Black Leadership and the Pitfalls of Racial Reasoning
By Cornel West
The most depressing feature of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings was neither the mean-spirited attacks of the Republicans nor the spineless silences of the Democrats – both reveal the predictable inability of most white politicians to talk candidly about race and gender. Rather, what most disturbed me was the low level of political discussion in black America about these hearings – a crude discourse about race and gender that bespeaks a failure of nerve of black leadership.
This failure of nerve was already manifest in the selection and confirmation process of Clarence Thomas. Bush’s choice of Thomas caught most black leaders off guard. Few had the courage to say publicly that this was an act of cynical tokenism concealed by outright lies about Thomas being the most qualified candidate regardless of race. The fact that Thomas was simply unqualified for the Court – a claim warranted by his undistinguished record as a student (mere graduation from Yale Law School does not qualify one for the Supreme Court!); his turbulent eight years at the EEOC, where he left thirteen thousand age-discrimination cases dying on the vine for lack of investigation; and his mediocre performance during a short fifteen months as an appellate court judge – was not even mentioned. The very fact that no black leader could utter publicly that a black appointee for the Supreme Court was unqualified shows how captive they are to white-racist stereotypes about black intellectual talent. The point here is not simply that if Thomas were white they would have no trouble uttering this fact from the rooftops, but also that their silence reveals that they may entertain the possibility that the racist stereotype is true. Hence their attempt to cover Thomas’s mediocrity with silence. Of course, some privately admit his mediocrity then point out the mediocrity of Judge Souter and other Court judges – as if white mediocrity is a justification for black mediocrity. No double standards here, this argument goes, if a black man is unqualified, one can defend and excuse him by appealing to other unqualified white judges. This chimes well with a cynical tokenism of the lowest common denominator – with little concern about shattering the racist stereotype or furthering the public interest in the nation. It also renders invisible highly qualified black judges who deserve serious consideration for selection to the Court.
How did much of black leadership get in this bind? Why did so many of them capitulate to Bush’s cynical strategy? Three reasons loom large. First, Thomas’s claim to racial authenticity – his birth in Jim Crow Georgia, his childhood spent as the grandson of a black sharecropper, his undeniably black phenotype degraded by racist ideals of beauty, and his gallant black struggle for achievement in racist America. Second, the complex relation of this claim to racial authenticity to the increasing closing-ranks mentality in black America. Escalating black-nationalist sentiments – the notion that America’s will to racial justice is weak and therefore black people must close ranks for survival in the hostile white country – rests principally upon claims to racial authenticity. Third, the way in which black-nationalist sentiments promote and encourage black cultural conservatism, especially black patriarchal (and homophobic) power. The idea of black people closing ranks against hostile white Americans reinforces black male power exercised over black women (e.g., to protect, regulate, subordinate, and hence usually, though not always, use and abuse women) in order to preserve black social order under circumstances of white-literal attack and symbolic assault.
Most black leaders got lost in this thicket of reasoning and thus got caught in a vulgar form of racial reasoning: black authenticity – black closing-ranks mentality – black male subordination of black women in the interests of the black community in a hostile white-racist country. This line of racial reasoning leads to such questions as "Is Thomas really black?"; "Is he black enough to defend?"; "Is he just black on the outside?" et al. In fact, these kinds of questions were asked, debated, and answered throughout black America in barber shops, beauty salons, living rooms, churches, mosques, and schoolrooms.
Unfortunately, the very framework of this line of racial reasoning was not called into question. Yet as long as racial reasoning regulates black thought and action, Clarence Thomases will continue to haunt black America – as Bush and his ilk sit back, watch, and prosper. How does one undermine the framework of racial reasoning? By dismantling each pillar slowly and systematically. The fundamental aim of this undermining and dismantling is to replace racial reasoning with moral reasoning, to understand the black-freedom struggle not as an affair of skin pigmentation and racial phenotype but rather as a matter of ethical principles and wise politics, and to combat black-nationalist views of subordinating the issues and interests of black women by linking mature black self-love and self-respect to egalitarian relations within and outside black communities. The failure of nerve of black leadership is to refuse to undermine and dismantle the framework of racial reasoning.
Let us begin with the claim to racial authenticity – a claim Bush made about Thomas, Thomas made about himself in the hearings, and black nationalists make about themselves. What is black authenticity? Who is really black? First, blackness has no meaning outside of a system of race-conscious people and practices. After centuries of racist degradation, exploitation, and oppression in America, blackness means being minimally subject to white supremacist abuse and being part of a rich culture and community that has struggled against such abuse. All people with black skin and African phenotype are subject to potential white-supremacist abuse. Hence, all black Americans have some interest in resisting racism – even if their interest is confined solely to themselves as individuals rather than to larger black communities. Yet how this "interest is defined and how individuals and communities are understood vary. So any claim to black authenticity – beyond being the potential object of racist abuse and heir to a grand tradition of black struggle – is contingent on one’s political definition of black interest and one’s ethical understanding of how this interest relates to individuals and communities in and outside black America. In short, blackness is a political and ethical construct. Appeals to black authenticity ignore this fact; such appeals hide and conceal the political and ethical dimension of blackness. This is why claims to racial authenticity trump political and ethical argument – and why racial reasoning discourages moral reasoning. Every claim to racial authenticity presupposes elaborate conceptions of political and ethical relations of interests, individuals, and communities. Racial reasoning conceals these presuppositions behind a deceptive cloak of racial consensus – yet racial reasoning is seductive because it invokes and undeniable history of racial abuse and racial struggle. This is why Bush’s claims about his own black authenticity, and black-nationalist claims about black authenticity all highlight histories of black abuse and black struggle.
But if claims to black authenticity are political and ethical conceptions of the relation of black interests, individuals, and communities, then any attempt to confine black authenticity to black-nationalist politics or black male interests warrants suspicion. For example, black leaders failed to highlight the problematic claims Clarence Thomas made about his sister, Emma Mae, regarding her experience with the welfare system. In front of a conservative audience in San Francisco, Thomas made her out to be a welfare scrounger dependent on state support. Yet, like most black women in American history, Emma Mae is a hardworking person, sensitive enough to take care of her sick aunt, and she was unable to work for a short period of time. After she got off welfare, she worked two jobs – until three in the morning! This episode reveals not only a lack of integrity and character on Thomas’s part; failure to highlight it by black leader s discloses a conception of black authenticity confined to black male interests, individuals, and communities. In short, the refusal to give weight to the interests of black women by most black leaders was already apparent before Anita Hill appeared on the scene.
The claims to black authenticity that feed on the closing ranks mentality of black people are dangerous precisely because this closing of ranks is usually done at the expense of black women. It also tends to ignore the divisions of class and sexual orientation in black America – divisions that require attention of all black interests, individuals, and communities are to be taken into consideration. Thomas’s conservative Republican politics does not promote a closing-ranks mentality; instead, his claim to black authenticity is for the purpose of self-promotion, to gain power and prestige. All his professional life he has championed individual achievement and race-free standards. Yet when he saw his ship sinking, he played the racial card of black victimization and black solidarity at the expense of Anita Hill. Like his sister Emma Mae, Anita Hill could be used and abused for his own self-interested conception of black authenticity and racial solidarity.
Thomas played this racial card with success – first with appeals to his victimization in Jim Crow Georgia and later to his victimization by a "high-tech lynching" – primarily because of the deep cultural conservatism in which and black America. In white America this cultural conservatism takes the form of a chronic racism, sexism, and homophobia. Hence, only certain kinds of black people deserve high positions, that is, those who accept the rules of the game played by white America. In black America, this cultural conservatism takes the form of an inchoate xenophobia (e.g. against whites, Jews, and Asian Americans), systemic sexism, and homophobia. Like all conservatisms rooted in a quest for order, the pervasive disorder in white and, especially, black America fans and fuels the channeling of rage toward the most vulnerable and degraded members of the community. For white America this means primarily scapegoating black people, women, gays, and lesbians. For black America the targets are principally black women and black gays and lesbians. In this way black-nationalist and black-make-centered claims to black authenticity reinforce black cultural conservatism. The support of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam for Clarence Thomas – despite Farrakhan’s critique of Republican Party racist and conservative policies. – highlights this fact. It also shows how racial reasoning leads disparate viewpoints in black America to the same dead end – with substantive ethical principles and savvy, wise politics left out.
The undermining and dismantling of the framework of racial reasoning – especially the basic notions of black authenticity, the closing-ranks mentality, and black cultural conservatism – leads toward a new framework for black thought and method. This new framework should be a prophetic one of moral reasoning, with its fundamental ideas of a mature black identity, coalition strategy, and black cultural democracy. Instead of cathartic appeals to black authenticity, a prophetic viewpoint bases mature black self -–love and self – respect on the moral quality of black responses to undeniable racist degradation in the American past and present. These responses assume neither a black essence that all black people share nor one black perspective to which all black people should adhere. Rather, a prophetic framework encourages moral assessment of the variety of perspectives held by black people and selects those views based on black dignity and decency that eschew putting any group of people or culture on a pedestal or in the gutter. Instead, blackness is understood to be either the perennial possibility of white-supremacist abuse or the distinct styles and dominant modes of expression found in black cultures and communities. These styles and modes are diverse -–yet they do stand apart from those of other groups (even as they are shaped by and shape those of other groups). And all such styles and modes stand in need of ethical evaluation. Mature black identity results from an acknowledgement of the specific black responses to white-supremacist abuses and a moral assessment of these responses such that the humanity of black people does not rest on deifying or demonizing others.
Instead of a closing-ranks mentality, a prophetic framework encourages a coalition strategy that solicits genuine solidarity with those deeply committed to antiracist struggle. This strategy is neither naïve nor opportunistic; black suspicion of whites, Latinos, Jews, and Asian Americans runs deep for historical reasons. Yet there are slight though significant antiracist traditions among whites, Asian Americans, and especially Latinos, Jews, and indigenous people that must not be cast aside. Such coalitions are important precisely because they not only enhance the plight of black people but also because they enrich the quality of life in the country.
Lastly, a prophetic framework replaces black cultural conservatism with black cultural democracy. Instead of authoritarian sensibilities that subordinate women or degrade gays and lesbians, black cultural democracy promotes the equality of black women and men and the humanity of the black gays and lesbians. In short, black cultural democracy rejects the pervasive patriarchy and homophobia in black American life.
If most black leaders had adopted a prophetic framework of moral reasoning rather than a narrow framework of racial reasoning, the debate over the Thomas-Hill hearings would have proceeded in a quite different manner in black America. For example, both Thomas and Hill would be viewed as two black conservative supporters of some of the most vicious policies to besiege black working and poor communities since Jim and Jane Crow segregation. Both Thomas and Hill supported an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from working people to well-to-do people in the form of regressive taxation, deregulation policies, cutbacks and slowdowns in public service programs, take-backs at the negotiation table between workers and management, and military buildups at the Pentagon. Both Thomas and Hill supported the unleashing of unbridled capitalist market forces on a level never witnessed before in this country that have devastated black working and poor communities. These market forces took the form principally of unregulated corporative and financial expansion and intense entrepreneurial activity. This tremendous ferment in big and small businesses – including enormous bonanzas in speculation, leveraged buy-outs and mergers, as well as high levels of corruption and graft – contributed to a new kind of culture of consumption in white and black America. Never before has the seductive market way of life held such sway in nearly every sphere of American life. This market way of life promotes addictions to stimulation and obsessions with comfort and convenience. These addictions and obsessions – centered primarily around bodily pleasures and status rankings – constitute market moralities of various sorts. The common denominator is a rugged and ragged individualism and rapacious hedonism in quest of perennial "high" in body and mind.
In the hearings Clarence Thomas emerged as the exemplary hedonist, addicted to pornography and captive to a stereotypical self-image of the powerful black man who revels in sexual prowess in a racist society. Anita Hill appears as the exemplary careerist addicted to job promotion and captive to the stereotypical self image of the sacrificial black woman who suffers silently and alone. There should be little doubt that Thomas’s claims are suspect – those about his sister, his eighteen-year silence about Roe v. Wade, his intentions in the Heritage Foundation speech praising the antiabortion essay by Lewis Lehrman, and the contours of his conservative political philosophy. Furthermore, his obdurate stonewalling in regard to his private life was symptomatic of all addicts – passionate denial and irrational cover-up. There also should be little doubt that Anita Hill’s truth-telling was a break from her careerist ambitions. On the one hand, she strikes me as a person of integrity and honesty. On the other hand, she indeed put a premium on job advancement – even at painful personal cost. Yet her speaking out disrupted this pattern of behavior and she found herself supported only by people who opposed the very conservative policies she otherwise championed, namely, progressive feminists, liberals, and some black folk. How strange she must feel being a hero to her former foes. One wonders whether Judge Bork supported her as fervently as she did him a few years ago.
A prophetic framework of moral reasoning would have liberated black leaders from the racial guilt of opposing a black man for the highest court in the land and feeling as if one had to choose between a black woman and a black man. Like the Congressional Black Caucus (minus one?), black people could simply oppose Thomas based on qualifications and principle. And one could choose between two black conservatives based on their sworn testimonies in light of the patterns of their behavior in the recent past. Similarly, black leaders could avoid being duped by Thomas’s desperate and vulgar appeals to racial victimization by a white male Senate committee who handled him gently (no questions about his private life, no queries about his problematic claims). Like Senator Hollings, who knows racial intimidation when he sees it (given his past experiences with it), black leaders could see through this rhetorical charade and call a moral spade a moral spade.
Unfortunately, most of black leadership remained caught in a framework of racial reasoning – even when they opposed Thomas an/or supported Hill. Rarely did we have a black leader highlight the moral content of a mature black identity, accent the crucial role of coalition strategy in the struggle for justice, or promote the ideal of black cultural democracy. Instead, the debate evolved around glib formulations of a black "role model" based on mere pigmentation, an atavistic defense of blackness that mirrors the increasing xenophobia in American life and a silence about the ugly authoritarian practices in black America that range from sexual harassment to indescribable violence against women. Hence, a grand opportunity for substantive discussion and struggle over race and gender was missed in black America and the larger society. And black leadership must share some of the blame. As long as black leaders remain caught in a framework of racial reasoning, they will not rise above the manipulative language of Bush and Thomas – just as the state of siege (the death, disease, and destruction) raging in much of black America creates more wastelands and combat zones. Where there is no vision, the people perish; where there is no framework of oral reasoning, the people close ranks in a war of all against all. The growing gangsterization of America results in part from a market-driven racial reasoning prevalent from the White House to the projects. In this sense, George Bush, David Duke, and gangster rap artists speak the same language from different social locations – only racial reasoning can save us. Yet I hear a cloud of witnesses from afar – Sojourner Truth, Wendell Phillips, Emma Goldman, A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Michael Harrington, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Tom Hayden, Harvey Mild, Robert Moses, Barbara Ehrenreich, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many anonymous others – who championed the struggle for freedom and justice in a prophetic framework of moral reasoning. They understood that the pitfalls of racial reasoning are too costly in mind, body, and soul – especially for a downtrodden and despised people like black Americans. The best of our leadership have recognized this valuable truth – and more must do so in the future if Americans is to survive with any moral sense.