Race in America, Race in Music: Different Trains, Same Two Tracks

'Bullseye' guitar (partial) found on

It's an American pop music creation myth: that blues and folk music developed along two distinct tracks, with their own distinct traditions, divided along racial lines. The truth is, of course, far more slippery and complicated.

Perhaps it is, as improbable as it may seem, that we Americans of other persuasions should owe the Tea Party movement some measure of gratitude for keeping an important issue in the mix of political discourse. However, that issue isn’t the one Tea Partiers rail about most often: it’s not taxation, or health care, or the role of government in people’s lives. In fact, it’s an issue they aren’t necessarily trying to engage, but one people can’t help engaging when dissecting a Tea Party event.

In case you haven’t noticed, most of the people at Tea Party get-togethers are white. Actually, damn near all of them are white. That wouldn’t be an issue in and of itself in many cases; damn near all of the people in the stands at a National Hockey League game are white, and that doesn’t set pundits and bloggers off looking for deeper meanings. Then again, hockey fans don’t generally show up to the rink carrying Photoshopped pictures of a black man with a Hitler mustache.

The lightness of the Tea Party movement is almost unbearable for more than a few commentators (see, for example, the Countdown with Keith Olbermann “special comment” I cited in my last column, Six Years in the Life of Post-Blackness (Or Not)). It’s a reasonably simple equation, but more than knotty enough to try to resolve. We’re faced with an essentially lily-white opposition movement against the policies of a president who happens to be black.

Much of the rhetoric at Tea Party events, while nowhere near as virulent as the hatred spewed by segregationists against the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, borders nonetheless on incitements to mass mayhem.The question becomes: how much of the anti-Obama antipathy churned up at Tea Party events is simply because they disagree with his political priorities? Or, given America’s long-standing history of racial divide, how much is it about the fact that a black man is their president?

Tea Partiers, for their part, will claim that it’s not about race at all, then go scurrying about to trot out a black face as window dressing for the cameras. This practice, of course, is nothing new. The Republican Party has done this for years, pimping the likes of Alan Keyes in hopelessly transparent attempts to broaden its base that have consistently failed (we’ll see if this year’s midterm elections bring about a change of fortune there; see Rich Benjamin’s 24 April Alternet article ”What’s Behind the Republicans Fielding 32 Black Candidates for Congress in 2010?). Nor is this phenomenon new or unique to politics; in the mid-'70s, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights produced an indictment of the TV news industry for its lack of black faces on the air, entitled “Window Dressing on the Set.”

However, all the Tea Party entreaties to color-blindness have failed to convince most of the liberal-left swath of the political spectrum. First, people have jumped all over popular Tea Party catchphrases like “taking my country back”, a reference to the population becoming more non-white by the day. More recently, a survey reported by Newsweek arms Tea Party critics with some empirical facts to back up their claims. ("Are Tea Partiers Racist?" by Arian Campo-Flores, 26 April 2010) The University of Washington study found Tea Partiers 25 percent more likely than others to harbor a racial grudge.

Most Tea Partiers deny any hint of racial animosity, but a goodly number of them still insist that Obama was born somewhere outside of America, not the State of Hawaii as indicated on his birth certificate. If they continue to argue that fallacy, it’s legitimate to question their sincerity – not to mention their sanity – on other points where ethnicity and nationality come into question.

To be fair, it’s not that the Tea Partiers invented racial discord and disconnect just the other day, and there are some voices within the movement trying to dampen down the nutjobs (see ”Tea party groups battling perceptions of racism,” Washington Post, 5 May 2010). In fact, this whole conversation is serving as a reminder that racial tension didn’t go away from the core of the American psyche when Obama moved into the White House.

There have been other helpful reminders of said racial tension, of late. Kelefa Sanneh unpacked the long, strange trip of American whiteness in his New Yorker essay “Beyond the Pale” (12 April 2010) In an overview ranging from the Stuff White People Like blog to Nell Irvin Painter’s provocative new book The History of White People (W. W. Norton), Sanneh observed that the nature of white identity has been a work-in-progress in many respects, tent-poled by both racist and populist lines of reasoning. He’ll have to forgive those non-whites who, cognizant of

America's legacy of white racism and privilege, can’t find it within them to muster up much sympathy.

That number would likely include Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who took up Obama’s Census choice as “black”, as opposed to bi-racial in her column ”Black by Choice” (The Nation, 15 April 2010). In it, she saw that, white parentage aside, at the end of the day Obama’s solidarity rests with black Americans going all the way back to slavery. Patricia Williams followed that up with another The Nation piece, ”Not-Black by Default” (21 April 2010), picking up on Harris-Lacewell’s assertion that no matter what any group calls itself, the day-to-day realities forged by the actual power that group enjoys (or not) are far weightier than whatever might be in a name.

To drive that point home with tongue only slightly in cheek, Tim Wise’s widely circulated Don’t Tea on Me blog post “What If the Tea Party Were Black?” supposes that if black folk tried to do what Tea Partiers do (hold rallies, walk around with guns, tell the President of the United States to suck on it, that sort of thing), they’d be considered anything but a political movement deserving of a voice in the decision-making process.

However, to the extent to which race is a defining factor in American life, it isn’t confined to thoughtful articles in highbrow or left-leaning publications. It’s been right here in front of us for the last 80 years or so, hiding in plain sight in the pop music charts.

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