Thursday, January 20, 2011

White Supremacy And Demonising The Left

That grey braid makes the State Senator's lawyer Billy Murphy (Don King's lawyer) a type and also, in this specific situation, a combination of William Kunstler and his successor Ron Kuby.

The scene: a black hustler evades justice with a meretricious histrionic performance of righteous political blackness and fools a jury of people of colour (to whom he appeals fraternally as "my peers"), thwarting the sincere efforts of a genuinely righteous and baffled white woman to make the system function for the good of all. The manipulation of gender in the scene functions in a Tom Wolf-ish* way to intensify the perception of the weakness of white virtue in confrontation with this destructive black power (to which the white male in the scene has gone over - his long braided hair underscoring that he has gone "native"** - treacherously).

The blaxploitation dramedy boasting of its "authenticity" and fearless "realism" presents itself as revealing the painful truth in brave (and subscription funded) disregard of a liberal political correctness which is imagined to rule commercial television convention despotically.The target here is African-American grassroots activism, which Simon proceeds to smear and discredit as the mere sentimental mythology of a ruthless, criminal opportunist. With courtroom theatrics recalling "if the glove doesn't fit...", Simon shamelessly prods the bitter resentment of white men over O. J. Simpson's acquittal, and by interweaving that "racial moment" into a braid of other fragments of the mass culture's race discourse, HBO's daring journey into the "dark corner of the American experiment" works to confect a dense composite of raced black demons and distill an essence of blackness (key quality familiar from minstrel tradition: fraudulence, inferior imitation, sham, comically attempting the emulation of civilised people) as object of its white audience's fawned-upon virtue, concern and critical gaze. After going on Simon's Baltimore safari, the audience is not only infuriated but wised up, can no longer be fooled, and is additionally emboldened to say what the cowardly, accomodating liberal and progressive cultural establishment, the Kunstlers in the courtrooms and the Lumets their chroniclers, refused in their pathetic idealism, chic radicalism and unwholesome mingling to concede. The scene (among others) warns the audience against the spectacles of African American progressive politics that deceive them, and of the conmen who take advantage of their white liberal guilt and credulity. Simon's densely allusive spectacle poses as an antidote to another type of reality tv, teaching his audience that they must not believe the black progressive or leftist in politics (Charles Rangel, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton); behind the facade which the white progressive shysters help him maintain, he is this character, Clay Davis, a "race hustler", scam artist, master manipulator. In league with this ponytailed lefty hippy demagogue sidekick and straightman, he plays expertly upon white desire to believe in black goodness and pretends to serve his community (in, Simon has him put it, the "jungle") only to fleece them.

Offered as an unavoidable part of a (sequence of racist clichés advertising itself as) courageous, biting, knowing, streetwise insider's critique of political elites, decrepit democratic institutions and the corruption of "the system", the manner in which Simon races his social evils is provided its alibis (1. verisimiltude, 2. necessary dramatic service to the noble cause of unsparing social criticism), and his white audience is provisioned with the means of its self-congratulation (it takes courage to dare to take a good long look at black depravity) as bonus on top of its pleasure of joining Simon in the examination of how unscrupulous black hustlers and their venal lefty white allies poison and corrupt our "American experiment" and its institutions of Justice and Democracy.

The endless reproduction of these stereotypes and this narrative serves a purpose beyond the entertainment and flattery of a white audience. The protection of David Simon's class interests requires pro-active interference in the development of the political consciousness of progressive "middle class" Americans, and the constant instilling of suspicion and contempt for the African American left, which has always been not only the backbone of working class struggle in the US but the leadership and most strongly socialist and internationalist element of that struggle.

As Jared Ball writes:

It doesn’t happen enough but when it does we should revel in the example and perhaps even build from it. The “it” to which I refer is the acceptance of Black intelligence into predominantly White spaces. And regardless of what some may think of interracial exchange the simple fact is that without sustained and serious inclusion of Black knowledge into segments of the White Left there is simply no hope for either or any other community. The general absence of Black intelligence in White media, specifically that which is defined as White Left or Progressive media, inhibits broad social movement building. It prevents those engaged in Black struggle from receiving the necessary support they deserve from White potential allies with greater resources and makes impossible the “revolution of social values” called for by Dr. King from occurring within the dominant White society; a revolution of values without which no greater form of Black American liberation can emerge. We may not like it but without significant changes from within White America the already bleak condition of the Black struggle can only worsen.

So recently when one of the White Left mainstays in my own media diet, Media Matters with Bob McChesney, had one of those rare moments where Black intelligence was welcomed and almost gave a sense of what is possible. His guest was Dr. Sundiata Cha-Jua, noted scholar of history and African American Studies at the University of Illinois and current president of the legendary National Council of Black Studies. In an exceptional display of knowledge and principle Cha-Jua demonstrated the hopes and fears represented in just this kind of interaction. The hope is found for Progressives in some measure of inclusion of the analysis of Black America, the fear is represented, as explained by Cha-Jua, in the absence of press coverage of the interracial solidarity shown among those participants in the recent Georgia prison strike.

*from James Collins' piece "Race and Power" in the NYTimes:

I think any fair-minded person would agree that Wolfe shows neither prejudice nor favoritism toward any of the ethnic groups found in “Bonfire” — at least when it comes to their moral qualities. The blacks, the Jews, the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons all come off equally badly.

Still, I think Wolfe could be accused of portraying the races in a way that is both false and, ultimately, unfair to blacks. The problem is not with any suggestion that one group is more or less admirable than another; rather, it arises from the way Wolfe shows how power is distributed among them.

If a Martian read Bonfire, he would think that in this world it was the blacks who had all the power. In the book’s very first episode, the Jewish mayor is shouted down by a black crowd in Harlem. He is frightened, beleaguered, and allows himself to be hustled away by his security detail, a decision he instantly despises himself for making. Sherman and Maria take a nightmare ride through the Bronx — “dark faces … dark faces … more dark faces” — and have a terrifying confrontation with “the elemental enemy, the hunter, the predator.” In the Bronx courthouse, even though the white judges, assistant district attorneys and cops have the official power, they seem like the oppressed and beleaguered ones. They are oppressed by their jobs and by the endless flow of black defendants; they are too scared to leave the building and are forced to “wagon train” their cars at night. Meanwhile, the defendants, with their Pimp Rolls, are cocky. The perpetrators are the ones who act in this world; the judges, assistant district attorneys and cops are reacting and just trying to keep up with them. After he’s arrested, Sherman has a frightening and humiliating (and very realistic) encounter with a black man in the holding pen. In the book’s last episode, Judge Kovitsky is just about to confront a demonstration by blacks outside the courthouse, but the court officers try to prevent him, and he loses heart. Overall, it is hard to find a single encounter between a white and a black in the book that the black does not “win.” Even the black man who shines Sherman’s shoes takes advantage of him.

**David Simon: Given that the American frontier is now a mere trace memory in our national consciousness, the inner city has become the dominant stage on which we perform our morality plays, the new, untamed wilderness in which men and women are challenged and judged.


  1. "Whatever it was, they don't teach it in law school." No, you need cable for that.