Soul Searching On Ice
The cover story of the March 18 edition of People magazine focused on racism in Hollywood and concluded that the "the continued exclusion of African-Americans" from the film industry is "a national disgrace." The publication, a product of Time Warner/Turner's publishing division, conducted a four-month examination of Hollywood's hiring practices and found numerous examples of racist exclusion. Interestingly, the magazine could have investigated the executive offices of its corporate parent -- or better yet, its own reporting staff -- and found similarly disgraceful examples of racism. But why quibble? People's decision to focus such public attention on such a pervasive yet unreported problem is worthy of praise.No sooner had praise been registered for People's new and mystifying sense of social conscience, when Cond Nast's The New Yorker devoted its entire April 29 and May 6 double issue to matters "Black In America." The edition featured an all-black cast of staff writers considering a wide array of subjects, from Minister Louis Farrakhan to life in experimental all-black communities in Oklahoma. A breezy essay noting the cultural centrality but economic marginality of African-Americans to American life opens the issue. Penned by editor Hendrik Hertzberg and guest editor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the essay recounts the history of African-American presence and concludes: "The history that is at the root of the 'differentness' of blacks -- what might be called African-American exceptionalism -- cannot be changed. There is only one option, and it is to make our country live up to its nominal creed."While the country was still digesting the food for thought offered in The New Yorker special, word came that Nightline, ABC's "weighty" news show, was devoting an entire week to exploring issues of race relations in late May. In May, officials at Turner Broadcasting's (i.e., Time Warner/Turner's) CNN also announced it would schedule several "Special Reports" on issues of race relations.Suddenly, issues of race relations are in vogue and receiving a long-overdue public hearing. Several questions are provoked by this apparent concert in focusing on racial issues. Why? is one."I think many Americans were truly troubled by the extent of racial polarization demonstrated in the varied reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict," says Michael Eric Dyson, director of the Institute of African-American Research and professor of communication studies at the University of North Carolina. "I think that some of these program decisions were made with those considerations in mind." Although he welcomes the attention such efforts focus on the problem of racism, Dyson decries the "squandered opportunity to really educate the American public about the most serious and intractable aspects of U.S. racism: white supremacy."The author of several books on racial issues, including Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, Dyson believes that real solutions to our racial impasse are located in the reordering of white supremacist culture. Dyson and other black cultural critics -- such as bell hooks and Cornel West, who call themselves "radical democrats" -- have sharpened their attacks on Eurocentric conceptions of Western culture that systematically ignore or devalue the civilizational contributions of Africa's children. They argue that notions of white supremacy are not limited to the ravings of Aryan Nation and Ku Klux Klan types, but saturate the common understanding of Western civilization. "From Hume to Hegel and Jefferson, and on to the contemporary age," Dyson writes, "Western political thought is pervaded with presumptions of white supremacy and its corollary, black inferiority."Such issues rarely receive reasoned consideration in the mass media, Dyson and others complain, and this partially accounts for the surprise most whites have registered at the widening rift between races in America. "Sure, I think a lot of whites were shocked by the extreme levels of polarization," says Robert Starks, political science professor at Chicago's Northeastern University and a black nationalist. "They were saying, 'Damn, I thought I knew how these black folks think, but I guess I don't.' So from that point of view, I think they were shocked that black people were increasingly impervious to their propaganda."Starks notes that the October 16 Million Man March succeeded despite the mainstream media's attempt first to devalue the event and, failing that, to demonize it. "I'm sure many people were surprised that more than 1 million black men would ignore the relentlessly negative coverage the march and Minister Farrakhan received and travel to Washington anyway," he says.According to Starks, Nightline's choice of experts for the concluding episodes of its recent series laid bare the media's motives in discussing race issues. "Their ideological range was so narrow," Starks says. "They had a few liberals and a slew of conservatives. Where were the ideological leftists and the nationalists?"Starks argues that the mainstream media's new interest in the race question derives from its need to control the parameters of the answer. The New Yorker's black-oriented issue, he argues, is no exception. Starks and other black nationalists particularly deride the growing influence of Henry Louis Gates Jr, W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and chair of the department of Afro-American studies at Harvard University.The idea for the magazine's April 29-May 6 all-black edition, and much of its resultant flavor, owes much to Gates' efforts. His excellent journalism is becoming a fixture in The New Yorker and other prestigious organs of literate liberalism. But more importantly, Gates is increasingly assuming a role akin to that of Booker T. Washington at the turn of the century; he is becoming white America's favorite custodian of the black experience.One of the first recipients of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, the 44-year-old Gates has become an academic superstar. He initially gained fame for unearthing Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, the first novel published by a black person in the United States. He later became known as an innovative literary theorist, incorporating elements of postmodern and vernacular theory in his writing. His prolific scholarly output and his entrepreneurial abilities soon made him one of the most sought-after academics in recent years. Beginning his academic career at Yale, Gates later moved to Cornell, Duke and in 1991 to Harvard, where he has become something of an impresario, attracting top national talent to Harvard and transforming the school's black studies department into one of the country's premier academic programs.Gates' prominence has provoked disparate responses: Some welcome his access as an opportunity to keep black concerns in the forefront of liberal politics, while others condemn him as apolitical. In the withering words of social critic Adolph Reed Jr., Gates is only "interpreting the opaquely black heart of darkness for whites." Reed, a left-leaning professor of political science at Northwestern University, opposes Starks' black nationalism, but both agree that Gates has exercised a "demobilizing" influence.People magazine's expos of Hollywood racism also provoked some ambivalence among black observers. "The film industry has always been a disaster area for black participation," Dyson says. "The People magazine story should be applauded. They did the best of what pop journalism can be expected to do. The story can make a difference, if we use the information it provided effectively. And we also have to insist that they follow-up on their expos."Milwaukee-based nationalist Taki Raton, however, detects an ulterior motive behind the recent coverage of race in People, The New Yorker and Nightline: profit. "They all expanded their market share by dealing with race issues," he says. "I purchased a People magazine for the first time in my life because of the headline about racism in Hollywood, and I bet you I wasn't alone. And I'm sure that a lot more middle-class blacks look a lot more favorably at The New Yorker because of its black issue. It's capitalism pure and simple -- white capitalism at that."Raton may be right, but he also misses a more important point. The polarizing events of 1995 forced many Americans to look deeply into the ugly soul of our apartheid culture -- and it wasn't a pretty sight. The depressing images that were revealed underscored how urgently this country needs to find a way out of its racial impasse. The recent spurt of media attention devoted to racial issues may indeed be a knee-jerk reaction to the unpleasant revelations of 1995. But if the effort isn't supported, reinforced and sustained, it simply will sputter out.