Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, Episodes 3 and 4 (Ark Media, Inkwell Films, McGee Media, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I got home in time to watch the final two episodes of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s compelling if somewhat tendentious documentary Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, whose rather unsurprising thesis is that the lives of African-Americans are continually improving and more Blacks are turning up in important positions in politics, business and culture … but the class divide between middle-class and lower-class Blacks is expanding and the ghettoes are still suffering from economic neglect and aggressive policing policies that, according to this show, have made Black men 50 percent of the U.S. prison population even though they’re only 6 percent of the overall American population. Episode three details the rise not only of Black entertainers and sports figures (there was even a name for this — “the Willie Mays-Louis Armstrong syndrome” — to indicate that at one point the only avenues for success for African-Americans were in sports or entertainment) but also Black entrepreneurs like Oprah Winfrey (who was able to expand from hosting a local TV talk show in Chicago to a national figure who is probably, unless one of those ancient African kingdoms had a female monarch at some time, the richest woman of African descent in history) and Black Entertainment TV (BET) founder Robert L. Johnson. The show noted that BET got its start largely by playing music videos by Black artists at a time when Blacks were not welcome on MTV — as the Soundbreaking episode shown immediately after And Still I Rise made clear, that was because the people running MTV at the time saw their audience as young white male rock fans and didn’t think they would be interested in any other sort of music (that changed when Michael Jackson released Thriller and CBS/Sony Records threatened to pull all the music videos from white artists on their labels off MTV if they didn’t start playing Jackson’s; later Jackson used a similar strategy and, after his videos became incredibly popular on MTV, he threatened to pull them unless MTV started playing videos by other Black artists, which was how Eddy Grant’s infectious “Electric Avenue,” one of the best records of the early 1980’s, became a hit) — and a clip of Tina Turner singing “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” was shown.

The show went on to discuss the crack cocaine epidemic, and the most interesting interviewee of both the third and fourth episodes (he carried over) was Robert Day, who in his late teens and early 20’s became a successful drug dealer in New York’s South Bronx. Today he’s balding and wears a suit and tie — the comparison between the photos of him in his drug-dealing days and what he looks like now is one of the most jarring I’ve ever seen; they look so different at times you feel like you’re just taking it on faith that they’re the same person — but his turnabout came when he was arrested at age 24 and ended up serving 15 years in prison. Today he’s got a master’s degree and is working on a Ph.D. (though Gates annoyingly refuses to tell us in what discipline) and he also co-heads (with another Black ex-con) a group called the Fortune Society, which helps Black parolees find legitimate employment and get their lives back on track once they get out of prison. In what’s probably the most powerful and dramatic part of either show in this back half of his series, Gates details what the crack epidemic said about the African-American inner-city communities and how they were pathologized in the media — instead of making investments and creating jobs and legitimate opportunities for young Black men, the way white America responded to crack was with a massive show of police power (there’s footage of a 1980’s raid in someone’s home in which the police not only “search” the place by opening all the cupboards and throwing all their contents to the floor, they apply a sledgehammer to the toilet, causing the place to flood) and media reports that young Black men had become “superpredators” and needed to be “written off.”

It also didn’t help that the Black response to this was largely cultural and took the form of so-called “gangsta rap,” which may at first have had elements of social comment but quickly degenerated into a glorification of crime, including rape (one frequent criticism of “gangsta rap” from both whites and Blacks was that it treated Black women as sex objects and openly called for Black men to rape them). Given how sacrosanct “hip-hop” (to use the euphemism for rap by people who like it) has become in the universe of liberal social commentary — it’s become de rigueur for liberal and progressive social commentators to hail hip-hop as an authentic voice of Black rage and revolution, and ignore the horribly reactionary attitudes much of it takes, including sexism, homophobia and racism against non-Black people of color — it’s nice that Gates reports from both sides of the divide over rap, including giving screen time to C. DeLores Tucker, the much-criticized anti-rap Black woman activist from the 1990’s. The third episode, “Keep Your Head Up,” also covers the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court and claims he won confirmation by proclaiming himself the victim of a “high-tech lynching” over her alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill — Gates notes that Hill had not only worked for Thomas but shared much of his conservative politics — at the time the Hill accusations struck me as a hail-Mary pass by U.S. Senate Democrats to stop the Thomas confirmation since they hadn’t been able to do so on ideological grounds, and the accusations she leveled against him just seemed weird. I don’t think that anymore simply because I know a lot more about sexual harassment in the workplace now than I did then, particularly that it can be a lot more subtle and insidious than “Meet me at the motel tonight, or don’t come to work tomorrow.”

Gates’ third episode pretty much ends with the election of Bill Clinton and his status as the so-called “first Black President” (a colloquialism often used about him until the next Democrat in the White House turned out to be the first genuinely Black President, Barack Obama), including a still from his sax-playing appearance on the late-night talk show hosted by African-American Arsenio Hall (remember him?) and some of the initiatives he launched to help the Black community, including appointing an unprecedented number of Blacks to his administration. Surprisingly, Gates faults Clinton for signing the “tough-on-crime” bills that drastically increased the number of African-American men in prison and also made the penalties for crack considerably tougher than those for powder cocaine, the well-to-do white people’s version of the drug — though he doesn’t mention that the crack bill was actually the brainchild of African-American Congressmember Charles Rangel (D-New York), who thought it up hoping it would stop the crack epidemic in the Black community once and for all — but he does not mention that in 1996 Clinton signed the Republican-sponsored bill to “end welfare as we know it,” put a total time limit on welfare benefits and force recipients to work. Because the initial Internet bubble created an economic boom in the later years of Clinton’s Presidency, the harm this bill did was muted until George W. Bush replaced Clinton, the tech bubble collapsed, the economy went into recession and the jobs the welfare recipients were supposed to find no longer existed. Episode four of Black America Since MLK bore the subtitle of the whole series, “And Still I Rise,” and started with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, including the federal government’s slow response to it (and Bush’s moment of Marie Antoinette cluelessness, going to New Orleans but merely flying over the damage, looking down at it from the air but without landing the plane and meeting with anybody) and the response of whites in the surrounding suburbs, which was to barricade the entrances to their communities and threaten Black refugees from New Orleans with guns if they tried to enter. It told the now-familiar story of President Obama’s election, and the equally familiar story of the Black Lives Matter movement and its sparking incident, the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the police response to the protests against it, which was to wheel out in armored vehicles and look more like an occupying army than an agency of law enforcement. What Gates didn’t mention was that the police have this equipment largely because a federal program encouraged the military to sell them surplus gear designed for overseas combat, and offered the opportunity to equip themselves for urban combat, all too many law enforcement agencies took advantage of it.

Gates no doubt finished his program before the outcome of this year’s Presidential election was known, but the victory of Donald Trump largely on the votes of racist white working-class people who for half a century have been carefully wooed by the Republicans and won over from their traditional Democratic loyalties through appeals to race and culture (“culture” in this context originally meant a reaction to the hippie movement and the student Left of the 1960’s but now it’s code for opposition to women’s right to reproductive choice and Queers’ rights to anything at all) certainly bodes ill for African-Americans. Trump’s choice of U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Arkansas) as his attorney general — a man who belittled civil rights attorneys and the NAACP and openly called for scrapping the 1965 Voting Rights Act — says loud and clear that, though he may be backtracking on some of the extravagant promises he made during his campaign, the political disenfranchisement of African-Americans remains a “live” item on his agenda. Indeed, politically disenfranchising the people likely to vote against them — particularly people of color, young people and poor people — has become the bulwark of Republican political strategy and their answer to the demographic challenge that the groups least likely to vote Republican are the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population. Instead of moderating their positions and working out ways to “sell” conservative ideas to these people, the Republican response has been to prevent them from voting at all — and the longer they are in power, not only at the national level but also at the state level where virtually all voting laws are written, the more creative ways the Republicans will cook up to disenfranchise people and the more their power will become entrenched. (This is why, if I were a member of the Democratic National Committee these days, I would forget about retaking Congress in 2018 or 2020 and focus the party’s efforts on winning back state governments — if Republicans remain so overwhelmingly in control of state legislatures and governorships as they are now, after the 2020 census, which will be conducted under the Trump administration and will probably be rigged deliberately to undercount people of color, the Republicans will be able to “freeze” in place Congressional and state legislative districts and restrictions on voting that will keep them in power indefinitely and gradually eliminate the Democratic Party as an effective opposition force.)

Gates includes an optimistic peroration at the end of his show, but it rings rather hollow given that the new President took so strong a “law and order” stance against Black Lives Matter during his campaign and there’s overwhelming evidence that, while Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan may not have had any particular animus against Blacks and may have opportunistically tapped into racist appeals to win votes, Donald Trump is a committed and convinced racist. He openly discriminated against African-Americans in his rental properties (as his father had done before him) and got sued for it twice by the federal government. He called Indiana-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel “a Mexican,” he called New York-born alleged Orlando shooter Omar Mateen “an Afghan” (and blamed the shootings on the immigration officials who let Mateen’s parents into the U.S. before Mateen was born), and of course for years he claimed Barack Obama wasn’t an American (the one clip of Trump on Gates’ program shows him doing just that). What’s more, in his last debate with Hillary Clinton, Trump said, “There are millions of people who are registered to vote who shouldn’t be” — and it’s hard to read that as meaning anything but a statement that people of color aren’t, and never can be, “real Americans” and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to register and vote. Many of Trump’s supporters voted for him precisely because they want to see Black America put back in its “place” — and I suspect that’s one campaign promise Trump intends to deliver on big-time.