Editor’s Note: What follows is an open letter from Reverend Eugene Rivers. Immediately addressed to the Boston-Cambridge intellectual community, Rivers’s letter speaks at the same time to a much broader audience: in fact, to anyone interested in the fate of the urban poor in the United States. A pastor and social analyst, Rivers works every day with poor women and children in Boston’s Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods. In their name, he asks us to reflect on the moral meaning of intellectual life.

Rivers’s letter prompted significant debate, including a roundtable with Henry Louis Gates Jr., bell hooks, Cornel West, Anthony Appiah, and others on November 30, 1992; a second roundtable with bell hooks, Randall Kennedy, Margaret Burnham, and others on November 17, 1993; and responses from Eugene Genovese as well as Eric Foner, Noel Ignatiev, and others.

Dear Friends:

In 1967, Noam Chomsky published an essay in the New York Review of Books on “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Written in the midst of national turmoil surrounding U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, the essay raised a number of disturbing questions about the relationship of intellectuals to power and about the moral and political requirements of the pursuit of truth. Chomsky was inspired by a series of articles by Dwight MacDonald in the journal Politics. Writing some twenty years earlier, MacDonald focused on the question of war guilt. “To what extent,” he asked, “were the German or Japanese people responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments?” He then turned the question back to the American and British people. To what extent were they “responsible for the vicious terror bombings of civilians . . . by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Chomsky pushed MacDonald’s question further: What, he asked, are the special moral responsibilities of intellectuals, “given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy” in Western capitalist democracies? His answer was that intellectuals have a “responsibility to speak the truth and to expose lies” and a duty “to see events in their historical perspective.”

Chomsky’s claims about the mandarin status of opinion-forming elites, and about the elementary obligations that come with status, have lost none of their relevance. But circumstances have changed, and those changes carry important implications for the precise character of our current obligations. When I read Chomsky’s political and historical essays 21 years ago, I was a young Christian intellectual struggling to understand the role and the responsibility of the intelligentsia in an advanced industrial society. Chomsky focused on foreign policy, and posed his questions to a predominantly white, elite, academic and policy-based intelligentsia. At that time, I do not recall reading any significant discussion or critical notice of the issues he raised in any of the major black scholarly journals or books.

I want to suggest to you that Chomsky’s 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. For, as a privileged minority, black intellectuals “have the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying behind the veil of distortion . . . ideology, and class interest through which the events of current history are presented to us.”

More than 10 million Americans now face a crisis of catastrophic proportions. Life in the major post-industrial centers in the United States is genuinely poor, nasty, brutish, and short. It is often a choice between suffering and abject misery. The prospects for black males are perhaps a bit more exciting. There is, of course, death due to homicide or drug-related HIV infection; and then there is incarceration, which provides an opportunity to refine the skills required for a career of criminality.

In all this horror, there is a certain depraved consistency. For the persistent poverty of black and brown urban poor serves a variety of ideological functions. Conservative policy elites (whether Republican or Democratic) perceive, correctly, that poor blacks are a politically disposable population. In fact, the suffering, nihilism, and decay associated with the tragic circumstances of the urban poor can—and, in the view of conservatives, should—be exploited to ensure continued political dominance. The logic is very simple. Because inner city blacks are politically vulnerable, the right can blame them for anti-Semitism, crime, riots, the Republicans, the Democrats, David Duke, sin, sex, and AIDS. Because the American political arena is in such an advanced state of decomposition, the absurdity of the argument will carry no political costs.

Assume then that current conditions for black Americans persist. Two developments will follow. First, we can safely assume that young mothers and fathers will not transmit to their progeny the values and norms associated with intellectual and cultural achievement. Second, as entry into labor markets is increasingly dependent on education and high skills, we will see, perhaps for the first time in the history of the United States, a generation of economically obsolete Americans.

But, remarkably, the tragedy we face is still worse. Unlike many of our ancestors, who came out of slavery and entered this century with strong backs, discipline, a thirst for literacy, deep religious faith, and hope in the face of monumental adversity, we have produced “a generation who [do] not know the ways of the Lord”—a “new jack” generation, ill-equipped to secure gainful employment even as productive slaves.

This generation—who would be ineligible to qualify for slavery—provides unique insight into the nature of economic opportunity in a contemporary capitalist democracy. Consider this achievement: a generation of poor black women and children may reach the end of this century in an economically and politically inferior position to their ancestors, who entered the century in the shadow of formal slavery. Unable to see a more rational future through the eyes of faith, they lack the hope that sustained their forbears. Lacking hope, they experience what Orlando Patterson has called “social death.” But unlike the social death of formal slavery, this new social death is fundamentally spiritual, rooted in the destruction of faith and hope. In a world without faith and hope, history and identity are themselves divested of meaning. And so, as the Christian philosopher Cornel West has argued, the future is transformed into a spectacle of nihilism and decay. It is, in the end, this profoundly spiritual nature of the current crisis that gives it its unique historical character.

What, in these unprecedented circumstances, are the responsibilities of intellectuals? It should be clear that there is a fundamental responsibility to tell the truth and expose lies about the conditions of the black poor. But I am pessimistic about the fulfillment of this responsibility, for reasons suggested in an observation by Conor Cruise O’Brien: “Power in our time,” he wrote, “has more intelligence in its service, and allows that intelligence more discretion as to its methods, than ever before in history.” From O’Brien’s perspective, this marriage of power and intelligence could only damage the prospects for the renewal of scholarly integrity. Moreover, the increasing influence of corporate capitalism in the university contributes to the ascendance of a “society maimed through the systematic corruption of intelligence.” Academic entrepreneurship becomes the norm, furthering the subversion of intellectual responsibility.

With infant mortality rates higher in Harlem and Roxbury than in Havana or Kingston: what are the responsibilities of black intellectuals?

Against the background of this general pessimism, I propose to focus my attention more particularly on the black intelligentsia, and on the special relationship of black intellectuals to the poor. Two observations are especially pertinent here.

First, the pathologies of the cities are essentially an advanced expression of a more general crisis of moral and cultural authority which currently overshadows the lives of every socioeconomic stratum of black Americans born between 1950 and 1970. Black elites are not exempt from this crisis. Our blind pursuit of integration has come at the expense of institutional and political autonomy. Because of that loss of autonomy, we are entangled in a web of inherited and unexamined ideological and political assumptions—for example, an incoherent conception of rights divorced from moral obligations. Living on borrowed assumptions, we now face moral and cultural obsolescence. In a tragically Proverbial sense, we are now elites bereft of vision.

Second, it is far from clear what substantive differences there are between the moral decay of the young drug dealers on the block and that of the elite intellectuals who prostitute themselves while contributing to a moral and ideological framework indispensable to the justification of inequality. One refreshing difference is that young drug dealers are generally more candid about the nature of their game. Unlike our cosmopolitan intelligentsia, they freely admit to being self-centered hustlers. No rhetoric about integrity, humanity, or sweet reason. And, perhaps oddly, their analysis of contemporary political affairs features more insight and less jargon.

With political and domestic policy wars escalating against an entire generation of young black people in the cities; with life expectancy better in the Army than on the streets; with educational prospects better in prison than in schools; with infant mortality rates higher in Harlem and Roxbury than in Havana or Kingston: what are the responsibilities of black intellectuals? Do such elite journals of opinion as Transition and Reconstruction have any moral obligation to take up the cause of those whose suffering and blood made their prestige and affluence possible? As intellectuals, as humanists, are we not morally obligated to provide more than lecture circuit radicalism? How can we justify endless talk about Gramsci, Foucault, Derrida, Jameson, Bourdieu, Lukacs, Habermas, and Marx—talk with no discernible bearing on the fact of social death in the cities?

I direct these questions to black intellectuals in particular because they were put to me by a young black mother in a Dorchester court. She asked whether her leaders spoke out on issues. Sometimes. She asked “What difference will all their big words and fancy concepts make in my son’s life?” I responded that I did not know. She asked what kinds of programs her leaders were developing to teach poor black people their history. I tepidly responded that many of you were busy with important conferences, but that you were with her in spirit.

The life of the mind is, to be sure, hard, and it must follow its own rhythms. But I must confess, friends, that I see no emerging, constructive theory, no nascent political program, no intimations of a plan of action. Just piles of denunciation of all conceivable ’isms’ and ’phobias.’ Its not that I think that affluent, elite, progressive black intellectuals are obligated to rub shoulders with the illiterate and unwashed. But there are issues of responsibility here. And I am suggesting that, as intellectual leaders, you consider “breaking bread” in ways that might benefit that black woman and her son in the Dorchester Court, that you use your considerable prestige and influence to promote cultural and economic development among the urban poor.

If talk about responsibility seems too high-minded, then think of it as a matter of personal identity and commitment. In the absence of a program or a mobilization of intellectuals around the needs of the poor, what is the functional, political difference between such conservatives as Alan Keyes or Thomas Sowell and such progressives as Henry Louis Gates or Cornel West? Living out those progressive commitments requires new forms of public engagement. In the absence of that engagement, it all looks the same from down here in new jack city. Harvard’s Martin Kilson has been making this point for 15 years: that the emerging new class of intellectuals needs to translate its discourse, whether conservative or radical, into a coherent organizational program with tangible benefits for ordinary people.

Of course, it is easier to criticize people than to solve problems. So let me conclude with a call to Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, Orlando Patterson, Jerry Watts, K. Anthony Appiah, and Martin Kilson: let’s convene a series of discussions in Boston about the fate of the urban poor. And let’s encourage our friends in other cities to do the same. We all know that the time has come, once more, when silence is betrayal. Moving together, let’s break the silence, create new hope, and so lift the spell of social death.


Eugene Rivers
Pastor Azusa Christian Community
Co-founder and Director, Seymour Institute for Advanced Christian Studies