Was Elvis Racist?

There is a frequent accusation that Elvis Presley was racist — or appealed to racists, or some such similar accusation.  Rappers, from Chuck D of Public Enemy to Mos Def to others in hip-hop have taken pot shots at Elvis along these lines — some of those statements later retracted.  But is there any merit to this claim?  It is a thorny issue, and whole books and more have been written on the intersection of Elvis and race.

One of the defining characteristics of Elvis’s life and career was the particular time period in which he lived and worked.  The “glory years” of Elvis’ fame coincided exactly with the post-WWII boom, when a consumer lifestyle was extended more deeply into the American population that ever before (or since).  Elvis was, in some ways, made out to be a champion of the ordinary salt-of-the-Earth working man.  And yet, the post-WWII boom was limited to white people, and especially to white men (women benefited primarily through marriage, not through workplace participation).  As Alan Nasser wrote:

“A rational and historically informed response to the legend of the middle class is that this alleged stratum of the 1920s and the [post-WWII] Golden Age existed for a mere 34 years of American history. Before the 1920s just about all working-class peo[p]le were poor. Since 1974 then we have had 42 years of burgeoning inequality, un- and underemployment, growing poverty and steadily declining wages with no end in sight. The middle class was a departure from the historic norm of a materially insecure working class, the default position of industrial capitalism.”

Notice how the 1974 decline of the working class coincides almost exactly with Elvis’ post-1972 decline?  This is not to mention how Elvis’ rise to stardom starting in 1954 at Memphis’ Sun Records coincided roughly with the beginning of the post-WWII “Golden Age”.

As most rejoinders to the “Elvis was racist” claim lay out — as with biographer Peter Guralnick‘s noted essay — Elvis should not be seen as a cultural pirate, appropriating black music for the benefit of white men.  Elvis had a deep and abiding respect and admiration of black music, from gospel to R&B and more, and often quite humbly expressed his debt to that music publicly.

The real gripe tends to be an economic one: as a symbol of post-WWII prosperity that was denied to most black people, Elvis became a symbol of “racial” inequality, despite the way his music appealed to an ersatz kind of economic equality among his white fan base.  The real question is whether it is fair to pin this on Elvis.  Just as the punk/oi band Sham 69 was saddled with a skinhead/neo-nazi fanbase that they actively opposed, what responsibility does Elvis bear in this context?  Is it really the “structural racism” of society at large, or even of critics that is to blame instead?

As Alan Nasser notes:

“The matter hinges on what is meant by ‘middle class’. This is no ‘merely’ semantic question. The term is at the core of the justification of modern capitalism, and connotes not merely a statistical income level, but is meant to convey the relation between one’s willingness to earn a living, i.e. to work hard, and the possibility of achieving a desirable standard of living as a reward for one’s work. The example above, describing the benefits available to the one-breadwinner family during the Golden Age, is meant to imply that those benefits are the just deserts of hard work. *** The middle class gets what it deserves as a reward for its labor. But the truth is that the working class has never been able to achieve economic security on the basis of its wage.

Being dutifully productive has never been sufficient to guarantee the worker a satisfying life. *** More precisely, the benefits might be forthcoming — remember, hard work is merely a necessary, not a sufficient, condition of material security…”

This is the issue raised decades after Elvis’ death by pop singer Nicki Minaj, who, in one writer’s estimation, “refus[ed] to apologize for wanting to be visible and rewarded like her peers”.  (One can set aside the sheen of presumptuousness in self-selecting one’s “peers” to be the most famous and highly compensated entertainers in the world).

One way to approach the question is to ask how Elvis was involved in movements for racial equality.  The answer is that he wasn’t, at least not in an explicitly political way.  Rather than activism for equality, Elvis — especially in his early musical career in the mid-1950s — represented a cultural shift that denied the premise of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws.  He, along with others, advanced a music vision that was simply incompatible with racial segregation — a “deterritorialization” or hybridization if you will.  Yet, in the post-Jim Crow era, with de jure segregation nominally overcome, Elvis’ contributions to cultural awakenings were rather muted, at best.  In a way, the Freedom/Civil Rights Movement in the United States revealed that formal repeal of the Jim Crow segregation laws was really not the whole problem.  And, for that matter, the way that Elvis’ career took shape after his stint in the army, with “Col.” Tom Parker managing him through B-movie deals and other crass commercial moves, revealed some of the problems that remained depressingly intact despite Freedom/Civil Rights Movement victories to end legal cover for lynchings, improve educational access, gain formally unencumbered voting rights, etc.  Blacks may have achieved some of those things, at least nominally, but they still lacked the sorts of power and wealth that white males enjoyed, and so many of the freedoms won in the 1960s were emptier than hoped.  It was in this context that black militancy emerged, with the so-called black power movement.  As those activities started to make tangible gains, the backlash was brutal.  Elvis had no part in that story.

Bob Dylan gave an interview where he said,

“I think of rock ’n’ roll as a combination of country blues and swing band music, not Chicago blues, and modern pop. Real rock ’n’ roll hasn’t existed since when? 1961, 1962?”

He added,

“And that was extremely threatening for the city fathers, I would think. When they finally recognized what it was, they had to dismantle it, which they did, starting with payola scandals and things like that. The black element was turned into soul music and the white element was turned into English pop. They separated it.”

The soulful, gospel-inflected sounds of Elvis’ early 1970s second peak retained some elements of both black and white culture.  But the “city fathers” that Dylan referred to were there in the audience.  Meanwhile, at the 1972 Wattstax music festival Jesse Jackson (before he became a collaborator with the system he condemned) gave his memorable “I Am Somebody” speech.  If it still needed to be said that black people were “somebodies,” then the triumphalist quality of Elvis’ post-comeback music could be seen as a bit premature from a black perspective.

Historian Jefferson Cowie, in his book Stayin’ Alive, described some popular musicians of the 1970s as being ambivalent about a status quo that privileged white males over women and racial minorities.  It is a criticism not unlike Hannah Arendt‘s famous phrase about “the banality of evil,” something that reflects what some academics call “structural violence”or “systemic violence” — the everyday violence of an unjust social system inflicted without conscious malice by participants.  Elvis would therefore be “racist” if he failed to think about his role in such a system.  This might pinpoint the critiques of Elvis as the alleged racist.  The rebuttal would be the this makes Elvis a scapegoat, singling out one individual for something he took no conscious part in and perhaps ignoring similar conduct by others.  It must be remembered, too, that Elvis was not highly educated and was neither particularly intelligent nor savvy, which is why he (notoriously) ceded so much control over his career to his manager “Col.” Tom Parker. Perhaps the criticisms of racism should be better leveled at Parker for steering the star in certain ways?

It bears repeating that despite his great wealth (though he was quickly depleting that wealth by the time he died), Elvis never owned the “means of production” (and especially not the means of distribution, etc.) and remained an entertainment “worker” his whole life.  He also came from humble working-class roots, and those who try to paint him as a racist might be using him as a scapegoat for what is really an elitist, anti-working class agenda.  After all, does anyone blame workers who earn a living within an exploitative capitalist system?  Here, it is worth avoiding the “beautiful soul” syndrome by which people insist on existing separately an apart from the corruption and evil of the world — something that is really a strategy of exerting moral superiority that depends on maintaining the existence of the condemned corruption/evil.  Even as he became wealthy and was dubbed the “king of rock”, it is possible to view a king as a tragic figure confined by his position.

Furthermore, there is a weird “identity politics” aspect to many of the accusations of racism hurled against Elvis.  Often these accusers point to Elvis’ “structural” superiority making his action inherently suspect of racism.  But the problem with this strategy of the accusers is this: “Its exclusive focus on structural weakness enables it to play its own power game, ruthlessly using structural weakness as a means of its own empowerment.”  In this context, that the “accusations are very problematic if not outright false, etc., [is] dismissed as ultimately irrelevant.”  Someone like Elvis is more or less automatically suspected of at least being a white supremacist, a cultural pirate, and guilty of racial insensitivity, and the accuser’s position of structural weakness gives her or him the power instead — a kind of valorization of victimhood status in which only victims can testify and accuse, as if victims inherently lose all ressentiment and are somehow purified “into ethically sensitive subjects who got rid of all petty egotistic interests.”  “We thus enter a cruel world of brutal power games masked as a noble struggle of victims against oppression.”  This is the seedy and almost paradoxically segregationist underbelly of the position of the “beautiful souls” who crusade against Elvis’ supposed racism.  In this sense references to “structural” racism end up as false flags that distract from what is really the pursuit of an ignoble individualist agenda, which suggests Elvis (as an individual) somehow represents the make-or-break difference between a structurally racist or just society, and in which the accuser individually benefits (psychological or otherwise) from claiming to triumphantly reveal racism in what appears to be a race-neutral situation.

In the final analysis, Elvis was instrumental in fostering black/white integration in the United States at a time before that seemed inevitable. He wasn’t a political activist though.  Did he have an obligation to be one?  Maybe, along with a host of other obligations to not hoard wealth and opportunities in the entertainment industry.  But by the end of his life his fortunes were significantly depleted.  It is asking perhaps too much to say that Elvis should have been out front in every progressive social movement that occurred during his lifetime.  There was nothing consciously racist about Elvis in the available historical record, though from another perspective he was a rather obedient participant in an entertainment industry that included substantial racism and he perhaps failed to adequately think about his role in the continued oppression of blacks and other minorities from the late 1960s onward, thereby failing to actively distance himself from those things (and sexism, etc.) when he had the wealth and power to do so.

When Liberals Go Wrong

Charlton’s Web

Had to chuckle a little when reading the drivel that Darwin Bond-Graham and Andrew Culp published a while back as “Left Gun Nuts: Opposition to Gun Control Comes from Many on the Left Also. Here’s Why They’re Wrong.”  Most of their arguments are flawed, and some even support the conclusions they claim are “wrong”.  They use loaded and pejorative language in place of actual argument or evidence most of the time, which is why they reach such naive conclusions (see, I can use pejoratives in place of argument too!).  Mostly, though, they presuppose a liberal conclusion and simply reject all left and right outcomes a priori and then work backwards to support their “extreme center” position — while pretending to do the opposite.  This leads them to seek small short- or medium-term gains by sacrificing long-term or more abstract ones (the kind of approach criticized among environmental conservationists in the article “Historical Lessons of Successful Conservation Movements” published on the same web site, and which crippled socialist political parties in the early 20th Century).  Let’s go through their points one by one:

The people need to defend themselves against the government.

More broadly this might be phrased as “The people need to defend themselves against the powerful.”  Or perhaps as “XXII. But any act against liberty, against the security or against the property of a man, exercised by anyone, even in the name of the law, except in the cases determined by it, and the forms which they prescribe, is arbitrary and void; the very respect of the law forbids us to submit to it, and if we wish to execute it by violence; it is permissible to repel it by force.”  The authors state this position is wrong because, supposedly, “This dream is sadly a classic example of radical posturing done in the name of some distant hypothetical moment, and it ignores the actual harm that guns cause each and every day. ”  Sadly, Bond-Graham and Culp are ignorant of history here.  They live in a fantasy world in which evolutionary/progressive change is possible through the mechanisms of government established by vested interests to entrench their own power.  Guns are inanimate objects, tools that place a degree of power in the hands of those who wield them.  These authors apparently think it is proper to restrict that power to the hands of the elite.  This is an authoritarian position.  While I applaud the authors for their concern over the current material circumstances of the poor — though few on the left are “ignoring” those conditions as they claim — I disagree that those material interests can meaningfully be advanced by limiting the poor’s access to the tools of power.  The authors’ suggestion merely reinforces the moral claim of elites to exclusive control over the instruments of power more generally, and fosters the legitimation of unequal treatment of different populations.  This creates a negative feedback loop, and, in the end, reinforces the degraded material conditions of the poor.  There is a symbolic aspect to access to the tools of power that must be considered alongside the material conditions of the poor and powerless today.  Any material gains will quickly erode if the symbolic gains are not achieved first (or at the same time).

The authors acknowledge, “Of course gun control will not eliminate America’s patriarchal power structure, or pacify the culture of violence, or undo racism.”  Yes! Sadly, they don’t stop with that valid point, and instead make an unrelated argument — not supported by that point — that, “gun control can do one thing very effectively: reduce the lethality of violent acts that stem from patriarchy, racism, and inequality. Instead of dying in a hail of bullets, victims will be survivors and can more effectively fight back. Indeed, in our present political context, gun control is fighting back against patriarchy and other forms of oppression.”  This is where the article falters empirically, as discussed further below.

The authors’ car analogy (“Cars are a great example of how regulation reduces harm while creating a more equal society.”) is false.  While cars are and should be regulated, no auto regulations take away the ability of the poor to access transportation.  A better analogy would be airline security, which places onerous burdens upon travelers using commercial airlines, requiring them to submit to invasive, degrading, dragnet searches, while private and charter flight passengers face no such humiliations or invasions of privacy.

The cops should be disarmed, not the people.

The authors, in their very first sentence, agree:  “Yes, the police should be disarmed.”  Yet, strangely, they continue to argue in another direction.  They note that “the proliferation of guns in America has provided an excuse for police to further intrude in our lives.”  Maybe, but this is a disingenuous argument.  Police should not be granted power on pretextual “excuses”.  While the authors seem to agree, they return to a sort of path-of-least-resistance discourse that is premised more on expediency within existing structural conditions than viability of change to a new structural configuration.  They throw up their hands saying that the real problems can’t be solved, so we’ll merely mitigate what (smaller) problems we can.  This type of reductionist thinking is repeatedly disproved in history.

For one, the same web site published a piece that illustrates how killings by police are excised from statistical reports.  There is classification that presupposes the legitimacy of certain shootings and killings in the very manner of collection of the data.  It is a little hard to say how this factors into the specific analysis by Bond-Graham and Culp, because the authors provide no citations to the source(s) of their data.

There are plenty of specific instances to back up this view.  Bill Black wrote a short piece, “The 80th Anniversary of the Strike that Freed Minnesota from Tyranny,” about the famous 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters Strike.  He noted that the government colluded with business to create a police state that suppressed worker’s wages (and by extension, living conditions).  The government attacked a protest for better conditions by the Teamsters, using “deputy” agents.  “How can one take on a police state like the [business-run Citizens] Alliance ran in Minnesota that uses violence under the color of law as one of its many core tactics?  If [the truck-driver’s union Teamsters] Local 574 had not responded in kind to the Alliance’s attack on unarmed workers the strike would have been broken and the Alliance’s police state would have persisted.”  Although not mentioned by Black, a public commission found that “Police took direct aim at the pickets and fired to kill. Physical safety of the police was at no time endangered. No weapons were in possession of the pickets.”  This suggests that indeed guns are more dangerous in the hands of police than ordinary citizens.

The authors make no mention of a closely related argument that guns should be taken from the hands of the military.

Lenin wrote in Pravda in 1917 in favor of “Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy . . . to be replaced by the arming of the whole people.”  As François Mitterrand said in the 1980s, as he capitulated on meaningful change in France, “Either you are a Leninist. Or you won’t change anything.”

Should we also ban knives and cars and bombs and bleach and acid?

“Some pro-gun Lefties sideline the obvious [sic] merits of gun control and argue that supposedly ‘deeper’ systemic issues should be our true focus.”  They say, “Far from representing ‘state power’ over our lives, federal regulations often represent democratic rejection of the capitalist profit motive for the public good.”  This absurd argument runs entirely counter to available evidence.  Don Kates and Gary Mauser wrote “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide? A Review of International and Some Domestic Evidence” and concluded that when guns are not available, other types of tools are used to commit violence.   Knives, poisons, improvised explosive devices, clubs, etc. are all tools that can be used to kill someone.  There isn’t much support for the idea that death from a gunshot is worse than other types of murder.  And it is hard to see how the ability to “effectively fight back” against improvised explosive devices, poisons, etc. is materially greater. Bond-Graham and Culp are merely arguing that the symptoms should be treated and the root causes ignored, because nothing can really be done about the root causes so why not compromise, like worker unions did with healthcare and wages in the last half of the 20th Century (not to mention Mitterrand in France)?

Moreover, the idea that regulation is ever done in America for the purpose of “rejection of the capitalist profit motive for the public good” requires a bit more than such a casual, conclusory statement.  The late Gabriel Kolko wrote The Triumph of Conservatism and Railroads and Regulation to underscore how regulation is only really implemented when it serves the interests of business, and realistically never without business consent.  More recently, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page wrote “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” The conclusion?  Average citizens have basically no influence in American politics.  In other words, Bond-Graham and Culp’s thesis is manifestly false.  It comprises nothing more than tautology.  At best it presumes that the poor and powerless have already won by overcoming the barriers to their participation in the regulatory apparatus of government.  And that is absurd.

But wait, “should we ban bombs”?  Don’t we already….?  This brings up another argument not raised by the authors.  When you “ban guns” this usually is not a deterrent to the really bad people, who will have them anyway.  Murder is already illegal, just as is speeding in an automobile.  It still happens.  These bans primarily impact the people who are not the problem.

The government should not have a legitimate monopoly on the use of force.

The authors ask rhetorically, “is opposing gun control an effective way to challenge the violence of the American state? Does anyone honestly think that the abstract notion of gun rights is what keeps alive dreams of an armed struggle toward democratic emancipation, or imparts those who own guns with some mystical quality of ‘autonomy’ or ‘power’?”  Apparently the authors do not inhabit the real world where these philosophically superior arguments are voiced (albeit in a more serious tone, minus the authors’ condescending “strawman” reference to “mystical” qualities) and supported.  In the ghetto of their authoritarian liberal dogma, maybe it’s hard to blame them.  They probably just don’t understand.

Finally, they argue, not so much in response to any existing arguments but sua sponte, “Confronting the gun industry on the national stage could be part of a larger strategy of opposing the war industry as a whole . . . .”  Sorry, but no.  The authors claim, “On a structural level, the federal budget is often decided through ‘guns versus butter’ tradeoffs whereby every dollar of military spending is taken from the mouths of the needy.”  While, certainly, the federal budget is presented in such a manner, the reality is that a sovereign issuer of currency is not bound in this manner (only by other, political and inflationary, constraints).  Proponents of Modern Monetary Theory have explained this.  Adopting a viewpoint of guns vs. butter tradeoffs means accepting the basic terms of neoliberalism, and arguing solely on those terms.  That represents a profound capitulation, and one that places the authors clearly on the right of the political spectrum — despite pretenses of the article toward “correcting” the “leftist” perspective on guns.  But again, maybe it is simply a naive mistake on their part due to ignorance of economic matters.

Let’s turn to history more broadly though.  Historian Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (1966) posited that democracy coincidences with the availability of “amateur” weapons, and authoritarianism coincides with the dominance of specialist weapons.  Without splitting hairs about what constitutes amateur vs. specialist weapons, this kind of endorses Chairman Mao‘s dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” To look at a more specific example, black armed resistance has been cited as a key factor in freedom movements in the United States by a number of authors.  In the end, the idea that ordinary citizens should not have access to weapons fits within this framework as an endorsement of authoritarianism.  At least, this suggests that taking away guns from ordinary citizens, or limiting the weapons available to ordinary citizens to those less powerful than those wielded by specialists, correlates to anti-democratic social structures.  But such is the essence of Liberalism.

Better Approaches

It would be better if people like Bond-Graham and Culp focused on ways for the poor to seize power without the need for deadly violence as a way to obtain a more equal power distribution.  For instance, Piven-Cloward Strategies would be a good start.  Non-violent disruption of economic and bureaucratic systems works under many circumstances.  It usually involves accepting that deadly force will be used against the poor.  And their are certain preconditions — those holding power cannot be complete sociopaths.

There are other arguments that American gun “culture” is dangerous.  It certainly is.  But arguments for “gun control” measures make an assumption that “gun culture” is an ideology that vanishes if guns are not available, rather than something more abstract and persistent that might remain, largely intact, in spite of possible “gun control measures”.  For this, there is usually scant argument, let alone evidence.  Why not change the culture?  This would be hard.  So a “lowest hanging fruit” approach is taken, regardless of its troubling secondary effects.

Black Armed Resistance

Links to books about black armed resistance in freedom movements:

Negroes with Guns (1962) Robert F. Williams

We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (2013) Akinyele Omowale Umoja

Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms (2014) Nicholas Johnson

This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (2014) Charles E. Cobb, Jr.

The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement (2004) Lance Hill

The Deacons for Defense and Justice: Defenders of the African American Community in Bogalusa, Louisiana  (2000) L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr.

Bonus links: “Kurdish Women’s Radical Self-Defense: Armed and Political” and “Statement of Support for Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police”