The Common Good
September-October 1995

A Culture in Common

by Danny Duncan Collum | September-October 1995

We hear a lot today about how divided we Americans are on matters of culture.

We hear a lot today about how divided we Americans are on matters of culture. In mainstream media discussions, these divisions are often lumped under the heading of "the culture wars." In many such discussions, race and ethnicity are considered one of the

key fissures in the culture and one of the hottest battles in the war.

This is a half-truth that is, in fact, worse than a lie. It is certainly true that Americans today are divided on myriad cultural questions ranging from the public exercise of religion to the public display of sex. But America's cultural divisions are not necessarily drawn along the lines of race.

For instance, a couple of months back a series of stories appeared on newspaper front pages noting the chasm between black and white TV viewing habits. For instance, Seinfeld (NBC) is the most popular situation comedy among white viewers. It has virtually no black audience. In black America, Fox's Living Single is the most popular show of any genre, but it ranks low on the overall viewer ratings because of its small white viewership.

This was a significant story for what it told us about the increasing fragmentation of the television audience. But there is an equally significant untold story between the lines of the one that was printed. That story is about the rise of the Fox Network itself.

The meteoric rise of the fourth network was made possible by the consolidation of the black audience with the youth market and the neglected blue-collar white viewers. Lowball appeals to various pieces of this coalition can be seen in Fox's black-oriented sitcoms like the aforementioned Living Single and Martin; the Generation X soap operas Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210; and such blue-collar slob comedies as Married With Children and Herman's Head.

All of these shows, regardless of the color of the characters, draw a strong mix of younger, working-class viewers, black and white. The white audience that does exist for black-oriented shows, like Living Single, is found among the working-class whites, the kind who wouldn't be caught dead watching the yuppie Seinfeld and its spawn.

In Fox's best programs, such as The Simpsons and the late, lamented In Living Color, the categories fuse and an audience of network outsiders is drawn together in the best rebellious and democratic tradition of American popular art. For instance The Simpsons, featuring an animated white, blue-collar family, is so popular among African-American viewers that a few years back a hot-selling "Black Bart" edition of the Bart Simpson T-shirt appeared on inner-city streets with the mischievous juvenile's face and hair dyed brown and black.

THIS IS A STORY of race and class in American culture that can be read in the demographic breakdown of television ratings. The Fox Network entered the field to take advantage of the cable-era fragmentation in the TV audience. In the mid-1980s, cable service became all but universal among the upper-middle-class viewers most sought by corporate advertisers. As a result, programming on the traditional broadcast networks turned toward luring upper-income viewers away from cable. They did this by offering an endless stream of shows about the travails and high jinks of well-to-do lawyers, doctors, and ad men (L.A. Law, St. Elsewhere, thirtysomething, et al.).

This left a huge working-class, and still largely uncabled, audience out in the cold. Fox rushed into the vacuum and an interracial working-class video culture of sorts was born. (The point here is not that Fox programming is so great. A lot of it is mediocre, and Married With Children is downright squalid. The point, rather, is that at least in the case of all those Living Single vs. Seinfeld stories, knee-jerk attention to race can blind us to the more creative possibilities that can arise from our popular culture as it is both shaped and consumed by its audiences.)

In your typical "culture war" bull session, rap music is usually cited as one of the most glaring symptoms of cultural division and decline in America. Rarely do the anti-rap diatribes pause to note the fact that the rap music audience is much more racially integrated than the rock or soul audiences of the 1960s ever were. In fact, the most controversial "hardcore" rappers are the ones with the largest white audiences, a detail of at best ambiguous import, since it may mean that the popularity of the "hardcore" stars stems in part from their seeming confirmation of white racist stereotypes about black brutality.

However, in all the political verbiage that was directed at rapper Ice T's song "Cop Killer," it was rarely reported that the song came from an album in which Ice T fused rap and heavy-metal rock styles in an overt attempt to build a class-based rock and rap coalition. But, whether the arbiters of mainstream culture can see it or not, that coalition does exist, at least at the record stores and in the concert halls.

Back in early June, I was at a performance of traditional country music out in rural West Virginia. There I happened to see a white working-class boy, about 12 years old, who was obviously brought to the event by his parents. The boy was wearing the now-familiar hip-hop uniform of baggy shorts, high-top sneakers, and an oversized T-shirt. His shirt bore a promotion for the movie Panther, an unabashed celebration of the Black Panther Party's early days, written and directed by black artists. Whatever mixed signals that picture may evoke, it is certainly not a picture of an America irredeemably divided by cultural misunderstanding. n

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM is a free-lance writer living in Alexandria, Virginia.

 

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