Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Stanley Fish and Chris Rock make the same point

Fish writes about Henry Louis Gates' time at Duke:

I flashed back 20 years or so to the time when Gates arrived in Durham, N.C., to take up the position I had offered him in my capacity as chairman of the English department of Duke University. One of the first things Gates did was buy the grandest house in town (owned previously by a movie director) and renovate it. During the renovation workers would often take Gates for a servant and ask to be pointed to the house’s owner. The drivers of delivery trucks made the same mistake.

The message was unmistakable: What was a black man doing living in a place like this?

At the university (which in a past not distant at all did not admit African-Americans ), Gates’s reception was in some ways no different. Doubts were expressed in letters written by senior professors about his scholarly credentials, which were vastly superior to those of his detractors. (He was already a recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, the so called “genius award.”) There were wild speculations (again in print) about his salary, which in fact was quite respectable but not inordinate; when a list of the highest-paid members of the Duke faculty was published, he was nowhere on it.

The unkindest cut of all was delivered by some members of the black faculty who had made their peace with Duke traditions and did not want an over-visible newcomer and upstart to trouble waters that had long been still. (The great historian John Hope Franklin was an exception.) When an offer came from Harvard, there wasn’t much I could do. Gates accepted it, and when he left he was pursued by false reports about his tenure at what he had come to call “the plantation.” (I became aware of his feelings when he and I and his father watched the N.C.A.A. championship game between Duke and U.N.L.V. at my house; they were rooting for U.N.L.V.)

And now Chris Rock:

I will give you an example of how race affects my life. I live in a place called Alpine, New Jersey. Live in Alpine, New Jersey, right? My house costs millions of dollars. [some whistles and cheers from the audience] Don't hate the player, hate the game. In my neighborhood, there are four black people. Hundreds of houses, four black people. Who are these black people? Well, there's me, Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Eddie Murphy. Only black people in the whole neighborhood. So let's break it down, let's break it down: me, I'm a decent comedian. I'm a'ight. [applause] Mary J. Blige, one of the greatest R&B singers to ever walk the Earth. Jay-Z, one of the greatest rappers to ever live. Eddie Murphy, one of the funniest actors to ever, ever do it. Do you know what the white man who lives next door to me does for a living? He's a f**king dentist! He ain't the best dentist in the world...he ain't going to the dental hall of fame...he don't get plaques for getting rid of plaque. He's just a yank-your-tooth-out dentist. See, the black man gotta fly to get to somethin' the white man can walk to.


Judge Glock said...

I love Chris Rock, but I'm not sure I follow his point here.

It's not like the other residents of this tony neighborhood are mere middle-class schlubs and these 4 black entertainers are paying through the nose for inferior housing. This dentist he's discussing probably has won awards and plaques for removing plague, he probably is in the top ranks of his field, at least he would have to be if this neighborhood is anywhere near as good as its residents would indicate. He's most likely there for the same reason the 4 entertainers are there, he's been paid on the open market for his skills and he is then purchasing a nice neighborhood with the fruits of his labor.

It seems absurd for Rock to claim that he and Blige and Jay-zee are somehow vastly under-compensated relative to these other residents because they're black, and that these talents are forced to live a paired down existence because of racism or discrimination or some-such. To me it sounds like a desperate attempt to hold onto some since of victimhood. It's beneath Rock.

Anonymous said...

With regard to the Judge Glock comment:

Are you f**king kidding me. The point is access. The point is that we still live a country where blacks have harder road to become dentists. He is not complaining that he makes too much, he is complaining that blacks have a harder time getting normal access to more common routes of high pay and wealth building. If you don't know how good the dentist is, don't make assumptions.

He is not playing the victim card, and to claim so is to shows only the classic white male bias, and ignorance. Frankly, i see more white men claiming victimhood then anyone else.

Judge Glock said...

I agree that blacks in America have an significantly harder time than whites making it to the sort of position that Jay-Z and Chris Rock have attained. All the cards are stacked against them from birth, from struggling and crime ridden communities to poor schools to impoverished families.

But Rock isn't talking about that. He's talking about the people who've already made it. He's not talking about the struggle to get there; he's claiming that once they get there they're treated like some "f**king dentist." I imagine that that dentist would be insulted to know his neighbor thinks he's beneath Rock's attainments.

As hard as Rock and these others had to struggle to get where they are, and as much as they deserve all the success they've got, it seems odd to claim that that success hasn't brought the remuneration they believe they deserve. Who should decide that Rock deserves a better neighborhood than that "f**king dentist"?

Anonymous said...

I don't think Rock is arguing he's undercompensated--not in the least. He's claiming the exact opposite: that he and his black peers in this extremely tony neighborhood are extraordinarily well-compensated, extraordinarily fortunate, extraordinarily successful representatives of their ethnic group, whereas the white people in the same neighborhood are your basic, garden-variety successful professionals. In the case of the dentist, he's probably in possession of inherited family wealth that has enabled him to walk into the ritzy neighborhood that Rock flew into. Now, maybe he won the lottery; maybe he was a very sharp investor. But...the empirical differences in assets among groups in the US favor the "I got here through studying hard and my parent's money" theory.

This is an example, a humorous one, of the close connections between race and class, and the "being born on third base" phenomenon. As a white person from a deeply impoverished background, I recognize these same issues: I left undergraduate $20K in debt; my friends from middle-class families had college paid for. They graduated, and mom and dad gave them a car. I had to borrow to get a car for my first job. Their moms took them shopping for their first work wardrobe. I scoured Goodwill and used credit cards. When it came down to buying houses, their mom and dads had money to help there, too. My friends, sweet people all of them, had lavish weddings paid for parents, collected hundreds of dollars in gifts, and then cluelessly asked me why my husband and I eloped. (Because we had exactly $150 to pay for the judge and the marriage license and no more.) People don't walk the same path no matter how much privileged people want to make it all about their deservingness. I have athletes who lecture me at length about how they "earned" their scholarship. No doubt they worked very hard. But for every one of them, there's another kid who would really have loved to play sports and who had the talent...but who had to work after school to put money into their family. Whether or not society should be in the business of trying to even these inequalities out is one question, and a worthy one. Being blind to these inequalities, however, is just bad empiricism at a certain point.

As to whether this dentist wants to get his feelings hurt and Chris Rock "looking down" on him, well, labor markets and compensation are not about equality. When the dentist can fill Staples Center at $150 a seat, then he'll get to command the economic rents that Rock and his peers command and they will be market equivalents. But right now, they are not, and while Americans do love faux-egalitarianism, especially around race, the real value of labor is in black and white on the payroll stub, even if the dentist provides a far more practical and essential role in society. Manny Ramirez makes more money than me (but not RIchard) for a reason. We're equal as voters and we should be equal under the law (we're not), but people like me and the dentist next door are only really special to our moms. As Rock says, hate the game, not the player.

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