The White-Minstrel Show

(Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
‘Acting white’ for white people

Ice-T never received an Academy Award, which makes sense inasmuch as his movies have been for the most part crap. But as an actor, you have to give the man credit: Along with other gangster rappers such as Ice Cube, he turned in such a convincing performance — amplifying negative stereotypes about black men and selling white people their own Reagan-era racial panic back to them in a highly stylized form — that people still, to this day, believe he was the guy he played on stage. One social-media critic accused him of hypocrisy for having recorded the infamous song “Cop Killer” before going on to a very lucrative career playing a police officer on television. Ice-T gave the man an honest answer: “It’s both acting, homie.”

Acting, indeed.

Pretty good acting, too, across the board in the rap world. Consider the strange evolution of Tupac Shakur, who went from the quiet, effeminate young man seen in this interview — a former acting and ballet student at the Baltimore School for the Arts apparently pointed like a rocket at a career in musical theater — to the “Thug Life” antihero persona that made him famous in a remarkably short period of time. He played tough-guy Roland Bishop in Juice and basically stayed in character for the rest of his public life. As with Ice-T, many of his fans assumed the stage persona was the real man. There’s a whole weird little racial dynamic in there waiting for some doctoral student to sort it out. Nobody expects Anthony Hopkins to eat a census worker.

A theater critic can’t really begrudge a performer for making a living, and Ice-T put on a great show. I do wonder how much damage those performers did by reinforcing and glamorizing criminal stereotypes of black men. And I do mean that I wonder — I do not know. Maybe the act is more obvious if you are the sort of person who is being dramatized or caricatured. (I experience something like that when I hear modern country songs on the radio, all that cheerful alcoholism and casual adultery and ridiculous good-ol’-boy posturing.) It would be weird to describe black men as “acting black,” but whatever they were up to was the opposite of “acting white.”

There’s a certain kind of conservative who loves to talk about “acting white,” i.e., about the legendary social sanction purportedly applied to African Americans who try too hard in school or who speak in an English that is too standard or who have interests and aspirations other than the ones that black people are stereotypically supposed to have. (“Acting white” isn’t a complaint exclusive to African Americans. My friend Jay Nordlinger relates a wonderful story about the American Indian educator Ben Chavis, who once was accused by a sister of “acting white.” His reply: “‘Acting white’ is not enough. I’m acting Jewish. Or maybe Chinese.”) Oh, how we love to knowingly tut-tut about “acting white,” with the obvious implication that black Americans corporately would be a good deal better off if they would do a little more acting white. That sort of thing is not entirely unique to conservatives, of course: Nine-tenths of all social criticism involving the problems of the American underclass consists of nice college graduates and policy professionals of many races and religions wondering aloud why they can’t be more like us, which is why so much social policy is oriented toward trying to get more poor people to go to college, irrespective of whether they want to do so or believe they would benefit from it.

Conservatives have a weakness for that “acting white” business because we are intellectually invested in emphasizing the self-inflicted problems of black America, for rhetorical and political reasons that are too obvious to require much elaboration. It’s a phenomenon that may or may not be exaggerated. John McWhorter argues that it is a real problem, and makes a pretty good case. So did President Barack Obama, who called on the nation to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” I am not sure that a white man from Lubbock, Texas, has a great deal to add to President Obama’s argument there.

But I do have something to say about the subject of white people acting white.

We rarely used to put it in racial terms, unless we were talking about Eminem or the Cash-Me-Ousside Girl or some other white person who has embraced (or affected) some part of black popular culture. With the Trump-era emergence of a more self-conscious form of white-identity politics — especially white working-class identity politics — the racial language comes to the surface more often than it used to. But we still rarely hear complaints about “acting un-white.” Instead, we hear complaints about “elitism.”

The parallels to the “acting white” phenomenon in black culture are fairly obvious: When aspiration takes the form of explicit or implicit cultural identification, however partial, with some hated or resented outside group that occupies a notionally superior social position, then “authenticity” is to be found in socially regressive manners, mores, and habits. It is purely reactionary.

Republicans, once the party of the upwardly mobile with a remarkable reflex for comforting the comfortable, have written off entire sections of the country — including the bits where most of the people live — as ‘un-American.’

The results are quite strange. Republicans, once the party of the upwardly mobile with a remarkable reflex for comforting the comfortable, have written off entire sections of the country — including the bits where most of the people live — as “un-American.” Silicon Valley and California at large, New York City and the hated Acela corridor, and, to some extent, large American cities categorically are sneered at and detested. There is some ordinary partisanship in that, inasmuch as the Democrats tend to dominate the big cities and the coastal metropolitan aggregations, but it isn’t just that. Conservatives are cheering for the failure of California and slightly nonplussed that New York City still refuses to regress into being an unlivable hellhole in spite of the best efforts of its batty Sandinista mayor. Not long ago, to be a conservative on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was the most ordinary thing in the world. Now that address would be a source of suspicion. God help you if you should ever attend a cocktail party in Georgetown, the favorite dumb trope of conservative talk-radio hosts.

We’ve gone from William F. Buckley Jr. to the gentlemen from Duck Dynasty. Why?

American authenticity, from the acting-even-whiter point of view, is not to be found in any of the great contemporary American business success stories, or in intellectual life, or in the great cultural institutions, but in the suburban-to-rural environs in which the white underclass largely makes its home — the world John Mellencamp sang about but understandably declined to live in.

Shake your head at rap music all you like: When’s the last time you heard a popular country song about finishing up your master’s in engineering at MIT?

White people acting white have embraced the ethic of the white underclass, which is distinct from the white working class, which has the distinguishing feature of regular gainful employment. The manners of the white underclass are Trump’s — vulgar, aggressive, boastful, selfish, promiscuous, consumerist. The white working class has a very different ethic. Its members are, in the main, churchgoing, financially prudent, and married, and their manners are formal to the point of icy politeness. You’ll recognize the style if you’ve ever been around it: It’s “Yes, sir” and “No, ma’am,” but it is the formality of soldiers and police officers — correct and polite, but not in the least bit deferential. It is a formality adopted not to acknowledge the superiority of social betters but to assert the equality of the speaker — equal to any person or situation, perfectly republican manners. It is the general social respect rooted in genuine self-respect.

Its opposite is the sneering, leveling, drag-’em-all-down-into-the-mud anti-“elitism” of contemporary right-wing populism. Self-respect says: “I’m an American citizen, and I can walk into any room, talk to any president, prince, or potentate, because I can rise to any occasion.” Populist anti-elitism says the opposite: “I can be rude enough and denigrating enough to drag anybody down to my level.” Trump’s rhetoric — ridiculous and demeaning schoolyard nicknames, boasting about money, etc. — has always been about reducing. Trump doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to duke it out with even the modest wits at the New York Times, hence it’s “the failing New York Times.” Never mind that the New York Times isn’t actually failing and that any number of Trump-related businesses have failed so thoroughly that they’ve gone into bankruptcy; the truth doesn’t matter to the argument any more than it matters whether the fifth-grade bully actually has an actionable claim on some poor kid’s lunch money. It would never even occur to the low-minded to identify with anybody other than the bully. That’s what all that ridiculous stuff about “winning” was all about in the campaign. It is might-makes-right, i.e., the politics of chimpanzee troupes, prison yards, kindergartens, and other primitive environments. That is where the underclass ethic thrives — and how “smart people” came to be a term of abuse.

This involves, inevitably, a good deal of fakery.

The man at the center of all this atavistic redneck revanchism is a pampered billionaire real-estate heir from New York City, and it has been something to watch the multi-millionaire populist pundits in Manhattan doing their best impersonations of beer-drinkin’ regular guys from the sticks. I assume Sean Hannity picked up his purported love for country music in the sawdust-floored honky-tonks of . . . Long Island.

As a purely aesthetic enterprise, none of this clears my poor-white-trash cultural radar. I’m reminded of those so-called dive bars in Manhattan that spend $150,000 to make a pricey spot in Midtown look like a Brooklyn kid’s idea of a low-rent roadside bar in Texas. (There’s one that even has Lubbock license plates on the wall. I wonder where they got them — is there some kind of mail-order dive-bar starter kit that comes with taxidermy, Texas license plates, and a few cases of Lone Star? Maybe via Amazon Prime?) The same crap is there — because the same crap is everywhere — but the arrangement isn’t quite right.

The populist Right’s abandonment of principle has been accompanied by a repudiation of good taste, achievement, education, refinement, and manners — all of which are abominated as signs of effete ‘elitism.’

The populist Right’s abandonment of principle has been accompanied by a repudiation of good taste, achievement, education, refinement, and manners — all of which are abominated as signs of effete “elitism.” During the Clinton years, Virtue Inc. was the top-performing share in the Republican political stock exchange. Fortunes were made, books were sold by the ton, and homilies were delivered. The same people today are celebrating Donald Trump — not in spite of his being a dishonest, crude serial adulterer but because of it. His dishonesty, the quondam cardinals of Virtue Inc. assure us, is simply the mark of a savvy businessman, his vulgarity the badge of his genuineness and lack of “political correctness,” and his pitiless abuse of his several wives and children the mark of a genuine “alpha male.” No less a virtue entrepreneur than Bill Bennett dismissed those who pointed out Trump’s endless lies and habitual betrayals as suffering from “moral superiority,” from people on “high horses,” and said that Trump simply is “a guy who says some things awkwardly, indecorously, infelicitously.”

Thus did the author of The Book of Virtues embrace the author of “Grab ’Em By the P***y.”

We need a Moynihan Report for conservative broadcasters.

The problem, in Bennett’s telling (and that of many other conservatives), isn’t that Trump is a morally defective reprobate but that he is aesthetically displeasing to overly refined “elitists.” That is a pretty common line of argument — and an intellectual cop-out — but set that aside for the moment. Let’s pretend that Bennett et al. are correct and this is simply a matter of manners. Are we now to celebrate vulgarity as a virtue? Are we to embrace crassness? Are we supposed to pretend that a casino-cum-strip-joint is a civilizational contribution up there with Notre-Dame, that the Trump Taj Mahal trumps the Taj Mahal? Are we supposed to snigger at people who ask that question? Are we supposed to abandon our traditional defense of standards to mimic Trump’s bucket-of-KFC-and-gold-plated-toilet routine?

Ludwig von Mises was as clear-eyed a social critic as he was an economist, and he noted something peculiar about the anti-Semitism of the Nazi era: In the past, minority groups were despised for their purported vices — white American racists considered African Americans lazy and mentally deficient, the English thought the Irish drank too much to be trusted to rule their own country, everybody thought the Gypsies were put on this Earth to spread disease and thievery. But the Jews were hated by the Nazis for their virtues: They were too intelligent, too clever, too good at business, too cosmopolitan, too committed to their own distinctness, too rich, too influential, too thrifty.

Our billionaire-ensorcelled anti-elitists take much the same tack: Anybody with a prestigious job, a good income, an education at a selective university, and no oxy overdoses in the immediate family — and anybody who prefers hearing the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center to watching football on television — just doesn’t know what life is like in “the real America” or for the “real men” who live there. No, the “real America,” in this telling, is little more than a series of dead factory towns, dying farms, pill mills — and, above all, victims. There, too, white people acting white echo elements of hip-hop culture, which presents powerful and violent icons of masculinity as hapless victims of American society.

The “alpha male” posturing, the valorizing of underclass dysfunction, the rejection of “elite” tastes and manners — right-wing populism in the age of Trump is a lot like Bruce Springsteen’s act, once acidly (and perfectly) described as a “white minstrel show.”

I wonder if Bill Bennett can tap-dance.

Race is part of this, as it is part of many things in America, but it is easy to make too much of it, too. The white underclass may suffer from “acting white,” but what poor people in general suffer from is acting poor, i.e., repeating the mistakes and habits that left them (or their parents and grandparents, in many cases) in poverty or near-poverty to begin with.

The more you know about that world, the less sympathetic you’ll be to it. What the Trump-style would-be tribunes of the plebs most have in common with self-appointed progressive advocates for the poor is ignorance of the actual subject matter. It weren’t the scheming Chinaman what stole ol’ Bubba’s job down Bovina, ’cause ol’ Bubba didn’t really have him a job to steal. And it isn’t capitalism that made rural Appalachia or small-town Texas what it is. Well-heeled children of privilege such as Elizabeth Bruenig condescend to speak on behalf of people and communities about whom they know practically nothing — people who have not, let’s remember, asked the well-scrubbed sons and daughters of the ruling class to speak on their behalf. When they were asked, they chose Donald Trump by a very large margin, but then the poor make poor choices all the time — that’s part of why they’re poor. The Left is convinced of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? thesis, that the poor and struggling in the conservative and rural parts of the country are just too besotted with Jesus talk and homosexual panic to understand what actually is at stake, and who therefore — the famous phrase — “vote against their own economic interests.” Progressives preach about — and to — people with whom they have no real connection, and do so in ways that would embarrass them to death if it were a racial line rather than a class line they were crossing in such a state of pristine ignorance. They are the mirror image of white conservatives who wonder why poor black people in the Bronx can’t just “act white” and get with the program.

If I might be permitted to address the would-be benefactors of the white underclass from the southerly side of the class line: Ain’t nobody asked you to speak for us.

One of the intellectual failings of conservative social critics is our tendency to take external forces, economic and otherwsie, into greater account in the case of struggling rural and small-town whites than in the case of struggling urban blacks.

Of course there are external forces, economic and otherwise, that act on poor people and poor communities, and one of the intellectual failings of conservative social critics is our tendency to take those into considerably greater account in the case of struggling rural and small-town whites than in the case of struggling urban blacks. “Get off welfare and get a job!” has been replaced by solicitous talk about “globalization.” Likewise, the reaction to the crack-cocaine plague of the 1980s and 1990s was very different from the reaction to the opioid epidemic of the moment, in part because of who is involved — or perceived to be involved. And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a rash of deaths from opioid overdoses. As Dr. Peter DeBlieux of University Medical Center in New Orleans put it, heroin addiction was, for a long time, treated in the same way AIDS was in its early days: as a problem for deviants. Nobody cared about AIDS when it was a problem for prostitutes, drug addicts, and those with excessively adventurous sex lives. The previous big epidemic of heroin overdoses involved largely non-white drug users. The current fentanyl-driven heroin episode and the growth of prescription-killer abuse involve more white users and more middle-class users.

But there are internal forces as well. People really do make decisions, and, whether they intend it or not, they contribute to the sometimes difficult conditions in which those decisions have to be made.

Consider the case of how I became homeless.

I wasn’t homeless in the sense of sleeping in the park — most of the people we’re talking about when we’re talking about homelessness aren’t. The people who are sleeping on the streets are mainly addicts and people with other severe mental-health issues. I was homeless in the way the Department of Health and Human Services means: in “an unstable or non-permanent situation . . . forced to stay with a series of friends and/or extended family members.” (As a matter of policy, these two kinds of homelessness should not be conflated, which they intentionally are by those who wish for political reasons to pretend that our mental-health crisis is an economic problem.) Like many underclass families, mine lived very much paycheck-to-paycheck, and was always one setback away from economic catastrophe. That came when my mother, who for various reasons had a weakened immune system, got scratched by her poodle, Pepe, and nearly lost her right arm to the subsequent infection. A long hospitalization combined with fairly radical surgery and a series of skin grafts left her right arm and hand partially paralyzed, a serious problem for a woman who typed for a living. (She’d later learn to type well over 100 words per minute with only partial use of her right hand; she was a Rachmaninoff of the IBM Selectric.) I am sure that there were severe financial stresses associated with her illness, but I ended up being shuffled around between various neighbors — strangers to me — for mainly non-economic reasons. My parents had two houses between them, but at that time had just gone through a very ugly divorce. My mother was living with a mentally disturbed alcoholic who’d had a hard time in Vietnam (and well before that, I am certain; his grandfather had once shot him in the ass with a load of rock-salt for making unauthorized use of a watermelon from the family farm) and it was decided that it would be unsafe to leave children alone in his care, which it certainly would have been. He was very precise, in funny ways, and would stack his Coors Lite cans in perfect silver pyramids until he ran out of beer, at which point he would start drinking shots of Mexican vanilla, which is about 70 proof. Lubbock was a dry city then, and buying more booze would have meant a trip past the city limits, hence the resort to baking ingredients and, occasionally, to mouthwash. I am afraid the old realtors’ trick of filling the house with the aroma of baked cookies has the opposite of the desired effect on me.

Our mortgage then was $285 a month, which was a little less than my father paid in child support, so housing was, in effect, paid for. And thus I found myself in the strange position of being temporarily without a home while rotating between neighbors within sight, about 60 feet away, of the paid-up house to which I could not safely return. I was in kindergarten at the time.

Capitalism didn’t do that, and neither did illegal immigrants or Chinese competition to the Texas Instruments factory on the other side of town. Culture didn’t do it, either, and neither did poverty: We had enough money to secure comfortable housing in a nice neighborhood with good schools. In the last years of her life, my mother asked me to help her sort out some financial issues, and I was shocked to learn how much money she and her fourth and final husband were earning: They’d both ended their careers as government employees, and had pretty decent pensions and excellent health benefits. They were, in fact, making about as much in retirement in Lubbock as I was making editing newspapers in Philadelphia. Of course they were almost dead broke — their bingo and cigarette outlays alone were crushing, and they’d bought a Cadillac and paid for it with a credit card.

It was not the case that everything that was wrong with the lives of the people I grew up with was the result of their own choices, but neither was it the case that they were only leaves on the wind.

They didn’t suffer from bad luck or lack of opportunity. Bad decisions and basic human failure put them where they were. But that is from the political point of view an unsatisfactory answer, because it does not provide us with an external party (preferably a non-voting party) to blame. It was not the case that everything that was wrong with the lives of the people I grew up with was the result of their own choices, but neither was it the case that they were only leaves on the wind.

Of course, they were anti-elitists before it was fashionable, FDR Democrats who grew into Buchananism and Perotism before those became Trumpism. It might never have occurred to them to imitate the habits of people who had gone farther and done better in life than they had, even though they had the experience of seeing people who came from the exact same conditions as they did — or, in some cases, from far worse circumstances — build happy, prosperous, stable, productive lives. My mother despised the college professors for whom she worked in her last job, who were unfailingly kind and generous to her, because they were unfailingly kind and generous to her, which she understood (as she understood many things) as condescension. Hers was a world of strict tribal hierarchy: She would, for example, enact petty cruelties on waitresses and grocery-store clerks and other people in service positions, taking advantage of the fact that she had momentary social inferiors, and she must have been confused that the professors and deans did not behave that way toward her. In fact, they did the opposite, entrusting her with work far beyond her modest formal credentials or the official duties of her position. Class is funny in a small-ish town: The father of a school friend of mine became the dean of her college and her boss, and she spoke of the family as though they inhabited some faraway realm when in reality they lived three blocks north and two blocks east. That she herself could have had a life more like theirs, or that her children might yet, never occurred to her — it was sour grapes raised to a state of psychosis.

Feeding such people the lie that their problems are mainly external in origin — that they are the victims of scheming elites, immigrants, black welfare malingerers, superabundantly fecund Mexicans, capitalism with Chinese characteristics, Walmart, Wall Street, their neighbors — is the political equivalent of selling them heroin. (And I have no doubt that it is mostly done for the same reason.) It is an analgesic that is unhealthy even in small doses and disabling or lethal in large ones. The opposite message — that life is hard and unfair, that what is not necessarily your fault may yet be your problem, that you must act and bear responsibility for your actions — is what conservatism used to offer, before it became a white-minstrel show. It is a sad spectacle, but I do have some hope that the current degraded state of the conservative movement will not last forever.

The thing about eternal truths is, they’re eternal.


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It’s all familiar and boring, the recasting of an American archetype into a new mold to instruct, because they can’t come up with archetypes of their own.