, "and those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year are much more likely than those earning at least $75,000 to worry about crime and violence. Nonwhites' concern about crime is much higher than whites' worry about the issue."
An early scene in Next Cut has several characters one-upping each other with stories about being robbed and assaulted in the neighborhood. After a barber remarks that he was robbed twice in one day on the same block, his customer scoffs, "That ain't shit. Last week, I got robbed twice — and got my ass beat by the second robber for giving all my money to the first."
Foes of "mass incarceration" of black men seem much more concerned with the plight of criminals than with the plight of the most likely crime victims. As president, Obama shortened the sentences of over one thousand federal inmates, which was more than the previous eleven presidents combined. On the campaign trail in 2016, Hillary Clinton railed against "excessive" incarceration, but if you live in a community with excessive crime and violence, you might see things differently. The former first family lives in a predominantly white New York City suburb where multimillion dollar homes are commonplace and where violent crime is as rare as black residents. The people she is so reluctant to lock up and so eager to cut slack aren't terrorizing her neighborhood.
In Next Cut, Calvin and his wife now have a fourteen-year-old son, Jalen, whom they are desperately trying to shield from South Side Chicago's dangerous gang culture. Like its predecessors, the movie heartedly embraces what liberals derisively refer to as "respectability politics," or the assumption that a person's behavior and presentation play an important role in getting ahead. One conversation between Calvin and his son goes as follows:
CALVIN: Tomorrow, I'm going to reintroduce you to the concept of a belt. Ain't nobody want to see your butt cheeks.
JALEN: Nobody wears no belts. They corny.
CALVIN: Yeah. Well, so is getting shot.
Or take another exchange, between Calvin and Rashad, on the need for black people to take responsibility for their circumstances, not shift blame or look to political saviors:
CALVIN: I'm so tired of this mess. Every time I turn around somebody killing somebody over nothing. What are we supposed to do? Lock our doors, don't snitch, pretend like this shit is normal? ... It's not normal.
RASHAD: Then we got to do something about it. Shorties [kids] out here wilding, and that's our fault. That's on us. If we don't do something, no one's going to save our community. We gotta take our streets back.
Some of the most interesting discussions in the movie concern the impact of Obama's presidency on the condition of everyday blacks. After Raja cites Obama's election as a sign of racial progress, Rashad pushes back. "What does that mean for the average black dude walking down the street?" he asks before citing the names of black shooting victims who have made national headlines in recent years, such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray. "A madman walked into a Charleston church and killed nine innocent people. Did [Obama's] blackness stop that?" asks Rashad. It's a passionate speech, but the filmmakers chose to give Raja the last word in the exchange, and he urges Rashad to put things in perspective. "I'm not saying that stuff isn't messed up because it is," says Raja. "What I'm saying is that there's never been a better time to be a black person in this country than right now."
Raja is right. Blacks today are more likely to experience group preferences than racial sleights, and they have legal recourse when discrimination does occur. In the 1960s, black people risked life and limb to cast a ballot. In 2012, black voter turnout exceeded white turnout. Moreover, white attitudes toward blacks have changed tremendously over the decades. The scholars Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom noted that in 1944, just 42 percent of whites opposed racial discrimination in employment, but by 1963 some 83 percent did. And that was just one of several indications that racial attitudes were shifting rapidly and well before the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 had passed. The Thernstroms continued:
Similarly, support for school integration jumped from 30 to 62 percent between 1942 and 1963, for integrated public transportation from 44 to 79 percent, and for neighborhood integration from 35 to 64 percent. It has sometimes been suggested that federal civil rights legislation in the 1960s was responsible for the huge shift in white racial attitudes, but that puts the cart before the horse. Deep attitudinal changes created the political pressures responsible for the enactment of new law.
Excerpted from False Black Power? by Jason L. Rildey. Copyright © 2017 Jason L. Riley. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction / 3
Part 1: False Black Power
1: The Civil Rights Distraction / 11
2: The Limits of Politics / 31
3: False Black Power / 51
Part 2: Dissenting Points of View
4: Keeping Up With the Leftists
New Observations for Variations on the Theme
by John McWhorter / 87
5: Black America
Changing Rhetoric into Remedies
by Glenn C. Loury / 95
6: A Response to McWhorter and Loury / 105
Notes / 109
About the Contributors / 121