Hanging With Mr. Cooper

A day in the life.

Bertrand Cooper fits the profile. Except like most of us, he actually doesn’t. He has one of those rags to riches biographies that make people squirt their pants, and he’s the genuine article. We had sandwiches in SkidRokio Los Angeles recently, and he reminded me of how fortunate I have been to meet interesting people in my life.

If you haven’t heard of Bertrand Cooper, he is most famous for his recently published essay and continuing work on the difference and distance between the assumptions about black Americans as representative of the socially and economically indigent and the facts about those who actually are. Or in his case, those who actually were. He echoes with a bit less sentiment and more accurate statistics a story I have worn into the dirt. I say that in 1960, there were 20 million Negroes and the majority of them were poor, but in 2000 there were almost twice that many and the majority of them are middle class. He says stuff like:

If what occurred with 9th graders in 2020 held approximately true during the years preceding the 2017-2018 school year, it would mean that Black students raised in poverty received about 15 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black students that year. By extension, the other 85 percent of those degrees went to Black students raised in the middle- and upper- classes. In total, Black students from poor families received 1.4 percent of all the bachelor’s degrees handed out in 2020; the other 98.6 percent of those degrees went to students from other backgrounds. 

But one of the most favorite things he has said definitely updates my cache of demography. In the matter of concentration of wealth, the top 10% of all [white] Americans own about 44% of all the wealth. Yet within black America, the top 10% own 71% of all their wealth. Even more stunning to the conventional wisdom is that a good 30% of black American households are doing at least 70k in annual income or better. In other words when we talk about poverty and wealth we are extrapolating all the wrong takeaways to ‘inform’ our talk and politics about black America.

A good fraction of that disinformation is actually created by the likes of what I call the Isbell Theory, with a hat tip to another extraordinary friend of mine who is running things at Georgia Tech. He said back in the 90s that black America isn’t looking for a black leader, white Americans are looking for a black leader so that they can answer the perennial Negro Problem question: What do you people want? They can get one answer and make a socially resonant statement and then return to their ordinary lives. Case closed. Issue resolved.

Cooper recognizes the circularity of the supply and demand aspects to this Negro Problem Economy. Each generation has a sociopolitical imperative to raise and sustain a racial complaint. Each generation has a sociopolitical obligation to understand and address that racial complaint. The more successful the supply, the more successful the demand. A greater fool’s market regardless of the underlying fundamentals. These are the economics of the Grievance Studies matter that has swamped the humanities, and is substantial in the raison d’etre of my participation in the IDW and the Foundation for Free Black Thought. I’m trying to inject some deflationary diversification into your conceptual portfolio. If you needed a slightly more sophisticated explanation of exactly why Black Lives Matter (tm), then now you know. But you also could know that those like St. George only represent a small fraction of black Americans. As one who lived it, Bertrand Cooper will tell you that only about 15% of black America is actually living in poverty. With black Americans comprising about 13% of all America that comes to about 2% of America being that underclass everybody keeps talking about and Kendrick Lamar and Danny Glover keep rapping about as if it were the sum total of black culture.

Fortunately, like Uncle Phil in Bel Air, it’s trivially easy for me to be a 100% ‘authentic’ grown-ass man who pays zero attention to that entire sub-culture sub-genre posing as Black Culture. Young African Americans, like my own kids listening to Kid Kudi when the Sidekick was the coolest phone, were not so fortunate. They had to deal with the fact that they weren’t ghetto when it was cool for all kids to act ghetto, here in my upper middle class Southern California beach town. Some of the kids who did grow up that faux-ghetto way are now the darlings of the chatting class. Just enough to have classmates at USC Film School or some other Ivy League protégé machine. It’s not so much that I care for the ‘purity’ of capitalized black culture, it’s that I’m sick and tired of yet another rank of puffed up yuppies with no children of their own spamming Hollywood and the Humanities with their genuinely appropriated mockumentaries. We are not your people. So piss off, wankers; I’m reading Solzhenitsyn.

I should hasten to add that my own Talented Tenth upbringing helped to rapidly accelerate me to the point at which I discovered the futility of black racial political and ideological unity. This rescued me from the callow posing which is emblematic of all those studio gangstas and Ivy League role models. I had the role monkey experience that cured me. I told that cringe story to Mr. Cooper. Someday I may retell it here.

All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and re-create yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in fact - this may sound very strange - you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.
--James Baldwin

The bottom line is as it ever was, except that now those images are all over the interwebz if anyone would bother to pay attention to the non-drama of non-dysfunctional black American life.

I was able to recognize the extent to which screaming black cats were being thrown on the table some time ago. At one point, I declined any interest in items that fell beneath the level of interest of a Lynch Factor, which I defined as a conceptually consistent social conflict that directly lead to more than 3,000 dead. This is the number of people killed by lynching in the USA over a period of about 80-100 years give or take. I have put together all of the numbers for that in a public git repo here. This kept me from getting pulled into the Hunger Game mentality of statistical morality. While I have no hopes for aspirations into the beloved community, as I talked about last time, I’m happy to hang with interesting people.

Speaking of interesting people, I expect that within the near future, I’m going to grasp the conceptual foundations of what Greg Thomas calls the 360 degree approach to collaborative decision-making based on the dynamics of jazz improvisation. This, I will combine with the various Agile approaches I can know from a close friend who is a master of masters in that methodological discipline.

Clear the streets. I think that it is not until there are slums and favelas that America will get off its ass and think about some level of urban planning more seriously. The tent encampments on the sidewalks of large American cities are unsustainable. The improvisations of such residents are fast outpacing our demonstrated ability to accommodate them into society. So either we have real favelas, or we have real shelters. Today, such places are not policed and people are subject to the worst predations. We are doing a marginally adequate job for young mothers with children, but not for the men out there who are crooked, crippled and/or crazy. Decriminalizing drugs is the wrong direction. Sending men to jail and prison is the wrong direction. Build a new kind of institution.

When it comes to genuine presentation of the art of life on the underside of the economy, there are four touchpoints in film that easily mark my mind. The first is one that almost nobody ever talks about which is one of my favorite Denzel Washington movies of all time. It’s called Fallen, and the emotional heart of the movie is Denzel’s care for his feeble brother.

Secondly and most deeply scratched into my head is the film The Florida Project. I remember this because I think it was just masterful and completely lacking in condescension as it followed the lives of poor kids.

White Tiger is gangsta in an idiom American audiences do not expect. I think as much as so many of us have been led to believe that the revelations of The Wire speaks deeply to the ‘lived experiences of the black community’, this might be the cautionary tale that gives a global perspective.

I’d round out this bunch with an award winning film of the sort I don’t think anyone makes any longer. It was unique then and probably even more unique now. It’s Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger. And like Devil in a Blue Dress, it depicts a side of Los Angeles that makes it to film on only the rarest of occasions. Thinking of this, one of these days my boy Jervey Tervalon might get a big movie. Maybe. If we escape the monolith.