How Motown Made Whites Liberal and How Rap made them Reactionaries

(How trends in Black Music have shaped the political attitudes of Whites)


David Gottfried

Political inclinations are not formed by a sober, quiet analysis of a candidate’s position papers.  I think that after the advent of Donald Trump we can all agree that politics is, if anything, fraught with the most febrile emotions.

Also, political affiliations are often forged by phenomena that are commonly seen as unrelated to politics.  For example, in 1979, Norman Podhoretz contended, in “Breaking Ranks,” that political experts and prognosticators had underestimated the political strength of antiwar candidates Gene McCarthy and George McGovern because the experts were blind to social phenomena, that they did not bother to survey or even notice, that resonated with millions of Americans and pushed them toward opposition to the war and toward the Left.  Podhoretz said that the youth movement of the late 1960’s, the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and other rebellious currents bubbling through the political landscape explained why Gene McCarthy got 42 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Primary of 1968  instead of the 10 to 20 percent he was forecasted to attain.  (I think that in part he did much better than expected because the powers that be, which supported the war in Vietnam, forced pollsters to understate Gene McCarthy’s popularity – there are, incidentally, many other examples which I might cite, in another essay, that suggest that maverick candidates are often maligned by polls which are either not at all scientific or which deliberately lie to suppress unconventional opinions.)    

In any event, Podhoretz said that experts on electoral politics were a grey-suited lot of men who were oblivious to philosophy or art or, most importantly, the all-important moods of the people, and the experts paid too much attention to the arid dictates of assorted political bosses and their parochial prejudices.  

At an early age, I witnessed what Podhoretz was talking about when I listened to my Mother talk about politics.   I remember that Robert Kennedy once said that liberal, irreligious Jewish women in New York did not like him because he had ten children.  I am sure some people would ascribe his comments to Anti-Semitic bigotry.  However, he hit the nail on the head.

I vividly recall that shortly before Robert Kennedy’s assassination, my Mother, in the course of recounting the usual liberal reasons for disliking Kennedy – he was slow in opposing the Vietnam war, slow in supporting civil rights and most of all his Father was an apologist for fascism (Joe Kennedy was arguably sympathetic to the Nazis, saying that the Jews had nothing but themselves to blame for Hitler’s antisemitism) – suddenly, and with purple passion, shouted that she couldn’t stand Kennedy because he had 10 children.  To proto feminist women, Bobby was a cruel and constant burden on Ethel’s forever swelling uterus.

Just as Bobby and Ethel Kennedy’s procreativity arguably had nothing to do with Vietnam or civil rights, the Supremes and The Four tops had nothing to do with hunger in the Mississippi Delta or the European Common Market.  However, the music of Motown did influence the way we thought about the Mississippi Delta, and the music had a very potent impact on our political allegiances.  

Of course, some music has more of an impact that most music.  I propose that black music has a very outsized effect on the way white Americans view political issues.  This is because blackness is always at the fulcrum of American politics.

Some political scientists have said that all elections in America are decided by three issues or conflicts  A) War v. Peace, B) Black v. White and C) Rich v. Poor.    Since black people are right there in the leading triad of American political debates  (And they are arguably there even when they are not being discussed at election time), white people are constantly thinking about black people when they go to the polls.  Usually, their ruminations can be reduced to this:  Are we being too harsh on the blacks or are the blacks taking advantage of us.

Also, many white people don’t interact with blacks too much.  We live in segregated neighborhoods, go to segregated houses of worship and although we may go to integrated public schools, the kids often segregate in the lunchroom, etc.  

Since white people often have nothing to do with black people, their ideas about black people are usually culled from news reports and the chance encounters they witness on the street. 

And Music. 

I submit to you that by the second or third performance of the Supremes on the Ed Sullivan show there was hardly a white girl, north of the Mason Dixon  line, who opposed civil rights.  She may have continued to voice racist concerns, she may have thought that black people smelled funny or were in untold and sundry reasons just plain weird or yucky (In Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” the protagonist’s younger sister does not want to go into a neighbor’s house as it might have “Irish Peoples’ smells.”). but she believed that they should be granted civil rights and that Blacks had to be completely “super” because Diana Ross was such a beautifully buoyant and bouffanted being.   Likewise, the Four  Tops had a happy, exuberant joyousness (“sugar pie honey bunch/Baby I love you/I can’t help myself”)  that makes the most morose man want to do jumping jacks.   And when the Four Tops sang Bernadette, the instrumentals and the voices amount to an almost holy, reverent wooing of Bernadette. But one beautiful gem stood above the rest with the sweetest and the saddest eyes.

I am talking about Otis Redding’s “I’m sitting on the Dock of the Bay.”   This is the most eloquent evocation of melancholy in all mediums of the English language.    When I hear this music, I remember my own depression, and this reminds me that the finest art takes a very specific circumstance and shows you how everyone shares it even if the artist’s personal life is very, very different from one’s own.  I am not black and I am not Southern, but Redding was able to abstract from his depression, and his Southern background, the debilitating sickness in all depressions. This universalizing from the particular is exactly what I divined when I read James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Toward the beginning of the book, he remembers his life when he was 12, on the countdown to puberty.   Baldwin remembers a sort of nervous brooding all through age 12 as he thought that soon his ties to other black people and to the black church would be severed because he was gay, and as I read this I remembered that I knew, at the age of 12, that I would soon be severed from Judaism.

In any event, Redding’s song is exceptionally beautiful and downright wrenching.   When American whites heard this music, they said that the worthiness of the black cause could not be denied.  The music proved that there were black people with love and beauty and dreams and all that stuff that can sound sort of tacky or mushy but is nevertheless akin to oxygen; it might not sustain you organically, but it sustains your soul.     

Because so many white people did not have close black friends, their views of blacks were shaped by music.  I sincerely believe that the loving, joyous, embracing sound of Motown made whites sympathetic to blacks and made them vote for liberal Democrats.

By the same token, I think that many later forms of black music alienated and often enraged white people.  The music did more than express black rage, which is often completely understandable; the music glorified and exalted it.  In rap music, and much of Hip Hop, being a drug pusher, a son of a bitch and a scoundrel is romanticized and glorified.  This music seamlessly segued into the evening news and reports of blacks committing murder or robbery.  

By 1988, George Bush was able to demolish Dukakis’s 14-point lead in the presidential polls with a series of ads that recounted the crimes of one black man, Willie Horton, and George Bush walloped Dukakis with a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent.   The populace was so racist, and so sensitive to racist advertising, that they extrapolated from one black man, Willie Horton, to the many millions of black people in the United Status.   I submit that black music energized Republican vote totals.       

I suppose some people might challenge my thesis by contending that white Americans have seen blacks excelling in sports through much of the 20 th century, and may have liked blacks for their athletic prowess, but that white people were not always disposed to be sympathetic to blacks because of their stellar record in competitive sports.   Although whites have often admired black athleticism, this could not influence whites the way black music did.  Whites have always believed that blacks were physically strong, potent and swift.  Indeed, the attributes that make a good athlete are, in part, the attributes that can make one a good criminal, speed, agility and physical strength.  When whites witnessed black athletic feats, they appreciated the speed and the power, but they also saw this as further confirmation that black people had the abilities that would assist them in breaking the law.   However, when white people heard the Four Tops and Otis Redding, they knew that black people had a heart – or shall we say SOUL.