Pop Culture Conjures a Transracial American Dream

AMERICAN SKIN
Pop Culture, Big Business and the End of White America
By Leon E. Wynter
295 pages. Crown Publishers. $25.

Anyone who’s been watching television the last couple of years will be familiar with what Leon E. Wynter calls ”the browning of mainstream commercial culture” in America. It’s not just the high profile of black superstars like Michael Jordan and Oprah, and mixed-race celebrities like Tiger Woods (and the ”American Idol” runner-up Justin Guarini). It’s ads like the 2000 Budweiser ”Whassup?!” commercials, featuring four little-known black men talking black street talk, and the 1999 Pepsi ad starring a little white girl who can channel Aretha Franklin. It’s Brandy playing Cinderella (with Whitney Houston as her Fairy Godmother) in Disney’s 1997 television remake, and Eddie Murphy succeeding Rex Harrison in the role of Doctor Dolittle. It’s black women going blond, and white women wearing dreadlocks, and suburban kids grooving to hip-hop.

Muhammad Ali, who, Mr. Wynter writes, was ”once typecast as an overbearing, anti-American, draft-dodging acolyte of the Nation of Islam,” is now regarded as a national treasure. His rival George Foreman, ”once the embodiment of a crude bone-crushing black man,” has become the affable pitchman for car mufflers and home grills. Action movies like the ”Lethal Weapon” and ”Beverly Hills Cop” franchises routinely feature black-white buddy relationships, and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant use their N.B.A. celebrity to peddle everything from sneakers to fast food to soft drinks.

In this intriguing but often reductive book, Mr. Wynter, who wrote the ”Business and Race” column for The Wall Street Journal for 10 years, cites such phenomena as evidence that old definitions of race are being marginalized, and that American pop culture is increasingly becoming ”transracial.”

”There’s been a radical shift in the place of race and ethnicity in American commercial culture since the late 1970’s,” he writes. ”Near revolutionary developments in advertising, media, marketing, technology and global trade have in the last two decades of the 20th century nearly obliterated walls that have stood for generations between nonwhites and the image of the American dream. The mainstream, heretofore synonymous with what is considered average for whites, is now equally defined by the preferences, presence and perspectives of people of color.

”The much maligned melting pot, into which generations of European American identities are said to have dissolved,” he continues, ”is bubbling again, but on a higher flame; this time whiteness itself is finally being dissolved into a larger identity that includes blacks, Hispanics and Asians.”

Mr. Wynter observes that ”black Americans have been central to the invention of American cultural identity since the country was founded,” in part because the young nation ”had no clear Euro-American culture of its own.” But if blacks had a formative impact on an emergent American culture, an early pattern quickly developed whereby their innovations were co-opted, diluted or homogenized by more marketable white imitators. Irving Berlin was hailed as the ”Ragtime King” in the early years of the 20th century, just as Elvis was crowned ”king” of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950’s. Jazz gave way to Benny Goodman’s swing, rhythm and blues to rock, funk to disco.

But with Michael Jackson’s mega-hit 1983 album, ”Thriller,” Mr. Wynter argues, the equation irrevocably changed, and by the end of the 80’s ”color was weaving through music, sports, television, news media and literature in a bold band that had never been seen before.” The color line in the Miss America contest was broken four times in one decade. The nonwhite all-American sports icon became a marketing focal point for the National Basketball Association and the Olympics, and advertisers began to realize that ”transracial sells.”

Products that aspire to be seen as ”all-American” — from Coke to Chevrolet — are now ”compelled to depict a racially diverse image,” says Mr. Wynter, while a growing number of large companies (like Cisco, which has purveyed insistently multicultural imagery in its television commercials) ”are browning their corporate images in order to sell themselves to the broad public, to potential investors, employees and voters.” ”The transracial vision,” Mr. Wynter writes, ”has acquired an aspirational value in the broad market not because it’s politically correct but because it’s how America wants to see itself: as a unified multiracial society.”

This is a little simplistic, to say the least. Mr. Wynter seriously plays down continuing problems with racist attitudes and racial profiling in this country, and his commitment to his book’s central thesis sometimes leads to denial in the face of the obvious: for instance, although Eminem has sold five million copies of his last album, Mr. Wynter insists that hip-hop remains a black-defined art form, that ”after nearly 20 years, hip-hop has had no Benny Goodman, no Elvis, no Beatles and no BeeGees.”

In addition ”American Skin” draws heavily from the work of other scholars, most notably that of Michael Lind. Many of Mr. Wynter’s observations about the politics of ethnicity in this country owe a decided debt to Mr. Lind’s pioneering 1995 book, ”The Next American Nation,” as do many of Mr. Wynter’s observations about the emergence of a shared vernacular culture, incorporating African-American styles and innovations, even the term ”transracial America.”

But if ”American Skin” is derivative in its larger arguments, if the book tilts heavily in the direction of Pollyanna-ish optimism, it also provides many provocative illustrations of the melting pot at work today and its fallout on everything from Gen Y sensibilities to old-school black politics. Mr. Wynter’s arguments about the political implications of the ”browning” of America are bound to provoke considerable debate.

He contends that blacks now ”find themselves in a new and uncertain place where individual choice is exalted to an historically unprecedented degree while traditions of sacrifice for collective action are nearly ignored,” and he says that if the price of admission to mainstream commercial culture is ”the negation or denial of the political value of group identity,” then ”it’s worth it.”

”I have never claimed that transracial pop culture represents a trend toward political racial equality,” he writes at the end of the book. ”But it has undeniably leveled the playing field in terms of cultural value judgments. Simply put, nonwhite cultural tropes in the mainstream and their nonwhite practitioners cannot easily be put down or marginalized on the basis of race, because their appeal is too broad. Moreover, I think, at a certain level it’s hard to deny that as the trend in pop culture is self-sustaining, it must eventually be replicated in society itself.”

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