Authors: Cornel West
Second, many black scholars deliberately distance themselves so far from the mainstream Academy that they have little to sustain them as scholars. American intellectual life has few places or pockets to support serious scholarly work outside of the Academy and foundationsâespecially for those in the social sciences and humanities. The major intellectual alternatives to the Academy are journalism, self-support communities (Bohemia and feminist groups), or self-supporting writers (such as Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, or John Updike). Unfortunately, some frustrated and disgusted black intellectuals revert to isolated groups and insulated conversations that reproduce the very mediocrity that led them to reject the Academy. In this way, mediocrity of various forms and in different contexts suffocates much of black intellectual life. So, despite the larger numbers of black scholars relative to the past (though still a small percentage in relation to white scholars), black intellectual life is a rather depressing scene. With few periodicals available for cross-disciplinary exchange, few organs that show interest in this situation, and few magazines that focus on analyses of black culture and its relation to American society, infrastructures for black intellectual activity are feeble.
Like black politicians, black scholars fall into three basic typesârace-distancing elitists, race-embracing rebels, and race-transcending prophets. The first type are dominant at the more exclusive universities and colleges. They often view themselves as the “talented tenth” who have a near monopoly on the sophisticated and cultured gaze of what is wrong with black America. They revel in severe denigration of much black behavior yet posit little potential or possibility in Afro-America. At times, their criticism is incisiveâyet it often denigrates into a revealing self-hatred. They tend to distance themselves from black America by ironically calling attention to their own cantankerous marginality. They pontificate about standards of excellence, complexity of analysis, and subtlety of inquiryâyet usually spin out mediocre manuscripts, flat establishmentarian analyses, and uncreative inquiry. Even so, they prosperâthough often at the cost of minimal intellectual respect by their white colleagues in the Academy. The mean-spirited writings of a fellow progressive like Adolph Reed, Jr., are an example.
The second type of black intellectual, the race-embracing rebels, often view themselves in the tradition of W. E. B. Du Bois. Yet they are usually wrong. In fact, they fall much more into the tradition of those old stereotypical black college professors who thrived on being “big fish in a little pond.” That is, race-embracing rebels express their resentment of the white Academy (including its subtle racism) by reproducing similar hierarchies headed by themselves, within a black context. They rightly rebel against the tribal insularity and snobbish civility of the white academy (and the first type of black scholars), yet, unlike Du Bois, their rebellion tends to delimit their literary productivity and sap their intellectual creativity. Hence, rhetoric becomes a substitute for analysis, stimulatory rapping a replacement for serious reading, and uncreative publications an expression of existential catharsis. Much, though not all, of Afrocentric thought fits this bill.
There are few race-transcending prophets on the current black intellectual scene. James Baldwin was one. He was self-taught and self-styled, hence beholden to no white academic patronage system. He was courageous and prolific, a political intellectual when the engaged leftist Amiri Baraka was a petit bourgeois Bohemian poet named Leroi Jones and the former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver became a right-wing Republican. He was unswerving in his commitment to fusing the life of the mind (including the craft of writing) with the struggle for justice and human dignity regardless of the fashions of the day or the price he had to pay. With the exception of Toni Morrison, the present generation has yet to produce such a figure. We have neither an Oliver Cox nor a St. Claire Drake. This vacuum continues to aggravate the crisis of black leadershipâand the plight of the wretched of the earth deteriorates.
What Is to Be Done?
The nihilistic threat to black America is inseparable from a crisis in black leadership. This crisis is threefold. First, at the national level, the courageous yet problematic example of Jesse Jackson looms large. On the one hand, his presidential campaigns based on a progressive multiracial coalition were
major left-liberal response to Reagan's conservative policies. For the first time since the last days of Martin Luther King, Jr.âwith the grand exception of Harold Washingtonâthe nearly
segregation in U.S. progressive politics was confronted and surmounted. On the other hand, Jackson's televisual style resists grassroots organizing and, most important, democratic accountability. His brilliance, energy, and charisma sustain his public visibilityâbut at the expense of programmatic follow-through. We are approaching the moment in which this style exhausts its progressive potential.
Other national nonelectoral black leadersâlike Benjamin Hooks of the NAACP and John Jacobs of the National Urban Leagueârightly highlight the traditional problems of racial discrimination, racial violence, and slow racial progress. Yet their preoccupation with raceâthe mandate from their organizationsâdownplays the crucial class, environmental, patriarchal, and homophobic determinants of black life changes. Black politiciansâespecially new victors like Mayor David Dinkins of New York City and Governor Douglas Wilder of Virginiaâare participants in a larger, lethargic electoral system riddled with decreasing revenues, loss of public confidence, self-perpetuating mediocrity, and pervasive corruption. Like most American elected officials, few black politicians can sidestep these seductive traps. For all of these reasons, black leadership at the national level tends to lack a moral vision that can organize (not just periodically energize), subtle analyses that enlighten (not simply intermittently awaken), and exemplary practices that uplift (not merely convey status that awes) black people.
Second, this relative failure creates vacuums to be filled by bold and defiant black nationalist figures with even narrower visions, one-note racial analyses, and sensationalist practices. Louis Farrakhan, the early Al Sharpton (prior to 1991), and others vigorously attempt to be protest leaders in this myopic modeâa mode often, though not always, reeking of immoral xenophobia. This kind of black leadership is not only symptomatic of black alienation and desperation in a country more and more indifferent or hostile to the quality of life among black working and poor people; it also reinforces the fragmentation of U.S. progressive efforts that could reverse this deplorable plight. In this way, black nationalist leaders often inadvertently contribute to the very impasse they are trying to overcome: inadequate social attention and action to change the plight of America's “invisible people,” especially disadvantaged black people.
Third, this crisis of black leadership contributes to political cynicism among black people; it encourages the idea that we cannot really make a difference in changing our society. This cynicismâalready promoted by the larger political cultureâdampens the fire of engaged
activists who have made a difference. These activists are engaged in protracted grassroots organization in principled coalitions that bring power and pressure to bear on specific issues. And they are people who have little interest in being in the national limelight, such as the Industrial Areas Foundation efforts of BUILD in Baltimore or Harlem initiatives in Manhattan.
Without such activists there can be no progressive politics. Yet state, regional, and national networks are also required for an effective progressive politics. That is why locally based collective (and especially multigendered) models of black leadership are needed. These models must shun the idea of one black national leader; they also should put a premium on critical dialogue and democratic accountability in black organizations.
crisis in black leadership can be remedied only if we candidly confront its existence. We need national forums to reflect, discuss, and plan how best to respond. It is neither a matter of a new Messiah figure emerging, nor of another organization appearing on the scene. Rather, it is a matter of grasping the structural and institutional processes that have disfigured, deformed, and devastated black America such that the resources for nurturing collective and critical consciousness, moral commitment, and courageous engagement are vastly underdeveloped. We need serious strategic and tactical thinking about how to create new models of leadership and forge the kind of persons to actualize these models. These models must not only question our silent assumptions about black leadershipâsuch as the notion that black leaders are
middle classâbut must also force us to interrogate iconic figures of the past. This includes questioning King's sexism and homophobia and the relatively undemocratic character of his organization, and examining Malcolm's silence on the vicious role of priestly versions of Islam in the modern world.
But one point is beyond dispute: The time is past for black political and intellectual leaders to pose as
voice for black America. Gone are the days when black political leaders jockey for the label “president of black America,” or when black intellectuals pose as the “writers of black America.” The days of brokering for the black turfâof posing as the Head Negro in Charge (H.N.I.C.)âare over. To be a serious black leader is to be a race-transcending prophet who critiques the powers that be (including the black component of the Establishment) and who puts forward a vision of moral regeneration and political insurgency for the purpose of fundamental social change for all who suffer from socially induced misery. For the moment, we reflect and regroup with a vow that the 1990s will make the 1960s look like a tea party.
It is, indeed, one of the basic moral blindspots of American conservatism that its intellectual and leadership energy have never been focussed in a proactive way on America's racial-caste legacy. This represents a fundamental moral crisis of modern American conservatism â¦ American conservatives typically ignored the authoritarian and violent racial-caste practices and values arrayed against black Americans in southern states where the vast majority of blacks live. On the other hand, American conservatives have, throughout this century, often embraced freedom movements elsewhere in the worldâin Europe, Latin America, East Asiaâbut always firmly resisting a proactive embrace of the black American civil rights movement as a bona fide freedom movement fully worthy of their support. So it is in the shadow of this dismal record of mainstream American conservatism vis-Ã -vis black Americans' long and arduous quest for equality of status that new black conservatives have emerged.
MARTIN KILSON, “Anatomy of Black Conservatism” (1992)
publication of Thomas Sowell's
Race and Economics
in 1975 marked the rise of a novel phenomenon in the United States: a visible and aggressive black intellectual conservative assault on traditional black liberal ideas. The promotion of conservative perspectives is not new in African American history. The preeminent black conservative of this century, George S. Schuyler, published a witty and acerbic column in the influential black newspaper
The Pittsburgh Courier
for decades, and his book
Black and Conservative
is a minor classic in African American letters. Similarly, the reactionary essays (some of which appeared in
) and Republican Party allegiance of the most renowned African American woman of letters, Zora Neale Hurston, are often overlooked by her contemporary feminist and womanist followers. Yet Sowell's book still signified something newâa bid for conservative hegemony in black political and intellectual leadership in the postâCivil Rights era.
This bid, as yet, has been highly unsuccessful though it has generated much attention from the American media, whose interest is most clearly evident in the hoopla surrounding the recent works of Shelby Steele, Stephen Carter, and Stanley Crouch. The new black conservatism is a response to the crisis of liberalism in Afro-America. This crisis, exemplified partly by the rise of Reaganism and the collapse of left politics, has created an intellectual space that conservative voices of various colors now occupy.
In this context, the writings of my friend and fellow Christian Glenn Loury warrant attention in that he attempts to distance himself from mainstream conservatism, while targeting his critiques at black liberalism; that is, he is a neo-conservative who wants to dislodge traditional liberalism among black Americans. In his forthcoming book,
Free at Last
, he puts forward three basic charges against black liberal thinkers. First, he holds that black liberals adhere to a victim-status conception of black people that results in blaming all personal failings of black people on white racism. Second, he claims that black liberals harbor a debilitating loyalty to the race that blinds them to the pathological and dysfunctional aspects of black behavior. Third, Loury argues that black liberals truncate intellectual discourse regarding the plight of poor black people by censoring critical perspectives which air the “dirty linen” of the black communityâthat is, they dub neo-conservatives like Loury as “Uncle Toms” and thereby fail to take his views seriously in an intellectual manner.
Loury's charges are noteworthy in that the hegemony of black liberalismâespecially among black academic and political elitesâdoes impose restraints on the quality and scope of black intellectual exchange. Furthermore, the more vulgar forms of black liberalism, for example, extreme environmentalism, tend to downplay or ignore the personal responsibility of black people regarding their behavior toward one another and others.
Unfortunately, and ironically, Loury deploys the very rhetorical strategies he denounces in his liberal adversaries. For example, he casts black conservatives and neo-conservatives like himself as victimsâvictims whose own failings to gain a fair hearing and broad following in Afro-America he attributes to a black liberal conspiracy to discredit them in an
manner. Yet surely the black community is not so gullible, manipulable, and downright callous. It may simply be that the real merits of the case put forward by the new black conservatives are unconvincing and unpersuasive.
In addition, Loury's rejection of blind loyalty to the race is laudable, yet he replaces it with a similarly blind loyalty to the nation. In fact, his major criticism of black liberals and left-liberals is that they put the black community out of step with present-day conservative America because they adopt an excessively adversarial stance to the rest of the country. This criticism amounts not to a deepening and enriching of black intellectual exchange but rather to a defense of new kinds of restrictions in the name of a neo-nationalism already rampant in Americaâa neo-nationalism that smothers and suffocates the larger American intellectual scene. In this way, Loury's neo-conservatism enacts the very “discourse truncation” he claims to be opposing in his foes. His frequent characterizations of left-liberal views as “anachronistic,” “discredited,” and “idiosyncratic,” without putting forth arguments to defend such claims, exemplify this “discourse truncation.”
Loury's halfway-house position between the black conservatism of Thomas Sowell and traditional black liberalism is symptomatic of the crisis of purpose and direction among African American political and intellectual elites. Three fundamental processes in American society and culture since 1973 set the context for grasping this crisis: the eclipse of U.S. economic predominance in the world; the structural transformation of the American economy; and the moral breakdown of communities throughout the country, especially among the black working poor and very poor.
The symbolic event in the decline of American economic hegemony was the oil crisis, which resulted principally from the solidarity of the OPEC nations. Increasing economic competition from Japan, West Germany, and other nations ended an era of unquestioned U.S. economic power. The resultant slump in the American economy undermined the Keynesian foundation of postwar American liberalism, that is, economic growth accompanied by state regulation and intervention on behalf of disadvantaged citizens.
The impact of the economic recession on African Americans was immense. Not surprisingly, it more deeply affected the black working poor and very poor than the expanding black middle class. Issues of sheer survival loomed large for the former, while the latter continued to seize opportunities in education, business, and politics. Most middle-class blacks consistently supported the emergent black political classâthe black officials elected at the national, state, and local levelsâprimarily to ensure black upward social mobility. But a few began to feel uncomfortable about how their white middle-class peers viewed them. Mobility by means of affirmative action breeds tenuous self-respect and questionable peer acceptance for middle-class blacks. The new black conservatives voiced these feelings in the forms of attacks on affirmative action programs (despite the fact that they had achieved their positions by means of such programs).
The importance of this quest for middle-class respectability based on merit rather than politics cannot be overestimated in the new black conservatism. The need of black conservatives to gain the respect of their white peers deeply shapes certain elements of their conservatism. In this regard, they simply want what most people want, to be judged by the quality of their skills, not the color of their skin. But the black conservatives overlook the fact that affirmative action policies were political responses to the pervasive refusal of most white Americans to judge black Americans on that basis.
The new black conservatives assume that without affirmative action programs, white Americans will make choices on merit rather than on race. Yet they have adduced no evidence for this. Most Americans realize that job-hiring choices are made both on reasons of merit and on personal grounds. And it is this personal dimension that is often influenced by racist perceptions. Therefore the pertinent debate regarding black hiring is never “merit vs. race” but whether hiring decisions will be based on merit, influenced by race-bias against blacks, or on merit, influenced by race-bias, but with special consideration for minorities and women, as mandated by law. In light of actual employment practices, the black conservative rhetoric about race-free hiring criteria (usually coupled with a call for dismantling affirmative action mechanisms) does no more than justify actual practices of racial discrimination. Black conservative claims about self-respect should not obscure this fact, nor should they be regarded as different from the normal self-doubts and insecurities of new arrivals in the American middle class. It is worth noting that most of the new black conservatives are first-generation middle-class persons, who offer themselves as examples of how well the system works for those willing to sacrifice and work hard. Yet, in familiar American fashion, genuine white peer acceptance still preoccupiesâand often escapesâthem. In this regard, they are still affected by white racism.
The eclipse of U.S. hegemony in the world is also an important factor for understanding black conservatives' views on foreign policy. Although most of the press attention they receive has to do with their provocative views on domestic issues, I would suggest that the widespread support black conservatives received from conservatives in the Reagan and Bush administrations and Jewish neo-conservatives has much to do with their views on U.S. foreign policies. Though black conservatives rightly call attention to the butchery of bureaucratic elites in Africa, who rule in the name of a variety of ideologies, they reserve most of their energies for supporting U.S. intervention in Central America and the U.S. substantive aid to Israel. Their relative silence regarding the U.S. policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa is also revealing.
The black conservatives' stance is significant in light of the dramatic shift that has occurred in black America regarding America's role in the world. A consequence of the civil rights movement and the black power ideology of the sixties was a growing identification of black Americans with other oppressed peoples around the world. This has had less to do with a common skin color and more to do with shared social and political experience. Many blacks sympathize with Polish workers and Northern Irish Catholics (despite problematic Polish-black and Irish-black relations in places like Chicago and Boston), and more and more blacks are cognizant of how South Africa oppresses its native peoples, how Chile and South Korea repress their citizens, and how Israel mistreats the Palestinians. In fact, the radical consequences for domestic issues of this growing black international consciousnessâusually dubbed anti-Americanism by the vulgar rightâfrightens the new black conservatives, who find themselves viewed in many black communities as mere apologists for pernicious U.S. foreign policies.
We can further understand the rise of the new black conservatives by highlighting the structural transformation of the U.S. economy. The contraction of the manufacturing sector and the expansion of the service sector of the labor market has narrowed job opportunities for semi-skilled and unskilled workers. Coupled with the decline of industrial jobs, which were a major source of black employment, is the most crucial transformation in the U.S. economy affecting black Americans in the past four decades; this is the mechanization of southern agriculture. Forty years ago, 50 percent of all black teenagers had agricultural jobs, and more than 90 percent of those workers lived in the South. As these jobs disappeared, the black unemployment problem in urban centers mushroomed. The recent deindustrialization of northeastern and mid-western cities has exacerbated this problem. And with the added competition for jobs resulting from the entrance of new immigrants and white women into the labor market, semi-skilled and unskilled black workers have found it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to find employment. By 1980, 15 percent of all black men between the ages of twenty-five and forty-six reported to the Census Bureau that they had earned nothing whatsoever the previous year. Often the only option for young blacks is military enlistment. (Indeed, the U.S. army is nearly one-third black.)
The new black conservatives have rightly perceived that the black liberal leadership has not addressed these changes in the economy. Obviously, the idea that racial discrimination is the sole cause of the predicament of the black working poor and very poor is specious. And the idea that the courts and government can significantly improve the plight of blacks by enforcing laws already on the books is even more spurious. White racism, though pernicious and potent, cannot fully explain the socioeconomic position of the majority of black Americans.
The crisis of black liberalism is the result of its failure to put forward a realistic response to the changes in the economy. The new black conservatives have highlighted this crisis by trying to discredit the black liberal leadership, arguing that the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Black Congressional Caucus, and most black elected officials are guided by outdated and ineffective viewpoints. The overriding aim of the new black conservatives is to undermine the position of black liberals and replace them with black Republicans (or even conservative black Democrats), who downplay governmental regulation and stress market mechanisms and success-oriented values in black communities.
Yet the new black conservatives have been unable to convince black Americans that conservative ideology and the policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations are morally acceptable and politically advantageous. The vast depoliticization and electoral disengagement of blacks suggests that they are indeed disenchanted with black liberals and distrustful of American political processes; and a downtrodden and degraded people with limited options may be ready to try any alternative. Nevertheless, black Americans have systematically rejected the arguments of the new black conservatives. This is not because blacks are duped by liberal black politicians nor because blacks worship the Democratic Party. Rather, it is because most blacks conclude that while racial discrimination is not the sole cause of their plight, it certainly is one cause. Thus, most black Americans view the new black conservative assault on the black liberal leadership as a step backward rather than forward. Black liberalism indeed is inadequate, but black conservatism is unacceptable. This negative reaction to black conservatives by most blacks partly explains the relative reluctance of some of the new black conservatives to engage in public debates in the black community, and their contrasting eagerness to do so in the mass media, where a few go as far as to portray themselves as courageous, embattled critics of a black liberal establishmentâeven while their salaries, honorariums, and travel expenses are payed by well-endowed conservative foundations and corporations.