FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Advent of a New Black Politician

by ANTHONY OLSZEWSKI

From around 1830 through the 1950s, a sad, shameful, and central feature of American popular culture was the minstrel show. White performers darkened their faces by applying burnt cork. Minstrel spectacles of the worst sort were crude attempts at  humor through disgraceful parodies of African-Americans. What’s often not recalled is that some minstrel shows attempted to reproduce accurately the acts of Black entertainers. This “delivery” by Whites of African-American creative ideas was necessary for the mores of the time did not allow Whites to attend performances by African-Americans artists. In many cases, it wasn’t even possible due to enforced segregation.

Minstrel acts didn’t just disappear in the 1950’s. Rather, the minstrel act transformed itself with a wink by leaving the burnt cork packed away in a trunk in the dressing room. Elvis Presley was the first white musician to achieve great fame by simulating (appropriating?) what had been African-American popular music. Using the same routine, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles took off in the early 60’s. (In a radio interview, Bill Wyman remembered how in Chicago (the capital of the Blues) a white fan wanted to know “where did this music come from?”) Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” was the notorious stereotypical
African-American musician, Mr. Tambo, of the old minstrel shows.

Certainly before John F. Kennedy there were Irish politicians, Indeed the Irish city-machine pol’ was a fixture in U.S. politics generations before Joseph Kennedy decided to back a son in a run for the Senate. But, pre-JFK, the Irish were character actors on the American political stage. By masterful organization of urban Irish voters – and that for the larger power structure less mess was involved by keeping the cities inside the tent instead of outside – Irish leaders rose to power. Even though the Irish kept the show going, the leading roles went to Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Until Jack Kennedy changed all of that.

Today’s African-American leaders are inheriting the urban political institutions that once were operated by the Irish. In 1976, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, in an analysis of the delegates at the 1972 Democratic and Republican conventions, made a number of prescient statements. She predicted the end of candidates of the George Wallace ilk playing any significant role in mainstream politics, the dilution of identification with Party (and the consequent increase in the importance of independent voters), and the rise in visibility (and to some degree acceptance) of extreme ideological elements at either end of the spectrum. Ms. Kirkpatrick also discussed at length the growing importance of symbol specialists and their ability – by defining all issues in terms of right and wrong – to seize the moral high ground:

“… salience of bread and butter issues has been declining while style, image. and abstract issues of principle are of steadily increasing importance.

Ideas, values, and issues are the currency with which symbol specialists pursue politics. What money is to the businessman and man­power is to the trade unionist, words are to the symbol specialist: they are the base value utilized in the effort to win other values – power, status, moral approval, wealth. A special relation exists in politics between rectitude concerns and verbal skills. Obviously, verbal skills are needed to dramatize moral concerns, but moral concerns are also needed to make persuasion persuasive. Moral claims are readily available to the middle income symbol specialist. Unlike wealth, status, knowledge, and health – rectitude can, for all practical political purposes, be had for the claiming….”

With this in mind, one can discern White politicians trying to claim the moral authority of Dr. Martin Luther King by simulating and/or incorporating elements of his oratory.

African-Americans now appear very frequently in commercials aimed at a wide audience. This is a dramatic shift. Formerly, ads featuring a black spokesperson were strictly targeted at African-American consumers (with well-known sports figures as the rule proving exception). Some years ago, black actors began to be used where a “Brooklyn” (e.g. N’Yawker, working-class guy or Jewish mother) character might have appeared. By scripting these distinct types, advertisers intend to fix the audience’s attention and memory on a product. By definition different from much of the population, these figures all stand out. Also, as large numbers of people believe that these stock characters possess valuable insights, there is a prejudice in favor of them.

For at least the last several years, the part played by African-Americans in commercials has become much more pronounced. Vast sums of money are not being spent foolishly. Advertisers
measure results in hard numbers. It must be that the general population unconditionally and unconsciously trusts the word of African-Americans.

The career of James Earl Jones dramatically illustrates this evolution of popular perception. On Broadway in 1970 (“The Great White Hope”), he played a threat to the existing order. By 1977, James Earl Jones’s voice enabled Darth Vader to personify the threat OF the existing order (super-ego?). Now, in the Verizon commercials, James Earl Jones is your friendly neighbor, family member, and business partner.

Contemporary TV shows and movies regularly portray African-Americans as authority figures (particularly military officers and police – the character of a Marine drill sergeant will almost certainly be played by a Black actor). Could it be that, with a just-like-in-the-movies mind-set, African-Americans now are thought of – by preconception – as authority figures?

Those seeking to harness commercial forces learned that audiences are receptive to a message communicated by African-Americans. Those seeking to harness political forces know very well that ability to transmit a commercial message translates directly into relaying a political message. At some point, opinion-crafters will give up on the search for some political Elvis with a talent for impersonation.

There’s a white patrician appearance – the Senatorial “look” – that’s been of great advantage to aspiring politicians. Those fitting this description have found it easier to get taken seriously, both by voters and backers. In a similar manner, African-American politicians will increasingly find the odds in their favor.

ANTHONY OLSZEWSKI can be reached at
aolsz@bellatlntic.net

 

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 20, 2017
Bruce E. Levine
Humiliation Porn: Trump’s Gift to His Faithful…and Now the Blowback
Melvin Goodman
“Wag the Dog,” Revisited
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima: a Lurking Global Catastrophe?
David Smith-Ferri
Resistance and Resolve in Russia: Memorial HRC
Kenneth Surin
Global India?
Norman Pollack
Fascistization Crashing Down: Driving the Cleaver into Social Welfare
Patrick Cockburn
Trump v. the Media: a Fight to the Death
Susan Babbitt
Shooting Arrows at Heaven: Why is There Debate About Battle Imagery in Health?
Matt Peppe
New York Times Openly Promotes Formal Apartheid Regime By Israel
David Swanson
Understanding Robert E. Lee Supporters
Michael Brenner
The Narcissism of Donald Trump
Martin Billheimer
Capital of Pain
Thomas Knapp
Florida’s Shenanigans Make a Great Case for (Re-)Separation of Ballot and State
Jordan Flaherty
Best Films of 2016: Black Excellence Versus White Mediocrity
Weekend Edition
February 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
David Price
Rogue Elephant Rising: The CIA as Kingslayer
Matthew Stevenson
Is Trump the Worst President Ever?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Flynn?
John Wight
Brexit and Trump: Why Right is Not the New Left
Diana Johnstone
France: Another Ghastly Presidential Election Campaign; the Deep State Rises to the Surface
Neve Gordon
Trump’s One-State Option
Roger Harris
Emperor Trump Has No Clothes: Time to Organize!
Joan Roelofs
What Else is Wrong with Globalization
Andrew Levine
Why Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban?
Mike Whitney
Blood in the Water: the Trump Revolution Ends in a Whimper
Vijay Prashad
Trump, Turmoil and Resistance
Ron Jacobs
U.S. Imperial War Personified
David Swanson
Can the Climate Survive Adherence to War and Partisanship?
Andre Vltchek
Governor of Jakarta: Get Re-elected or Die!
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Destruction of Mosul
Norman Pollack
Self-Devouring Reaction: Governmental Impasse
Steve Horn
What Do a Louisiana Pipeline Explosion and Dakota Access Pipeline Have in Common? Phillips 66
Brian Saady
Why Corporations are Too Big to Jail in the Drug War
Graham Peebles
Ethiopia: Peaceful Protest to Armed Uprising
Luke Meyer
The Case of Tony: Inside a Lifer Hearing
Binoy Kampmark
Adolf, The Donald and History
Robert Koehler
The Great American Awakening
Murray Dobbin
Canadians at Odds With Their Government on Israel
Fariborz Saremi
A Whole New World?
Joyce Nelson
Japan’s Abe, Trump & Illegal Leaks
Christopher Brauchli
Trump 1, Tillerson 0
Yves Engler
Is This Hate Speech?
Dan Bacher
Trump Administration Exempts Three CA Oil Fields From Water Protection Rule at Jerry Brown’s Request
Richard Klin
Solid Gold
Melissa Garriga
Anti-Abortion and Anti-Fascist Movements: More in Common Than Meets the Eye
Thomas Knapp
The Absurd Consequences of a “Right to Privacy”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail