The Close of the Twentieth Century and Beyond
The Close of the Twentieth Century and Beyond
ESSAYS BY GABRIEL BURNS STEPTO
At the tail end of the Civil Rights movement, a new promise was present in American society for peoples of color. Much of the segregationist infrastructure in place since the beginning of American slavery had been dismantled. Where a range of legislation had stood before, ensuring that African Americans might never rise above a certain level, there was a new body of legislation effectively trying to promote just the opposite. Antidiscrimi-nation laws had been drafted for many areas of American society. These laws essentially were designed to prevent, and even redress, the cultural habits of racism bred for centuries into the American social system.
Nevertheless, the same tendencies—the same ageold battles—were a nearly constant presence in the lives of African Americans in the 1970s and 1980s. In the media and the halls of power, the rhetorical and political tug-of-war over race was played out nearly every day. For many, a key example was the issue of affirmative action. This policy was designed to address the lack of access African Americans experienced, for example, in the workplace and in private schools and universities. In many ways, affirmative action accomplished essentially the same thing as the antidiscrimination legislation, but it did so while taking a more activist stance. Because of their proactive nature, affirmative action programs have drawn wild criticism from conservatives and opponents on the right, who contend that such plans are unconstitutional. That said, there can be no question that the affirmative action policies of the 1980s and early 1990s made for a sea change in the way universities recruited their student bodies. And while many elements of the affirmative action initiative have been struck down, not only did the policy help to greatly expand the ranks of African Americans and other minorities in the coveted programs of the top universities, but it also seems to have changed the way university administrations view the very process of selecting their student bodies.
For many, it is not difficult to see the same old forces at work, striking down the legislative efforts designed to promote African Americans even as they are written into law. The same forces that fought back against the gains of Reconstruction with black codes and Jim Crow and the gains of each Constitutional amendment and each piece of civil rights legislation with counterlegislation, will, it seems, always be around in the United States. That said, there were many elements of progress at the tail end of the twentieth century that were encouraging—indeed, encouraging in ways that suggest real progress was made during the period of the civil rights struggle and in the years after. This is, of course, an issue that arouses intense debate, with people on different sides of the color line and with different shades of African America interpreting the gains in different ways. Looking a little below the surface, however, there are signs suggesting that important changes began taking place in the last decades of the twentieth century. That said, if American history has taught us anything, it is that the struggle for opportunity in the United States is constant and that gains should never be taken for granted because there are always forces that are eager to return things to the ways they were before.
THE RISE OF "CLASSISM"WHERE RACIAL DIVISION STOOD BEFORE
One of the principal, and in many ways most befuddling, elements of the struggle for equality and opportunity in the second half of the twentieth century was a subtle shift in the terms by which racism and discrimination were perceived, measured, and addressed. During the civil rights era there was little doubt that the nation had a history of racial injustice and that the dismantling of that infrastructure of legislation and social and cultural norms was a goal on which most could agree. As African Americans began to live in a more integrated society and had arrayed before them at least the promise of various opportunities, concerns about the treatment of African Americans began shifting away from the obvious wrong of racial discrimination toward the more nebulous iniquity of class discrimination.
Class discrimination is one of the most difficult elements of social inequality to address, much less undo, because the fact of poverty, the fact of the haves and have-nots, is at the heart of the capitalist system. Mainstream America is wary to critique this system, much less point to it as the cause of some of the inherent racial ills in the nation's history.
Although antidiscriminatory legislation sought to address the legacy of segregation and disenfranchisement, the economic picture for people of color in the United States in the last quarter of the twentieth century was disturbing. A disproportionate number of African American adults, and an even more disproportionate number of black children, lived below the poverty line. There was also the much-cited fact that one in four African American males was either in prison or had at some time in his life been incarcerated, a fact that led to a host of related and equally troubling statistics. The ongoing reality of institutionalized segregation, whereby African Americans males were nearly ten times as likely as their white counterparts to be in prison, with their labor supporting state coffers rather than their own families, provided a disturbing insight into the quality of life for African Americans in the United States.
Perhaps even more troubling was that these facts were echoed by aspects of the psychological profile of African Americans. Many observers have noted the rapid advance of immigrants of color from the Caribbean, South America, and even Africa. For example, Colin Powell (b. 1937), the secretary of state under George W. Bush (b. 1946), is of Caribbean ancestry and has stated that he always believed that if he worked hard he could advance as far as his talents would allow. This conviction is not held by all African Americans, particularly those living in poverty, and sociologists cite this as evidence of a potentially crippling set of psychological attitudes that are being passed on from generation to generation. Indeed, the implications are very troubling. Such attitudes can affect the readiness of African Americans to compete in the career marketplace, and they lead to the propensity of black Americans to view themselves as guilty before the fact or as having committed some unnamed social wrong. With this kind of psychological anxiety always around the next corner, many sociologists and historians have pointed out the negative impact of these factors on everything from the quality of daily life to the life expectancy of African Americans. Whatever the case may be, there can be no question that many blacks in the United States feel an ongoing sense of rage and frustration at the limitations of their own experience and the sense of collective wrongs perpetrated against their ancestors—wrongs made worse by the lack of any real reparations for the cultural crime of slavery, whether of a financial or moral nature. Indeed, that the notion of reparations is viewed as suspect or even ridiculous by many white Americans is itself a sort of barometer of the gulf that continues to stand between the black experience and that of white America.
So it is that many African Americans at the end of the twentieth century felt an inherent conflict between their ambition to advance and their sense of community and belonging. Indeed, the cultural reality is one in which black traditions, such as "uplift," protest, and religious leadership, have themselves been stigmatized, rather than celebrated, and the only way to participate in the promise of the American dream is to renounce the cultural identity and collective history of the African American experience.
THE REAGAN AND BUSH YEARS
During the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan (b. 1911) and George H. W. Bush (b. 1924), African Americans encountered a somewhat bizarre catalog of policies that, while couched in seemingly innocuous language, did a great deal to freeze and even retard their progress. During the 1980s, a record number of black Americans were unemployed and incarcerated. The welfare rolls swelled, creating what many categorized as simply a new form of second-class citizenship, one that kept people of color scrambling from check to check, often in spiraling conditions of poverty and substance abuse. President Reagan's now-debunked "trickle-down economics" promised to create wealth in the upper-middle and upper classes, thereby creating an economy in which jobs would flourish and the rest of the nation would be provided for. Given the historical psychology of the nation, the disproportionate distribution of wealth among nonminorities, and the stigmatized image of blacks and black culture as one consisting of criminals, addicts, nonattendant fathers, and teen and/or single black mothers—to name some of the most prevalent and enduring stereotypes of African Americans—it should not come as a surprise that these Republican administrations presided over a painful era for blacks in the United States. That said, one of the more troubling elements of this period is that so many Americans look back on it as an era of national prosperity and even one of noble and/or heroic values in the national leadership.
Culturally, while the groundwork was being laid for the cultural changes of the 1990s and beyond, the situation had not improved much. In the early 1960s, Sidney Poitier (b. 1927) had become the first African American to win an Academy Award for lead actor, but it would be nearly forty years before that feat would be duplicated in the year 2002. The simple fact is that the 1980s were a period characterized by the changing and perhaps the refining of stereotypes of who black Americans were—but the images presented in television, film, and radio were stereotypes of broad, easy strokes, nonetheless. An example of this lack of real progress is the television series The Jeffersons, which ran from 1975 to 1985 and which was a spin-off from All in the Family (in which the comic tension and release centered around an exasperated working-class Irish American complaining bitterly about blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups infringing on the world he knew). The Jeffersons presented a black man who had prospered in the laundry business but who still had the values of his origins—an impoverished, penny-pinching environment—and, like the show's model, an often-times openly racist view of the world.
During the 1970s and early 1980s virtually all television commercials presented the potential consumer with a white male, family, couple, or child as the face of products' consumers. During this period the first of the "buddy" commercials appeared, in which working-class men, a white man with his black coworker, might be presented as the face of the product in question. It was during this period that the notion of the "token" or accompanying African American gained traction and cachet in the parlance of the nation. As a rule, there were no commercials that presented a black male or female where no white was present. There were virtually no black celebrities pitching products, with the possible exception of actor-comedian Bill Cosby (b. 1937).
In essence, this situation reflected the perceived financial reality of the marketplace. While of course African Americans were consuming products, they were not considered a viable enough market sector to warrant the production of commercials, and the marketing executives assumed—and thereby promoted—a reality in which consumers would not readily turn to a product represented by an African American spokesperson.
In the arts, the situation was sometimes better when an insulated venue was involved. The 1980s saw, for example, the plays of August Wilson (b. 1945) and the painting of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). These artists, however, continued to face the daunting racial reality when it came to the acceptance and promotion of their work. The question always lingered: despite their success, was the art celebrated in part because they were African American? Nevertheless, this period was also the testing ground that produced the artists, entertainers, and musicians who forever changed both the perception of African Americans and the perception of American culture around the world. The greatest example is most likely the "King of Pop," Michael Jackson (b. 1958). The moniker echoes that of "the King," Elvis Presley(1935-1977), and it is not ingenuous to compare the wild international popularity of Jackson and his music with the phenomenon of Presley in the days when network television stations cropped the bottom half of the screen in order to protect viewers from his gyrating hips. When Jackson performed his famous "moonwalk" it was literally history in the making, and unlike the black musical stars that had gone before him, Jackson catapulted into the stratospheres of superstardom, with all the attendant wealth and media circumspection that had to date been afforded to only the most mainstream of cultural superstars.
It could be argued that while the Civil Rights movement had worked to tear down the walls of overt discrimination, it was not any moral imperative but rather money—and the awesome success of such entertainers as Jackson—that began to create a new cultural reality in the United States. That said, there was a sense during these years that there was a new cultural rubber-stamping that occurred with these megastars. As Spike Lee's film, Do the Right Thing (1989), suggested, an Italian American in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn might have had as a favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and as a favorite athlete, Michael Jordan (b. 1963), yet have simultaneously continued to hold views of African Americans as dishonest, dangerous people—qualities of character that were the exact opposite of those he associated with his black cultural heroes. In many ways, this goes back to the issues of classism versus racism in the changing American society: A black American with an inordinate amount of wealth and the attendant social status was, in effect, made temporarily and honorarily white.
THE CLINTON YEARS
In contrast to the numbing realities of life for African Americans during the Reagan and Bush years, the 1990s brought the beginnings of a change in African Americans' social realities. There was almost a sense that the Republicans had been looking backward, working to hold onto a version of race relations in the United States that pertained to the 1950s and early 1960s. Meanwhile, however, much had been changing, and by the time William Jefferson Clinton entered office in 1993, there was a groundswell of the already changed and the ready to be recognized and a subsequent momentum that caught the nation unawares, creating one of those moments where history and national identity seem to turn on a dime.
From the first moment Clinton took office, he promised that his cabinet "would look like America does" and went on to appoint a range of African Americans, Hispanics, and women to important positions. This was in complete contrast to the preceding administrations: While Bush had paid lip service to the values of diversity, he had kept himself cloistered in an old boy's network of conservatives and various captains of industry. Clinton in his first years in office created a bedrock of support, turning to Wall Street, Hollywood, the unions, and the leaders of various minority groups. History will likely show that many of Clinton's overtures to the African American leadership and people were at times cosmetic. For many he will be forever remembered for the compromises he made, by which some in the African American community felt profoundly betrayed. He signed into law the legislation that effectively put into motion welfare reform, jettisoning hundreds of thousands from the welfare rolls, and to some degree he ignored the black leadership when it came to the critical battles of his presidency. There can be no doubt, however, that during the eight years of the Clinton presidency the nation underwent dramatic changes in regard to the lives of African Americans, their image in American culture, and their sense of self.
The causes of these changes are manifold, and not as easy to identify or obvious as they might seem at cursory glance. As mentioned above, a national leadership that seemed intent upon giving African Americans their place in the national spotlight and treating with gravity issues that involved minorities, along with an oratory of inclusion that on more than one occasion recalled the ennobling tones of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, had the effect of framing the national debate on race in a light that had perhaps never been seen in the country's entire history. During the period of scandal and the "criminalizing of political difference" that began with the investigation into a failed Arkansas savings and loan and culminated during the president's second term with the investigation of an affair between the president and a subordinate, Clinton almost invariably had the support of African Americans. Indeed, the vitriol with which his critics parsed the president's testimony and examined the details of his personal life looked quite familiar to many black Americans. The president's poor origins in southern Arkansas, his inclination to turn to the Reverend Jesse Jackson (b. 1941) in times of personal crisis and prayer, and even his personal appetites and his attitude toward sexuality—all of these seemed to recall that "other" that various elements of the political hierarchy in the nation had sought to banish, discredit, and "keep in its place" during each and every era of American history.
AFRICAN AMERICAN SPORTS FIGURES AT THE CLOSE OF THE CENTURY
During the 1980s and 1990s, the nation saw an explosion of black talent in a range of sports. While major league baseball had seen Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) win the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, by the mid-1990s the sport had a roughly equal number of black and white players, with the player ranks disproportionately weighted toward the Latin American ballplayers, who excelled in the sport. In other major sports (with the exception of hockey), this trend had gone much further than it had in baseball. Basketball and football had become sports where, for all intents and purposes, all but a few players were people of color. Because of the will to win and the desire of owners to fill their stadiums and make profits, sports had simply turned to whoever performed best. As a result, even the sports that were traditionally white and that had been born out of the tradition of leisure and entitlement, such as golf, saw the arrival of superstar players of color, such as Tiger Woods (b. 1975).
THE EMERGENCE OF BLACK SUPERSTARS IN HOLLYWOOD
In 2002 African Americans won Academy Awards for both best actor (Denzel Washington [b. 1954]) and best actress (Halle Berry [b. circa 1968]). This stood in dramatic contrast to previous decades, in which only one African American, Sidney Poitier, had ever won for best actor, and none had ever won for best actress. The long-overdue event was certainly in large part a result of the clearly extraordinary performances of Washington and Berry. As always with award shows, however, politics played at least a small role, with the industry realizing it was both shameful and ridiculous, considering the breadth of talented African American actors out there, that none had won a lead actor Academy Award for more than four decades.
That said, those four decades were characterized by a range of stereotypical limitations on the roles that black actors were offered. Beyond the infamous reality of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, in which African Americans almost always found themselves limited to the roles of street thugs, the parts that followed were often of the action variety. There are a number of African American actors who have made incredible strides in finding more complex and humanizing roles. Washington, Samuel L. Jackson (b. circa 1948), Angela Bassett (b. circa 1958), Will Smith (b. 1968), Cuba Gooding Jr. (b. 1968), Jada Pinkett Smith (b. circa 1971), Wesley Snipes (b. 1962), Ving Rhames (b. 1961), and Berry are actors who, beyond being able to hold their own in terms of the Hollywood money machine, have also managed to find roles originally conceived for whites or simply written without the usual baggage of preconceptions as to which roles are "right" for African Americans. Nevertheless, the list is clearly very thin where black women actors are concerned, and even for these privileged few it is a constant battle to find quality scripts.
There can be no doubt that Hollywood is opening up. As is the case with television, the American public seems to have a very healthy appetite for talented young African American performers who at once entertain and, perhaps, at the same time assuage some guilt regarding the troubled relationship between the races. America has always had an appetite for its own dark side, as witnessed in film noir, gangster films, and thrillers. Much the way tongue-in-cheek urban sidemen (often with Italian or Irish ethnic overtones) were a staple of the films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, African Americans are coming to occupy a very regular place in the narratives Americans consume. Nevertheless, as long as the major players in Hollywood's studio system and those who produce films continue to be people of other ethnic backgrounds, African Americans will continue to suffer from the traditional "black/white" dialectic, and Americans will continue to get a picture of black America that is not without racist or at least prejudicial overtones.
In music, the successes of Michael Jackson were followed by a generation of African American superstars, male and female. By the time rap and hip-hop had exploded across the nation (and the world), not only was mainstream American popular culture dominated by the music of African Americans, but that music was also acting as a vehicle out of impoverishment and as an expression of those origins.
Some would argue that the consumption of black culture as "popular music" by a white mainstream audience goes as far back as the music itself does, and there can be no doubt that the appropriation of black culture by the mainstream is a staple of the troubled rapport between the two sides in American society. Even so, the late 1980s and 1990s did see those two sides begin to blur. Within the hip-hop community, there was the emergence of African American media moguls. There was the explosion of African American athletes, not as sheer examples of physical prowess, but as role models and figures of fascination for the nation as a whole. There was the rise of African American actors and entertainers and the accompanying stories about their families, their homes, and children, not to mention the appearance of a fourth television network committed in large part to programming portraying blacks. In a society in which Hollywood, sport, and the pursuit of fame have become largely equated with that other holy grail of American values, the "pursuit of happiness," the viewing public's attention is focused on those African American stars who have managed to distinguish themselves in their careers. These advances, while not ubiquitous, were affecting the lives of African Americans in many areas of the country, particularly the coastal and major metropolitan regions, and they had begun to slowly change the tenor of the perception of "main-stream" America.
TELEVISION AND THE NEW AMERICAN CULTURE
There were even more powerful changes going on below the surface of American society in the last years of the twentieth century. As a result of these changes, the improving quality of life for African Americans was not entirely cosmetic or experienced only by those in positions of power. In the early and mid-1990s, for the first time in their sixty-year history, the standards and practices departments of the major television networks instituted a new set of guidelines governing the content and language of national programming. This development provides an example of a key point: that it was not moral imperatives but rather the sheer force of the capitalist machine and its drive for profits that did more to advance a changing reality for blacks in America around the end of twentieth century than any other thing. As a result of newly institutionalized and refined systems of polling, the major television networks began to promote a series of values that were far more positive for African Americans. The same data that enabled programming to venture to the edge of indecency (using words such as ass and suck ) also told the executives that programs that showed minorities in a positive light had a marked advantage over other programs. The people who enforced an unspoken code of national morality, stipulating, for example, that cigarettes be smoked only in scenes of stress or in a clearly negative light and that bad characters receive a moral retribution by plot's end, were demanding a new presentation of blacks in the media that in many ways turned the old stereotypical world (present right up until the preceding decade) on its head. Executives rushed to create shows that showed "edgy"African Americans living decent family lives in which positive moral conclusions were reached by the end of each episode. This was a new spin on The Cosby Show of the 1980s, a show that clearly must be largely responsible for showing the executives that African American family life could garner high Nielsen ratings and advertising dollars. Now blacks were present across the board in the vast majority of "docudramas" as a proportionate representative of an integrated and heroic team, and the newer networks (namely Fox) played with police dramas in which the majority of the cast were either people of color, other minorities, or women. During this period the number of black celebrities and near-celebrities skyrocketed.
At the same time the representation of African Americans in advertising was completely different from that of the 1970s and early 1980s. The "buddy" commercials were still there, but it was not always entirely clear, however, who was the buddy, the white or black figure—or perhaps both!—one for each market sector being courted. More revealing was that African American housewives, mothers, and families were often pictured on their own, representing a product clearly meant to be consumed across the racial spectrum. It was not uncommon to find major national brands advertised through multiyear campaigns in which the sole spokesperson was an African American. These changes represent an astonishing shift in the national perception of African Americans. Working-class white people are presented as having comfortable daily relations with their black counterparts, and for youth markets the images of blacks and whites are often those of people who do not distinguish whatsoever on the basis of race (provided all are of the same class denomination). More to the point, one has to wonder about what effect this bombardment of images of easygoing race relations, not to mention the wit and sarcasm at the troubling issues of the American racial past that is sometimes featured in the advertising, is having on those areas of middle America where a lack of integration, or even various casual and not-so-casual forms of segregation, have persisted.
THE 2000 CENSUS AND DAWNING OF A MULTIRACIAL AMERICA
In the year 2000, a painstaking new census was completed, and the implications were readily apparent to all who chose to look. Among other findings, the heart of the new census lay in the image of a multiracial America very different from the notion of the "melting pot" at the turn of the previous century. Essentially the melting pot referred to an America in which many groups were in contact with one another. The new census described an America in which those culturally and ethnically mixed groups had already produced one or more generations of offspring and readily identified themselves as belonging to all of their ethnic origins. First and foremost, the census suggested that around the year 2020 "white" Americans would be outnumbered by "minority" Americans, in effect making whites the minority. The reality, however, was a little more startling that that. The previous decades had always encouraged the divisions of "white," "black,""Native American," and so on. This census, however, showed not only the growth of groups of people of color but also an unwillingness among even "white" Americans to be collectively lumped as such. The last decades had seen a change in the way in which Americans named themselves, and many now identified with a primary source of ancestry, such as "Italian American" or "Irish American. "Perhaps most important was the explosion of the groups who considered themselves as "mixed-race" or "other. "The stigma attached to being of mixed ancestry had, apparently, begun to lessen, or even been forgotten, and millions now recognized and celebrated multiple ancestries, rather than categorizing themselves with more convenient labels. Census workers admitted that if the questions had been asked in a way that recognized more groups, or had been phrased more euphemistically (instead of using the terms "mixed-race" and "other," which were themselves not present on earlier censuses), the number of people who identified themselves as having multiple ancestries might have been far greater. In the end, of course, the result of the census is determined by the way the questions are asked.
Whatever the case, there can be no question that, as the nation destigmatizes the notion of race and the "politically correct" language of identity becomes further institutionalized, all of the ideas of America that have dominated public and political discourse over previous centuries, and even previous decades, are being rapidly reevaluated. This can only be good for African Americans, because "the dualism of the white folk mind," as the novelist Ralph Ellison described the binary black and white approach to American identity, has over the centuries consistently aligned African Americans with the negative end of that equation. This is no small thing. If there is anything the careful study of American history shows us, it is that the mechanisms that have enforced the disenfranchisement of black America are not so simple as some prejudicial attitude taken up one day and just as easily discarded the next. Rather, they ride in lockstep with the currents of Western civilization, dating back to Enlightenment values of day and night, light and dark, black and white, and good and evil, and before that to the human animal's most primitive fears.
So where are we in the early twenty-first century? Is it possible that, as America discovers its multicultural self, we are in fact traveling back toward the multiple and contradictory faces of reality once celebrated in the traditional African cosmogonic belief systems? Is it possible that we might be on the tapering end of the half millennia of negative values ascribed inherently to Africans and Africans in the New World? There can be no doubt that there is much work to be done. That said, if there is any one thing all of the historical and sociological study teaches us, it is that those who believe in themselves, whether they must simply ignore or even lie to themselves about the forces arrayed against them, are the ones who lead the lives worth living. And perhaps even more importantly, they are the ones who continue to push the equation forward, creating a history we can be proud of and a history that is itself slowly turning things around.
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