Is Archie Bunker still funny?

The question crosses my mind repeatedly as columnists and bloggers consider whether we have seen “the end of racism.”  All in the Family exposed deep feelings that Americans held that contradicted the achievements of civil rights in the previous decade.  Archie Bunker was a ripe target, yet the show’s other characters, self-professed champions of political and social equality, often fell short.  Indeed, the Bunker’s neighbor, George Jefferson, was willing conspire with Archie to keep minorities out of their Queens neighborhood: even an aspiring African-American could use the language of capitalism (property values) to keep out an Hispanic family.

Archie’s racism could sometimes be portrayed starkly and tragically, as he was unable to enjoy the birth of a child because he was too focused on his diminishing piece of America.  But moments like those were broadly drawn.  Often what made All in the Family powerful to me–someone who watched the reruns in the nineties–was the irony in the show’s dialogue.  It seemed impossible to address racism both directly and constructively.  Instead, sarcasm and glib remarks are substitutes therefor.  Humor became a vehicle to expose  social conventions regarding race could be both accepted, but also challenged, revealing the duplicitous meaning of words spoken in polite company.

Having an African-American president and first family does not convince me that we have moved beyond the need for humor when discussing racism.  At the very least, race and  racism are too complex to be solved by the success of one man.  Discussing Hurricane Katrina  this past semester, I found many students who had difficulty recognizing racism except in cases of the elimination of the other (only in its most extreme form) as well as a tendency to equate race only with the experience or perception of racism.  Violence or victimhood.  Decades of polite conversation have confined race to the narrowest of phenomenon.  All in the Family may still hold a sacred place in American culture, but similarly sarcastic treatments, like Blazing Saddles, have been confined to the realm of bad taste.

Advertisements