Amoeblog


America Gets a Post-Racial: The Legacy of Lee Atwater

Posted by Charles Reece, August 30, 2009 10:03am | Post a Comment
The latest issue of The London Review of Books has an excellent essay, "What Matters," by Walter Benn Michaels (author of The Trouble with Diversity). In analyzing the recent arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Michaels answers my fellow blogger Eric's question of "who's black?" with another, more telling question: "who's poor?." To wit:

Gates, as one of his Harvard colleagues said, is ‘a famous, wealthy and important black man’, a point Gates himself tried to make to the arresting officer – the way he put it was: ‘You don’t know who you’re messing with.’ But, despite the helpful hint, the cop failed to recognise an essential truth about neoliberal America: it’s no longer enough to kowtow to rich white people; now you have to kowtow to rich black people too.

[...]

In the US, one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucial and entirely specious fellowship with rich white people; one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial and equally specious fellowship with rich black people. Furthermore, in the form of the celebration of ‘identity’ and ‘ethnic diversity’, it seeks to create a bond between poor black people and rich white ones. So the African-American woman who cleans my office is supposed to feel not so bad about the fact that I make almost ten times as much money as she does because she can be confident that I’m not racist or sexist and that I respect her culture. And she’s also supposed to feel pride because the dean of our college, who makes much more than ten times what she does, is African-American, like her. And since the chancellor of our university, who makes more than 15 times what she does, is not only African-American but a woman too (the fruits of both anti-racism and anti-sexism!), she can feel doubly good about her.

In the words of our first "post-racial" president's speechwriters, it's the economy, stupid (or, rather, the racially stupid economy -- even its staunchest proponents this side of Ayn Rand will tell you that capitalism is amoral). As the harbinger of racial peace through commercial success, a prescient Arsenio Hall managed to signify our current climate through one particular performance that bridged the old racial divide in popular culture, that of the poor black's blues and the poor white's country:


Randy Travis is what the corporate media like to call an "independent thinker," that is, neither strictly Republican, nor Democrat. Why, back in 1991, when Linda Accurso complained to the Federal Election Commission that Travis' televised performance of "Point of Light" was an unfair advertisement for George Bush, Sr., the FEC essentially ruled that, nope, the singer was operating on his own. This was despite the song being written at Bush's request, its sharing a poetic phrase with a popular speech of Bush's, and its video being produced by Bush's media consultant, Roger Eugene Ailes (now the American president of Fox News Channel). Surely, the song was just about promoting the everyman (and -woman) in our armed services. "If that ain't country ...."

And just like any good capitalist would recommend, B.B. King has always been more concerned with promoting the blues than any particular ideology. As told in Charles Sawyer's apologia, back in 1968, King responded to the question "What do you think of Ronald Reagan and what do you think of the Black Panthers?" with, "Well, I hear the Panthers feed breakfast to poor children and anyone who does that can't be as bad as they are made out to be [and] I think that Reagan was a pretty good movie actor." It was this sort of ideological independence that would result in King's celebration of his friend, the recently deceased Lee Atwater, aka the Boogie Man, at the Republican convention in 1991 (coincidentally the same year as the Travis fracas).


Atwater was the campaign adviser for Bush's 1988 successful bid for the presidency and he knew something about the kind of abstraction that could make anyone a fan of the blues (or country). Divorce it from its context, thereby making it an appealing product to anyone, regardless of ideology. Consider his take on the Southern Strategy:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger” -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “nigger, nigger.” -- from here

But never mind that, nor his use of the Willie Horton scandal, nor his help in devising the Revolving Door ad, Atwater was a big fan and promoter of the blues and black music in general and, most importantly, in abstracto (to which the above album with whom could be called "some of his best friends" attested). One might say he was our first post-racial politico, his racist campaign strategies having little effect on his aesthetics or the friends he kept. Is it cynical to suggest King (as well as Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes and the others lending their talents and credibility to Atwater's album) had more in common through his wealth and success with Atwater than with the people affected by the man's propaganda? Back in the early part of the 20th century, in the openly racist South, Hank Williams learned guitar from Tee Tot, a poor bluesman who played on the street. Then, at the beginning of our post-racial era, the blues and country came back together to appear on The Arsenio Hall Show, only this time represented by wealthy proponents of both genres. Since Atwater, even the Republicans have become more diverse, but along with Michaels, I ask, what does this progress really mean?

Relevant Tags

Capitalism (5), Walter Benn Michaels (1), Race (8), Ideology (7), Blues (20), B. B. King (1), Lee Atwater (1), Arsenio Hall (1), Music Criticism (10)