Eugene Rivers is right: racial integration has failed a large segment of the African-American community. But can we say that “racial integration” in-and-of itself has been the primary goal of progressive black activists and intellectuals? Is desegregation, equality, and political power the same as integration? Movements such as the National Black Political Assembly, the National Black Independent Political Party (co-chaired, we should remember, by two black scholars–historian Elsa Barkley Brown and political scientist Ron Daniels), and the variety of “think tanks” founded by progressive black activist-intellectuals, have continued to push for an independent black agenda that defies both “integrationist” and “nationalist” labels. These efforts have laid the groundwork for local movements for political empowerment. After all, the increase in the number of big city black mayors was not simply the result of white flight but of political organizing. And while successful mayoral campaigns built coalitions with other groups, they did not run on a nationalist or integrationist agenda.
Do we need yet another call for annual conferences of high profile academics to examine the crisis in black America? Today there are many vibrant, dynamic collaborative projects that already bring together scholars and activists, but stories about these efforts don’t sell as many papers as ad hominem attacks on Black intellectuals. We might acknowledge, for example, the wonderful work being done by the Children’s Defense Fund, particularly it’s Black Student Leadership Network and its Black Community Crusade for Children where young activist-intellectuals–including Lisa Sullivan, Matthew Countryman, Greg Hodge, Keith Jennings, and Stacey Shears–work with such faculty and community organizers as James Jennings (whom Rivers mentions), Geoffrey Canada, Carl Taylor, Farah Griffin, and others. We might point to Walter Davis and the Southern Empowerment Project, or the important work being done by Elizabeth Higginbotham of the Center for Research on Women at the University of Memphis. There is the Washington, D.C. group that produces Black Political Agenda — Clarence Lusane, James Steele, and CDF activists Lisa Sullivan and Keith Jennings. On drug and alcohol policy, we might point to Makani Themba of the Marin Institute and public health scholar Denise Herd at Berkeley. And, of course, there is Eugene Rivers’ own important community work with Boston-area black ministers.
Most of these activist-intellectuals don’t seek the limelight and are unwilling to make bold pronouncements about what The Research Agenda ought to be. Rather, they bring together communities of people to discuss the issues and think collectively about solutions. Indeed, if Rivers does not already know some of these incredible, young public intellectuals, he should come to the Penn Center on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, from October 5-8, to attend a summit on “Safe Communities: Toward A Comprehensive Urban Agenda.” Sponsored by the Marin Institute, and coordinated by a multiracial coalition of activists and policy analysts (mostly people of color), the meeting promises to go further than Rivers’ program: “We know what’s wrong,” the organizers explain in their flyer. “We don’t need another conference. We do need a strategy session; a roll up-your-sleeves meeting with a group of committed advocates willing to spend three-and-a half days taking on the hard issues to hash out a practical, collaborative agenda for urban policy.”
Turning to the specifics of his essay:
First, Rivers is absolutely right to ask black scholars to move beyond name calling and get to the business of constructive research. But from where I sit the name-calling is not the dominant trend among thoughtful, progressive scholars. On the contrary, it is merely the most recent initiation ritual for academics, black and white, to enter the commercial, high profile, high paying world of the “public intellectual.”
Second, Rivers does not have to go back to DuBois for a model of collaborative research with the goal of black liberation. A more radical project was the Institute of the Black World, also based in Atlanta. As we speak, Manning Marable is developing an institute at Columbia University that has both a research and public policy mission.
Third, over the past decade or so, we’ve been inundated with insightful and brilliant research on the black urban crisis from virtually all disciplines, much of it dealing with issues on Rivers’ priority list: urban economies and black politics. To say that this generation of scholars produced “so little from so much” is a slap in the face to such intellectuals as William A. Darity, Samuel Myers Taynia Mann, Andrew Billingsley, Gerald Jaynes, Cynthia Hamilton, Charles Henry, James Jennings, Clarence Lusane, Bonnie Thornton Dill, Leith Mullings, Mary Frances Berry, Charles T. Banner-Haley, Diane Pinderhughes, Hanes Walton, Margaret C. Simms, Julianne Malveaux, Kendall Thomas, Rose Brewer, Kimberle Crenshaw, Troy Duster, Joe Trotter, Earl Lewis, Jerry Watts, not to mention the usual suspects. And despite Adolph Reed’s misplaced venom, his critiques of contemporary poverty policy and the underclass debate have few peers. Likewise, Gerald Gill,(of Tufts University) wrote what is still one of the best books on the rise of the right and the assault on affirmative action. Published in 1980 by Howard University Press, Meanness Mania: The Changed Mood anticipates the struggles we’re engaged in right now.
Besides social scientists, humanists have much to contribute to understanding the contemporary urban crisis and shaping public knowledge. Unfortunately, more and more critics are dismissing the study of black culture as a diversion from the “real” problems of the black community. Granted, the attacks on black cultural studies are also linked to the market success of black culture –an outcome of mainstream America’s peculiar love affair with black culture but disdain for black people and blindness to racial oppression. Nevertheless, some of the most intense struggles for the hearts and minds of young people take place on the terrain of culture. Many young black activists (and their numbers are growing rapidly) developed their political awareness partly through music, poetry, and fiction. And writers like Greg Tate, Dream Hampton, bell hooks, Tricia Rose, Michael Eric Dyson, Cornel West, and James Spady have made the politics of culture more explicit, opening the eyes of many young readers dissatisfied with the world as they know it. Spady, a mainstay at the Philadelphia New Observer has authored several books about black history and culture, and his most recent, Twisted Tales from the Hip Hop Streets of Philly, offer more insight into the problems facing urban black folks than many recent academic monographs.
Finally, the multi-year conferences Rivers proposes would of necessity be multiracial, largely because so much essential work on black issues is being done by non-black people or in multi-racial settings. Mark Mauer of the Sentencing Project, for instance, has produced some seminal research on African-Americans and the criminal justice system. Eric Mann, director of the Labor Community Strategy Center, has done remarkable work on behalf of working-class communities of color in Los Angeles. The Center brings together community activists, labor organizers, and scholars, and it produces and distributes its own research. Finally, many non-black scholars have recently written important work on race, poverty, urban decline, and family life — Martin Carnoy, Howard Winant, Stephanie Coontz, Thomas Sugrue, Thomas Jackson, Jacqueline Jones, Mark Robert Rank, Linda Gordon, Michael Katz, to name a few.
I mention these efforts because, while Rivers supports coalitions with “White unions and environmental groups,” he implicitly assumes that African Americans should be primarily, if not exclusively, responsible for scholarship and organizational work on black issues. This, after all, is the nationalist project–a project I sympathize with and which was the source of my own political awakening in the early 1980s. Although it has tremendous potential for mobilizing black communities for progressive change, the underlying presumption of cultural unity and singularity of purpose raises troubles for black Americans whose ideas and practices are regarded marginal to an “authentic” black culture, particularly black feminists, gays and lesbians, and atheists. In the end, I think practically everyone recognizes that black communities, and the American working class more generally, are facing a devastating crisis. But we also must recognize that our inability to address these problems is not evidence of a lack of commitment, solid research, and good ideas. The struggles that lie before us are hard, and as Rivers himself acknowledges, the greatest research and policy initiatives alone cannot fix the situation. Just because progressive black intellectuals do not have the power to implement policy does not mean they have failed the black community. After all, did the Atlanta conferences organized by DuBois substantially improve the condition of Negroes in America?