Why I Don't Like the Black Academic Left.


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 SlaverySoulsthe 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.

Guest Contributor

Follow PostBourgie on Twitter or subscribe to us on Facebook.

Latest posts by Guest Contributor (see all)

  • Winslow, I gotta say, the only quibble I have is this: “Rather they are trafficking in feelings: making black folk feel good and white folk feel bad”

    I’d change it to read “making black folk feel good and white folk feel better.”

    The question that remains: is the importance of the blackademy such that it’s worth this much attention?

  • Interesting analysis. I wonder if you are really just talking about “certain high profile” figures as the intro states, or anyone who you see as the “Black academic left”? If it is the former, then I agree with much of what you say. If the latter, then I probably do not. I understand why you have adopted the shorthand, but fear that it may cause more confusion than light.

    Rank and file Black faculty at colleges and universities are not getting rich–either through their official paychecks or the work they do in the “untower” (Love that, BTW.) They often do double and triple duty, mentoring not just Black students (and definitely not just Black middle class students) but students of a variety of “other” status. They serve on committees–beating their heads against outmoded attitudes and trying to make some difference in their service while trying to achieve the same markers of academic success as their colleagues without these burdens. They work in “the community” in ways that do not get recognized by their departments. They fight the lack of respect of their work and ideas (especially if focused on POC) in the academy and a prevailing anti-intellectualism from many in Black communities.

    Not to derail your important points–again, assuming they are about the superstars and not the rank and file. But I feel it is necessary to make clear that Dr. Dyson’s life (is very very different than the average Black scholar’s life.

  • The question that remains: is the importance of the blackademy such that it’s worth this much attention?

    shani-o: Yes–at least for those of us working in academia. :)

  • I’m not convinced by the anti-academy argument (which seems to me the foundation f the anti-blackademy argument) here, that if you’re part of the American academic system you’re a shill.

    Yes, absolutely, if you work within a system as culturally central as the American university system (esp. the big-name schools), you’re compromising with “the system” at best and totally complicit at worst. But it’s really not that simple, and you don’t have to be Malcom X or Ralph Ellison to make a difference: it’s not a zero-sum game any more than “black identity” is a singular thing. A lot of the big-name blackademy stars are household names and (pop) cultural icons as well as academics. Surely the “public” part of “public intellectual” is a legitimate form of activism, if arguably a sort of tepid one.

  • ladyfresshh

    Am I wrong but it seems you are questioning these academics lack of ‘true activism’.
    Since when are academics actual activists?

    or is it you feel at this point in history the academic work that is being done, does more harm than good?

  • Grump

    You need a better example than Brown. It only leads me to remembering Gates supporting free speech made by Luther Campbell in a Supreme Court case. Also, you’re implying that the works of these superstars have no relevance outside of the Blackademy. When in reality, those who are not in the Blackademy may not know of the research being done IN the Blackademy. i say this in remembering that we skipped over King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in a philosophy class as though that work had no merit.

  • WestIndianArchie

    Could someone break down his critique for the lumpen proletariats like myself?

  • Dear sweet god, talk about irony. Marc Lamont Hill is gonna speak at my school about Hip-Hop and Activism…

    Grump and Archie, I will get to you later (hopefully after vanquishing some of my work)

  • Joanie

    Though I agree with some points and disagree with others, I will say that on my first (and second and third…) readings of Cornel and Marable (blackacademic superstars), all I could think about is that their assumption of a “fized group identity” completely denied agency and respect to women. “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America,” for example, presumes to integrate black men and women into a narrative but only has one chapter on “my sisters” which, frankly, only speaks about sex. “Prophesy Deliverance!” which could have easily included narratives on black women who have used “revolutionary christianity” (seriously, like Sojourner Truth, he didn’t have to reach that far) basically espoused the continuation of this ultra-masculine, preacher figure that West strives to fulfill every day even in his personal life.
    Anyways, I totally boiled down some good works into a simple critique, but I think it still stands…

  • geo

    my main gripe is their lack of community involvement. they do PLENTY of talking but where are they in the community? i don’t keep tabs on Cornel or MED, but they don’t seem to work on rectifying the disparities they pontificate and make money on.

    i’ve heard the argument that “we” need black intellects to critique and dissect race relations in this country. but do we really? in this day and age, when there is a plethora of organizations working to get shit together, why should we not encourage folks to do both?

  • Good read, winslow. I like this.

    I’m sort of out of my depth here – in fact, I know I am – but I’m sorta with ladyfressh on this one: why is there a need for academics to be activists? Just talking, trading their own slanguage, kicking around ideas, are part of the gig, no? Then again, I’m not familiar enough with the blackademy to know whether they’re truly trying to straddle the tower and untower.

    Like a lot of things, I feel there’s an undue amount of pressure on black professionals to be socially and politically engaged. For sure, I feel that pressure for myself on a certain level.

    But that doesn’t mean that Cornel or Tavis or Chris Rock or Lovie Smith explicitly feel the same way. Maybe they just want to punch in, collect a paycheck, talk a little jazz and watch reality tee-vee on the weekends. Is that OK? Or do you feel they’re selling their mission as more than that (that might be an obvious question, I know)?

  • Big Word

    I’m a big Dyson fan. I think Winslowalrob should pick up his book Debating Race with Micheal Eric Dyson. There’s a great chapter with Dyson arguing with Jesse Jackson about the academic versus activist divide that existed/exists especially in the civil rights movement. What I find a little ironic and even funny is that Jesse and Rob are basically arguing the same point. I happen to agree with both sides. I basically see it as cooperative effort.

  • young_

    I’m also a pretty big critic of many “blackademics” (superstars and non-superstars) but probably for very different reasons. My main criticism is not with their performance as activists or advocates but with their underperformance as actual academics. Several of the superstars referred to in this post and the comments have long since stopped doing original research (or even original thought, in some cases). They’ve stopped doing actual scholarship! Instead, having attained their elite positions, they simply build careers pushing off their opinions and ideologies as objective truth or THE black perspective (this has also been a serious problem with some critical race theorists in legal academia). A lot of them still push post-civil rights/Reagan-era racial defensiveness ideologies that almost nobody outside of their circles embrace anymore. They form Af-Am studies departments with coteries of like-minded individuals and reward students who embrace their perspectives. The end result though is that instead of promulgating their ideologies, I think they probably end up causing a backlash and pushing more young black people toward the moderate/conservative end of the spectrum.

    I don’t agree with criticizing them for being “shills” or inadequate activists though– simply put, it’s not part of the job description and not part of their skill sets. Let someone else do it better. And lets not romanticize all the professors who helped out with the NAACP efforts back in the day– social scientists are called into help on civil rights ligitation all the time these days, the cases just aren’t as high profile, and the blackademia superstars don’t have the academic skills to serve as expert witnesses in these cases. (the standards are far more demanding now– Kenneth Clarke’s doll studies would be laughed out of court these days).

    Anyway, just my rambling two cents– I enjoyed your thought-provoking analysis.

  • This is a welcome and wonderful conversation. I think there are a number of dynamics at work and qualifiers to be made. First, Dyson and Cornel are not typical scholars/academics in any regard. Why? because of how high profile they are, the way that they have been able to perform black intellectual life and black punditry (see Adolph Reed Jr.’s great piece a few years back in the Village Voice), and how for better or for worse they are the flag bearers for black academia. One other point on how they are distinct: how many academics of any sort, stripe, color, or affiliation will command 15-30 grand a speech? They, to their credit, really are to quote Jay Z, not business men, they are a business man.

    Now, on their scholarship, I will be provocative, hasn’t Cornel earned his rest and peace? If he wants to make some crappy cd’s after the serious work he did at the beginning of his career why not? Dyson in my humble point of view is another matter. He is good people and really generous to younger scholars, but how can one write a meaningful and significant work every 2 to 3 months? Sorry, I just don’t see it. But then again maybe I am unproductive and lazy by comparison.

    Black punditry is where it is at for some of us. I won’t lie, I am eager to get a few more minutes on NPR or be the occasional “Black” expert on the evening news, or the hot item on the black lecture circuit. Now, the challenge is to continue to do good work, and to be honest and “own” one’s desire for more attention, and the money that it may bring.

    In short, I think there is a temptation to hate when most of us will never have the salaries, exposure, or resources that Dyson or Cornel command. This tendency is amplified when the Black talking heads who are rolled out for their privileged insight on the ways of the tribe are doing subpar work that incites me/us/you to scream at the tv and shake our heads in disbelief over how these negroes have “earned” the title of expert on all things black.

    Chauncey DeVega

  • @Winslowalrob

    I didn’t defend Afrocentrism per se, I just reminisced about the good old days of going to the Black Think Tank meetings in Philly and Cincinnati. That post was one of Ta’s best as of late.

    Hat tip to you as well on this drop.

    Good work.


  • the black scientist

    interesting post, thanks very much for putting this out there. it’s certainly worth discussing, i think.

    While I greatly appreciate your arguments, I have to say, I don’t know if I agree. I’m not passionately in favor of West or Dyson, to name perhaps the most popular blackademics, but I don’t see the point in being mad at them altogether. On an individual basis, I think they both deserve their critical engagement but in general I think they’re putting out a body of work on ‘black’ life that, while not perhaps the most progressive, is at least useful. The problem may lie in the fact that they are falsely taken to ‘represent’ an entire people — that they are THE voice of blackness. they should instead be seen as individuals, with respective images, working within the multiple discourses of race, sex, etc.

    That being said, the main issue I have with your piece is the ending. And please correct me if I’ve mistaken your point, but it seems as though you are saying that by studying and producing work on “we black folk” (as a racial group) the blackademy is thereby reifying “race” which is a social construct. You mentioned earlier your advocacy for colorblindess, and the second to last paragraph in particular seems to echo fantasies of post-race. While race is — as you pointed out — a social construct, it is also a discursive construct/tool. And so, in my opinion, there is no point in attacking the discourse around the culture. I’m with you that the discussion of a monolithic “black community” and the limitations of identity (politics) are problematic (“fixed group identity”), but i consider discussing black folk, asian folk, poor folk, and so on, useful, at least for the purpose of meaningful discourse.

  • young_

    Yeah, but I think it’s really the media itself that creates these various “race stars” who they can turn to and roll out whenever they need an expert on black people or a black voice on a black issue. It’s easier for them than trying to figure out which scholars are really the most qualified to opine on a given topic or to figure out who has the most interesting perspectives on things. It’s true with academics and non-academics alike. A lot of people are quick to cast aspersions on Jesse and Al, but they only remain race stars so long as the media keeps coming back to them for quotes and reactions. I worry that it’s already becoming the case with Roland Fryer even, although in his defense, he at least does actual scholarship (even if he just doesn’t know that much about race and racial inequality…)