Toward a More Perfect Union? (Part One)

I watched Barack Obama’s "Toward A More Perfect Union" in my living room, on a laptop computer with tinny speakers. Like millions of other Americans, I felt a surge of amazement, a sense of expanding possibility, at the sheer fact … Read More

By / July 23, 2009

I watched Barack Obama’s "Toward A More Perfect Union" in my living room, on a laptop computer with tinny speakers. Like millions of other Americans, I felt a surge of amazement, a sense of expanding possibility, at the sheer fact that a black man with a good chance of becoming president was speaking about race and racism on national television for half an hour. Such an eloquent and thoughtful discourse on any topic far exceeds what we have come to accept of American politics; to hold forth on an issue so pernicious and so seldom approached with honesty is remarkable.

My enthusiasm held until Obama let white people off the hook. Though I grasped the political necessity of the move, my expectations of this man were sufficiently high that it was disheartening to hear him fudge the difference between institutional racism and white bitterness. Three weeks earlier, I’d felt a similar sense of letdown when, challenged at a debate in Ohio to further denounce Minister Louis Farrakhan, Obama responded by articulating the need to mend black-Jewish relations, then proceeded to reinscribe the very paradigm that has served to rend them.

I say this as a white person, a Jew, and an enthusiastic Obama supporter. My reaction, it also bears mentioning, was colored by the fact that when the Ohio debate aired I had just published a novel entitled The End of the Jews, which chronicled three generations of a Jewish-American family and also took as its subject the evolving relations between black and Jewish artists throughout the 20th century. "Toward A More Perfect Union" marked the first time I’d sat on my couch in weeks; I had just returned from a book tour speckled with dates at Jewish Community Centers and synagogues, in addition to the standard bookstores and universities.

This level of interaction with Jewish communities was utterly new to me. No one had ever considered me a Jewish writer before, except the white supremacists who’d protested the speaking gigs for my previous novel, Angry Black White Boy, and accused me of "masquerading as white." I was raised by secular parents raised by secular parents, and at the age of twelve I was expelled from the Sunday School And Half-Price Car Wash For The Children Of Agnostic Cultural Jews after getting into a fight with my teacher about whether Satch Sanders of the 1940s Boston Celtics was the only black person in history not to abandon his community after achieving success. It was the culmination of a lesson devoted to the great Jewish Exodus – from Roxbury, Massachusetts in the 1950s, when the blacks moved in.

I won’t blame the encounter for souring me on Judaism; more accurate would be to say that as a kid growing up in a largely Jewish suburb, I simply conflated Jewish with white, and thus my frustration with the complacency and hypocrisy of white liberals (I didn’t know any conservatives) extended automatically to Jews.

The pervasiveness of injustice was something I had always intuited; obsessing over fairness on a personal level is a childhood instinct that can remain personal and fade, or broaden into an analysis of the world and grow stronger. But my absorption in the still-underground culture of hip-hop was what allowed me to confirm that things were not well, very close by and yet in another world altogether.

I believe the music to which one is exposed at twelve is the most important one will ever hear; I was that age in 1988, when Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Stetsasonic, The Jungle Brothers and N.W.A. were articulating the insidious realities of police brutality, a Eurocentric school system, American collusion in South African apartheid, and ghettos ravaged by crack and guns – all over unbelievably dope beats. Thanks to METCO, a busing program that constituted Boston’s uni-directional form of school integration, these tapes made their way to the suburbs and to me.

Hip-hop, at the time, was one of the only sites in American life to dislocate whiteness from its presumed position of centrality. By listening, I was listening in. And only by physically seeking out the parties, the shows, and the record stores that sold 12" singles – all located in the aforementioned Roxbury and other equally un-white neighborhoods – could I hope to participate. Doing so meant venturing outside of comfort zones, rendering myself visible as different.

Soon, it also meant a chance step away ­- semantically, momentarily – from the nimbus of skin privilege and the complicity in injustice it afforded me. This is to say that hip-hop became a different kind of comfort zone: contested, and all the more beloved for it. Hip-hop demanded that I cast off romantic notions of colorblindness and investigate oppression. Not just as a relic of the past, as it was presented in school. Nor as something held at bay by regular donations to the NAACP or the Southern Poverty Law Center. But as something monstrously alive, a fact of life even a fool could see – so long as that fool knew where to look.

By taking casual and institutional racism for granted, hip-hop created space for follow-up questions – quintessentially hip-hop questions like how do we flip this? Well, by exploiting exploitation: by using the black kid as a decoy in the art supply store, while the white kid steals the spraypaint. By having the black kid buy the beer in the white neighborhood, since the old white store owner can’t tell fifteen from twenty-one so long as fifteen is darker than blue.

Of course, nobody ever got carded at Giant Liquors in the ‘Bury; you could ride in on a tricycle and leave with a case of Olde English 800. The realization was sobering, and it was not the only one.

Though it opened my eyes, hip-hop also let me bullshit myself. It permitted me to believe that the opposite of white privilege was not working to dismantle that privilege, but embracing and being embraced by blackness. Thus, as long as my friends were black people who didn’t like white people, I figured I was doing my part. The experience of being a token whiteboy was one of being identified, tested, and ultimately accepted; it was about feeling exceptional, in the word’s truest sense. Had I pondered my status a bit harder, I might have concluded that it was not to be attributed to an uncanny understanding of the plight of black people and the true nature of racism, but rather to the fact that I was a little less oblivious and smug than the average white kid, a little more willing to put myself on the line. Also, I could rap.

It would take me years to realize the flawed nature of some of the racial equations by which I lived, but one thing I did grasp immediately, given the company I kept, was the unspoken difference between the political and the personal. Between Whiteness, as a concept that engendered fury and pointed jokes, and an individual white person, who would be judged on his merits – if he stuck around long enough to realize that a rant about The White Man didn’t mean he ought to leave before he got his ass kicked, but rather the opposite.

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