Friday, July 03, 2009

Even the King of Pop Stirs Racial Divide

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The first nasty inkling that even the King of Pop can stir the racial divide came with the the Mt. Everest size list of postings on blogs, chat rooms, and websites the week after the death of icon Michael Jackson. The comments ranged from mild rebuke to pure venom in which the writers dredged up all the old drug, child molestation, and other dirt digs on Jackson. In many cases they explicitly took big racial swipes at Jackson, papa Joe Jackson, and Jackson family members. Then there was the inevitable instant poll taken days after his death to measure just how popular Jackson really was with Americans.
A CNN poll found that a bare majority of Americans were thrilled by the Pop King. But as always buried in the numbers was the racial kicker. The overwhelming majority of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians hailed Jackson. A decisive majority of whites, especially older whites, said that Jackson had no appeal to them. The age factor in the line in the sand on Jackson is to be expected. Though Jackson at the time of his death was uncomfortably ensconced as a middle-age pop star on the rebound, his music, dance and style appeal to the young and hip.

But age alone doesn’t explain the top heavy racial split. A majority of older blacks in informal surveys and interviews clearly like Jackson, if not solely for his music, for smashing musical and racial barriers in his artistry, in defying Sony and MTV and demanding top money and billing for his music, and for the role he played in opening the doors for other black artists. They remember a few years back when he marched on and picketed Sony with Al Sharpton in tow and his blasts at it as a racist institution. This tagged him in their eyes as a black man ready to challenge the corporate musical establishment. The snickers and wisecracks that Jackson had betrayed his racial roots by remaking himself as a whitish, cartoon caracture didn’t cut much ice with most blacks.
Jackson is no Mike Tyson, O.J. Simpson, or Michael Vick. There would never be a gaggle of sportswriters, talking head commentators, and pundits heaping every pejorative that they could think of on his head. Jackson’s innate sweetness, childlike innocence, vulnerability, and his big hearted charitable giving insulated him from that type of vilification. Yet, none of this is enough to obliterate the tint of race from Jackson.
There are some distinct markers that Jackson has beyond age and musical tastes that send a racial signal up. He lived an opulent and princely lifestyle. This always engenders grumbles and resentment in some quarters.There was a widespread rush to judgment during his child molestation trial that he was guilty of the terrible things that he was charged with. His clean and full acquittal didn’t totally wipe the smear away. And he is an African-American male.

This can’t be cavalierly shrugged off. The finger point at President Obama as the supreme example to refute any charge that black males are still routinely stereotyped, negatively typecast, and reviled is not a compelling argument that the old the racial myths have totally vanished. During and after the Presidential campaign, polls consistently showed that while Obama got a high likeability rating from a big majority of whites, many whites still clung tightly to the ancient negative, stereotypical fears of black males and strongly questioned their work ethnic and competence. Though Obama did soften the racial barrier when the final vote was in, he didn’t demolish it. The majority of whites still voted against him.
Jackson found out the hard way that at the first touch of legal taint that fan adulation, goodwill, and fame can vanish faster than a Houdini disappearing act. Long before he touched a toe in the courtroom, much of the old racial typecasting of black males when the allegation is a sexual crime quickly kicked in. The aquittal prompted more finger wags that Jackson was able to use his fame and name, and his A team, high priced attorneys to massage the legal system to skip away scot free.
While Jackson, unilike O.J. Simpson, was not a public pariah and polarizing figure, for a time he was damaged goods. The ill fated 50 city concert tour was a monumental risk and a gamble, given his tattered image.
Millions will hail Jackson at his public memorial tribute. They will continue to hail him for his enduring world class music and artistry. But sandwiched in between this some will continue to pick, probe and nag at him for his alleged drug use and addiction, and oddity. Jackson likely will never get a complete pass in death from the negative stuff. Sadly this comes with the turf when the racial divide inevitably rears its ugly head; even for the King of Pop.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and nationally on