Post-racial may be the new black, but race humor is as perilous as it ever was. This summer, satirists—from second-time offender Don Imus to The New Yorker's Barry Blitt—have found being funny on race hard to do. The latest entertainer to step into this spotlight is Randy Newman, whose new album, Harps and Angels, includes an uproarious song titled "Korean Parents."
The song will probably not prompt boycotts the way Ice Cube's "Black Korea" did months before the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Nor will it lead to confrontations with activists like those that Sarah Silverman faced in 2000 after telling Conan O'Brien that her friend advised her to avoid jury duty by writing, "I hate Chinks" on her form. She told O'Brien that she wrote, "I love Chinks! And who doesn't?" If the race dialogue in this country—such as it is—has moved from culture-war rancor to lame meta-satire, perhaps that's progress. But Newman, with "Korean Parents," offers a more enjoyable way forward.
He has always shown a particular fondness for picking at the scabs left by America's ongoing racial unease. Against the backdrop of Nixonland backlash, he devised a carny for 1972's "Sail Away" who pitched slaves on a free ride across the Middle Passage. "In America you'll get food to eat, won't have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet," the carny sang. "It's great to be an American."
His 1974 "Rednecks" was sung in the voice of a racist Southerner outraged at hypocritical Northern revulsion at Southern racism. "We're too dumb to make it in no northern town," the redneck sneers, "and we're keeping the niggers down." "Korean Parents" seems the odd adopted child of the two.
On Harps and Angels, "Korean Parents" follows the evening reverie of "Easy Street," a song that evokes Jazz Age innocence while indulging the luxuries of the 21st-century high-end service-economy. "Life is sweet," Newman sings like a piano player in an exclusive speakeasy—perhaps the Don Draper kind with seductive Asian-American waitresses.
"Korean Parents" is the ugly morning after, set in an anonymous exurban edge city. "Kids today got problems like their parents never had," Newman sings. The boys are in the den playing "Dream On" on Guitar Hero. The girls are upstairs watching Gossip Girl and texting friends. Their meritocracy-addled, U.S. News & World Report-ranking-obsessed parents, perhaps the kind that watched Zhang Yimou's Olympics opening ceremony in wonder and horror, seethe.
If the rednecks were obsessed with "keeping the niggers down," these cosmopolitans are watching the gooks pass them by. Re-enter Newman's carny, to an über-kitsch arrangement of gongs, flutes, and strings. "Look at the numbers, that's all I ask. Who's at the head of every class?" he sings. "They just work their asses off, their parents make them do it." From peddling a slave-ship seat to Korean parents as bourgeois elixir—now that's what you can call satire.
The narrator is a classic Newman archetype—a white American salesman who skillfully whipsaws between condescension and flattery, packages shortcuts as lifesavers, fears as hopes. (Maybe Newman has a song in him about Mark Penn.) Here, the product is a Korean parent who will get your kids to turn their homework in on time and maybe even toss them in the minivan with theirs for the Kumon, violin, and golf lessons. "You say you need a little discipline?" the carny asks. "They'll be strict, but they'll be fair."
Asian Americans can appreciate the hucksterism here—strict, sure, but fair?—as well as what writers Frank Chin and Jeffery Paul Chan once called "racist love," that weird white desire to cross Charlie Chan with Suzy Wong to produce the highly attractive, perfectly submissive, middle-management problem-solver. Two decades ago, after protests by problem-solving but altogether unsubmissive parents and students, universities like Stanford, Brown, and UC Berkeley admitted stacking their admissions deck against Asian-American applicants through racially biased point-scales and legacy programs. After they changed their policies, just as Ivy League schools did in the wake of Jewish-American protests in the 1960s, Asian-American enrollments at places like the University of California soared. And thus, Newman's carny would seem to say, is a premium value product made.
If there's any problem with "Korean Parents"—that is, aside from the gratuitous dog-eating reference—it would be, as Newman helpfully noted for potential protesters in a pre-emptive interview with the Los Angeles Times, the song's "stereotypically Asian" music. No, not Korean pungmul-nori drumming. Instead, "Korean Parents" goes to that old yellow-face standby, "The Siamese Cat Song" from Disney's Lady and the Tramp, and even takes a brief Puccini-like detour at the bridge. It adds up to a late-American Orientalist statement that is the musical equivalent of "They all look alike to me."
But the song clearly isn't about Korean parents; it's about the white ones, whose "real American kids don't have a clue." The fear binding the rednecks who were sickened to see Lester Maddox getting sonned by the Jewish TV host and the Ari Golds kicking the tires of the Korean parent in the lot is what Barbara Ehrenreich called fear of falling,that uniquely American hysteria that once found expression in anti-busing protests (from Boston's South End to San Francisco's Chinatown) and that, for the last decade, has set off middle-class panic attacks whenever the words "highly selective" and "college or university" appear next to each other.
On an album that often feels like a merry requiem for American Empire, Newman's aim is true. "Your parents aren't 'The Greatest Generation.' So sick of hearing about 'The Greatest Generation,'" his carny says—surely aware of the Korean War's role in commencing 50-plus years of Korean-American parents—as he moves to close the deal. "That generation could be you. So let's see what you can do. Korean parents—and you!"
In a time when there was more hope about achieving racial justice, African-American author Chester Himes wrote, "Racism introduces absurdity into the human condition. Not only does racism express the absurdity of the racists, but it generates absurdity in the victims. And the absurdity in the victims intensifies the absurdity of the racists, ad infinitum." So why shouldn't we be able to find race funny? But that absurdity may also be part of what Dave Chappelle saw when he looked in the mirror and decided for a while to stop making people laugh.
Silverman's and Blitt's meta-satire relies on the dubious claim that their work is not racist because it attempts to mock racism. But the proof is in the funny—who's laughing? Many commentators, such as James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute, saw in Blitt's cover illustration "the deep disconnect that exists between the 'liberal snobs' of NYC and the rest of us." Done the wrong way, meta-satire is still just, as Himes put it, absurdity to battle absurdity to battle absurdity.
Newman is not merely about outshocking the invisible armies of political correctness or strapping on self-insulating armors of irony. The best kind of race humor—at this strange American moment, and as it has always been—can be found by wedging open the wound long enough to stare at, and then sharing the joke in that. Of course, the trick is that you need to be the one who's bleeding.