Bait and Switch

Golf, Race, and Class: Robert Todd Lincoln, Oldest Son of President Abraham Lincoln, and President of the Chicago Golf Club
Golf, Race, and Class: Robert Todd Lincoln, Oldest Son of President Abraham Lincoln, and President of the Chicago Golf Club

But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.
A Fighting Chance
    Senator Elizabeth Warren.

… cast out first the beam out of thine own eye …
Matthew 7:5

 

“Where are all the black golfers?” Golf magazine’s Michael Bamberger asked back in 2013: Tiger Wood’s 1997 victory at the Masters, Bamberger says, was supposed to open “the floodgates … to minority golfers in general and black golfers in particular.” But nearly two decades later Tiger is the only player on the PGA Tour to claim to be African-American. It’s a question likely to loom larger as time passes: Woods missed the cut at last week’s British Open, the first time in his career he has missed a cut in back-to-back majors, and FiveThirtyEight.com’s line from April about Woods (“What once seemed to be destiny—Woods’ overtaking of Nicklaus as the winningest major champion ever—now looks like a fool’s notion”) seems more prophetic than ever. As Woods’ chase for Nicklaus fades, almost certainly the question of Woods’ legacy will turn to the renaissance in participation Woods was supposedly going to unleash—a renaissance that never happened. But where will the blame fall? Once we exclude Woods’ from responsibility for playing Moses, is the explanation for why are there no black golfers, as Bamberger seems to suggest, because golf is racist? Or is it, as Bamberger’s own reporting shows, more likely due to the economy? And further, if we can’t blame Woods for not creating more golfers in his image, can we blame Bamberger for giving Americans the story they want instead of the story they need?

Consider, for instance, Bamberger’s mention of the “Tour caddie yard, once a beautiful example of integration”—and now, he writes, “so white it looks like Little Rock Central High School, circa 1955.” Or his description of how, in “Division I men’s collegiate golf … the golfers, overwhelmingly, are white kids from country-club backgrounds with easy access to range balls.” Surely, although Bamberger omits the direct reference, the rise of the lily-white caddie yard is likely not due to a racist desire to bust up the beautifully diverse caddie tableau Bamberger describes, just as it seems more likely that the presence of the young white golfers at the highest level of collegiate golf owes more to their long-term access to range balls than it does to the color of their skin. Surely the mysterious disappearance of the black professional golfer is more likely due—as the title of a story by Forbes contributor Bob Cook has it—to “How A Declining Middle Class Is Killing Golf” than golf’s racism. An ebbing tide lowers all boats.

“Golf’s high cost to entry and association with an older, moneyed elite has resulted in young people sending it to the same golden scrap heap as [many] formerly mass activities,” as Cook wrote in Forbes—and so, as “people [have] had less disposable income and time to play,” golf has declined among all Americans and not just black ones. But then, maybe that shouldn’t be surprising when, as Scientific American reported in March, the “top 20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% combine for a paltry 0.3%,” or when, as Time said two years ago, “the wages of median workers have remained essentially the same” for the past thirty years. So it seems likelier that the non-existent black golfer can be found at the bottom of the same hole to which many other once-real and now-imaginary Americans—like a unionized, skilled, and educated working-class—have been consigned.

The conjuring trick however whereby the disappearance of black professional golfers becomes a profound mystery, rather than a thoroughly understandable consequence of the well-documented overall decline in wages for all Americans over the past two generations, would be no surprise to Walter Benn Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “In 1947,” Michaels has pointed out for instance, repeating all the statistics, “the bottom fifth of wage-earners got 5 per cent of total income,” while “today it gets 3.4 per cent.” But the literature professor is aware not only that inequality is rising, but also that it’s long been a standard American alchemy to turn economic matters into racial ones.

Americans, Michaels has written, “love thinking that the differences that divide us are not the differences between those of us who have money and those who don’t but are instead the differences between those of us who are black and those who are white or Asian or Latino or whatever.” Why? Because if the differences between us are due to money, and the lack of it, then there’s a “need to get rid of inequality or to justify it”—while on the other hand, if those differences are racial, then there’s a simple solution: “appreciating our diversity.” In sum, if the problem is due to racism, then we can solve it with workshops and such—but if the problem is due to, say, an historic loss of the structures of middle-class life, then a seminar during lunch probably won’t cut it.

Still, it’s hard to blame Bamberger for refusing to see what’s right in front of him: Americans have been turning economic issues into racial ones for some time. Consider the argument advanced by the Southern Literary Messenger (the South’s most important prewar magazine) in 1862: the war, the magazine said, was due to “the history of racial strife” between “a supposedly superior race” that had unwisely married its fortune “with one it considered inferior, and with whom co-existence on terms of political equality was impossible.” According to this journal, the Civil War was due to racial differences, and not from any kind of clash between two different economic interests—one of which was getting incredibly wealthy by the simple expedient of refusing to pay their workers and then protecting their investment by making secret and large-scale purchases of government officials while being protected by bought-and-paid-for judges. (You know, not like today.)

Yet despite how ridiculous it sounds—because it is—the theory does have a certain kind of loopy logic. According to these Southern, and some Northern, minds, the two races were so widely divergent politically and socially that their deep, historical differences were the obvious explanation for the conflict between the two sections of the country—instead of that conflict being the natural result of allowing a pack of lying, thieving criminals to prey upon decent people. The identity of these two races—as surely you have already guessed, since the evidence is so readily apparent—were, as historian Christopher Hanlon graciously informs us: “the Norman and Saxon races.”

Duh.

Admittedly, the theory does sound pretty out there—though I suspect it sounds a lot more absurd now that you know what races these writers were talking about, rather than the ones I suspect you thought they were talking about. Still, it’s worth knowing something of the details if only to understand how these could have been considered rational arguments: to understand, in other words, how people can come to think of economic matters as racial, or cultural, ones.

In the “Normans vs. Saxons” version of this operation, the theory comes in two flavors. According to University of Georgia historian James Cobb, the Southern flavor of this racial theory held that Southerners were “descended from the Norman barons who conquered England in the 11th century and populated the upper classes of English society,” and were thus naturally equipped for leadership. Northern versions held much the same, but flipped the script: as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in the 1850s, the Normans were “greedy and ferocious dragoons, sons of greedy and ferocious pirates” who had, as Conlon says, “imposed serfdom on their Saxon underlings.” To both sides then the great racial conflagration, the racial apocalypse, destined to set the continent alight would be fought between Southern white people … and Northern white people.

All of which is to say that Americans have historically liked to make their economic conflicts about race, and they haven’t always been particular about which ones—which might seem like downer news. But there is, perhaps, a bright spot to all this: whereas the Civil War-era writers treated “race” as a real description of a natural kind—as if their descriptions of “Norman” or “Saxon” had as much validity as a description of a great horned toad or Fraser’s eagle owl—nowadays Americans like to “dress race up as culture,” as Michaels says. This current orthodoxy holds that “the significant differences between us are cultural, that such differences should be respected, that our cultural heritages should be perpetuated, [and] that there’s a value in making sure that different cultures survive.” Nobody mentions that substituting “race” and “racial” for “culture” and “cultural” doesn’t change the sentence’s meaning in any important respects.

Still, it certainly has had an effect on current discourse: it’s what caused Bamberger to write that Tiger Woods “seems about as culturally black as John Boehner.” The phrase “culturally black” is arresting, because it implies that “race” may not be a biological category, as it was for the “Normans vs. Saxons” theorists. And certainly, that’s a measure of progress: just a generation or two ago it was possible to refer unselfconsciously to race in an explicitly biological way. So in that sense, it might be possible to think that because a Golf writer feels it necessary to clarify that “blackness” is a cultural, and not a biological, category, that constitutes a victory.

The credit for that victory surely goes to what the “heirs of the New Left and the Sixties have created, within the academy” as Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty wrote before his death—“a cultural Left.” The victories of that Left have certainly been laudable—they’ve even gotten a Golf magazine writer to talk about a “cultural,” instead of biological, version of whatever “blackness” is! But there’s also a cost, as Rorty also wrote: this “cultural Left,” he said, “thinks more about stigma than money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed.” Seconding Rorty’s point, University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written that academia today is characterized by “the virtually complete turning away from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics”—a “cultural Left” that thinks “the way to do … politics is to use words in a subversive way, in academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness,” and that “instructs its members that there is little room for large-scale social change, and maybe no room at all.” So, while it might be slightly better that mainstream publications now think of race in cultural, instead biological, terms, this might not be the triumph it’s sometimes said to be given the real facts of economic life in the United States.

Yet the advice of the American academy is that what the United States needs is more talk about culture, rather than a serious discussion about political economy. Their argument is a simple one, summarized by the recently deceased historical novelist E.L. Doctorow in an essay called “Notes on the History of Fiction”: there, the novelist argues that while there is a Richard III Society in England attempting to “recover the reputation of their man from the damage done to it by the calumnies of Shakespeare’s play,” all their efforts are useless—“there is a greater truth for the self-reflection of all mankind in the Shakespearean vision of his life than any simple set of facts can summon.” What matters, Doctorow is arguing, isn’t the real Richard III—coincidentally, the man apparently recently dug up in an English parking lot—but rather Shakespeare’s approximation of him, just in the same way that some Civil War-era writers argued that what mattered was “race” instead of the economics of slavery, or how Michael Bamberger fails to realize that the presence of the real white golfers that are in front of him explains the absence of the imaginary black golfers that aren’t fairly easily. What Doctorow then is really saying, and thus by extension what the “cultural Left” is really saying, is that the specific answer to the question of where the black golfers are is irrelevant, because dead words matter more than live people—an idea, however, that seems difficult to square with the notion that, as the slogan has it, black lives matter.

Golfers or not.

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