Platypus Review 27
Renewing Black Intellectual History
Adolph Reed Jr. & Kenneth W. Warren, eds.
(Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010)
In a 2005 commencement address, Howard Zinn urged the graduates of Spelman College to look beyond conventional success and follow the tradition set by courageous rebels: “W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker.” At first, Zinn’s lineage feels like an omnium-gatherum. Compare Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” militarism to Marian Edelman’s milquetoast non-profit advocacy — “by any grant-writing or lobbying necessary” — and the incoherence stands out. But there is logic to Zinn’s cherry picking: namely, the flattening out of history to instill pride in one’s own identity. Du Bois and King may have belonged to radically divergent political tendencies, but what matters is their usefulness as role models, heroes in a continuous tradition of black resistance.
Zinn’s historical reasoning has a history of its own. Beginning in the early moments of decolonization, insurgent black nationalists attempted to rewrite history in the service of race pride. Think of Cheikh Anta Diop’s demonstration that the ancient Egyptians were really black Africans. Though such appeals proved too essentialist for the post-structuralist historiography of the 1970s and 1980s, historians who still hoped to preserve the therapeutic value of history continued to assert the cultural legacy of the black diaspora. This legacy was forged over hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years of oppression. And black resistance, it was claimed, dates to about the same period. In the absence of any actual politics, historical research became a substitute satisfaction. By revealing the racism implicit in, say, Orson Welles’s 1935 “Voodoo Macbeth,” the historian seems to win a political victory against racism.
In their edited collection, Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought, Adolph Reed Jr. and Kenneth W. Warren mount a challenge to the political pretensions of black studies. Now, bemoaning the excesses of identity politics is not new; in fact, it has paid for many a conservative’s third swimming pool. But Reed and Warren’s critique is meant to come from the Left, to show how the unexamined assumptions of black history mystify the present and block the development of critical politics.
One major assumption is that racism poses a persistent and persisting problem in American history. To make the point, historians, literary critics, and pundits often use W.E.B Du Bois’s adage that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. In a recent article, for example, Linda Darling-Hammond details racial disparities in education, and asks whether America will be ready to “roll up its sleeves to at last solve the problem of the color line.” Reed’s capstone essay “The ‘Color Line’ Then and Now” shows how such contemporary appropriations not only misunderstand the context of Du Bois’s remark, but also obscure the recognition of real social problems.
Du Bois’s formulation was not exactly a clarion call for the black revolution; in fact, as Reed demonstrates, it came at the most conservative moment in his career. When Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, he was not alone in prophesying the primacy of race in current affairs: In the academy, scientific racism had reached its zenith, and in popular political discourse, the imagination of a racial “Struggle for Existence” shaped foreign and domestic policy. Balking at the notion of innate inferiority, Du Bois had a softer view of racial inheritance than most, but he shared the race-centric view of his moment. An admirer of Bismark, he advocated for social reforms to squelch racial and class tensions, and divert blacks from more radical politics. Du Bois would reevaluate his perspective, of course, over his long lifetime. A member of the Communist Party in the years before his death in 1963, he later questioned his own formulation of the “color line” as the problem of his century.
Although commentators like Darling-Hammond may think themselves “progressive” in their recitation of the young Du Bois’s remark, they only replicate the implicit conservatism of the idea. Following her reasoning, if racism really were the problem behind the miserable performance of schools in inner cities, then a change in the mindset of lawmakers is all that is needed. Send Congress to diversity trainings, and no child will be left behind. One might then protest that racism is not located at the level of individual prejudice; rather, it is an institutional racism. But this piles mystification atop mystification. The problems facing inner-city schools, Reed might respond, are not caused by the unseen poltergeist of institutional racism. No, irresponsible politicians in both bourgeois political parties, some black, failed to address and resolve the actual social crises of American cities — deindustrialization, poverty, and political disempowerment — preferring instead to build patronage machines to win reelection.
The problem is not bad attitudes, but bad politics, carried out in the name of empowerment. Reed has long criticized all kinds of opportunism practiced by politicians such as Jesse Jackson who, in the name of racial interest, sell the promise of uplift for voters’ hapless endorsement of the Democratic Party line. Reed’s latest essay also develops his long-term theoretical project: showing how forms of ascriptive identity (such as race, gender, and caste) mediate and stabilize capitalist society, categorizing people differently according to status, and legitimizing exclusion from the political and social body. Because of their immediacy and apparent usefulness for political elites, these identity markers lend themselves to being picked up by activists and reformers as the object of social change. But by shifting political attention towards individual oppressions — such as racism, sexism, and homophobia — activists and reformers block their own recognition of social domination, which is rooted in capitalist production.
Race has, of course, served as one such form of ascriptive identity, legitimating everything from racial violence, disfranchisement, segregation, petty discrimination, and government neglect. But since the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, Reed suggests that new, insidious markers obscure the reproduction of social domination. Take, for example, the notion of an “underclass,” the mythical legions of the inner city, born of single mothers and welfare queens, who reportedly suffer from deficient cultural norms rather than from living in a society that does not afford them the resources to escape poverty in the first place. The notion of an “underclass” allows allegedly liberal politicians, such as Barack Obama, to eviscerate social supports for working people in the name of protecting “middle class values.”
Meanwhile, “progressives” continue to rely on the “color line” to understand the present, with the result being political failure. As a recent example, Reed relates how the reconstitution of working-class black neighborhoods after Hurricane Katrina was blocked by the “radical” discourse of a unified black community, which ultimately left the interests of tenants to be displaced by those of more wealthy homeowners. But this is just one event in a long line of radicals’ misunderstanding of social inequality, leading to their liquidation at the hands of elites. Far from trying to pit the politics of race against the politics of class, Reed insists instead, “The race line is a class line” (288) — namely, that of the petit-bourgeoisie.
Reed’s critique of the misapplication of Du Bois resonates with Judith Stein’s contribution, “‘Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others:’ The Political Economy of Racism in the United States.” Although originally published in the mid-1970s, Stein’s analysis of the rise and fall of the American Populist movement retains its saliency, demonstrating how common-sense assumptions about race are inadequate to study the history of black politics.
After the Civil War and the emancipation of black slaves, blacks fought to determine the character of economic development in the South by participating in Reconstruction politics. Yet even after the ascendance of white supremacy under the aegis of the Democratic Party, radical politics were by no means extinguished: The Populist movement sought to unite poor farmers and dispossessed sharecroppers in an interracial struggle against capitalists and landowners. However, these radicals were opposed by politicians like Booker T. Washington in the name of racial uplift and accommodationism. Whereas the dominant histories of the period understood the failure of interracial populist politics and the rise of Washington’s leadership as primarily a reaction to Southern racism, Stein understands Washington’s and other black leaders’ political commitments in light of the period of intense class conflict on the cusp of Reconstruction’s demise.
In the account given by the dominant historiography, the problem of the American Populist movement was bad race relations, not the changing structure of the Southern economy and the balance of class forces. Such accounts traditionally imputed a racial “unity of interests” as a framework to evaluate black political leaders and their strategies, while ignoring blacks’ class politics. Stein argues that historians who follow this method inevitably give the misleading impression that the dominant ideological dispute of the times was between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, who in fact only represented two conservative poles: Both took for granted many of the same assumptions about racial uplift and the dangers of utopian radicalism.
To better understand the historical moment, Stein suggests, we must understand black politicians’ roles in the unfolding class struggle in the South. As she shows, such a perspective renews the significance of the ideas and self-understanding of radicals who participated in populist organizations, such as the Southern Alliance and the Colored Farmers Alliance, who did not view the triumph of racial domination in the South as a given, and who argued for politics to the left of Du Bois. Rather than treat racism as the unmoved mover, a perpetual evil across American history, we should consider it as a factor that might have been overcome by conscious political action.
Nevertheless, with the Left’s failure to overcome racial inequality, the reconstitution of Southern society took place with the exclusion of blacks from formal political participation. This transformation had ideological as well as material repercussions. Reconstruction and Populism’s premature defeats ensured the continued suppression of black political participation, and this suppression, in turn, generated a new understanding of politics. Black politics now centered on a system of racial brokerage: Elites would articulate the needs and interests of the black masses to philanthropists and politicians. To justify the situation, elites like Washington and Du Bois claimed that they had attained their own position by merit, not unfair patronage. The situation presented new problems for black intellectuals, uncertain both of the feasibility of the “racial uplift” program and the possibility of any mass democracy to replace it.
The essays in Renewing understand this ambivalence not as a particular ontological problem with “blackness,” usually signified by Du Bois’s unspecified metaphors such as “the Veil” and “double consciousness,” but as a dilemma confronting all Progressive Era intellectuals. Uncertain of the significance of the emerging industrial masses, shocked by the obvious depravities of modern life, intellectuals imagined community, and not communism, as a cure for social ills.
The problem is nicely illustrated in William P. Jones’s essay, “How Black ‘Folk’ Survived in the Modern South.” The essay documents the progression of Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographic research and writings on folklore. Hurston was trained by prominent anthropologists such as Franz Boas to search for the folkways of blacks in the South, whom many considered to be a premodern, agricultural people. Concerned that the creep of industrial civilization would permanently destroy “folk” life, anthropologists like Hurston mounted expeditions to search out, define, and preserve the dying traditions. However, over the course of her investigations, Hurston gradually realized that the “traditional” blacks she sought out were predominantly workers in industrial lumber mills and railroad towns, who shaped the same Southern culture as their white working-class peers.
Many commentators have read Hurston’s early writings and collections of folklore, such as Mules and Men, as part of this nostalgic project of maintaining black cultural particularity as a means of survival against racist denigration. But in fact, as Jones demonstrates, such critics miss the pivotal development of Hurston’s own thought. She went looking for the “people,” and found the proletariat: biracial and dynamic.
Black intellectuals in the Jim Crow Era did not merely interpret the world; they attempted, in their own way, to change it. Preston H. Smith II’s essay, “The Chicago School of Human Ecology and the Ideology of Black Civic Elites,” demonstrates how black intellectuals helped create, for better or (probably) for worse, Chicago’s modern public housing infrastructure. Using what were at the time cutting-edge quantitative methods to construct models of “human ecology,” black sociologists like E. Franklin Frazier measured, analyzed, and explained the needs of the residents of Chicago’s “black metropolis” in order to secure Government commitment to public housing.
Although the political initiative may seem in retrospect to be progressive, the effort was laden with conservative assumptions that led, eventually, to the collapse of support for public housing. For the black Chicago School sociologists steeped in “human ecology,” only race counted as a political or sociological variable. And, as Smith explains, such an assumption
leaves [either] racism or the lack of bourgeois culture as the only legitimate explanations for the pathology of poor blacks and their neighborhoods. These explanations would go a long way to justify a class-stratified housing market and a public housing policy of which the rationale was to promote better citizenship among poor blacks. The only two avenues for black housing reformers influenced by human ecology theory were antidiscrimination policy or the promotion of middle-class culture for upward mobility and racial progress. (148)
Smith ably demonstrates the inadequacy of these black sociologists to understand and respond to the structural constraints on urban development imposed by capitalist social relations, despite their opposition to racism.
Confronted by capital, the intellectuals could only repeat “prejudice,” “uplift,” and “racism.” But the inadequacy was not specific to black intellectuals. In his comparative history, “The Educational Alliance and the Urban League in New York,” Touré F. Reed details how both the German-Jewish Educational Alliance and the black Urban League attempted to reign in the radical impulses of the industrial working class via appeals to notions of a common racial mission.
Intellectual history, these essays suggest, cannot simply detail the construction of identities and cultures. It must come to terms with how intellectuals come to understand — or misunderstand — social reality. In addition to the positive advance the contributors to Renewing make to the study of black intellectual history, which is notable in itself, there is a shared concern to critique the often conservative, bourgeois foundations of black political thought. By and large, the theoretical contributions of Reed and others succeed in offering a compelling methodology with which to ground intellectual history in its subjects’ material and ideological milieus, and the authors’ critiques of contemporary perspectives in black studies makes the intervention timely and invigorating.
But the attempt risks sliding into a vulgar materialism, understanding ideology as little more than a pure reflex of one’s own social position or interests or, in the case of intellectuals, the social position of an elite stratum. For if all intellectuals, black or otherwise, are the bearers of a ruling ideology by virtue of their social position, where does that leave Reed, Warren, and the other contributors to their volume?
The problem should be reformulated. We might consider the reigning ideologies of our current moment — racial liberalism, multiculturalism, managed pluralism — not simply as a mask papering over the interests of the elites, but as a resignation in the face of historical helplessness: a coping mechanism, a compromise formation, a sublimation. Universalist politics of freedom have been crushed; now, in an effort to pick up the pieces and restore lost gains, intellectuals have over the past several decades fallen back on a set of common-sense notions about racial communality on which they believe they can rebuild a mass political movement for change. If we cannot win the world, we can at least win gains for the race.
But the expected victories have not arrived, and the gains have not been won. Some blame exogenous forces: police repression, Wall Street, the Republican Party, neoliberalism. But the problem, as Renewing helps us to see, is with us. The operative concepts of the Left mystify the world and authorize sterile politics. It is not simply a problem of bad historical method, let alone incompetent teachers or the news media. The whole actually existing “Left” supports and sustains the bad pedagogy: the “push-the-Democrats-to-the-left” hucksters, the grassroots organizers, the “Marxist” cadres, the nostalgic academics. All peddle the crude analysis of race thoroughly discredited by Renewing’s contributors. But discredited ideology can, and usually does, persist, temporarily warding off despair at our shared helplessness.
The task for the critical intellectual: to resist all substitute satisfactions, to escalate the critique of bad pedagogy wherever it persists, to remember a future long silenced by history — by any means necessary. |P
 Linda Darling-Hammond, “The Problem of the Color Line in America’s Schools,” Race in America.
 Reed cites Du Bois’s own preface to the fiftieth anniversary of The Souls of Black Folk to demonstrate this transformation:
I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance and disease of the majority of their fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege, men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be color and race. (qtd. 258)