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Race and Jazz

Race, Culture and a White Boy from Texas

By Published: May 9, 2011
Today, racism, in both individual and structural dimensions, functions like an ideological shadow, and is rarely stated explicitly in the bald, gross terms of the pre-Civil Rights era. For instance, the man Bill Cosby calls Donald Tramp played his trump card by calling for the release of the long-form birth certificate of a sitting President of the U.S.A., who had been fully vetted during the 2008 campaign by the governmental apparatus, in order to question his authenticity as an American citizen. And even after the President shows the birth certificate, Mr. Chump says that President Obama should stop playing basketball to attend to the economy, and that there's no way that he wrote his best-selling memoir, and that he didn't have the grades to get into Columbia and Harvard. He says the latter about a man who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, after serving as president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. And, oh, don't forget: Trump has a good relationship with "the blacks."

But don't feel sorry for President Obama; he's no victim. His personality and character is grounded in conscious, articulate culture, which he's studied, adapted and models. On Saturday evening, April 30th, the President roasted the Donald in his face, slicing and dicing him with cool precision at the White House Correspondent's Dinner. The next night President Obama announced to the world that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. The coup de grace was the President appearing on Oprah the very next day with the gorgeous First Lady to his right, Oprah to his left, and an adoring audience straight-ahead. Sorry Donald, but you can't touch this.

If you were wondering what "mode of signifying" meant in the last sentence of the quote three paragraphs above, now you know. Imagine a big sign with the word "race" written on it, and then realize that Trump and the Birthers were signifying on that sign, giving meaning to that sign, thereby enacting a subtler form of racism. This is an example of the way race has shifted from nature (biology) to culture, by use of rhetorical codes that serve as winks to insiders who share common reference points, usually based on stereotypes. So in the case of President Obama, the implication is that he's an inauthentic phony. Why? Because articulate and accomplished black men who aren't athletes or entertainers are suspect, too bourgeois, not real enough, not really street, ghetto, and are likely affecting airs. Why? Because the image of a successful black man in non-entertainment/athletic fields too strongly counters the stereotypes that support the notion of black inferiority. In person, on a dark street in an urban area, after hours, many people would feel more comfortable seeing someone like Obama walking down the street clean in a business suit as compared to, say, the thuggish image of a 50 Cent and his crew with their jeans hanging off their backsides. But the image of 50 Cent is less threatening to the myth of white supremacy than is a Barack Obama, or a Richard Parsons or Ken Chenault or even Ursula Burns —who as CEO of Xerox, counters stereotypes of race and gender—in the corporate sphere.

So tear down Obama's legitimacy by implying that he's more concerned with basketball—highly associated with black men—than with the economy, by implying that he could have only been accepted to Ivy League institutions because of affirmative action (over and above more deserving white applicants, of course, victims of "reverse racism"), not because he earned good grades and SAT and LSAT scores, and by implying that he's a spook who must've employed a ghost writer to pen his memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, because, you know, they can't really master the English language that well. The racial subtext of Trump's statements were so clear that he was criticized roundly in print and broadcast media.

Racialist chumps use tropes based in stereotypes to signify on those race signs that political correctness and social politeness and fear have excised from the public discourse, but that remain in minds and belief systems nevertheless. To continue to comprehend how race has spread its weed-like branches to the cultural realm, let's look at "culture" as an idea proper, and then modulate back to jazz.

For many of us, the first time we recall hearing about culture was when we cultivated bacterial cells in Petri dishes in biology class. So, by extension, culture is a kind of environment. Another analogy would be that water serves as the culture fish live in. It's a natural environment to the fish, whereas our culture is the natural inner environment of collective feelings, values, myths, and the sympathetic resonance we have in common with others we identify with. Soon we'll see that culture is also meanings and tools and artifacts.


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