American Renaissance

Cool Beyond White: How pop culture sets the tone of diversity for the country

American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business & the End of White America, by Leon E. Wynter

Reviewed by James Sullivan, San Francisco Chronicle, August 25, 2002

Is the slam dunk as American as apple pie? Bold, showy and emphatic, basketball’s signature power move might be seen as the athletic analog of the country’s irrepressible audacity.

Hard to believe today, but it was only a generation ago that basketball’s caretakers saw the dunk as gaudy and gratuitous, an unwelcome product of the upstart (and largely black-identified) American Basketball Association. Commentators “windily presumed it as poor form for a player to dunk when a layup would do,” writes Leon Wynter in his shrewd study of the nation’s changing social face, “American Skin.”

But longtime NBA Commissioner David Stern saw the incalculable value of the dunk’s connection with audiences. Stern, widely credited with elevating the NBA from a struggling sports league to an era-defining cultural phenomenon, tells Wynter it was simply a matter of appealing to potential newcomers.

“What one generation grows up on, they think is the norm,” Stern says. “Then all of a sudden you get the next generation — that’s just life.”

The next generation of Americans, notes Wynter, who wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Business and Race column for 10 years, will grow up knowing no popular culture dominated by whites. It has been widely reported that the country is well on its way to a majority of “minorities”; that, in fact, is already the case in California.

And the entertainment world clearly reflects it. Hip-hop hasn’t simply spawned America’s best-selling music; it is the country’s prevailing lifestyle.

Advertisers are eager to associate themselves with a diversity of faces where people of northern European descent would have once been the norm. And, as Wynter points out, there is now room in Hollywood for several dozen top-flight actors of color, where previous generations may have known only a Sidney Poitier or a Diahann Carroll.

Everything American, of course, had its origin elsewhere on the globe. (Even the apple pie of our most beloved cliche was an immigrant German contribution to New World cupboards.) That phrase in the author’s subtitle — “The End of White America” — isn’t meant to suggest a racial overthrow so much as a collective embrace of our multiplicity. “We’re all the same color to Kmart,” Wynter writes. “Green.”

Wynter’s book is less a product of academic number-crunching than one man’s subjective reading of the cultural signposts. As such, it is an engaging conversation on the nation’s favorite topic — the melting pot, or, as he likes to call it, transracial America. The author, looking to advertising for much of his inspiration, considers one of the pivotal points in the “browning” of the culture to be a 1979 TV commercial for Coca-Cola, in which the hulking, sweaty black football star “Mean” Joe Greene thanks a young white kid who gives him a soda by tossing the boy his jersey. It was “the first major commercial to harness, if not confront, the fearful stereotypes of black maleness that American political culture had built for centuries — to make a positive selling point,” he writes.

Some of the author’s anecdotes are personal and seemingly trivial, such as the encounter he had with an immigrant waitress while he was attending a National Association of Black Journalists convention in Atlanta. “In the next America that is now,” he suggests, “there’s every reason why a new Asian — American might be serving an African-American journalist spring rolls in barbecue sauce at a black convention in a first-class hotel restaurant in the home of country music and big hair.” That kind of aside, charming as it is, is like painting by numbers.

But that is a picayune quarrel, and Wynter evidently relishes the debate. He is at his best when he cheers the continued browning of the culture, even at the expense of the African American identity politics he grew up with. In a chapter devoted to publisher John H. Johnson (Ebony, Jet) and his successors in the black magazine market, the author describes how “the mainstreaming of black icons and black culture has made the old political blackness” — epitomized by the black magazines’ fiercely guarded sense of “community” — “an endangered species.”

Although the relationship between black and white dominates the discourse, as it tends to do, Wynter notes the growing political and financial clout of other identity groups. He delights in a 1999 New York Times report that acknowledged the proliferation in the American motel business of Asian Indians,

a disproportionate number of them surnamed Patel. (Thus the priceless headline “A Patel Motel Cartel?”) And the author especially enjoys reporting on the growing marketing power of proudly racially mixed celebrities such as Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods, who are “freely packaging (their) talents for a shelf labeled ‘class by himself.’ “ As the hip-hop producer and executive Bill

Stephney says, “It’s all so crazy fluid!”

More often than not, Wynter lets the field specialists, especially the advertisers, boost his case for that crazy fluidity. Breakthrough ad campaigns such as the Mean Joe Greene spot or Michael Jackson’s huge endorsement deal with Pepsi were seen as reflections of the new America, one that had moved past a hard-won racial tolerance into an impatient longing to transcend altogether the divisions of the past.

“At some point,” says one high-ranking ad director, “it was no longer that cool was represented by black. It was that cool was cool. And I want cool.” And really, what American does not?