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June 28, 2006

thank you, white jesus [updated]

[update below]

[updated again 07_09, just to clean a few typos up for the folks coming over from wayne's house. Because mom was really right about never hitting publish unless my knickers were clean.]


"Kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side of Chicago, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me," he said of his walk down the aisle of the Trinity United Church of Christ. "I submitted myself to his will and dedicated myself to discovering his truth." Sen. Barack Obama [Full obama jesus confessional] [hat tip atrios]

I dunno about re-connecting white evangelicals and the Democratic party, but Obama's god-gambit is certainly the law of the land when it comes to the marketing of commercial products to African Americans. You see, African American mass media comes in two basic flavors - urban and god-fearing, and woe be unto any black media professional meeting with white folks who isn't ready to go gully or gospel at a moment's notice. Jesus and street are the ultimate aces in a black media worker's hole, our version of going nuclear when it comes time to show white executives that we "get it." Unless you are down for one or another opiate of the masses you will always be dogged by a whiff of inauthenticity, a taint that like BO or bad dandruff can permanently mark you as the kind of person who can't be trusted to effectively represent, say, TW or Viacom, among the coloreds.

This bit of wisdom was re-affirmed for me just yesterday over dinner with a group of reasonably successful black editors and writers in NYC. Everyone at the table worked for some or another white owned "African American" media outlet - magazine, publishing imprint, teevee, interactive - and each and every one reported that over the last few years their venues have gone increasingly god intensive with their coverage, profiling ministers, crafting faith editorial, hiring spirituality columnists, doing jesus diet-plans and so on.

This completely dovetails with my own experience interpreting and building pixellated drums for white corporations. Although I am 100% certified heathen (i.e., I was raised a Catholic) I can say with some pride that I've had a hand in building more than one money-changing, interactive temple honoring the various Protestant heresies. (Save the email, my Protestant friends; I largely (semi?) kid.) Why would I get into the god business, you ask? To make money, of course. For one thing, there is an endless supply of marketing "data" that suggests there is an "audience" interested in soul/spirit material. For another thing, assuring a room full of white men that black folks are just desperate for 24-hour streaming video of Creflo Dollar is a handy way to fend off other black executives vying for the job of interpreting and building drums. Most white executives can't actually tell the difference between good and bad plans for targeting the AA audience, and so their decisions ultimately reduce to referendums on the planner: do they like you? Do you make them feel comfortable or virtuous or cool?

And most importantly: Do you strike them as a "real" black person? Since there are all kinds of constraints on playing the gully side - age or gender, for example, vocal presentation or a clean driving record - playing the "I heart white jesus" card is what dicks in the internet business like to call "low hanging fruit:" a fast, easy and unimpeachable way to don the mantle of authoritative blackness. Because while one can conceivably trash hip hop to white people (it's a sign of how "grown" you are, how suburban Atlanta) no corporate negro in their right mind comes out against LaShawn Barber's lord and savior.

(Apropos of nothing, the phrase "low hanging fruit" always cracks me up. Ostensibly straight managers love saying that shit, and it brings to mind an image of nuts every time I hear it--nuts as in male sac. You collect all those yourself and on your own time, Kimosabe.)

I will confess to certain sensitivities about that last, crucial referendum question, though. When I look back, it really is kind of a miracle that I ended up doing the work I do, in that I don't fit the profile. I don't look right. My family roots are in Haiti instead of the American South. I went to the wrong, pre-dominantly white schools. I am definitely not trying too hard to keep anything particularly real. And yet despite those obstacles, I have not only had the privilege of spending a ton of white folks' money in order to reach AA audiences, I've also actually succeeded in reaching a fair number of a folks.

Thank you, Jesus!

UPDATE: But to bring it all back to Senator Obama's comments, white commentators who are keying in on Obama's rehash of the right's "Why Do Democrats Hate Religion?" meme are correct, but they're also missing a (likely minor) nuance re: the specific use value the god thing has had for newfangled black politicians like Obama. No multiracial, Harvard educated, liberal pol gets anywhere near being taken seriously as a "black leader" unless he can put in credible church time. This makes Obama's comments less a case of pandering than of habit. Obama is applying a previously raced strategem to the non-raced (or at least less raced) problem of getting folks who are more conservative than you are to vote for you. This mean's he is not so much making a case for a new politics as for for an old marketing, which in the end makes his use of the moral-hoo-haa verbiage somewhat cynical in my mind. But he may believe it. I know a ton of internet ad sales people who genuinely believe they are providing a service to the race every time they sell our eyeballs off to the higest bidder.

Posted by ebogjonson in black president, race and other identities, on June 28, 2006 2:15 PM


i enjoyed this post, obviously. (and thanks for the updates!) the funniest thing was that when i told my mainsqueeze about obama's speech, her reaction was exactly the same as yours: "yuck."

re: the gully/gospel dichot, i believe mos def said it well when he said there's "never no in-between":

Posted by: w&w at July 10, 2006 9:58 AM