Glen Ford blasts the exploitation of class and age divisions in the "civil rights vs. hip-hop" debate.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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, outspending these incumbents by 60 percent and 40 percent, respectively (documented by the Center on Responsible Politics). In all three races, corporate media were actively allied with corporate cash, providing millions of dollars in free, shamelessly partisan coverage.
Appearances 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.
Through 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.
The Hard Right’s New Black Strategy holds special dangers for young African Americans, the most media-dependent generation in human history.
Massaging the Products
For 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.
Like 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.
All 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 value.
Shamelessly, I proclaimed that each rapper’s attempt at serious social commentary was deeply profound: MC So and So is "droppin’ science!"
As 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.
Black 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.
Oppressed 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.
It 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.
Status vs. Power
Media 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."
Todd Cunningham, a young black man with the title of Senior VP for Brand Strategy and Planning 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.
This 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.
In truth, they possess only the power to buy, and to influence others to buy. They have achieved a certain market status–not power.
Enter 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,
"[The 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," according to an article in The Black Commentator.
The 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.
This 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. Ignore them.
Corporate 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 James.
Booker 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.
The 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 Booker’s own.
The 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.
The Bradley-scripted dictum became received wisdom, the gospel according to media.
Middle 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 30 percent of the largely middle class black vote.
However, 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" generation.
Cory 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.
Embracing the Brand
Bakari 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.
"Many 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.
"In 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."
There 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.
The 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.
What role would Kitwana assign the civil rights generation, as the elders make way for this "unique" demographic cohort?
"If 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."
Kitwana, 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 of leadership.
If 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.
I will end with an assessment from MTV’s Todd Cunningham, who speaks with great affection for the "most marketed-to" generation:
"They 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."
Kitwana 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.