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

Weekend Edition
June 23, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Democrats in the Dead Zone
Gary Leupp
Trump, Qatar and the Danger of Total Confusion
Andrew Levine
The “Democracies” We Deserve
Jeffrey St. Clair - Joshua Frank
The FBI’s “Operation Backfire” and the Case of Briana Waters
Rob Urie
Cannibal Corpse
Joseph G. Ramsey
Savage Calculations: On the Exoneration of Philando Castille’s Killer
John Wight
Trump’s Attack on Cuba
Dave Lindorff
We Need a Mass Movement to Demand Radical Progressive Change
Brian Cloughley
Moving Closer to Doom
David Rosen
The Sex Offender: the 21st Century Witch
John Feffer
All Signs Point to Trump’s Coming War With Iran
Jennifer L. Lieberman
What’s Really New About the Gig Economy?
Pete Dolack
Analyzing the Failures of Syriza
Vijay Prashad
The Russian Nexus
Mike Whitney
Putin Tries to Avoid a Wider War With the US
Gregory Barrett
“Realpolitik” in Berlin: Merkel Fawns Over Kissinger
Louis Yako
The Road to Understanding Syria Goes Through Iraq
Graham Peebles
Grenfell Tower: A Disaster Waiting to Happen
Ezra Rosser
The Poverty State of Mind and the State’s Obligations to the Poor
Ron Jacobs
Andrew Jackson and the American Psyche
Pepe Escobar
Fear and Loathing on the Afghan Silk Road
Andre Vltchek
Why I Reject Western Courts and Justice
Lawrence Davidson
On Hidden Cultural Corruptors
Christopher Brauchli
The Routinization of Mass Shootings in America
Missy Comley Beattie
The Poor Need Not Apply
Martin Billheimer
White Man’s Country and the Iron Room
Joseph Natoli
What to Wonder Now
Tom Clifford
Hong Kong: the Chinese Meant Business
Thomas Knapp
The Castile Doctrine: Cops Without Consequences
Nyla Ali Khan
Borders Versus Memory
Binoy Kampmark
Death on the Road: Memory in Tim Winton’s Shrine
Tony McKenna
The Oily Politics of Unity: Owen Smith as Northern Ireland Shadow Secretary
Nizar Visram
If North Korea Didn’t Exist US Would Create It
John Carroll Md
At St. Catherine’s Hospital, Cite Soleil, Haiti
Kenneth Surin
Brief Impressions of the Singaporean Conjucture
Paul C. Bermanzohn
Trump: the Birth of the Hero
Jill Richardson
Trump on Cuba: If Obama Did It, It’s Bad
Olivia Alperstein
Our President’s Word Wars
REZA FIYOUZAT
Useless Idiots or Useful Collaborators?
Clark T. Scott
Parallel in Significance
Louis Proyect
Hitler and the Lone Wolf Assassin
Julian Vigo
Theresa May Can’t Win for Losing
Richard Klin
Prog Rock: Pomp and Circumstance
Charles R. Larson
Review: Malin Persson Giolito’s “Quicksand”
David Yearsley
RIP: Pomp and Circumstance
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail