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Springsteen, Eminem and "The Huxtable Effect"

05/08/2012 09:23 am ET | Updated Jul 08, 2012
  • Craig Werner Professor of Afro-American Studies, English and Integrated Liberal Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

In his fast-paced, funny and sometimes frustratingly glib book Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now -- Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything, David Sirota introduces "The Huxtable Effect," named for the affluent African-American family at the center of The Bill Cosby Show. A child of the 1980s who's openly critical of the cultural trends he identifies, Sirota describes the Huxtable Effect as the source of "two of the most deceptive arguments" supporting the idea that race can be "transcended":

The first says African Americans face no racial barriers that cannot be overcome by hard work, subservience, and allegedly universal white benevolence. The second asserts African Americans who do break those barriers are liberating themselves of their race and are therefore different and more laudable than typical black people.

As Sirota observes, this has unfolded into an ideology that erases serious discussion of race from our political culture. Barack Obama, to cite the most obvious example, "just happens to be black." The cost of mainstream success for African Americans is, as Sirota observes, accepting Cosby's strategic willingness to "leave all of that anger and controversy' about ongoing racism and racial disparities aside."

Considering Sirota's ideas in relation to "American Skin (41 Shots)" generated one of the best discussions of the semester in the "Bruce Springsteen's America" class that readers of this blog have been following for the past couple of months. By the end of the hour and fifteen minutes, we'd put Springsteen in dialogue with Eminem and, more importantly, cut through some of the mystifications that make it impossible for Americans to talk sense about race. To put the take-home message out front: anyone paying even the slightest attention to the world around them knows that the notion we've arrived in a "post-racial" society has absolutely nothing to do with reality.

Springsteen makes the point as clearly as it can be made in "American Skin," written in response to the killing of 23-year-old Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo by the New York City police.

"It ain't no secret, no secret my friend, you can get killed just for living in your American Skin." In context, Springsteen's meaning is clear: being black can get you killed.

But that's not what Springsteen sings. The skin in his song isn't black or brown, it's simply, chillingly, American. "American" isn't a synonym for "white;" the men and women who have been lynched, harassed and shot down over the years are as American as George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton. And anyone who thinks that violence will stay contained on the other side of the imaginary lines is -- Bruce and my students would probably put this more politely -- out of their fucking mind. That's what Malcolm X was saying when he described the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a case of the "chickens coming home to roost." Like the attacks on the Twin Towers, what happened to JFK can't be divorced from larger questions about the nature of American society. (That's not a justification, it's a difficult fact.)

The centerpiece of the class discussion sparked by "American Skin" was a complex elaboration on the way Bruce's song calls on us to think about race today. Perspectives varied greatly, largely reflecting whether students came from big cities, suburbs or small towns. But everyone recognized that there's a sharp line between those who feel like the police are there to protect them and those who try to avoid contact as much as possible. There's a clear contradiction between the Huxtable Effect claim that differences between people no longer matter and the reality that we're living in a world where blacks (and immigrants and youth who don't read "middle class" to the cops) are in real and present danger.

Does that mean nothing's really changed since Sirota's 1980s (which he traces to a mythic, and very white, 1950s)? My classroom experience tells me that's not the case. My millennial generation students who grew up (as Sirota notes) with Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey as its heroes, don't think or live race the same way mine (and Bruce's) did. Part of that's simple demographics, the growing presence and visibility of Latinos, Asian Americans, immigrants from across the globe. But part of it's a changing consciousness -- fueled by economic collapse and polarization -- among students who a generation ago would have thought of themselves uncritically as "white," heirs the American dream. They're not going to get the vocabulary to articulate their experience from American Idol or Fox, but they know something's wrong.

That's where Eminem comes into play. Class member (and blogger) Brian Moran was straightforward in claiming that his generation is willing to reject a "whiteness which is on its way out the door." For details on what that means, give a listen to "White America":

Eminem's not about to believe the Huxtable hype. Both his whiteness and producer Dr. Dre's blackness make a difference, albeit in different and changing ways. And he knows he's not the only young white who knows it. The concluding laughter and affirmation of love for America are a classic case of the blues wisdom that sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.

The meanings of race in America are changing. But, as Eminem and Springsteen know, that's not because huge numbers of African Americans are ascending into the deracinated dream world of the Huxtables. It's because more and more Americans of all races are discovering what most blacks haven't had the option not to know: that some of us count a hell of a lot more than others. That's a bedrock fact Springsteen has been aware of since he built "Incident on 57th Street" and "Jungleland" around a world where whites, blacks and Latinos walked the same streets. He doesn't have a simple answer to the issues he sets in front of us. But he knows as surely as Eminem that race matters. It's a problem he's been grappling with for more than forty years. I'll take that up in my next post.