Has Tina Brown Learned Anything From the L.A. Riots?

Unless the public prints are blowing smoke, race is back on America's front burner--the right clichee for a topic that never leaves the stove. "Back to Segregation," the cover of Time recently declared, achieving the nifty double whammy of both stating the obvious about its subject (public schooling) and expressing the formerly unthinkable. Meanwhile, Tina Brown followed up The New Yorker's special women's issue, just like the world had been begging for more, with another entitled "Black in America," whose cover illo certainly made a statement; at their first glimpse of that Mohawk-coiffed, war-painted silhouette where Eustace Tilley used to roam, the hearts of Native American subscribers everywhere must have clenched with a fierce if soon dashed pride. While the renewed public discussion of race has mushroomed well past the point of needing a specific referent, it clearly owes a lot of its oomph to the attention-grabbing curtain-raiser of--and I promise I won't mention it again--the O.J. trial. But as a onetime Angeleno, I also find myself looking back a few years more to the much larger event whose strangely muted aftermath, fairly startlingly, didn't inaugurate an extended national debate about whether we could/should all get along--namely, the Los Angeles riots of '92, whose fourth anniversary overlapped The New Yorker's special issue apparently by sheer accident. Back then, around the time the air in my moderately looted but thankfully untorched neighborhood went back to being just smoggy instead of charred-smelling, I simply took it for granted that the events of the past few days were going to play a seismic role in upcoming social debates, not to mention in deciding that fall's presidential contest. Since I'd cut my first teeth as a politics dork during the 1968 election, and didn't think the white backlash that turned code-phrase appeals to "law and order" into Richard Nixon's open-sesame had gotten any less virulent in the interim, my further expectation, foolishly proffered in print, was that L.A. had just handed George Bush the key to hanging onto the White House--which is why I'm not about to rue the fact that I guessed wrong about the riots having a political impact. All the same, the way they flat-out vanished from society's radar screen was remarkable. Dutifully photo-opping in South Central soon after the fires went out, if only because he didn't want to piss off Maxine Waters (would you?), candidate Clinton mulched his way through a few pieties; Bush had previously contributed a couple of canards. Next, aside from an invidious (and baseless) vignette in Pat Buchanan's notorious Houston speech that August, came--not a peep. Nobody running for office wanted to talk about the riots, and apparently nobody out there in voterland much wanted to hear about them either. Despite its acres of ruins and 50-plus body count, the largest-scale U.S. civic disturbance in our time became a nonevent almost instantly, and has pretty much stayed one since. However, this clearly isn't just a case of the dominant culture papering over a mess, like those fake windows that Ed Koch slapped up on gutted South Bronx buildings years ago. So far as I can tell, the L.A. riots don't seem to have become much of an enduring touchstone, pro, con, or ambivalent, among black Americans either--aside from Maxine Waters, who fights the good fight for her district just like she takes the title Representative seriously or something. Hitting town just as the unrest peaked, Jesse Jackson was a dynamo of compassion, militance, and good sense--yet he's seldom if ever harked back to April '92, not even to prod Bill Clinton into dealing with ye olde fire next time. At a somewhat more rarefied level of public rhubarb-rhubarb, Cornel West's Race Matters came out soon afterward, but similarly shunned making paradigmatic use of what West chose to call neither uprising nor riot, but rather "the events." I seriously doubt that the explanation for this reticence was any sudden timorousness on Jackson's, West's, or anyone else's part, or even mere tactical expediency. More likely, it came from their recognition that, from a purely empirical standpoint, asserting an across-the-board, '60s-style solidarity between South Central L.A. and black America writ large was too outdated to be tenable--and maybe more reductive than resonant. As paradigms go, the key difference between L.A. '92 and, say, Watts '65 wasn't what got brought up, since the circumstances that triggered the turmoil had indeed changed appallingly little a generation later. Nonetheless, it was clear even at the time that the far more polyglot sequel was a reaction to class oppression quite as much as the racial kind--and what that meant, in terms of black America writ large, was that the '92 riots also left a lot out. In real life, of course, black experience in America stopped being monolithic as soon as the first boatload of survivors of the Middle Passage stood onshore watching the arrival of the second, and maybe sooner than that. But for most of U.S. history, and certainly in my own day, the illusion that black Americans make up a single entity has been valuable not only to their white compatriots, who sympathetic or un- have tended to feel daunted by the complicated alternatives, but to black political leaders themselves, for the unassailably pragmatic reason that when a beleaguered minority hopes to assert itself the need to present a unified front is paramount. Yet even as a convenient public shorthand, the fallacy of a monolithic or even neatly categorizable black experience has been coming unglued in recent years, I suspect (and hope) for good. That was certainly one of the undertows of the Clarence Thomas hearings--not only because of Thomas's what's-wrong-with-this-picture Reagan Republicanism, or the fact that until that famous pubic hair on the Coke can turned her into a feminist heroine Anita Hill had shared her boss's politics. The hearings also acquainted much of middle America, no doubt to even some white liberals' considerable surprise, with a post-radical generation of young black government careerists whose untraditional attitudes and priorities weren't easily reduced to any shorthand. After all, everybody's favorite witness was John Doggett--who was preposterous, but preposterous in a style that bowed to no one's preconceptions of how somebody like John Doggett ought to think. If only by default, the increasing irreducibility of black American life to the patness of either what's-wrong or what's-right-with-this-picture ends up as the theme of Tina Brown's high-concept gallimaufry, too. Since the inevitably patronizing premise behind this sort of package is that the nature of the lucky minority under consideration can indeed be boxed up and wrapped like a Christmas present ("Wow, socks! Gee, thanks, Aunt Tina!"), you could say the result leaves Brown hoisted on her own petard, but then again, what kind of name is "Ard" for a pet anyhow? So long as she's making a splash, I'm sure she could care less. Speaking of Clarence Thomas, a highlight here is Jeffrey Rosen's meticulous exposition of Thomas's judicial philosophy--which Rosen, simply by treating it as one, compels even the most skeptical reader to consider as something more than the bone spurs grown by Thomas's abrasive personality. You obviously don't need to endorse Thomas's draconian version of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps to agree that the Anita Hill case made it too easy to dismiss his views summarily, brushing aside their venerable lineage (by way of Booker T. Washington) in African American political thought. But the subsequent emergence of numbers of black right-wingers who aren't tainted by suspicion of perjuring themselves before a Senate committee has also made it harder to treat Thomas as an ideological anomaly. The truth is, it would be remarkable if he were, given The New Yorker's discovery, via a specially commissioned poll to whose results one can only add a hearty "Duh," that plenty of African Americans are far more conservative on nonracial social issues than you'd ever guess from their leadership. White lefties probably fail to appreciate the risk of offending a sizable chunk of churchgoing black America that Jesse Jackson takes in favoring gay rights, for instance, or abortion. Jackson, though, can hardly be unaware of it, and that's doubtless one reason why he's chosen to ecumenically recast himself as a/the leader of America's left rather than its black people--a shift Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes in his profile of Louis Farrakhan, who still wants the other gig. Gates's piece is remarkable in many ways--in turning him into a reporter, Tina Brown may have scored the smartest editorial coup since Esquire's Harold Hayes got Garry Wills to take his nose out of the classics--but not the least of them is its author's cool refusal to perform as either an apologist or a Judas, until recently (until now, in fact) the only roles that black opinion-makers have been permitted, or felt able, to assume when tackling Farrakhan-the-polarizer, always a more vital topic for white America than Farrakhan the man. Although he's a de facto political heavyweight himself, Gates nevertheless doesn't schematize his take on Farrakhan to suit either his own or anyone else's notions of which attitude will best serve the cause. He's so uncowed by tactical considerations that he can briskly acknowledge the dread of inauthenticity--"of having been false to our own people, of having sinned against our innermost identity"--that Farrakhan is able to arouse in less adamant African Americans including himself, only to dispose of the issue in a paragraph. It's a small point, but even so, given the wagon-circling mentality forced on prominent black Americans by the depredations of the past two decades, such candor is no minor sign of equanimity in a black writer addressing a readership that, while enlightened as a matter of taste, is still overwhelmingly the hue of Ivory soap. At one point, Gates quotes Adolph Reed Jr.'s observation that Farrakhan's become famous in part because his politics speak directly to "the only [racial] issue (except affirmative action, of course) about which most whites ever show much concern: What do blacks think of whites?" That this is indeed the priority among my fellow people of colorlessness is embarrassingly displayed by the special issue's cartoons, which must have been drawn by the usual-suspect ofays; with few exceptions, they all hinge on black-white encounters, to puerile effect. However, the rest of "Black in America"'s contents don't just get past treating black America's relationship to white America as a be-all and end-all. In the aggregate, they don't even treat black America's blackness as a be-all and end-all. What's most striking about the issue is that assembling this richly varied group of writers, topics, and viewpoints under a single heading seems so arbitrary; they cohere only by editorial fiat. If Dennis Rodman, the subject of a frustratingly abbreviated riff by John Edgar Wideman (Wideman's lead revs things up so you're primed for the Indy 500, but he never gets to leaves the garage), has anything vitally in common with NYSE powerhouse Buddy Fletcher, a special issue about the glories of capitalism--but then again, aren't they all?--would be every bit as plausible an umbrella; in fact, it's my impression that Zoe Heller's otherwise fine profile of Fletcher has to work a bit to make his skin color a prominent theme. And while Gates on Farrakhan, Rosen on Clarence Thomas, and Marshall Frady on Jesse Jackson's family life make more sense as spokes of the same thematic wheel, in practice bringing these three celebs together says less about the range of black America's political options than it does about Tina's well-documented love of big fish. No doubt it's her preference for winners that accounts for the issue's glaring underrepresentation of the millions of black Americans who still bear the brunt of institutionalized racism--you know, poverty, the cops, like that. Yet even if the omission's glaring, it's also instructive; you can't help but recognize that no more than an aspect of black American life has been left out, one that however widespread is no longer conclusive. Then again, widespread still counts for a lot--which is why, at first glance, Time's downbeat cover story on the demise of public-school integration in the cities looked like the perfect sociological riposte to The New Yorker's let-a-hundred-flowers-bloom celebration of black success (which you bet includes Clarence Thomas). But having read it through, I'm no longer sure that such a neat pro-and-con will pass muster. Granted, when it comes to specifics, Time's report is plenty grim--white flight won, the judicial system's fresh out of either new remedies or the stomach to apply them, and since the only way some resource-starved urban school systems ever get the money they need is through state-mandated programs designed to lure back suburban white kids, they're between a rock and a hard place when it comes to prioritizing the needs of black ones. Yet at another level, since it's now black parents and activists who have taken the lead in questioning the value of making all else secondary to "some kind of mythical benefit that black kids will receive by sitting next to a white kid," this is also a story about pushing past the liberal groupthink imposed by a 20-year racial impasse in which the right wing has steadily pushed to contain if not roll back the gains made by the civil rights movement, and the good guys black and white have felt obliged to march in lockstep on their own side of the street, made too understandably anxious by the thought of giving aid and comfort to the enemy to ever reconsider anything on their own. However bummed out we all ought to be by the failures that goaded it into being, doesn't this new readiness to air differences and challenge orthodoxies bespeak a healthy political vigor, not defeat? According to Time, the head of the Yonkers NAACP got suspended last year simply for suggesting that busing had outlived its usefulness, but I would hope that the days of that sort of punishment for heresy are fading; it's hardly a sign of confidence, after all. Bummed or not, I also can't say I'm too surprised that plenty of blacks as well as whites are sick of the whole unwieldy paraphernalia of busing, magnet schools, and so on, since I've always thought the whole approach was misbegotten in attempting to correct social segregation for eight hours a day while leaving the other 16 as separate-and-unequal as ever. "The whole discussion of desegregation is corrupted by the fact that we mix up race and class," Time quotes Harvard sociologist Gary Orfield as saying. "You don't gain anything from sitting next to somebody with a different skin color. But you gain a lot from moving from an isolated poverty setting into a middle-class setting." The obvious cavil here is that even if you buy that, writing off school integration hardly means the class issue will be taken up by society at large instead, any more than it was in the wake of the L.A. riots. Far more likely, many whites will simply sigh with relief that blacks themselves are now endorsing the abandonment of the fight to integrate the schools--and leave it at that. Even so, what whites collectively do or don't do may also count for a whole lot less than it used to--and who's going to look a gift horse like that in the mouth? Among black Americans, this country's eternal racial conversation is clearly already moving onto a new, complex, more variegated, and more open-ended plane, where the concept of collectivity itself has unexpectedly begun to look like a potential candidate for history's junkheap. For all the obvious political risks of any diffusion of black unity--the Gingrich revolution may have spun itself right into a corner for now, but only a Pollyanna would see that as more than a temporary reprieve--in human terms it's long overdue. Although Henry Louis Gates himself stops well short of saying as much, after reading his New Yorker piece it's hard not to wonder whether Farrakhan, in proposing himself as the leader of black America, isn't applying for a job that already no longer exists--you know, sort of like (as I cast about for an appropriate white equivalent) Jay Leno and David Letterman vainly vying for Johnny Carson's vanished throne.


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