Editor’s Note: In our October/November 1993 issue, Eugene Genovese responded to Eugene Rivers’s open letter, “On the Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack” (Boston Review, September/October 1992), and to a subsequent roundtable on that subject with Rivers, Margaret Burnham, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, Glenn Loury, and Cornel West (Boston Review, January/February 1993). Here we extend the discussion with more contributions from our readers.
Intellectual and Political Responsibility
Eugene Rivers’s impassioned call for social responsibility among black intellectuals, and the discussion it has inspired, offer revealing reflections on the crisis today engulfing black America. Yet what strikes me most forcefully in this exchange is the participants’ narrowed political vision, the sense that collective action at the national level cannot affect the dire plight of urban black communities. In this, the discussion is very much a document of the perilous times in which we live.
Despite the power of Rivers’s indictment and the eloquence of some of the responses, crucial elements in the current condition of black America are slighted or ignored altogether. The world economy has entered a period of far reaching changes, which are having a profoundly adverse effect on the majority of black Americans ã who (as Cornel West reminds us) are neither middle class nor underclass, but form part of the American working class. These changes are mentioned occasionally in the discussion, but almost as an afterthought. The decline of both manufacturing employment and the trade union movement has in the past generation had a devastating impact on the black working class. As I write, the Clinton administration is orchestrating a campaign for a free trade agreement with Mexico, which, whatever its overall effect on the economy, is likely further to accelerate the black working class’s economic decline, situated as it is in industries most vulnerable to the international flight of capital. Meanwhile, the mass media and both political parties seem agreed that the best way to deal with the problem of “race” is to ignore it, as if talking about the subordination of non-white peoples within the United States only makes matters worse.
At such an historical moment, it seems to me, intellectuals of all backgrounds share a responsibility to keep alive an oppositional world view, an alternative to the triumphant, chauvinistic glorification of market capitalism articulated during the 12 years of Reagan and Bush and reinforced by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whether black intellectuals live a life removed from day to day realities of the urban poor seems to me less significant than whether they are able to maintain in these new Dark Ages values and a sense of political possibilities excluded from the political and cultural mainstream.
Of course, intellectuals like Cornel West, bell hooks, and others have devoted their lives to promoting such values. But, at least in this discussion, they too often seem to fall back on the prescription that the “age of crack” can only be dismantled through individual effort. However important, indeed indispensable, it is to condemn the nihilism, anti-intellectualism, misogyny, and other “pathologies” today rife in black communities, however necessary to adopt a stern position that people must be held responsible for anti-social actions, no amount of self-improvement, or self-respect, is going to create jobs in communities from which capital has departed, revive a declining trade union movement, or dismantle the residential segregation that, a generation after the civil rights movement, still excludes black Americans from large parts of our common country (including those where jobs have, until recently at least, been expanding).
American society, Cornel West reminds us, does have an obligation to see that none of its children confront the social disintegration that now plagues urban black life. But this discussion offers little guidance as to how to place this responsibility on the national political agenda, or forge the interracial alliances necessary to effect a change in public policy.
Indeed, the only semblance of a political program in the entire discussion is Eugene Genovese’s call for community autonomy. This, I fear, offers no solution at all. In the historical experience of black Americans, local communities have all too often been the bastions of racism, restrained, on occasion, by the intervention of the national state. (This is one reason that the commitment to an activist state as the protector of civil rights is a tradition deeply rooted in black American politics ã distancing blacks from white Americans, who, as Ronald Reagan so expertly showed, still tend to view the federal government as a threat to individual liberty). It is hard to decide which is more disturbing in Genovese’s program ã that he would allow local prejudice to run roughshod over the rights of mavericks, dissenters, and despised minorities (except in the case of race), or that he would effectively cede the national political arena to the very multinational corporations he correctly identifies as the source of so many of today’s social ills.
I have recently been reading David Lewis’s superb new biography of W.E.B. DuBois. Early in this century, when the prospects for genuine racial equality and the space for effective political action were even more constrained than today, DuBois formulated his own definition of the intellectual’s responsibility. It was to speak out forcefully and persistently in defense of the equality of black Americans, and to challenge at every turn the prevailing ideology of racial superiority and inferiority. By sheer power of intellect, by ceaselessly telling the truth, as well as by his tireless efforts in writing and organizing, DuBois (who lived a life as far removed from the black masses as the intellectuals Rivers chides for elitism) did more than any individual to alter the racial status quo. His is a model that intellectuals today, whatever their racial background, should strive to emulate.
Morality and Politics
Cathy J. Cohen
In his open letter on “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack,” Eugene Rivers calls upon intellectuals to attend to the needs of those in our poorest black communities. Rivers agrees with Noam Chomsky that “the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy” give them a “responsibility . . . to speak the truth and to expose lies,” as well as to “see events in their historical perspective.” Rivers brings Chomsky’s position into the present, indicating that his points “now apply with particular force to the responsibility to tell the truth about the condition of the black poor. And that responsibility bears especially heavily on black intellectuals at elite universities.” As a black woman teaching at a white elite institution (Yale), I too believe that intellectuals, in particular progressive intellectuals, must tell the truth. But I understand the process of truth-telling to be more than a matter of identifying and presenting “objective facts.” Progressive intellectuals must involve themselves in a dialectical or interactive process of fact discovery and interpretation. Such a process requires talking and working with those in our communities. Thus, if progressive intellectuals are truly to fulfill their responsibility “to speak the truth and to expose lies,” we must root ourselves ã live and work ã in communities where experiences of struggle and oppression can help us better interpret what are commonly understood as objective facts.
For example, leaders such as Eugene Rivers rightly and repeatedly draw our attention to the explosive violence and seemingly self-destructive behavior of youth in black communities. It is the responsibility of intellectuals to provide a truthful and contextualized understanding of such phenomena. Truth-telling in this case requires more than relating the immediate “facts” in front of us. We need to provide a context, often historical, in which such facts can be interpreted.
Explorations of violence among black youth, for example, must also include discussions of deindustrialization, suburbanization, and segregation as well as a general history of neglect with regard to federal funding and public interest in our neighborhoods.
I say this not to absolve individuals of responsibility for life decisions and actions, but to place individual actions in a larger societal truth. Such an interpretation of the truth comes not only from analysis of economic statistics and cultural histories. More important, it is developed through interaction with young sisters and brothers living in poor urban neighborhoods. This, I think, is part of what progressive intellectuals must do.
In an age in which poverty, violence, and despair are increasing in many urban neighborhoods, however, speaking the truth is not the only responsibility of progressive intellectuals. The development of clear and concrete analysis must be part of what we do for our struggles. It is not enough to reinterpret and contextualize facts. We must also be active in the production of liberating analyses, developed through dialogue and cooperation with those who deal most directly with the issues threatening our communities.
One recent trend that demands increased dialogue and critical analysis, as well as larger contextual interpretation, is the growing “consensus” among many black leaders that some sort of moral revival will rectify the “social disarray” of the black community. Increasingly, leaders, activists, and community workers are sounding a nostalgic call for a return to past morality. They suggest that deviation from traditional norms and values has laid the groundwork for the self-destructive behavior of certain community members.
A call for moral integrity in the black community seems to me an acceptable piece of an overall strategy of struggle which centers around altering the material and structural distribution of resources and power. But we should take a moment collectively to think about what morals will contribute to the liberation of all in the community.
When we engage with everyone in the community ã especially those deemed “bad,” “undesirable,” and a burden ã we begin to recognize the complexity of appeals to traditional norms and values. While many of the values we held yesterday helped to promote the survival of black communities, other parts allowed for the misogynistic and sexist treatment of our sisters. It was part of yesterday’s morality to see as normal the hatred for our black lesbian sisters and gay brothers. And it was often yesterday’s morality that used class privilege, educational opportunity, and even sometimes skin color to decide the true worth of those in the community.
So while we embrace moral ideals as a foundation for liberation, I suggest that we also discuss and think critically about the values and norms that a colonized people must promote while working for the liberation of all its people.
Furthermore, we need to deepen our understanding of the role and origin of morality as it has been used to support political struggle in black communities. For far too many of us, morality has become a code word for blaming individuals. Thus, we hear the cries that children are not being taught by their parents the norms and values that allowed for the survival and progress of black communities. Lost in this rhetoric is an understanding of the political origin of the morals and traditions which unified our communities and sustained our struggles.
The problem of transmitting morals is not due solely to the unwillingness of individuals to teach their children about self-respect. More important, it reflects the vacuum of sustained political struggle in many black communities. Without the constant promotion of a consciousness and morality that sees my survival directly linked to the existence of brothers and sisters that I do not know personally, there is little hope that the individual actions of parents will more broadly “save” black communities. Without an environment in which the norm is not only to better ourselves, but to better everyone connected to us through collective struggle, we are doomed to replicate a morality that was generated from an individualistic, white market society, where all relations become commodified.
Code words like “morality,” then, may provide some immediate satisfaction as an identifiable way to ease the pain of black communities. They are inadequate, however, as a strategy for altering the material resources available to those in the community. Further, sentimental appeals to the good old days do not help to challenge and direct the consciousness of young brothers and sisters who must unite in struggle if they are to survive. We need a new community politics and morality which seek to create inclusive movements, not to decide who is “good” or “bad” in our communities.
This is the responsibility of all our intellectuals (whether they are institutionally ordained or not): to build through dialogue and work notions of contextualized truth and systems of analysis which provide the basis for principled and liberating struggle.
To Eugene Rivers—I applaud you for beginning a dialogue which may bring us one step closer to such a struggle.
What Do You Mean ‘We,’ White Man?
Eugene Genovese is right to denounce the “celebrations of self-indulgence” and “the irrational embrace by the left of a liberal program of personal liberation”; these have, in some circles, taken the place of any serious effort to build a righteous society. He is right, moreover, to condemn the incoherence and hypocrisy of pretending “to respect community autonomy while denying each community its own exclusiveness.” People who share Genovese’s commitment to community autonomy will want to see those responsible for the recent slaughter in Waco, as well as those responsible for the murderous assault on MOVE in Philadelphia a decade ago, brought to trial for crimes against humanity. Will Genovese agree, now that he has taken to advising governments on what they must to do ensure their survival, awarded his “moral sanction” to “authoritarian repression,” and declared his own “willingness to restrict individual rights to those which are proven to be socially safe”?
What a dull world it would be if the “broadside program of reducing all communities to a single set of rules” were ever realized. Yes, people must be free to teach that homosexuality is an abomination in the sight of God, that women are by nature depraved, and that the darker-skinned people of the earth carry forever the curse of Ham. And those who agree must be allowed ã indeed encouraged ã to form themselves into communities based on these doctrines. But they must not be permitted to beat up queers in the street and suppress sexual exploration by young people, perform infant clitoridectomies (or practice female infanticide) and deny women access to knowledge of their bodies, or maintain a legal and social system backed by police, prisons, and gas chambers that defines black people as members of a criminal class. Who will stop them? The victims themselves will have to do so, even if that entails “massive looting, rioting, and defiance of social order.”
“Racism,” says Genovese, “should be put beyond the pale everywhere.” He rightly observes that “black communities have good reason to demand considerable political autonomy.” Such autonomy is necessary, he explains, “for the re-establishment of [the] moral order” that alone can ward off the horrifying future he projects for black America. Genovese, while busily advising black people how to combat “social decay” in their ranks, fails to note that the main reason black communities demand political autonomy ã the only reason a racially-defined, “black” community exists ã is that another community, the white community, exercises political authority over black people.
What is this “white” community? It is not biological; all reputable scientists agree that, biologically, “race” is a fiction. It is not cultural; if, as Genovese points out, “there is nothing that can seriously be called an Italian-American or Irish-American culture,” what, then, is “white” culture ã except, possibly, Wonderbread and television game shows?
The white community is defined only by its unblackness. It is held together by the knowledge that its most degraded members share a status higher, in certain respects, than the status of the most exalted persons excluded from it; in return, those members give their support to the system that degrades the others. Until the white community is abolished, there will be no “reassertion of community life . . . for the American nation as a whole,” because, as C.L.R. James pointed out, “the protection of the white neighborhood is exposed as the dissolution of neighborhood ties and the destruction of the community as a political force.”
Advocating the abolition of the white community is distinct from what is called “anti-racism.” The term “racism” has come to mean little more than a tendency to dislike some people for the color of their skin. Moreover, anti-racism admits the natural existence of “races” even while opposing social distinctions among them. The abolitionists maintain, on the contrary, that people were not favored socially because they were white; rather they were defined as “white” because they were favored.
The white community is a club, which enrolls certain people at birth, without their consent, and brings them up according to its rules. For the most part the members go through life accepting the benefits of membership, without thinking about the costs. When individuals question the rules, the officers are quick to remind them of all they owe to the club, and warn them of the dangers they will face if they leave it.
The existence of the club depends on the willingness of its members to place their racial interests above class, gender, or any other interests they hold. Its weak point is its need for unanimity. The white community must have the support of all those it has designated as its constituency, or it ceases to exist. The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a predictor of behavior will lead to its collapse.
For so-called whites who oppose the racialized structure of America, the task is to draw an impassable line between themselves and the white community, so that those who uphold the rules of whiteness can no longer speak in their name. They must not merely oppose “racism,” but act in such a way that they no longer receive what David Roediger has called the “wages of whiteness.” Rejecting whiteness has political, cultural, and social aspects, and no individual can accomplish it alone. It will require a critical mass of people, who, though they may look white, by ceasing to act white have ceased to be white. When the cop, the judge, the social worker, the schoolteacher, and the other representatives of official society are no longer certain of their ability to spot a white person merely by looking, the white community will come crumbling down, and former whites will be able to take part, together with others, in building a new human community.
Religion and Responsibility
The night that 800 students, faculty, and townspeople crowded into the John F. Kennedy School of Government to hear a panel of black intellectuals respond to Eugene Rivers’s essay was one of the most memorable I can remember in over a quarter of a century of teaching at Harvard. It was ã all at once ã inspiring, informative, and infuriating. Inspiring because around me sat literally hundreds of the cream of African-American youth, seemingly cognizant of the danger that their new found privileges could siphon them away from a black community whose need for their leadership is more desperate than ever, and listening for some way to do their part. Informative because it revealed the span of opinions and approaches embodied in six prominent African-American intellectuals, and showed that they were genuinely struggling with the dreadful and unprecedented reality now threatening not only their own community but the larger society as well. Infuriating because, despite the efforts of Eugene Rivers to push the participants toward some concrete, programmatic formulations, the exchange remained mostly quite airy and elegant. Only in the sometimes sharp exchanges with the audience did it touch the earth, often with a crunch.
In my view, there is hardly anything more important going on in Boston today than Eugene Rivers’s attempt to persuade educated young African-American men and women to “return” to the ghetto, to live and work in a community which has been, ironically, deprived of its leadership by the same advances in civil rights that have brought success to the black middle class. When I have worshipped at the Azusa Christian Community in Roxbury I have felt both a special presence of the Spirit and a sense that this fragile congregation is one the few signs of hope on an otherwise bleak horizon.
But one of the things Eugene Rivers always tells the young people he urges to join him and his family in the inner city has too often gone unnoticed. “If you don’t pray,” he says, “don’t come.” What this warning means is that something far deeper than an urge for moral reform or high-minded service or even racial uplift must be at work. This is the moment when, as Eugene Genovese says, all the resources of the Christian faith, not just as a source of social vision but as a resource of personal survival, must be called on.
I fully share Eugene Genovese’s anger with the traditional anti-religiosity of the left. I am a member in good standing of the Democratic Socialists of America. I have tried to be active in the “religious caucus” of that group. But is has been tough going. The left’s dogged and automatic opposition to a public role for religious discourse has turned the whole area over to the machinations of the religious right. The right, in turn, while thumping its support for “family values,” continues to bless a consumerist economy that breeds greed, accumulation, hedonism, and mindless self-gratification. No wonder the drug trade is thriving. It is the most vivid expression imaginable of the combination of the pleasure-now principle and the entrepreneurial spirit our market culture is trying to export to the rest of the world.
Thirty years ago, along with a number of other white and black Christians, I moved my young family into the Grove Hall section of Roxbury. We were warmly welcomed by the black families there who were trying hard to build a stable, interracial neighborhood. But things did not work out that way. One by one most of the families we knew, black and white, moved out. We followed a few years later. When I pray at the Azusa Christian Community, located only three blocks from where we used to live, my pulse quickens: maybe there is still hope.
But when I come back to Cambridge, I shudder at how the misshapen theories of the liberal left admonish African-Americans, on the one hand, to get it together, and then ã by belittling religion and driving it out of public life ã deprive them of the most valuable resource they need to do so, the faith that has kept them alive against impossible odds for centuries.
I agree with Genovese that we face a crisis today which makes the old left-right spectrum irrelevant. Racism is both the original sin and the fatal flaw of the republic. I believe it must be our number one priority. I am gladdened that the most vigorous voices in the black community insist that their people must also work harder to strengthen their families (still the cornerstone of civil society), and pull their communities together. But, to do their part, blacks will need the kind of internal spiritual renewal that both Rivers and Cornel West call for, and it is the responsibility of whites to make sure they get all the resources, material and spiritual, they need to do it. This will take lots of money and imagination. But it will take something else as well: “If you don’t pray, don’t come.”
Race and Community
Clyde N. Wilson
As one of the traditionalist conservatives mentioned by Eugene Genovese, it would be presumptuous indeed for me to comment on Eugene Rivers’s “Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack” and Genovese’s response had I not been invited to do so. Whatever rights and qualifications I may have rest on the facts that I too live in the age of crack, have some small claim to belonging to the intellectual class, and have spent most of a lifetime trying to understand the history of the South which is a point of origin if no longer a place of residence for almost all African-Americans.
The collapse of community among a great many African-Americans, so ghastly that Rivers has rightly likened it to social death, is, it seems to me, only a severe instance of the general collapse of community that has been taking place among us all. And the disengagement of African-American intellectuals from the real sufferings of many of their brethren is merely a specific case of the general phenomenon of the trahison de clercs that has characterized this century.
I do not know the answer to the problems that Rivers has addressed so courageously and insightfully. But it does seem to me that the answer must necessarily lie in the region of what Genovese (and no one has studied this more deeply) calls the unique African-American historical culture. That was a culture that worked ã that filled the human need for community and spirituality under the most trying circumstances. That under those trying circumstances never permitted the degree of dispossession and dependency that characterizes the current situation. It is a culture that is a heritage, nearer or farther, to most African-Americans. Man is a culture-bearing animal ã which is an attenuated modern way of saying he is made in the image of God. Cultures are grown, not made, we conservatives are wont to say ã and where the grown culture is not carried on there is no culture ã and no community.
I do not know if African-Americans can or want to rebuild community in the manner suggested. That is up to them. I do know that in other American communities patience grows shorter and shorter with the symptoms of “social death,” as those communities face more problems of their own. Such is the moral authority and the good will that the civil rights movement owns that very few will say this publicly and many will not admit it even to themselves. Yet this dwindling patience is likely to lead to harsh confrontation in the future. Whereas, a rebuilding of responsible Christian community along the lines suggested by Rivers and Genovese would appeal to the best instincts of all Americans and would be a shining example to other American communities.