JOHN MCWHORTER NOVEMBER 16, 2010
Kanye West yelling that George Bush didn’t care about black people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was not, in itself, interesting. He had a CD to plump for (Late Registration), as well as just plain himself to plump for, as he was a newer phenom then than the source of regular episodes of galumphing megalomania that he is now.
Interesting, however, is West’s acute discomfort in his recent interview with Matt Lauer at actually being confronted with footage of his accusation, good and loud and right in his face. With all of his cockiness about so much, he couldn’t take it. The sight of this was especially haunting in that West, like so many artists, is hyperarticulate in his creations but not especially so when speaking casually (not a knock on rappers, mind you – there were times when it was hard to believe that the George Gershwin of interviews was the man who wrote Porgy and Bess or the opening to Concerto in F). Both verbally and emotionally, when having to actually own calling Bush a bigot, West falls to pieces.
Most definitely, the good word in September 2005 was that if Katrina’s victims were white, the governmental response would have been quicker and more effective. In my view that was always a weak case (Hurricane Andrew, 1992? Same delay, same complaints – but the victims were white). Few, however, went as far as to treat this as evidence that George Bush, himself, thinks of black people as less than human and deserved to be outed as such. To most of us, however we felt about the man and his work, that would have seemed truly mean.
And it was precisely that from West, with the “conscious” strain of rap he represents channelled this time into the smug, puerile Michael Moore version of social engagement. Note also the backtracking in his later claim that he actually thinks Bush doesn’t care about any people, which, if he actually believed, would make the singling out of black people in his condemnation somewhat incoherent – he meant what he said the first time.
What makes the Lauer debacle such a key moment is that it is a demonstration of how the charge of racism has evolved in our society. Prototypically, we associate a person charging racism with powerlessness. This is what is behind the good-thinking idea that black people can’t be racist by definition – they are only responding to what is dumped on them; they are the subalterns, as a certain terminology has it.
But West’s charge came from a position of, actually, rather awesome power. To call someone a racist today is only a notch or two less potent than calling them a pedophile. Racism may still be “out there,” but it is socially incorrect. It is whispered, hedged, released unintentionally amidst frustration. It is an embarrassment, disavowed even by racists.
Note, for example, that whatever you think of West’s antics, the natural response to his calling Bush a racist is a loaded kind of “Ooooooh,” with a downward intonational contour, signalling, roughly, “It’s on!” That means that we consider a charge like West’s potent, at least at first – it is a deft play. The accused now must defend himself – and probably cannot. “I’m not a racist” works generally about as well as saying some of your best friends are black.
Therefore, West had the power, and Bush being President lent him no complimentary power whatsoever. It’s late summer, 2005. Which person had more moral power in America? You have two choices. A: A white, swivel-tongued Republican fifty-something widely assumed to have been instated illegitimately, who had led the country into a deeply unpopular war going extremely badly. B: A charismatic twenty-something black rapper just recently risen to superstardom, cherished for rapping about serious issues. There is no contest.
The naked power of the racism charge makes something understandable that may have seemed a little off when it was announced – that Bush would call the West episode, of all things, the most disgusting point of his Presidency. Despite all of the stingingly awful revelations we endured during those eight years and all of the hideous things that were said about Bush daily during them, it does not surprise me in the least that the one that would actually hit home the most would be someone calling him a racist – and specifically, someone with the moral authority of a young black rap artist.
This is a sign of how far we’ve come on race, in its way. If somebody on Mad Men called Don Draper a racist, there’d be a lot less of an “Ooooooh” (although after just three years further of narrative, the “Oooooh” would be just like the one we know – it’s amazing how fast official social mores changed). Yet what West could pull was also a sign of how awful the by-products of our coming this far can be. The power of crying racism is susceptible to abuse by those of a self-medicating and unheedful frame of mind.
West knew very well what he was doing in pushing that button. He was not nobly speaking up for the powerless or presenting a moral analysis. He was being, quite simply, a bully. This was the same bully who grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift. This was the same performative indignation behind West’s pretending to think white scientists created AIDS to sterilize black people on the opening track of, wouldn’t you know it, the very CD he had just released while calling George Bush a bigot.
In the end, if history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, we could call Jim Crow the tragedy and Kanye West squirming and sputtering in that NBC studio the farce. Only when occasions to level the racism charge in earnest have become rare does one feel safe getting off on “calling someone a racist.” The litmus test for deciding whether someone is genuinely a bigot is whether you would feel comfortable telling the person so to their face.
To tell the world that someone is just short of a pedophile and be unable to own it – and when watching tape of it, not even confronting the person in real life -- is a deeply uncivil act. Ideally, Lauer’s interview with West should be shown at diversity seminars as a lesson on the tempting moral detours lurking amidst what begins as higher wisdom.