Robin D. G. Kelley’s Yo Mama’s Disfunktional! outlines the ideological culture war African Americans have engaged in through the latter half of the 20th century. By reframing the root causes of social issues in terms of individual actions, neoliberal/neoconservative agents minimize the role of policy and maximize the role of poor people of color in their own demise. Despite being written in the 90s, many of the issues Kelley brings to the forefront in his book continue to be relevant.
Kelley wrote the book in response to what he considers most prevalent and damaging “yo mama” joke in modern American society: the demonization of black mothers (and by extension black culture). Kelley describes how social scientists invented this version of “black culture” that is centered on poverty, (bad) behavior, and deficits. This oversimplified version of “blackness” glosses over hybridity and complexity in the black experience in America. These constructs, in turn, help justify the enactment of neoliberal policy decisions and provide vitriol for neoconservative ideologues to blame “black culture” for the social woes many black people experience.
Kelley provides case studies of basketball and hip-hop cultures as examples of this process of essentializing, leading to policy, leading to behavior, leading to additional essentializing, and so on, in a worsening cycle of judgement and policy action. Kelley argues that neoliberal reforms themselves created the rampant unemployment and social dilapidation that contextualize the emergence of basketball and hip-hop cultures in black America. Nevertheless, Kelley asserts that many social scientists, policymakers, and ideologues treat the hybridization of work and play these cultures represent as outcomes of black priorities and not as strategic decisions in response to structural deficits and symbolic violence levied upon the black community. Meanwhile, the neoliberal establishment argues that government assistance is precisely what led people to deficit situations in the first place, with “bootstrap” solutions serving as the only appropriate way out of these deficits. Kelley responds to this neoliberal ideal by suggesting that black Americans should feel entitled to the assistance they deserve as tax-paying citizens and that self-built ideologies are myths upheld by corruption and government subsidies (in other words welfare systems) for the rich.
Kelley also attacks the ideologies espoused by activists in the left framing class struggle as more important than “identity politics.” Kelley situates these arguments within neo-Enlightenment thought and teases out the racist/sexist/prejudiced/politicized perspectives hiding behind their supposed “universalism.” Kelley also cites racist construction worker unions in the 60s and AFL-CIO’s alignment with cold war policies as examples of prejudiced/politicized action even within the “universalist” framework. Kelley’s last chapter then surveys examples of (then) current union activism that best approach the slogan from the Black Women’s United Front: “abolition of every possibility of oppression and exploitation.” Two salient trends in these examples of union activism include the tendency for labor in the United States (and the world) to become increasingly contingent/subcontracted and the approaches organized labor takes to unify a decentralized mass of workers.
Kelley’s book is disappointingly relevant, despite being as old as many third and fourth year undergraduate students currently enrolled at UCLA. The culture war waged against people of color is ongoing, with social media and the internet amplifying these battles daily, and giving contingents on multiple sides of these arguments the means to wage post-mortems after every such engagement. Just last Friday (editor’s note: 4/20/18 at the time this was written), Candace Owens, a black neoconservative personality, spoke at UCLA and engaged in the very rhetoric Kelley described 20 years ago. She accused Black Lives Matter activists protesting the event of engaging in “a culture of victimhood” and praised her audience for embracing “a victor” culture. Then rapper Kanye West tweeted that “[he loves] how Candace Owens thinks” and dozens of ideologically driven blogs and news outlets responded. Nevertheless, these tools are also available for activists and radicals as well, with the potential for widespread, decentralized social movement in the vein of the Black Women’s United Front constantly evolving and hopefully emerging.
Kelley, Robin D. G. 1997. Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. Beacon Press.