- Multiculturalism, Inc.:Regulating and Deregulating the Culture Industries with Ishmael Reed
What we have to do is to provide an opportunity for every American, for black Americans, for Mexican-Americans, and others who haven’t had an equal chance, not just to be a worker . . . but to be a manager and an owner.Richard Nixon1
1. Banking on Culture
What is the best way to combat racial stereotyping in the media? The question was at the front of Ishmael Reed’s mind in the fall of 1974, as he prepared to address the National Conference of Afro-American Writers at Howard University. Some, he supposed, would have writers “submit their characterizations, dialogues, plots, and descriptions to a committee which would decide which ones are acceptable and which aren’t” (Shrovetide 54). But Reed was leery of programs and orthodoxies, and skeptical of any “leadership” that “tried to push” a “pet structure” on art (55), especially art that purported to represent African Americans. No matter how well intentioned or high minded, “a committee” could never produce what was needed: a constant stream of “fresh images” (59). For that, he reasoned, you needed a wide and diverse field of cultural producers working on an ever-shifting array of projects, the “financial [End Page 100] resources” to build and maintain such a field, and—ultimately—a bank (55).
So Reed used his invitation to propose the establishment of an “Afro-American Cultural Bank” that would “make loans” and “investments” supporting “worthwhile projects” in “television, theater, writing, etc.” (57). Securing “initial assets of a few billion dollars” through a system of tithing, borrowing, and lottery funding would be easy enough, and using those assets to remove the financial barriers to “the Afro-American’s strongest industry—culture” should “guarantee the free flow of a variety of images” (55). In Reed’s view, the only thing standing between his audience and a truly multicultural public sphere was their own stubborn anticommercialism—their clinging to “the myth that business and art do not mix” (53). Until they acknowledged that business and money were not inimical to “aesthetic experience,” there could be no progress. “Coins are not in themselves filthy,” he assured them. “Some of them lie behind glass cases in museums.”
Reed’s call for African American cultural elites to go into business for themselves was not unprecedented. It came in the wake of Richard Nixon’s “black capitalism” campaign, which co-opted the rhetoric of black economic nationalism and brought black entrepreneurs into the mainstream of 1970s political discourse. “What most of the militants are asking for,” Nixon declared in his “Bridges to Human Dignity” speech of 1968, is “a share of the wealth and a piece of the action.” From “black ownership,” he insisted, “black pride, black jobs, black opportunity, and yes, black power” would follow (qtd. in Weems 115). His administration’s founding of the Office for Minority Business Enterprise in the spring of 1969, along with its expansion of federal affirmative action policy, generated new interest in terms like ownership, jobs, and opportunity, and vigorous discussion of what a special issue of Ebony dubbed “The Economics of Liberation.”2 Although Ebony’s survey passingly acknowledged the existence of anticapitalist perspectives, it focused on plans whose implementation would not require drastic changes in the structure of the economy, as did books like Theodore Cross’s Black Capitalism: Strategy for Business in the Ghetto (1971) and magazines like The Review of Black Political Economy and Black Enterprise, both founded in 1970.3 Thus, when Reed suggested that “Instead of sitting in at lunch counters . . . maybe it would have been better to sit in at the loan departments at some of the major banks around the country” (“Blacks”), he was to some extent simply keeping with the times.
This did not insulate him from criticism. Reed’s jocular readiness to reproduce core capitalist institutions drew ire from various members of the Black Arts movement, including Amiri Baraka, who denounced him as one of the “conservatives, capitulationists, and [End Page 101] outright compradors” whose unapologetic stumping “for individualism” sold out the radically collectivizing ambitions of the 1960s (“Afro-American” 9, 11...