The headmaster of the prep school was a former military man, and the overall atmosphere was conservative to the point where few of the more liberal faculty members dared or bothered to voice their opinions. Instead they went about their business teaching math or English or history, coaching lacrosse or baseball or ice hockey, sitting at the ends of long wooden tables at meals to ensure that the young men seated with them learned the manners they would need later in their lives of privilege, making sure the students on their hall had their noses in their books until lights out, and gathering at one of the local pubs a couple of nights a week to unwind.
I wasn’t much different, but it was the middle of the Reagan presidency, and if I hadn’t realized I leaned left before, it was starting to come out. My students noticed, and soon I was known to them—somewhat affectionately, I think—as “Mr. Liberal.” Some of them seemed conservative, occasionally reciting some right-wing wisdom they had been spoon-fed back home. Others seemed apolitical, concerned more with normal teenage preoccupations like sports and girls and impressing their peers with sarcastic remarks in class. Then there was Paul.
A fairly quiet, serious kid from Memphis, Paul wasn’t shy when it came to expressing his conservative views. And he took a liking to me, singling me out as his sparring partner. I returned the favor, challenging him (not too aggressively, he was only 15 or 16, and I didn’t want to make him angry and earn myself a trip to the headmaster’s office) with ideas and points of view he might not have considered before. It actually was quite fun, sort of a political chess match, and I came to really like Paul. I don’t know what became of him, and I left the school after a year.
One thing that stayed with me is the story he told me one day of his father packing him in the car and driving him around Memphis (cue Springsteen’s “Your Hometown”). As his father drove through African-American neighborhoods, he told Paul to count all the Cadillacs, just in case he ever felt a twinge of compassion, which the memory of all the luxury cars would quickly extinguish—because the blacks in these neighborhoods could never afford Cadillacs unless they were drug dealers or welfare cheats.
I do recall from the ’70s and ’80s the stereotype that blacks were particularly fond of Cadillacs, and observed that there appeared to be some truth to it. (Even the ’70s blaxploitation films acknowledged the place of Cadillacs and other luxury sedans as status symbols in black culture.) And apparently, statistics on car buying during this era do bear out that African-Americans were proportionately more likely to purchase Cadillacs than whites were. Does that mean they were all drug dealers and welfare cheats? Of course not.
And as always, there’s a story behind the stereotype.
General Motors was on the verge of ceasing all Cadillac production in 1932, when a company official named Nicholas Dreystadt made the audacious proposal to market the cars to blacks. Prior to that, corporate policy had been to not sell Cadillacs to blacks at all. But there was a small, growing black bourgeoisie of doctors, small businessmen, boxers and entertainers, and Dreystadt had noticed, while working as Cadillac’s service manager, that a surprising number of blacks were bringing the cars in for service. Unable to purchase the vehicles themselves, they had paid whites to front for them and buy the coveted cars. As Ed Cray wrote in The Chrome Colossus, “Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that the Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other outward signs of worldly success.”
Dreystadt’s foresight turned the Cadillac division around and inspired other businesses to market to minorities. And as more and more blacks earned enough income to afford the cars, the love affair with the Cadillac grew. The Cadillac became the status symbol of choice for many upper- and middle-income blacks, who did not move out of predominately black neighborhoods en masse just because they had taken a few steps up the economic ladder, in part because of the long-persistent barriers to moving into more affluent, white neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, by the late ’60s, white, conservative critics of welfare had created the fictional but enduring stereotype of black “welfare queens” who drove Cadillacs, despite the reality that poor blacks were less likely to even own a car than any other segment of the population (which helped keep them poor, but that’s another story).
So by 1980, what Paul was seeing through his father’s car window seemed consistent with the racist stereotypes now embedded in the nation’s conservative consciousness. The stereotypes were inaccurate, though I’m not sure Paul’s father understood that any more than his son did. They saw what they wanted to see. Today all they’d have to do is troll Facebook to find the sites and stories that line up with their worldview. I’m tempted to give Paul’s father credit for actually driving them through real neighborhoods to observe real scenes. The problem was that they didn’t know what they were looking at. And I tend to doubt they would have believed any information that would have conflicted with the conclusions they had already drawn—which sounds suspiciously like the world we live in today.
Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon