Free Black Thought
Www.freeblackthought.com is a Website formed by a “group of scholars, technologists, parents, and above all American citizens determined to amplify vital black voices that are rarely heard on mainstream platforms.” It pursues “no political agenda other than a commitment to free speech, civil rights, and a conviction that a pluralistic society committed to liberal democracy is nourished by the entire spectrum of black thinking on matters of politics, society, and culture.” The Website About Page further states: “As parents, we are troubled that our children, black and non-black alike, are coming of age at a time when K-12 schools and elite institutions such as academia, major media companies, and corporations appear committed to enforcing narrow and tendentious standards of black racial authenticity in thought and behavior. We hope our efforts inspire our children to see their blackness as a space not of constrained identity but of endless possibility.”
Co-founded and edited by Erec Smith, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at York College of Pennsylvania, freeblackthought.com is a serious intellectual enterprise that shows the extent of black intellectual opposition since 2009 and especially since 2016 to the prevailing anti-racism ideology. It includes links to articles by prestigious black scholars (Glenn Loury, John S. Butler, Clayborne Carson, Adolph Reed, Thomas Sowell, Clarence Jones, John McWhorter, Shelby Steele, Cedric Johnson, Wilfred Reilly, Juan Williams, and William J. Wilson) as well as bibliographical references to classic figures in the black movement and scholarship, including Harold Cruse, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin, Ralph Ellison, Adam Clayton Powell, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Carter G. Woodson, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Frederick Douglass.
I could not possibly do full justice to this intellectually rich project in a single column, so I will confine myself to a review of some of the articles that attracted my attention, in part because of their relevance to the polemical public debates in the nation that have been provoked by the anti-racism ideology.
Included in the intellectual work undertaken in the articles linked in the Website are critical analyses of the best-selling books in the current popularity wave of the new anti-racism. These analyses maintain that anti-racism is more rhetoric than theory and analysis.
John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University, reviews the two big anti-racism best sellers, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility andIbram Kendi’s How To Be An Anti-Racist. Capturing well the impact of the book on white readers, he writes that “White Fragility presents an indoctrination program seeking to make whites aware of inner racism they didn’t know they had, broadening their self-image into one of passive but unpardonable complicity within a fundamentally racist system.” He concludes that White Fragility offers “psychological torture sessions in the guise of sociopolitical commitment.”
With respect to Kendi’s How To Be An Anti-Racist, McWorter observes that Kendi’s explicit foundational assumption is that “all racial disparities are due to racism.” For Kendi, this assumption is beyond question for any moral person, and he views anyone who argues against it to be racist. He therefore makes no effort to defend the assumption. McWorter maintains, however, that even though intellectuals who think like Kendi do not want to hear it, cultural factors are important, which is a fact that “ordinary people tend to understand spontaneously.” For example, “racism quite often leaves cultural legacies that render black people unable to take advantage of anti-racist policies” that are designed to create more equity. Many concerned people, McWorter notes, dedicate their careers to trying to figure out what to do about these cultural factors. Kendi does not help in this reflection, for he subscribes to today’s popular notion that careful reasoning, the written word, and objectivity are white practices that should not be imposed on black people. I have criticized Kendi in a similar vein in my May 4 editorial, “How to be an antiracist, by Ibram Kendi: A critique.”
Coleman Hughes, a philosophy student at Columbia University, argues that Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist is wrong on its facts and assumptions. He accuses Kendi of selectively citing data to show that blacks suffer more than whites. For example, in discussing race and health, “he correctly notes that blacks are more likely than whites to die of prostate cancer and breast cancer, but does not include the fact that blacks are less likely than whites to die of esophageal cancer, lung cancer, skin cancer, ovarian cancer, bladder cancer, brain cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and leukemia.” Kendi is instructing us, Hughes maintains, not in how to be anti-racist, but how to be anti-intellectual.
In a June 8, 2020 article, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Inaya Folarin Iman, founder and director of the Equiano Project and journalist located in the UK, maintains that the narratives emerging from the BLM protests recycle unfounded arguments. The narrative constructs a mythology concerning what it means to be black in the world today, a mythology “that essentializes the black experience to be one of racism, oppression and victimization,” thereby robbing people of their agency. She writes, “Racism no doubt plays a part in some of the disadvantages people face. But the kneejerk assumption that all racialized outcomes and disparities are a result of racism does a huge disservice to those who are most affected by these problems. Targeted and nuanced solutions get drowned out by blanket generalizations.” Other interpretations are erased, as “the one-dimensional narrative about white privilege, systemic racism and black victimhood is purported to be self-evidently true and indisputable.” Therefore, anti-racism ideology is counterproductive and destructive.
Adolph Reed, Jr., professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, views the anti-racism ideology as a rhetorical device that will be politically ineffective in the long term. He observes that the esteemed legal theorist Derrick Bell declared at a Harvard Law School conference in 1991 that “blacks have made no progress since 1865.” Reed notes that such an assertion ought to be seen as rhetoric, even though the speaker may appear to be advancing it earnestly as an empirical claim; because “no sane or at all knowledgeable person can believe that black Americans live under the same restricted and perilous conditions now as in 1865.” Such an assertion is a rhetorical device that “is intended actually as an assertion that racism persists as the most consequential force impeding black Americans’ aspirations, that no matter how successful or financially secure individual black people become, they remain similarly subject to victimization by racism.” It is a rhetorical device that attempts “to mobilize outrage about some action or expression through associating it with discredited and vilified views or practices.”
The use of rhetoric is a common gambit in political exhortations, and it can be effective in a rally or a leaflet. But, Reed maintains, the race-reductionist argument is not effective as critical analysis connected to social change, because it obscures the true sources of socioeconomic inequalities. It subordinates “consideration of the discrete, complex mechanisms through which contemporary inequalities are reproduced” in daily life. When race-reductionist arguments take the place of scholarly interpretation or strategic political analysis, they are destructive.
Similarly, Inaya Folarin Iman writes that “the current obsession with race often means we are missing the true dynamics in society. Class, for instance, plays a major role in social outcomes, but discussion of it is rare. There are many white working-class people, particularly in the provinces, who do not feel they have benefited from ‘white privilege’. Indeed, they would argue that they are far from privileged. Do their ‘lived experiences’ count?”
An article co-authored by Reed and Walter Benn Michaels, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, maintains that “Racism is real and antiracism is both admirable and necessary, but extant racism isn’t what principally produces our inequality, and antiracism won’t eliminate it.” They note that the increase in inequality from 1968 to 2016 was not caused by racism, but by the policy turn to neoliberal capitalism. “And because racism is not the principal source of inequality today, antiracism functions more as a misdirection that justifies inequality than a strategy for eliminating it.”
Reed and Michaels observe that some black people have supported the idea of proportionality, in which black and other minorities are proportionately represented on each rung of the economic hierarchy. But if we use the idea of proportionality as our measure of social justice, we would conclude that a just society could have one percent of its population controlling ninety percent of the resources, “so long as 13 percent of the 1 percent were black, 14 percent were Hispanic, half were women, etc.” With a “fixation of proportionality,” we arrive to the view that “the increasing wealth of the one percent would be OK if only there were more black, brown, and LGBTQIA+ billionaires.”
Reed and Michaels note that those who possess wealth understand that the focus on proportionality validates the stratification of wealth in American society. Many of the rich are eager to embark on a course of moral purification through anti-racist ideology and training, but they have no interest in a politics of social democratic redistribution that would alter the material conditions that make them rich. This is the culmination of ideological tendencies of the last half century, during which racial democracy has displaced social democracy as the dominant principle in black politics and in U.S. politics in general.
Many anti-racists and liberals, Reed and Michaels observe, express indifference toward or disdain for poor and working-class whites. But such indifference and disdain support the perpetuation of social inequality and well as racial inequity. “It is practically impossible, as generations of black proponents of social democracy understood clearly, to imagine a serious strategy for winning the kinds of reforms that would actually improve black and brown working people’s conditions without winning them for all working people and without doing so through a struggle anchored to broad working-class solidarity.” I say “Amen,” but I would want to take the example of triumphant revolutions in Latin America, which invoked the solidarity not only of the working-class but of all sectors of the people, thereby including professionals, small businesspersons, and the middle class in the broad-based coalition.
Reed maintains that race reductionist arguments persist, in spite of their inadequacy for the analysis and resolution of social and economic problems, because the new antiracist ideology is the product of an anti-leftist politics that promotes the interests of the black professional/managerial class; it does not seek to reduce socioeconomic inequalities. I have discussed in my last editorial Reed’s interpretation of anti-racism ideology as an anti-leftist strain of neoliberalism that is connected to the interests of the professional-managerial class (see “Racism, Ideology, Elite Interests, and the Nation,” May 7, 2021).
In a similar vein, Inaya Folarin Iman observes, “It cannot be overlooked that some of the most ardent proponents of woke identitarianism are some of the most privileged, most significant beneficiaries of the status quo: corporations, the political, cultural and media establishment. Far from challenging the establishment, wokeness has become a means through which the establishment reinvents itself. Corporations and public figures can gain woke points by engaging in superficial gestures which win social validation and accumulate capital, while real social issues remain unsolved.”
Another theme addressed in the Free Black Thought Website is the tendency of the anti-racism ideology and the prevailing black rhetoric to view victimization as the essence of the black experience. Erec Smith, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition at York College of Pennsylvania, maintains that black rhetoric tends to promote an essentialism that minimizes individuality and promotes the erroneous idea that black people have a shared viewpoint, and adherence to this viewpoint becomes a measure of authenticity for black people. He further maintains that for Critical Race Theory the most essential black characteristic is victimhood, which complements its tenet that white people in America and America itself are irredeemably racist. He writes that “Critical Race Theory seems to guarantee the perpetual essentialized victimhood of black people.”
In perpetuating essentialized black victimhood, the anti-racism ideology is disempowering. Smith maintains that contemporary anti-racism promotes a feeling of victimization and learned helplessness in people of color. In giving primacy to identity, contemporary anti-racism attracts the sector of the black population that feels disempowered, whose embracing of radical activism reinforces their powerlessness, even as it gives the appearance of empowerment. He advocates an anti-racist approach that is rooted in empowerment theories in psychology and social work, as he explains in his book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment.
Shelby Steele, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, also addresses the theme of an apparent exercise of power that hides lack of agency. He writes that nearly sixty years after the Civil Rights Law, groups like Black Lives Matter are part of a “vast grievance industry” that assert themselves using “America’s insecure moral authority around race.” In American culture, there is an unspoken agreement, in which American institutions are obligated to prove their innocence of racism as a condition for moral legitimacy, and blacks in turn are obligated to take advantage of new economic opportunities by attaining parity with whites. If whites comply with a newfound racial innocence, and if blacks attain parity in a now post-racist environment, then America will have overcome its social sin of racism. The American promise of democracy will have been attained.
The problem with this agreement, Steele maintains, is that it turns blacks into perpetual victims trading on their victimization. White institutions demonstrate their innocence by making concession to black demands; and blacks put themselves forward as continued victims in order to make the case for further concessions. This process converts “black suffering into a moral power to be wielded, rather than a condition to be overcome. This is the power that blacks discovered in the ’60s. It gained us a War on Poverty, affirmative action, school busing, public housing and so on. But it also seduced us into turning our identity into a virtual cult of victimization—as if our persecution was our eternal flame, the deepest truth of who we are, a tragic fate we trade on. After all, in an indifferent world, it may feel better to be the victim of a great historical injustice than a person left out of history when that injustice recedes.”
But, Steele maintains, there is today a fundamental factual problem with this American racial accord, namely, that “we blacks aren’t much victimized any more. . . . Today we are far more likely to encounter racial preferences than racial discrimination.”
“Moreover, we live in a society that generally shows us goodwill—a society that has isolated racism as its most unforgivable sin.” There is, therefore, an “absence of malice” that contradicts the discourse of blacks focused on their victimization. “The great diminishment (not eradication) of racism since the ’60s means that our victim-focused identity has become an anachronism. Well suited for the past, it strains for relevance in the present.”
Steele maintains that Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and other black speakers at the Republican National Convention have put this outdated, disempowering social psychology behind. They spoke not as victims of racial injustice but as individuals with personal narratives to tell, stories that are tied to the multiple narratives that have constituted the making of the American people. The black speakers at the RNC are the “harbingers of a new racial order,” for “they unpair victimization from identity. Victimization may be an experience we endure, but it should never be an identity that defines us. They all spoke as American citizens in a spirit of citizenship.”
The anachronistic use of victimization as a political strategy is reinforced by “a narcissistic embrace of lived experience as [anti-racism’s] primary ethos and epistemology,” in the words of Erec Smith. The post-modern subjectivist epistemology of the “lived experience” nullifies the duty to take into account the understandings of others, based on their lived experiences, be they others in the nation, in history, or the world. A genuine quest for understanding requires that there be no selectivity in this. That is, it can’t be said that the lived experiences of black lesbians count, but not those of white male Christians. To be sure, the voice of the former did not count in the past; but in rectifying this, it cannot be that the voice of the latter no longer matters. The subjective selection of the voices of lived experiences, based on personal preferences, constitutes a moral laxness and intellectual laziness that can only result in social and political conflict, because the now excluded others, if they are to be authentic human beings, cannot permit it to stand.
At the same time, post-modern subjectivity downplays the importance of facts and data; it legitimates selection of those facts and data that serve interpretations that come from one’s own lived experience. There is in this narcissism no duty to be objective with respect to the selection of data, a negligence aided by the convenient assumption that objectivity can never be attained. What post-modern subjectivist epistemology overlooks is that lived experience is the starting point of understanding, not its final arbiter (see “The quest for the true and the right,” April 13, 2021).
I encourage readers to visit and share the Compendium of Free Black Thought in www.freeblackthought.com. With insight and reasoned arguments, it maintains that the prevailing anti-racism ideology presents a simplistic and inaccurate view of the American racial reality, serving the interests of the corporate elite by obscuring and focusing attention away from the sources of socio-economic inequality and the necessary road to transformative social change. It declares that the anti-racism ideology is a subjectivist narcissism that abandons the historic goal of the African-American movement, which has been the fulfillment of the American promise of democracy, announced at the founding of the American Republic.
Thanks for drawing my attention to this important intellectual resource Charles! It really would be wonderful to have a panel at the next Havana conference with these scholars and to also add some of your thoughts about World Systems and Colonialism to the mix. If only we had the money and resources to pull something like this off (sigh)....