Wesley Morris on the Expansion of Black Identity

At Grantland, Wesley Morris has a fascinating essay on a cultural shift:

But 21st-century blackness has lost its rigid center, and irony permeates the cultural membrane. More than kids knowing they can be president of the United States, it might be more crucial to the expansion of black identity that — thanks to, say, N.E.R.D or Odd Future — they know they can be skate punks. Kanye West can release an album called The College Dropout, then run around the world dressed like an Oberlin junior. (The backpack craze was popularized by him.) West had done what 15 years of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Family Matters could not. He ushered in the chic of the black nerd. He cleared a safe space for narcissism and self-deconstruction; for singing rappers with names like Drake, J. Cole, and Tyler, The Creator; for the Roots to be Jimmy Fallon’s house band; for the threat in the music to move from the street to the psyche. Hip-hop had already begun to splinter into a land of a million mixtapes before West’s arrival. And with that shattering, black male style was transitioning away from Sean Combs’ “Puffy” era gilded age, with its plushness, flamboyance, glamour, and actionable danger. 

Morris begins and ends his discussion with the NBA, and the cultural cues sent by some of its most elite players. One wonders if the “expansion of black identity” Morris describes will have larger social implications. A striking fact about America’s diversity is that Latinos and Asian Americans, which have seen their populations expand dramatically since 1965, are somewhat more likely to marry members of other ethnocultural groups than African Americans, thus leading some to predict that a black-and-white racial binary will eventually be replaced by a beige-and-black racial binary. We could also imagine a scenario in which middle-class African Americans become part of a larger mixed-race, middle-class culture while poor African Americans will find themselves culturally and economically isolated. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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