Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: Where Have all the Arcades Gone? Reflections of a Negro Pinball Wizard

If Chris were not otherwise occupied, he could tell you that he is, by several objective measures, the most talented Guitar Hero player in existence: not only good enough to have attained numerous high-score records, but so skilled that he has parlayed his peculiar blend of athleticism and showmanship into online celebrity and a fledgling career designing and endorsing his own line of video game hardware. But at the moment, another barrage of notes was about to descend on him. “The chaos,” he said, “begins right now.”

Despite his preternatural dexterity, Chris, who turns 17 on Sunday, would seem to be just one more avid gamer who has helped make the Guitar Hero franchise a towering success. It has sold more than 20.7 million copies worldwide since its debut just three years ago.

Yet to the video game business Chris represents just the kind of player — the freakishly talented one-man spectacle — who could bring more revenue and legitimacy to the industry, and prove once and for all that video gaming is as much a mainstream American pastime as going to the movies or watching television.

From, the piece "Rec-Room Wizard" printed in the New York Times.

Youth is indeed wasted on the young. Sounds embittered doesn't it? I am just hurting, a little sad that the world has seemingly changed around me, but not necessarily with me. It is also a little nostalgia, a longing for the not so recent past and a realization that one of the favorite pastimes of my childhood has changed, pushed forward by "progress" and morphed into something I know, but don't particularly like or feel comfortable with--sort of like the hot ex-girlfriend from college you meet a few years later, who is still gorgeous, just a little older, and is now with a beau who is the exact opposite of who you would have pictured her with. This is one of those moments when you wake up and realize that you are a little older than you were yesterday:

Yes, I still play video games. Yes, my tastes have gravitated to PC games over consoles because I primarily play RTS's (although I will be getting an X-Box 360...primarily to download the "old school" classics and to play GTA 4). And yes, I play a pretty mean game of Call of Duty 4 and other first person shooters. But, something has changed. With the rise of the internet, with consoles and home PC's which are more powerful than anything we could have imagined ten years ago, the social space for gaming has inexorably changed. The communal space, those hives of scum and villainy which many of us ghetto nerds were drawn to in our New York City Time Squares, our South Sides, our West Sides and corner bodegas, our Milford Rec's, is gone, never to be replaced. Those hideouts from parents and adults where we could seek out a brother from another planet, an old school sage to teach us the latest tricks and exploits:

Reading about the rise of this Guitar Hero phenom encouraged me to take a trip to one of the few remaining arcades in the city. For the young and uninitiated, arcades were physical spaces where you would play video games and pinball with others, face to face, in a personal contest for supremacy. I was so excited, I would get on the Red Line, read a book, get some Chipotle on the way home, and pop some quarters into a favored machine. Would it be Killer Instinct? Street Fighter 2 Turbo or CE, Mortal Combat? Marvel vs. Capcom? What would it be? Guess what? It would be nothing as our video game oasis was closed, shutdown, its dirty floors still uncleaned. It seems this last arcade would be a victim of hipster gentrification.

This isn't to disparage the rise of the internet and how we finally have a truly global stage for contest and where video games are approaching a "sport" of sorts with tournaments, leagues, and big money purses. In my childhood I would have never dreamed that there would be lucrative prizes at stake in tournaments for games like StarCraft, Quake or Ultimate Tournament. I wouldn't have imagined that video game pros would have real groupies and fans...not the cast off, sallow faced, semi-teen runaway degenerates who hung out at the local spot. No, attention from real people whose approval you would seek, and if they were an attractive woman, to likely try to enjoy in a biblical, Song of Solomon kind of way.

You children of the 1970s and 1980s, did you also hear the same rumors that I did? That you could go to Japan and face off against the best, Asian kids who were in our imaginations just as good at martial arts as they were at video games, a mythical Blood Sport for video game heads where you could compete against the best of the best:

Random thought: am I the only ghetto nerd who was jealous of his Asian friends and their video game collections? Bootlegged titles purchased in China or Korea town, or mailed to them from friends and family overseas?

My use of the phrase "blood sport" is not accidental. Playing video games competitively was physical. In its most benign, it either involved travel and searching around town for the newest machine or the best competition, running to the neighborhood arcade, the bakery next to the high school where everyone congregated after school and during lunch, or the duck pin bowling alley that we would dip into after school for a few rounds of Street Fighter or Karate Champ. Sometimes it involved hours of travel to and fro just to find that best, most favorite, machine, or nagging a parent to sit in the car for a few hours while they read a book and you played video games all day long on your birthday. In its least benign, it involved a physical exchange, a stare down, especially if you were a newbie, to just put the quarter on the machine to get a play. In the worst case scenario playing in the arcade could escalate into a fist fight, real blood drawn between players if one felt that they were either treated unfairly or humiliated by a rival. With the ascendancy of video games into the mainstream and the rise of the internet as a means to compete, the world, as is the ultimate goal of technical innovation, has been made just a little too sterile for this ghetto nerd's taste.

By analogy, in the same way that we can find any number of "Emcees" "battling" on Youtube, MySpace or in chat rooms, how many would have lasted second in a real cipher, a real battle in the South Bronx, Queens, or Brooklyn?

Object Lesson 1:

Object Lesson 2

Hell, how many of these "crappers" would even be allowed into the cipher? Now, it is so clean and impersonal. You don't have to have clout to get into the circle, there is no physical risk if you under-perform or step out of bounds. The worst that can happen is that you move onto another chat room, another message board, or another Youtube video.

We no longer have to put quarters up on the machine to get a play, we don't have to be accepted into the local tribe (real people not a virtual clan), and we certainly don't have to face down rivals eye to eye in what could easily end in a post-game melee. I am not discounting the visceral rush of online play, of an hours long match, or how great it feels to beat a rival--I don't know how many of you have had this experience, but I sincerely love playing skinheads and Nazi wannabe's online (and summarily dispensing with them in the most humiliating fashion possible), ignorant folks who take competition very seriously and make their video game playing prowess some type of proof for the superiority of their imagined Aryan bloodline.

I am not a Luddite. I love technical change and innovation, but I am worried about how our social interactions with strangers, meeting people and becoming friends in the real as opposed to virtual world, what was once the core of playing video games, has been changed for the worst. I admire the art and artistry of video games. I am wonderfully pleased that a hobby has grown into a culture. And I do indeed smile when I think about how we are now in a position where we can hear the symphonies of our childhood elevated to the level of high art:

Nevertheless, I do offer a warning, a fear about the rise of glamor and glitz, of the prominence of bells and whistles over substance and form. Sure, we have gorgeous games like Metal Gear, God of War, and the like; and immersive titles like World of Warcraft (and on MMORG's isn't the Star Trek title destined to be horrible?) and the Grand Theft Auto series; and great fighting games such as Soul Caliber, Virtua Fighter and the new Street Fighter--which by the way I am holding my breath for in anticipation of its release:

But, will they stand the test of time? Will they be downloaded and played twenty or thirty years from now? Will they be the objects of fond reminiscing of battles both epic, bloody, and personal? I suspect they likely will, but will the memory be the same? Will it have the same texture as a kid recalling the first time he played Ghosts and Goblins, Elevator Action, Double Dragon, Street Fighter 2, Tron, Karate Champ, Ikari Warriors, Cruis'n USA, Star Wars, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pacman, or Killer Instinct in a dingy arcade or bowling alley and where he or she defeated the local arcade king, if even for a day? And then had to hustle home before dark to ensure that the local tough wouldn't get some revenge? This ghetto nerd doesn't know, and in truth probably wouldn't like the answer.

Random thoughts and confessions:

1. I was never so happy as when I found my Christmas gift, an NES hidden in my parent's bedroom. I was never so exhilarated as when I would take it out and play it when they were at work and I was home "sick."

2. I never beat Super Mario Brothers--I still to this day cannot beat the last level.

3. I never beat Zelda--I couldn't find the silver arrows.

4. I loved M. Bison. No, I owned with M. Bison. I owned even more with Guile...but then again, who didn't?

5. Anyone else remember The Adams Family pinball game? or Fun House? Were they not perfect?

6. Is it not sad that pinball is a dying, if not dead, game? Thank goodness, some are keeping the hobby alive.

7. Didn't Chuck E. Cheese have horrible pizza and even worse video games? I take that back, the one on the Post Road in Milford did have the Star Trek video game. It was unplayable, but the vector graphics were really futuristic and cool.

8. Spy Hunter! Galaga! and 50 cent slices of pizza in the Acme Mall on Dixwell Avenue were my heaven. Where was your favorite video game spot, one with not too much competition, where you could play for hours on a quarter or two, and get a snack?

9. Am I the only one who charmed a pretty would-be girlfriend at the local arcade with my video game playing prowess?

10. The General Custard video game. The holy grail of Atari games, need I say more? A naked man with an erect penis raping a tied up Native American "squaw"--yes I know what the word really means--really needs no embellishment.

11. How many of you went on quests in New York or Los Angeles to find games you couldn't find at home? This is something I really miss, in hip hop and dj culture we used to have to "dig" to find the obscure, the exciting record, a new white label, which rewarded our efforts at the next party. Now, folks just buy music online or download it to a laptop pc-dj-turntable interface. Yes, lighter on the back. No, in my opinion too far apart from what the culture should be. And sad when folks don't graduate to this technology from analog, but begin there: you do need to learn how to use a knife before graduating to a food processor if you want to be a real master chef. Likewise, in the past one would have to "dig" to find certain video games. They were usually overpriced and a letdown, but often they were real gems. Do you have any war stories, great games found following an epic search?

11. Colecovision, Intellivision, Turbo Graphix, the Amiga, or Neo-Geo? Which is the greatest missed opportunity?

Chauncey DeVega says: This Respectable Negro Salutes an Honorable Animal Friend

A distraction from the heavy political stuff we have done lately--we do have a heart you know.

One of the myths held by an unnamed Native American tribe reads:

"A spirit had assembled all of earth's creatures. His task was to find the right animal to become a companion to human beings, who had not yet been created. He asked the animals how they would treat people. Some said they would tear human beings apart; others said they would live near people to steal their food.

The dog said his only wish was to live with people, share their food, help them hunt, guard their children and possessions, even at risk to his own life. Another legend states that a dog's life originally spanned 20 years, but that the dog willingly gave up 10 of his own years so people could live longer."

For all of the degenerate, Michael Vicks of the world, ignt's who seem to revel in abusing their pets (imagine how they treat their children or elderly parents?) there are many more good people, people like those who placed the lives of their animal friends before their own during the deluges of Katrina. In that spirit this respectable negro shares the following story. From CNN:

Loyal dog guards owner for weeks after death

GREELEY, Colorado (AP) -- A dog stood guard over her owner's body for up to six weeks after the man committed suicide on the remote northeastern Colorado plains, authorities said.

The body of 25-year-old Jake Baysinger of La Salle, Colorado, was found Sunday on the Pawnee National Grasslands about 75 miles northeast of Denver, Colorado. Cash, his German shepherd, was found beside him, thin and dehydrated but still alive. The dog had apparently survived by eating mice and rabbits, authorities said.

The Weld County coroner ruled Baysinger's death a suicide. The cause of death wasn't immediately determined but authorities found a gun nearby, the coroner's office said Tuesday.

"At least we know it's over now," said Baysinger's wife, Sara. "We'd been looking for my husband for six weeks, and this isn't how we wanted it to end. At least we can close this."

Baysinger was reported missing June 28. An extensive search failed to locate him, but Kip Konig, a rancher, saw the dog last weekend, went to investigate and discovered Baysinger's body and his pickup.

He said Cash kept running back to the pickup and jumping into the front seat.

"I got the sense she was trying to tell me where her master was," Konig said.

Cash was reunited Monday with Sara Baysinger and her 2-year-old son, Lane. She said her little boy is "very close to that dog" and happy to see her again.

Investigators said the dog probably kept coyotes away from the body.


We salute you, our honorable animal friend. If we were more fortunate, humans would be so good as you.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Crime, Section 8, Neighborhoods in Transition, and New Tensions

In her research, Suresh noticed a recurring pattern, one that emerged first in the late 1990s, then again around 2002. A particularly violent neighborhood would suddenly go cold, and crime would heat up in several new neighborhoods. In each case, Suresh has now confirmed, the first hot spots were the neighborhoods around huge housing projects, and the later ones were places where people had moved when the projects were torn down. From that, she drew the obvious conclusion: “Crime is going along with them.”

It seems this week has brought a two for one, a sort of perfect storm for those armchair sociologists among us looking for an un-Obama related topic to discuss over the dinner table or at the barbershop.

This week, the Atlantic and the New York Times have each published pieces on race, housing policy, and crime that are worthy of more attention than either piece has received to this point.

The Atlantic's "American Murder Mystery" by Hanna Rosin and the New York Times' "As Program Moves Poor to Suburbs Tensions Follow" explore what some have called an uncomfortable truth: that with the destruction of inner city housing projects that people, and their problems, go with them to their new homes. Apparently, it seems that while crime has leveled out in America's metropolises it has increased in America's bedroom communities and other regional cities. After growing up on Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood flicks, and watching Colors and Menace to Society too many times to count, who would have thought that the front line of the war on crime would be Memphis, Tennessee or Kansas City, Missouri instead of Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York?

As argued by the sociologists quoted in the above articles, the cause of this increase in crime and social dysfunction could in fact be a function of how the proliferation of housing vouchers and Section 8 programs have transplanted both the good folk and the bad folk from their former "communities" to whatever neighborhoods they have collectively moved into. Thus, the inner-city crime problem concentrated in the projects becomes the inner city crime problem spread out in the semi-suburbs. Cue music: start controversy.

What follows are some quick thoughts about the "new" tensions which occur when the urban poor move into suburban neighborhoods. My emphasis on "new" hints at the fact that the middle and upper classes have never wanted to live near the poor...this is why those of means move away from those without. As my godfather used to say, "the very reason you want to have money is so that you can have the luxury of choosing your neighbors."

Perhaps, we can have a conversation, prompted by Zora's return, about respectability, class, and race? And to bait them, as though it is necessary, how long will it take for someone to let forth the shrill charge of racism at what may simply be an uncomfortable truth? Or to reflexively rise to the defense of "the victims" in this story?

Some questions:

1. What to do with the urban poor? As housing projects are transitioned into gentrified properties, where should these folks go? Stay in new housing in their communities, or be moved to scattered site housing in the burbs?

2. Again, what about the black and brown middle and working classes? They live in what are politely called "neighborhoods in transition," those most likely to have high numbers of section 8 and other housing voucher recipients and where the landlords are absent. The result: poorly maintained properties that diminish the property values of the properties nearby. Also, shouldn't these working class families feel resentful as they themselves are barely above a minimum income line (and many would not seek aid even if eligible)--and these families struggle to maintain their heads above the water--while their neighbors receive Section 8? Maybe, I am just a little annoyed by literally hearing a sister jump up and down (without shame) in the supermarket last night upon receiving news on her cell phone that "her section 8 had come through."

3. What of the black respectable poor who are happy about and gratified by the chance to live in a nice, clean, safe neighborhood? And are eager to have a leg up? To have a chance to conform with these new community standards? How do we separate them from some who have internalized a culture of poverty (notice I didn't say economic poverty) and who wear their pathologies as a badge of honor, as opposed to working to overcome them?

4. Why is the middle class often made a villain in these stories? I know many middle and working class black and brown folk who are just as concerned about their property values, and norms of behavior in their communities as white folk? Where is their voice?

5. No, I am not a conservative. Yes, I think there are different norms of behavior across communities. Example: in the now Section 8, scattered site neighborhood that I grew up in, we have had real issues with community standards, i.e. when to put the garbage out on the street, why one doesn't fix their car in the yard, why loud parties and littering are not acceptable, why one shouldn't sit on their porch or that of their neighbors, etc., etc. etc. Is this classism, racism, or something else?

6. Again, where are the black and brown working class voices who roll their eyes and feel imperiled, rightly so, as their neighborhoods transition into something they cannot recognize, and for the worst, as the class composition of their communities changes?

7. Should we expect the black middle and upper class to act any differently, i.e. less self-interested than the white middle or upper class? To expect so, is that not itself "racist?"

8. Playing devil's advocate: We don't expect the white upper class, middle class, and striving working class to live with the white poor. Why should we expect this of black Americans? Why should we be surprised when the black middle and upper class want nothing to do with their poorer brethren?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Zora Says: Is Obama the End of Civil Rights Era Politics? I Hope So ...

The recent New York Times piece Is Obama the End of Black Politics? is titled inappropriately. It should have been called Is Obama the End of Civil Rights Era Politics? And to this I answer, I hope so.

With the achievements of civil rights era strategies and the untimely death of Dr. Martin Luther King, black folks got stuck in a rut. We got frozen in time. We continued looking to the same leaders, using the same strategies, pursuing the same goals, relying on the same coalitions, and making the same assumptions about white folks. We shouldn't blame ourselves completely for this, however. The powers that be figured out how to appropriate civil rights era language, strategies and leadership to support their own goals.

Those who have been anointed to speak for black Americans are almost universally from the civil rights era. They are the black leaders we look to for political endorsements. They are the black leaders who are selected to be the talking heads in the national media, to speak for black folks. They are also the black leaders who are increasingly out of step with most of Black America:

"[Congressman John] Lewis was in anguish over the primaries. He had endorsed his friend Hillary Clinton, but his constituents had gone heavily for Obama, and he was beginning to waver. As [James] Clyburn remembered it, Lewis told his old friend sadly that after all these years, they were finally going to see history yield to the forces they had unleashed. 'And I’m on the wrong side,' Lewis said.

Black folks are just as hungry for change as white folks are. To quote a voice that is all too often left out of the male-dominated, civil rights leadership, "We are sick and tired of being sick and tired."

If Black politics had been allowed to progress without the intervention of COINTELPRO, blacks and whites might all be further along than we are today. Just imagine if the seeds of the Black Power era had been really allowed to take root.

Black voices early on identified the danger of hitching our cart to someone else's horse. We can only progress so far relying on a relationship which is inherently based in an unequal distribution of power. Ultimately, it is this white patronage which has allowed the Democratic Party to take the Black vote for granted. It is what has kept elected, black leaders from calling the Clintons on their crap. The problem with civil rights era leaders is that they can no longer imagine a world without white patrons. It is truly sad to say (and my mother will probably pop me for this), but many of our civil rights era leaders have become "House Negroes": Miz Hilree, our house be burnin'!

Black Power voices understood the need to build coalitions with other people of color. Asian-Americans and Latinos were radicalized in part by the organization of Black Power activists. Rejecting the xenophobic rhetoric of the white mainstream, there was the understanding that people of color had more in common than not. Instead of building on this sentiment and expanding our circle of friends, our leadership led us to adopt more short-sighted, provincial perspectives. And now, we wonder why Latinos and Asian-Americans don't support African-American candidates in large numbers? Let's ask our leaders what they have done to engender their support. What have we done for them lately?

Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot before he could fully develop a class-based political platform. He was beginning to stir a powerful cocktail, mixing political rights with economic rights. Black Power leaders picked up the baton and made class a key component of their consciousness-raising efforts. They made basic claims to demands for education, health care, affordable housing and adequate food for all oppressed people, regardless of race. What was so radical about this? Oh yeah, it scared the white, middle-class and made them think that the U.S. was going to turn into the U.S.S.R. I'm sure that it also scared the black middle-class, the source of many civil rights era leaders. And so, the old guard jumped to distance themselves from "the radicals," from the Mao-Maos.

And, where are the voices of black women in all of this? Civil rights leaders and Black Power activists both got it wrong when they decided to exclude black women from the stage. Angela Davis and Elaine Brown found prominence almost in spite of their brothers. It is not surprising that in discussing "black politics," the New York Times did not include a quote from a single black woman. For all of the talk about Obama's "white mama," he has shown more affinity and respect for black women than most of our old guard leaders -- both self-appointed and elected. Andrew Young's old boy comment about Bill Clinton having "had" more black women than Obama still hurts me to the core.

My point here is not to compare Barack Obama to Eldrige Cleaver or to Huey P. Newton. For he certainly is not radical in that regard. What I do want to do is draw comparisons to the strains of criticism that have been leveled at "young upstarts" over the years. Obama is no Huey, but he is challenging the status quo of black politics. Leaders that found their voices in the civil rights era have developed a sense of entitlement: We set the pace and standard of Black politics. All of us need not have been beaten in Selma in order to be effective leaders. When will they decide to pass on the baton to a new generation? To begin serving as mentors to those other than their own children?

Once again, the old guard proves its own short-sightedness in criticizing Obama for not being Black enough, for not taking a stronger stand on "black issues." What are they thinking? Obama is running to be President of the United States, not to be an Oakland city councilman or a Washington, D.C. mayor. Don't they understand electoral politics? Are they that naive? Rather than believe that they are promoting trite notions of authenticity, I prefer to think that they are.

Unfortunately, Black politics is not coming to an end anytime soon. Politics is about the balance between the powerful and the powerless. Even with Barack Obama in the White House, black folks have yet to garner enough power as a whole to tilt that balance in our favor. Older, black leaders lament not the end of black politics, but simply an end to black politics as they have molded it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Chauncey DeVega says: Obama and the End of Black Politics--Is Black Politics Dead? Is an Obama Win a Pyrrhic Victory?

I tend to conceptualize problems in military terms (I think I watched too much of the History Channel and played too much chess as a child). It is this same inclination which attracted me to the study of politics and its emphasis on such concepts as conflict, opposition, struggle, resistance, and power.

For me, Black politics has been about a struggle, a battle for the full civic, social, political, and economic inclusion of Black Americans. Accordingly, our collective and historical war to these ends is often described as either the "Black Freedom Struggle" or as "Black Freedom Struggles." In reading the New York Time's piece, "Is Obama the End of Black Politics?" by Matt Bai one can only imagine how many edited volumes and dedicated journal issues will be produced on the topic. And to be honest, in thinking through the life and (possible) death of Black politics, I can't help but have a self interested moment of reflection where I ponder how many students of Black politics are simultaneously both excited by, and scared to death, about what an Obama victory could mean both for their research, as well as for the state of the discipline.

Is Black politics dead? Has Obama signaled the end of what we understand the Black political struggle to be? Is the Black political establishment, to the degree that there is one, publicly excited about the prospect of a Black president while being secretly terrified of what an Obama victory could represent? Is Black politics obsolete, or is it, and has it been for a long time, in a period of extended obsolescence, in the death throws of Black political demobilization? These are heady and exciting questions. Guess what? I just don't know. And if folks are being honest, they will likely tell you the same.

Again, is Black politics dead? The answer depends on how we define the end goal of Black politics. Here, the language of military science is profoundly helpful. As of late, my bedtime reading has consisted of the book, The Utility of Force by former NATO General Rupert Smith. This book focuses on how paradigm shifts impact military planning, and how technology, politics, the actors involved (nation-states, ngo's, terrorists, groups other than countries and armies), and the circumstances which govern how wars are fought (or not), have in the last few decades undergone a radical change.

As Smith details, there are some technologies which forever change how battles will be fought (airplanes for example). There are changes in the geopolitical order which change both how the ends of war are imagined, as well as what the goals of inter-state conflict are to be (the end of the Cold War; the War on Terror). A successful commander responds to all of these changes, looks forward, and innovates as he wins the current war and plans for the next.

General Smith highlights 2 useful distinctions for our thinking through of Black politics. First, the distinction between strategy and tactics. Amateurs and armchair generals often confuse the 2 (and almost always leave out the importance of logistics). Strategy is the big picture, the overall goal towards which you are working. It is the meta-level game. Tactics are the battles, the fights, the exchanges between individual men and their machines, and also between groups of these men and machines upwards to any scale--a metaphorical boxing match in which the stakes are life and death. Reconciling, what is the strategic goal of Black politics? If the strategic goal of Black politics is to elect a Black person as president, then an Obama victory may indeed mean the end of Black politics. If our only goal in the Black Freedom Struggle is to elect a Black person to office then we may indeed be nearing the end game.

What of the tactics deployed by Obama? Do they signal a shift from the past? Here, I would answer "yes." However, one must be careful and precise in this claim, as Obama is not in his accomplishments independent of the groundwork laid by NAACP, the Jesse Jacksons, the Urban Leagues, the indigenous Black political organizations, and what remains of the Black counter-public, to get him to this end. And frankly, one can understand the resentment and undisguised anger, the "I want to cut your nuts off moments," that the old guard must be feeling. In the boxing match, the tactical level engagement, Obama won battles which these "old soldiers" would not have been able to. Obama, the "next generation warrior" deployed a touch of post-racial politics, maneuvered his forces more nimbly than Clinton, and positioned himself into and through a set of different tactical postures than a Civil Rights era politician could (or would have been able to). Ultimately, Obama is a product of a particular moment and time. As a biracial, ethnic, "Black" man, Obama is able to engage in battle in a manner much more suitable to the "color-blind" political battlespace of the present than his Civil Rights era compatriots. Here, in this moment, the terrain of struggle may be more appropriate for Obama, with his lightening strikes, feints, and unorthodox approaches, than for the Civil Rights era leadership and their slow, plodding, offensive schemas.

If we complicate the goal of what a 21st century Black politics is and could be, we should also creatively modify the strategic goals to include both Black representation, as well as the improvement of Black life chances. If we broaden the goals, or recast this as the working definition of Black politics, then how does an Obama victory speak to its current or future state?

An Obama victory does not necessarily speak to his ability to reorient policy, to redirect resources, or to radically improve the life chances of the average Black American. Obama's victory, while significant, is a symbolic victory, one that is valuable, but in isolation is not empowering. Moreover, while an Obama victory may signal a sea change in how we imagine the limits of Black public life, it will likely not impact the day to day lives of the rank and file in the African American community. Obama, with a swipe of the pen, will not be able to revitalize Black communities, launch a broad initiative against poverty, correct a corrupt criminal justice system, or re-energize moribund and under-performing inner city public school systems. He could, but America, Black, White, and Brown has neither the political will, nor the resources.

Returning again to the Black Freedom Struggle, an Obama victory in this redefined Black politics is closer to being an operational victory which changes the strategic complexion of the war. This is our D-Day, a massive operation that has secured a beachhead which we can use as a jumping off point to move forward in the war. It is a monumental accomplishment, but it is not the end of the campaign.

General Smith's second point, one which is strikingly relevant to Matt Bai's piece, is the difference between war and conflict. Wars are sustained engagements, the sum total of battles--a continual state of conflict towards some strategic goal. By comparison, battles are "merely" skirmishes. Conflicts are moments of battles, perhaps more than one, but don't necessarily, and usually do not, lead to open war. Applying this conceptual framework, the Black Freedom Struggle is a War, one which has been going on for several hundred years in America and across the Diaspora against the Racial State. For some, this language is uncomfortable (the anxiety producing allusions to "race war" and the like), but "war" is the most appropriate phrase because the struggle for Black political empowerment has been one battle after another, in a sustained conflict, on multiple fronts towards a strategic goal.

But we must ask: what has been the strategic goal of the Black Freedom Struggle? Has it been an aimless series of battles, wandering and meandering from one to the next conducted by an army which has been leaderless since the victory of the Civil Rights Moment? Notice the phrasing: I use "moment" because this was an operational victory that did not signal the end of the War--as many, some Black, and many in White America, believed/and desired it to be the ultimate end of racial conflict, the final salve on America's great dilemma.

My worry is that in the rush to simultaneously announce the death of Black politics, and to crown Obama as the herald for a post-racial politics, or perhaps more benignly, a "new" Black politics, that many pundits, citizens, and advocates have forgotten that war is a state of struggle between (at least) two opposing forces. If the enemy of Black politics, of the Black Freedom Struggle, is indeed the "colorblind," neo-liberal, reactionary, racial politics embodied by the Right and the Republican Party, then how will they respond? How do they plan to resist? Do they plan a guerrilla war? Or, and given how malleable and changing the American Racial regime has been, will they concede this battle in order to win the bigger war?

Returning to the perennial example of the Civil Rights Movement, the racial establishment conceded a victory in order to maintain its racial order. However, the world was not radically changed, or more precisely, America was not changed as radically as one would like to believe by that singular step towards a more inclusive racial democracy. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the symbolic and material gains embodied by, and made possible through, the Civil Rights Movement were more of a victory for "the system" and its stability than they were for Black America. What happens to Black politics, or more generally to progressive or Left politics (they are not the same) if the Right has chosen to resist on this battlefield all the while preparing an unexpected offensive in another theater of war?

Black politics is not dead. But, the remaining soldiers and generals in the Black Freedom struggle (those erstwhile race men and race women still in the struggle) must be perpetually vigilant of the possibility that Obama's election could be one so costly, where so much was invested, so many resources spent, so much time and material expended, that the victory was not worth the cost.

Let me play provocateur and Devil's Advocate: Is Obama's victory a Pyrrhic one? Is it our Verdun?

Or our Battle of the Chosin Reservoir?

Is an Obama victory akin to the Zulu's defeat of the British? A victory which required that the King of the Zulus to deploy half of the entire male population in one battle, only to see a significant number killed in exchange for what was only a tactical victory?

Or is an Obama victory a homecoming, an anointment of a brave new world?

Could it perhaps be both?

R.I.P. Isaac Hayes

First, Bernie, almost Morgan, and now Isaac. They seem to come in three's don't they?


Singer, songwriter Isaac Hayes dies at age 65

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Isaac Hayes, the pioneering singer, songwriter and musician whose relentless "Theme From Shaft" won Academy and Grammy awards, died Sunday afternoon, the Shelby County Sheriff's Office said. He was 65.

A family member found him unresponsive near a treadmill and he was pronounced dead an hour later at Baptist East Hospital in Memphis, according to the sheriff's office. The cause of death was not immediately known.

In the early 1970s, Hayes laid the groundwork for disco, for what became known as urban-contemporary music and for romantic crooners like Barry White. And he was rapping before there was rap.

His career hit another high in 1997 when he became the voice of Chef, the sensible school cook and devoted ladies man on the animated TV show "South Park."

Steve Shular, a spokesman for the sheriff's office, said authorities received a 911 call after Hayes' wife and young son and his wife's cousin returned home from the grocery store and found him collapsed in a downstairs bedroom. A sheriff's deputy administered CPR until paramedics arrived.

"The treadmill was running but he was unresponsive lying on the floor," Shular said.

The album "Hot Buttered Soul" made Hayes a star in 1969. His shaven head, gold chains and sunglasses gave him a compelling visual image.

"Hot Buttered Soul" was groundbreaking in several ways: He sang in a "cool" style unlike the usual histrionics of big-time soul singers. He prefaced the song with "raps," and the numbers ran longer than three minutes with lush arrangements.

"Jocks would play it at night," Hayes recalled in a 1999 Associated Press interview. "They could go to the bathroom, they could get a sandwich, or whatever."

Next came "Theme From Shaft," a No. 1 hit in 1971 from the film "Shaft" starring Richard Roundtree.

"That was like the shot heard round the world," Hayes said in the 1999 interview.

At the Oscar ceremony in 1972, Hayes performed the song wearing an eye-popping amount of gold and received a standing ovation. TV Guide later chose it as No. 18 in its list of television's 25 most memorable moments. He won an Academy Award for the song and was nominated for another one for the score. The song and score also won him two Grammys.

"The rappers have gone in and created a lot of hit music based upon my influence," he said. "And they'll tell you if you ask."

Hayes was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

"I knew nothing about the business, or trends and things like that," he said. "I think it was a matter of timing. I didn't know what was unfolding."

A self-taught musician, he was hired in 1964 by Stax Records of Memphis as a backup pianist, working as a session musician for Otis Redding and others. He also played saxophone.

He began writing songs, establishing a songwriting partnership with David Porter, and in the 1960s they wrote such hits for Sam and Dave as "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "Soul Man."

All this led to his recording contract.

In 1972, he won another Grammy for his album "Black Moses" and earned a nickname he reluctantly embraced. Hayes composed film scores for "Tough Guys" and "Truck Turner" besides "Shaft." He also did the song "Two Cool Guys" on the "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" movie soundtrack in 1996.

Additionally, he was the voice of Nickelodeon's "Nick at Nite" and had radio shows in New York City (1996 to 2002) and then in Memphis.

He was in several movies, including "It Could Happen to You" with Nicolas Cage, "Ninth Street" with Martin Sheen, "Reindeer Games" starring Ben Affleck and the blaxploitation parody "I'm Gonna Git You, Sucka."

In the 1999 interview, Hayes described the South Park cook as "a person that speaks his mind; he's sensitive enough to care for children; he's wise enough to not be put into the 'whack' category like everybody else in town — and he l-o-o-o-o-ves the ladies."

But Hayes angrily quit the show in 2006 after an episode mocked his Scientology religion. "There is a place in this world for satire, but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry towards religious beliefs of others begins," he said.

Co-creator creators Matt Stone responded that Hayes "has no problem — and he's cashed plenty of checks — with our show making fun of Christians." A subsequent episode of the show seemingly killed off the Chef character.

Hayes was born in 1942 in a tin shack in Covington, Tenn., about 40 miles north of Memphis. He was raised by his maternal grandparents after his mother died and his father took off when he was 1 1/2. The family moved to Memphis when he was 6.

Hayes wanted to be a doctor, but got redirected when he won a talent contest in ninth grade by singing Nat King Cole's "Looking Back."

He held down various low-paying jobs, including shining shoes on the legendary Beale Street in Memphis. He also played gigs in rural Southern juke joints where at times he had to hit the floor because someone began shooting.


You will be missed.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

"Bernie Mac"

“The success of my comedy has been not being afraid to touch on subject matters or issues that everyone else is politically scared of.”

Friday, August 8, 2008

Zora Says: A Revised Proposal for the 2009 Inaugural Celebration

Those of you who read my post earlier today on the 2009 Inaugural Celebration for Barack Obama are sure to have noted the degree of thought and careful detail that went into my proposal. Well, join me in being shocked at the feedback I have received from Obama's media consultants! They have run a fine-toothed comb through my proposal and extracted everything of flavor -- everything that suggests that Barack has flavor. Some of their changes don't even make sense ...

August 8, 2008
Dear Ms. Zora,

Thank you for submitting your proposal for the 2009 Barack Obama Inaugural Celebration. Your ideas are interesting and we would like to pursue them further with you. Below, we have listed some changes that you should incorporate into your final plan.

10 a.m. -- Tribute to Great American Athletes, with Michelle Obama, at Constitution Hall – including Mohammed Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

This is a great idea, but the highlighted athletes should instead be Greg Louganis and Derek Jeter. These are stars that all Americans will be able to celebrate and identify with.

Noon -- Mwenzangu Obama luncheon at the Kenyan Embassy, with international leaders, including Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

We love the idea of having an international event such as this. Our contacts at the German Embassy have offered to host and sponsor a luncheon at this time. Heidi Klum and Seal can serve as honorary hosts with special guests Madonna and family together with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. (Jolie's father, of course, should not be included.)

2 p.m. -- Salute to Liberal Organizations, with the Vice President-elect Joe Biden, at the Blackburn Ballroom at Howard University.

Senator Obama would instead like to use this as an opportunity to honor his Kansas roots. Please propose an event saluting America's heartland.

4 p.m. -- Concert celebrating America's youth at the MCI Center with Gnarls Barkley and Lil' Wayne.

Lil' Wayne is perhaps not the best role model for America's youth. Replace him with the White Stripes.

6 p.m. -- Ball of the Delaware State Society honoring the Vice-President elect, at the Chamber of Commerce Building.

This sounds fine.

8 p.m. – The Chicago South Side Society "Black Tie Steppers" Ball at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, with Oprah Winfrey as Mistress of Ceremonies.

The Illinois State Society is a more appropriate body to host this event. In fact, they have already begun to organize the Black Tie and Clover Ball. Oprah can remain as MC.

9 p.m. -- Hispanic Presidential Inaugural Gala, ''Si Se Puede'' (Yes, We Can''), at the Omni Shoreham (supported by Gov. Bill Richardson and the Service Employees International Union).

We will await further polls before we decide on this event. . .

Given the change from the "Black Tie Steppers Ball" theme to the "Black Tie and Clover Ball," a change of menu is appropriate. In addition, the open buffet seems unnecessary. Instead, guests should simply select one main course with a choice of sides. Appetizers and drinks, of course, will be unlimited.

Revised Menu: appetizers -- fresh figs with fontina cheese, crudites, salmon mousse with cucumber sauce, and carpaccio on french bread; main dish selection -- boneless loin of pork with prunes, poached chicken breast stuffed with bread crumbs, white fish with a lemon-butter sauce; side dishes -- steamed fingerling potatos with dill, sliced tomato salad with basil, green bean salad with walnut dressing, tri color pasta salad with olives, and a puree of fennel; desserts -- apple tart with french vanilla ice cream and fresh strawberries; drinks -- champagne, open bar and mineral water.

Your selection of music was inspired and includes many of Senator Obama's favorites; however, the selection does not have a broad-base appeal and many songs may be taken to be contrary to his theme of unity and inclusion. On this subject, we think that Norah Jones and Mariah Carey would be excellent guest performers at the ball. The edited playlist is pasted below -- more suggestions will follow.

Music Playlist:
Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted and Black,"
Bob Marley's "Get up, Stand up,"
Black Uhuru's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,"
Barry White's "My first, My last, My everything,"
Prince's "I Would Die 4 U" and "Let's go crazy,"
Snoop Dogg's "What's my name,"
Jay Z's "roc boys" and "99 problems,"
Diana Ross's "Love Child,"
Frank Sinatra's "I did it my way,"
Notorious BIG's "Hypnotize,"
Miriam Makeba's "Malaika,"
Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross,"
Curtis Mayfield's "Touch the Sky,"
Theme song to The Jefferson's,
Nina Simone's "Mr. Bojangles,"
Marcia Griffith's "Electric Slide,"
Mr. C the Slide Man's "cha cha slide,"
John Legend's "Ordinary People,"
The Temptations' "Papa was a Rolling Stone,"
Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come,"
Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing,"
Ben E. King's "Stand By Me,"
Stevie Wonder's "Superstition,"
Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire,"
James Brown's "Black and Proud" and "Soul Power,"
Public Enemy's "Fight the Power,"
KRS-One's "The Bridge is Over,"
George Clinton's "Flashlight,"
Bob Marley's "Jammin',"
Queen's "We Are the Champions,"
U2's "It's A Beautiful Day,"
Tom Petty's "Free Falling,"
Bonnie Raitte's "Something to Talk About,"
B.B. King's "Sitting On Top of the World,"
John Mellencamp's "Hurt So Good,"
The Beatles' "Let it Be" ...

Finally, your preliminary list of honored guests requires the following changes:

Vernon Jordan
The Brothers from Wali's Barber Shop,
Bobby Rush,
Halle Berry,
Nelson Mandela,
Muhammed Ali,
Hugo Chavez,
Danny Glover,
the High Imam of Indonesia,
Stephen Carter,
Jesse Jackson Sr.,
Jesse Jackson Jr.,
Iyanda Nkanga, (??????)
Will Burns,
Toni Preckwinkle,
Colin Powell,
Gail King,
Tom Joyner,
Tavis Smiley,
Armstrong Williams,
Lani Guinier,
Cornel West,
Henry Louis Gates,
bell hooks,
Tiger Woods,
Michael Jordan,
Morgan Freeman,
Toni Morrison,
Puff Daddy,
Jay Z & Beyonce,
Russell Simmons (without Kimora),
Snoop Dogg,
Reverend Jeremiah Wright,
Bishop Arthur M. Brazier,
Sonia Sanchez, (?)
Hillary & Bill Clinton,
Harry Belafonte,
Linda Johnson Rice,
Light Skinned Girl,
Soledad O'Brien,
Vin Diesel,
Keanu Reeves,
Wayne Brady,
Robert Johnson

We look forward to receiving a final version of your proposal with the requested changes. Thank you for your time and effort.


Friends of David Axelrod

Can you believe this shit!?

Zora Says: A Proposal for the 2009 Inaugural Celebration

So, Zora has been back in Chicago looking for a way to slip into the Obama tide that is sweeping the nation. I’m anticipating that the waves won’t retreat before the arrival of election day. Respectable white folks won’t lose heart when they enter the polling booths, right? They really will find the courage and good sense to vote for a candidate who happens to be black, won’t they? Anyway, as Obama’s biggest fan says, “Keep hope alive!”

Chauncey and Gordon both know that I’m the biggest and best party planner around. My mother, part of that old class of Negro strivers who were always concerned with respectability, definitely raised me to pay attention to details and appearances. When I arrived as a freshman to Princeton, my mother was proud to say that I was better dressed than all of the white girls she saw that day – the problem was that I looked like an only slightly updated version of Coretta Scott King. Forgive me, I digress.

Acting on a tip that an Inaugural Committee is already being formed, I plan to put my party skills in service to our future President, Barack Obama. An old friend of mine who now works for David Axelrod, Obama’s media consultant, has agreed to push forward my proposal for the 2009 Inaugural Celebration. Here’s a glance ….

2009 Barack Obama Inaugural Celebration Schedule

  • 10 a.m. -- Tribute to Great American Athletes, with Michelle Obama, at Constitution Hall – including Mohammed Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

  • Noon -- Mwenzangu Obama luncheon at the Kenyan Embassy, with international leaders, including Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

  • 2 p.m. -- Salute to Liberal Organizations, with the Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, at the Blackburn Ballroom at Howard University.

  • 4 p.m. -- Concert celebrating America's youth at the MCI Center with Gnarls Barkley and Lil' Wayne.

  • 6 p.m. -- Ball of the Delaware State Society honoring the Vice-President elect, at the Chamber of Commerce Building.

  • 8 p.m. – The South Side Chicago Society "Black Tie Steppers" Ball at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, with Oprah Winfrey as Mistress of Ceremonies.

  • 9 p.m. -- Hispanic Presidential Inaugural Gala, ''Si Se Puede'' (Yes, We Can''), at the Omni Shoreham (supported by Gov. Bill Richardson and the Service Employees International Union).

I've been working particularly hard on the details of the The South Side Chicago Society "Black Tie Steppers" Ball:

  1. MC: Oprah Winfrey.

  2. Guest Performers: Chaka Khan and R. Kelly.
  3. Buffet Menu: as appetizers -- Deviled Eggs, Fried Oysters, Candied Bacon; main dishes -- roast turkey with giblet gravy and corn bread pecan dressing, baked pork chops with peaches, brazed beef short ribs; side dishes -- white rice, lemon glazed sweet potatoes, "poll" beans simmered in pork stock, potato salad, field peas, macaroni and cheese; desserts -- banana pudding, pineapple upside down cake, pound cake with lemon butter glaze, watermelon ice; drinks -- fresh fruit punch, champagne, iced peach sweet tea.

  4. Music Playlist: Nina Simone's "Young, Gifted and Black," Bob Marley's "Get up, Stand up," Black Uhuru's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," Barry White's "My first, My last, My everything," Prince's "I Would Die 4 U" and "Let's go crazy," Snoop Dogg's "What's my name," Jay Z's "roc boys" and "99 problems," Diana Ross's "Love Child," Frank Sinatra's "I did it my way," Notorious BIG's "Hypnotize," Miriam Makeba's "Malaika," Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross," Curtis Mayfield's "Touch the Sky," Theme song to The Jefferson's, Nina Simone's "Mr. Bojangles," Marcia Griffith's "Electric Slide," Mr. C the Slide Man's "cha cha slide," John Legend's "Ordinary People," The Temptations' "Papa was a Rolling Stone," Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," Queen's "No," Ben E. King's "Stand By Me," Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire," James Brown's "Black and Proud" and "Soul Power," Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," KRS-One's "The Bridge is Over," George Clinton's "Flashlight," ...

  5. Special Honored Guests: The Brothers from Wali's Barber Shop, Bobby Rush, Halle Berry, Nelson Mandela, Muhammed Ali, Hugo Chavez, Danny Glover, the High Imam of Indonesia, Stephen Carter, Jesse Jackson Sr., Jesse Jackson Jr., Iyanda Nkanga, Will Burns, Toni Preckwinkle, Colin Powell, Stedman, Tom Joyner, Tavis Smiley, Armstrong Williams, Lani Guinier, Cornel West, bell hooks, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Morgan Freeman, Toni Morrison, Puff Daddy, Ludacris, Jay Z, Denzel Washington, Russell Simmons, Snoop Dogg, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Sonia Sanchez and Harry Belafonte.

I should receive feedback from the Obama camp later today. I'll keep you posted. I'm so excited!!!!!! President Barack Obama!!!!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Man Held in Florida on Charge of Threatening Obama--Another Negrodamus, We Are Respectable Negroes, Predicting the Future Moment

So folks are trying to put the hit on Bro'Bama? As we reported in our hypothetical Obama Assassination series of blog posts, truth is indeed more frightening than fiction.

From the AP.

Man Held in Florida on Charge of Threatening Obama

MIAMI - A man who authorities said was keeping weapons and military-style gear in his hotel room and car appeared in court Thursday on charges he threatened to assassinate Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Raymond Hunter Geisel, 22, was arrested by the Secret Service on Saturday in Miami and was ordered held at Miami's downtown detention center without bail Thursday by a federal magistrate.

A Secret Service affidavit charges that Geisel made the threat during a training class for bail bondsmen in Miami in late July. According to someone else in the 48-member class, Geisel allegedly referred to Obama with a racial epithet and continued, "If he gets elected, I'll assassinate him myself."

Obama was most recently in Florida on Aug. 1-2 but did not visit the South Florida area.

Another person in the class quoted Geisel as saying that "he hated George W. Bush and that he wanted to put a bullet in the president's head," according to the Secret Service.

Geisel denied in a written statement to a Secret Service agent that he ever made those threats, and the documents don't indicate that he ever took steps to carry out any assassination. He was charged only with threatening Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, but not for any threat against President Bush.

Geisel's court-appointed attorney declined comment. The charge of threatening a major candidate for president or vice president carries a maximum prison sentence of five years.

The Obama campaign declined comment Thursday on the alleged threat.

In the interview with a Secret Service agent, Geisel said "if he wanted to kill Senator Obama he simply would shoot him with a sniper rifle, but then he claimed that he was just joking," according to court documents.

A search of Geisel's 1998 Ford Explorer and hotel room in Miami uncovered a loaded 9mm handgun, knives, dozens of rounds of ammunition including armor-piercing types, body armor, military-style fatigues and a machete. The SUV, which has Maine license plates, was wired with flashing red and yellow emergency lights.

Geisel told the Secret Service he was originally from Bangor, Maine, and had been living recently in a houseboat in the Florida Keys town of Marathon, according to court documents. He said he used the handgun for training for the bail bondsman class, had the knives for protection and used the machete to cut brush in Maine.

Authorities in Maine said Geisel pleaded guilty to a charge of criminal threatening after a 2007 incident and spent 48 hours in a Bangor jail.

Police in Hampden, a town just outside of Bangor, received a complaint from Geisel's brother on Oct. 18, 2007 that Geisel had threatened him with a knife, Hampden police Sgt. Dan Stewart said. Geisel was charged with criminal threatening and terrorizing; the second charge was later dropped.

The Secret Service affidavit said Geisel told agents that he suffered from psychiatric problems including post-traumatic stress disorder, but he couldn't provide the names of any facilities where he sought treatment.


Associated Press writer Glenn Adams in Augusta, Maine, contributed to this report.

Shameless Self Promotion--Nominate We are Respectable Negroes

If one does not ask, they will not receive. Nominations for the awards can be found here. The categories are listed here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Paul Mooney in Analyzing White America

Some have asked, who would host our hypothetical White in America television special? One choice immediately came to mind, the one and only Paul Mooney. As proof of his imminent qualifications, here are some additional clips from his Analyzing White America comedy routine:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

I could just imagine Paul Mooney in a measured voice talking to experts on White people about their history, their culture, and their struggles. He would have this dry whit about him that would appear to convey empathy where none exists. Ooh what a dream...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Being 'Hood Rich: The Poor, Conspicuous Consumption, and Rationality

As W.E.B. DuBois observed, “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

Given our conversation last week regarding wealth and race, the following piece from the Atlantic is quite timely. It argues that the poor spend money on consumer goods in order to signal their relative prosperity, a bit counter-intuitive, but likely correct. For me, the interesting part of the I live in the projects but own/lease a Mercedes or SUV is 1) the emotional component (as an American it makes me feel good to participate in our civil religion of credit and debt) which is by definition hard to quantify, and 2) how overspending on consumer goods is less money spent on education, and wealth accrual--investments which pay real dividends inter-generationally.

History provides a necessary context for our efforts to understand the spending logic of both the 'hood rich and the black middle class (this latter group also spends more money on consumer goods than white Americans in the same income cohort). For example, given the long standing forces that worked against wealth accrual in the black community (red lining of homes, discriminatory banking practices, unequal pay for the same work as whites) there were, and are, strong reasons to display one's status via clothes, jewelry, and cars. This is especially true in a society where status attainment is central to the American mythos and national character, but where that very society systematically devalues your personhood.

Yes, it may seem foolish, but these are items which signal status to one's peers, and perhaps, in the long term hindsight afforded by history, that these purchases seemed more stable than the other options on the table. For context, many other cultures valued liquid assets which were highly portable and that would allow one to quickly move to another community, or even country, if circumstances demanded.

Consider: traditional avenues for wealth accrual were denied black Americans (and isn't history ironic given that our real, physical selves once represented billions, if not trillions of dollars in wealth and property on the part of the societies invested, quite literally, in the triangular trade in black bodies). Black Wall Streets, with their investment houses, banks, and other businesses were destroyed by anti-black riots in the 19th and 20th century. The State and many white citizens exerted a great deal of energy to ensure that poverty was an all too common experience for Black Americans and other communities of color, our Native American "brothers" come to mind here--and yes, I am very disturbed, but not surprised, by how many tribes are systematically purging black members from their rolls in order to increase the casino profit pie by decreasing the number of slices.

The sad truth is, that while other groups have liquid "assets," the assets held by the 'hood rich are relatively worthless. Cars, bad jewelry, clothes, and big screen televisions are not investments because they immediately depreciate.

Question: how many folks understand this fact? Can a culture of savings and investment be instilled among the 'hood rich, or for that matter, Americans as a whole? Are the economists researching spending habits on the urban poor assigning a calculus, a rational utility maximizing decision-making process, where none exists? And what to make of black athletes and high school students turned professional athletes or emcees, are they making poor spending choices (e.g. 12 cars, millions of dollars in jewelry, diamond encrusted belt buckles) because they are celebrities, formerly poor and now rich, or because the Allen Iverson's, Mike Tysons, Lil' Waynes, and 50 Cents of the world actually believe these purchases are investments?

A saving grace, once race is controlled for, i.e. comparing black Americans in one state to black Americans with the same incomes in different states, that similar spending patterns between racial groups emerge. Apparently, new money tends to act like new money regardless of the racial group to which they belong. And yes, I hope that one day I will get to enjoy some of the excesses afforded to those with new money.

from the Atlantic Monthly


Inconspicuous Consumption

by Virginia Postrel

About seven years ago, University of Chicago economists Kerwin Kofi Charles and Erik Hurst were researching the “wealth gap” between black and white Americans when they noticed something striking. African Americans not only had less wealth than whites with similar incomes, they also had significantly more of their assets tied up in cars. The statistic fit a stereotype reinforced by countless bling-filled hip-hop videos: that African Americans spend a lot on cars, clothes, and jewelry—highly visible goods that tell the world the owner has money.

But do they really? And, if so, why?

The two economists, along with Nikolai Roussanov of the University of Pennsylvania, have now attacked those questions. What they found not only provides insight into the economic differences between racial groups, it challenges common assumptions about luxury. Conspicuous consumption, this research suggests, is not an unambiguous signal of personal affluence. It’s a sign of belonging to a relatively poor group. Visible luxury thus serves less to establish the owner’s positive status as affluent than to fend off the negative perception that the owner is poor. The richer a society or peer group, the less important visible spending becomes.

On race, the folk wisdom turns out to be true. An African American family with the same income, family size, and other demographics as a white family will spend about 25 percent more of its income on jewelry, cars, personal care, and apparel. For the average black family, making about $40,000 a year, that amounts to $1,900 more a year than for a comparable white family. To make up the difference, African Americans spend much less on education, health care, entertainment, and home furnishings. (The same is true of Latinos.)

Of course, different ethnic groups could simply have different tastes. Maybe blacks just enjoy jewelry more than whites do. Maybe they buy costlier clothes to deter slights from racist salesclerks. Maybe they spend more on cars for historical reasons, because of the freedom auto travel gave African Americans during the days of segregated trains and buses. Maybe they just aren’t that interested in private colleges or big-screen TVs. Or maybe not. Economists hate unfalsifiable tautologies about differing tastes. They want stories that could apply to anyone.

So the researchers went back to Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term conspicuous consumption. Writing in the much poorer world of 1899, Veblen argued that people spent lavishly on visible goods to prove that they were prosperous. “The motive is emulation—the stimulus of an invidious comparison which prompts us to outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves,” he wrote. Along these lines, the economists hypothesized that visible consumption lets individuals show strangers they aren’t poor. Since strangers tend to lump people together by race, the lower your racial group’s income, the more valuable it is to demonstrate your personal buying power.

To test this idea, the economists compared the spending patterns of people of the same race in different states—say, blacks in Alabama versus blacks in Massachusetts, or whites in South Carolina versus whites in California. Sure enough, all else being equal (including one’s own income), an individual spent more of his income on visible goods as his racial group’s income went down. African Americans don’t necessarily have different tastes from whites. They’re just poorer, on average. In places where blacks in general have more money, individual black people feel less pressure to prove their wealth.

The same is true for whites. Controlling for differences in housing costs, an increase of $10,000 in the mean income for white households—about like going from South Carolina to California—leads to a 13 percent decrease in spending on visible goods. “Take a $100,000-a-year person in Alabama and a $100,000 person in Boston,” says Hurst. “The $100,000 person in Alabama does more visible consumption than the $100,000 person in Massachusetts.” That’s why a diamond-crusted Rolex screams “nouveau riche.” It signals that the owner came from a poor group and has something to prove.

So this research has implications beyond race. It ought to apply to any peer group perceived by strangers. It suggests why emerging economies like Russia and China, despite their low average incomes, are such hot luxury markets today—and why 20th-century Texas, a relatively poor state, provided so many eager customers for Neiman Marcus. Rich people in poor places want to show off their wealth. And their less affluent counterparts feel pressure to fake it, at least in public. Nobody wants the stigma of being thought poor. Veblen was right.

But he was also wrong. Or at least his theory is out of date. Given that the richer your group, the less flashy spending you’ll do, conspicuous consumption isn’t a universal phenomenon. It’s a development phase. It declines as countries, regions, or distinct groups get richer. “Bling rules in emerging economies still eager to travel the status-through-product consumption road,” the market-research group Euromonitor recently noted, but luxury businesses “are becoming aware that bling isn’t enough for growing numbers of consumers in developed economies.” At some point, luxury becomes less a tool of public status competition and more a means to private pleasure.

In Veblen’s day, the less affluent scrimped on their homes in order to keep up appearances in public. “The domestic life of most classes is relatively shabby, as compared with the éclat of that overt portion of their life that is carried on before the eyes of observers,” Veblen wrote, noting that people therefore “habitually screen their private life from observation.” By contrast, consider David Brooks’s observation in Bobos in Paradise that, for today’s educated elites,

it’s virtuous to spend $25,000 on your bathroom, but it’s vulgar to spend $15,000 on a sound system and a wide-screen TV. It’s decadent to spend $10,000 on an outdoor Jacuzzi, but if you’re not spending twice that on an oversized slate shower stall, it’s a sign that you probably haven’t learned to appreciate the simple rhythms of life.

Virtuous or vulgar, what all these items have in common is that they’re invisible to strangers. Only your friends and family see them. Any status they confer applies only within the small group you invite to your home. And the snob appeal Brooks pokes fun at corresponds to the size of the audience. Many friends may see your Jacuzzi or media room, but unless you’re on HGTV, only intimates will tour your master bathroom. A slate shower stall may make you feel rich, but it won’t tell the world that you are. As peer groups get richer, the balance between private pleasure and publicly visible consumption shifts.

Russ Alan Prince and Lewis Schiff describe a similar pattern in their book, The Middle-Class Millionaire, which analyzes the spending habits of the 8.4million American households whose wealth is self-made and whose net worth, including their home equity, is between $1 million and $10 million. Aside from a penchant for fancy cars, these millionaires devote their luxury dollars mostly to goods and services outsiders can’t see: concierge health care, home renovations, all sorts of personal coaches, and expensive family vacations. They focus less on impressing strangers and more on family- and self-improvement. Even when they invest in traditional luxuries like second homes, jets, or yachts, they prefer fractional ownership. “They’re looking for ownership to be converted into a relationship rather than an asset they have to take care of,” says Schiff. Their primary luxuries are time and attention.

The shift away from conspicuous consumption—from goods to services and experiences—can also make luxury more exclusive. Anyone with $6,000 can buy a limited-edition Bottega Veneta bag, an elaborately beaded Roberto Cavalli minidress, or a Cartier watch. Or, for the same sum, you can register for the TED conference. That $6,000 ticket entitles you to spend four days in California hearing short talks by brainy innovators, famous (Frank Gehry, Amy Tan, Brian Greene) and not-so-known. You get to mingle with smart, curious people, all of whom have $6,000 to spare. But to go to TED, you need more than cash. The conference directors have to deem you interesting enough to merit one of the 1,450 spots. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a velvet rope.

As for goods, forget showing off. “If you want to live like a billionaire, buy a $12,000 bed,” says a financial-planner friend of mine. You can’t park a mattress in your driveway, but it will last for decades and you can enjoy it every night.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: So According to McCain, Obama is "The One?"--The Matrix Meets the 2008 Presidential Campaign

John McCain's campaign has unleashed a new anti-Obama campaign commercial. Unlike the previous commercial which skewered Obama as a celebrity a la Brittany Spears who is unprepared for the responsibility of being the President of the United States, this new commercial lampoons Obama as being "The One." As amateurish and truly desperate as these commercials are, they appear to be resonating among McCain's base and undecided voters. Is there a more biting indictment of the American electorate, and Conservatives in particular, than that these commercials appear to be slowing Obama's momentum? Again, as I am often fond of saying, we are indeed a society too sick to survive.

Generational divides frame the interpretation, enjoyment, and expression of popular culture. For McCain, "The One" is Moses of Ten Commandments fame. Random thought: if you are going to call a black man Moses, one should at least feature a historically correct depiction of biblical figures. If you can't give us a black Jesus, at least give us a brown Moses. Yes, I know that would too much to ask from McCain, but I would at least give him points for the effort. But again, he is of a generation which thinks that the Egyptians were white, and that Cleopatra looked like Elizabeth Taylor. Second random thought: Cleopatra was actually an inbred Greek and none too attractive--which makes me smile when I think of how Afrocentrists try to claim her--but she was a sexpot and innovator of sorts: Cleopatra devised her own vibrator which consisted of a jar filled with thousands of bees. She would shake this jar until it began to vibrate and well get the idea.

Apparently, McCain doesn't get that "The One" for the hip hop, Generation X and Generation Y, and Myspace generation, is Neo from the Matrix:

Playing along with that idea, let's use our imaginations and cast our own version of the Matrix Trilogy meets the 2008 presidential campaign.

Some of these choices are tentative and your help is appreciated with filling out the cast. For now, I would cast this imagined movie as follows:

Obama is Neo. He is upsetting the system and is trying to free himself from the Matrix. Obama is also the key to a new future and a union between the artificial intelligence driven machine mainframe and the oppressed humans. Obama may usher in a post-racial future, but many humans and the machines are not prepared for this brave new world. Both need each other, but first Neo has to balance freedom for the human "copper tops" with the unpleasant realities of order, routine, power, and structure offered by the Matrix. Pointedly, Obama is the biracial Halfrican who identifies as Black, while Keanu is the Hapa, racially ambiguous action hero who starred in Point Break.

John McCain is Agent Smith. He is the antithesis of Obama. McCain represents stability, predictability, and familiarity. McCain may not liberate the masses, but perhaps they are more comfortable with how things are. The agents represent the whiteness of normalcy (my phrase), while Obama, and by extension Neo, Zion, and the remaining humans are a diverse, eclectic, and most importantly, emotionally engaged human collective. John McCain has also gone through many iterations as a politician. He began as a maverick who appealed to independents and challenged the religious Right in his party. Now, McCain has souled out in order to win the support of the Republican's right-wing. And they still don't embrace him. In thinking through the Matrix, this conversion to authority also fits with the subtle hints that Agent Smith may in fact be a previous incarnation of Neo, but one who chose humanity's salvation over love when faced with the Architect's challenge.

Karl Rove or Dick Cheney is The Architect. I am of two minds on this one. Perhaps, The Architect could be a composite of the two personalities. Both represent order. Both have thought through the meta-level game of how to maintain the Nixon turn/Reagan revolution/Gingrich Contract with America/Bush Regime. Rove and Cheney, like The Architect of the Matrix, set the rules of the game and watched it play out according to their predictions. Interestingly, they are omnipresent yet invisible. Like The Architect, they manipulate the rules of the game, yet are immune from being challenged or unseated because the game needs them:

Cheney is everywhere yet no where. Rove is everywhere yet no where. The Architect is everywhere yet no where. Who should be The Architect? Karl Rove or Dick Cheney? Is there a 3rd possibility I have overlooked?

Oprah is the Oracle. The Oracle guides Obama by offering motherly (or is it grandmotherly?) advice. She is the co-creator of the Matrix, an emotive program who figured out that humanity needs a savior in order to survive. The Oracle is self-interested and do not be mistaken, she is not a saint. Mirroring The Oracle, although she is intuitive and emotive, one cannot forget that Oprah is OF the system, however favorable her position in relation to humanity may appear to be. She is a billionaire (and she is a shill for books such as The Secret--how much more Oracle and Matrix inspired can one be?). Oprah, is also the emotional surrogate for millions upon millions of suburban housewives. As I jokingly tell people. "Oprah is a mammy, a safe Negress, an emotional surrogate for millions of white women." Oprah, at great personal cost, has helped to anoint Obama as the Chosen One. In a similar fashion, The Oracle, at great personal cost assisted Neo in his quest, only to lose her "face" and eventually her "life," at the hands of a deranged Agent Smith and The Merovingian.

Michelle Obama is Trinity. I did flirt with combining Trinity and Niobe, but I will let you convince me of the merits of that choice. Trinity and Neo are deeply in love. As Persephones says, "you can smell it on them." Obama and Michelle complement and support each other. They also push against each other, but also move forward towards their goal together. Obama and Michelle are working to make history...yes, an empty phrase as we all make history, but it is fitting here. Neo and Trinity are also making history by liberating humanity from the Matrix. An additional parallel of note: Trinity is hot headed, and a bit impulsive and impassioned. These character traits force Neo into a difficult but necessary choice where he chooses love over humanity precisely because Neo sees no contradiction between the two. It remains to be seen what choices, good choices we hope, that Michelle may, has, or will, force Obama into.

Keith Olbermann is Morpheus. Yes, I would have liked to find a brother who serves as Obama's mentor and guide, but the black men around Obama seem to have done more harm than good to his campaign. Consider, Olbermann has had Obama's back against the O'Reilly's, Limbaugh's, right-wing echo chamber hacks that have gone for Barack's throat. Olbermann has also been one of the few consistent voices to call to account the mainstream media, and how it has seemingly abandoned its responsibilities to check the growing, and bordering on unconstitutional, authority seized (and given to) the Bush regime by the public and Congress. In total, Olbermann has Cronkite like moments and has been indispensable to Obama's campaign. As a mirror, Morpheus is the guide, he who had faith in Obama and pushed him forward against the forces of the Matrix when Obama doubted himself.

Bill Clinton is The Merovingian. Bill Clinton was the first black president, but he proved himself to be more interested in power for power sake than in the public good. Bill Clinton did not behave as a responsible elder statesman should--even allowing for his marriage with Hillary. Instead, he threw aside the good will accrued to him by the American people, and Black Americans in particular, in order to steal a few more moments of power and the public spotlight:

The Merovingian is one of the oldest programs. He deeply and intimately understands the Matrix, its contours and tides, its ebbs and flows, the force of its currents. Like Agent Smith, I also suggest that The Merovingian could perhaps be a former Chosen One, a previous iteration of Neo, who like Smith, chose order and power over liberation and freedom. To boot, Clinton and The Merovingian also share a weakness for women and oral sex. Both are also fashionistas who are vulnerable to their physical and hedonistic indulgences--the force of the passions--rather than having their libidos subsumed by their sense of reason.

Hillary Clinton is Persephones. Again, this was a hard choice because she craves power and is part of the system in a manner akin to Agent Smith. I am open to your suggestions on this point. In favor of this pairing is her relationship to the Merovingian and a marriage based on power and utility rather than love. Hillary, and her lapdog Geraldine Ferraro's attacks on Obama, and Michelle by extension, speak to the rivalry between the two women. Here, two scenes speak particularly well to the pairing of Hillary as Persephones, and Michelle as Trinity. First, the confrontation over dinner when Trinity makes it clear to the Merovingian that he best know his place. Second, the bathroom scene when Persephones wants to know love because she hasn't felt truly desired in so long. Can you imagine Hillary telling her friends how the passion between her and Bill is long dead? Or in a moment of spite, Hillary destroying Bill's prized possessions to make a point that he needs to mind the boundaries of their relationship, i.e. do what you want, but don't embarrass me in public. Yes, as I write this it becomes clear that Hillary is indeed Persephones. Am I right or wrong?

Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh are The Ghost Twins. Yes, they are not "twins." Yes, there is a rivalry between the two. However, they are lockstep ideologically. This parallels how the twins serve power through a deep, self-interested loyalty to The Merovingian and the system. Just as the twins attack Morpheus at the command of their master, the unholy two also (and my gut tells me the following is true) hate Ken Olbermann. I mean they really, really hate him--and it isn't a facade or show for the camera or mic. Your thoughts? A good match? Or should the twins be a different pair selected from the right-wing media apparatus?

Cornel West is Cornel West. He is magical, He is impenetrable. He is a genius. He has simultaneously futuristic, yet anachronistic, W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglas inspired hair. He looks like a science fiction character come to life. He is other worldly. Cornel West is equally at home in "the real world," as he is in the Matrix films.

Reverend Wright is Cypher. Reverend Wright is the mentor and adviser to Obama who later betrayed him. Yes, betrayed him. Reverend Wright in his own desire for 30 seconds of fame, for some petty acknowledgment of his role in Obama's life, almost derailed Obama's campaign. Jealousy, a little hate for his young protege's rise to national prominence so quickly pushed the good reverend to a set of public performances that were nonetheless expected, yet were still still shocking. Cypher was jealous of Obama. He wanted to be proven correct: Neo was not the chosen one. Morpheus was a fraud and a liar. Given how horrible, how unbearable this new future (and present reality) proved to be, the illusion of the Matrix was preferable. Likewise, for Reverend Wright, the new future hinted at by the political realignment (or deviation?) signaled by Obama's rise threatened to make the "real world" intolerable. For Cypher, fiction, the illusion was better than the reality.

Jesse Jackson is General Jason Lock. Shakedown Jesse wants to cut off Obama's nuts. The reconfiguring of the political landscape is frightening because Jackson is threatened with obsolescence. General Lock is threatened by Morpheus' plan, he finds it risky, unnecessary, and unduly perilous for the remaining humans. He is a great leader. But, this is a time for risks and for new directions. General Lock cannot accept this new direction because by virtue of his very nature Lock is measured and conservative. Lock is fighting the last battle--like many generals, the last war looms large in their thinking, rather than the one we are fighting in the present (see the early years of Iraq War 2). A thought, given the General's history with Niobe, his real love for her, is this love somehow paralleled by Jesse and Michelle? Given his noted appetites and indiscretions, does Jesse Jackson want Michelle? Hmmmm.....something to consider.

What other characters should we include in the McCain-Obama meets the Matrix film? Who should be recast?