Interview: Bertrand Cooper

"Who Actually Gets to Create Black Pop Culture?"

Bertrand Cooper writes freelance essays that draw on personal experience and social statistics to address conflicts between popular and academic descriptions of America’s poor. You can view his work in Current Affairs, People's Policy Project, or follow him on Twitter @_BlackTrash.

In one of the best essays of the year, “Who Actually Gets to Create Black Pop Culture,” Bertrand Cooper observes:

A decade of unprecedented interest in Black arts and letters has now passed—the greater portion of it bought with footage of people possessing Floyd’s particulars lying dead on the tar—and still you cannot walk into a bookstore to find a shelf named for Black authors raised in poverty. That category of experience remains absent amidst the dozens of shelves now labeled for Black authors of every other identity and intersection. I accept that Floyd’s final suffering becomes a political currency for the many, but I struggle with the fact that it purchases opportunities for the Black middle- and upper- classes, without securing a pen or a publisher for the children of Cuney Homes, without an expectation that it should, and without condemnation that it doesn’t. Those born into better conditions owe it to the injured to at least recognize that participation in this wave of Black creativity, which is intended as recompense for the dead, requires that you first be employed by it—you do not gain a share of the payout otherwise.

The essay is powerful. Cooper writes with precision, conviction and grace—a rare combination these days. He’s been busy since the essay was published, including in this worthwhile interview with the Woke Bros podcast, which I recommend to you (though do note there is some vulgarity in the episode).

I hoped to have the opportunity to share more of Bertrand’s thoughts with you, and I’m grateful he agreed to an interview. I’m glad to share our conversation with you today.

-Michael

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Michael: It has been more than a year since George Floyd was murdered. We don’t have federal criminal justice reform legislation. We don’t have federal voting rights legislation. However, I did see a Doritos commercial promoting their support for Black pop culture makers. And if I turn on a streaming service, a few rows down the menu will be an entire category “Celebrating Black Artists.”  Now, as you’re clear (I think), and as I want to be clear, the point is not that these efforts are not worth doing or without value. But there is this weird transference that happens. I know folks who do excellent work in the non-profit space who I know really had to wrestle with the fact that the protests in response to George Floyd’s murder last Summer benefited them and their work tremendously via new interest, new dollars, etc. In some cases, it’s a bit difficult to draw a straight line from what they do to, say, the life and circumstances of Floyd. In your article, you write: 

If I were from a different community, pointing out the economic disparities in popular culture—let alone in prison—might yield some kind of intervention on our behalf or at least warrant a call for one. But I am from the Black poor. What afflicts us does not belong to us—it belongs to the race, to the class-free abstractions of “Black people,” “Black communities,” “Black families.” That is the only representation we receive, and so long as this is the framing, no exclusion, no oppression, no suffering endured by us will be understood as warranting a solution designed specifically for us. 

Why is it that the benefits of efforts, even those explicitly tied to the suffering of the Black poor, so often tend to be (re)directed elsewhere?

Bertrand: In 2019, 18 percent of black Americans were living in poverty. That makes the black poor a minority within a minority. When you take into account the size of our country, slightly less than 8 million black people living in poverty equates to about 2 percent of the population. If you add in age, almost half of the black poor are under the age of eighteen. That means that the number of black poor with the ability to vote comprises only about 1 percent of the country, and this number dwindles to less than 1 percent when you consider a loss of voting rights due to things like incarceration.

So, one issue is that the black poor have no real voting power. If you combine this demographic constraint with their obvious lack of economic power, it’s clear that disregarding the black poor won’t cost you an election or a profitable business cycle. When the powers that be allow, or even encourage, an initiative intended to benefit the black poor to drift towards the interests of non-poor classes, the black poor don’t have the ability to punish them for it. As a class of people, the black poor can agitate, but “winning” on any front is utterly dependent on other Americans siding with them. That’s a weak position for any group to exist in, and, in my thinking, is the principle reason why the black poor benefit so little even during moments of intense activism, supposedly, done on their behalf.

The other salient issue for me has to do with the economic distance between classes. For example, AEI (a conservative leaning institution) defines “working class” as incomes between $30,000 - $69,000. Jacobin (left-leaning) includes incomes above $70k in its definition. But for a family of four in 2021, the federal poverty line is $26,500. This means that the highest earning family in poverty earns $3,500 less than the lowest earning working-class family; that same poor family also earns less than half of what the highest earning working class families do. These folks live world’s apart. The neighborhood you can afford to live in on $20,000 annually looks nothing like the one you can afford on $70,000. 

The economic needs of the black poor are so many magnitudes greater than that of other Americans that even if you can direct the public will towards economic minded reform, policies intended to help “poor and working class” or “poor and middle class” people end up being necessarily too broad to help both. Take free college for example. A working class family earning $60k+ annually has likely been able to provide a stable home and a decent school district for their children; they can also probably allow their kids to stay home and commute to a state school. All this family needs is for the tuition to be lowered or removed and the benefits of higher education will become largely accessible to them.

In contrast, a black child coming out of poverty probably lacks a stable home, probably has not had access to decent schooling, and may lack reliable transportation to college in addition to not having a stable residence. They are also still poor. And these are the issues before you even consider that “free tuition” doesn’t necessarily mean free textbooks, art supplies, or laptops. This is also before you consider that success in college requires running a marathon over four or more years, and students from poverty need additional supports to run that race successfully. A policy that makes college free would significantly improve the odds that children from the working, middle, and upper classes would not only graduate from college, but do so debt free. But the very same policy might have only a negligible effect on college graduation rates among the black poor because it isn’t specific enough. Similarly, test-optional policies are often promoted as beneficial to the black poor. Removing test scores increases the importance of GPA, course selection, extra curriculars, and teacher recommendations. But these, again, are things that have to be managed and developed over a four year marathon, and they require things like stable homes and reliable transportation. Test-optional removes a barrier from non-poor families who might not be able to afford elite test prep, though they can afford everything else, but it doesn’t entail enough supports to be all that beneficial for impoverished black high schoolers. 

Taken together, the black poor are dependent on the beneficence of the other classes and their economic deprivation is so severe, and thus unique, that policymakers would have to decide between initiating a very expensive program specifically tailored to the needs of the black poor or launching a much a cheaper program that would benefit two or more classes of non-poor Americans, with the latter choice much more likely to lead to election wins and increased company revenues. Because improving the lot of the black poor requires a critical mass of truly selfless actors, it hasn’t happened.

Michael: A more positive account of our current situation and modern activism might say, “yes, there have been all kinds of folks who have found ways to redirect some of the newfound attention for racial justice for elitist and or corporate ends—they always will--but we also have a child tax credit that would have been unthinkable ten years ago and the political consensus against appearing too pro-welfare or even uttering the word poverty seems to be changing. The poor never get the attention they deserve, but we’ve seen public opinion shift on poverty over the last few years as a result of this activism, even if it’s also prompted changes that largely accrue power and value to Black and other elites.” What do you say to that? Is this the best we can do? Are there true downsides to the activism and mode of discourse we’ve seen develop, or is it more a matter of a lost opportunity?

Bertrand: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2007, there were 9.6 million black Americans living in poverty. In 2020, there were 9.2 million black people living in poverty. Not much of a difference. If we really want to drive the point home, in 1988--the year I was born--there were 9.4 million black people living in poverty.

I’m focusing on the black poor in this instance, but the reality is that for Americans of all races, the big fluctuations we see in poverty numbers only occur when comparisons are done within small spans of time. That’s because small samples naturally have high volatility. Boom and bust years can temporarily change poverty numbers by a few million, but over longer stretches of time, say a decade or even two decades, the number of black Americans living in poverty barely changes. That’s an empirical fact.

Politically, Americans might not agree on much, but we can at least agree that since 1988 both liberals and conservatives have had their opportunities to hold sway over public policy. Yet, regardless of who has been in charge of uplifting the poor or the particular degree of activist zeal that has been mobilized behind that goal, everyone across the political spectrum has failed. They may have failed for reasons that are entirely outside of their control, but they failed just the same. The current wave of activism--the one identified with “social justice”--has held sway since at least 2014, and, still, the number of black Americans in poverty is the same as it was 33 years ago. Public opinion regarding the poor has improved, sure, but it might be argued that it was easy for public opinion to soften on poverty and welfare because society is not actually implementing any policies radical enough to upset the status quo. We have the concept of “lip service” for this very reason, and that’s the right context in which to examine something like the child tax credit.

At present, almost 20% of black households--around 3 million homes--earn between $50k-$75k, solidly middle-class. 30% of black American households--5.5 million--earn more than $75k annually. 3.5 million black households earn over $100k annually. Most of these households include two or more individuals. That means, for example, somewhere around 10 million black people are in the American “upper-class.”

Although people often bring up “elites” or “elitism” in response to what I wrote in Current Affairs, I don’t actually find much value in those terms. “Elites” conjures up the idea of a tiny cadre of uber-rich black Americans redirecting some of the public will towards themselves. What I actually write about is class, a set of income categories that contain tens of millions of individuals in each one. To my knowledge, the full amount of child tax credit is available to all married households earning $150,000 or less. So, in addition to the black poor, the entire black middle class and fully half of the black upper class have equal access to this program. Thus, we’re not talking about some of the goodwill that George Floyd’s death generated being redirected towards a subset of black elites. We’re talking about nearly all of the funding and awards of the child tax credit being absorbed by the non-poor majority of the black population. And the full award is, as evidenced by the Census numbers, not enough to lift most black Americans out of poverty. At the same time, if the child tax credit did not offer a payout to the middle and upper class, it probably wouldn’t pass. Again, it seems to me that it would take a truly selfless effort on the part of the non-poor majority to do anything substantive for the poor. In my estimation, most of our “pro-poor” policies are like paying a little extra to fluff the pillows at a hospice.

Michael: I thought of you when I saw The Atlantic’s recent cover story on “The Unwritten Rules of Black TV” by Hannah Giorgis. What did you think of the article, and how it relates to your essay and thinking?

Bertrand: Earlier this year, Ibram X. Kendi called the recent proliferation of black faces in popular culture proof that we had entered into “The Black Renaissance.” The increase in opportunities for black creators over the last ten years came as a result of poor black Americans, such as George Floyd, being murdered in ways so heinous and sensational that popular culture was expected to respond in some way. It did so by offering jobs to black creators. But Kendi never brings up the fact that nearly all of the opportunity is being necessarily directed towards the black middle and upper classes because popular culture is a college educated industry; Kendi either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that George Floyd wouldn’t even be able to apply for the pop culture jobs being handed out in his honor. As far as Kendi's essay is concerned, success is proportional to the number of black faces we see, and so we are already in a position to celebrate.  

Hannah Giorgis’ piece in this month’s Atlantic includes an interesting history of black presence in popular culture along with some nice interviews. It also eschews the triumphalist tone that characterized Kendi’s essay, but that’s about it in terms of meaningful differences. Folks should read her whole article, but I’ll note that the last paragraph summarizes the point which I’ll paraphrase: people of African descent have increased in front of the camera but have not increased enough to achieve population parity (i.e. 13% "black") in the writer’s room or among executives. The solution? Networks and streaming platforms must get more people of African descent into these positions. Giorgis’ desired end state could be achieved the same way Harvard achieves perfect black representation every year: grab all the richest kids of African descent until you hit 13% or more. Any feature of those students beyond black skin is irrelevant. She isn’t asking for more people who grew up like George Floyd or myself to be granted inroads into popular culture. More black people of any kind will do. Said differently, solutions that continue to see people of African descent as interchangeable remain acceptable ways to improve popular culture. 

Michael: How do you think about the future of your writing? How do you most want to use your skills and your voice? How do you decide what to focus on and where? 

Bertrand: I’ll say, first, that it feels awfully kind of you, or anyone else, to suggest that my writing has a future or that I possess either skill or a voice.
 
If I can step outside of myself and my particular context for a moment: as soon as women were allowed into academic psychology, I’m sure it was obvious to them that many of the experiments which claimed to reveal something about humanity had left women out of the sample. That single observation, which anyone possessing a female identity is likely to stumble upon, undermines decades of research while simultaneously calling into question the judgment of every psychologist who failed to notice the absence of women up to that point. It also possesses the sort of built-in controversy that non-fiction writers seek. Excluding half of the species that you’re trying to understand is kind of a monumental error, and it gives endless opportunities to revisit older research or write popular science investigations of the Malcolm Gladwell variety.

Personally, I write about the obvious, so I’ve yet to need any particular cleverness or writing acumen to find topics. The black poor make up around two percent of the nation and probably account for less than 10 percent of the black folks who obtain a bachelor’s degree—somewhere around 90 percent of black bachelor’s degree awardees were raised in the middle or upper class. Henry Louis Gates Jr. has gone on the record saying that around two thirds of all the black students at Harvard are first- or second-generation immigrants of African or West Indian descent, which are—unsurprisingly—the highest earning subsets of black America. A joint study out of Princeton and UPenn found that those observations held pretty much across the spectrum of selective schools.

Since impoverished descendants of chattel slavery have been all but absent from every college educated industry, and I happen to be one such descendant, I could probably write about our absence, its implications, and the other things that are obvious to me for as long as I want to. There’s sufficient material for a never ending career given my lack of peers. I’m a token, such that readers would be hard pressed to think of another black millennial possessing my same attributes, like memories of living in a crack den, who has received similar writing opportunities. That said, I don’t want to write about these things for very long. I’ll aim to get the core of the Current Affairs argument out to a few more audiences—mainstream ones—and non-poor people will either be moved to do something or they won’t. If Netflix or the NYT announced tomorrow that all future diversity initiatives would consider class background within race before doling out staff writing gigs, that might be sufficient evidence that I don’t need to write about this anymore. Alternatively, the black middle and upper classes could start openly admitting to white audience that they didn’t grow up like George Floyd; that too would be indicative that I can stop.