Authors: Cornel West
The new black conservatives have had their most salutary effect on public discourse by highlighting the breakdown of the moral fabric in the country and especially in black working poor and very poor communities. Black organizations like Rev. Jesse Jackson's PUSH have focused on this issue in the past, but the new black conservatives have been obsessed by it, and thereby have given it national attention. Unfortunately, they view this urgent set of problems in primarily individualistic terms and fail to take seriously the historical background and social context of the current crisis.
The black conservatives claim that the decline of values such as patience, deferred gratification, and self-reliance have resulted in the high crime rates, the increasing number of unwed mothers, and the relatively uncompetitive academic performances of black youth. And certainly these sad realities must be candidly confronted. But nowhere in their writings do the new black conservatives examine the pervasiveness of sexual and military images used by the mass media and deployed by the advertising industry in order to entice and titillate consumers. Black conservatives thus overlook the degree to which market forces of advanced capitalist processes thrive on sexual and military images. Even a neo-liberal like Daniel Bell, in stark contrast to black conservatives, highlights the larger social and cultural forces, for example, consumerism and hedonism, which undermine the Protestant ethic and its concomitant values. Yet Bell also tends to downplay the contribution of American capitalism to this process.
Since the end of the postwar economic boom, certain strategies have been intensified to stimulate consumption, especially strategies aimed at American youth that project sexual activity as instant fulfillment and violence as the locus of machismo identity. This market activity has contributed greatly to the disorientation and confusion of American youth, and those with less education and fewer opportunities bear the brunt of this cultural chaos. Ought we to be surprised that black youths isolated from the labor market, marginalized by decrepit urban schools, devalued by alienating ideals of Euro-American beauty, and targeted by an unprecedented drug invasion exhibit high rates of crime and teenage pregnancy?
My aim is not to provide excuses for black behavior or to absolve blacks of personal responsibility. But when the new black conservatives accent black behavior and responsibility in such a way that the cultural realities of black people are ignored, they are playing a deceptive and dangerous intellectual game with the lives and fortunes of disadvantaged people. We indeed must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people, but we must do so cognizant of the circumstances into which people are born and under which they live. By overlooking these circumstances, the new black conservatives fall into the trap of blaming black poor people for their predicament. It is imperative to steer a course between the Scylla of environmental determinism and the Charybdis of a blaming-the-victims perspective.
The ideological blinders of the new black conservatives are clearly evident in their attempt to link the moral breakdown of poor black communities to the expansion of the welfare state. For instance, in Sowell's work, the preeminent structural element of political-economic life relevant to the plight of the black poor is the negative role of the state and the positive role of the market. A provocativeâand slightly unfairâquestion to this descendant of slaves sold at the auction block is, Can the market do any wrong?
The new black conservatives claim that transfer payments to the black needy engender a mentality of dependence which undercuts the value of self-reliance and of the solidity of the black poor family. They fail to see that the welfare state was an historic compromise between progressive forces seeking broad subsistence rights and conservative forces arguing for unregulated markets. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the welfare state possesses many flaws. The reinforcing of “dependent mentalities” and the unsettling of the family are two such flaws. But simply to point out these rather obvious shortcomings does not justify cutbacks in the welfare state. In the face of high black unemployment, these cutbacks will not promote self-reliance or strong black families but will only produce even more black cultural disorientation and more devastated black households. This is so because without jobs or incentives to be productive citizens the black poor become even more prone toward criminality, drugs, and alcoholismâthe major immediate symptoms of the pervasive black communal and cultural chaos.
On the practical and political level, the only feasible alternative to the welfare state is to create more jobs for poor peopleâsomething the private sector is simply uninterested in doing, for it is not in its economic interests to do so. Thus, the market rationality of the private sector relegates poor people to subsistence levels of living and/or unemployment. In the realities of contemporary American politics, to attack the welfare state without linking this attack to a credible jobs program (one that is more than likely supported by the public sector) is to reduce the already limited options of black poor people. To go as far as some new black conservatives have done and support the elimination of nearly every federal benefit program for the nonelderly poor (as put forward in Charles Murray's
), is to serve as ideological accomplices to social policies that have genocidal effects on the black poor. The welfare state cannot win a war on poverty, yet it does sustain some boats that would otherwise sink, given the high rate of unemployment.
Yet even effective jobs programs do not fully address the cultural decay and moral disintegration of poor black communities. Like America itself, these communities are in need of cultural revitalization and moral regeneration. There is widespread agreement on this need by all forms of black leadership, but neither black liberals nor the new black conservatives adequately speak to this need.
At present, the major institutional bulwarks against the pervasive meaninglessness and despair in Afro-America are intermediate institutions such as Christian churches, Muslim mosques, and character-building schools. They all are fighting an uphill battle; they cannot totally counter the powerful influence on black people, especially black youths, of the sexual and violent images purveyed by mass media. Yet those intermediate institutions that affirm the humanity of black people, accent their capacities and potentialities, and foster the character and excellence requisite for productive citizenship, are beacons of hope in the midst of the cultural and moral crisis. (My appeal to the positive role of such intermediate associations differs from that of the black conservatives. I view this role as both oppositional to and transformative of prevailing class subordination of American capitalist social relations, whereas they view this role as supportive of such class subordination. In this sense, private voluntary institutions constitute a central terrain of ideological and political contestation for myself and black conservativesâwith conflicting aims and goals.)
What then are we to make of the new black conservatives? First, I would suggest that the narrowness of their viewpoints reflects the narrowness of the liberal perspective with which they are obsessed. In fact, a lack of broad vision and subtle analysis, and a refusal to acknowledge the crucial structural features of the black poor situation, characterizes both black liberals and conservatives. The positions of both groups reflects a fight within the black middle-class elite. This parochialism is itself a function of the highly limited alternatives available in contemporary American politics.
Second, the emergence of the new black conservatives signifies a healthy development to the degree that it calls attention to the failures of black liberalism and thereby encourages black politicians and activists to entertain more progressive solutions to the larger problems of social injustice and class inequality. Finally, more visible attacks of the new black conservatives on the black liberal leadership regarding U.S. foreign policy may force black intellectual exchange to focus on the relation of the plight of the Third World to that of poor black (brown, red, yellow, and white) people. Given the rapacious pro-Americanism in foreign affairs in American intellectual life, this focus would be salutary.
Perhaps the widening of the split between black liberal elites and black conservative critics will lead to a more principled and passionate political discourse in and about black America. Such a discourse would promote more rational debates among conservative, liberal, and leftist voices concerning strategies to enhance the life-chances of the black poor. The few valuable insights of the new black conservatives can be incorporated into a broader progressive perspective that utterly rejects their unwarranted conclusions and repugnant policies. I suspect that such a dialogue would unmask the new black conservatives as renegades from and critics of a moribund black liberalism who have seen some of the limits of this liberalism, but are themselves unable and unwilling to move beyond it. Hence, the new black conservatives settle for earlier historic versions of classical liberalism in a postliberal society and postmodern culture.
Institutionalized rejection of
is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have
been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion.
fundamental crisis in black America is twofold: too much poverty and too little self-love. The urgent problem of black poverty is primarily due to the distribution of wealth, power, and incomeâa distribution influenced by the racial caste system that denied opportunities to most “qualified” black people until two decades ago.
The historic role of American progressives is to promote redistributive measures that enhance the standard of living and quality of life for the have-nots and have-too-littles. Affirmative action was one such redistributive measure that surfaced in the heat of battle in the 1960s among those fighting for racial equality. Like earlier
affirmative action measures in the American pastâcontracts, jobs, and loans to select immigrants granted by political machines; subsidies to certain farmers; FHA mortgage loans to specific home buyers; or GI Bill benefits to particular courageous Americansârecent efforts to broaden access to America's prosperity have been based upon preferential policies. Unfortunately, these policies always benefit middle-class Americans disproportionately. The political power of big business in big government circumscribes redistributive measures and thereby tilts these measures away from the have-nots and have-too-littles.
Every redistributive measure is a compromise with and concession from the caretakers of American prosperityâthat is, big business and big government. Affirmative action was one such compromise and concession achieved after the protracted struggle of American progressives and liberals in the courts and in the streets. Visionary progressives always push for substantive redistributive measures that make opportunities available to the have-nots and have-too-littles, such as more federal support to small farmers, or more FHA mortgage loans to urban dwellers as well as suburban home buyers. Yet in the American political system, where the powers that be turn a skeptical eye toward any program aimed at economic redistribution, progressives must secure whatever redistributive measures they can, ensure their enforcement, then extend their benefits if possible.
If I had been old enough to join the fight for racial equality in the courts, the legislatures, and the board rooms in the 1960s (I
old enough to be in the streets), I would have favoredâas I do nowâa class-based affirmative action in principle. Yet in the heat of battle in American politics, a redistributive measure in principle with no power and pressure behind it means no redistributive measure at all. The prevailing discriminatory practices during the sixties, whose targets were working people, women, and people of color, were atrocious. Thus, an
race-basedâand later gender-basedâaffirmative action policy was the best possible compromise and concession.
Progressives should view affirmative action as neither a major solution to poverty nor a sufficient means to equality. We should see it as primarily playing a negative roleânamely, to ensure that discriminatory practices against women and people of color are abated. Given the history of this country, it is a virtual certainty that without affirmative action racial and sexual discrimination would return with a vengeance. Even if affirmative action fails significantly to reduce black poverty or contributes to the persistence of racist perceptions in the workplace, without affirmative action black access to America's prosperity would be even more difficult to obtain and racism in the workplace would persist anyway.
This claim is not based on any cynicism toward my white fellow citizens; rather, it rests upon America's historically weak will toward racial justice and substantive redistributive measures. This is why an attack on affirmative action is an attack on redistributive efforts by progressives unless there is a real possibility of enacting and enforcing a more wide-reaching class-based affirmative action policy.
In American politics, progressives must not only cling to redistributive ideals, but must also fight for those policies thatâout of compromise and concessionâimperfectly conform to those ideals. Liberals who give only lip service to these ideals, trash the policies in the name of
, or reject the policies as they perceive a shift in the racial bellwether, give up precious ground too easily. And they do so even as the sand is disappearing under our feet on such issues as regressive taxation, layoffs or takebacks from workers, and cutbacks in health and child care.
Affirmative action is not the most important issue for black progress in America, but it is part of a redistributive chain that must be strengthened if we are to confront and eliminate black poverty. If there were social democratic redistributive measures that wiped out black poverty, and if racial and sexual discrimination could be abated through the good will and meritorious judgments of those in power, affirmative action would be unnecessary. Although many liberal and progressive citizens view affirmative action as a redistributive measure whose time is over or whose life is no longer worth preserving, I question their view because of the persistence of discriminatory practices that increase black social misery, and the warranted suspicion that good will and fair judgment among the powerful does not loom as large toward women and people of color.
the elimination of black poverty is a necessary condition of substantive black progress, then the affirmation of black humanity, especially among black people themselves, is a sufficient condition of such progress. Such affirmation speaks to the existential issues of what it means to be a degraded African (man, woman, gay, lesbian, child) in a racist society. How does one affirm oneself without reenacting negative black stereotypes or overreacting to white supremacist ideals?
The difficult and delicate quest for black identity is integral to any talk about racial equality. Yet it is not solely a political or economic matter. The quest for black identity involves self-respect and self-regard, realms inseparable from, yet not identical to, political power and economic status. The flagrant self-loathing among black middle-class professionals bears witness to this painful process. Unfortunately, black conservatives focus on the issue of self-respect as if it were the one key that would open all doors to black progress. They illustrate the fallacy of trying to open all doors with one key: they wind up closing their eyes to all doors except the one the key fits.
Progressives, for our part, must take seriously the quest for self-respect, even as we train our eye on the institutional causes of black social misery. The issues of black identityâboth black self-love and self-contemptâsit alongside black poverty as realities to confront and transform. The uncritical acceptance of self-degrading ideals, that call into question black intelligence, possibility, and beauty not only compounds black social misery but also paralyzes black middle-class efforts to defend broad redistributive measures.
This paralysis takes two forms: black bourgeois preoccupation with white peer approval and black nationalist obsession with white racism.
The first form of paralysis tends to yield a navel-gazing posture that conflates the identity crisis of the black middle class with the state of siege raging in black working-poor and very poor communities. That unidimensional view obscures the need for redistributive measures that significantly affect the majority of blacks, who are working people on the edge of poverty.
The second form of paralysis precludes any meaningful coalition with white progressives because of an undeniable white racist legacy of the modern Western world. The anger this truth engenders impedes any effective way of responding to the crisis in black America. Broad redistributive measures require principled coalitions, including multiracial alliances. Without such measures, black America's sufferings deepen. White racism indeed contributes to this suffering. Yet an obsession with white racism often comes at the expense of more broadly based alliances to affect social change and borders on a tribal mentality. The more xenophobic versions of this viewpoint simply mirror the white supremacist ideals we are opposing and preclude any movement toward redistributive goals.
How one defines oneself influences what analytical weight one gives to black poverty. Any progressive discussion about the future of racial equality must speak to black poverty and black identity. My views on the necessity and limits of affirmative action in the present moment are informed by how substantive redistributive measures and human affirmative efforts can be best defended and expanded.