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Oct 17 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Q&A with Jeff Chang, author of Who We Be

Jeff Chang’s  new book, “Who We Be: The Colorization of America,” drops October 21. Chang, executive director of Stanford University’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts, is also author of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.”

“Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” was a 2005 American Book Award winner and is in the literary canon for those of use who grew up seeing multi-culti Benetton ads and dancing to the beats of Native Tongues.


“Who We Be” examines the dramatic cultural changes America has undergone since formal racial desegregation ended.


Jeff Chang grounds his cultural analysis in first-hand interviews and reporting. His style reflects his intellectual, playful nature.

“Cultural change always precedes political change,” Chang writes.  “Obama could not have been pictured as a symbol of hope if the seeds of that hope had not been planted in the culture long before.”



Q: Looking at the footage of Grant Park after Barack Obama won in 2008, it was amazing to see the crowd.

Jeff Chang: It was amazing. It’s who we are. At the time, the press was talking about the election of Obama as this grand racial reconciliation we had been waiting for. I think a lot of us probably wanted that. I think a lot of us thought that might happen by electing Barack Obama.


Chicago Tribune photo by Kuni Takahashi. Chinyere Brown (left), Kelly Coleman (right) and her boyfriend Kyle Reden listen to Barack Obama's speech in Grant Park.


Jeff Chang: But then backlash set in so quickly, and so broadly, and so intensely, it changed the picture. We went from using words like “post racial” to talking about the culture wars coming back. That’s how the book came about.

Q: Were you surprised that the culture wars flared again? Did you see it coming?

Chang: I have to say that I didn’t. I drank the juice just like a lot of other people did. When the [cultural conservative] backlash began happening it was like, “What were we thinking? Why did we think that racial reconciliation is on the horizon?” We were idiots to even think that.

Q: I was most confused about why everyone thought a Chicago Democrat was going to bring change.

Jeff Chang: Ha ha. I was interested less in the politics of it all, than the symbolism of Obama. The fact that people invested in Obama, regardless of who he was as a politician, as a Chicago politician, as a Chicago Democratic machine politician, all of these people got invested in him.

I was looking at street art in 2007 and 2008. It very quickly went from this Obama Hope poster to posters that were about climate change. Posters that were about bringing back notions of the Third World Movement, of the radical multicultralism movement. People were bringing in political ideas that were not in the official platform or on the official agenda. It was more a projection of what change really looked like, of what hope really felt like, of what people really wanted.

I was interested in exploring those notions of how culture can anticipate change. And then how quickly that change can get stifled and throttled down.


Jeff Chang: For cultural conservatives, this symbol of Obama can now represent everything, beyond all rationality or sentiments of logic. Everything “Other”: Muslim, foreign born, radical socialist, multiculturalist. All the bad is projected upon him just as the progressive projected upon him in 2007-2008.

Q: Racial segregation in Dane County has grown since Obama’s election.

Jeff Chang: That’s happening all across the country. It’s not just Madison.

The inequality gap has grown, especially with the Great Recession. Why is it that our media show us in a less segregated state than we are? If you look at all indices of re-segregation–schools, jobs, housing–all of those point to more segregation than we’ve seen in 30, 40 years. It’s shocking.



“Race to Equity” report by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families


Jeff Chang: There are ways for people to have policy discussions to talk about income inequality on the whole that are not race neutral but that are race conscious and have the effect of raising all boats. There’s where the future of progressive agendas lie–in exploring ideas that can move us forward.

What does it take to establish a new cultural majority rooted in progressive values? That’s what we need to be thinking about.


This interview was edited. A longer version of the Q&A will air on WORT-FM on Monday, October 20.

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