For two decades, an honest exchange of ideas in black America has been discouraged in the name of something called unity. Public disagreements have been perceived as providing ammunition to “the enemy,” that amorphous white “they” that works with a relentlessly evil intent against blacks. Thus, during the 1984 presidential primaries, Jesse Jackson accepted the public support of Louis Farrakhan in the name of black unity. This proved fatal to Jackson’s campaign because when Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic utterances became too much of an embarrassment, Jackson was faced with the impossible moral task of upholding unity without repudiating Farrakhan because such repudiation would have given “aid and comfort to them.”
Not only was free speech suppressed in black America over the past two decades, but the suppression of dissent and difference in the name of unity evolved into a form of social fascism especially on college and university campuses. In some instances, black students were harassed and ostracized for having white friends. One was supposed to associate only with blacks, sit at the black tables in the dining halls, sit with other blacks in classes, and to present, always, a common front for a common cause — blackness. Thinking black took precedence over thinking intelligently.
But American black history had never elevated racial unity above debate, dialogue, difference, or intelligence. In the first part of the 19th century, Negro National conventions were held where black leaders debated and disagreed bitterly and brilliantly with each other over slavery and freedom, abolitionism and separatism. Frederick Douglass, the first national black leader, and Martin Delaney, the first black separatist, were political adversaries and friends.
Dissent and disagreement have been the hallmark of black history. Though Booker T. Washington, the most politically powerful black in American history, sought to control the minds of black folks with that power, W.E.B. Du Bois, the preeminent intellectual and a founder of the NAACP, fought publicly with him over whether the minds and souls of black folks were better protected by protest and the vote or accommodationism and economic nationalism. Later, Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, the ideological father of today’s black separatists, would not even pretend that they liked or respected each other.
No era in black history presents a better model for public discourse than the ’60s. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality had fundamental differences on goals and tactics. These were not denied in the interest of something called unity. The differences were acknowledged and asserted while the leaders and organizations tried to find a common ground from which they could work for the common good. That good was the social, economic, political, and moral health of America, not just black America.
What is especially significant about the ’60s, at least the first half, is that whites were not excluded from public discourse on racial affairs. Whites had to be included in the public discussion because the souls of white folks were at stake, too. How could they not be?
The ’70s and ’80s saw a narrowing of concern. Black America was not vaccinated against the “culture of narcissism” that infected white America. Blacks looked into the pond and became paralyzed by a beauty that was in their eyes only. What they beheld were images of African warriors and princes, the Afrocentric origins of all culture, all knowledge, all civilization, and themselves as legatees. (Today the slogan is “It’s a black thing. You wouldn’t understand.”) In short, what they saw were fantasies induced by their own sense of inferiority, and they fell in love.
Paralyzed by the passion of self-love, any semblance of intelligent thought and questioning vanished from the politically liberal and radical segments of black America. Jackson mistook cleverness for thought, statistics for knowledge, and slogans for discourse in his efforts to flog life into the faded memories of the ’60s.
However, a new generation of black intellectuals were beginning to be heard, intellectuals who owed nothing to the black liberal/radical political establishment, intellectuals who dared question the authority of that establishment to speak for black America. Glenn Loury, William Julius Wilson, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Stanley Crouch, Randall Kennedy, and Stephen Kennedy are too varied and independent to be safely dismissed as conservative, though some of them are. What they are returning to black America is an intellectual integrity the ideology of race is too impoverished and feeble to bestow.
The intellectual and spiritual health of any group is secured only to the extent that its members are permitted to be themselves and still be accepted as part of the group. Black America is far from evidencing that kind of health, but at least the disagreements over Judge Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination may indicate a return to the political maturity blacks exemplified 140 years ago.
Unity cannot be an end in itself. The emphasis on it in the past two decades has been a sign of the intellectual and moral chaos in which black America finds itself. Only the weak insist on being agreed with.
Unity comes from respect for difference ind love of dissent. Unity does not come from agreement on a racist principle (and blackness when put forward as the overriding moral principle is as racist as whiteness when put forward in the same way). Unity comes from a concern for and caring about the common good. And the common good must include those who do not belong to my group, racially or ideologically.
Whether black America will be morally capable in the near future of such a unity remains to be seen.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 19, 2020