Monday, December 29, 2008

Saltsman's "We Hate the USA" CD

As one of the many Americans considering a descent on the inauguration ceremonies next month, even without any actual tickets in hand (and nary a perfunctory response to my queries about possibly obtaining some from my local Congressman), I have been following the "transition" fairly closely. And I'm not just talking about the president elect's cabinet picks. I also mean his decisions for the ceremony itself. The brilliant choice of poet Elizabeth Alexander; the more controversial decision to ask Rick Warren to offer up the day's prayer.

Obama is certainly trying to demonstrate his commitment to an inclusive political conversation that allows for many different ideological positions. Frank Rich persuasively challenges the limits and contours of that move vis-a-vis the Warren choice in today's New York Times. But it is clear why Obama feels he has to make such massive gestures in the direction of political inclusion. To his opponents, he represents the unassimilable anti-American. He is the butt of jokes. The threat from within.

Just think about Chip Saltsman's version of holiday gift-giving this year. Saltsman was national campaign adviser for Mike Huckabee during his failed presidential run, and Saltsman is now one of the people vying for head of the RNC. This weekend, we also found out that he sent a CD out to RNC members (as a Christmas gift) that included the song youtubed above, "Barack, The Magic Negro."

But the CD didn't just showcase that gem. According to Rebecca Sinderbrand's CNN report, the CD itself was titled "We Hate the USA," and boasted tunes that poked fun at many other political figures.

According to Sinderbrand and The Hill, the CD included the following song titles: "John Edwards's Poverty Tour," "Wright place, wrong pastor," "Ivory and Ebony" and "The Star Spanglish Banner."

The Star Spanglish Banner?

Saltsman has dismissed the controversy out of hand, describing the CD as a harmelss spoof. "I think most people recognize political satire when they see it," he said. "I think RNC members understand that."

But it is clear that Saltsman comes close to trafficking in the very forms of small-minded xenophobia, race-baiting, partisan hypocrisy, and fear-mongering that helped cost John McCain the 2008 election. To many critics, such a CD looks like political pandering (and scapegoating) at its worst -- and doesn't nearly imply the kind of forward-thinking sensibility needed to take the Republican party where it needs to go. If anything, it appears to be a surefire recipe for many more electoral defeats at the hands of a browning electorate.

However, Saltsman's holiday gesture can also help to explain some of what Obama is up against -- and why a few of his picks (for cabinet and the inaugural dais) can leave many of his supporters unsatisfied.

Saltsman demonstrates the context Obama must negotiate, a politicized landscape where some Republican operatives think that disagreeing with them on substantive policy issues means that you must just "hate the USA."

But Obama can't get caught up in proving himself to these intractable naysayers, even as he tries to embrace those rivals serious about talking honestly (and in good faith) across deep ideological divides.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Racist Grim Reaper?

The election of Barack Obama is supposed to signal (according to some pundits) the beginning of the end for race talk (i.e., publicly expressed concerns about racial discrimination) in contemporary America. However, such predictions underestimate the continuing significance of “race” as a socially salient category that allows pseudo-science to bolster folk empiricism. They also misread the contemporary subtleties of racial discrimination by vulgarizing them. But one comedian's anthropomorphic rendering of Death as a racist reaper helps to showcase the ridiculous nature of such positions.

David Alan Grier’s most recent episode of the comedy show Chocolate News lampoons a certain overly simplistic characterization of racial disparities in health outcomes. Grier’s opening rant reduces those race-based differences to the racist biases of a single personified figure, Death himself.

In his best performative version of “angry black man” meets “Fox News commentator,” Grier asks why White celebrities such as Grammy-winner Amy Winehouse and comedian Artie Lange (both famous for chronic drug abuse) are still alive and successful (Lange’s memoir was actually No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list at the start of this very month) even as a too-young comedian like Bernie Mac was killed by a relatively obscure disease earlier in the year.

Of course, Bernie Mac and Artie Lange are poor stand-ins for the general and systematic inequities between blacks and whites vis-a-vis health-related concerns today. In many ways, however, Grier still successfully captures the unreasonable nature of certain dismissive responses to contemporary invocations of racism, invocations often rejected out of hand as simply playing The Race Card, especially if the accusing party cannot produce a black-hatted culprit as the hyper-intentional source of the problem.

If there is a difference in health outcomes, it must be because of a purposefully prejudiced (and decidedly sentient) being such as Death. Or at least a secret cabal of closeted KKK MD's -- maybe slipping toxins into black patients’ IV's.

Without such clichéd smoking guns conspicuously placed at the scene of supposed racial crimes (and in the absence of any recognizably racist “bad guys” to scapegoat), some people would demand that we all automatically assume racism has little part to play in markedly different health outcomes between racial groups. If anything, such racial differences must have to do with genetics (with evolutionarily dissimilar capacities for, say, salt retention).

In many ways, current debates about racism in American culture have backed us all into a Death-as-racist corner. Without a sinister, animus-filled, and self-proclaimed racist to publicly demonize, we are relegated to only a quietist acceptance of our country’s imagined racial transcendence.

Death isn’t some supernatural creature disproportionately targeting blacks. But that isn’t nearly the only way that race/racism might serve as a productive analytical scaffold for making sense of continued racial disparities in an ostensibly "post-racial" moment.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Spike on Spike

This was the final week of classes for an undergraduate course on Spike Lee that I co-taught with Professor Salamishah Tillet here at the University of Pennsylvania, and Spike Lee was gracious enough to cap off the semester by visiting the class a couple of days ago and answering the students’ questions.

The course, Race Films: Spike Lee and his Interlocutors, was an examination of Spike Lee’s films from a variety of critical perspectives. The syllabus tried to frame our approach:

“This course requires students to think critically about historical and contemporary cinematic representations of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the urban landscape. The class will examine various Spike Lee films for their aestheticization of broader social and cultural phenomena as well as their engagement with larger theoretical and political concerns. Students will be asked to watch the films closely, placing them in explicit conversation with the concepts and arguments that emerge from assigned readings and classroom discussions. By the end of the semester, students should have a richer understanding of not only Spike Lee’s oeuvre but also of how his filmic offerings are ‘read’ from a variety of analytical and political vantage points—as well as across a wide range of genres and disciplines.”

Tillet and I initially wanted the course to be a seminar or small lecture (12 to 25 students), but there was such interest in the topic that we decided to open it up—to almost 100 undergraduates.

We asked students to read across the humanities and the social sciences, using the work of an eclectic group of scholars (such as Guthrie Ramsey, Laura Mulvey, bell hooks, William Julius Wilson, Wahneema Lubiano, Roland Barthes, Barbara Smith, Michael Eric Dyson, Manning Marable, Oscar Gandy, Mark Anthony Neal, Renee Romano, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Taylor Branck, and Kara Keeling) to provide different contexts and subtexts for our engagements with Spike Lee’s films.

We also asked outside speakers to assist us in unpacking specific themes. For example, Kenneth Shropshire helped us to make sense of Spike Lee’s deployments of professional sports. Marc Lamont Hill unpacked Lee's representations of urban violence. Imani Perry offered a poignant interpretation of Lee's political investments in Southern history. Jason Sokol gave us the critical tools to dissect Lee's rendition of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 1960s. Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw asked students to look at the controversial debates about art and aesthetics that often serve as a subtle, but important, backdrop for Spike’s films. And Aishah Shahidah Simmons deconstructed Lee's filmic renditions of homosexuality. The entire semester was quite an ambitious intellectual ride.

Spike Lee also happened to released another film this September, Miracle at St. Anna, which was based on a James McBride novel about at a group of Black soldiers trapped in an Italian village during World War 2. (The students are writing their final papers on some aspect of that film.)

But the highlight of the semester had to be Spike Lee spending two hours with the undergraduates this week, answering their questions and responding with a few of his own.

The students pushed him on a lot of themes, including his much-criticized treatment of female sexuality/subjectivity (from Nola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It to Renata in Miracle at St. Anna), his fascination with professional sports (conspicuous in just about every single “Spike Lee Joint” ever made), his spat with Clint Eastwood earlier this year about representations of race in World War 2 films, his portrayal of white ethnic communities, and on and on.

When it was all done, I kept telling Lee how great a job he did. He laughed, and asked me if I thought he was going to be terrible. I didn't, but sometimes celebrities don’t take such events very seriously. Or they get defensive when students ask hard questions, when students do anything but genuflect obsequiously. But Lee didn’t ask for that.

The students challenged him, respectfully, and he tried to answer them without mincing words or dodging potentially controversial issues—and without simply defending himself or his work from “attacks.” The students really appreciated that. And so did their professors. Spike Lee, thank you.

Kanye Sings...

Kanye West has just released his latest CD, 808s and Heartbreak, an instrumentally pared-down and techno’d-up attempt to voice disillusionment about his recent breakup with his fiancée (several months ago) and the unexpected death of his mother during elective plastic surgery last year.

West if probably best known (especially to folks who aren’t big hip-hop fans) as the celebrity who blasted President Bush during a national telethon because of the government’s slow initial response to Hurricane Katrina. “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” he said. The comment caused quite a stir, and even compelled him to lampoon himself on a subsequent episode of Saturday Night Live.

Kanye’s newest offering is an introspective (some might say, solipsistic) attempt to articulate his sense of dissatisfaction with the spiritual/emotional vacuity of commercial success and all its material trappings.

It is also a hip-hop emcee’s attempt to sing and not just rap. That might not seem like such a big deal to people who don’t follow hip-hop music. But it is an incredibly bold move given the internal logics of hip-hop.

Lauryn Hill and and Queen Latifah are examples of hip-hop emcees who move easily between rhyming and singing. But they are exceptions to the rule. They are also women. And hip-hop polices female emcees much differently than their male counterparts.

For hip-hop’s male emcees, singing is a definite no-no. They only ever approach that domain gingerly and self-consciously. Hip-hop singers generally don’t try to rhyme. And hip-hop’s rappers don’t sing -- not sincerely. If anything, they approach that dividing line with a kind of self-parodic anti-virtuosity, a satirical tone immortalized by the likes of 1980s hip-hop pioneer Biz Markie:

There are dozens of male emcees who have deployed this anti-singing trope in their work. Ol’ Dirty Bastard is probably the closest to Biz Markie’s canonized status in that genre, but everyone from 50 Cent to Flava Flav have used it in some of their music. For hip-hop emcees, singing is usually relegated to catchy hooks during a song's chorus -- and sung by other artists. Anything else seems to confound implicit assumptions about how hip-hop masculinity performs itself in public.

There are a few male emcees who have tried to traverse that performative division of labor within hip-hop musical production without tongue-in-cheek inflections -- and without their hip-hop authenticity/reputation taking a public beating, figures such Mos Def, Michael Franti, and K-OS most immediately come to mind.

Kayne West’s latest studio effort attempts to vocalize his hurt and angst. And it does so through singing as much as rhyming. For hip-hop, that is a pretty radical intervention for an emcee to make. Of course, West has always been out there on an idiosyncratic and iconoclastic island all by himself somewhere -- for better or worse. We’ll see how his fans respond to this latest aesthetic mix of bold-faced egotism and would-be genius.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Are We Entitled to ALL Our 'Opinions'?

Pastor James Manning is a Harlem-based preacher (born and raised in North Carolina) who has become something of a youtube phenomonen this election season. Clips from his controversial sermons describing Barack Obama as “evil” and calling him “a long-legged Mack Daddy” who simply “pimps white women and black women” have gone viral this year, turning him into something of a media sensation. He even got a chance to do the national talk-show circuit, including an extended segment on Fox News that actually found right-winger Sean Hannity genuinely mortified by Manning’s demonizations of Obama (and his dismissals of Obama’s mother and father as “whoring trash”).

As someone who has conducted ethnographic research in Harlem, New York, I can say that Manning is quite recognizable to me as part of a vibrantly counter-cultural “Black Public Sphere” that often uses spiritual and religious narratives to make socio-political arguments about contemporary American life.

I’ve already written about some of his interlocutors on those New York City streets. They constitute an eclectic culture of street-corner debate that includes members of the Nation of Islam, the Five Percent Nation, various versions of Black Hebrewism (Manning’s church also worships on Saturdays), and more Gnostic/obscure forms of socio-spiritual collectivity such as the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors and the Egyptian Church of Karast/Christ. A lot of those groups have curbside vending operations, tabletops where they sell books about their beliefs, CD's, DVD's, artwork, and various health-related items.

I only bring Manning up because I had listened to his homiletic rants during the months leading up to the election, but I only recently got a chance to hear him respond to Obama’s victory. Manning gave an interview on Howard Stern’s radio show this week where he defended his claim that Obama is profoundly “evil” and only pretending to be a Christian. He argued that Obama and Oprah represent the “two beasts” prophesied in the Bible, dismissing Oprah as a “Babylonian Whore.”

When challenged on these contentions, Manning maintained that he really believes what he’s saying in his heart of hearts (which I’m sure he does), and that all people are entitled to their beliefs -- except, evidently, Obama, Oprah, and Jeremiah Wright, the latter also being dismissed as little more than a liar and faux-Christian.

What an interview -- and on so many levels. I am trying to move beyond the desire to simply chalk up all of Manning’s rants to sour grapes and “playa hating.” This isn’t just about someone with a civil-rights era sensibility trying to beat back a young turk, at least one that the Civil Rights veterans didn’t have the power to vet themselves. Ask Newark Mayor Cory Booker about what that looks and feels like.

Ironically, Manning and Jeremiah Wright also share some of the very same religious mentors, including one of the fathers of black liberation theology, James Cone. This could be a “familiarity breeds contempt” issue. Indeed, the aforementioned spiritual groups on Harlem’s sidewalk spaces share some foundational presuppositions, but they usually seem most adamant about loudly highlighting the aspects of their cosmologies and world views that separate them from everyone else out there.

But what was most troubling about Manning’s post-election position was that he wanted to offer up his Obama “beliefs” as similar to any other opinions people might disagree on. The problem is that his evidence is so non-falsifiable. Manning is most concerned with the fact that African-Americans seem to think about Obama as a kind of messianic figure, and he likens Obama to Hitler. But the Harlem preacher seems to ignore the fact that Hitler’s ideology was explicit and clear. Listen to his Nazi speeches and you hear the hate that Hitler turned into social policy. Manning has to read between the lines to find Obama’s evil. He has to claim that the President-Elect is lying—that you can’t actually trust what he’s saying as an indication of what he really believes and represents.

But what do we do with political beliefs that are so unwaveringly anti-empirical. Manning’s evidence is Biblical, and he reads Obama as an instantiation of prophesy. Of course, he isn’t the first person to make that move. But just because you can characterize the defamation of someone else’s character as your “opinion” doesn’t mean that it is as reasonable as other positions we’d label personal opinions. Some things are actually “opinions” (and can be open to dispute). A non-falsifiable theory about another person’s intrinsic (even genetic and pre-ordained) evil and demonic nature is something else entirely, no? Doesn’t it stretch the definition of opinion beyond all usefulness.

An Election Irony

Obama was supposed to be the racial candidate. He has the Kenyan father. He spent all of those years in an "Afrocentric" Chicago church. He was the student celebrated for being the first "Black" editor of Harvard's Law Review, a first that served to push him onto the national stage even before he finished law school. (The contract for his memoir came as a function of this singular accomplishment at Harvard.)

But McCain lost this election because he was able to turn himself into the racial candidate.

Many analysts have written about the so-called "browning of the America," the relative shrinking of this country's white population as a function of demographic shifts linked to immigration and differential birth rates among racial/ethnic groups.

Obama ran his "post-racial" campaign with full appreciation of how such demographic shifts have also changed the makeup of the electorate. He registered more people of color, and he made sure that they got to the polls. He told them that this was their America, too. Obama was careful not to overemphasize race in his public speeches and media interviews, but his campaign mobilized America's multi-racial realities (in terms of its highly praised "ground game") to catapult the Chicago senator into office.

In contrast, every decision McCain seemed to make this campaign season reflected a profound under-appreciation of America's diverse body politic, a denial of it, or even something bordering on nostalgia for myths about American racial homogeneity.

For instance, he chose a charismatic vice presidential running mate who did nothing to demonstrate any explicit recognition of America's changing ethno-racial composition. She did a fantastic job energizing "the base." But for those who didn't already unequivocally consider themselves to be part of that Republican base, she also gave the (false?) impression that the base was constituted by the intransigent sameness of race, by a euphemized whiteness.

Even the campaign's late-game deployment of "Joe the Plumber" seemed to traffic in the same denials about America's changing demographic makeup. Joe the Plumber was supposed to stand in for average Americans, but he probably just ended up further alienating many of the new black and brown voters who saw his support of McCain (and his discussion of Obama's "socialism") as another attempt to play a white version of "the race card" without explicitly invoking race at all.

This isn't to say that McCain should have pandered to black and brown voters by finding a Mexican version of Joe. But he was silently making a statement (whether he wanted to or not) about his definition of America by trucking Joe out as his quintessential example of the everyday American. It was a definition that came off as decidedly less inclusive and eclectic than Obama's. And that was the beginning of the end for McCain. He relegated himself to being "the white candidate" even as Obama tried to transcend his designation as simply the black one.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Waiting for Chappelle

D. L. Hughley has gotten a lot of heat for his new CNN comedy show, D. L. Hughley Breaks the News. The show is a combination of zany, over-the-top comedy sketches and humor-filled one-on-one interviews with pundits. The interviews are fine, even funny and provocative at times. But the sketches have really pushed some people’s buttons.

The YouTube excerpt above is from one of the show’s sketches, the one that has received some of the most vehement criticism. Hughley has Donnell Rawlings, a former Chappelle’s Show regular, playing a colorful pimp, Freddie Mac, trying to respond to public scorn about the government’s bailout of his operation. Rawlings can be a funny comedic actor, and I loved him on Dave Chappelle’s now-defunct Comedy Central show. But that’s part of the problem. Scenes like the one above come off as less-funny derivatives of Chappelle’s classic antics. That might not be totally fair, but that’s how the above gets read. Chappelle would have asked Rawlings to don a cap and a cane for a skit just like this one, detractors argue, but it would have been much funnier.

The other problem people have with the show stems from the fact that it is on CNN. (And that might also be part of the reason why the skits can sometimes feel a bit watered down or straightjacketed.) The interviews work well for a venue like CNN, but the skits seemed to “jump the shark” from the show’s premiere broadcast.

I was listening to an irate caller on a local radio talk show as she vented about the CNN program this morning. She flagged the venue -- “a serious news channel” -- quite explicitly as inappropriate, even offensive. If the show was on Comedy Central, where it belongs, there would be little controversy. Comedian David Alan Grier (of In Living Color fame) has a new sketch comedy show on Comedy Central right now, Chocolate News, and it started at about the same time that Hughley’s program began. Grier’s new offering can sometimes feel like a simple rebroadcasting of that earlier cult hit from the 1990s, but some of his show's skits are definitely funny -- and its racy comedy hasn’t caused nearly the backlash that Hughley has stirred.

Social critic Salamishah Tillet has a wonderful new essay on comedy and the 2008 election season (at She longs for the comedic voice of Dave Chappelle to help us find productive ways to laugh about our contemporary political moment. “I can't help but wonder what kind of cathartic laughter Dave Chappelle would have been able to provide for us this year,” she writes. “Imagine what he would have done with Jeremiah Wright or Barack's unannounced visits to the home of white undecided voters in Ohio. It's not that Barack and Michelle aren't funny; it's just that those who have been able to thrive in a predominantly white comedic universe will now have to hire more writers and actors (and hopefully producers and directors) who know how to work with the material that Barack and Michelle will serve up.”

Of course, Hughley is trying to step into that televisual void opened up by Chappelle’s hasty departure from his hit cable show in 2005. Chappelle walked away from the show (and tons of money) because he started to fear that some of his provocative racial humor was possibly reinforcing American racism, not challenging it through parodic excess. Hughley’s new CNN show is operating on that same racial terrain, and he hasn’t quite found the right balance between biting satirical commentary and the threat of a more vapid reinforcement of our worst racial stereotypes.

Friday, November 7, 2008

HBCUs and the White World

Does graduating from Howard University, one of America's historically black universities, put someone at a racial disadvantage? It is an old question, but some of my students are still asking it. To find an answer, I'd probably have to go back even farther than my college days -- at least back to high school.

I graduated from Brooklyn Tech in the late 1980s. At the time, it was one of New York City's three "specialized" public high schools, and students took a test to get in. Tech was (and still is) one of the largest public schools in the city. During my stint, we had about 5,000 students combined in all four grades -- and a little under 1,000 in my graduating class.

Tech was an engineering/technical school, so most students were supposed to be preparing for jobs in some version of the hard sciences or their more practical occupational offshoots. We even had to choose majors; mine was electrical engineering. I don't know how many students went on to work in fields associated with their chosen majors, but I left Tech hoping never to see another ohm or ampere ever again.

More than any other school I had previously attended, Tech was ethnically and racially diverse. I had friends from all five boroughs and from many different cultural backgrounds: West Indian, Chinese-American, Jewish, Italian-American, Dominican, African-American, you name it. Most of them fit snugly into one of two camps: (i) underachievers like me who were smart but inconsistently invested in their school work and (ii) AP-course-takers poised to translate their straight-A high school record into a spot at any of the most prestigious colleges in the country.

I was also something of an underachiever in high school. I did pretty well, I guess, and even found myself in a couple of "honors" classes during my junior and senior years, but I was also an FM radio disc jockey at the time (91.5's The Jackson Attraction Radio Show), so I was devoting much more energy to that part of my daily life -- my burgeoning (and short-lived) stint as a would-be media celebrity. As a function of that prioritizing, my grades were decent, but they were far from stellar.

When I graduated, Tech boasted something like a 95-percent college placement rate. Some of those folks were going to community colleges. Others were going to Ivy League schools. The two groups were discretely tracked, so there wasn't much substantive contact between them during class time (even if the under- and over-achievers crossed paths a bit more at lunch and after school).

As one of the Tech's many straddlers (middling students poised between those two scholastic tracks), I realized that I received two drastically different responses to my college choice. Some of my friends were excited by the fact that I'd gotten into Howard University, an important historically black university in Washington, D.C. The higher achievers, however, wondered whether I had simply missed the deadlines for better places. They also warned me that attending a black college wouldn't prepare me for life in "the white world." It wasn't a realistic environment for learning, they said. "Plus, D.C. is so dangerous," I can still remember one classmate warning, "you'll get killed down there, man. You must have a death-wish."

It is an old argument, but I know that HBCU undergrads must get some retooled versions of it these days.

I ended up loving Howard, and I learned a ton. When I was there, some of the students joked that Howard purposefully made our everyday lives so incredibly difficult (in big and small ways) only and altruistically to prepare us for the slings and arrows of real-world hardships. We were being funny, but we also imagined that making it through Howard meant that we could take anything the world might throw our way.

Every once in a while, I do think about what kind of weird adjustment it was to go from Howard to Columbia's graduate program in anthropology, from classrooms full of black students (usually taught by black faculty members) to classes where I was sometimes the only black person in the room. Truth be told, I have always been very shy, and I didn't talk much in my classes at Howard. But I definitely felt the added pressure of that proverbial (and implicit) racial ambassadorship.

But when my Penn undergrads ask me if Howard put me at a disadvantage in the real world, I say, definitely not.

I still sometimes marvel at the atypicality of my collegiate experience. I was able to increase my self-confidence as a thinker and writer -- all in a supportive environment that lacked any hint of the kinds of racist rhetorics of assumed intellectual inferiority that sometimes predetermine people's expectations about the lone black student in their midst, expectations those targeted students can sometimes feel the need to actively (and over-actively) counter. Of course, that impulse can boomerang around to become just another factor making it even more difficult to speak freely in mixed racial company. But my years at Brooklyn Tech and Howard gave me powerful counterpoints to some of the experiences I'd have later on (as both a graduate student and a faculty member) in the sometimes scandalously non-diverse world of the academy.

[The video above shows Hazel O'Leary, President of Fisk University, discussing her own school (and the current state of HBCU's) at a recent Congressional hearing.]

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Beyonce's Privacy

I had a long conversation with Essence magazine’s Jeannine Amber last month. She was working on a cover story about Beyonce Knowles, and she wanted to chat a bit about how celebrities negotiate fandom, its commonsensical expectations and its worst excesses.

Clearly, we obsess about celebrity, and we've been doing so for a long time now. But that erstwhile preoccupation has changed its features quite a lot in recent years. Reality TV, for one, has rewired our presumptions about citizens (famous or not) and their rights to privacy. It has also confounded some of our traditional assumptions about access to reality itself.

There are no conventional screenplays in Reality TV, few pre-fabbed lines for actors to memorize and recite. Scenes are supposed to be spontaneous, unscripted, and they are imagined to be all the more “real” as a consequence.

The current proliferation of Reality TV programming (usually chalked up to the bottom line of lowered production costs and credited, in one recent book, to the radio antics of Howard Stern) can be seen as a replacement of actorly virtuosity with purportedly non-acted, unfiltered access to people’s sloppy, vulnerable, and sincerest insides.

These days, acting is considered a kind of faked sincerity, and faking sincerity, no matter how stellar the performance, is hardly enough anymore. We want “the real thing,” not its well-performed simulation: real tears, real anger, real oddity, real sex. The fact that these non-actors on our Reality TV offerings could be faking their own depictions of sincerity is something to be carefully ferreted out -- exposed and expunged. But the normative claim about that difference (between "acting" and "being" on TV) seems beyond dispute. The success of these shows is an outgrowth of their ability to display seemingly untainted sincerity, not a masterful imitation.

It is this unquenchable thirst for “the really real” that drives paparazzi’s flashbulb frenzies. Celebrity is predicated on it, this backstage access, this pretending of transparency.

Of course, most media analysts readily concede that there is little more “real” about Reality TV than conventionally scripted fare, but the genre does reconfigure our beliefs about the kind of access we should have to the rich and famous.

Part of the point of that Essence article, which has just hit newsstands, was to discuss Beyonce’s attempt to maintain a modicum of privacy in an age of Reality TV’d hyper-access. She is known for being pretty cagey about the most basic facts of her personal life, including her marriage to hip-hop mega-star Jay-Z.

Fans can feel a sense of entitlement about being privy to unfettered backstage info on their favorites celebs. The generous way to frame this is to say that we actually grow to care about the superstars we admire. We want to know that they are just real people, like us, folks that we can identify with and understand (not untouchable icons standing above and beyond us). We want to know the tiniest details about these people because we love them. And they should simply be flattered.

The more cynical read would emphasize the point that we sometimes mistakenly believe that celebrities owe us this kind of panoptican-like access. We try to make Beyonces look like the crazy ones when they don’t share all of their most private experiences. But that’s hardly fair. I’m not sure that we, the legion of everyday fans, aren’t really the crazy ones, especially as we’ve cultivated this almost fiendish need to know anything and everything about everybody else’s darkest secrets.

And we’ve even become markedly more prone to indiscriminately divulging our own secrets, too. Youtube can make us all celebrities, at least for a few news cycles, and it allows us to practice what we preach by proffering all of our dirtiest laundry items, appropriate or not, for anyone willing to sift through them.

This very sensibility helps to explain the kind of gossipy access we think we deserve when it comes to politicians’ bedrooms and closed-door familial conflicts. In some ways, we’ve all youtubed ourselves out of real privacy. (And that was before any Patriot Act put a final nail in privacy's coffin.) Given such a backdrop, it actually might be laudable for Beyonce to push back against these societal demands for full disclosure, especially when acceptance can lead one down a slippery slope to Flavor-Flav’d forms of self-parody.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Vamping 'Til November 4th

A vampire film comes out tomorrow, Let the Right One In, and everybody seems to be talking about it. The award-winning feature is a Swedish offering about a 12-year-old boy, Oskar, the sympathetic victim of some merciless bullying by mean-spirited classmates, who meets and befriends the new girl in town, a goth-looking pre-teen named Eli. And from the trailer, it would appear that Eli is a waif-like, pre-pubescent vampira on the prowl -- both in the playground and beyond its chain-linked fence.

I've always had a fascination with vampires, but I seem to be particularly intrigued with them lately, which (if I wanted to push real hard) might still be chalked up to the election-season zeitgeist. Why wouldn't I have a renewed preoccupation with could-be bloodsuckers who sometimes pretend to be something they’re not, potential threats that we have to invite into our homes (with our votes) before they can do us good or harm? Let the right one in, indeed!

That isn’t just it though. HBO’s new vampiric oblation, True Blood, is not quite The Wire, but it has my vote, so far, for the best new show on television.

Like many of HBO’s cult and popular hits, this one starts with an infectiously macabre theme song, Jace Everett’s “I Wanna Do Bad Things With You.” Unforgettable. I have to diligently police myself from singing its hypnotic chorus in front of my mimic-ready toddler.

The story, based on Charlaine Harris's mystery series, is set in an exotic and everyday Louisiana at a time when vampires have come out of the closet -- trying to “mainstream” themselves into public respectability. They have advocacy groups. Community activists. Their own late-night bars. You name it. They also drink a special synthetic blood beverage that allows them to get their nourishment without feeding on actual mortals. Even if some vampires don't like the concoction's faux-blood taste (and prefer humans anyway), this is still a far cry from Dracula's Transylvania.

The show does have the same unjustified conceit that X-Men made famous, which is part of what (I think) has turned fans off to NBC’s Heroes this season: an absurd plot device that has superpowerful beings somehow cowering from the potentially oppressive powers of the State. Again, this was X-Men’s basic problem, but it was still a suggestive allegory, so you let the narrative off the hook. The first time.

With Heroes and True Blood the device seems pathetically derivative, which gives the audience a little less patience for the thing. True Blood does a better job negotiating this overwrought terrain by demonstrating -- quite early in the season -- just how profoundly vulnerable vampires are to silver. (One of the few popular myths about vampires that the show offers up as accurate. The rest -- crosses, holy water, mirrorless reflections -- were all rumors started by vampires to keep humans off their scent.) Even the smallest amounts of silver effectively render vampires hapless and helpless. So, you might imagine global scientists working away in a bunker somewhere on all manner of techniques for deploying silver projectiles or liquids or gels or nets or whatever just in case they have to drop the hammer down on these undead creatures.

Few people have the same powers on Heroes -- or anything close to the same vulnerabilities. So, they aren't nearly as easy to beat with the shot from, say, a silver-bulleted smoking gun. Some of them can’t even be physically harmed at all. Others run at lightening speed. Still others throw flames or read minds or see the future or control time or create black holes that swallow people up. And the list of amazing abilities goes on and on. In fact, it seemed as though one of the heroes had the best powers of all, which should have made everyone else feel cheated: absorbing other people’s powers by osmosis. They don’t lose their abilities. He just has them, too. So, it looked like he was the one who had drawn the best straw of all. That’s before this week's episode, when his father came back from the dead and sucked all of his powers from him with a single hug. Cold-blooded.

And that is the other big problem with Heroes -- and might be another part of the reason why it has “jumped the shark” for some of its fans. Just as the narrative appears to settle on the ontological realities of its universe, realities that seem otherworldly but organized, the writers have the science-fiction luxury (or laziness) of simply inventing some new and unprecedented thing that completely rewrites their world's macro- and micro-physics in one fell swoop. There's a potential Deus ex Machina in almost ever episode, which can get tiring after a while. I'm still hooked on Heroes myself, and loving this season, but I can see why other viewers might be frustrated.

In Alan Ball’s True Blood, we get the added bonus of not having the allegorical flurries completely displace (and erase) actual discussions/renditions of race-based differences. The allegory doesn’t swallow actuality whole. This is a Louisiana landscape where racial identity and sexual orientation aren’t super-powered out of explicit existence. Ball does some odd things with their inclusion (one part stereotyping-on-steroids, one part deconstructing audiences’ pre-fabbed expectations), but the show forces you to think about fanciful and factual forms of difference and discrimination at one and the same time, which is a powerful way to structure a TV tale about vampires and humans trying to just get along. But then again, it isn’t simply TV. It’s HBO.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

New Book on Barack's Journey--and an addendum to my essay in it

The editors at LIFE Magazine have just published a beautiful new book of intimate photographs depicting Barack Obama's life story, LIFE: The American Journey of Barack Obama (Little, Brown). The book, officially released today, includes a foreword by Senator Edward Kennedy and original essays penned by Melissa Fay Greene, Gay Talese, Charles Johnson, and Brainstorm blogger Regina Barreca, among others.

I also have a piece in the volume, an essay that examines what I call Barack Obama's "racial optimism," and I just want to take a second to provide an alternative ending for it.

The LIFE editors did a great job with my piece (authors can be so sensitive about how they get edited, and that definitely includes me), but they reworked the ending in a way that recasts my final point in a way that changes its political valence a bit. To read the entire essay (and the others), you can pick up the book, but I just wanted to offer up (for what it's worth) the version of my final paragraph that they published in the volume along with the draft of the final paragraph that I submitted.

The published paragraph reads as follows:

"Obama may well believe all that he says, but to some black Americans it sounds as if, to satisfy a white audience, he is 'talking out of both sides of his neck,' as it is colloquially labeled. This skepticism makes honest racial dialogue impossible."

My submitted paragraph (some of which is in the penultimate paragraph of the published version) reads like this:

"There is something healthy and productive about Obama's recalcitrant racial optimism, about the utter audacity of his hope, but it might only make some blacks all the more skeptical about America's contradictory commitments to racial equality. Why else would we celebrate the first black presidential nominee from a major party but demand that he be post-racial? It is the same tension that has haunted race relations since the birth of our republic, and even before. It is colloquially called 'talking out of both sides of your neck,' and it makes honest racial dialogue impossible."

I don't really disagree with the published version, but I do think that it places the onus on black Americans to get over their racial skepticisms before honest racial conversations can begin. What I wanted to argue, however, was that America writ large (not Obama) sometimes engages in forms of double-speak when it comes to race -- and that such conflicted commitments to race fuel the fires of race-based skepticism in the African-American community. My point was that America needs to address its racial doublespeak/doublethink before honest racial conversations can take place, before blacks' racial skepticisms subside. The rewording replaces that emphasis with a critique of black American obstinancy. I might be splitting hairs a bit (and getting into an unproductive version of the chicken-or-egg debate), but I just thought I'd clarify.

I can also say that I have read the other essays in the stunning book, and I learned a great deal about Obama through the authors' provocative interpretations of his meteoric rise.

Monday, September 8, 2008

How NOT to Read a Book

Let me take a minute to respond to a popular misreading of my new book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness. I should probably call it an under-reading, not a misreading, especially since I’ll be talking with my students just this very week about the extent to which readers always co-construct what they read.

Writers lose interpretive control of their cultural productions once those things start circulating, and most authorial attempts to sanction particular interpretations (while disqualifying others) represent the epitome of futility. Readers re-write books in (or against) their own ideological, emotional and political image. But that doesn’t mean that the author won’t have a stake in pushing back against certain glosses.

I just read a short review of my book in the magazine Color Lines. The reviewer, Julianne Ong Hing, tries to argue that I mistakenly privilege a psychological reading of racism over a structural one. However, she then goes on to claim that “by keeping it light” (a euphemism, I think, for not writing the book more polemically), I ignore “the deeper psychological impacts of a lifetime of racial micro-aggressions.” She claims that I emphasize “personal interactions as the crux of the racial impasse plaguing U.S. society in the 21st century.” This is the heart of her critique:

“The realm of personal relationships may be the most accessible for folks to begin to discuss race, but too often the conversation stops at the personal, as it does in this book. Jackson misses the point by equating the frustrations of people of color with those of whites. There are sharp differences between a group that’s imprisoned at disproportionately high rates and one that is not, between a group whose members own the vast majority of the country’s wealth and the groups with the highest poverty rates. Jackson does a disservice to his readers by limiting his analysis to the “he said-she said” between people of color and whites without delving into the structural roots of racism that permeate our daily interactions and our social, political and economic institutions. Even though Jackson acknowledges larger, structural racisms and recognizes the danger of his argument, he nevertheless persists.”

This is a reading of the book’s argument that Hing brought with her to its pages.

Of course, that’s part of why race and racism are such thorny issues. We are all already tangled up in some ideologically sticky webs of our own (and others’) spinning when it comes to this topic. We are on the defensive, overly sensitive to the potential of Trojan-horsed attacks -- or of the other side’s cold-blooded disinterest.

As reviews go, I think Hing's is nicely written (even funny in spots), but it is also predicated on only a partial understanding of what the book actually claims. And I do think that Hing actually took the time to read most of the book, which isn’t always the case. One of the first reviews of Racial Paranoia, published by Kirkus, was far more problematically misleading and inaccurate, and I honestly believe that its author didn’t even bother to read the book. They read the opening section, jumped to the concluding chapter and then jumped even farther to their own conclusions. It was (as I said then) a “wildly irresponsible” review. But I understood why it was even possible. People think they already know everything they need to know about what other people are going to say when it comes to race/racism, so why even bother listening?

As I said, I do believe that Hing read the book, but she had some typical blinders on:

I am not arguing for a “personal” reading of race and racism at the expense of a structural one. As explicit forms of racist rhetoric are suppressed in public discourse (and potentially repressed by certain whites who don’t want to be considered racists), our conversations across racial lines get less and less trustworthy. “De cardio racism,” which I define in the book, stands in for the idea that one of the ways in which African Americans (especially) try to square an egalitarian and explicitly inclusive public discussion about race with the perpetuation of just the kinds of structural inequalities that Hing lists is by mining everyday inter-racial exchanges for subtle expressions of hidden bias, for racial wolves trying to pass themselves off as color-blind sheep.

Hing says that I want to stop at these personal readings. That isn’t true. I just want to maintain that it is unproductive to simply dismiss these readings (between-the-lines of social life) as hypersensitive or ridiculously paranoid, which is how people responded to comedian Dave Chappelle and former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (just tw examples from the book). I argue that McKinney and Chappelle are responding to structural transformations in America’s racial landscape, and that what detractors pooh-pooh as paranoia might represent an appropriate (if incomplete) response to how “plausibly deniable” and potentially euphemized commitments to racism function today.

That is a controversial claim, I know. And I don’t think that a lot of people want to hear it -- on the left or the right (though for different reasons). But it isn’t about arguing that these “personal” readings (these “paranoid” readings) are some kind of analytical endgame. They represent one starting point for cultivating a new language about race that captures its unprecedented contemporary manifestations. For most of America’s history, racists could be unabashed with their racial venom. Up until the 1960s, for instance, politicians ran on explicitly racist platforms. Championing, say, segregation could help get you elected. Today, any whiff of explicit racism can damage a politician’s career.

Moreover, I don’t just “equate the frustrations of people of color with white people.” I do claim that racial skepticism isn’t just “a black thang.” Whites can also be racially skeptical, racially paranoid, but I am far from arguing that white racial paranoia and black racial paranoia are the same -- or are even equally justifiable. I make those differences clear in the book.

3. Hing says that I develop my argument “without delving into the structural roots of racism that permeate our daily interactions and our social, political and economic institutions.” This is a patently false claim -- so much so that I don’t even know where to begin with a response. My entire book is a refutation of that position. I argue that “the structural roots of racism” are precisely what set the stage for our current post-Civil Rights dilemma. I spend several chapters trying to make that clear. From what Hing’s review emphasizes and omits, I can only imagine that she must have skimmed those chapters too quickly.

Indeed, one thing that I think helps to explain Hing’s reading (and one fair critique of the book that she doesn’t offer) has to do with the fact that it talks about contemporary America, a multiracial America, in decidedly bi-racial terms -- blacks and whites. It is surprising that Hing doesn’t mention that point in her review, but she opens with a discussion about how differently whites get treated in Chinatown restaurants, which seems to implicitly gesture toward that general vicinity. I think that this latter point is the reason why my definition of racism’s “structural roots” doesn’t mesh with hers. It seems that she really wants to ask me to open up the discussion of racism to include other racialized communities, which is a fair point. Race is structured differently in a browning America, in ways that are hardly reducible to the mostly bi-chromatic make-up the Old South. I under-played that hand in the book, but I did so because I wanted to talk about a different “structural” reconfiguration of race relations, a reconfiguration that starts with the profoundly formative history of chattel slavery in the United States and reads subsequent developments (histories of immigration and multiracialization) with that founding premise as starting point.

A reader can take issue with that emphasis. I’m not sure I think it is totally justified -- intellectually or politically. But Hing should have made THAT case—as opposed to criticizing me for not dealing with structural realities. The book is completely about the structural transformations of racism in America, and it mines the micro to explain how macro changes impact even seemingly innocuous interactions across class lines. (This is key, I think, because the mass-mediated stories we hear about race pivot, disproportionately, on how we dispute accusations of racism during exchanges that usually aren’t as explicit as what our collective past produced.)

Of course, I wrote an entire book that tried to explain all this, so these few extra (and hastily penned) paragraphs probably won’t help to clarify things for those who already think they know the two or three alternative tracks that every argument about racism must take. Even still, I couldn’t help myself.

(cross-posted at the Chronicle's Brainstorm blog)

Friday, September 5, 2008

Anthroman Makes Magazine Cover...

For the article, go to The Pennsylvania Gazette.

Anthroman is a character that I developed as part of my second book, Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

I might talk more about his origin story -- and his connection to other superheroic cultural critics (MadLaw Professor, Brother Story, Fierce Angel, and Professor V) -- in future blog posts.

For now, let me just say that the article connects Anthroman to a different set of academic characters. The piece features fascinating research from several of my colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania: bioethicist Jonathan Moreno, electrical and systems engineer Christopher Murray, criminologist Adrian Raine, medical anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, and molecular anthropologist Sarah Tishkoff.

Postdoc or Tenure-Track Job?

The semester has begun; I had my first course yesterday. And I am happy to say that I’ve started to reconnect with colleagues this week, including a few that I haven’t seen all summer.

We mostly had the usual conversations about respective summers (and about this unprecedented election season), but I also got into a longer (and more substantive) discussion with a faculty member (in a different field, an important variable) about the relative value of postdoctoral fellowships and tenure-track jobs for new Ph D ‘s.

He advises his students to focus on jobs, not postdocs. He’s skeptical of the entire postdoc thing for several reasons: the way it can be deployed by universities as an almost exploitative cost-cutting measure and at the expense of more secure tenure-track offerings (my fellow Brainstorm blogger, Marc Bousquet, could say more about that), and because it runs the risk of trapping some people out of the job market and into a secondary track of consecutive postdocs and adjunct positions.

I was arguing that a postdoctoral fellowship can actually increase one’s value on the market in subsequent years (which he grudgingly conceded, a little), and that two- or three-year postdocs give people a kind of head-start in the tenure-track rat-race. My dissertation adviser was a proponent of the postdoc (at least as a potentially viable option), and she’s made me one, too.

I was fortunate enough to have a three-year postdoc that allowed me to turn my dissertation into a book, start research on a second project, and even dabble in some orthogonal intellectual interests — and all that before I had to serve on my first thesis committee, teach a single course, or attend monthly faculty meetings.

Even the right one-year post doc (without unreasonable teaching expectations) can get that dissertation housed at a publisher and a little more ready for prime-time.

I thought I’d made a compelling case, but this colleague still walked away skeptical, which made me wonder. Am I overstaing my case? Might it work differently for different fields in the humanities and the social sciences? For different kinds of academics? Are there other factors at play?

(Cross-posted with The Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm Blog)

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Do politicans and pundits think we're stupid?

I’m tired of seeing pundits support their particular political party the way rabid fans root for sports franchises -- or even worse, the way players themselves sometimes engage in such sporting events, with a kind of ruthless amorality. Truth and falsehood don’t matter. Only the bottom line. The win.

This is a mentality that seems to plague many of our athletes, even if the stakes are much lower. Think of those scrappy basketball players who inadvertently knock loose balls out of bounds and instinctively -- misleadingly -- blame nearby opponents for the infraction. Anything to get the ball back. Anything for the victory.

The Democratic and Republican talking points exemplify this same sensibility: victory at all costs, even if the price is the truth, or when it comes at the expense of an even-handed reading of contemporary political debates.

These folks must think we’re stupid.

To hear the Republicans tell it, Sarah Palin has all the “experience” she needs to be vice president, more “executive experience” than Barack Obama, and it is simply partisan politicking to question her readiness -- even in an age defined by global challenges that demand a rigorous handle on world affairs. Does circling the red wagons around a wild-card pick from Alaska (so that your party can "energize the base" and go after disaffected Clinton backers) really mean “Country First”?

According to Democrats, Obama represents “change,” and an African-American president would embody a massive change for America. No doubt. But just because he gives good speech, which is pretty clearly the case, doesn’t mean that Obama’s potential election will necessarily change the way politics work in Washington. If there was anything really damning in that New Yorker issue with the controversial drawing of Michelle and Barack on the cover, it was the article inside, an article that painted Obama as a fairly straightforward political operator who does little more than master the rules of the game so as to play his hand better than everyone else. An Obama presidency is change, especially symbolically, which is important in and of itself, but it probably will translate into far less than the transformational sea change that the Democrats are overconfidently selling.

Of course, deciding the next iteration of the Supreme Court is incredibly serious business. And the two candidates deploy radically different litmus tests for prospective judges. But does the end game of stocking the jury with “liberal” or “conservative” judges justify ramping up partisan spin-doctoring on all the issues of the day? Do we have to insult people’s intelligence with blatant double standards on how we read our candidates plusses and minuses vs. the other party’s ticket: the one with soft shoes, the other with steel-toed boots?

Haven't we had enough of the political double standards that allow us to read our own party's plights generously while treating the other party with ruthlessly self-interested stinginess?

We've turned American society into a collegiate forensics society where we all argue for the side of the debate we've been deputized to offer -- regardless of what truth and fairness might actually entail.

Does the political end justify the rhetorical means, even if the latter include too-easily institutionalized attempts to trick voters into giving your team the electoral ball even when you know you’ve done something -- maybe inadvertently -- that you would never allow your opponents to get away with? Is there any possible way to reverse our longstanding ability to trap our Constitution into the straightjacket of hyperpartisan politics? This is a fervent partisanship that our founding document isn’t necessarily equipped to mitigate -- or even address.

(Cross-posted with the Chonicle of Higher Education"s Brainstorm Blog)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Race Cards vs. Racial Paranoia

McCain's camp went on the racial offensive a few weeks ago, accusing Barack Obama of playing "the race card" in recent speeches and characterizing some of Obama's statements as "divisive, negative, shameful, and wrong."

The remarks in question pivot on Obama's claim that Republicans might attempt to engage in race-based and xenophobic fearmongering to win the election against him -- that they might point out his foreign-sounding name and subtly remind voters how much he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on dollar bills" (a clear nod to his racial difference).

I've already commented on this kind of accusation before, when Dennis Miller went off on Obama for a similar statement back on June 20th.

Miller and McCain want to argue that Obama is calling McCain and the Republicans a bunch of racists and that unless Obama has explicit proof about some cabal of Republican strategists prodding people with explicit invocations of Obama's racial identity, he is disingenuously injecting race into the election for political gain.

I can see why they would make that case, but race was already a part of the election. It always is, even when a black candidate isn't running for office. So, invoking race explicitly isn't about introducing a foreign substance into the mix. It just recalibrates the nature of that inclusion.

The election didn't go from race-free to race-full simply because of Obama's recent rhetoric. Race was always there, hovering, even in silence. That isn't to say that we have to make a fetish out of it and reduce every other social phenomenon to its hidden mandates. But it does demand that we stop labeling any invocation of race as an evil and extrinsic injection into some otherwise race-neutral domain.

Moreover, we have to remember that racism is not only about blatant, Archie Bunker-style self-evidence anymore. Indeed, as a case in point, I have read many thoughtful people (including fellow Brainstorm Blogger Laurie Fendrich) imply that McCain's "celebrity" ad (above) is little more than a subliminal attempt to indirectly invoke the horror of racial miscegenation without saying a word about Obama's race at all, at least not explicitly. The juxtaposition alone, they claim, does all the necessary racial work.

Detractors would call such a reading absurd -- or even paranoid. Is it? Maybe. But given the power of political correctness and the plausible deniabilities inherent in contemporary cultural politics (especially vis-a-vis questions of race/racism), a certain healthy form of race-based skepticism might actually be in order. Of course, where does "healthy" begin and end in such a scenario? I don't know. But we can't be so naive as to think that the specter of racist thinking doesn't take material form unless some white person (preferably hooded) says the n-word in the crowded hotel lobby of an NAACP convention somewhere.

Did Obama play the race card by invoking the possibility of race being a factor in the way his opponents strategize against him? Probably. They'd be stupid if they didn't take race into account as they prepared to do battle with an African-American candidate.

Did McCain play the race card in his newest campaign ad? Maybe. I didn't see it when I first watched the clip, but it does seem like an odd decision to have Paris Hilton and Britney Spears stand-in for all of pop-cultural celebrity.

The key is to recognize that the proverbial "race card" can be used in many different ways -- and that there isn't a single deck of cards in all of contemporary American political life that doesn't have the race card sprinkled throughout it (along with many other trumps, including "the race card" card used to counter "the race card" itself).

To think that somehow we can ever easily and definitively NOT play the race card is one of the worst forms of race carding there is. Call it reverse race carding. It is the kind of racial spin that tries to pass itself off as spin-free. And in contemporary media, culture, and politics, race-free zones, like "no spin zones," are as fanciful a thought as mythological unicorns and sea monsters washed up on sandy New York shores.

(First Posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm Blog.)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Is Anthropology the SOFTEST Social Science?

I did a foolish thing last weekend. I performed a Google search on my new book — just to see if there were any references to it online that I hadn’t already seen. (Of course, I realize that the Web can be merciless on the thin-skinned, but most authors can sometimes be gluttons for such surefire cyberpunishment, pretending that the one gem they might unearth could ever outweigh the playa-hating hordes.)

I found quite a few references to the book, mostly in fairly obscure/specialty venues, the bulk of them positive. But I was blown away by one interesting dismissal of the work, a dismissal seemingly tethered (in the first instance) to my academic background as a cultural anthropologist. My training as an anthropologist was the first strike against me.

Why are people sometimes so dismissive of anthropology?

In the era of Franz Boas and Margaret Mead, anthropologists were public intellectuals of the highest order. They wrote for popular magazines and challenged Americans’ too-quick assumptions about the hard-wired ‘nature’ of social life.

But that was then. Now, anthropologists seem mostly relegated to the very back of the line when it comes to assessments about the value of social-scientific attempts to make sense of contemporary issues.

For instance, there are so many anthropologists who study academic underachievement among Black and Latino students, people such as Signithia Fordham, Prudence Carter (a qualitative sociologist), Mica Pollack, and many, many others. They do in-depth, long-term ethnographic studies. They proffer compelling analyses that nuance discussions of academic underperformance, explaining when and why it happens (for instance, in specific types of schools with a particular demographic mix of students). They even write up their findings in accessible language, with an eye toward the interested audiences beyond their academic field. However, CNN’s recent “Black in America” segment on the issue chose to focus almost exclusively on the experimentalist work of an up-and-coming economist, Roland Fryer, with only the slightest nod to the legion of qualitative folks working in this area. What gives?

It is probably a combination of what people don’t like about anthropology and what they find most powerfully persuasive about the harder sciences.

Anthropology often gets characterized as a “postmodern” cesspool, a discipline that wallows in pseudo-theoretical (even literary) waters, embraces the most solipsistic form of navel-gawking introspection, and has recanted most of its earlier commitments to ‘objective’ outsiderism. At the same time, economists are thought to occupy a firmer space much closer to the normative benchmark that is the natural sciences, crunching numbers in ways that purport to eschew the ideologically-driven meanderings of those softer social sciences.

There is a general pecking order in the social sciences. We all know that. It moves from economics down through the likes of political science and psychology, finally landing in the realm of sociology and anthropology. The closer one gets to serious mathematics as constituitive of the center of the discipline’s exploits, the higher one’s salary, the less diverse one’s colleagues (in terms of categories such as race or gender), and the more powerful one’s academic department. There are exceptions to this formulation, but it holds true quite a bit of the time, no?

We all genuflect to the seemingly sanitized power of numerical calculation, even as we sometimes remind ourselves that researchers can ventriloquize numerical analyses (based on how they set up their research designs, word their questions, etc.), so as to make them sing any number of different ditties.

It is a commonsense colloquialism: Statistics lie. But we also think of them as the best chance we have at some kind of hard-and-fast access to social truth.

As an anthropologist who respects the beauty and elegance of mathematics, I just wish our everyday privileging of its explanatory powers left a tad more room at the table for differently pitched methodological attempts at truth-telling.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Racial Paranoia vs. Race Cardology...

C-Span just sent me a DVD copy of my segment from BookTV last month on C-Span 2. (The link is on the upper right hand corner of this page.) I’m speaking way too quickly (and don’t even get to a few major themes from the book), but it does lay out the beginnings of my point about “de cardio racism” and its difference from earlier modes of racial reasoning in American history.

Speaking of racism’s newfangled permutations, I finally read through the second Village Voice piece on the Madonna Constantine case. Clearly, if she did hang a noose on her own office door as a tactic to preempt the public exposure of her plagiarism case, she would represent one of the most dramatic and disingenuous versions of playing the race card in academic history. It would be the epitome of “Bluffing About Race,” as the subtitle to Richard Thompson Ford’s new book phrases the issue. (Of course, some people would argue that any invocation of race/racism at all is the verbal equivalent of putting a noose on your own little door.)

In many ways, Ford and I start off with the same premise about how differently race and racism function today, but we use that idea to talk about two very different (though not mutually exclusive) things.

I argue that our politically corrected environment forces public expressions of racism to go underground. They get euphemized, which is a relatively new phenomenon in an American republic where as late as the 1960s politicians could run on explicitly racist/segregationist platforms with impunity. I use this point to say that we shouldn’t imagine sanitizing public discussions about racial differences as the endgame of our racial politics today. We actually need spaces where people can be honest about their investments in racial difference, not to the point where others are endangered or offended, but enough so that we can have “conversation on race” that are useful and productive — not public-relations stunts.

The flipside of this euphemization of racial animus is that people don’t think egalitarian racial language necessarily reflects a speaker’s hidden beliefs about race. In a context where getting labeled a racist is “bad for business,” most people avoid the theme entirely — at least in mixed company. This dynamic breeds a scenario where, for example, African Americans are skeptical about public expressions of racial inclusion and look for hidden signs of racist hearts (“de cardio racism”) beneath race-neutral (even progressive) exteriors.

Richard Thompson Ford’s The Race Card uses a similar starting point to argue that the legal justice system can’t treat these less explicit forms of racism the way it powerfully addressed earlier (more straightforward and self-evident) kinds. He’s right. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have the same luxury in our everyday lives. We’re not off the hook. Either we find a way to deal with these serious race-based skepticisms (the idea that Madonna Constantine put a noose on her own door to quiet critics represents an example of the same skepticism in reverse), or we create some strange Never Never Land of post-racial living by collective repression.

(First posted on the Chronicle's Brainstorm Blog)

Friday, July 4, 2008

What Happens When Ethnography Goes to the Movies?

There isn't much sexual salaciousness in Sudhir Venkatesh's ethnographic treatment of gang culture on Chicago's South Side.

He was a relatively naïve graduate student at the University of Chicago when he first started studying crack-dealing gangs in one of the country's most notorious housing projects. Venkatesh embarked on a sociological journey that would educate him about the counter-intuitive inner workings of gangland economies and the brutal realities of what happens when material inequality gets racially and geographically entrenched.

Now, word is that Craig Brewer, director of critically acclaimed "Hustle & Flow" (2005) and "Black Snake Moan" (2007) is slated to direct a film adaptation of Venkatesh's most recent book, Gang Leader for a Day.

Should we be worried?

As a relatively young ethnographer who has been conducting research in urban communities for the past 15 years, I am anxious to see what Hollywood makes of 'the ethnographic impulse.' Indiana Jones transformed archaeology into an icon of pop-cultural Americana. And I'm sure that many curious high schoolers decided to go into the field after watching Harrison Ford's ruggedly glamorized portrayals. But if Brewer can spend some time getting the fieldwork right, capturing what it actually means for ethnographers to live their research in the world, without all of the hyper-exoticisms that glom onto such depictions, then he might be able to show people just how ethnographers stumble upon social truths that are sometimes sublimely irreducible to statistical analyses.

Brewer is a gifted storyteller, and he definitely has a Tarantino-sized hankering for hard-edged tales that flip the script on Hollywood's conventional interracial buddy movies. "Hustle and Flow" featured a memorable and mesmerizing lead performance by Terrence Howard as Djay, a doo-rag wearing Memphis-based pimp with a half-hardened heart of gold and a knack for hip-hop lyricism. Djay has a complex relationship with all of his prostitutes, including the soft-spoken Shug and the fiery Lexus, both black women, but the kinds of subtle mind-games that he plays with Nola, the white member of his harem, seem to get pride of place in the story. Djay is clearly exploiting Nola, psychologically and physically abusing her (even if the latter happens decidedly off-camera and mostly beyond the narrative's unfolding). But he does it with such sweet-tea infectiousness that the audience is treated to a character-study of what classic social theorist Max Weber meant when he said "charismatic authority" was a traditional method of social control.

"Black Snake Moan" is even more pointedly pitched in the direction of what it means to play along the tracks between black masculinity and white femininity, with Brewer seemingly hell-bent on demonstrating all the many ways in which one might hint at the specter of racial miscegenation in a small Southern town without ever quite going there. Even the title of the film seems to ooze with euphemized racial innuendo.

My guess is that three things probably most excited Brewer (and Paramount Vantage) about Venkatesh's exploits in Chicago. First, this story could easily be framed as the now-classic Hollywood tale of an outsider entering the proverbial Heart of Darkness that is urban America. Dangerous Minds (1995) and Freedom Writers (2007) best frame the last 10 years or so of the genre. Hollywood seems to remake this same movie every few summers, with only a slight tweak here or there to the details. A naïve white do-gooder enters the realities of life on the street and has to throw textbook theories about urban life right out the window.
Venkatesh, who was born in India and raised in California, starts out so green when he embarks on his research that he doesn't even realize just how astonishing his project will seem to students and teachers who find out about it. And what he ends up learning about the everyday workings of gang culture will force social scientists to rethink many long-standing academic assumptions on the topic.

The idea that a privileged sociologist from one of the most prestigious schools in the country would also be allowed to actually run the gang's operations, even for a day, might also lend itself to some provocative moviemaking. Traditionally, ethnographers are taught that they must master the culture of the groups they study so completely that they should almost be able to see the world from that group's point of view, as though they were natives, people born into the community. (Of course, if you're like me, a black man conducting ethnographic research in black America—you have to prove something akin to the exact opposite.)

Anthropologists call this an "emic" perspective, something that can only be acquired with long-term participant-observation—many months, even years, of "deep hanging out" with the people being studied. Venkatesh not only provides us with a detailed rendition of how these Chicago gangbangers see their world, he also can demonstrate the limits of "emic" understanding by showcasing his own short stint at the helm of the gang.

Of course, Venkatesh is conducting all of this research in one of America's harshest neighborhoods. The everyday violence that hovers around his ethnographic work only heightens the drama and sweetens the deal in Hollywood's eyes. Plus, Brewer has a penchant for showcasing the thinkerly side of those folks who engage in the unthinkable. And any ethnographer worth his or her salt wants readers to recognize that this one of the things that connects them to people who follow even the most remote and exotic cultural practices.

But there is a personal side to the Venkatesh story that is equally poignant and potentially cinematic—as Hollywood conceptualizes such things.

A careful ethnographer tries not to cast his or her subjects in easy black-and-white terms, as simplistically good or bad people, the social equivalent of redeemed saints or irredeemable sinners. Human beings are always more contradictory and complex than mere caricature. Gang Leader for a Day tries to humanize the flat-footed stereotypes and knee-jerk clichés that get passed off as actual consideration of the lives and life chances of residents from inner-city America. And Brewer's redemptive treatment of a low-level pimp and a vengeful bluesman are nothing if not complex.

Of course, what Brewer appears most invested in (and what also leaps from the pages of Venkatesh's powerful book) would be the profound subtlety of any fragile interracial relationship—between a pimp and his prostitute, between a cuckolded old musician and a young girl hurling herself down the wrong path. Venkatesh's supple and multifaceted relationship with J.T., the real gang leader of his book, is ripe for Brewerian picking. And as with Brewer's previous cinematic portrayals of interpersonal negotiations of America's color lines, Venkatesh and J.T. share a relationship that is genuine and contrived at the same time, seemingly natural and honest, yet propped up by artificiality: Mutual respect between sociologist and research subject is forged by the researcher's thesis-driven entry into an unknown land. It is also an intimate connection steeped in a larger context of vice and violence, which is just how Brewer paints things in his own Memphis, Tenn.

But should we be worried about what drew Brewer to Venkatesh's work? Maybe, but that's only because the same assumptions might draw even more people to the film—and away from the kinds of questions that often get lost or forgotten, caricatured or elided, when race-relations and urban life go to the movies.

Originally penned for

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Graduating While Black...

The graduation season has come and gone, a time of helium-filled balloons, celebratory brunches with extended family, bittersweet stock-taking of one’s student career, and the soupy mixture of fear and excitement about what unknown life chapters have yet to be written. For all students, but especially the ones earning advanced degrees, this yet-to-unfurl future means radically different things depending on whether or not there is a job option waiting on the other side of the ceremony.

One newly minted Ph.D., someone who should have been excited about her upcoming post at a liberal arts college, was busy pondering a colleague’s recent effort to place a purloined asterisk next to her procurement of that lucrative position.

The colleague, who was also a friend of hers, matter-of-factly stated, without any obvious displays of animus or contempt, that that aforementioned Ph.D. had only landed such an amazing job because of race, because she was African-American.

The argument is pretty straightforward. There are so few African-Americans getting doctoral degrees that the ones who do make it through the process have a relatively easy slide into the ranks of the professoriate.

First of all, this wasn’t the first student of color who admitted to such a seemingly dismissive response to her success from colleagues, and usually these responses are laced with a heavy dose of outward hostility. I remember finishing up at Columbia and having one of my peers, another graduate student in the department, finger-wavingly make the same point about my job prospects. I didn’t have a tenure-track job offer yet. I was headed to a postdoc instead. But the point was clear: My road would be paved with rose petals, because there are so few blacks in anthropology. The implication seemed to be that a grave injustice was being committed — and at this other student’s expense. Not quite reverse racism, but close to it.

Is that the end of the story? Really? Is that all the analytical work that need be done to explain how race operates in the academy today? I hardly think so.

On its face, this argument always struck me as peculiar, and decidedly self-serving, even as it also seemed undeniable, at least as one corner of a much larger political canvas. But most of the people who demonstrate recognition or melancholic resignation about the fact that students of color differently negotiate the academic job market always seem to stop just short of spending much time voicing the same amount of concern and righteous indignation about how few students of color are even admitted to prestigious doctoral programs in the first place — or ever end up teaching in tenure-track posts at American universities.

Can one really have it both ways? Flagging what seems to be but one of the many examples of how race informs people’s academic-job prospects while failing to link the job market’s racial dynamics to a larger story (bigger than just “supply and demand”) about the entrenched mechanisms by which past racial imbalances are effortlessly (and even unintentionally) re-animated?

(originally published as part of Brainstorm Blog for the Chronicle Review).

Friday, June 27, 2008

Howard Stern on Race

(from my chronicle brainstorm blog)

I can honestly say that I’ve just about given up on Broadcast radio. Well, not quite. I still (admittedly) feel as though my morning hasn’t quite started off on the right note until I happen to catch one of Tavis Smiley’s Southern-fried segments on Tom Joyner’s syndicated morning show. (I never quite remember when he’s supposed to be on). And I continue to listen to NPR at least a few times a week. I’m a big fan of several NPR shows, including the one offered up by our own Philly-based station, “Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane.” And I make sure to check AM Radio from time to time, for the same reason that I regularly catch O-Reilly’s nightly spin on the day’s events — with all of its ideological histrionics and overdeterminism. But I am completely addicted to satellite radio.

For one thing, nothing beats commercial free music, which one of the two major satellite companies still provides. But there is something else I appreciate about satellite radio, something more compelling to me as a person interested in how people talk about race/racism today. And that compelling thing cuts both ways, positively and negatively: Subscription/pay/satellite radio may be the only space left in America where the fearless and the feckless can hear honest and ongoing discussions about race and racism — without much of the funhouse mirror racial excessiveness that the anonymity of the Internet helps to cultivate (though such over-the-top cyber-racialism is also a pretty good indication of just how much racial animus still animates people’s hearts).

If we want a productive conversation about race/racism in America, which only some of us do, it won’t be enough to cling to the safety net of intellectual arguments about race’s social constructedness. It will take more than a disgruntled pundit’s disingenuous parsing of other people’s grammar and word choice. And we certainly can’t imagine that it won’t get heated. Any dialogue on race worth having will consist of anger and tears, raised voices and the gnashing of teeth. It will probably entail some lightheadedness and hyperventilating, too. Such emotion-laden responses have to be part of the debate (in fact, already are), even, and especially, if we’d rather hide behind the protective cover of reasoned analysis, the pretending of political disinterest and colorblind postracialism.

Satellite radio is one of the few places where the discussions of race have some of that requisite affect, bluntness, and bite. Sure, HBO has the candor of Bill Maher (that is, unless his anti-religion commentary during the Pope’s recent U.S. visit gets him canned — again). But that is only one hour a week of gloves-off debating about race, religion, politics, and everything else under the sun. You might not agree with Maher on everything, but you’ll get a quick fix of real, heart-felt conversation — not just public niceties and bourgeois platitudes tailor-made for repressing the most complicated and troubling aspects of hot-button issues, sanitizing them good and clean for public consumption. But if you want more sustained and ongoing frankness (over 30 hours worth most weeks), nothing beats Sirius Satellite Radio and its biggest employee, Howard Stern.

There is at least one candid and ongoing public discussion about race in America today, and Howard Stern is moderating it. The characters in his broadcast stable break every single taboo in the book, trafficking in the most politically incorrect language you’ll find anywhere. He’s crafted an eclectic space where his motley staff feels safe divulging even their most perverse and narrow-minded predilections. But there is also enough space left over for other members of the crew to call people out on those same rhetorical gestures.

As a listener, you get the daily racist or sexist or homophobic screed followed by the flatfootedly genuine (or sometimes quite thoughtful) attempt at challenging it — even as the original perpetrators either dig in theirs heels or concede their own unreconstructed insensitivities. Again, this isn’t just for one or two hours a week — or even a day. Stern has set up a kind of 24-hour window into how seemingly sympathetic and ordinary folks can harbor some of the most insensitive and offensive beliefs, but he does this without demonizing them and ejecting them from the conversation altogether. There is still a bit of self-consciousness about race on the show, but without nearly the preciousness we get in most of our pop-cultural fare.

And part of the beauty of it actually stems from the fact that Stern hardly obsesses about race in some single-minded way. This isn’t a radio program “about” race. The issue just emerges, seemingly in a flash and almost out of nowhere. Listeners of color get a small glimpse into how you imagine white people talk about race and racism when non-whites aren’t in the proverbial room. What you hear isn’t pretty, even if it is still sometimes quite hilarious — and at the expense of those perpetuating the stereotypes as well as their intended victims.

If nothing else, the FCC absolutely must sign off on this Sirius and XM merger, which really shouldn’t be taking so long, anyway. America can’t afford to lose this small demonstration of honest race-based discourse — warts, idiocy, curse words and all. Honesty isn’t all we need to organize any conversations we have about race, but it is definitely an important prerequisite.

Friday, June 20, 2008

I'll be talking about my new book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, for an hour on C-Span 2’s BookTV this weekend. The segment is supposed to air on Saturday at 9pm and Sunday at 3:30pm. If you have time, check it out--and spread the word. Thanks.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Summer Reading...

Like every other academic, I have quite a lot of writing to get done this summer, but I do have a few books I want to make sure to read before September:

1. Richard Iton, In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era
I've been waiting for this one for a while, and I know it will be useful for my own work. Iton's insights always are.

2. David Edwards, ARTSCIENCE: Creativity in the post-Google Generation
How can I be a PIK Professor at Penn and not get excited about this book.

3. Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
I am trying to finish a piece on a Black sex magician who was in full swing at about this time. Plus, I just read Mothers of Invention and was completely blown away by its rigor.

4. David Levering Lewis, God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215
He has to be considered something like the scholarly gold standard at this point.

5. Noah Feldman, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State
I am already 50+ pages into it. A razor-sharp intellect who makes things all look far too easy.

6. Anita L. Allen, The New Ethics: A Guided Tour of the Twenty-First Century Moral Landscape
I saw a review of it that has me totally intrigued.

7. James Baldwin, No Name in The Street
I want to make it through all of Jimmy B by the end of the decade. Just four more to go.

8. Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road
Everybody I know seems to be talking about this one.

9. Chuck Klosterman IV, A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas
I like his writerly voice whenever I catch it in Esquire or GQ or something.

10.Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
I read up to chapter 10 when it first dropped and then got swamped.

11. William Jelani Cobb, The Devil & Dave Chappelle & Other Essays
His cultural critiques always seem to turn the analytical screw one more rotation than almost anybody else.

Just my list. Let me know if you know of something I should add--and why.

Talking Ethnography (even briefly)

(By John L. Jackson, Jr. First posted for The Chronicle Review's Brainstorm Blog on May 16, 2008)

The term “ethnography” describes a literary genre (writings that attempt to capture people’s cultural beliefs and practices) as well as a qualitative research methodology (a way of collecting social scientific data based on long-term, face-to-face interactions). But we are living in a hyperscientific moment now, a time when ethnographic analysis seems to have lost some of its authority, especially since human genomics and the statistical analysis of massive datasets are privileged as holy grails in the search for contemporary solutions to social problems. Ethnography is still alive and well. It just ends up packaged for the public in ways that look vastly different from how other social sciences get framed.

Anthropology and sociology are the two academic disciplines that traditionally cornered the market on ethnographic research, but other social sciences have become more interested in the kinds of nuanced information that gets gathered during intimate and ongoing interactions between qualitative researchers and their research subjects, interactions euphemized as “deep hanging out.” Ethnographers spend time drinking beers with the folks they study, eating meals at their dinner tables, and shadowing them on the job — all in an effort to figure out what people’s everyday lives actually look like and to determine how people make sense of those lives.

When they first start conducting research in a particular community, ethnographers stand out like sore thumbs, drawing attention to themselves and making their research subjects decidedly self-conscious, which means that they run the risk of witnessing things that probably wouldn’t have taken place at all without the conspicuous seductions of an outside audience. But as ethnographers spend more and more time observing and participating in the same community, among the same community members, they eventually begin to lose some of their distracting influence on people’s behaviors. They transform into proverbial “flies on the wall,” at least that’s what we tell our graduate students. The ethnographer is still there, asking questions and watching people’s daily reactions, but they are hardly noticed any more, eventually, not in ways that might compromise the reliability of what they see or hear.

Ethnography’s value is based on the kinds of intimate and unguarded data that researchers gain from extended contact with one particular social group. When the discipline first emerged, this meant relatively small-scale and remote societies. “Father of ethnography” Bronislaw Malinowski’s early 20th century work with Trobrianders is taken as a powerful marker for the birth of full-fledged ethnographic research within anthropology. He crossed the seas, pitched his lonely tent, and found a way to live among people whose cultural world seemed radically different from his own. Part of the point, of course, was about making it clear to the European audience back home that those foreign practices could be understood only with the fullest knowledge of how people’s entire belief systems fit together — even and especially when those cultural systems seemed spectacularly exotic to the Western eye.

Anthropology was traditionally about studying societies unsullied by the advances of modernity. From the romantic attempts at “salvage ethnography” among Native American tribes in the early 19th century (archiving cultural practices before they disappeared forever) to the constructions of primitive societies as examples of the modern Western world’s hypothetical pasts, anthropologists used ethnographic methods to study those populations most removed from the taint of modern living.

Sociologists also embraced ethnographic methods in the early 20th century, and people like Robert Park at the University of Chicago helped to institutionalize “the ethnographic imagination” as a method for studying not just faraway villages but modern urban life in a teeming American city. That dividing line (between the anthropological ethnographer who studies some distant community and the sociological ethnographer who focuses her eyes on the modern Western metropolis) still defines most people’s assumptions about how those two fields carve up the social landscape for qualitative examination (even though there are certainly sociologists who study small-scale societies and anthropologists who have been working in urban America for a very long time).

One thing that both fields seem to emphasize and value amounts to a premium placed on the scientific equivalent of roughing it. They each have the highest regard for the “gonzo” ethnographer, the kind of heroic or mythical figure willing to put his very life at risk for the sake of ethnographic access. The more remote, removed, and potentially dangerous the location of the fieldwork experience, the more explicit and awestruck are the kudos offered up to any ethnographer bold enough to go where few have gone before. This search for dangerous exoticism can lead you halfway around the world, or just to the other side of the tracks, the other end of town. But in either case, an added value is placed on access to the everyday lives of human beings and cultural perspectives that most middle-class Western readers know little about.

During the 1960s, anthropologists and sociologists in the United States wrote classic ethnographic offerings on the urban poor — specifically, the Black poor — who were struggling to make ends meet in America’s ghettos. Ethnographers were trying to explain the hidden realities of urban poverty, a tradition that continues today. Anthropologists and sociologists working in American cities still disproportionately study poor minority communities. That’s because it is harder to sweeten the deal enough for wealthier Americans to accept such scholarly intrusions. A crisp $20 bill might suffice as incentive for an unemployed urbanite to answer some open-ended questions about her life history, but it is hardly enough to compel more decidedly middle-class citizens into exposing their raw lives to an ethnographic gaze. Middle-class and wealthier Americans also sometimes live in actual gated communities or attend the kinds of restricted social clubs that can keep prying anthropological eyes at bay.

Of course, most ethnographers will tell you that any valuable ethnographic work must be based on respect for the people researched, and that the most powerful studies of the poor decidedly humanize them, fending off insensitive attempts at reducing poverty to the cold numerical instances of this or that pathology. These ethnographic researchers carry a double burden, however. Besides making sense of people’s daily lives and future life chances, they are also asked to continue impressing readers with their fearlessness, with their courageous forays into the heart of darkness, offering first-hand “thick descriptions” of poor and dilapidated minority communities, the kinds of places that terrorize mainstream America’s imagination. And that is part of the trap. This formula usually means that even as urban ethnographers try to challenge middle-class cultural chauvinism, arguing that ostensible “cultures of poverty” are sometimes little different from more mainstream cultural groups, they are also asked to justify the value of their work by claiming to provide access to otherwise inaccessible locations.

This is exactly what the authority of some memoirs (about former gangbangers or drug dealers or welfare queens) traffic in: proffering the learned public first-person renditions of the kinds of social existence that they have never experienced — and would not want to. But, unlike the memoirist, a social scientist is supposed to be objective, politically and personally disinterested, and so it is supposed to help the case for scientific legitimacy that you are not conducting research in your own backyard. You have no axe to grind, no biases linked to prior investments in that community.

In some of our most recent and highly popular versions of ethnographic research, we have suburbanites from southern California studying gangs in Chicago (Sudhir Venkatesh conducting research on the south side), middle-class journalists working side-by-side with low-wage service-sector employees (Barbara Ehrenreich modeling her undercover reporting on something akin to what George Orwell attempted in Paris), and white researchers studying the ins and outs of Latino drug culture (Phillipe Bourgeois moving his family into one of the most crack-infested parts of Spanish Harlem). These authors are examples of careful and holistic ethnographic research that is both rigorous and politically committed. The problem has to do with the way we sometimes read them, how we unconsciously tap into the expectation that what makes ethnographies valuable is not the scientific rigor and meticulousness that all three of these ethnographers (and so many more) duly demonstrate, but instead any ethnography’s singular ability to take us into what we still imagine as that “heart of darkness,” whether the jungles of the Congo or the sidewalks of South Central Los Angeles.

It isn’t enough for ethnographers to study the world. For anyone to care nowadays, they have to titillate us, too. Give us a window into “the other” that will blow our minds. To accept this double-standard is to enter into a Faustian pact with a sensationalist contemporary ethos that demeans the true significance of careful, honest listening as a powerful methodological tool for social analysis when chronicling the experiences of nerdy video gamers as much as the most violent of gang members. Ethnography works in either case, even if only the latter fully satisfies our collective predilections for sensationalist storytelling. Number crunchers are asked to stick to the facts. If ethnographers want anyone else to care, it seems that they had better shock us with them.