Over time, literal sacrifice became somewhat socially unacceptable. Legal executions, which had long been well-attended, public, outdoor events, went indoors after the Civil War. Government gradually came to the consensus that public ceremonies of state cruelty were not fit for decent folk. At the same time, lynching incidents increased dramatically, coming to a head in the 1890s, but lasting for generations. Eventually, even Southern politicians grudgingly accepted that the practice was contributing to a negative view of their region.
So America has found subtler means to quarantine our cultural shadow, especially since 1980, when the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement began in earnest. Over half of the prison population are men of color, whom we continue to police, profile and punish in hugely disproportionate numbers. Forced institutionalization is our symbolic underworld and the prime repository for our scapegoats. With five percent of the world’s population, we have a quarter of its prisoners. Over 500,000 Americans work in corrections, tending to a prison population that has risen by six hundred percent since 1970. Now, one in every thirty adults is in the corrections system. Over 25,000 Americans dwell in solitary confinement, one third of whom, because of this treatment, will become psychotic.
The U.S. is the only democracy that disenfranchises felons, over five million people, two million of whom are black. This simple fact has utterly determined the course of recent history. The more African-Americans a state contains, the more likely it is to ban felons from voting. The average state disenfranchises 2.4% of its voting-age population but 8.4% of blacks. In fourteen states, the share of blacks stripped of the vote exceeds 10%, and in five states it exceeds 20%. While 75% of whites register, only 60% of blacks are able to. Prior to 2008, at least seven Republican senators owed their election to these laws. Had felons been allowed to vote in the 2000 election, Al Gore’s popular vote margin would have doubled to a million. If Florida had allowed just ex-felons to vote at that time, he would have carried the state by 30,000 votes and with it the presidency. You can find these statistics and far more in Michelle Alexanders’ The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
The myth of innocence identifies young black men as inherently and irredeemably violent, regardless of evidence to the contrary. When such men show they can rise above the soul-killing economic conditions imposed upon them, the state is forced to intervene and prove its accusations. For example, writes Luis Rodriguez, Southern California youth gangs have repeatedly crafted truces over the years, only to have them deliberately sabotaged by the Los Angeles police. Follow the numbers: budgets for the militarization of the police depend upon the reliable, predictable presence of the Other in the public imagination.
From the beginning, America has treated its national scapegoats despicably, from the Native people to the Chinese to the Latinos to Moslems. But why are we periodically compelled to lynch only one of them?
Since the beginning, popular thinking has always been polarized along racial lines:civilized vs. primitive, abstinence vs. promiscuity and sobriety vs. intoxication. Together, these stereotypes have expressed a more fundamental opposition between composure andimpulsivity (mythologically, between Apollo and Dionysus). The worst of all sins to the Puritan is lack of self-control.
Even while similar percentages of whites and blacks engage in sex, drugs and violence, whites believe stereotypes of blacks as more susceptible to such “vices.” This allows whites, wrote Ralph Ellison, “…to be at home in the vast unknown world of America.”
The process of “othering” is not logical. As with archetypes, when one pole of a stereotype is active, so is its opposite. Even as they perceive blacks as unable to control their desires, large majorities of whites accuse blacks of the Puritan’s second worst sin, laziness. Disregarding all other social and economic issues, two thirds of white Americans believe that the problems suffered by blacks are due to their preference for welfare over work. This is an odd claim, writes Tim Wise, “…seeing as how five out of six blacks don’t receive any.” Generations of cynical politicians (aided by church and media) have terrorized Americans simultaneously with both sides of the Other: They are lazy welfare cheats – and – they will take your jobs away.
The next step in scapegoating is manipulating the fear that those who can’t control their desires will tempt us to follow them, that we might not be able to resist temptation. The black man is America’s modern Dionysus. Like the enigmatic outsider of The Bacchae, he comes from beyond the gates to liberate the women, to lead them to the mountains to dance among themselves, free of patriarchal control.
The projection of American Dionysus combines scapegoating with envy of those who appear to be comfortable in their bodies and unrestrained in their desires. In a culture that elevates the dry, masculine, Apollonian virtues of spirit over the wet, feminine and Dionysian, blacks proudly use the word soul to define their music and culture in contrast to the dominant national values. White youth understand the term instinctively. Orlando Patterson observes that in only a few generations since the 1960s America’s image of the internal Other has expanded to include aspects of which white America is now admittedly, nervously envious. This ultimate Dionysian symbol crosses boundaries and dissolves them. “The Afro-American male body – as superathlete, as irresistible entertainer…as sexual outlaw, as gangster.”
Black athletes and entertainers attract a mainstream culture that is over-balanced toward Apollonian demands. In this context, African-American images have become a “Dionysian counterweight” unstably balanced with the discipline required of those who must tolerate the conditions of the modern workplace. Dionysus has free reign in the inner cities, where he remains safely contained, “…until the instinctual need for release from the Apollonian pressures…calls for its tethered, darkened presence”…until a scapegoat is needed.
Blacks provide much of the cultural container that allows white youth (who purchase 70% of hip-hop music) to act out some mild rebellion between their suburban school years and the corporate life they must eventually submit to. This is no initiation, merely a controlled transition into consumer lifestyles. All learn to suppress their innate grandiosity of soul and project it onto celebrities. Instead of living creative lives as involved citizens, we consume the cultural products, including Dionysus, that the media feeds to us. Generally, however, we prefer to watch the Dionysian experience, like Pentheus in his tree spying on the maenads.
Assuming that blacks have a certain license to behave in ways the culture as a whole chooses to repress, whites project both fear and envy. Some blacks play along for profit. Others, writes historian Gerald Early, resent “the entrapment of sensuality we are forced to wear as a mask for the white imagination.” Meanwhile, Hip-Hop subculture reflects the killing of the children back toward the wider culture. It displays anger and self-confidence in the lyrics, but (as Michael Meade has noted) grief and depression in the clothing: baggy pants, drooping below the waste; everything pulled down; collapsed. Adolescents, especially minorities, are well aware of being forced to carry the weight of the world that their parents cannot.
From the perspective of those who bear the projection of American Dionysus, the subtext of most of our pressing domestic issues is race.
Is Welfare a “black” problem? A million black children live in “extreme poverty” (defined as disposable annual income of less than $7,000 for a family of three). Think about that statistic: show an income of $7,001 with your two children and you are not in “extreme poverty.” But the typical welfare recipients are a thirty-year-old woman and her two children, forced there by divorce and abandoned by their unemployed father. The media-driven narrative of the black welfare cheat is deliberately intended to veil the issues of corporate welfare, military waste, financial corruption and deindustrialization.
Realistic estimates of poverty in America prior to the current economic collapse ranged from forty to eighty million people, most of them white. To admit the racial dimensions of the issue and the degree to which even poor whites have privilege is to call the foundations of our culture into question. Actually, the generosity of state welfare reform varies according to demography: those with overwhelmingly white populations have stronger safety nets and impose softer sanctions.
The reaction against the Civil Rights movement came to a head when Ronald Reagan inspired his followers with tales of black welfare mothers riding about in Cadillacs. Don’t these pictures evoke Dionysus, with his frenzied women and satyrs, parading through town, spreading their “values” like Mardi Gras beads? Aren’t they the essence of the sinful, fallen life to the puritanical, masculine mind, and aren’t they tantalizing? What if all his self-control didn’t guarantee redemption? What if “they” really are not just happier but better?
Curiously, we project onto blacks and browns exactly what the heritage of discrimination ensures that they don’t have: power and influence. Lurid headlines in the early 1990s warned of amoral “superpredators” who’d kill for basketball shoes. In fact, blacks commit only a quarter of all violent crimes, and whites are far more likely to be assaulted by other whites than by blacks. But race-based fear trumps common sense, and politicians continue to profit by promising, like Pentheus, to seize Dionysus and lock him up. In mythological terms the metaphor of Dionysus is quite appropriate. We recall that even seven hundred years before Christ (another scapegoat), the Greeks were already telling stories of how the Titans, enemies of the Olympians, had dismembered Dionysus. Even then, the god of misrule and irrationality – the original Other – was too dangerous to be fully accepted into the City.
The frenzy of prison construction and execution of minorities continues even as national crime rates drop. Over 2,000 prisoners are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were seventeen or younger. Black youths are serving life without parole at a rate of about 10 times that of white youths.
Black men, simply by being visible, contribute to our unique ebb-and-flow of fear and denial. Whites begin to remove their children from local schools and move out when neighborhoods become as little as eight percent black. Although the streets are safer than a generation ago, many whites have conceded urban space to the Other, preferring to watch easy solutions in urban crime dramas, or to bypass poor neighborhoods entirely en route to suburban malls and sports arenas.
The economy, however, requires the presence of the Other, to support much of the service sector (imagine what you’d have to pay for sushi without Latinos in the kitchen) as well as to justify its military-prison complex and the “War on Drugs.” And, to bring our attention back to Ferguson, countless cash-strapped cities with large minority populations and white police forces have long been collecting up to 50% of their operating budgets through racially-profiled traffic stops.
But What About Ferguson?