Eugene Rivers has once again contributed a provocative and thoughtful essay on the condition of Black America and the role of intellectuals in response to it. Given limitations of space, let me forego praising all that is praiseworthy and get down to stating my differences with Rivers, in the interest of advancing the discussion.
I do not think Rev. Rivers carries his radical critique far enough. The antisemitic, anti-White mutterings of Farrakhan or Frances Cress Welsing are a sideshow. The celebrity intellectuals, with their fan clubs and detractors in the left-wing press, are not affecting what happens on the ground in Black America. By all means, let us call a fool a fool, and let us exhort the “Black intellectuals” to get serious and do work that is relevant to the plight of their people. But if we are to analyze what has gone wrong, these matters should not long detain us. Larger forces are at work.
The fact is that it is White elites who determine the cultural assumptions which influence law and policy in America. The federal courts have had more to say about the role of integration in the struggle for Black social and economic development than have any dozen Black intellectuals. Feminism, as a broad body of critical thought, has done more to shape the legal/cultural milieu in which Black men and women function than have all the sermons preached about marriage and family in all of the churches of Black Christian America. The sharply anti-religious outlook of the intellectual and legal establishment in this country is the main impediment to an understanding among Blacks of what Rivers rightly calls “the central role of theological ideas in moral doctrine and ethical life.”
All of these influences have been of ambiguous benefit to Black communities. Too often have we been objects, but not subjects in the political and intellectual dramas that shape the consciousness of our children. Is voluntary prayer in school bad for Black youngsters? Does abortion on demand facilitate the reconstruction of Black civil society? Can sex-segregated schools contribute to the adequate socialization of fatherless urban males? Are the civil rights claims of today’s gays the moral equivalent of the historic claims of Blacks? Are the employment prospects of unskilled poor Black men and women furthered by labor market policies that seek to protect incumbent workers from low wage competition? Does the criminal defense bar weigh appropriately the interests of the communities most affected by its litigation efforts? Is the development of the human potential of Black people fostered by the patronizing assumption of Black inadequacy which too often accompanies the practice of affirmative action?
Rivers wants to see the reconstruction of civil society in Black communities. Does he realize who the people are who stand most in the way of this coming to pass? Has he seen that the condition of Blacks as abject supplicants of the state factors into larger arguments about the role of government in a way that militates against the promotion of civil society as a remedy for what ails Black America? Does he recognize how the regulatory reach of the federal bureaucracy, and the powerful influence of the federal judiciary, actually constrain the evolution of autonomous community-based institutions of the sort he advocates? Does Eugene Rivers yet know that he will need a legal defense fund for his church-led reconstruction efforts, to fend-off lawsuits launched by “progressives” who find his moral vision rather too sectarian for their tastes? How will he pay for the schools that will teach the values to his community’s children that he knows they must be taught if they are to survive, when state monies are barred from the venture?
Talk about nationalism is indeed foolish in the absence of an answer to these and many other related questions. “Nation” is a poor metaphor for Black Americans, 30 million strong but imbedded in a social/cultural milieu as pervasive and influential on us as it is amorphous and impervious to our independent initiatives. This is not to say that Blacks are helpless in the face of all of this. Rather, it is to suggest that unless our “enemies” are properly identified, and our “allies” rightly chosen, no progress will be possible. To paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:We struggle not against nationalist fools and intellectual knaves, but against principalities and powers, against spiritual wickedness in high places. These “high places” — Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Capitol Hill, Cambridge 02138 — exert a powerful, seductive influence on those who come within their orbits, not least on Black intellectuals and politicians, even the most ostensibly religious of whom are virtually indistinguishable from their secular patrons and colleagues on the issues raised above.
What makes Rev. Eugene Rivers think these people can help lead us to the Promised Land?