Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The 1990s are Back: Refighting the Culture Wars as Minister Farrakhan Visits Berkeley

The Republicans have rediscovered the Culture War narrative. Derrick Bell is smeared for his work to make Ivy League faculty more diverse. Minister Louis Farrakhan is back in the news for a recent speech at UC Berkeley which has been described as "controversial" and "anti-Semitic."

We are back in the 1990s again. Did the election of President Obama open a hole in the space time continuum, and the present is now collapsing into the past?

I hear so much of my own voice from years past here:
But members of UC Berkeley's Black Student Union said the overall message was inspiring.
"What I got out of it was how we as black students can take our education and utilize it to build the black community back up," said Stephan Montouth. "We're looking at the minister's statements in terms of how to empower the black community not all of the other controversial things that he may have said in the past."
There is a certain appeal to Farrakhan that goes beyond his commonsense message of black empowerment, self-sufficiency, and uplift. When you are one of few students of color on campus, are made to feel marginalized and peripheral (note: if black and brown students at UC Berkeley feel that way, I must wonder what their response would be to a far less "liberal" environment) his unapologetic strength is really compelling. To see someone with the nerve to talk back to white folks, in their own house, and on their dime, is intoxicating. When you are 19 years old, such performances are easily confused with real power.

We have a tendency to romanticize the past; to do so is very human. But, I would still dare to suggest that there was a cultural and political vibrancy about the late 1980s, and mid to late 1990s, that is absent today on college campuses (and in our culture more broadly). There were protests over campus diversity. At my alma mater, we staged walkouts and sit-ins over establishing a Black Studies program. There were death threats against students of color and the obligatory crisis of the week. My friends and I imagined ourselves in the racially pornographic movie Higher Learning--always under siege and existential threat. It was exhilarating.

In those years there was also the Million Man March; I would proudly wear my "The Juice is Loose" t-shirt (with kente cloth for extra provocation); UMOJA, the Black Student Organization, renamed its leadership positions after those in the Black Panthers. We rocked Carhartt hoodies and black Timberlands while listening to great hip hop, and would watch Farrakhan, Khalid Muhammad, Leonard Jeffries, and Dr. Frances Cress Welsing on The Donahue Show.

The hip hop generation (of which I am a proud member) was post civil rights. Temporally, we came after that moment. But we still reached back to the mythos of the glorious 1960s as a reference point. Generationally, we also were not "racism fatigued." Given Rodney King, the L.A. Riots, the racial tensions in and around New York, cultural and opinion leaders like Farrakhan, Spike Lee, Public Enemy, Jesse Jackson, and the new wave of black public intellectuals like Cornel West, Bell Hooks (and others), to be in college, and a person of color at this moment, meant that to some degree you had to be politically engaged.

Pity those black and brown students who opted out--they would be written off, disappeared in the minds of those who fashioned themselves more "radical." We had little use for free riders. I was also fond of telling such cast offs of their untouchable status directly to their faces.

The Facebook/Helicopter Parents/Obamakids generation, those who were born in the 1990s, are located in a bizarre post-racial moment, where the market and neoliberal policies have robbed them of the vocabulary to describe the type of hegemonic power they are suffering under. Moreover, they have so internalized the language and logic of "the market," that while this generation knows something is wrong, most do not know what to do about it. Ultimately, this generation is experiencing a deep crisis of political vision and meaning.

In the 21st century, race and white supremacy continue to shape life chances and opportunity structures. But, racist, neoconservative, "colorblind" politics have transformed those who identity these social realities into the new bigots. With the browning of America, the rise of the global superclass, and the destruction of the American working and middle classes, the struggle against racism appears to be increasingly irrelevant. Ironically, I would suggest that a race critical lens has never been more central and necessary to understanding the forces arrayed against the People and in service of Power.

Perhaps the invitation to Farrakhan, and being open to some of what he represents, signals a new political awakening on the part of some black and brown students. But then again, those who have the opportunity to indulge in a bit of "radical" politics while in college, are likely just as tempted to discard such political romances when they get a job, have a mortgage, and need to conform in order to move ahead in an increasingly perilous economy. When you are 19 it is okay to dream. The trick then becomes, how do you sustain such dreaming as an adult...and turn it into action?


CNu said...

Farrakhan is an atavism and a relic that has outlived its usefulness. Doesn't the fact that there are no women within the inner circle of power within the NOI, and, that their current state of economic and organizational readiness and clout is vastly less than it was in the mid-70's signal to you the self-serving backwardness of this cult?

C'mon dood, the blind cain't lead the blind and in 2012 if the NOI can't even rock a chain of whitefish and beanpie joints, summin very, very wrong up in Mosque Mirriam....,

Anonymous said...

Farrakhan is passe ..He has done his part in the evolution of Black folks in America..

Why would I recommend this tired voice to a new generation? At some point it is prudent to disconnect from the past and forged a new path which includes a new set of griots..

I recently was on a HBCU campus and I encountered many Black professors and young activists..

I want to promote then instead of the usual and noew tired bunch of OG's..

BTW I am not interested in educating white youth I rather educate my tribe first and foremost.. White folks and other people of color can get in line..

One other note I advocate Black folks need to move on pass the civil rights mantra..We have done that already..We have a new legacy to create in America..We have already brought them humanity and civil rights..Our plate is full now with the residue of creating the civil rights for America

We must now feed our own and attaend to our needs, shortocmings and internal deconstuction and deevolution..

Yep that will the basis of my next lecture..Fuck Off America I gotta fix my people..

chaunceydevega said...

@Cnu. At the time you didn't find the NOI compelling at all? Even as theater? I could totally see you doing the SW1 deal with Public Enemy back in your youth.

@Anon. Thrasher? Who are some of these new voices, talk them up.

Anonymous said...


I left some names on the last blog topic..

BTW I post under Anon for a reason unlike Thrasher I want to keep my job and I don't want people to know certain things about me.

I do follow his work in other venues. I met him once by chance in NY with his daughter who was a student of Professor Bell and she was awesome in so many ways..

I do wish he would return to the site but he claims he needed to refuel...

You got me now

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. Good to have you. Thrasher seemed like sincere and cool people.

ellemarie said...

I think I’m somewhere between you and the college students you encounter as a teacher (born in the early 80s, college from ’99 to ’03), and even I noticed what you’re talking about on my campus. There was campus organizing at my predominantly white school, but it was mostly reactive, I would say, responding to specific racially-motivated incidents. Our BSA was mainly a social organization, and I honestly can’t say our NAACP chapter did much.

I think you’re right that there is a “crisis of political vision and meaning” (although I’m not sure how deep it is). I’m not sure you’re quite on the mark though, when you attribute it to Facebook, helicopter parenting, and Obamakids. Maybe it’s naïve of me, but I refuse to believe that anyone except white folks ever bought into the notion that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency ushered us into a postracial moment. I do think middle school, high school, college kids think about race (to the extent they think about it at all) differently than someone my age, your age, or generations before did, but if you engage them I just can’t believe that they’d say race doesn’t matter. I also can’t buy that kids are tapped into any idea of the “market” and its “invisible hand.” I might be willing to concede that market speak is so pervasive that maybe they’re taking it in from the ether, but I would expect that more from young white kids with “conservative” parents (yes I’m stereotyping a bit) than young POC.

Where I think your more on point is when you talk about how the conservative movement has been very successful in re-framing how we talk about race and, I think, helped to delegitimize direct action, i.e. political/community organizing, protesting against racism, sexism, etc. You as a college student were able to reach back to the language and actions of the CRM because there really wasn’t any sort of a break or pause in the need for activism from the 60s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Conservatives started attacking the gains attributed to the 60s pretty early on and those attacks needed to be countered. Conservatives have also somehow (and amazingly) made direct action seem to be the province only of old “hippies” and something that “respectable” folks don’t engage in. (Weren’t some of the critiques of the Occupy encampments along those lines?) Maybe the tech boom and the generalized prosperity of the Clinton years (or the narrative of generalized prosperity) lulled us into a sense of complacency. And that, combined with a sense that protest is outmoded is perhaps what has shaped our current state of affairs. Who knows.

As for the appeal of Mr. Farrakhan, I am not a fan of bombast, so while as you say his “commonsense” message is appealing (although nothing new), his style puts me off. Of course, when I was in college, I didn’t feel “The Man’s” boot on my neck in the way that generations before did figuratively and literally. Maybe I would have given him a pass on style if I was of a different time.

CNu said...

At the time you didn't find the NOI compelling at all? Even as theater? I could totally see you doing the SW1 deal with Public Enemy back in your youth.

In my naive "youth" - I was as fiery and rebellious a black partisan orator as you might ever encounter. I took direct action in my senior year as an undergraduate and raised $75K to fund the black students union tutorial program after complaints were raised by black women students of harassment in MIT's general tutorial program. (the administration had defunded the BSUTP and was opposed to its resurrection)

In return for my fearless and pragmatic leadership - I was forbidden from further public oration, literally compelled to move to housing off-campus, and denied a masters degree that would have been jointly awarded by Harvard and MIT. I learned my lesson then and there about the abject futility of political rhetoric and organizing on behalf of others.

Farrakhan is a magnificent entertainer, arguably the most gifted black orator still living. But his leadership is purely self-serving, atavistic, and the primary beneficiary of Farrakhan's impassioned cultural production is Farrakhan.

I sincerely wish I could go buy a white fish sammich and a bean pie.

chaunceydevega said...

@Cnu. Small world. I almost took a job at MIT when I worked on "diversity issues" in another life. There are many stories like that and lots of retaliation against students of color who speak up.

nomad said...

"lots of retaliation against students of color who speak up."

That's why a voice like Farrakhan's
invaluable. He speaks independent of the matrix.