BLING-BLING VERSUS RING-RING. As a piggyback on Matt�s observations yesterday about Juan Williams� rather superficial analysis of the problems of bling-bling in the black community, I am reminded of the point Michael Harrington famously made in The Other America more than four decades ago: Consumer commodities (e.g., clothes and jewelry) are distributed by markets, whereas many of the most important community assets are allocated based on political power. Thus, a white kid from an affluent family in the suburbs heading to college in the fall of 1985 could afford to buy the new Air Jordans and throw them in the trunk of the car his folks bought him for graduation a few months earlier -- just as the high-school dropout from the single-mother family in the blighted urban area was able to buy the same sneakers, even though that meant spending his last $100. (The shoe salesman will take money from both.)
Williams might counter that purchasing sneakers with the last $100 of dispensable income reflects bad judgment. Fair enough. But countless studies of evolutionary psychology show that people (especially men) seek ways to project some measure of status as a signal both to others of their same sex and, especially, to the opposite sex. Affluent kids, giggling as they open their dorm rooms, know there is plenty of (delayed) status awaiting them four years hence when they�re sizing themselves up for their college ring-ring; for them, the bling-bling can wait. And by the way: As somebody who graduated from college without a car, credit card, or cellphone, and who teaches college students today, I can assure Mr. Williams there is plenty of conspicuous consumption by middle-class white kids who are simultaneously complaining about rising tuition and book costs while they buy $150 jeans and run up $90-per-month cellphone bills. Might the latter expenses be better spent either on books and lab fees, or reducing their part-time working hours so they can study more, or simply graduating with less credit card debt? I anxiously await Juan�s column about that �cultural crisis.�
The path to delayed success and status is far more clear to the suburban white kid because the political commodities (public safety; good schools with appropriate resources and well-trained teachers), which are distributed politically, have helped mark the way. It�s easy for Williams or Bill Cosby to dismiss the 18-year-old who is working in fast food or selling drugs or running scams to pull together enough money to get the latest Rockawear just to look respectable on Friday night as a shortsighted knucklehead who is wasting the legacy of the landmark 1954 Brown ruling. But if there is no visible path of delayed-gratification and success, can you really blame kids for taking the one clear, available route to status attainment -- even if it is a bling-lighted route? If, after massive investments are made to equalize the quality of public education, we still find young blacks opting for bling-bling over the (college) ring-ring, I�ll be the first to pile on with Cosby and Williams. As elder black men, they can be forgiven a degree of well-intended frustration, but not if it means doing some analytical shortcutting of their own.