Rap superstar Jay Z and CNN news anchor Don Lemon added some extra hot sauce to the “conversation about race” in the wake of one of the “hottest” and racially-charged summers in recent memory.
In a July 24 interview with journalist Elliot Wilson, Jay Z responded to a series of comments that Harry Belafonte made about Jay Z, Beyoncé, and other black celebrities in an interview last year. When asked to respond to Belafonte’s lamentation about current black celebrities’ inability or unwillingness to use their fame to advocate for social change, Jay Z shot back:
I’m offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough. Just being who he is. You’re the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone. … I felt Belafonte … just went about it wrong. Like the way he did it in the media, and then he bigged up Bruce Springsteen or somebody. And it was like, ‘whoa,’ you just sent the wrong message all the way around. … Bruce Springsteen is a great guy. You’re this civil rights activist and you just bigged up the white guy against me in the white media. And I’m not saying that in a racial way. I’m just saying what it is. The fact of what it was. And that was just the wrong way to go about it.
Several days later, Don Lemon took to his newscast to announce his agreement with Bill O’Reilly’s oft-stated arguments blaming black poverty on the “disintegration of the black family” and “deviant” culture. Subsequently, Lemon outlined five ways to “fix” the black community. He instructed blacks to pull up their sagging pants, stop saying the ‘n-word,’ finish school, keep neighborhoods clean, refrain from having babies if you are young, and beware of hip hop culture. In other words, young African Americans needed to wrap themselves in a cloak of responsibility if they hoped to advance in American society.
Several critics have rightfully criticized Lemon‘s and Jay Z‘s comments. Both express two strains of contemporary black bourgeois politics. Black bourgeois politics identifies the acquisition of wealth and/or adopting “respectable” behavioral traits and cultural practices as the primary strategies for addressing racial inequality. Jay Z’s politics of black wealth and visibility minimizes Harry Belafonte’s participation in collective struggles against racism that helped paved the way for Jay Z, Beyoncé, and other contemporary black celebrities. It also confuses individual success with resistance. Jay Z’s politics of visibility presumes that he could ultimately undermine racial hierarchies just by selling his “from the streets to the suites” narrative and performing rap music.
Don Lemon’s type of respectability politics usually points to “deviant” behavioral and cultural traits to explain racial inequality. Supporters of black respectability often concentrate on policing gender roles and sexual behavior. The performers of the politics of respectability may acknowledge racism, but they imply that the rights and legal protections of the “black underclass” will always be conditional and under review by them and white Americans interested in policing social, economic, political, and cultural boundaries: they must ultimately exchange certain cultural practices for the rights and justice they are already entitled to as American citizens.
The tendency among some African Americans to trumpet individual achievement and black economic development and obscure collective political struggle is not new. In 1895, Booker T. Washington once advised blacks to “cast down” their “buckets” and focus on economic success to survive Jim Crow segregation. W.E.B. Dubois also argued the upper echelon of black society—the “talented tenth”—would lead blacks to freedom in the late nineteenth century. Of course, Jay Z’s politics of wealth is more complex than Washington’s and Du Bois’s bourgeois politics. Jay Z enthusiastically supports President Obama and will periodically address racism and inequality in interviews and his music. However, he devotes his energies towards becoming hip hop’s first billionaire. Jay Z would like to market, sell, monopolize, and embody hip hop’s Horatio Alger. He laid the foundation of becoming “a business, man” when he teamed up with Budweiser in 2006 to help sell his underwhelming “comeback” Kingdom Come album. He articulates his own “American dream” on his subsequent excellent album American Gangster. Jay Z explains his own hip hop-informed racial and cultural liberalism in his Budweiser “Made in American” commercial where he explains to viewers how music, especially hip hop, allows us to “finally live out our creed.”
Jay Z, like many black men who seek to earn a living in the inner city, cast his “bucket” in a segregated environment—a space where the drug market represented an enticing avenue for rapid economic advancement and unlawful wealth accumulation. Jay Z leveraged his hustling tales into popular music fame. Now he bargains his success for respect from corporate America. What is new about Jay Z’s politics is the context, the amount of wealth and capital he is able to accumulate, and the scale in which he is able to sell, market, and manage his rap narratives and burgeoning business empire. Many are familiar with his partnerships with the Brooklyn Nets, Budweiser, Live Nation, Samsung, and now the Creative Arts Agency (CAA Sports). Jay Z also successfully leveraged his position as a male hip hop icon into elite political circles and the good graces of President Obama. Jay Z has positioned himself not just as hip hop’s supreme businessman, but as a black corporate and political insider—he sells his potential power to deliver young consumers, athletes, and even young black voters, if necessary, to corporations and politicians.
Jay Z’s bourgeois politics is rather contradictory and it poses dilemmas for anyone seeking to devise a strategy for addressing racial inequality. It is not just reliant upon the further accumulation of personal wealth and influence, but it is intricately tied to global corporate capitalism. Jay Z has expressed, either inside or outside rap, a desire to identify with progressive politics. Cord Jefferson sees Jay Z’s and Kanye West’s beautifully-produced “No Church in the Wild” video as an example of their desire to style themselves as “neo-Black Power” revolutionaries who constantly refer to their wealth as indication of some sort of resistance. Unfortunately, Jay Z’s politics of visibility and wealth puts himself in awkward positions like attending an Occupy protest while also trying to capitalize off of the movement by manufacturing and selling “Occupy All Streets” t-shirts, without any evidence of donating proceeds to the cause.
Like Jay Z, Don Lemon also tapped into a long black political tradition—the politics of black respectability. Lemon’s calls for black youths to “clean up their act” echo black bourgeois calls for blacks to act with propriety and to participate in “upbuilding” black communities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Marcus Garvey and the United Negro Improvement Association tried to build a “black empire” with black respectability as its ideological base. Despite the organization’s very problematic racial politics, the Nation of Islam actually represents America’s most successful institutional manifestation of black respectability politics.
One could contend that Lemon’s “advice” is about black uplift. In part, that is a reasonable outlook. I have talked to black youths privately about the importance of education, treating their peers and elders with respect, and communicating effectively. The problem with the “tough love” talk, as Bill Cosby illustrated in his 2004 “pound cake speech” in front of the NAACP, is that it is often grounded in the most negative of racial stereotypes. This “tough love” is mainly a public performance directed for an audience other than the group of people in question (usually for whites and other middle-class blacks). And most importantly, being on one’s best behavior does not always protect one from racism, nor does it protect a racial group from finding itself on the receiving end of state-sanctioned violence, economic alienation (i.e. chronic unemployment), or the creative destruction that often accompanies environmental destruction (i.e. Hurricane Katrina) and capitalist development (i.e. plant closings).
Post-civil rights respectability politics often misdiagnoses the causes of urban decline and poverty by placing so much weight on culture that it crowds out any consideration of the structural forces that creates the context for particular “deviant” cultural and economic practices. Contemporary advocates of respectability underestimate or dismiss the impact that white and black middle-class flight, suburbanization, slum lording, deindustrialization, and gentrification have had on particular urban spaces and the bodies that inhabit them. I do not support drug trafficking, obviously, but advocates of respectability politics forget how the drug trade is a market response to the flight of well-paying jobs. Mass incarceration is a state and market response to the drug trade. Don Lemon’s solutions are not unreasonable if he is talking to black youths directly, but we are deluding ourselves if we think pulling up pants and eliminating the ‘n’ word would suddenly reverse decades of urban decline.
It’s not hard to glean Jay Z’s and Don Lemon’s good intentions from their comments. Jay Z’s presence is supposed to exemplify hip hop’s Horatio Alger tale of a hustler-turned-“businessman” that even corporate America has to respect. At points in his career Jay Z has expressed that he wants listeners to focus more on his business acumen than on his drug dealing past. Now he wants you to acknowledge that the tag on his brand that says “Made in America” is enough to inspire “black excellence” and transcend racial boundaries. With his five point plan, Don Lemon is trying to equip young African Americans with the life skills he believes are necessary for social mobility. Of course, I am willing to agree that it is important to find ways to address harmful acts that arise out of hopelessness and alienation. However, it is disingenuous to chastise blacks for littering in their neighborhoods when global corporations and governmental institutions have exercised their command over real estate and local economies to commit grave acts against neighborhoods. Jay Z misses Belafonte’s point if he thinks his associations with global corporations and political and economic elites represents some sort of progressive black politics or signals some sort of resistance to the social, political, and economic racial order.
Jay Z’s and Don Lemon’s comments about race and politics do reveal one thing: they highlight calls like those of social critics Michael C. Dawson, Robin D.G. Kelley, and others for a reinvigorated, more visible, and more effective, left-progressive black force in this country.