Each day, 1,118 Black teenagers are victims of violent crime, 1,451 Black children are arrested, and 907 Black teenage girls get pregnant. A generation of Black males is drowning in its own blood in the prison camps that we euphemistically call “inner cities.” And things are likely to get much worse. Some 40 years after the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, younger Black Americans are now growing up unqualified even for slavery. The result is a state of civil war, with children in violent revolt against the failed secular and religious leadership of the Black community.

Consider the dimensions of this failure. A Black boy has a 1-in-3,700 chance of getting a PhD in mathematics, engineering, or the physical sciences; a 1-in-766 chance of becoming a lawyer; a 1-in-395 chance of becoming a physician; a 1-in-195 chance of becoming a teacher. But his chances are 1-in-2 of never attending college, even if he graduates high school; 1-in-9 of using cocaine; 1-in-12 of having gonorrhea; and 1-in-20 of being imprisoned while in his 20s. Only the details are different for his sister.

What is the responsibility of Black intellectuals in the face of this nightmare? I raised this question three years ago in an open letter to the Boston Review (September/October, 1992). My point of departure was the stunning disparity between the grim state of Black America and the recent successes of the Black intelligentsia. My aim was to encourage Black intellectuals to use their now-considerable prestige and resources to improve the lives of Black Americans. The letter provoked wide-ranging discussion — forums at Harvard and MIT, attended by 1,500 people, with participation by bell hooks, Margaret Burnham, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, Glenn Loury, Regina Austin, Selwyn Cudjoe, K. Anthony Appiah, and Randall Kennedy; a series of letters and short essays in Boston Review by, among others, Eugene Genovese, Eric Foner, Farah Griffin, and john powell; debates on NPR and public television. Although the discussion did not have clear practical consequences, much of it was constructive.

Recently, a number of less constructive articles on Black intellectuals have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic, New Republic, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times Book Review. Those articles fall into two categories. First, there are what Northwestern University political scientist Adolph Reed rightly described as “press releases.” Articles by Michael Brub in the New Yorker (January 9, 1995) and Robert Boynton in the Atlantic (March, 1995), for example, applauded the achievements of a celebrity intelligentsia, but failed to ask any hard questions: for example, what have we learned from the recent work of leading Black intellectuals?

Then we have the more provocative, “you dumb and yo-mamma’s ugly” perspective. This second approach was pioneered by Leon Wieseltier in a New Republic attack on Cornel West (March 6, 1995), and perfected by Adolph Reed in his Village Voice “I-hate-you-because-you’re-famous-and-I’m-not” attack on West, Michael Dyson, bell hooks, Robin Kelley, and Skip Gates for being little more than the academic wing of the entertainment industry — a collection of mutual back-slapping, verbally adept “minstrels” (April 11, 1995).

Reed did score some important points. For many Black intellectuals, fame and fortune appear to be ends in themselves. Displays of erudition and post-modern fashion masquerade as intellectual contribution: no new ideas, just expensive theater. But Professor Reed is hardly the one to be leveling these charges. He has devoted himself to criticizing Jesse Jackson and Cornel West, and presenting himself as the only smart native in the jungle, not to advancing an alternative political, theoretical, or policy project.

The debate about responsibility has degenerated into star-worship and name-calling, the stuff of television talk shows. The issues are too serious for that. It is time to get back on track. The Black community is in a state of emergency; Black intellectuals have acquired unprecedented power and prestige. So let’s quit the topic of salaries and lecture fees, leave the fine points about Gramsci on hegemony to the journals, and have a serious discussion of how intellectuals can better mobilize their resources to meet the emergency.

An historical model provides useful instruction. In 1896, W.E.B. Du Bois was asked by Atlanta University President Horace Bumstead to head an annual conference series to produce “the first…thoroughly scientific study of the conditions of Negro life, covering all its most important phases,… resulting in a score of annual Atlanta University publications.” The studies, Bumstead hoped, would result in an authoritative statement about the lives of Black Americans. According to Du Bois, the work at Atlanta University from 1897 to 1910 developed “a program of study on the problems affecting American Negroes, covering a progressively widening and deepening effort, designed to stretch over the span of a century.”

The first Atlanta Conference, held in 1896, focused principally on the health problems of the Black community. “For 13 years,” Du Bois wrote in his autobiography, “we poured forth a series of studies; limited, incomplete, only partially conclusive, and yet so much better done than any other attempt of the sort.” The studies were published as Proceedings of the Annual Conferences on the Negro Problem, and included: Social and Physical Condition in Cities (1897); The Negro in Business (1899); The Negro Common School (1901); The Negro Artisan (1902); The Negro Church (1903); Some Notes on Negro Crime (1904); The Health and Physique of the Negro American (1906); Negro American Family (1908); Efforts for Social Betterment Among Negro Americans (1910); and Morals and Manners Among Negro Americans (1915).

So nearly 100 years ago, a Black intelligentsia — endowed with few resources, facing every imaginable form of racial disenfranchisement, living in a world of routine racist lynchings — conducted an intellectually serious program of cooperative and engaged research, focused on the basic life conditions of Black Americans.

Concerns about these conditions remain as urgent today as they were then. And with the maturation of African-American studies as an academic field, vastly greater resources are now available for pursuing an Atlanta-type project that would explore the life conditions of Black Americans, and evaluate strategies for improving those conditions. But no comparable project is now in evidence.

In Greater New England, we have Harvard’s Du Bois Institute and the University of Massachusetts’ William Monroe Trotter Institute, and at least 25 academic departments, committees, subcommittees, or museums devoted to African or African- American Studies. Consider the distinguished roster of African-American intellectuals in the region: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, Evelyn Brooks-Higginbotham, Orlando Patterson, James Jennings, Hubert Jones, K. Anthony Appiah, James Blackwell, Willard Johnson, Theresa Perry, Marilyn Richardson, John Bracey, Michael Thelwell, Constance Williams, Stephen Carter, Charles Ogletree. How have these institutions and scholars failed — despite their incomparably superior information, financial and institutional support, and comparative wealth, freedom, and safety — to produce a coherent and coordinated research agenda addressing the contemporary devastation of the Black community? Why has this generation’s peculiar collective genius been to produce so little from so much?

This question is of interest in its own right, and will make a good research topic for some future historian. Of more immediate concern is how we might start to change directions. In a constructive spirit, I will make some suggestions about two sorts of challenges we need to address.

The first challenges are conceptual — matters of political philosophy. Developing a rational vision of and for the Black community will require ridding ourselves of obsolete and malign intellectual categories. That means a new, anti-antisemitic Black intellectual movement, aimed at resurrecting a vision of hope and faith in the face of the spiritual nihilism and material decay in our inner cities. More specifically, we need to reassess our understanding of social and political equality; reconsider the meaning of freedom in a post-Civil Rights era; examine the implications of secularization for Black culture, politics, and social thought; come to terms with the intimate connections between rights and responsibilities; and show the central role of theological ideas in moral doctrine and ethical life.

These are all large issues, and I cannot develop any of them in detail here. But I will offer two illustrations of the kind of philosophical discussion that we need.

Consider first the issue of equality. After the Supreme Court announced its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall told the New York Times that, as a result of the decision, school segregation would be stamped out within five years, and all segregation within seven. Marshall’s views were utopian, but not unrepresentative of the middle-class leadership of the period. That leadership assumed — despite much counter-evidence — that the US political system was racially inclusionary and politically capable of fully integrating the Black Americans into national life. The assumption reflected and reinforced an integrationist conception of racial equality. The integrationist idea was that the American racial caste system would be replaced with civil and political equality only through racial integration of schools, neighborhoods, and businesses, rather than — as a competing nationalist conception argued — through a strategy focused at least initially on building strong, autonomous Black institutions.

For more than 40 years, the integrationist conception of racial equality has dominated the nationalist alternative. But skin color still determines life-chances; millions of Blacks continue to be excluded from American life: segregated residentially, educationally, and politically. Moreover, racial barriers show no signs of falling, and affirmative action is all but dead. Committed to racial equality, but faced with a segregated existence, we need to rethink our identification of racial equality with integration, and reopen debate about a sensible nationalist conception of racial equality. As historian Eugene Genovese said in his reply to my open letter: “The Black experience in this country has been a phenomenon without analog.” Blacks constitute a “nation-within-a-nation, no matter how anti-separatist their rhetoric or pro-integrationist their genuine aspirations” (Boston Review, October/November 1993). What are the political implications of this distinctive history?

Before addressing this question, I need to eliminate a common confusion about Black nationalism. Leonard Jeffries and Louis Farrakhan are widely regarded, even by such experts as Cornel West, as representatives of the Black nationalist perspective. This is a serious misconception. Jeffries and Farrakhan, along with Tony Martin, Khalid Muhammad, and Frances Cress Welsing, represent the nationalism of fools. They are cynically antisemitic, mean-spirited, and simply incompetent. Their trains, unlike Mussolini’s, do not run on time; in fact, they do not run at all. They are all demagoguery, uniforms, bow ties, and theater. Because they lack programmatic and policy substance, Jeffries and company are not really Black nationalists at all, but ambitious competitors on the game-show circuit posing in nationalist red, black, and green. Their public prominence reflects the leadership vacuum created by a cosmopolitan intelligentsia lacking any pedagogical relationship to poor, inner-city Blacks — the natural outcome of a bankrupt integrationist project.

This nationalism of fools should not be confused with the serious Black nationalist tradition, which has claimed among its adherents such extraordinary 19th century figures as Robert Alexander Young, Henry Highland Garnet, Martin R. Delaney, Henry McNeill Turner, Henry Bibb, and Mary Ann Shadd, and in the 20th century W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Albert Cleage, Harold Cruse, Sterling Stuckey, Joyce Ladner, Nathan Hare, and John H. Bracey, Jr.. (Along with such international allies as Frantz Fanon, Aim Csaire, Walter Rodney, C.L.R. James, and George Beckford).

Endorsing this serious nationalist project does not mean adopting an essentialist or biological conception of racial difference; Black nationalism is rooted in politics, culture, and history, not biology. Nor does it mean, as Genovese puts it, “a separatist repudiation of the American nationality;” Black Americans are part of the American nation, and should start being treated as such. Nor certainly does it mean that we should return to forced racial segregation, which violates basic human rights.

A sensible nationalist strategy, while taking individual rights seriously, is principally about advancing the interests of a community — a “nation-within-a-nation.” Its account of that nation starts from the central role of slavery in the formation of Black identity, emphasizes the subsequent experience of racial subordination, and highlights the special importance of religion in the evolution of the Black nation. As Genovese has argued: “[b]lack religion [was] more than slave religion…because many of its most articulate and sophisticated spokesmen were Southern free Negroes and Northerners who lived outside slave society, but because of the racial basis of slavery laid the foundation for a black identity that crossed class lines and demanded protonational identification. The horror of American racism…forced them out of themselves — forced them to glimpse the possibilities of nationality rather than class.” Drawing on this distinctive experience, and its religio-cultural expression, the nationalist project aims to improve the lives of Black Americans by concentrating the scarce resources of time, money, and political will on addressing the grave deficiencies of, for example, Black churches, Black schools, Black neighborhoods — on reconstructing the institutions of Black civil society. Moreover, this project of improvement and reconstruction — unlike the nationalism of fools — has a deeply universalistic core. Once more, Genovese has formulated the point with particular power: “the black variant of Christianity laid the foundations of protonational consciousness and at the same time stretched a universalist offer of forgiveness and ultimate reconciliation to white America.”

Despite their universalism, nationalists always rejected the integrationist project as impractical. The integrationist idea, as Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven described it in 1967, was that Blacks and Whites “ought to reside in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools, work together and play together without regard to race and, for that matter, without regard to religion, ethnicity, or class.” To the Black middle class, this dream has had a measure of reality. For the Black poor in northern cities, integration was always hopelessly irrelevant. Nationalist critics understood that irrelevance; they predicted that the project would fail because of intense White resistance. They turned out to be right.

But even if it could have worked at the time, its time has passed. The Civil Rights movement assumed the health of Black communities and churches, and the integrationist approach to racial equality built upon them (and upon a widespread commitment to an activist national government). But we can no longer make that assumption (nor is there the commitment to activist national government). Given current conditions in inner cities, a strategy for ending a racial caste system in which color fixes life-chances now needs to focus on rebuilding Black institutions: this should be acknowledged by all, whatever their ultimate ideals. Such rebuilding may, of course, involve strategic alliances with other organizations and communities — joining, for example, with largely White unions and environmental groups in efforts to rebuild metropolitan economies. But those alliances will deliver benefits to the inner-city core of those economies only if we also build our own organizational capacities.

Consider next the issue of freedom. What does freedom mean when, 30 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Black Americans lock themselves in their homes and apartments to avoid being caught in urban cross-fire? What does freedom mean for a people psychologically debased by its own internalized racism? What does freedom mean for a people enslaved by the spiritual and political blindness of its own leadership? What does freedom mean for a generation of young people who buy what they want and beg for what they need?

For the Civil Rights movement, freedom was principally a matter of rights. That idea contains a truth of fundamental importance: in our relations with other citizens and the state, rights are essential. They express our standing as moral equals, and as equal citizens.

But a new vision of freedom cannot simply address relations of Black citizens to the broader political community and the state. As American politics devolves and inner-city life degenerates, our vision must also be about the relations within our communities: about Black families and the importance of parental responsibilities to the health of those families, the evil of Black-on-Black violence, the stupidity of defining Black culture around antisemitism or other forms of racial and ethnic hatred, the value of education and intellectual achievement, the importance of mutual commitment and cooperative effort, and the essential role of personal morality and of religious conviction in defining that morality.

The second set of challenges is more programmatic. Suppose we agree to stop the name-calling and back-slapping long enough to have a serious discussion about a common research agenda to improve the current state of Black America. What might such a discussion look like? What follows is a sketch of an answer. In essence, my proposal is that we follow the Atlanta project model, and convene a multi-year Conference on Black America: a coordinated research effort, based in current African-American studies programs, focused on basic life conditions of Black Americans, issuing in a series of publications backed by the authority of the convening institutions, and developing new strategies to address the state of emergency in Black communities.

  • Convene Annual Meetings: Major institutes of African American studies — for example, the Du Bois and Trotter Institutes — should jointly commit to convening a series of annual meetings, each of which would be thematically defined, and devoted to examining some fundamental aspect of Black American life.
  • Begin with Economics and Politics: Early meetings should explore two themes.
    • Urban Economies: The economic fate of Black Americans continues to be tied to inner cities, which are economic basket cases. Are there promising strategies of economic development — for example, metropolitan strategies — that would deliver new employment opportunities in inner cities?
    • Blacks and Democrats: Black support for the Democratic Party is rooted in the post-New Deal nationalization of American politics, the role of the Democrats as the party of national government, and the importance of national government in ensuring civil rights. What are the implications of the denationalization of American politics and a post-civil rights Black political agenda for this political alliance?
  • Stay With Fundamentals: Topics for subsequent meetings might include: Black-on-Black violence; the state of Black families; equalizing employment opportunities for Black women; the narcotics industry and its role in Black communities; and the current state of mathematical, computer, and scientific literacy among Black youth.
  • Publish the Results: Each meeting would result in a published volume. These volumes should not simply collect the separate contributions of participants, but provide — where possible — a consensus statement of problems, diagnoses, and directions of potential response.
  • Focus on Policy: Above all, the Conference should produce practical policy recommendations. And those recommendations will need to be addressed to different actors: the Black community, faith communities, state and federal government, the private sector, and foundations.
  • Measure the Effects: How will we know if we are doing anything to address the current crisis in Black America? We should measure the health of a community by the conditions of its least advantaged members. So part of the work of the Conference on Black America should be to monitor those conditions, and to assess the effects of its own work on improving them.

No series of analyses, papers, discussions, and books will stop the slaughter in our streets, or children from having children, or men from beating up women. The role of intellectuals is limited; excessive expectations will only produce disappointment. But that limited role is crucial, and fears of disappointment should not serve as an excuse for continuing along the current course. The fate of Black America is in the balance: or, if that description of the stakes seems too collective, then think of the fates of the millions of Black Americans whose lives are now at risk.

Originally published in the Summer 1995 issue of Boston Review