One of the most important values in American society is to be “cool.” A highly regimented society creates the illusion of individual authenticity and then mass produces it. Because the people who actually run the country value conformity more than anything else, the “cool” platform has been conceded to everyone from Dennis Rodman to Al Capone.
Just think how rare it was to see women wearing tattoos or men wearing pants below their waists. Watching Barack Obama and John McCain before the NAACP convention and several Latino groups before them was about a battle for the mantle of “cool.” One would think the I-pod listening Obama would be a hands down favorite, but McCain was been working the Steve McQueen angle for decades and isn’t giving up without a fight.
Among African-Americans exclusively though, a subtle shift is occurring. The battle against conforming to a racist system has been commodified into clip-on dreads and a conscious revulsion to the English language. Forty years ago, it was a rite of passage to go to jail for a demonstration. Now the rites of passage happen in prison.
As a mass communications theorist, I’ve watched the imagery turn anti-social nonconformity into a social control mechanism. It once was necessary to bar African-Americans from schools, but it is simpler just to convince them that education is not necessary for a life as a rapper. So the players are getting played.
The folks at the top have seen what happened when Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Bill Russell and Tiger Woods got a chance to compete. The idea that we would seriously go after economic power is too horrible to contemplate.
Polls that most whites do not have a positive opinion of Democratic candidate Obama indicate how messy the presidential election will be, with all manner of mudslinging even beyond what the New Yorker could imagine. But his most enduring legacy will be that he has kept his cool throughout the process just like Robinson and Owens before him.
And a whole new class of scholarly, well-spoken African-Americans not before visible on media has been rounded up to talk about a variety of issues. Some say its a new generation, but Alain Locke, Ernest Just and Paul Laurence Dunbar could have represented just as well had they had the opportunity.
With enough repetition, will we see another culture shift towards contemplation and forward-thinking?
Maybe even Rodman will go back to grad school!