This piece suffers from a certain vulgar Weberian cultral essentialism, but it still provides food for thought as for how different layers of society (as opposed to classes per se) think of themselves.
Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn’t that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up (laughter and clapping ). Isn’t it a sign of something when she’s got her dress all the way up to the crack…and got all kinds of needles and things going through her body. What part of Africa did this come from? (laughter). We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans, they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail.
Bill Cosby, 2004
NYPD critics . . . erroneously assert that the police are racially biased in making stops, ignoring the fact that we focus police resources where spikes in violent crime are the highest, and where last year 96% of shooting victims were minorities, mainly young men of color.
From a March 18, 2012 official NYPD press release titled “New York Times is Wrong: NYPD Lawfully Thwarts Terror & Suppresses Violence”
In the last post, your humble host made a passing, parenthetical reference to a phenomenon he labeled Cosbyism. Cosbyism is an ideology that says black people in America, particularly the younger generation, have nobody to blame but themselves for the fact that their schools are underfunded and crumbling, they can’t get a job, they get harassed and worse by cops all the time, their wealth evaporated into thin air after the housing bubble burst, and so on and so forth.
Cosbyism is a variation on the classic American rugged individualism of Horatio Alger novels, but with an important twist: the traditional idea held that individual moral failings are the cause of one’s poverty and lack of upward mobility and that therefore individual personal responsibility was the solution. Cosbyism, however, holds that black people have failed collectively, as a race, to achieve the American dream, but it nonetheless holds each black individual responsible for pulling up his or her pants, turning off the TV, saying ask instead of ax, “looking like a prospect instead of a suspect,” and doing whatever else is necessary to endear himself or herself to America’s ruling white capitalist power structure.
White people, even white people who appear regularly on Fox news, will seldom if ever publicly espouse Cosbyist talking points because the racism that is inherent in the Cosbyist line of thinking becomes impossible to deny when such talking points come out of white lips. Instead, you see various “leaders” of the black community saying these things, and that somehow makes it ok, as though changing the messenger somehow changes the message.
The intellectual history of Cosbyism is part of the intellectual history of neoliberalism more generally but is a product, more specifically, of the “broken windows” theory of crime control that criminologist James Q. Wilson conceived of in the 1980s and NYC Police Commissioner Bill Bratton implemented in the early 1990s. New York in those days had a lot of character. Subway trains were covered in graffiti, giant boomboxes blasted Gang Starr, Public Enemy, and A Tribe Called Quest, Times Square was obscene, squeegee men serviced car windows at every major intersection, and Washington Square Park was an open air supermarket for dope. The 1% felt at the time that the city was impossible for them to govern. Somebody had to clean it up, make it safe again for tourists, yuppies, Mickey Mouse, and Elmo.
The savior our social betters were looking for was a man named Rudolph W. Giuliani. Giuliani become mayor in 1993 by posturing himself as the tribune of the NYPD and of the ethnic white communities in the outer boroughs from which most NYC cops hailed. He had lost his previous bid for mayor to David Dinkins in 1989, who then became NYC’s first black mayor. The ferocious degree to which the city’s predominantly Irish and Italian police force resented having to answer to a black man in City Hall equaled if not surpassed the Tea Party’s racially tinged hatred of President Obama. Giuliani won in 1993 by stoking this white ethnic working-class resentment while simultaneously telling the city’s financial and business elite that unleashing that resentment on poor black communities in the Bronx and East New York was the key to cleaning up the city and making it open for business once more.
Yet Giuliani was smart enough to avoid sounding like George Wallace with a Brooklyn accent when justifying his police department’s new reign of racial terror to the liberal media, and here’s where Wilson’s “broken windows” theory came very much in handy. That theory attributes high crime levels in a neighborhood not to poverty, lack of opportunity, or underinvestment, but rather to superficial aesthetic deficiencies like broken windows or graffiti-covered walls and more generally to the social acceptance in those neighborhoods of trivially minor crimes like smoking a joint, taking a leak in a dark alleyway, or jaywalking. If society imposes draconian punishments on these de minimis offenses, the neighborhood will look cleaner, people will have more respect for authority, and therefore the incidence of truly serious, violent felonies will drop, and then maybe one day a Starbucks will move in. Liberals, particularly the white ones, love Starbucks, so they never objected to broken windows policing. To them, the end really did justify the means. To this day, there has never been a Democrat mayor of New York City since Dinkins.
It was now Giuliani Time, which meant that if you were black, you could be lawfully walking down the street minding your own business when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, cops might haul you into the station and stick a plunger up your ass or unload a number of rounds into you that would put the Corleone family out of business. Whenever something like this happened, the mayor would go on TV and reflexively defend the cops before doing everything he could to defame your character, including illegally unsealing your juvenile record in order to prove that because you were caught playing hooky twice, you were “no altar boy.”
After 9/11 happened, the there was a lot of scrutiny on how the NYPD was treating Muslims, and rightfully so, but little awareness of the department’s new “stop-and-frisk” policy. Bloomberg was now mayor, and the Starbucks-drinking, Sex-and-the-City TEVOing liberal class didn’t seem to take offense to an unabashed plutocrat the same way they took offense to a thinly-veiled bigot like Giuliani. The term “stop-and-frisk” is familiar to any law student who ever had to read Terry v. Ohio for a criminal procedure class. Terry was a case about a cop in downtown Cleveland who saw two suspicious figures looking like they were casing a store they intended to rob. The cop didn’t have probable cause to make an arrest, but he stopped them briefly and patted down the outside of their clothing to see if they were armed. The Supreme Court said this is ok, as long as the cop’s suspicion is “reasonable,” even in the absence of probable cause. This has been the law since the late 60s.
Under Bloomberg, however, such “reasonable” suspicion is no longer individualized–it is the black community in its entirety that is under suspicion, and the NYPD claims, if not in these exact words, that its suspicion of the black community is “reasonable” because, well, they’re black. They then cite some kind of statistic about black-on-black crime and shed crocodile tears over the victims of such crimes. Their private Facebook pages, meanwhile, say something different entirely.
What happened with the NYPD in the last 20 years has happened in police departments nationwide, but communications technology has only very recently enabled videotaped evidence of “broken windows” policing’s excesses to spread to millions instantly. The economic downturn, meanwhile, has caused a lot of white folks for the first time in their lives to get uppity with the State. All last fall, Americans saw footage of a mostly white crowd chanting “fuck the police!” and even identifying themselves with the black victims of broken windows policing (“We are all Sean Bell, NYPD go to hell!”). It is unclear how many of these uppity white folks realized that their loud, aggressive, and vulgar professions of solidarity with black America in the face of police repression was itself a product of of the “courtesy, professionalism and respect” which white America reserves exclusively for its own malcontents. Much of black America, however, and the youth in particular, must have viewed Occupy Wall Street with a mixture of elation and trepidation–elation at the change that was seemingly around the corner in this new radical period we’re living in but fear of personally being an agent of that change after a lifetime of repression that had been invisible outside their own communities. After all, white people getting loud and disorderly in America may be a political inconvenience for our rulers, but black people doing the same is grounds for calling out the National Guard.
Which brings us to Trayvon Martin, a young man who lived his life, it seems, according to the Cosbyist playbook. Martin’s friends say he never picked a fight in his life. He was wearing his hoodie on the night he was shot for its intended purpose–it was raining. His shooter, meanwhile, was a wannabe cop whom the police academy probably rejected as too overzealous. The housing crisis had hit central Florida hard, and lots of foreclosed homes in Sanford were selling for dirt cheap, which meant that the gated community George Zimmerman was so altruistically protecting had grown considerably more racially integrated in recent years. In seeking to emulate a real police officer, Zimmerman copied the aggressive, authoritarian, “broken windows” style of policing that he saw real police officers practicing. And here’s the rub. Black bodies have one thing in common with broken windows and graffiti-covered walls: all three bring down property values in a neighborhood. In this sense, the free market is, quite literally, a bigot.
When a young man comes to realize that he is the broken window the system is perpetually trying to eradicate, when he realizes that pulling up his pants is not the same thing as pulling himself up by his bootstraps and that speaking the king’s English will only make the nobility despise him all the more passionately, when he sees the middle-class utopia that has from time immemorial defined itself by excluding him suddenly crumbling to dust and its citizens in open revolt, it is not inconceivable that he will from all of this conclude that it is well past time to exercise his God-given right to be just as uppity as these white folks in the Missouri GOP caucuses in the video below got when they found themselves suddenly disenfranchised.
[Mitt Romney] and his friends at Bain were bad guys. Any real capitalists should disavow Romney’s ‘creative destruction’ model that made him wealthy at the expense of thousands of American jobs.
–Independent political attack ad supporting Newt Gingrich’s campaign
“I will suggest [private equity firms are] just vultures[.] They’re vultures that are sitting out there on the tree limb, waiting for a company to get sick. And then they swoop in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that and they leave the skeleton.”
–Rick Perry, January 9, 2012
Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
–Bruce Springsteen, 1984
Those who continue to remind us that Mitt Romney’s professed penchant for being able to fire people was taken out of context, that the GOP frontrunner was making a comment about consumer choice in health insurance (which, by the way, has about as much to do with reality as unicorns) that we have no right to read further into, are insulting our intelligence. The Obama camp’s intention of framing a general election campaign against Romney as a Main Street vs. Wall Street thing–a kind of Bowdlerized answer to Occupy–is not exactly classified information.
The Democrat establishment believes that the 99 percent (the Great Unwashed to whom they must pander every four years) does not currently grasp intellectually such concepts as “private equity,” “leveraged buyout,” and “hostile takeover.” It all must seem to simple folks in the heartland like some mysterious shit guys in suits do with their cellphones somewhere in Manhattan. After all, if American voters did by and large understand that stuff, there never would have been Reagan Democrats and NASCAR dads, right?
Running against Romney is supposedly going to shine the light, at long last, on the connection between those sorry yokels hoarding a lifetime’s worth of cheap merchandise on reality TV and the guys in suits hoarding the cash that said yokels exchanged for said merchandise. Romney could have used any number of metaphors to make his point; his instinct was to go with what is most familiar to him: firing people.
Romney has thereby hastened an event that was inevitably destined to happen at some point this election year. That event is the sudden and violent decoupling of “job creator” and “capitalist” in the mind of the American electorate. By instantly jumping on the statement as a political admission against interest, conflating in the process his record as a private businessman with his record as an elected official, Romney’s more-conservative-than-thou rivals have put themselves in the embarrassing position of sounding a lot like Michael Moore.
But what’s a right-winger to do when adherence to free market principles interferes with the competitive instinct of the individual to exploit every opportunity that presents itself for short-term gain? Fomenting a little old-fashioned proletarian class warfare in the service of a regressive and reactionary agenda is a time-honored tradition that dates back to Europe during the Depression. Hitler, after all, didn’t call his party the National Libertarians.
Time will only tell whether Gingrich et al. continue to run against Romney’s success as a corporate raider as opposed to his failure as a politician. What is certain, however, is that what is now called the “dark side of private equity” is on the table for political debate in households all over the country, and voters don’t like what they’re learning about what the guys in suits talking on cellphones have been doing to their future for the past thirty years.
But can either Obama or Romney’s GOP rivals really run against the King of Bain in this way without running against private equity itself? And can they really run against private equity without running against capitalism? It’s not as though what Romney did at Bain was public policy. He saw an opportunity to get rich and he took it. Ain’t that the American way?
It would be one thing if this was simply a moral question about the past–something akin to Trent Lott’s sympathizing with Strom Thurmond’s defense of segregation–that is a teachable moment but has no contemporary political or social relevance. Private equity, corporate predation, and mass layoffs however, still happen. All of the giant firms that
survived the crash of got bailed out after 2008 are gobbling up the carnage as we speak. And if you look at the people Obama actually surrounds himself with, they are nothing other than the new Mitt Romneys, Wall Street scumbags gorging themselves without any restraint.
Now that the 99 percent are on the move, the traditional pandering tactics that we have grown accustomed to all our lives are suddenly fraught with peril for those who would govern. You’re not hallucinating; that flag you saw the guy waving at the NASCAR race was red and it had a hammer and sickle on it.