On the Backs of Blacks
Fresh from Ellis Island, Stavros gets a job shining shoes at Grand Central Terminal. It is the last scene of Elia Kazan’s film America, America, the story of a young Greek’s fierce determination to immigrate to America. Quickly, but as casually as an afterthought, a young black man, also a shoe shiner, enters and tries to solicit a customer. He is run off the screen — “Get out of here! We’re doing business here!” — and silently disappears.
This interloper into Stavros’ workplace is crucial in the mix of signs that make up the movie’s
happy-ending immigrant story: a job, a straw hat, an infectious smile — and a scorned black. It
is the act of racial contempt that transforms this charming Greek into an entitled white. Without it, Stavros’ future as an American is not at all assured.
This is race talk, the explicit insertion into everyday life of racial signs and symbols that have no meaning other than pressing African Americans to the lowest level of the racial hierarchy. Popular culture, shaped by film, theater, advertising, the press, television and literature, is heavily engaged in race talk. It participates freely in this most enduring and efficient rite of passage into American culture: negative appraisals of the native-born black population. Only when the lesson of racial estrangement is learned is assimilation complete. Whatever the lived experience of immigrants with African Americans — pleasant, beneficial or bruising — the rhetorical experience renders blacks as noncitizens, already discredited outlaws.
All immigrants fight for jobs and space, and who is there to fight but those who have both? As in the fishing ground struggle between Texas and Vietnamese shrimpers, they displace what and whom they can. Although U.S. history is awash in labor battles, political fights and property
wars among all religious and ethnic groups, their struggles are persistently framed as struggles
between recent arrivals and blacks. In race talk the move into mainstream America always
means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens. Whatever the ethnicity or
nationality of the immigrant, his nemesis is understood to be African American.
Current attention to immigration has reached levels of panic not seen since the turn of the
century. To whip up this panic, modern race talk must be revised downward into obscurity and
nonsense if antiblack hostility is to remain the drug of choice, giving headlines their kick.
PATTERNS OF IMMIGRATION FOLLOWED BY WHITE FLIGHT, screams the Star-Ledger in Newark. The message we are meant to get is that disorderly newcomers are dangerous to stable (white) residents. Stability is white. Disorder is black. Nowhere do we learn what stable middle-class blacks think or do to cope with the “breaking waves of immigration.” The overwhelming majority of African Americans, hardworking and stable, are out of the loop, disappeared except in their less than covert function of defining whites as the “true” Americans.
So addictive is this ploy that the fact of blackness has been abandoned for the theory of
blackness. It doesn’t matter anymore what shade the newcomer’s skin is. A hostile posture
toward resident blacks must be struck at the Americanizing door before it will open. The public
is asked to accept American blacks as the common denominator in each conflict between an
immigrant and a job or between a wannabe and status. It hardly matters what complexities,
contexts and misinformation accompany these conflicts. They can all be subsumed as the
equation of brand X vs. blacks.
But more than a job is at stake in this surrender to whiteness, more even than what the black
intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois called the “psychological wage” — the bonus of whiteness. Racist
strategies unify. Savvy politicians always include in the opening salvos of their campaigns a
quick clarification of their position on race. It is a mistake to think that Bush’s Willie Horton or Clinton’s Sister Souljah was anything but a candidate’s obligatory response to the demands of a contentious electorate unable to understand itself in any terms other than race. Warring
interests, nationalities and classes can be merged with the greatest economy under that racial
Race talk as bonding mechanism is powerfully on display in American literature. When Nick in
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby leaves West Egg to dine in fashionable East Egg, his host
conducts a kind of class audition into WASP-dom by soliciting Nick’s support for the “science”
of racism. “If we don’t look out the white race will be . . . utterly submerged,” he says. “It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” It makes Nick uneasy, but he does not question or refute his host’s convictions.
The best clue to what the country might be like without race as the nail upon which American
identity is hung comes from Pap, in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, who upon learning a
Negro could vote in Ohio, “drawed out. I says I’ll never vote ag’in.” Without his glowing white
mask he is not American; he is Faulkner’s character Wash, in Absalom, Absalom!, who, stripped
of the mask and treated like a “nigger,” drives a scythe into the heart of the rich white man he
has loved and served so completely.
For Pap, for Wash, the possibility that race talk might signify nothing was frightening. Which
may be why the harder it is to speak race talk convincingly, the more people seem to need it. As
American blacks occupy more and more groups no longer formed along racial lines, the
pressure accelerates to figure out what white interests really are. The enlisted military is almost one-quarter black; police forces are blackening in large urban areas. But welfare is nearly two-thirds white; affirmative-action beneficiaries are overwhelmingly white women;
dysfunctional white families jam the talk shows and court TV.
The old stereotypes fail to connote, and race talk is forced to invent new, increasingly mindless
ones. There is virtually no movement up — for blacks or whites, established classes or arrivistes — that is not accompanied by race talk. Refusing, negotiating or fulfilling this demand is the real stuff, the organizing principle of becoming an American. Star spangled. Race strangled.