The Economic Mirror of Racism
“The day of the white man is over. By his own hand he created a doomsday device designed to kill you and me” (Mosley, Futureland 345). This quote is an example of how Walter Mosley expresses the bigger picture of how economics has been weaponized as a tool of racism. Racism, though decreased in severity, still remains prevalent and will continue to thrive into the future unless society makes dramatic changes to correct the trajectory. In Mosley’s mystery fiction work, Devil in a Blue Dress, and science fiction novel Futureland that includes the short story “The Nig in Me,” the author delves into the theme of systemic racism, facilitated by large organizations, fleshing out the logical conclusions from the past and the present, while making dire predictions about the inevitable effects the current direction that racism will likely have on society and finance. In Mosley’s world, the future is doomed to a dystopian outcome based upon the examples from the past.
The economic racism from the early twentieth century is demonstrated in the novel, Devil in a Blue Dress. Mosley writes a compelling story of racism, centered on a young black veteran named Easy Rawlins who finds himself fighting against post-World War II society. The protagonist is loosely based upon Mosley’s own father’s experiences from that time (Lev 73). Easy is a reflective character determining how to resolve the moral complexities and ethical choices he experiences, both as a private detective and as a black man of the Post War era (73). Mosley’s noir-style story is set in the late 1940’s Los Angeles when Easy has been unfairly laid off from his job and finds work as a detective paid under the table (Mosley, Devil in the Blue Dress 5).
At the same time, Easy experiences the systemic racism of the period during the entire course of the novel. In one interaction, he chats with a Jewish woman and finds himself confronted by racist men; ""Hey!"" the tallest one said. ""What's wrong?""""N-----’'s trying to pick up Barbara.""""Yeah, an' she's just jailbait” (Mosley, Devil in the Blue Dress 22). Mosley’s work demonstrates a distant and different time period. The reader gets drawn into the specific injustices that reflect the kind of experiences that black men would have experienced during that time while trying to complete an honest day’s work. Mosley brings his own sense of the present day to this novel, creating a story that encapsulates the experience of his father’s generation that echo well into the present day. Mosley wants the reader to firmly grasp the experience of African American people, so that they can obtain a glimpse of what life must have been like for many people from the past. In doing so, he allows the message to resonate the reader’s experience in the present, and predict a potential future.
Mosley desires to create, for the reader, a world where African Americans are shown to be hard working and striving against a hostile society in spite of their circumstances. Much of the inequality he describes, in Devil in a Blue Dress and other novels, is the everyday, mundane racism. This is the kind caused by systemic inequality and is experienced by those that are not born into the lottery of the right zip code, the right family, or getting the acceptable education (Dews 2016).
In an interview, Mosley discussed that he was working diligently to show a new perspective of another society from a fresh pair of eyes, so that his readers could see the reality of a potential future compared to the distant past (Locus Online). In the science fiction novel Futureland, Mosley compiled a handful of loosely connected short stories that circulate around a predicted future African American experience. The novel is filled with strong, smart, self-reliant characters working toward a better future within the framework of a dystopian future. One story in particular, “The Nig in Me,” the author focuses on the experience of being an African American man in the future he describes. In the story, society has followed the logical conclusion of deeming the value and worthiness from the color of one’s skin. Mosley wants the reader to see the creeping effects of racism that has been seeping through the past and present situations and how they might affect a future society.
Mosley’s goal of this story is to serve as a warning to potential future generations. The protagonist, Harold Bottoms, is a black man whose family perpetually struggled financially and finds himself also fighting for survival in this bleak future. Harold is subjected to the experience of systemic racism based upon his own low income, lack of opportunities, and even his parent’s income. An example of this comes when Harold’s parents struggled and wound up lost to the system, lost in the dust to what Harold’s society knows as “white noise” and forbidden from finding work - “White Noise, Backgrounder, Muzak Jack — Words that define the poor souls that lost their labor rights permanently” (Mosley, Futureland 321). The white people of Mosley’s story do not struggle financially as much as Harold and the people from his culture seem to struggle.
Racism can be perpetuated through corrupt systems. It is found everywhere within our experience and Mosley seems to be stating that racism will not be eliminated unless there is massive change within the hearts of the people delivering actions. This mindset is often motivated by power, and greed, or in some cases, fear in others (Corlett 71). Economic racism can be amplified by the way organizations are managed and empower some groups to take advantage of others. The best way to push against this concept is to empower those individuals that can push back against corporate power (Dews 2016). These white groups and corporations are the main antagonists of both of Mosley's works.
A targeted and racist biochemically engineered disease is created in “The Nig in Me,” and capitalized upon by the racist Ku Klux Klan (KKK) organization. The disease was originally designed to target and kill the genes shared by African American people. The plague ends up backfiring on the same attackers, sending a less than subtle message to the reader that black people, regardless of the situation in which they find themselves, will always continue to prevail even in the darkest of times. It is a bleak message of hope. The racist plague unintentionally targets white people instead of its intended target, and the only survivors of the plague are those that have even the smallest amount of African DNA within their genes. Mosley describes racism as something that evolves, changes, and is eventually destroyed by the ones responsible for started it.
Mosley writes of a world where black people can find themselves surviving the racism of white people. Surviving those that want to murder them simply because of the color of their skin. In Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy Rawlins struggles, but continues to survive. He knows how to protect himself, and warily enjoys the support that his white employer provides him. Mosley writes of the situational racism he has experienced and watched personally. It shapes his own writing and the characters he forms are on the defensive, they are strong, young men that fight for their rightful place in a society that seeks to undermine them.
For example, in “The Nig in Me,” Harold, though losing his family to a corrupt and racist system years prior, and the threat of a new plague ends up surviving because of “a sizable portion of Negro blood in their veins” (Mosley, Futureland 346). The characters of each story still struggle for money and the life they want just like anyone. The protagonists from each story, Easy and Harold, have forged a home within the world where they do not feel like they are wanted. Mosley wants to create a world where his characters are black, yet feel at home, and they feel that they can survive, even when the world they live in works against them (Finding a Way Home: A Critical Assessment of Walter Mosley's Fiction, XI, 3-4).
Money is an ever present and urgent need and Mosley uses examples to show the racial divide within a society where corporations use people for their own gain. In “The Nig in Me,” he focuses on the potential reality of what a systemically racist future may hold. Corporations hold Harold’s culture and society close, taking the money that he needs to survive. In the future scenario, Harold desperately requires money, and if he cannot procure the money he needs, then he will die, or worse, lose everything. “Roving mobs of black and white ruffians were battling in the streets of the major American cities. Astonished Caucasians who survived the plague realized that there was a sizeable portion of Negro blood in their veins” (Mosley, Futureland 351).
The white antagonists in the story do not struggle like Harold does. He requires an identity card to live, which gets him access to places, and provides him with the basics of food and shelter. If that identity card were to be lost, Harold would not survive for long, finding himself forgotten or even ignored. “If I go off the force one more time, Sheila says she’ll pull the plug. Three times more and I’m White Noise” (351) Mosley uses this tension to demonstrate the financial desperation the characters feel. Money is a primary motivating element in each of Mosley’s works and the author demonstrates that fact by using monetary value as a focal point to create tension within each of the stories.
Mosley believes that the need for money forces people to work harder than they normally might. In Harold’s scenario, corporations actively work against the better interests of society and steal money from them. The plague that Harold survives was literally created by wealthy racists to kill all people of African American ancestry (Mosley, Futureland 336). ""World’s comin’ to an end.” Jamey said to his friend. “And ElectroDog wants to get the last dollar"" (346). Even at the end of the short story, companies are still fighting to gather more money. They create new products and toys for people in a consumerist scenario under the misperception that they desperately need them. In Harold’s view, he cannot do anything without the identity card, and he cannot get a replacement.
The Corporations in his life are mimicking the corporations that Mosley says exist today. In “The Nig in Me,” Mosley uses this fictional world to show how money has become scarcer, and how hard the people in the future will have to work in comparison to the people of the present day. In the fictional world of Mosley’s future corporations, society is divided into a fractured, parallel world of struggling black and white people: Each member of society either works to support “the System” or struggles to work in spite of it. Either way, those that struggle find themselves lost and forgotten. (Conversations with Walter Mosley, 103). This scenario of sacrificing lives for money can also be reflected in the past.
Pressure from large corporate interests play a role in Mosley’s work. In Devil in a Blue Dress, the theme of money has the applied pressure from racism of the time. “The law,"" he (Easy) continued, ""is made by the rich people so that the poor people can't get ahead...” This is a common thread in the author’s work and since the novel is set in the 1940’s, even a small amount of money plays an important role in comparison to the present or in the world of “The Nig in Me’s.” Easy Rawlins is fighting for every last dollar, using each to get further into his business of finding what he set out for. What today’s society would consider a small amount of money is a foreign concept to Easy Rawlins, because that is what can be found in a rich man’s wallet.
However, Easy quickly obtains a generous amount of money during the course of the novel. ""The law,"" he continued, ""is made by the rich people so that the poor people can't get ahead"" (Mosley, Devil in the Blue Dress 75). Easy understands that the odds are stacked against him, but he makes the most of his situation and pushes through to be a successful young man regardless of his circumstances. Mosley writes of Easy’s careful spending and how everything he spends his money on was used for his benefit like bills, or paying for drinks to get future persons of interest to open up their knowledge. As a black man, Mosley shows that Easy was a fighter, and working hard for his cash because just a few years prior, he is still not respected for his race. The money that Easy earns in the story is all an investment for a secure future.
Mosley writes this dissonance between the two stories to show how race impacting monetary value. In contrast to Easy’s character, Harold lives many years in the future. Racism is still prominent, but not as rampant as Easy’s world. The racism that thrives is easily hidden while the gap between rich and poor is wider, making the racist plague a shock to everyone around them (Mosley, Futureland 345). Harold, while struggling with his income, does not take time to care or protect himself from The System. He obsessively protects his identity card and his life. “He hadn’t let go of his ID-Chip in twelve years, since the day of his labor adulthood at fifteen” (Mosley, Futureland 329). However, when it comes to money, Harold is the opposite of Easy Rawlins. He is reckless and ambivalent about tomorrow. For example, he dismisses the objections of his friend after taking money from a dead lover, ""She was dead, man. She didn’t need it and her family’s rich.
You know the parmeds woulda taken that shit in a minute"" (Mosley, Futureland 345). This is an example of how Harold spirals into a mindset of deviancy when the world begins to end, rationalizing his behaviors and thought processes. Mosley uses this example to show that young black men in America will always survive, even when the odds are stacked against them. Mosley uses this to urge that the world should change how they perceive racism in respect to why Harold behaves in this manner. For a reflection on a possible future, Mosley discussed his view on a cultural milestone of his futuristic novel Futureworld in comparison with the sci-fi fantasy Star Wars films during an interview. He remarked on the lack of African American representation in Star Wars as a reflection of the future being free of people of color, and even though the filmmakers attempted to remedy that picture, they were never truly successful (Locus Online). In each story, racism revolves around learned behaviors, stubbornness, and greed.
White people in Moseley’s stories are either racist antagonists or passive bystanders. The Jewish woman that Easy spoke to did not take the opportunity to defend him against racist threats and Easy remained cautious. For example, Mosley writes, “Junior liked to make up any old wild story, I knew that, but there were too many white people turning up for me to feel at ease” (Mosley, Devil in the Blue Dress 75). Easy’s experience captured the experience of people of color of the Post-War period, competing for and failing to gain access to the coveted white suburbia of the time (Mullins 2013).
While Harold and Easy do not have an active distaste for white people within their stories, they are justifiably cautious men when it comes to their interactions with other races. This is a learned behavior that the two men have experienced, though many years apart in history. The two men struggle with their finances but in altogether different ways and reasons. Both men live in societies that allow people of color to struggle, and the large institutions of their times take extra measures to allow those struggles to exists due to greed and capitalism. During Easy’s time, African Americans were actively discriminated from purchasing homes in white neighborhoods (Mullins 2013).
Walter Mosley’s works sadly show that racism may not ever change. The philosopher George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana 284). The experience of racism goes much deeper for people that live behind the color of their skin. This theme of systemic racism goes hand in hand with the poverty that affects the income of African Americans. Mosley writes from the point of view that people of color are prisoners within their own skin, because of how society has placed that burden on them. In his works, these prisoners of their own skin, and their basic needs, become a constant focus, but they cannot make a good wage because the companies of their respective times are empowered to take advantage of others.
The results of systemic racism and palpable at the end of each story. Racism becomes personal and not limited just to how one group may hate another. Racism, in all of its forms, will not only remain in America, but endure for many years to come, due to the overtly corrupt system that exists, unless substantial changes are made. In his works, Mosley concisely displays that racial prejudices of each respective time period remains unchanged. The future of racism, in the form of economic disparity, must be balanced with not only the knowledge of the past, but the implementation of its lessons to change the course of civilization. In this way, society will avoid the dystopia that Mosley keeps predicting.