Caught WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP recently on TV with my ten-year-old. We had to cut away during some scenes, but it was mostly just broad comedy with broad stereotypes being held up for ridicule, or to make some broader point about racism and ethnicity and stereotypes.
But as good as everyone was in it (Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes, Rosie Perez, Tyra Ferrell, et. al.) and as well intentioned as the humor seemed to be, it was totally outdated. I remember how funny it was when it first came out, and it still has its moments, but mostly it just seems like a movie that couldn’t be made anymore, because the stereotypes it’s based on we’re finally outgrowing.
And what a good thing.
Obama is on to something, whether he wins or not. Jokes about the basketball prowess of African-Americans may have been radically honest even ten years ago, but today, with the internationalization of basketball—as well as more visibility for so many super successful African-Americans in a broad spectrum of endeavors—they seem lame and beside the point. As do most of the other stereotypes in and out of this movie that have been fodder for entertainment and politics and niche causes etc. for too long.
The boundaries are shifting, the definitions becoming more difficult to pin down, or pin on to the specific. Like Obama. Or Hilary, for that matter. She’s more conservative than most liberals, more dependent on her relationship with her man than the label “feminist” used to imply. She’s ebullient one moment and stiffly withdrawn the next, critical and almost seemingly bitter, then joyful and seemingly grateful, even humble, then defiant, even arrogant.
Obama is even less definitive of some stereotypical man, or African-American, or even mixed-race American, for which the stereotype has yet to be satirized as successfully as Woody Harrelson’s white-man-without-a-clue (he could so play Bush junior in the story of the president without a clue).
Not that the stereotypes still don’t apply in some instances, some experiences, some expressions of an individual’s humanity. But the broader outlines of a more globalized concept of individuality, no matter how consumerized, is prevalent today in a way that cannot be denied, nor stopped.
That’s part of what Obama appeals to in his supporters, the way I see it. And the more those old stereotypes are broken down the better. It doesn’t change the fact that there are still too many “black” American men in prison (and still too many “Americans” in prison in this country period).
It doesn’t change the fact that a way too high percentage of “black Americans” are unemployed, or underemployed, or suffering from the kind of poverty that a country this wealthy and advanced should have wiped out generations ago (especially since less wealthy countries have managed to do it). Or that a lesser percentage of “white Americans” but a higher actual number still suffer from poverty as well (e.g. as I’ve pointed out before, we’re so far down the list in health care compared to other industrialized countries, we’re behind Latvia in infant mortality rates, etc.).
It just means any art that is based on skewering “reality,” or on honesty that’s so blunt it’s shocking and/or humorous, can’t rely on what seemed brutally honest only ten years ago, even five for that matter. For my taste, those kind of racial clichés were already out of date decades ago when I was writing letters to the editors of The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times every time someone wrote about “young black boys” having “no role models” other than “the pimps and drug dealers and gansta rappers” etc.
I wrote many a letter about how insulting it is to those—“black” and “white”—who risked their lives, and in some cases lost them, for the cause of ending the kinds of legal and extralegal segregation and oppression and inequality that still permeated society when I was coming up. To ignore the fact that there was an African-American Supreme Court justice before there was an Italian or woman, and the other ethnicities and categories that have yet to have a Supreme Court judge from their ranks, or to ignore the other obvious successes across the worlds of politics and business and sports and entertainment, etc. was to insult, as I said, all those who risked their lives in the fight to make that all possible.
If a young “black” man doesn’t have any “black” role models other than the various forms of “gangsta” culture, then that just means he hasn’t watched a TV show (even the ones that feature “rap” show more of the world than that narrow view) let alone been exposed to anything outside the world of that contrived image.
It ain’t true, despite the gangs and prison corralling of young black men. What’s true is that government policies of this administration, and previous ones to some extent, have created the corporate friendly atmosphere that has allowed the prison system to develop in ways that feed that system’s privatization and necessary need for more “clients,” and the “war on drugs” is happy to funnel bodies into that system.
And yes, it’s racist in that a much higher percentage of young black men get much longer sentences for drug offences than do most whites. (I just heard of a case yesterday of a white male I know being caught with a lot of cocaine in separate baggies after totaling his car, the way I heard it. He is getting a break because it is his first offense. Most “black” men would end up with decades of prison time for such an offense.) And within the system itself, there is a further fueling of racism by the lack of programs and serious effort to actually do some rehabilitation and education, and of enough guards and other personnel, so that prisoners need the protection of ethnically and racially segregated groups to survive. Etc.
And yes that carries over into the whole “gangsta” image and projection into the culture in general, and unfortunately too often into the standards of even well educated young black men (and women to a lesser extent) from financially-secure family backgrounds (as it often does for young white men, though usually with less harsh outcomes).
Nonetheless, we are rapidly becoming the multi-cultural society some have been claiming we already were. And Obama represents that inevitability more than the other candidates, and with a style, as well as substance, to his politics that prove, to my mind, he is the right person for these times.
Not all “black” men can jump, and some white men have proven they certainly can jump, as some women of all shades have also proven. What Hilary and Barack have both done with their very viable candidacies for the office of president is prove it’s a new world, and welcome to it.