A call to rethink true meaning of black justice
As the 1960s recede further into the American past, it’s become standard practice for black people to regularly take stock of the civil rights era, usually in a debate about the legacy of its two premier forces for change: Martin Luther King Jr. and the racial paradigm shift known as black power. Conservatives and liberals alike, across the color line, generally praise King as a pacifist and unifier and condemn black power advocates as dividers and fearmongers. The debate is seen as a kind of social progress, made possible by the 1960s -- the right of people across the ideological spectrum to be heard and given equal time on the matter of race. For blacks, especially black conservatives, that equal time includes plum teaching positions, book deals, talk shows and public forums previously unavailable to blacks of any bent. On its face, what could be wrong with that?
Plenty, says Houston A. Baker Jr. In his new book, “Betrayal,” the Vanderbilt University professor and civil rights veteran blasts what he sees as the tragically wrong turn that black intellectuals, both conservative and liberal, have taken since the ‘60s by confusing prominence with leadership and their own inclusion in the white mainstream with justice. Such luminaries as Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, Stephen Carter and Henry Louis Gates Jr., through their relentless self-promotion and soft-pedaling or eliding of uncomfortable racial facts, have encouraged the confusion. More damning in Baker’s eyes, these figures have collectively and sometimes consciously betrayed the ideals of black advocacy practiced most diligently by King and, to a lesser extent, the proponents of black power. Baker believes that far from being antithetical (one of many racial myths he seeks to unravel in “Betrayal”), the movements drew on the same philosophy of black-first empowerment and together formed a crucial blueprint for progress.
An unabashed adherent of black liberation, Baker claims simply to be acting as a literary scholar. He calls his criticism of Steele and others strictly textual, based on close readings of such popular but underexamined works as Steele’s “The Content of Our Character,” McWhorter’s “Losing the Race” and Gates and Cornel West’s “The Future of the Race.” Using King’s life and work as the standard of black public intellectualism and activism -- a high bar, to be sure -- Baker says they all fail miserably to measure up. Much of Steele’s work and that of such leftist counterparts as West and Michael Eric Dyson are dismissed as “pamphlets”; the media-savvy Gates is a fine writer but too often a glib apologist for black struggles, sometimes dipping into racial caricature.
Some would argue that Baker is taking these folks out of context: Surely West and Gates are, if not firebrands, at least advocates for the race? For Baker, that’s exactly the point. Given the alarming data about the black condition -- the enormous rates of incarceration and unemployment, the decrepit state of inner-city public schools and so on -- real black intellectuals have no choice but to be firebrands, with a commitment to honest analysis of information and events that directly affect the black majority. Baker accuses each of them, to varying degrees, of abandoning this majority in favor of enriching themselves, while claiming to speak for it: “The most published and publicized blacks on the American public scene today are well-dressed, comfortably educated, sagaciously articulate, avowedly new age, and resolutely middle class. . . . The evolution of their relationship to the black majority during the past three decades can be summed up in a single word: good-bye!”
But it’s the lack of intellectual rigor masquerading as racial astuteness that Baker abhors most. And in his view, it’s an equal-opportunity masquerade, played to the hilt by black conservatives, liberals and centrists alike, all of whom train at least half an eye on white approval.
Yet Baker has a sense of humor and even irony about all this. Just when he gets caught up in a fit of righteous pique, he brings himself down to earth, offering, for instance, this wry explanation of McWhorter’s professed ease at hailing a cab in Manhattan, that test for every black man in a big city: “Perhaps New York taxis halt for John McWhorter because their drivers -- like the clerks and toll-takers he encounters -- have seen McWhorter on TV and can’t wait to tell him how much they appreciate his writing.” And he moves from peeved to poetic and back in the space of a line or two, a dynamic that makes “Betrayal” an urgent, absorbing read. “Laws and regulations only appear guaranteed,” he says of black conservatives’ reverence for the law. “And in one reading of black reality, laws and constitutional enactments have been as problematic in their American guise of archways to freedom as the trademarked arches of McDonald’s are in their promises of decent employment and healthy comestibles.” Whatever your political persuasion, that’s a hard image to argue with.
My quibble with “Betrayal” is that its blanket condemnation of the most prominent black public intellectuals is not entirely fair. Dyson, despite being a cottage media industry, is a progressive who has consistently argued against the sanitizing of King’s legacy as a racial pacifist instead of the race man and political radical he was. Maybe the problem is that at certain junctures I wasn’t entirely sure who qualifies as a “black public intellectual,” a position with no real analog in other ethnic groups.
Still, Baker succeeds in making his case. By the end of “Betrayal,” I was convinced that, as a (semi-private) black woman, I had grown a bit too tolerant of compromise and had undergone a vision readjustment I didn’t even know I needed. How fitting that Baker offers not just words here but action too.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times’ Opinion section.