Thursday, October 1, 2009

What Kanye Knows, The Oracle on Race Relations

My Spin-

Kanye West is not crazy. In fact, I like to think of Mr. West as the racial barometer of the nation, his outburst being the measurement of the woes facing our nation that are often inaudible by others. For me, Kanye is the truth. While he may be eccentric and emotionally drained at this point in his career, I am not prepared to dismiss his outburst at the MTV Video Music awards as a Hennessy filled rant. Instead, his actions are a revealing look into the countries current feelings around racism.

“Kanye West was right”. Those were the words on t-shirts being sold in Brooklyn following Kanye’s graphic exposure of the Bush administrations inability to support the displaced people of Hurricane Katrina. We all remember the way Kayne’s face looked as he shocked the world, and even himself, by saying “George Bush does not care about Black people”. At that moment, his words spoke to the feeling that many were having about the racial disparities following the hurricane.

Moving forward to 2009 and Mr. West has taken the microphone from a sweet faced young White girl who sings country music and believes that she has taken an accolade from another more deserving Black artist during the MTV Video Music Awards broadcast. Silence filled Radio City Music Hall as everyone gasped. Was his timing just off? Perhaps it was the fact that he was expressing his feelings about the disrespect being shown in the awarding of a girl who represents the epitome of white America?

Perhaps Kanye was reverberating an unspoken feeling about what is happening around race relations in America. Let’s be honest, there is nothing new about Black people pushing for equality and justice. The struggles of racism in the 1960’s and ‘70s ushered in civil rights legislation that supposedly removed barriers to success for African-Americans. Black people were told that if they could not succeed, then it was their own fault and with that a new lexicon of coded speech began to include words like ”melting pot”, “culture of poverty” ,“war on drugs” and “welfare queen”. This new language replaced open conversation about racism and forced our racial lens to erode.

With all the subtleties in language around racism in America we have been struggling to give voice to the structural realities of racism that are still holding our country back. The structural arrangement that perpetuates racism is no accident. Lee Atwater, chief strategist for President Regan’s administration, gave a telling interview to Alexander Lamis, a political scientist, laying out the strategy of that administration. In the interview, Atwater explains that “You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Enter “Post Racial” America. This phrase has become the definition of our nations complicated history around the fight against racism and the misdirection of language that was used to lull us into a belief in a faux “color blind” society. Yet for all the musing around the term “post racial” we can’t help but realize that the moment we elected Barack Obama our nations President we ran squarely against what it means to really be in a “post racial” country.

Week after week, we have seen attacks against people who, by all standards, are qualified and above reproach. None are more glaring then the attacks against President Obama. From the New York Times cartoon that illustrated a monkey being shot with a caption that refers to finding someone else to write the stimulus bill to the outrage people felt during the healthcare townhall meetings to Rep. Joe Wilson calling the President of the United States a liar during his address to the joint session of congress. Even Professor Henry Louis Gates, a noted Harvard University academic, gets arrested while trying to open the door of his home. We can feel the ripping of the seams on our “post racial” America and people are mad- real mad.

As Kanye West took to the stage and pulled the microphone from White America’s hand he could have been saying that Black America is not going to stand by and watch a more talented and more justly deserving Black person being disrespected - or he could have been just a jerk. But I like to think that he was not even talking about the disrespect shown to Beyonce but rather he was signaling that Black America is tired of the disrespect shown to the best of the best – President Obama.

Submitted by: Jessica Norwood

The ideas relayed in this opinion piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the Emerging ChangeMakers Network or its membership.

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Deren Kellogg said...

I thought West was courageous in speaking out after Katrina. I also agree that some of the viciousness of criticism of President Obama is motivated by racism. However, I also think that what West did at the MTV Video Awards was rude and inexcusable. It's a matter of opinion whether Beyonce was more deserving of the award or not (let me say, I don't like country music and I've never even heard a Taylor Swift song). However, it's ridiculous to say the Beyonce was 'disrespected'just because she didn't win that one award. She DID win the most important award, for Best Video! If West thought Beyonce was being shafted, he should have chosen a different forum to express his opinion. If he wants to speak out about racist criticism of President Obama, he should just do it openly. There's just no excuse for spoiling someone else's moment, especially when the person supposedly benefiting (Beyonce) did not ask for nor encourage such behavior.

qhooker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
qhooker said...

Thank you for truly deciphering what Kanye did not,living in the moment as he often does. His actions spoke volumes and yes it is frustrating from an artist's standpoint to watch award show after award show as money talks and talent walks. Walks in the door and out,empty handed, that is. There's no money in genius but boy there's a million in foolishness. I understand that MTV must speak to a Taylor Swift demographic however, we're so often welcome to perform but then overlooked when it comes to accolades. Maybe he decided to speak his mind for those that did not and could not in the past. Still seems that we are talented minstrels who are expected to have the talent of Michael,Whitney and Beyonce rolled into one but, any blond artist can get up and hum half a tune and walk out with more than they're due. Kanye, for me, spoke to the notion that we as artists,as a people, deserve our just due.He spoke up almost in delay if you ask me. I'm sure he has sat through many an award show and has seen the talented overlooked for what "pop culture" has stolen or recycled and labeled worthy of award.
We have always known that the balance is shifted in this country toward those who established this country on the backs of slaves.It's an unstated these days as affirmative action, we're told, has no place and racism no longer exists. Until Kanye got up and reminded us we had almost forgotten. Wink! I kid. We understand one colored person in office does not eliminate that notion. Anytime Barrack, a former constitutional law professor can do his job better than the last man and has been handed the flag as an apparent challenge (after George Bush wiped his and his Mama and Daddy's hind parts with it) and told to shine the eagle until it glows in the dark and is then condemned when he does not after a mere 120 days in office.I have always and still understand that the scales have yet to be balanced. Kanye spoke out of turn but then again since when did you have to speak in turn to demand rights!? Wait til' you're blue in the face and that day will never come. Speak up Kanye for those of us who wait in turn and play by the rules! Then when you do be not apologetic but ask them,"are you not entertained?!"

Emerging ChangeMakers Network said...

I am feeling this comment of "are you not entertained". That is so powerful. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd!

Julia said...

I'm feeling the Emerging ChangeMakers blog. I've been enjoying the dialogue and discussion. Great work, Jessica! :)

But onto this topic... Kanye West being the racial barometer of the nation? Really? If our generation is looking to someone like Kanye to be the gauge of how people should be thinking about race in America, then we have some serious work to do to raise the visibility of young organizers that actually do have a sharp political analysis to share so that we can get some real dialogue going. ((Yaaaay for Emerging ChangeMakers for stepping up to this task!))

I actually think that most of Kanye's comments are self-serving to help to drive his own record sales. Even the remarks he makes that are right on point politically essentially create a buzz that further contributes to his popularity and serves his image as music's bad-boy.

Kanye definitely reflected what much of Black America was feeling post-Katrina with regard to the Bush administration's racist policies and total disregard for Black lives in the Gulf south. I'm glad he said what he said. More folks should have stepped up and expressed the same outrage.

But his comments at the VMA's seemed a far cry from any political conscious statements that he has made in the past. Let's be real - Beyonce IS incredibly talented and deserving of many kudos AND MTV has a long history of ignoring musical accomplishments made by our communities. BUT she is also one of his musical collaborators and the wife of a man that helped to catapult him into fame. So, his outbursts seemed more of a biased tantrum than any kind of political statement against MTV's lack of representation of Black people and music.

At the end of the day, I guess I just don't believe that Kanye is that deep. I've listened to his records - yeah, he drops a few lines in a number of tracks that speak some real truth. But I've also seen the photo shoot of a fully clothed Kanye and his butt naked girlfriend splayed over him as if she's some accessory piece.

This was a very interesting an thought-provoking piece, but I would definitely not put him in the category of folks like Amiri Baraka, Angela Davis, Jessica Norwood :), etc. that truly ARE racial barometers of our time!