Jeff Chang: It’s Bigger Than Politics, the Real Shift is Cultural

Jamilah King Nov 5, 2010

In the wake of this week’s election, we talked to scholar and ColorLines co-founder Jeff Chang about what to make of the country’s big shifts and shakedowns. The author of “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation” and “Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop”, Chang’s used to looking at the bigger picture. He’s got two new books due out next year, one of which, Who We Be: The Colorization of America takes a look at how culture impacts, and often precedes, political change. Here, he sheds some much needed light on what’s happening politically, and where we’re headed in the future.

First, let’s get some historical context. What makes this political moment so potentially galvanizing for young voters of color? Aren’t we supposed to be “post-racial”?

The culture wars are back, and they have targeted a new generation. To me, Sharron Angle’s “you look Asian to me” moment was a perfect example. Pundits and bloggers focused on the stupidity of her comment, but the discussion was prompted by a Chicano student who was calling her out on her anti-immigration commercials that featured criminalized brown youths. Angle’s defense—I’m so colorblind, I can’t even tell what race you are—was not just hilarious, it was brutal in its dishonesty. The ads that the students objected to were far from colorblind.

For the right, this election proved—from Rand Paul to Jan Brewer—that racialized appeals to older white voters still mobilize, that the culture wars still work. The upside is that in Nevada, Chicano and Latino voters and young voters flipped the race for Reid, who had been several points down in the days leading up to the election.

Young voters, particularly those of color, really rallied behind Obama in 2008. There’s been a lot of talk of how that support is quickly eroding. What needs to be done to once again strengthen that electoral base?

Obama did fairly well by youth. He passed an outstanding student loan overhaul package that will immediately help access to higher education, especially in this era of skyrocketing public school tuition. Perhaps he could have sold it better. But his communications failure was a sign of a larger failure. Going on MTV was good. Barnstorming college campuses was good. Sending a message of “Vote or die” in 2010 was not good. What Obama failed to do for young people was what he failed to do for his base, because youths are now definitively seen as his base: offer a positive progressive vision for the next 2 years.

You’ve written about the cultural and demographic shifts that are currently changing the country’s electorate. Those shifts have already been exploited in, say, marketing. Why hasn’t that shift really been seen in politics yet?

This is what I mean about the larger failure. Obama’s 2008 election marked the culmination of a cultural shift—the arrival of a new cultural majority—that he does not yet seem to grasp.

Culture always moves before politics. Think of how Jackie Robinson’s Major League debut preceded Brown vs. Board of Education, or how Ellen Degeneres’ coming-out preceded court rulings on same-sex marriage and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Cultural change is often the dress-rehearsal for political change. Or put in another way, political change is the final manifestation of cultural shifts that have already occurred.

Sadly most progressives—whether they work in electoral politics or movement politics—have not yet figured culture into their theory of change. Unlike the right, they have no cultural strategy.

You’ve also written about how “race has been the recurring ‘wedge issue’ that overwhelms reasoned discussion.” We’ve seen that play out recently in places like Arizona and Texas. What’s really feeding these folks’ anxieties?

The same old same old. Boomers are 75 percent white, while those are under 18 will become a majority non-white in the next decade or so. The frontlines of the new culture wars will not be in Washington, D.C. and New York City, but the states where there is the greatest disparity in racial proportions between the generations. Brookings Institute demographer William Frey points out that Arizona, Nevada, California, Texas, New Mexico, and Florida top the list. These will be the real battleground states in the years to come.

The battleground issues will be immigration and education. These are where Boomers’ fears of “redistribution” are most keenly felt. We should not be surprised when the right begins to pit education against so-called “entitlement programs” like pensions, Medicare, and Social Security. Health care could actually become an issue that unites generations.

The point is that it is no longer enough for progressives to talk about the race cut. We must also begin talking about the generational cut.

It seems like President Obama was much more willing to speak candidly about race before he took office. In fact, he’s pretty much admitted that as president, he’s got to work on behalf of “all Americans.” We saw that play out especially during the whole “beer summit” debacle, when he backed down from his criticism of Cambridge police officers. How complicit has the Obama administration been in feeding into the right’s race baiting?

It’s easy to say “very complicit.” It’s hard to say what Obama himself can do about it. The administration, however, treats race the way it treats “the professional left.” It is sensitive to being perceived as too left, too pro-people of color. So when Attorney General Eric Holder began speaking about dealing with race, he was quickly pulled back to the right. The Shirley Sherrod incident illustrated definitively that the administration is on a hair-trigger on the public perception of being cast as a “pro-people of color” administration. There is no doubt that, behind the scenes, the administration is pushing forward with needed reforms.

But the most damaging way that their hyper-sensitivity has affected people of color has been around immigration, where the Obama administration has been more aggressive in enforcement and deportations, even as it is suing Gov. Jan Brewer. Here the administration’s triangulation has slowly become strangulation. Progressives of color have an important role to play in counter-pressuring the administration.

Artists played a huge role in galvanizing young folks to vote in 2008, and crafting the narrative that their participation was about more than just politics as usual. What positive artistic movements do you see happening that aren’t getting enough attention?

There are so many. Mel Chin has been teaching and organizing students and communities across the country about the issue of lead in soil. He’s hoping that his Fundred Dollar Bill project will bring federal attention to the post-Katrina environmental disaster in New Orleans, and secure a commitment for clean-up efforts there and across the country.

Re:Form School was a massive art exhibition organized by Yosi Sergant in New York City to stimulate discussion around educational reform, featuring hundreds of visual artists like Swoon, WK Interact, Cody Hudson, and many more, and appearances by the Roots and Lupe Fiasco.

The Life Is Living Project goes further than an event into modeling what we call a “creative ecosystem.” Life Is Living offers day-long youth-oriented, environmental justice-keyed festivals across the country that have evolved into spaces for long-term community-building collaborations to occur between community artists, activists, organizations, and institutions.

The project I am most engaged in is an effort inspired by The Sound Strike boycott of Arizona. Now visual artists and writers are joining the musicians to organize themselves not just to boycott, but to help surface the narratives of people, especially youths, affected by the crisis and to support the grassroots efforts to overturn SB 1070 and secure immigrant rights and the rights of people of color. The specific project I am working on is Wordstrike, to organize writers, journalists, authors, and poets. But we are all incredibly excited about the possibilities of working with the musicians and the artists to support the organizers.

The Roots have infamously called our current moment the “post-hope era.” How can Barack Obama’s campaign narratives around “hope” and “change” be resurrected?

In 2007 and 2008, Obama was the microphone, but he was not the song. He was the page, not the text. He called himself “an imperfect vessel for your hopes and dreams.” And it’s clear that he still does not grasp the significance of the new cultural majority that elected him. The fact is that neither do we. The new cultural majority has not disappeared or shifted to the right. They stayed home this election. Obama did not reach them. We did not reach them.

One thing progressives need to do is to understand the importance of expressing our hopes and dreams in narratives. Progressives misunderstand culture. The right is clear about it—Beck, Brietbart, and O’Reilly were long in the creation; they are the products of a four-decade long conservative movement building initiative. We need to build up an infrastructure that includes cultural strategy. We focus on facts and figures, but stories are what move the country. Culture is where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change. It is where the national imagination gets moved. So we need cultural strategy.

We also need to take the long view. Electoral politics is episodic, short-term, and transactional. Movement-building must be constant, long-term, and transformative. It is not a cyclical task. It is work that reaches toward the horizon.

This article was originally published on ColorLines.

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