The Rise of the Black Nerd

Separated From Racial Mainstreams, the Outsiders Make Their Mark

They're neither co-opted conservatives nor keep- it-real black nationalists. Their politics are questioning, not exclusive. Rejected or misunderstood by blacks, whites, and nearly everyone else, their view of race matters balances the sins of America's past with hope for an internationalist future. And since both Martha Stewart-brand whiteness and ghetto-fabulous negritude are in remission, the culture is now giving mad props to black nerds.

Not for a long time have so many brothers and sisters received so much mainstream attention without trying to be down. Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter received a $4 million book advance from Knopf for The Emperor of Ocean Park. His first novel, a thriller with the black bourgeois world of law degrees and Oak Bluffs vacations as its backdrop, arrived in stores in June. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks nabbed this year's Pulitzer Prize in drama for Topdog/Underdog, currently on Broadway. Colson Whitehead's novel John Henry Dayswas short-listed for the 2002 Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Poet-performer Carl Hancock Rux received this year's New York Foundation for the Arts prize; his play Talk completed a run at the Public Theater in May. Last week, Simon & Schuster bought Rux's first novel, Asphalt, for a "six figure" advance. Even hip-hop's reigning kings and queens are Southern goofballs who dress funny—Missy and Timbaland, Outkast and the Neptunes, a/k/a N.E.R.D. In addition to the higher-profile success stories, writers such as theologist Thandeka, Boston University economics professor (and supposed former neocon) Glenn C. Loury, performance artist William Pope.L, and novelist Martha Southgate have also found new ways of addressing the tricky nature of modern American racism.

Studying at elite institutions has alienated these Afrodemics from blacks who see higher education as whitewashing. Yet their views still cause mainstream whites to ostracize or misunderstand them. Isolated from both camps, and even each other, they've developed an independent party of race politics with an intellectual bent. All that isolation and scholarship are what classify them as nerds. None of them object to the label. Southgate embraces it: "In high school, I never found my way into the black social circle, but I never felt fully comfortable in white social circles either. I certainly am a nerd!" For Southgate and others, righteous anger usually takes a backseat to curiosity, compassion, and a dash of world-weariness. "People ask me at readings to provide answers to this conundrum," she says. "I don't really have any. I'm just interested in exploring that tension."

Novelist Martha Southgate embraces the label: "I certainly am a nerd."
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Novelist Martha Southgate embraces the label: "I certainly am a nerd."

Brazenly esoteric, Loury's new book, The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, excavates racism using the unlikely tools of theoretical economics. He argues that racism has become embedded in our society because racially stigmatized groups are denied access to the informal social networks crucial to success in any field. Also, what he calls "self-confirming stereotypes" help to "create the facts." Black people sometimes believe our own bad press and behave accordingly, even adopting negative stereotypical behavior as a way of throwing it back at society. But when non-blacks see the effect of this "feedback loop," they conclude that blacks are being held back because of something in our nature. This Loury calls "essentialism," and he rejects it as an explanation for inequality. He holds liberal politics responsible for miscomprehending this process. The problem, he says, is that liberal individualism sweeps the issues of social networking and self-confirming stereotypes under the rug. In the process, it has allowed the idea of racism to become separated from specific acts of discrimination, so that it appears "natural and nondissonant."

Loury's assertion that racism has become unmoored from its direct objects is a common thread among today's black intellectuals. So, too, is his ambivalent conclusion, reflecting a global awareness that tends to put this country's obsession with race in greater perspective. "The whole problem of race relations is being transformed under the pressures of a tremendous demographic transition in the last 35 years," he says. "I'm not quite sure what the second generation of Latino and Asian immigrants are going to think about ghettos or failing black businesses or high prison rates," he says. "It's unlikely that their heartstrings are going to be pulled by the playing of 'We Shall Overcome.' "

Thandeka, a Unitarian minister and associate professor of theology and culture at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, draws conclusions not unlike Loury's, but with a more sensitive, sociological approach. Her recent book, Learning to Be White, examines the process by which Euro-Americans maintain racial boundaries for their children through shame. It may seem counterintuitive for a black woman to spend time explaining the damaging effects of racism on white kids. But the real paradox is that it has always fallen to the victims of discrimination to describe how it works—as if they had created it.

"Would that the problem was really racism in and of itself!" Thandeka exclaims. She starts off Learning to Be White with a series of personal anecdotes from Euro-Americans detailing the first instances in which they felt themselves to be "raced." "Sarah," Thandeka explains, recounting an episode from the book, "brought her black best friend home, and her mother told her not to bring her back. As Sarah pressed for the real reason, she discovered that if she persisted, she risked losing her mother's love. Every time she saw her friend, her appearance reminded Sarah of what she didn't want to know." In many cases, theorizes the author, "the motivation for racist acts is not racism, but a fear of being excluded."

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