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Singing the Blues All the Way to the Bank

ISSUE:  Winter 1995

The Rage of a Privileged Class. By Ellis Cose. HarperCollins. $20.00.

That yet another book makes a case for how and why racism pulls at the national fabric is hardly news, but when its title purposefully cobbles “rage” with “privilege” and its author goes on to argue that behind the trappings of success—Ivy League educations, six-figure incomes, magisterial homes—middle-class blacks are both angry and disillusioned, what are those of us who had hoped for quite a different conclusion to do? For if the Civil Rights Movement is written off as a failure and the fruits of affirmative action programs are as bitter as Ellis Cose suggests, then the distinctions between the inner-cities and the suburbs no longer matter and we are in deeper trouble than even the likes of Andrew Hacker (Two Nations) or Studs Terkel (Race) had suspected when they published their studies of America’s deteriorating racial climate only four short years ago. Granted, the case for hand-wringing despair is simultaneously as old as Alex De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1865) and as recent as the Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992). Pessimism, in short, has its permanent attractions, not the least being that where racial matters are concerned, it seems always a safer bet. What Cose adds to the grim prophecies already in is a focus on those blacks who discovered rather late in the game that the usual yardsticks of the American dream—hard work and achievement, material success and psychic well-being—do not apply to them, because no matter how many prestigious degrees they collect or how large a salary they command, the indignities of second-class citizenship continue to sting. As Mayor David Dinkins put it, in words meant to echo Malcolm X’s famous quip about black Ph.D.s, a black millionaire is finally nothing more than “a nigger with a million dollars.” And as such, he can look forward to cabs whizzing past him on Manhattan streets or to the very real possibility of being rousted by the cops when he stops at a suburban Seven-Eleven for milk and eggs.

The Rage of a Privileged Class’s provocative title is followed by two sub-titled questions: “Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry?” and “Why Should America Care?” The burden of his study, then, is first to explain the rage bubbling just beneath those putatively successful blacks who spend their lives staring upward at corporate glass ceilings, and then to budge white Americans from the denial best typified by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s feeling that the black middle class was “moving along quite nicely” and that the big problem is “what are we going to do about the underclass?” My hunch is that a good many Americans, both white and black, share Moynihan’s view that “rage” is more appropriate when applied to the meaner streets of South Central L.A. than it is to the manicured lawns of New Rochelle and that urban crime matters more than tears shed onto silken pillowcases.

Cose, I hasten to add, is well aware of the objections his thesis will raise, but he insists that the troubles of the black underclass do not— indeed, must not—cancel out the justifiable anger felt by those who have “moved on up,” for

… though the problems of the two classes are not altogether the same, they are in some respects linked. Moreover, one must at least consider the possibility that a nation which embitters those struggling hardest to believe in it and work within its established systems is seriously undermining any effort to provide would-be hustlers and dope dealers with an attractive alternative to the streets.

But even if one takes Cose at his word and moves from abject denial to a serious consideration of how the fates of black overachievers and potential dope dealers are linked, what would be the result? Does he, for example, really believe that the unhappiness he documents among those blacks who labor—however unappreciated or unpromoted—for Fortune 500 companies has much to say to a black drop-out contemplating a life among the Crips and Bloods? Indeed, for all my quarrels with the Nation of Islam, I suspect Louis Farrakahn has a much sounder grip on what urban despair is and how one might address it.

Nonetheless, Cose’s reminders of how intransigent racial stereotypes are and how long the shadow of injustice is deserve our collective attention, if only because they force us to conduct the racial debate in other than the shouts and whispers that, thus far, have dominated the discussion. In this regard, Ed Koch, yet another former New York City mayor Cose interviewed in the making of his book, is dead right: many whites fear that “if they talk honestly they’ll be called a racist,” while many blacks, he conjectured, were scared “they’d be called Uncle Toms.” Indeed, one need go no further than affirmative action to hit upon a topic that has produced more than its share of shouts-and-whispers, but precious little thoughtful discussion. Here, Cose is an exception, not only because he readily admits that “like many black professionals, I find myself profoundly ambivalent on the question of affirmative action. I don’t believe that it works very well, nor that it can be made to satisfy much of anyone,” but also because he understands that “affirmative action has been made the scapegoat for a host of problems that many Americans simply don’t wish to face up to; and that while a huge and largely phony public debate has raged over whether affirmative action is good or bad, the reality is much more nuanced and complex.”

Once again, denial is Cose’s watchword, as dozens of interviewees document his case that white America “just don’t get it” in terms of just how pissed-off many middle-class blacks are. So we have the case of the trade association vice president who was given responsibility for little more than “minority affairs” or the partner in a law firm who contrasts the world of the sixties (where “you knew white people didn’t like black folks”) with the current situation in which race prejudice has been driven underground in ways both more subtle and more treacherous.

Cose, a contributing editor and essayist for Newsweek, brings considerable journalistic skills to the portraits-in-pain he assembles, but he is hardly a sociologist in the mold of an Andrew Hacker or even an oral historian like, say, Studs Terkel. For while those writers make some effort to be even-handed, Cose selects his “evidence” in ways that stack the cards and lead one to conclude that there is not a single reasonably happy member among the tens of thousands numbered in the black middle class. To be sure, those with a modicum of experience in corporate America, as well as those who keep their eye on the talk show circuit, know better, for if one thing is true about minorities, it is that they do not think, or act, in lockstep. Moreover, although Cose insists that “it seemed a blessing … that their good humor and high spirits had survived,” the testimonies he recounts show little evidence of either. What we have, instead, are anecdotes filled with hurt and humiliation, smashed dreams and bitter memories. As a word, rage figured less prominently in their accounts than did, say, “shock,” but, taken together, rage is what the interviews come to.

No doubt Cose figured that, given the focus on his study, a certain amount of overemphasis was necessary; but I think he may have collected as many liabilities as assets in the process. For the plain truth is that, with enough encouragement, each of us could come up with evidence that life can be unfair or at least not all we had imagined it would be, even with hard work and dedication on our part. None of us, black or white, lives in paradise, and I further suspect that most adults know this. Moreover, the black adults I know strike me as far more realistic, and certainly far more resilient, than the pampered, whining types who often figure in Cose’s narratives.

Do my last sentences put me squarely in the camp of the deniers? I think not, partly because I agree with Cose about the largely covert turn that racism has taken, and partly because I know its subtle manifestations can, and do, take their toll on the human spirit. Where we differ is in our sense of balancing how much has been accomplished against how much yet needs to be done, and where our priorities with regard to the latter ought to be. True enough, the Civil Rights Movement has not ushered in the milennium. Perhaps the dream Martin Luther King, Jr. dared to dream, and that millions dreamed along with him, will forever escape a country so deeply, tragically, rooted in the soil of racism. But Cose will have to forgive me for feeling that efforts to close the gap between our ideals as a nation and our less than noble conduct are still worth the making; and that the very stories he serves up as cautionary tales strike me as more akin to inspirations. For if opportunity and hard work have led to the spectacular careers he chronicles, surely the possibility of further progress in the difficult business of talking to each other exists.

Here, our viewspoints may not be so far apart after all, for Cose ends his book by arguing that the civil rights debate has been “distorted by strategies designed to engender guilt” and that a more intelligent debate might result if the slate were somehow to be magically wiped clean. History suggests that this is probably a tall order, but one worth trying if only because Cose is surely right when he insists that racism is less a construct than a quotidian condition, and that “the often hurtful and seemingly trivial encounters of daily existence are in the end what most of life is.” One would not easily encounter such a well-turned, and deeply human, phrase in a scholarly tome on racism, and even though I continue to feel that black life, like all life, includes much more than one hurtful encounter piled atop another, I am grateful that the listening and the dialogue Close recommends has at long last begun.


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