Post-Selma rap lessons from “Fresh Off The Boat,” OU’s SAE, and President Obama
A fundamental story pattern on “Fresh off the Boat” has emerged. Eddie’s hip-hop clash is the New American Asian Fusion that sets off the comedic and leads us over the bridge to racial harmony!It all came into focus this week when Eddie gets automatically paired with a new student, an adopted Chinese Jewish cello nerd. Somehow school principals have this basically racist instinct that not only do all Asians look alike, but we all must like the same things–including people who look like us.
But that’s just time-honored segregationist logic.Of course, Jessica, Eddie’s TV Mom, immediately loves the nerd, every Tiger Mom’s delight. But she comes to find that the nerd is “selfish” and not “a good Chinese boy” like Eddie. It provides the sitcom’s moral of the half-hour: Mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to be selfish, Broadway show-loving cello nerds.It also brings Mom, the immigrant, even closer to the New American Eddie. At the end, they both high-five, and then Mom surprises all when, in a show of true maternal love and assimilation, she accompanies young Eddie to a Beastie Boys concert.The next day at school, Eddie discovers his true soul mate, his black classmate who was at the concert and has the exact same Beastie Boys T-shirt.And the Chinese kid and the black kid–after “C-word” tension in the very first episode–finally find common ground because of some Jewish rappers.It’s a “We shall overcome” moment in America.After Selma weekend, and the week we just had, we need all the sitcom feel good we can get. And all of that, thanks to that thing called rap music.Maybe someone ought to upload some ’90s hip hop into William Kristol’s iTunes. Kristol was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” this week actually defending the racist “N-word” song chants from that Oklahoma University’s SAE fraternity.You’ve heard the chants by now. It was downright ugly and inexcusable. White Boys with Attitude.And there was Kristol, conservative man of privilege, copping the biggest attitude of all, covering the frat boys’ backs, saying rap music was to blame. You know, it’s that “cesspool of culture.” According to Kristol, the frat boy Parker Rice was just aping the music of our times. Why, that’s not racist, right?Of course it is.I don’t hear any songs about lynching on the radio, or people openly advocating violence and hate in pop music.More distressing is that the SAE rant came on the night of President Obama’s Selma speech, a speech that really was directed more at the young than anyone else.I’d like to think young Parker Rice and his SAE buddies were huddled around a keg watching the president on cable news. I know that’s wishful thinking.As soon as I heard the president, I raved about the speech on my amok.com.)The president talked about Ferguson and the Justice Department’s report. He even rejected the commonly heard reaction of naysayers, the one that goes, “See, things haven’t changed all that much in 50 years.”
But the president had an answer for that:
We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America. If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s. Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed. Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago. To deny this progress, this hard-won progress — our progress — would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.
OK, we are better off today.The president even had an answer to another commonly held notion among those like Kristol and his ilk, who have doubts that racism even exists. The president indicated we should know better:
Of course, a more common mistake is to suggest that Ferguson is an isolated incident; that racism is banished; that the work that drew men and women to Selma is now complete, and that whatever racial tensions remain are a consequence of those seeking to play the “race card” for their own purposes. We don’t need the Ferguson report to know that’s not true. We just need to open our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.
We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won…There’s nothing America can’t handle if we actually look squarely at the problem. And this is work for all Americans, not just some. Not just whites. Not just blacks. If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel as they did the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize as they did that change depends on our actions, on our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such an effort, no matter how hard it may sometimes seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.
Getting to that consensus is the hard part. Do we have that moral imagination? Maybe that’s where the young come in. The president wasn’t aware of all the SAE nonsense. But his speech was a pitch to our youth:“You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be. For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.”Historian Douglas Brinkley on CNN called the speech Obama’s “I Have a Dream” speech for the 21st century.For me, I found re-reading the speech again this week comforting and poetic, a vision of the America that can be.
I do think it will be the speech America’s first black president will be remembered for. More than empty rhetoric, it’s a helpful reminder for when news like the SAE chant and all the Ferguson stuff gets in the way.The news doesn’t have to derail us.As young Eddie shows us on “Fresh off The Boat,” there’s lots of ways to cross a bridge to lead us to common ground. The Beastie Boys? Sure, why not?In the perfect world, let’s imagine Eddie lock-armed with William Kristol, who could be heard saying, “This is the illest.” Now that takes some moral imagination.