Friday, August 15, 2008

The New York Times and the End of White Guilt

Having just moved to Newark, New Jersey, I recently found myself confronted at a newsstand with this week's New York Times magazine's Profound Quandary: "Is Obama the End of Black Politics?" Since Obama secured the nomination, this kind of article has been appearing in every pesudo-intellectual magazine in the country.

I loathe these writings with an intensity I find hard to describe. What makes them such, vile, foetid pools of intellectual sewage is the barely contained celebratory air over the supposed death of the "Civil Rights Generation"-style politics (i.e. holding America responsible for its racism) present in every one of them. The NYT piece is merely the culmination of an underground party that's been going on in White Middlebrow America for the last few months, the invitation to which reads "The Guilt is Over!" (The card, it should be noted, is signed by Barack himself.)

The piece itself is unremarkable in its banalities. Lots of quotes from conservative Black mayors, like Newark's own Cory Booker, exalting their own supposed novelty and relevance. A profound ignorance of the history of Black politics (seemingly a job requirement for being hired by the NYT). And of course, a great deal of feigned chin-scratching over "what this all means now."

One item that jumped out at me from the article was author Matt Bai's tortured attempt to demonstrate Black economic progress. In a classic case of the proof disproving itself, Bai writes "According to an analysis by Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, almost 37 percent of black families fell into one of the three top income quintiles in 2005, compared with 23 percent in 1973." First of all, who ever uses a category as utterly arbitrary, and confusing, as "top three economic quintiles" unless they are trying to pull a fast one? I can picture Bai at his desk, working late into the night, trying desperately to find some articulation of the statistics that can make Black economic progress seem impressive. Second, and most importantly, the stat, while appearing to suggest something like a twofold growth in Black income parity, actually reveals the tremendous gap that still exists. The top three economic quintiles should represent 60% of the population. Yet Bai's example shows that Black folks constitute almost half of the proportion they should of these brackets. Hardly something to celebrate.

Glenn Ford of the Black Agenda Report does an excellent job taking apart the specific logic of Bai's article, so I'll point readers there for more. In closing, I just want to note the article's denkverbot on any of the actual issues facing Black America today. The Black Gulag isn't mentioned. The mortage companies' swindling is no where to be found. Likewise for Katrina. And Black poverty is whitewashed. These issues are the real reason that, when I walk down 125th street in Harlem, I see street vendor after vendor selling shirts juxtaposing Dr. King and Obama. Black America doesn't celebrate Obama because they think he's going to leave Civil Rights politics behind, but because they hope he will complete them.