Jeff Chang’s literary façade
Writer as a Witness’ pretentious writing clouds a thoughtful analysis of the culture wars
It only took several seconds and a single question from a seedy-looking political science major in a ponytail to expose the central deficiency of Jeff Chang’s “We Gon’ Be Alright,” the book that served as required reading for AU freshmen enrolled in college writing courses this fall. At an event with Chang in September, the student asked about an instance in the introduction that pertained to subprime housing foreclosures, in which Chang presented the foreclosure rates of two racial groups—African-Americans and Latinxs—in relation to that of whites as evidence of systemic racism. He asked why Chang did not include the same statistics for Asian-Americans, an ethnic group that had been mentioned in the sentence prior but not in the one with a thesis. After Chang’s flimsy answer and desperate deflection using the classic “I think the better question is…”, it was clear that the book—and Chang’s narrative—largely relied on the integrity of nitpicked evidence and colorful language.
I’m not here to criticize the substance of Chang’s book or presentation. He makes a thought-provoking point every now and then. I found his chapter on the Ferguson riots to be a profound, if not pretentious, dialogue on culture wars in America. His knowledge of history and evident dedication to research shines through the lens of America’s race relations. However, the style through which he communicates his ideas clouds his overall point—if it even exists.
As a manifesto against the systematic oppression of minority Americans, “We Gon’ Be Alright” fails to acknowledge the core of why historically disenfranchised ethnic groups suffer today. Chang moves from historical event to historical event as filler with no commentary. He quotes various voices, magazines and newspapers in a colorful way with the intent of criticizing without explicitly doing so, rendering his entire point meaningless and most importantly, devoid of personal insight.
He writes about the narrative of artists and his real life characters with precision and careful observation and yet paints those who may disagree with his position—including both liberals and conservatives—with an extremely broad brush, focusing on the cultural resonance of obscure individuals and artists while making anyone else to be complicit obstructionists.
Chang’s nitpicked statistics, out-of-context quotes and citations always seem to fall short of proving any sort of explicit point. Instead, he uses his acquired literary skills to color descriptions of provocative historical events, both famous and banal. He writes with liberal condescension and relies on this technique to convey ideas. He fails to stay on the same path, straying and winding down on detour after detour and never really arriving at a destination. He asks the same question over and over again in different forms, from the first chapter’s “Is it possible to reimagine diversity separated from histories of exclusion?” to the conclusion chapter’s “Can we, given all the pain that we have had inflicted upon us and that we have inflicted upon others, ever learn to see each other as lovers do, to find our way toward freedom for all?” These questions describe the problem with little to no practicality and offer no pragmatic solution. He is too engrossed in describing the intricacy of the issue to actually arrive at any main idea other than, well, that we’re all going to be alright someday. In response to a question that asked if there was any solution at all, he compared the perfect society to an ever-retreating horizon that can never be reached, which brings up another question: Does Jeff Chang even believe in the very thing he’s calling on his audience to imagine?
Chang’s egregiously melodramatic summary of the Civil Rights Movement before a stadium full of Writing students also brought up another major issue. After reading his book and sitting through the entirety of his Writer as a Witness presentation and Q&A, it’s clear that he subscribes to the sensationalist rhetoric of far-left Americans who refuse to be equated to any particular group on the political spectrum. It’s not clear why he does so. If he were to write from a leftist perspective, he could make the point that the federal government should take a more active role in promoting the interests of minorities by implementing housing programs or expanding entitlement programs among a score of other pieces of public policy. If he were to write from a right wing perspective, he could call on oppressed peoples to institute change within their own governments. He could advocate for a negative income tax to bring minorities out of the shadows as an alternative to overblown and complex entitlement programs. Weirdly enough, he sidesteps these options, instead choosing to utilize pretentious diction to sound educated while ignoring certain data points and leaving out various historical occurrences that deviate from his agenda. He doesn’t offer any tangible solution or even a piece of practical advice.
The other day, I was talking about the book with a colleague of mine, Steve Weiman. He made the point that Chang does what many lazy politicians love doing: deflecting the responsibility of tackling systemic racism to the newer generation of young people.
One of the main points of “We Gon’ Be Alright” is the idea that diversity, in its quest to create the appearance of multiculturalism, has the potential to resegregate individuals. I’d like to point out that Chang’s book has the same effect. By singling out African-Americans and Latinos and describing their struggle without offering any tangible solution, Chang effectively gives a reason for minorities to bang the war drums without understanding the point of doing so. By isolating two ethnic groups from the rest of society, he is effectively providing a case for segregation through efforts of multiculturalism—the very phenomenon he seeks to bring to light in “We Gon’ Be Alright.” I would even go as far to say that Chang’s patronizations of African-American and Latinx communities is a blatant act of marginalization masquerading as statistical observation.
Race relations, segregation, class warfare and culture wars are some of the most important factors driving the increasing divide in American society today. They deserve detailed analysis and more nuanced discussion, not a one-sided narrative—almost as if a deadline and a topic drove the production of the book—that confuses more so than it educates.
This story was originally published in the Oct. 20 print edition of The Eagle.