An old post about an episode from the original Star Trek–"The Empath"–and what it tells us about the cultural psychodynamics of racism.Back in 1988 Jesse Jackson decided it was time for a name change. Not his name. The name of, well, black people taken collectively in American society. Here’s a New York Times editorial speaking to the issue:
There's healthy archeology in the Rev. Jesse Jackson's belief that blacks now want to be called African-Americans. The term has ''cultural integrity,'' Mr. Jackson said after a meeting with other prominent African-Americans in Chicago on Monday. ''Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base. African-Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity.''
The archeology is dramatically plain to older adults who, in one lifetime, have already heard preferred usage shift from colored to Negro to black. The four lingual layers provide an abbreviated history of civil rights in this century.
If the new name catches on, it will challenge headline writers and disconcert citizens only recently accustomed to black. But people ought to be able to call themselves whatever they wish. The desire to choose one's label is as American as apple pie, and as political as other recent progressions.
What interests me here is the way in which nationwide attitudes toward race got focused through this one issue -- the name to be used for Americans of African descent -- by this one man.
A Deadly Balance, A Delicate Balance
In reading about race in America, I have the impression that, back in the day (roughly the last quarter of the 19th century through the first quarter of the 20th), the frequency of lynching was sensitive to changes in the overall climate of relationships between African Americans and European Americans. I believe we see a similar process at work here. The political behavior is much less violent – a name change versus lynching and burning – and the valence of the behavior is different, African Americans are demanding action rather than being victimized by it, but it seems to me that the overall social mechanisms are the similar.
African America and European America have coevolved and maintain a delicate balance of energy and anxiety between them. Whenever the balance is disturbed, balance must be restored. If something happens to cause anxiety to increase among whites, then something must be done to lower that anxiety. Violence against blacks has been one standard response.
Similarly, when something happens that anxiety goes up among blacks, then something must be done to lower that anxiety. While violence against whites is common enough, it is a response which has been more dangerous for blacks to take than it is for whites. There are more whites and they have more power. Hence blacks cannot get away with violence as easily as whites can.
So, how have blacks dealt with this problem? There is a measure of self-hate. More constructively, I would guess that religion is another mechanism, in particular, passionate (trance inducing religion). This is, of course, a form of sublimation (in the psychoanalytic sense). And so is art -- music and dance. That is, if we take a given community and chart the course of racial tension in that community, we will see an increase in religious and artistic activity in times of increased tension. These are mechanisms though which African America absorbs and, in some sense, dissipates the violence directed at it by European Americans.
Let me suggest that this process of absorption and dissipation is an instance of something I think of as the empath dynamic, so-called after an episode of the old Star Trek TV show:
From the Wikipedia:
On stardate 5121.5, the starship USS Enterprise arrives at Minara II to pick up research personnel. The mission is crucial since the Minaran star is close to going supernova. Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Spock beam to the planet to locate the research team while the Enterprise waits in orbit. The landing team finds the research camp abandoned and the scientists missing.
Meanwhile in orbit, the Enterprise is bombarded by intense solar radiation which is causing instrumentation failure, and threatening the lives of the crew. Mr. Scott orders the ship to break orbit while the landing party continues the search for the missing scientists on the planet.
As the search continues, the landing party finds themselves teleported to an underground chamber, and there they find a young woman lying on a raised platform. The woman awakens but she appears to be mute and all attempts to verbally communicate with her are in vain. Dr. McCoy names the mystery woman "Gem".
Soon, two silver-robed aliens appear, and identify themselves as Vians. Kirk approaches the beings but they repel the team with a force field. Kirk is injured and knocked to the floor. The silent Gem then rushes to Kirk's side and uses a mental power to absorb Kirk's injuries, taking them on herself and then dissipating them, healing him instantly and revealing that she is a powerful empath.
The various processes by which the African American community receives a hit of anxiety/aggression from the European American community without returning anxiety/aggression in equal measure are the processes which allow the empath mechanism to work. Some of these processes are self-destructive – the most obvious are crime and substance abuse (as a parallel, think about the British getting the Chinese addicted to opium) – but some are creative.
Let us return to Jesse Jackson and the name. My suggestion is that that matter is a relatively small instance the empath dynamic, of dissipating negative European American energy directed against blacks in their treatment of Jesse Jackson. Jackson, the priest-griot, took the negative energy hit and gave it a meaningful symbolic focus, one which directed a relatively small amount of negative-energy back to European America while turning most of the negative energy toward reflection on the symbolic issue of the name and directing people to reflect on the historical position of African Americans.
Gangsta’s as Empaths
Now, consider this discussion between two economists, Glenn Loury and Ross Levine, both at Brown University. The discussion started with the observation that observation that the United States has an incredible percentage of its population in prison, and the prison population is disproportianetly African American. In this segment of the discussion Loury suggests that incarceration is the new Jim Crow. Though I realize that the proposition requires a rigorous argument, I am sympathetic to it and, for the sake of this post, I am going to accept it as valid.
If you follow this link, you’ll come to a bar chart that depicts the incarceration rate in the United States during the 20th century. Notice that the big rise happens after 1980. That is also when hip-hop rose to become the dominant form of popular music in the country. One remarkable thing about hip-hop, and especially the gangsta styles, is that it is grounded in anger and aggression. As I say in the final chapter of Beethoven’s Anvil:
Hip hop’s words are without precedent in mass-mediated popular culture. It is the most relentlessly and consciously Black musical form African America has produced. Significantly, while hip hop has certainly attracted a white audience, its performers have been overwhelmingly black, unlike either rock or jazz.Hip hop is also the angriest of these musics. To be sure, avant-garde jazz musicians and heavy metal rockers created angry music. But avant-garde jazz has never had a large audience, while the heavy-metal musicians and audience are both almost exclusively white. Rap is the first mass-audience black form to give broad expressive scope to anger, giving it an ambivalent relationship to heavy-metal rock, one of the sources of its musical samples. Hip hop can no more be reduced to anger than jazz can be reduced to sex; but just as jazz’s fundamental rhythms give easy expression to sexuality, so hip hop’s boasting rhymes give a ready home to various forms of anger: misogyny, homophobia, other rappers—musical feuding and critiquing is common—as well as anger at the police and the society they represent.Independently of the lyrics, anger is in the basic sound of the music—a phenomenon to be approached using Manfred Clynes work on essentic forms. As jazz drummer Max Roach remarked about LL Cool J, who is adept at boasting but is neither political nor a gansta:The rhythm was very militant to me because it was like marching, the sound of an army on the move. We lost Malcolm, we lost King and they thought they had blotted out everybody. But all of a sudden this new art form arises and the militance is there in the music.It is thus fitting that hip hop is the first mass music openly to confront racism. Jazz was and remains primarily an instrumental music. Nor have blues, or, for the most part, rock and roll or soul musicians openly confronted and condemned racism in their lyrics. Even the songbook of the Civil Rights movement was more inspirational than confrontational. But starting in late 1980s, with the emergence of performers such as KRS-One and Public Enemy, hip hop developed a strong political edge.
The question, then, is whether or hip-hop participates in an empath dynamic in which it helps the African American community absorb the white anger and anxiety being projected on to it in the form of increased incarceration. If so, then, far from being an incentive to violence, hip-hop helps prevent violence.
The gangstas are, in effect, symbolically playing the role of the empath from that old Star Trek episode. They don’t act like it, and they don’t sound like. But that’s irrelevant. What matters is how their art functions in the broader psycho-cultural context. In that context, I suggest, they’re making it a bit easier for people to absorb pain rather than to lash out in anger.
How much pain can you absorb before it kills you?