Salon 21st: No, Virginia, black folks aren't cool: Leonce Gaiter writes that the Web's anarchic town square feels like a hostile place for African-Americans still eager to embrace old-fashioned values.

By Leonce Gaiter

Published July 5, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

the surveys aren't very precise, but however you count them, it seems that a significantly smaller percentage of American blacks use the Worldwide Web than their white fellow citizens.

Why? While everyone from hide-yer-tails white militiamen to cosmic conspiracy paranoids to lonelyhearts clubbers visit the Web, why do so few black Americans do so? Is it something intrinsic in the medium? Is the Web somehow racist? Is the issue purely economic?

Let me answer with a story: I once had a landlady who thought she was hip. A potter by trade, she dressed in gauzy cottons and attended gallery openings and thus qualified as among L.A.'s liberal arts set. Complaining to me about the black next-door neighbors because they objected to her backyard marijuana plants, she said, "I thought black people were cool."

It's a testament to the majority's ignorance of black culture that my landlady probably spoke for a great many with that statement. Yes, black folks brought you jazz. Yes, we are famed in the popular mind for adapting forms of music, speech and worship to suit our own ends, the rules be damned -- and we have historically been demonized in the majority mind for congenital lawlessness. Yet in fact we are the product of a culture that is among the most conventional and, yes, even timid in modern America.

For instance, with the clarion call of order and discipline, Louis Farrakhan filled the D.C. streets with nearly 1 million black men. Can you imagine such stalwart words enticing a million white folks to cross the country? Additionally, only 35 years from legalized segregation and enforced second-class citizenship, black Americans still honor the idea of a firm foothold in the middle class, with all of the virtues (and vices) that that implies. A lot of us are still trying to grasp the good old tried-and-true. We haven't necessarily graduated from "The Cosby Show" to "Roseanne." We are the farthest thing from cool.

The Web, however, is cool. The Web is the antithesis of middle-class virtues. New, chaotic, shamelessly undisciplined, alternately revolutionary and reactionary, the Web, by nature, butts heads with entrenched Afro-American cultural truths. It mocks some of our fundamental beliefs, our core desires.

Malcolm CasSelle, co-founder of NetNoir, told USA Today that "African-Americans just don't perceive the value of the Internet." That's because the Web can't help us achieve our '50s and '60s ideals. We still want the corporate American dream -- a good steady job with benefits, a shot at the executive suite -- while the rest of the country moves on to dreams of entrepreneurship and self-employment.

Suggesting a break with what many consider Afro-American tradition is often greeted with dismay or dismissal. Not only are we outrageously conservative in our cultural outlook, we can be awfully self-righteous about it as well.

On a radio show last year I suggested that black Americans should look beyond marching in the streets to gain political power. After all, the Christian right does not hold street rallies, yet has gained political muscle out of all proportion to its numbers. The Web is among the tools the right uses to solidify and mobilize its power base; I suggested that black Americans should do the same.

Another guest, a black reverend, stated flatly that black Americans were a people who relied on mass public demonstrations for political gain. Period. He made the statement as if putting into words an inalterable truth. It was as if he was stating that black Americans are people with dark skin.

This man was so married to the '50s and '60s legacy that he could not see that times had changed. It was as if he believed that we marched in the '50s and '60s and have yet to get what we sought, and so we will keep marching and seeking those same results until we achieve them. (Remember the Million Man March? Does anyone remember the Million Man March?)

We fail to realize, however, that by the time we get the results we seek, they will be what no one else wants, and we will have foregone opportunities like those offered by the Web and other high-tech, chaos-theory-driven engines onto which the majority will have climbed and ridden away.

We are American traditionalists in the extreme -- and I am torn between being proud of that fact and being irked by it. On the one hand, it was that traditionalism -- our middle-class strivings and solidly Christian social mores -- that kept us from violence while this country's majority made sport of spitting on us. And on the other hand, well ... that same traditionalism kept us from violence while this country's majority made sport of spitting on us.

Another tradition to which we keep, whether out of pride or fear or both, is one of place. The Web is considered a place. We call it cyberspace. We visit a Web site. The Web is presented as a series of landscapes or neighborhoods.

Walk into any integrated college dining hall and you will find a majority of the black students sitting together. There is safety in numbers, and we have a long history that makes us crave that safety. Even today, walk down the wrong set of streets and meet the wrong white men and you wind up in a coma.

Through decades and generations of cross burnings and redlining and beatings and bombings and harassment, black Americans are wary of majority space. The Web is no exception to the rule.

Some suggest that the Web is the great uncolorizer, the great color barrier dissolver, because in cyberspace, one doesn't know what color one's audience or conversation partner might be. But that's only true in a very narrow sense. True -- a black man or woman can do business on the Web without facing what even ideologically pure black conservative Rep. Gary Franks, R-Conn., called the majority's distaste for "the idea of putting money in a black man's pocket."

But suggesting that black Americans would take solace in conversing with those who would not show hatred or bigotry or cultural chauvinism toward them only because the other party didn't know they were black -- that's insulting in the extreme. Such a suggestion could only come from a mindlessly, liberally chauvinistic mind, like that of the landlady who thought all black folks were cool.

This cyber place is no haven. The hatreds that are part of this nation's very soul live here too, and black Americans know it. Rather than avoid the place, however, instead of retreating to safe ground -- familiar territory -- we should slough off our conventionalities and hack some new trails through this principally white territory. We've got to embrace some anarchy for once in our history -- use those Najee and Kenny G CDs for the coasters they are, and slap on some David Murray and Henry Threadgill.

Since the Web is a place, instead of an institution, it holds particular promise. No one's sense of white self and white worth is invested in it. It can truly be, and be seen as, ours as much as anyone else's. There are precious few nationwide places of culture and commerce about which that can be said.

The Web could be an extraordinary disseminator of Afro-American culture (true Afro-American culture, not the sociopolitical tics that the majority and too many of us accept as that culture), an extraordinary political tool and a boon to black business people. But only if we are finally willing to forego the dreams of terra firma to which we've hitched our star for all of our postwar history. We must acknowledge that the world into which we so desperately sought entree is dying -- and we, like the majority, must embrace new and untested worlds if we are to prosper.

Leonce Gaiter

Leonce Gaiter, a refugee from Los Angeles, is the Arts Editor of the Chico News and Review in Chico, Calif. His essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Times, the L.A. Weekly and elsewhere. His novel "Just Titty-Boom" will be published by the Noble Press in the spring of 1998.

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