Nelson George is a novelist, cultural critic, and filmmaker. After receiving his degree from St. John's University in 1982, George first worked for New York's Amsterdam News, later becoming an editor at Billboard and a columnist for the Village Voice. Many of his books -- both fiction and non-fiction -- have focused on black popular culture. George is the author of Hip Hop America and The Death of Rhythm and Blues, both studies of black urban music, as well as the novels Night Work and Urban Romance. George co-wrote the films Strictly Business (1991) and CB4 (1993); he also directed To Be a Black Man, a short based on a piece he wrote for the Voice that starred Samuel L. Jackson.
Question: The racial divide: what needs to change?
Nelson George: I think the major problem is the fact that it’s not race, it’s class. I think that America is becoming increasingly divided along class lines, and that the disparity between rich and poor is incredibly profound. You asked me earlier about the changes in New York. I would say the number one change in New York is that the . . . that the rich have a lot of money and a lot of access, and the poor have very little. And that the rungs that you use to pull yourself up are much more tenuous. My family was pulled up by basically the Board of Education. And that was an institution that you went to, stayed in for X amount of years and pulled your family up. The kinds of benefits and things that the police departments _________ . . . all the kind of municipal stuff has really, you know, been pulled back. The unions don’t have the power they used to have. The benefit packages aren’t what they used to be. Insurance companies are scams . . . are basically . . . I think insurance companies are loan sharks. I think basically a lot of the safety net that we used to say is part of the tapestry of this country has been fragmented and ripped to shreds by Republican administrations with the . . . with the tacit help of weak-willed Democrats. And so we have a country . . . a city in New York and a country where it’s increasingly hard to get ahead. And I really believe that, to me, it’s class. Race to me is a tool to divide people. I don’t really think that the . . . I really think that the Chinese immigrant and the Black kid from the . . . from the ‘hood and the Latino in South Central have a lot more in common than they think in terms of trying to get ahead. But race is a real good tool not to let them get together. And I think it’s been manipulated, and still being manipulated both by White power structure to keep people separated; and by politicians and power brokers in these various communities who can use race as a leverage to build their own power bases. If you separate working class Black people in a city like Brooklyn, and you have them at odds over power, you’re not really focusing on the larger issues to me. So I . . . That’s what I . . . I think that class is increasingly . . . We’re becoming more like England in that I really feel profoundly that this class thing is a huge part of it. I mean I just use clubs. When New York was a vibrant cultural city – and when I say vibrant I mean not a city that consumes culture, which is what it’s doing now, but creates culture, which it doesn’t do nearly as well – there was a lot more democracy. There was not table service. Bottle service is a really interesting . . . The idea of bottle service really is a profound idea in that you can only sit down if you’re buying Dom, or Cristal or whatever. And if you’re not, you can’t sit down. What the fuck is that? You think about what that says. If you don’t have a lot of money you can’t really sit down in this club. You can barely get in, but you certainly can’t sit down here. So usually you go in and you sit down, you could sit down anywhere. There was maybe a VIP section, but there was a kind of democracy of the room. Democracy . . . There’s no democracy of the room anymore. And in fact people pay big money not to be democratic at clubs. I think the American identity is . . . I mean there was always a falsehood about it, but it’s definitely graphically . . . So when people talk about hip hop, they always say, “Well it’s so materialistic and so . . .” Who in America isn’t materialistic? Wait a minute. You mean the fact that they want a big car, they want expensive jewelry, and they want big houses and beautiful women – how is that . . . When did that become un-American? I don’t think . . . The guys I see out at Bungalow 8, and the kids at Soho House and those guys, they got suits on. Soon as they take . . . loosen the tie and the suspenders come out, they want the fine girl. They want a big ass car. They want a big ass house, and they’re wearing a very expensive watch. So you know to me it’sjust a matter of degrees of greed. The country is founded on greed, and it’s becoming more greedy all the time.