Occasionally, on a boring flight, I’ll rewatch the Battle of James Island scene from the magnificent 1989 film, Glory. The scene depicts the first engagement of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the first Northern regiment of black troops organized by the Army of the United States to fight against the Confederate insurrection. James Island was a fateful battle outside Charleston, SC, on July 16, 1863. I pulled up the clip on a recent flight and was moved yet again by the powerful imagery of black men finally able to strike a blow against the slaveocracy. Imagining what that felt like for the soldiers of the 54th is always intensely gratifying.
Watching it this time, I remembered how startled I had been when Glory was released to learn that many people, including blacks and people on the left, dismissed or even disparaged the film as a “white savior narrative”—a phrase that is now a routine derogation of certain cross-racial sagas of resistance to white supremacy. In Glory’s case, this complaint arose mainly in response to the (historically accurate) depiction of the regiment’s commanding officers as Northern whites.
This objection left me dumbfounded. After all, the 54th Massachusetts was a real historical entity. As a compromise to ensure political support, it was stipulated that its officers be white. Nonetheless, prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and the free black community of Boston, were enthusiastic about its formation and instrumental in recruiting its ranks.
The Myth of the Birth of the Hero
Notwithstanding some artistic license (e.g., including freed slaves within the 54th, when it was actually composed entirely of free black men), Glory’s director Edward Zwick clearly intended it to be an historical film. How could it not feature white officers?
Nevertheless, the indictment of Glory as white-savior propaganda was common on the left—with the allied claim that the story was told largely through the eyes of the regiment’s young commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who was killed leading the 54th’s attack on the Confederate South Carolina stronghold, Ft. Wagner. Leaving aside the fact that more black characters than white ones have autonomous voices and personalities, the film was largely based on Shaw’s moving letters home, which were compiled in the volume Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune. All such judgments are idiosyncratic, to be sure, but I was left scratching my head at the ideologically charged reaction to what may be the greatest American film ever made—certainly greater than two others that have been so judged: The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 paean to white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan, and its update for the talkie era, Gone With the Wind. I could not understand at the time how Glory’s critics seemed to miss or make light of such a powerful depiction of popular black political agency.
Now I think I understand. I’ve long suspected that, to a certain strain of race-conscious or antiracist discourse, historical exploration in popular culture was less important than the propagation of tales of inspiration and uplift. These fables typically feature singular black heroes who have overcome crushing racist adversity against all odds. In recent years, a steady stream of films and other narratives have openly embraced that preference.
I have written elsewhere about several of them. Producer George Lucas touted his execrable, cartoonish depiction of World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen, Red Tails (2012), as a work spotlighting “real heroes” who would be “inspirational for teenage boys” and compared it favorably to “Glory, where you have a lot of white officers running those guys into cannon fodder.” And Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 race film Django Unchained reduced slavery and manumission to the antics of a spaghetti-Western-style hero who in fact never challenges slavery but fixates only on rescuing his wife. Ava DuVernay acknowledged that she intentionally falsified the history of the iconic voting-rights campaign in her 2014 film Selma to deny President Lyndon Johnson’s role because she “wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie.” As a consequence, she also misrepresented the tensions between Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists in the campaign—which had precisely to do with King’s surreptitious negotiations with Johnson. The effect of omitting such a central tactical debate was to depict the civil rights struggle as a simple extrusion of King’s larger-than-life persona against a pandemic racism—as a struggle, in other words, with virtually no politics to speak of.
Nate Parker’s 2016 dramatization of the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, The Birth of a Nation (which quite intentionally sets itself up as an answer to Griffith’s film from a century earlier), is an even more strident display of the inclination to subordinate the complexities of actual history to a narrative of black heroism in the face of universal and unremitting white supremacy and racism. As Kenneth W. Warren argues in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
For Parker . . . the point of history is not so much to figure out what really happened but rather to enable reparative and redemptive mythmaking. . . . A further entailment of Parker’s view of his achievement is that history, for him, must remain narrow—a conduit for inspiration or therapy, for bequeathing legacies, or for purveying information or misinformation to the present—and not much more. Parker’s understanding of what makes Turner heroic is that he resisted his oppression and that his act of resistance can serve as a model for the rest of us.
Warren readily concedes that Parker, though clearly knowing of them, had no obligation to broaden his narrative to include such entailments. Still, it’s far from inconsequential to note the political legacy of Turner’s 1831 uprising; in the state that would later serve as the capital of the Confederacy, whites launched a searching debate over the possibility of manumission. Warren quotes Stephen Oates’s The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion (1975), which notes that “in the western part of the state, where antislavery and anti-Negro sentiment had long been stirring, whites held public rallies in which they openly endorsed emancipation—yes, the liberation of all of Virginia’s 470,000 slaves—as the only safeguard in these dangerous times.”
Of course, those discussions did not succeed in ending slavery in Virginia. However, as Warren notes, “they point to a truth rarely narrated about the South, namely, that it has never been as solidly pro-slavery or even as anti-black as popular imagination has depicted it”; he goes on to cite as a crucial case in point the rise of the interracial Readjuster Party, which wrested electoral power from planter elites and governed Virginia from 1879 to 1883—nearly two decades after the antislavery western counties seceded to form West Virginia.
“I’m not suggesting that Parker should be held responsible for incorporating these events into his story—there’s nothing wrong with keeping his lens trained on the Turner rebellion,” Warren writes. “But I am saying there’s no evidence that, in trying to think about what confronting the past might do for us, Parker ever looked beyond the obvious, both in terms of the story he told and the narrative techniques he employed to tell us.”
The film’s concluding scene drives home this point in unmistakable terms, dissolving away from a weeping black boy observing Turner’s execution into the Union soldier he will become, as if inspired directly by Turner’s sacrifice—sidestepping virtually all the actual history that Glory tries to reckon with.
Glory’s director Edward Zwick clearly intended it to be an historical film. How could it not feature white officers?
Warren also contrasts Parker’s vision to the one that animates Gary Ross’s underappreciated 2016 film, Free State of Jones, which was also widely dismissed on its release as just another white-savior narrative. The film’s narrative indeed centered on the character of Newton Knight, a white Mississippi farmer and Confederate deserter who, as Warren notes, “leads an interracial insurgency of runaway slaves and yeoman farmers against the Confederacy and its planter elites in southeastern Mississippi, where for a brief shining moment they establish the Free State of Jones.” Ross traces the surprisingly robust efforts of the Knight insurgency to institutionalize a new, egalitarian regime, and proceeds to chronicle its defeat during the period of Presidential Reconstruction, which restored the Mississippi planter class into power.
Still, just as with the early dismissals of Glory, the caricatures of Free State of Jones as a one-note study in white saviorship bears no resemblance to the film in question and its historically nuanced narrative. For example, Free State includes perhaps the only filmic representation ever of freedpeople’s self-organization via the Union League—a key chapter in early Southern postbellum efforts to create an anti-planter coalition of biracial workers’ parties that the chorus of kneejerk “white savior” dismissals tellingly overlooks. Knight and the members of his insurgency were actual historical figures, and Ross’s narrative is generally faithful to the actual history in which they were embedded and which they made. So, as in Glory, the only way to narrate the story without Knight as the central dramatis persona would be to abandon historical accuracy; doing so would require a fantasy more on the order of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, perhaps replacing Lincoln with Frederick Douglass for good measure. (The “white savior” dismissal actually may have reached its apotheosis in the preposterous assertion that neither Lincoln, the Union army, nor Congress ended slavery but, rather, the slaves somehow “freed themselves”—to cite a frequent criticism of another film widely dismissed on white saviorship grounds, Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic Lincoln. The political sensibility underlying such an assertion betrays a hostility to institutional politics and the role of government that one would expect to find deep inside a survivalist bunker.)
Waiting for Superman
This year’s blockbuster, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, takes the further step of jettisoning history altogether and rendering the narrative of black heroism—in fact Superheroism—in the realm of pure fantasy. Coogler intends the mythical African nation of Wakanda to be black Americans’ “fairy tale version of Africa,” as he told an interviewer for Rolling Stone. “‘We were kings and queens, and we walked around and ate perfect food, and everyone was free.’” Revealingly, the Superhero from which the film (like the comic book from which it is derived) draws its name is a king, and the conflict with his supervillain antagonist is rooted in a struggle over monarchical succession. Everyone was only as free as the king would permit them to be, in other words.
Whatever Coogler’s auteurish intentions to render Black Panther a fable of American black empowerment, its release triggered an all-too-familiar torrent of hype that alchemizes the collective struggle for racial justice into still one more praise song hymning a hyperindividualist hero Challenging Stultifyingly Generic White Oppression and Overcoming It Against All Odds. Literature professor Salamishah Tillet, writing in the New York Times on the film’s release, approvingly quotes Jonathan Gray’s summary of the film’s fan-boy appeal:
Now there you have every black boy’s fantasy. He is richer than Bill Gates, smarter than Elon Musk, better looking than Denzel . . . He is the hereditary rule of the richest nation on Earth. The movie is about wish fulfillment. When you see Bruce Wayne, this dashing billionaire, where is the black version of that? You got T’Challa.
On the breathless extreme of the spectrum, commercial imperative and outsized political claims fuse into an indistinguishable unity; phony liberationist calls to respond to obvious marketing and merchandising tie-in ploys—e.g., guides for identifying and purchasing replicas of “African” artifacts and styles displayed in T’Challa’s kingdom and guides for “mapping Wakanda”—urge participation in the commercial hype machine as though it were a form of political engagement. Amid this marketing land rush, the irony scarcely registers that the separatist monarchy of Wakanda was invented by two white men, Stan Lee and Jack Kirbye—a considerable challenge to the race-first rhetoric of white-savior spotters.
Of course, Black Panther did not invent this conflation of Hollywood consumerism with racial uplift; it’s merely cashed in on it. This cynical maneuver has figured prominently in the promotion of a host of politically reactionary films like Waiting for “Superman” (2010), Won’t Back Down (2012), and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), each of which sold seeing the film and talking it up to one’s friends as something akin to political movement-building.
Parker’s and Coogler’s films are innovative in one sense, however; they each foreground the specific ideological program that arises out of the anti-historical celebration of individual black heroism. To be sure, their appeal conforms to a general formula of escapist entertainment that’s by no means limited to black cultural expression—the Hero Overcoming Against All Odds. And many black people, both autonomously and with the prod of cultural cues, no doubt derive a particular satisfaction from racial identification with themes and characters—however fleeting such pleasure may be in the frenzied marketing of images and brands in the American omni-entertainment state.
What sets the contemporary genre of inspirational black hero films apart is the way the fantasies they enact connect with the race-first sensibilities prominent among black and other professional-managerial strata. These race commentators share a body of ideological assumptions and material interests, deeply invested in parsing, interpreting, and administering inequality in terms of racial disparities. Specifically, this genre of critique typically looks to measure and remediate the exclusion of black professionals from traditionally white power elites. Identifying the tacit social agenda embedded in the “white savior narrative” charge brings us to the heart of the matter.
The New Hollywood Shuffle
Dismissals of Glory and Free State of Jones, as well as DuVernay’s explanation for the historical falsifications at play in Selma, may give the impression that the detractors of white saviorship are voicing a populist sensibility, complaining that black people are represented as incapable of effective social action without a white person (usually a man) leading them. And there is ample precedent in the history of popular culture for suspicion in that regard. The Tarzan films are perhaps the crassest and best-known examples; my father often remarked sarcastically that Africans should be grateful for Tarzan’s presence, since otherwise they apparently would all have been eaten by lions and crocodiles. The 1988 film Mississippi Burning incongruously makes FBI agents (white, though does that really matter?) the heroes of the civil rights campaign. Richard Attenborough’s 1987 Cry Freedom describes the struggle against apartheid and the murder of Stephen Biko through the travails of his white friend, the journalist Donald Woods. And there are many more examples; it is in fact the long history of such narratives that makes what might otherwise be simple feel-good stories, presented with an interracial twist—Conrack (1974), Dangerous Minds (1995), and The Blind Side (2009), among many others—something more distasteful and pernicious than just a set of interchangeable thematic variations on the maudlin human-interest narrative of uplift and overcoming.
But “white savior” objections to Glory and Free State are a different matter. Those films hinge largely on the prominence of black agency, which race-first critics apparently deem irrelevant. Their objection is not that blacks’ agency is absent; it is rather about who is represented as leading their efforts. Decisions by blacks to support nonblack candidates or social policies not expressed in race-first terms are interpreted as evidence of flawed, limited, misguided, or otherwise co-opted black agency. The idea that blacks, like everyone else, make their history under conditions not of their own choosing becomes irrelevant, just another instance of insufficient symbolic representation.
The notion that black Americans are political agents just like other Americans, and can forge their own tactical alliances and coalitions to advance their interests in a pluralist political order is ruled out here on principle. Instead, blacks are imagined as so abject that only extraordinary intervention by committed black leaders has a prayer of producing real change. This pernicious assumption continually subordinates actually existing history to imaginary cultural narratives of individual black heroism and helps drive the intense—and myopic—opposition that many antiracist activists and commentators express to Bernie Sanders, social democracy, and a politics centered on economic inequality and working-class concerns.
Class Is Dismissed
The striking hostility to such a politics within the higher reaches of antiracist activism illustrates the extent to which what bills itself as black politics today is in fact a class politics: it is not interested in the concerns of working people of whatever race or gender. Indeed, a spate of recent media reports have retailed evidence that upper-class black Americans may be experiencing stagnant-to-declining social mobility—which is taken as prima facie evidence of the stubbornly racist cast of the American social order: Even rich professionals like us, elite commentators suggest, are denied the right to secure our own class standing. It is also telling that the study that provoked the media reports – Raj Chetty, et al., “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective” – rehearses the hoary recommendation that “reducing the intergenerational persistence of the black-white income gap will require policies whose impacts cross neighborhood and class lines and increase upward mobility specifically for black men.” These include “mentoring programs for black boys, efforts to reduce racial bias among whites, or efforts to facilitate social interaction across racial groups within a given area.” That’s pretty thin gruel, warmed over bromides and all too familiar paternalism and no actually redistributive policies at all.
I’ve long suspected that, to a certain strain of race-conscious or antiracist discourse, historical exploration in popular culture was less important than the propagation of tales of inspiration and uplift.
In this context the pronounced animus trained on the figure of the “white savior” emerges as litmus test for the critical role of racial gatekeeper in respectable political discourse. The gatekeeping question has, for more than a century, focused on who speaks for black Americans and determines the “black agenda.” And the status of black leader, spokesperson, or “voice” has always been a direct function of contested class prerogative, dating back a century and more to Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and Anna Julia Cooper. Specifically, the gatekeeping function is the obsession of the professional-managerial strata who pursue what Warren has described as “managerial authority over the nation’s Negro problem.” How do “black leaders” become recognized? The answer is the same now as for Washington in the 1890s; recognition as a legitimate black leader, or “voice,” requires ratification by elite opinion-shaping institutions and individuals.
Gatekeeping hasn’t been the exclusive preoccupation of Bookerite conservatives or liberals like Du Bois. Even militant black nationalists and racial separatists like Marcus Garvey and the leaders of the Nation of Islam have pursued validation as black leaders from dominant white elites to support programs of racial “self-help” or uplift. From Black Power to Black Lives Matter, claimants to speak on behalf of the race have courted recognition from the Ford Foundation and other white-dominated nonprofit philanthropies and NGOs. And the emergence of cable news networks and the blogosphere have exponentially expanded the number and types of entities that can anoint race leaders and representative voices.
This new welter of platforms and voices seeking to promulgate and validate the acceptable terms of black leadership has made the category seem all the more beyond question, as black racial voices pop up all over the place all the time. So, for example, the self-proclaimed black voice Tia Oso was brought front and center in the 2015 Netroots Presidential Town Hall featuring Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, where she proclaimed that “black leadership must be foregrounded and central to progressive strategies.” Likewise, the presumed moral authority of race leadership enabled Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford to prevent Sanders from speaking at a Social Security rally in Seattle—as though the long-term viability of Social Security were not a black issue. The instant recourse to a posture of leadership is how random Black Lives Matter activists and a vast corps of pundits and bloggers are able to issue ex cathedra declarations about which issues are and are not pertinent to black Americans.
Voices in a Political Vacuum
The freelance black leader—and its more recent, superficially more pluralist incarnation, the black “voice”—is a legacy harking back to the era of massive black disfranchisement at the end of the nineteenth century. It also has drawn considerable staying power from the amorphous concept of “race relations,” according to which, in the judgment of historian Michael R. West in his 2006 study The Education of Booker T. Washington, “blacks and whites—or ‘black America’ and ‘white America’—are basic, indivisible units of political interest. . . . The race relations framework appealed to white elites because it sidestepped the troublesome fact of blacks’ constitutional claims to full and equal citizenship by proposing a focus on the evanescent issue of how the ‘races’ relate as an alternative to matters like denial of rights and equal protection under the law.” West also notes that “interests and aspirations of politicians and ministers, workers and businessmen, parents and teachers would no longer be expressed by way of the normal, if potentially messy, institutional channels through which Americans settled their conflicts and competition. Instead, they would be mediated through the good offices of ‘Negro leaders,’ ever mindful of where their mandate comes from and the requirement placed on them as a first principle ‘to cement the friendship of the two races.’” The warrant to cement the friendship of the races, of course, meant framing racial comity on terms acceptable to the dominant white elites who ratified claims to black leadership and decided which of those claims were “responsible” or “right-thinking.”
The race-relations mindset also shaped the ideological outlook of racial advocacy and uplift groups like the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Both groups, for example, were hesitant to support labor organization for black workers during the Great Depression since they relied on donations from liberal funders steeped in anti-union sentiments; also, apostles of racial uplift tended to come from a professional-managerial background themselves, again highlighting the extent to which there has always been a class dimension to black politics.
None of this is to suggest that claimants to race leadership even in the Bookerite era were dupes or supplicants who were not sincerely committed “race men” and “race women” in the parlance of the time. Rather, as Warren, West, and others have argued, the stratum of the black population that tended to incubate aspiring race leaders also cohered around views of proper racial agendas—what the “race” needed and how its position in the world could be advanced, i.e., what constituted “uplift”—that also reflected the priorities of philanthropic elites. These mutually dependent groups were likely to share a baseline sense of how American society should be structured—and specifically of how to manage existing class hierarchies so as to better navigate blacks’ place within them. That said, most racial advocates were doubtless more committed than their patrons to the pursuit of full equality of opportunity.
The Revolution Will Be Televised
The terms of this tacit social contract shifted with the victories of the civil rights movement and the cultural insurgencies of the 1960s and 1970s; suddenly, raw racial subordination no longer commanded uncritical assent from the liberal wing of the American power elite. At the same time, though, this civil rights revolution and its aftermath worked to obscure the striking continuity in the underlying socioeconomic dynamics that continue to validate race leaders, spokespersons, or representative voices. The open—or at least public—performance of supplication before powerful elites is no longer necessary or desirable for validation. Indeed, Black Power “militancy” and various cultural-separatist projects aligned with black nationalism supported new claimants’ discourse of authenticity—one that gained wider credence via assertive demands for equal power instead of humble requests for recognition.
On the surface, at least, it now appeared that the essentially dependent relation between white liberal arbiters or power and their black counterparts had morphed into something more radical. And this new assertive liturgy of dependence works to the benefit of both grantors and grantees of political legitimacy and economic largess—players who all shared a stake in projecting an appearance of the anointed’s racial authenticity.
Today, this liturgy is everywhere on display—along with the same power dynamics that sustain it. In academic institutions and programs, op-ed pages, magazines and blogs, and of course cable television newschat programs, we see a steady stream of racial voices and leaders plotting out the permissible boundaries of black authenticity and black leadership values. This surface accord within the charmed circle of soi-disant black leaders reinforces the illusion, just as was the case in the aftermath of the civil rights era, that they have all emerged from the grassroots.
Parker’s and Coogler’s films are innovative in one sense: they each foreground the specific ideological program that arises out of the anti-historical celebration of individual black heroism.
The increasing significance of the corporate newsfotainment industry means that things could scarcely seem otherwise to most casual viewers and audiences. The leading platforms of respectable black discourse—including the various internet platforms that encourage freelance chatter—reinforce the sense that those purporting to express the black point of view arise naturally from within the quasi-mythic “black community.” But of course the immediacy of all these venues, despite their many claims to have vanquished old-guard “gatekeepers” and “legacy media” forums, has rendered the selection processes behind the elevation of this or that leadership “voice” almost completely opaque. Not all points of view can gain a hearing, after all. Terms like “responsible” and “right-thinking” seldom slip into public discussion anymore because they evoke explicit subordination; nevertheless, sporadic calls for recognized black voices to distance themselves from “extremist” or otherwise unacceptable views expressed by other black “voices”—most recently via another predictably vile anti-Semitic utterance from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan—reveal that such criteria are critical in setting the boundaries of public legitimacy for aspiring black leaders. Another telling instance of the same dynamic ocurred when Keith Ellison, the African American Muslim congressman from Minnesota, sought to chair the Democratic National Committee as a Sanders supporter; here again, the sensible centrist consensus counteroffensive depicted Ellison as simply too fringe and divisive a figure to command authority in the sacred political mainstream.
Alongside the close vetting of respectable black voices in the media mainstream there’s been a prolonged atrophy of popular political mobilization behind issues of economic equity for black Americans. Taken together, these trends have opened a shortcut path to broader public recognition for self-styled race leaders. For more than a decade, it has been common to encounter young people who enter graduate programs in order to prepare for careers as racial voices or “public intellectuals,” hoping to obtain a credential that can procure valuable space on the Huffington Post, the root.com, or MSNBC. In the quest for mediagenic legitimacy, some eager race pundits have launched organizations that are barely more than letterhead or résumé entries; these feints are likewise often accompanied by Potemkin-style protest activism, including many of the donor-driven groups aligned with Black Lives Matter, or glorified photo-ops intended to evoke mass agitation. Among this cohort of racial voices, the essential qualification for recognition seems to be inclination to declaim on the intractability of an undifferentiated, ahistorical racism as a fetter on all black Americans’ life chances across the sweep of the nation’s history. As a corollary, they’re required to insist that objection to generic racial disparities constitutes the totality of black political concerns.
Reduced and Abandoned
The politics thus advanced is profoundly race-reductionist, discounting the value of both political agency and the broad pursuit of political alliances within a polity held to be intractably and irredeemably devoted to white supremacy. This fatalistic outlook works seamlessly to reinforce the status of racial voices who emphasize the interests and concerns of a singular racial collectivity. Central to these pundits’ message is the assertion that blacks have it worse, in every socio-cultural context that might be adduced.
This refrain is also consistent in two important ways with the reigning ideology of neoliberal equality. First, the insistence that disparities of racial access to power are the most meaningful forms of inequality strongly reinforces the neoliberal view that inequalities generated by capitalist market forces are natural and lie beyond the scope of intervention. And second, if American racism is an intractable, transhistorical force—indeed, an ontological one, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has characterized it—then it lies beyond structural political intervention. In other words, Coates and other race-firsters diminish the significance of the legislative and other institutional victories won since Emancipation, leaving us with only exhortations to individual conversion and repentance as a program.
This is why, for example, Coates and other proponents of reparations seem unconcerned with the strategic problem of piecing together the kind of interracial popular support necessary to actually prevail on the issue. Such problems do not exist for them because the role of the representative black leader or voice is precisely to function as an alternative to political action. Instead, the order of the day is typically to perform racial authenticity in a way that doubles as an appeal for moral recognition from those with the power to bestow it. Winning anything politically—policies or changes in power relations—is not the point. That is why the jeremiads offered by contemporary racial voices so commonly boil down to calls for “conversations about race” or equally vapid abstractions like “racial reckoning” or “coming to terms with” a history defined by racism.
The black leadership role was always at best an accommodation to disfranchisement, going back to its first modern incarnation with Booker T. Washington and his cohort of racial advocates. It is a politics of elite transaction. That is not in itself necessarily a bad thing—President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “black cabinet,” or Federal Council of Negro Affairs, advised him on matters related to black Americans. But unlike today’s freelance racial voices, they were administration functionaries, and most had standing in racial advocacy, education, labor, and government institutions prior to joining the “cabinet.” The backdoor dealings between King and Johnson during the Selma campaign that DuVernay found too messy to include in her portrait of King’s heroic persona were also part of mundane political maneuvering, the inside-outside game of institutional politics. King and the SCLC, like FDR’s black cabinet, had constituencies that underwrote their standing as representatives of racial interest—which in turn gave them leverage to make political demands and pursue policy agendas. A. Philip Randolph used the March on Washington Movement to pressure President Roosevelt in 1941 to issue “Executive Order 8802,” prohibiting racial discrimination in the national defense industry. Randolph, Bayard Rustin, the Negro American Labor Council, and others organized the 1963 March on Washington as part of an inside-outside strategy to build support for a jobs program and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
All this painstaking political effort could not be farther from the careerist pursuits of contemporary racial voices, whose standing depends entirely on the favor of powerful opinion-shaping elites in corporate media and elsewhere. Thus, for example, Touré Neblett and others in MSNBC’s stable were unceremoniously expunged from the lineup of talking heads when the network reconfigured its marketing priorities. More dramatically, Melissa Harris-Perry, apparently believing that her viewing audience gave her leverage, openly rebuffed the network’s demand to reorient her program to fit in with its election coverage. In short order, she and her program vanished without a trace from its schedule. Such incidents, and scores of others like them, make it indelibly clear where the lines of authority run when it comes to winning elite-media recognition as a black voice.
For Their Own Good
The race voices I’ve discussed express a particular class perspective among black Americans, one that harmonizes with left-neoliberal notions of justice and equality. That harmony may help explain why those racial voices—like the black political class in general—are so intent on disparaging the social-democratic politics associated with Bernie Sanders, even though a 2017 Harvard-Harris survey found that Sanders was far more popular with African Americans than with any other demographic category except declared Democrats. He boasted a 73 percent favorable rating among black voters—higher than his approval numbers among Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and considerably higher than those for whites or even 18-34 year-olds.
This disjunction between popular opinion and the priorities of the black chattering class underscores the extent to which the racial programs and priorities advanced by those recognized black voices remain much as they were in the Age of Washington. Now as then, we have a leadership stratum dedicated to the class-skewed pursuit of “managerial authority over the nation’s Negro problem.” And the net effect of this top-down model of black discourse is to tether a politics of racial representation to the ruling-class agendas that generate and intensify inequality and insecurity for working people across American society, including among the ranks of black Americans.
We have a leadership stratum dedicated to the class-skewed pursuit of “managerial authority over the nation’s Negro problem.”
Black Clintonites, like Congressmen John Lewis (D-GA), James Clyburn (D-SC) and Cedric Richmond (D-LA), all clearly displayed this commitment during the 2016 Democratic primaries when they attacked Sanders as “irresponsible” in calling for non-commodified public goods in education, health care, and other areas. Richmond’s rebuke was especially telling in that he couched it in terms of his role as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and the group’s “responsibility to make sure to know that young people know that” a social-democratic agenda is “too good to be true.” Richmond’s invocation of civic instruction for the young may be revealing in another way. Lurking beneath that piety is the deeply sedimented common sense of underclass ideology, which posits a population mired in pathologies and hemmed in by an overwhelming racism, and the corollary of interventions aiming to enhance capabilities for individual mobility. (It is, indeed, this same tacit rhetoric of permanent crisis that fuels the notion that black young people must be raised on a diet of inspirational movies.)
This vision of unyielding black pathology is yet another testament to the harmony of antiracist and neoliberal ideologies—and it, too, harks directly back to the origins of the black leadership caste at the dawn of the last century. Washington and Du Bois, together with Garvey and other prominent racial nationalists, envisioned their core constituency as a politically mute black population in need of tutelage from their ruling-class-backed leaders. Touré F. Reed persuasively argues that the mildly updated version of this vision now serves as an essential cornerstone of the new black professional-managerial class politics. Underclass mythology grounds professional-class claims to race leadership, while providing the normative foundation of uplift programs directed toward enhancing self-esteem rather than the material redistribution of wealth and income.
Exhortations to celebrate and demand accolades, career opportunities, and material accumulation for black celebrities and rich people—e.g., box office receipts for black filmmakers or contracts and prestigious appointments for other well-positioned black people—as a racial politics are consistent with the sporadic eruptions of “Buy Black” campaigns since the 1920s and 1930s. Such efforts stood out in stark contrast to more working-class based “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns that demanded employment opportunities in establishments serving black neighborhoods. Like “Buy Black” campaigns, which seem to have risen again from the tomb of petit-bourgeois wishful thinking, projections of successes for the rich and famous as generic racial victories depend on a sleight-of-hand that treats benefits for any black person as benefits for all black people. This brings to mind comedian Chris Rock’s quip that he went to his mailbox every day for two weeks after the not guilty verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial looking for his “O. J. prize,” only to be disappointed.
Pain and Proprietorship
At times, this tendency to absorb the plural into the singular can be strikingly crude and transparently self-interested. The torrent of hostility directed at Rachel Dolezal for having represented herself as black rested on groundless—sometimes entirely made up—claims that she had appropriated jobs, awards, and other honorifics intended for blacks. In addition to the annual contretemps over whether blacks win enough of the most prestigious Oscars, recent racial controversies in the art world illustrate how easily the narrowest guild concerns can masquerade as burning matters of racial justice. The Brooklyn Museum’s hiring of a white person as consulting curator of African art sparked objections that the hire perpetuated “pervasive structures of white supremacy in the art field.” The 2017 furor over the Whitney Biennial’s display of Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket”—inspired by the infamous 1955 photograph of Emmett Till’s brutalized body—reduced to a question of ownership of “black suffering,” or more accurately, of the right to represent and materially benefit from the representation of black suffering. The protesters’ objection, as Walter Benn Michaels put it succinctly, was that “black pain belongs to black artists.”
It’s worth noting that one of the leading critics of the painting and its display was Hannah Black, who contended that “non-black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand” the gesture Till’s mother, Mamie, made in insisting on an open-casket funeral. Black, who not only called for the painting to be removed from display, but also offered an “urgent recommendation” that it be destroyed, is a Briton who lives in Berlin. From a different standard of cultural proprietorship, one might argue that Schutz, as an American, has a stronger claim than Black to interpret the Till story. After all, the segregationist Southern order and the struggle against that order, which gave Till’s fate its broader social and political significance, were historically specific moments of a distinctively American experience. In fact, most claims of cultural ownership and charges of appropriation are bogus. While sometimes they provide an instrumental basis for tortious claims, as in pursuit of restitution for Nazi and other imperialists’ looting of artifacts, more often they posit a dead-end conflation of fixed and impermeable racial identity with cultural expression. As Michaels has argued for more than twenty-five years, the discourse of cultural ownership stems from the pluralist mindset that treats “culture” as a key marker of social groups and thereby inscribes it as racial essentialism.
A curiously inflexible brand of race-first neoliberalism has taken root in American political discourse.
In order to legitimate what Michaels describes as “racial rent-seeking,” a curiously inflexible brand of race-first neoliberalism has taken root in American political discourse, proposing a trickle-down model of racial progress, anchored in the mysticism of organic black community. Against this exoticized backdrop, neoliberal race leaders stage the beguiling fantasy that individual “entrepreneurialism” is the key path to rising above one’s circumstances—i.e., the standard American social myth that obscures the deeper need to combat systemic inequalities. The most tragic, and pathetic, expressions of this faith are the versions of the “gospel of prosperity,” which fuse pop self-realization psychology and a barely recognizable Christianity to exploit desperation and the desire for life with dignity and respect among their black-majority congregations. The false hopes of the prosperity gospel encourage already vulnerable people to fall prey to all sorts of destructive get-rich-quick schemes; they are the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions” channeled through a market-idolatrous Protestant psychobabble. Black ministers and other proponents of entrepreneurialist ideology as racial uplift also played a largely unrecognized role in pushing subprime mortgages, and even payday loans, in black communities.
The racial trickle-down success myth is partly a vestige of an earlier era, during which individual black attainments could be seen as testaments to the race’s capacities—and a refutation of the white-sanctioned view of black people as generally inferior. Even then, however, this model of black uplift was enmeshed in the race theory of the time—notably the belief that a race’s capacities were indicated by the accomplishments of its “best” individuals—and it was always inflected with the class perspectives of those who saw themselves as such individuals. The class legacies of this foundational moment in modern black politics may well contribute to the firm insistence among today’s “black voices” that slavery and Jim Crow mark the transcendent truth of black Americans’ experience in the United States—and that an irreducible racism is the source of all manifest racial inequality. That diagnosis certainly masks class asymmetries among black Americans’ circumstances as well as in the remedies proposed to improve them.
Nevertheless, we continue to indulge the politically wrong-headed, counterproductive, and even reactionary features of the “representative black voice” industry in whatever remains of our contemporary public sphere. And we never reckon with the truly disturbing presumption that any black person who can gain access to the public microphone and performs familiar rituals of “blackness” should be recognized as expressing significant racial truths and deserves our attention. This presumption rests on the unexamined premise that blacks share a common, singular mind that is at once radically unknowable to non-blacks and readily downloaded by any random individual setting up shop as a racial voice. And despite what all of our age’s many heroic narratives of individualist race-first triumph may suggest to the casual viewer, that premise is the essence of racism.