During a discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates' epic Atlantic article The Case For Reparations on Friday night's Real Time with Bill Maher, one of those truly comical awkward moments occurred when Bill Maher explained his understanding of the "black guys love Cadillacs" stereotype to a completely bemused Coates.
One of the key aspects of Coates' article is the long history of housing discrimination, in many forms, and in discussing this, Maher observed that "This is where that stereotype about Cadillacs comes in, right? Because there was always that joke, you know, that black people love their Cadillacs because they couldn't own a house."
"I'm so unfamiliar with that joke," Coates replied.
Smiling sheepishly, Maher said "Really?"
"I'm sorry," Coates laughed, "I'm so sorry, I can't even fake it, I'd love to fake it, but I actually never heard that joke."
"You've never heard it?" Maher asked, again.
"I haven't," Coates said, adding "I'm not saying it's not a joke, but I've never heard it."
"Trust me, the white people know what I'm talking about," Maher said, with a glance at his audience. Then he kept explaining. "Yeah, that black people love their Cadillacs, because that was, for so many years, the biggest thing they could buy, when you're not allowed to buy a house, or a house in a good neighborhood, when you can't get a mortgage, you know, the biggest thing you can take pride in is your car."
"Alright," Coates said, "I'll take your word on it."
"It's an Audi now," Maher added. "It used to be a Cadillac."
This exchange sort of blew my mind, because that same stereotype was explained to me (not in joke form), nearly word-for-word, the same way when I was a kid. In fact, it was also explained to me by a middle-aged, white Catholic man, and not as a stereotype, but as a "positive" counter to one.
Back then, giving a shit about gas mileage was a relatively new thing. In fact, there was also a lot of racial hostility toward Japanese cars, so it seemed to me that lots of white folks also liked Cadillacs, but a friend's dad explained to me that, since black people were all poor, they shouldn't have been able to afford Cadillacs, yet were constantly buying them. He generously reasoned that black people didn't buy Cadillacs because they're uppity, but because, like Maher said, it was more a recognition of the futility of aspiring to home ownership. This, he added, was also why their cars were always so shiny and new-looking, while their domiciles were bombed-out hellholes.
Like other bits of folksy white "wisdom" in "defense" of black people, this is a rationalization whose true intent is to excuse the racists who promote the stereotypes. The logic is that even though racists are assholes for being racists, they're kind of just being uncharitable about things that are sort of true.
It doesn't actually matter how or why a stereotype exists, or what it is, the purpose is always the same. It doesn't matter what black people do, white people will find a reason why they suck for doing it. If they found conclusive proof that Jesus was black, they'd say he was lazy for taking a 3-day nap after he was crucified.
As it happens, black car culture is a lot like white car culture, with one key difference: they faced discrimination from auto dealers, insurers, and lenders. According to former Cadillac marketing executive Don Butler, black people weren't even allowed to buy Cadillacs at first, and had to use white straw-purchasers:
“What happened was, during the Depression in the 1930s the economy was depressed and Cadillac was in really bad shape. They had actually considered shutting down the brand. There was a service engineer — he was German — an he asked to make a presentation before the GM board of directors. He said ‘I have an idea on how I think we can save Cadillac.’
“What (the service director/engineer) had noticed was that black men were bringing in their Cadillacs. Now, normally, he thought that black men were bringing in their (white) owners’ Cadillacs. But, no, they owned these vehicles and they were brining them in for service. He was confused because at the time, unfortunately, (GM) was not selling Cadillacs to black Americans. It was forbidden to sell a Cadillac to African Americans walking into the showrooms.
“What he detected were that African Americans, who had accumulate the means, were hiring white men to go buy Cadillacs for them. I invite you to “Google” this, to look it up. What he essentially said is that we (GM) need to begin to market directly to African Americans and tell them that we are open for business for Cadillacs. So, in a sense, that was the first diversity marketing, if you want to look at it that way.
The truth, then, is nearly identical to the pattern that Coates identifies in black housing than an exception to it. Black people were no more "allowed" to buy Cadillacs than houses, and those who managed to work around it did so with extraordinary effort.
At first, it was surprising to me that Coates had never heard Maher's explanation before, but then it occurred to me that maybe it's hard enough just to keep track of all of the stereotypes to begin with, let alone every meta-explanation that goes along with them.