When Winslow Robertson, one of our regular and most thoughtful commenters, explained that his dislike of certain high-profile black intellectuals would require to much room to explain in comments, we offered him a chance to do so in a guest post.
I recently was offered a chance to elaborate on my loathing of “the black academic left”, which, I am sure, is a strange position considering the overall tenor of this blog. I was both honored and delighted at the proposition, giving me a chance to crystallize my ideas and also present them to a knowledgeable audience.
I traffic in words, so let me shorten the black academic left to “blackademy”. my use of the phrase “blackademy” is basically a stand-in for well known black leftist intellectuals. I am making sweeping generalizations using a very limited sample-size, so make of that what you will. Perhaps even more damning is that I am coming from a very anti-essentialist/pseudo-post modern position (think Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is my dude). If that sort of stuff is not your bag then you may want to stop reading right here.
Let me begin by stating unequivocally that, while I personally cannot stand the blackademy, this is not because they are some sort of barrier to racial progress or reconciliation. I am not hearkening back to halcyon days when black people and white people had small misunderstandings that they were working through, until Black Studies departments started cropping up in the 1960s and made those Negroes so damn angry and screwed everything up. To quote myself (how arrogant!) in another discussion on the Chronicle of Higher Education: “…Breitbart’s belief that Black Studies Departments hold inordinate power over the mythical, singular Black Community is insane. What, there are crowds outside of bookstores in Detroit lining up to buy the latest work by Dyson and do his bidding? Everyone in Baltimore or DC has a well-thumbed copy of Race Matters by West?… Dyson is not sitting in Georgetown coiling his mustache, stroking his cat, and telling a whole lot of black people what to do.” Rather my own position comes from being force-fed to read and deal with many of the stars of the blackademy and not really being able to discuss my disagreements and frustrations with my peers. In the grand scheme of things, I find the prison-industrial complex enraging, nonwhite educational inequalities unacceptable, etc, while Michael Eric Dyson is simply very annoying. Hell I like a lot of the blackademy’s positions on gender and sexuality, so they are not all bad.
I have a lot of salt to throw at these people, including points that would draw much of the Postbourgie readership in a massive argument (my belief in salvaging the idea of colorblind-ness being but one example… and yes, I have read a lot on it, including Bonilla-Silva’s stuff which was good, I just do not agree with it). Instead of throwing a truckload of salt, I am going to split this piece into an attack on these people’s identities and then an attack on their conceptual methods. I think that we all want to live in a meritocratic society that allows everyone both dignity and fulfillment, so it is the means by which the disagreement comes into play.
What a long-ass preamble. In any case, here is the meat: My first complaint of the blackademy is their fixation on scholar/activism. Not content to be “mere” professors stuck in the ivory tower, they straddle both the tower and the… untower (is that a word?) in an attempt to stay grounded in ‘the community’ (i.e. the black community). Or so they claim.
This is a position that I really do not buy. The last scholar activist was freaking Walter Rodney (who quit his teaching position in Dar es Salaam because of his frustrations with the Nyere government and his desire to give back to the West Indies, who was banned by the Jamaican government for being too radical, AND was assassinated in Guyana). I think his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is dead wrong, but it’s a great text that really had a lot of impact on the field of African History and a lot of people still read. On top of that, he designed the book specifically for lay people, put it on cheap paper from a cheap press for a cheap price back in 72, and you can get it free at marxists.org. I wonder if Brother Neal will let us cop New Black Man on his website for free? Or at least sell it new for less than 20 bucks so as many people as possible can read it?
If you are working for an American university, especially an elite university, (Princeton, Georgetown, Duke), which is steeped in government money and owes their rapid expansion to the Cold War, you are a shill. What, they are dismantling White Supremacy 20 middle-class undergrads at a time? There are two avenues by which to change anything; mass-mobilization or state power. While the blackademy may tag along for much larger mass-mobilizations, they will never create, lead, or inspire organizations like the NAACP, SNCC, the Nation of Islam, UNIA, etc (and those are just the famous black ones, outside of Jewish groups, womens groups, etc). Nor will they ever get elected for anything (and before saying that politics or the state are too dirty or mired in racial politics, try stepping foot in the academy). When they discuss Malcom and Martin as some of the only avenues for change, they seem to forget Marshall, and because I deal extensively with states and state history, I find this willful amnesia simply mind-boggling. You either get enough people to change the state, or you join the state and change it yourself. None of the books they have produced will ever have the resonance with Up From Slavery, Souls, the Autobiography, etc. Rather they are trafficking in feelings: making black folk feel good and white folk feel bad, while happily taking their money and living quite comfortably. Sure they give speaking tours, volunteer, etc. but they are not willing to give up their class privilege nor do they aim for actual change, only change on their terms. Let’s just call this “Negroes on the Porch” Syndrome (which I use to address the specific racial dynamics in play, I much prefer Crotchety Old Man on the Porch J ): they talk a lot but every afternoon they are on the same damn porch. In order to either assuage their guilt, inflate their egos, or both they always identify as activists. Give me a Fanny Lou or Carl B. over a 1000 Cornels.
My second complaint, and final one for the purposes of this essay, comes from the blackademy’s mania for fixed group identity. Race is a social construct (no big surprise) but its effects are all too real (which is again no big surprise). Intellectually I am firmly against ideas that reify race, though when it comes to practical realities I can overlook them (affirmative action, for example). Still, nothing makes me cringe more than when I hear appeals to the royal “We” as black folk, asian folk, whatever folk. I have a small background in 18th and 19th century European intellectual history and the use of language in terms of appealing to racial solidarity, of a singular cultural block, is exactly the same. We invented this, we did that, they stole it, etc. I feel like I am reading Stirner or something. I do not want to imply that the lived experiences of racism will magically go away if we do not see race, but I find the lack of nuance in terms of identity frightening, as well as the total inability to see the end-game of raising racial consciousness. You cannot just turn off racial solidarity, just ask white people. While the blackademy understands issues of class and sex, I actually think they trip up when they discuss race. While they might pay lip-service to its complexities, in practice they both reify and celebrate it.
Of course, ending racism would stop such a need for perpetuating notions of race, which I see as a symptom of the disease of residual (or even current) White Supremecy. Yet once again I do not think the blackademy is committed to ending racism so much as getting rich while others do it for them. If racism is bigotry + (state) power, a variant of the standard definitions I come across, and the blackademy is neither changing bigot’s hearts and minds nor employing the tools of the state, then they are effectively useless. And I loathe them for it.