Activist icon Ishmael Reed on the racist news
industry, the Tea Party and why American
publishers don’t like him
JIM CROW NEVER LEFT: Reed
by CHRIS BARRY
Generally considered one of the more controversial figures in the field of African-American letters, Ishmael Reed and his tireless commentary on the state of race relations in the U.S. are not only choice targets for his obvious detractors on the right of the political spectrum, but also among many on the left—the “white progressives” whom he consistently chastises in any of his dozens of books. His latest effort, Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The Return of the Nigger Breakers, takes aim at the current state of American media and its alleged role in the continued marginalization of Afro-Americans.
Mirror: Is there any particular reason why you have a Canadian publisher for a book dealing primarily with American socio-political issues?
Ishmael Reed: Because my agent said no American publisher would publish it. My books are rejected all the time. Last year, a publisher asked me to write my memoirs, but after submitting a few chapters, they rejected it. They feel they make more money having whites write about blacks, like The Help, that bestseller written by a white woman about her mammy. Black writers makes them too uncomfortable.
M: What’s the theme of your new book?
IR: It focuses on how the power of media, especially now with cable, has increased so that it’s not only able to influence but to raise and actively participate in the opposition to the President. Media owners like Rupert Murdoch are able to control, or confine, Afro-American thought in the media to the right. People who have no constituency in the Afro-American community are disproportionately represented on cable and elsewhere because it’s sure they won’t make their white target audiences uncomfortable. As I say in the book, two per cent of African-Americans voted for George Bush, and all those two per cent seem to have jobs on cable.
M: But what about people like Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post, or Gwen Ifill on PBS NewsHour. Do you simply dismiss these folk as Uncle Toms who…
IR: Robertson is a mild-mannered moderate, he has to be to keep his job at the Post—which has been picketed by black people for its portrayal of Afro-Americans and is now aligned with a neo-con site called Slate, which in turn influences their bogus Afro-American site the Root, whose head man is Henry Gates [of last year’s Beer Summit fame]. So you have these neo-con war hawks influencing what is supposed to be an Afro-American ’zine, a ’zine which holds Afro-Americans behaviour and lifestyles as being responsible for their poverty. Well, I live in the inner city and I think it’s just a little more complicated than that.
M: Do you honestly believe there’s an organized conspiracy within the media to marginalize Afro-Americans?
IR: It’s not organized, but their chief market are whites, while they ignore the growing influence of the Asian-American/African-American and Hispanic coalition, the people actually responsible for getting Obama elected.
M: Would you agree what passes for political discourse these days is at an all-time low?
IR: Yes. And that’s only partially because of Fox News. I mean, the Tea Party came out of CNBC, the business channel. That was no grassroots movement—that was started by Rick Santelli and Koch Industries, whose owner is the ninth richest man in the United States. The insurance companies are behind this Tea Party thing and some of the reporters at Fox have actually gone out, organized and spoken for them. It’s fundamentally a racist movement. The media always talks about its importance yet their march on Washington only drew 3,000 people. I mean, two dozen people calling Obama a chimp does not warrant coverage.
M: What do you suggest the black community do to change their situation?
IR: All I can do is point things out. African-Americans still have some power in cyberspace but I can’t become a regular on MSNBC telling Chris Matthews that affirmative action isn’t a black program, that the typical recipients of affirmative action are white women, or how white women are the biggest substance abusers in California while the jails are full of black and Hispanic women. White judges give white people breaks. Remember that white boy who broke into Senator Landrieu’s office under false pretenses? James O’Keefe, the same white boy who brought down ACORN while posing as a pimp? What do you think would happen if a black, Hispanic or Muslim kid walked into a U.S. senator’s office under false pretenses? Except this boy gets off with a misdemeanor—a little fine and becomes a big celebrity. A black kid would get serious prison time for that. If a Muslim kid had done it, he’d be down in Gitmo.