Authors: Cornel West
In the hearings, the image of Clarence Thomas that emerged was one of an exemplary hedonist, a consumer of pornography, captive to a stereotypical self-image of the powerful black man who revels in sexual prowess in a racist society. Anita Hill appeared as the exemplary careerist addicted to job promotion and captive to the stereotypical self-image of the sacrificial black woman who suffers silently and alone. There was reason to suspect that Thomas was not telling the whole truth. He was silent about
Roe v. Wade
, his intentions in the antiabortion essay on Lewis Lehrmann, and the contours of his conservative political philosophy. Furthermore, his obdurate stonewalling in regard to his private life was disturbing. There also should be little doubt that Anita Hill's decision to testify was a break from her careerist ambitions. On the one hand, she strikes me as a person of integrity and honesty. On the other hand, she indeed put a premium on job advancementâeven at painful personal cost. Yet her speaking out disrupted this pattern of behavior and she found herself supported only by people who opposed the very conservative Republican policies she otherwise championed, namely, progressive feminists, liberals, and some black folk. How strange she must feel being a hero to her former foes. One wonders whether Judge Bork supported her as fervently as she did him a few years ago.
A prophetic framework of moral reasoning would have liberated black leaders from the racial guilt of opposing a black man for the highest court in the land and of the feeling that one had to choose between a black woman and a black man. Like the Black Congressional Caucus (minus one?), black people could have simply opposed Thomas based on qualifications and principle. And one could have chosen between two black right-wing figures based on their sworn testimonies in light of the patterns of their behavior in the recent past. Similarly, black leaders could have avoided being duped by Thomas's desperate and vulgar appeals to racial victimization by a white male Senate committee who handled him gently (no questions about his private life). Like Senator Hollings, who knows racial intimidation when he sees it (given his past experiences with it), black leaders could have seen through the rhetorical charade and called a moral spade a moral spade.
Unfortunately, most black leaders remained caught in a framework of racial reasoningâeven when they opposed Thomas and/or supported Hill. Rarely did we have a black leader highlight the moral content of a mature black identity, accent the crucial role of coalition strategy in the struggle for justice, or promote the ideal of black cultural democracy. Instead, the debate evolved around glib formulations of a black “role model” based on mere pigmentation, an atavistic defense of blackness that mirrors the increasing xenophobia in American life, and circled around a silence about the ugly authoritarian practices in black America that range from sexual harassment to indescribable violence against women. Hence a grand opportunity for substantive discussion and struggle over race and gender was missed in black America and the larger society. And black leadership must share some of the blame. As long as black leaders remain caught in a framework of racial reasoning, they will not rise above the manipulative language of Bush and Thomasâjust as the state of siege (the death, disease, and destruction) raging in much of black America creates more urban wastelands and combat zones. Where there is no vision, the people perish; where there is no framework of moral reasoning, the people close ranks in a war of all against all. The growing gangsterization of America results in part from a market-driven racial reasoning that links the White House to the ghetto projects. In this sense, George Bush, David Duke, and many ganster rap artists speak the same language from different social locationsâonly racial reasoning can save us. Yet I hear a cloud of witnesses from afarâSojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips, Emma Goldman, A. Phillip Randolph, Ella Baker, Myles Horton, Fannie Lou Hamer, Michael Harrington, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Tom Hayden, Harvey Milk, Robert Moses, Barbara Ehrenreich, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many anonymous others who championed the struggle for freedom and justice in a prophetic framework of moral reasoning. They understood that the pitfalls of racial reasoning are too costly in mind, body, and soulâespecially for a downtrodden and despised people like black Americans. The best of our leadership recognized this valuable truthâand more must do so in the future if America is to survive with any moral sense.
You don't stick a knife in a man's back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you're making progress.
No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition, whites show towards me, as far as I'm concerned, as long as it is not shown to every one of our people in this country, it doesn't exist for me.
MALCOLM X (1964)
has not been a time in the history of black people in this country when the quantity of politicians and intellectuals was so great, yet the quality of both groups has been so low. Just when one would have guessed that black America was flexing its political and intellectual muscles,
seems to have set in. How do we account for the absence of the Frederick Douglasses, Sojourner Truths, Martin Luther King, Jrs., Malcolm Xs, and Fannie Lou Hamers in our time? Why hasn't black America produced intellectuals of the caliber of W. E. B. Du Bois, Anna Cooper, E. Franklin Frazier, Oliver Cox, and Ralph Ellison in the past few decades?
A serious response to these perplexing questions requires subtle inquiry into the emergence of the new black middle classâits content and character, aspirations and anxieties, orientations and opportunities. Black America has had a variety of different “middle classes.” Free negroes in the preâCivil War period; educators, artisans, and shopkeepers during the Reconstruction period; business persons and black college professors in the years of Jim Crow laws; and prominent athletes, entertainers, and white collar personnel after World War II all serve as examples of black middle-class status prior to the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964 and the Voting Rights Bill of 1965. As E. Franklin Frazier pointed out in his classic
(1957), these various forms of black middle-class status never constituted more than 5 percent of African Americans before the Civil Rights era. In the last two decades, this percentage jumped to well over 25 percent. Yet this leap in quantity has not been accompanied by a leap in quality. The present-day black middle class is not simply different than its predecessorsâit is more deficient and, to put it strongly, more decadent. For the most part, the dominant outlooks and lifestyles of today's black middle class discourage the development of high quality political and intellectual leaders. Needless to say, this holds for the country as a whole. Yet much of what is bad about the United States, that which prevents the cultivation of quality leadership, is accentuated among black middle-class Americans.
new black middle class came of age in the 1960s during an unprecedented American economic boom and in the hub of a thriving mass culture. The economic boom made luxury goods and convenient services available to large numbers of hard-working Americans for the first time. American mass culture presented models of the good life principally in terms of conspicuous consumption and hedonistic indulgence. It is important to note that even the intensely political struggles of the sixties presupposed a perennial economic boom and posited models of the good life projected by U.S. mass culture. Long-term financial self-denial and sexual asceticism was never at the center of a political agenda in the sixties.
The civil rights movement permitted significant numbers of black Americans to benefit from the American economic boomâto get a small, yet juicy piece of the expanding American pie. And for most of those who had the education, skills, and ingenuity to get a piece, mass culture (TV, radio, films) dictated what they should do with itâgain peace of mind and pleasure of body from what they could buy. Like any American group achieving contemporary middle-class station for the first time, black entree into the culture of consumption made status an obsession and addiction to stimulation a way of life. For example, well-to-do black parents no longer sent their children to Howard, Morehouse, and Fisk “to serve the race” (though often for indirect self-serving ends), but rather to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton “to get a high-paying job” (for direct selfish reasons).
One reason quality leadership is on the wane in black America is the gross deterioration of personal, familial, and communal relations among African Americans. These relationsâthough always fragile and difficult to sustainâconstitute a crucial basis for the development of a collective and critical consciousness and a moral commitment to and courageous engagement with causes beyond that of one's self and family. Presently, black communities are in shambles, black families are in decline, and black men and women are in conflict (and sometimes combat). In this way, the new class divisions produced by black inclusion (and exclusion) from the economic boom and the consumerism and hedonism promoted by mass culture have resulted in new kinds of personal turmoil and existential meaninglessness in black America. There are few, if any, communal resources to help black people cope with this situation.
leadership is neither the product of one great individual nor the result of odd historical accidents. Rather, it comes from deeply bred traditions and communities that shape and mold talented and gifted persons. Without a vibrant tradition of resistance passed on to new generations, there can be no nurturing of a collective and critical consciousnessâonly professional conscientiousness survives. Where there is no vital community to hold up precious ethical and religious ideals, there can be no coming to a moral commitmentâonly personal accomplishment is applauded. Without a credible sense of political struggle, there can be no shouldering of a courageous engagementâonly cautious adjustment is undertaken. If you stop to think in this way about the source of leadership, it becomes clear why there is such a lack of quality leadership in black America today. This absence is primarily a symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded by its ethical ideals, and from a credible sense of political struggle. Presently, black middle-class life is principally a matter of professional conscientiousness, personal accomplishment, and cautious adjustment.
Black Political Leadership
Black political leadership reveals the tame and genteel face of the black middle class. The black dress suits with white shirts worn by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., signified the seriousness of their deep commitment to black freedom, whereas today the expensive tailored suits of black politicians symbolize their personal success and individual achievement. Malcolm and Martin called for the realization that black people are somebodies with which America has to reckon, whereas black politicians tend to turn our attention to
somebodiness owing to
“making it” in America.
This crude and slightly unfair comparison highlights two distinctive features of black political leaders in the postâCivil Rights era: the relative lack of authentic anger and the relative absence of genuine humility. What stood out most strikingly about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer was that they were almost always visibly upset about the condition of black America. When one saw them speak or heard their voices, they projected on a gut level that the black situation was urgent, in need of immediate attention. One even gets the impression that their own stability and sanity rested on how soon the black predicament could be improved. Malcolm, Martin, Ella, and Fannie were angry about the state of black America, and this anger fueled their boldness and defiance.
In stark contrast, most present-day black political leaders appear too hungry for status to be angry, too eager for acceptance to be bold, too self-invested in advancement to be defiant. And when they do drop their masks and try to get mad (usually in the presence of black audiences), their bold rhetoric is more performance than personal, more play-acting than heartfelt. Malcolm, Martin, Ella, and Fannie made sense of the black plight in a poignant and powerful manner, whereas most contemporary black political leaders' oratory appeals to black people's sense of the sentimental and sensational.
Similarly, Malcolm, Martin, Ella, and Fannie were examples of humility. Yes, even Malcolm's aggressiveness was accompanied by a common touch and humble disposition toward ordinary black people. Humility is the fruit of inner security and wise maturity. To be humble is to be so sure of one's self and one's mission that one can forego calling excessive attention to one's self and status. And, even more pointedly, to be humble is to revel in the accomplishments or potentials of othersâespecially those with whom one identifies and to whom one is linked organically. The relative absence of humility in most black political leaders today is a symptom of the status-anxiety and personal insecurity pervasive in black middle-class America. In this context, even a humble vesture is viewed as a cover for some sinister motive or surreptitious ambition.
Present-day black political leaders can be grouped under three types: race-effacing managerial leaders, race-identifying protest leaders, and race-transcending prophetic leaders. The first type is growing rapidly. The Thomas Bradleys and Wilson Goodes of black America have become a model for many black leaders trying to reach a large white constituency and keep a loyal black one. This type survives on sheer political savvy and thrives on personal diplomacy. This kind of candidate is the lesser of two evils in a political situation where the only other electoral choice is a conservative (usually white) politician. Yet this type of leader tends to stunt progressive development and silence the prophetic voices in the black community by casting the practical mainstream as the only game in town.
The second type of black political leaderârace-identifying protest leadersâoften view themselves in the tradition of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ella Baker, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Yet they are usually self-deluded. They actually operate much more in the tradition of Booker T. Washington, by confining themselves to the black turf, vowing to protect their leadership status over it, and serving as power brokers with powerful nonblack (usually white economic or political elites, though in Louis Farrakhan's case it may be Libyan elites) to “enhance” this black turf. It is crucial to remember that even in the fifties, Malcolm X's vision and practice were international in scope, and that after 1964 his project was transracialâthough grounded in the black turf. King never confined himself to being solely the leader of black Americaâeven though the white press attempted to do so. And Fannie Lou Hamer led the National Welfare Rights Organization, not the Black Welfare Rights Organization. In short, race-identifying protest leaders in the postâCivil Rights era function as figures who white Americans must appease so that the plight of the black poor is overlooked and forgotten. When such leaders move successfully into elected officeâas with Marion Barryâthey usually become managerial types with large black constituencies, flashy styles, flowery rhetoric, and Booker T. Washingtonâlike patronage operations within the public sphere.
Race-transcending prophetic leaders are rare in contemporary black America. Harold Washington was one. The Jesse Jackson of 1988 was attempting to be anotherâyet the opportunism of his past weighed heavily on him. To be an elected official and prophetic leader requires personal integrity and political savvy, moral vision and prudential judgment, courageous defiance and organizational patience. The present generation has yet to produce such a figure. We have neither an Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., nor a Ronald Dellums. This void sits like a festering sore at the center of the crisis of black leadershipâand the predicament of the disadvantaged in the United States and abroad worsens.
Black Intellectual Leadership
Black intellectual leadership discloses the cynical and ironic face of the black middle class. The Victorian three-piece suitâwith a clock and chain in the vestâworn by W. E. B. Du Bois not only represented the age that shaped and molded him; it also dignified his sense of intellectual vocation, a sense of rendering service by means of critical intelligence and moral action. The shabby clothing worn by most black intellectuals these days may be seen as symbolizing their utter marginality behind the walls of academe and their sense of impotence in the wider world of American culture and politics. For Du Bois, the glorious life of the mind was a highly disciplined way of life and an intensely demanding way of struggle that facilitated transit between his study and the streets; whereas present-day black scholars tend to be mere academicians, narrowly confined to specialized disciplines with little sense of the broader life of the mind and hardly any engagement with battles in the streets.
Black intellectuals are affected by the same processes as other American intellectuals, such as the professionalization and specialization of knowledge, the bureaucratization of the academy, the proliferation of arcane jargon in the various disciplines, and the marginalization of humanistic studies. Yet the quality of black intellectual work has suffered more so than that of others. There are two basic reasons why.
First, the academic system of rewards and status, prestige and influence, puts a premium on those few black scholars who imitate the dominant paradigms elevated by fashionable Northeastern seaboard institutions of higher learning. If one is fortunate enough to be a “spook who sits by the door,” eavesdrops on the conversation among the prominent and prestigious, and reproduces their jargon in relation to black subject matter, one's academic career is secure. This system not only demoralizes aspiring careerists stuck in the provinces far from the exciting metropolis; it also stifles intellectual creativity, especially among those for whom the dominant paradigms are problematic. Yet the incredible expansion of the Academy in the past few decadesâincluding the enormous federal dollars that support both private and public universities and collegesâhas made the Academy a world in itself and a caretaker of nearly all intellectual talent in American society. Therefore, even the critiques of dominant paradigms in the Academy are
ones; that is, they reposition viewpoints and figures within the context of professional politics inside the Academy rather than create linkages between struggles inside and outside of the Academy. In this way, the Academy feeds on critiques of its own paradigms. These critiques simultaneously legitimate the Academy (enhancing its self-image as a promoter of objective inquiry and relentless criticism) and empty out the more political and worldly substance of radical critiques. This is especially so for critiques that focus on the way in which paradigms generated in the Academy help authorize the Academy. In this way, radical critiques, including those by black scholars, are usually disarmed.