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Dr. Lester K. Spence

The Goon Squad and Black Intellectual Responsibility in the Obama Age

I've written about the Goon Squad–a group of black Baltimoreans who organized against racism in the late sixties/early seventies. They're directly responsible for many of the opportunities black Baltimoreans in general, and middle to upper class black Baltimoreans specifically have to live lives relatively free of discrimination. They're more or less responsible Baltimores first black elected officials, first black judges, for Maryland's first Head Start program, for opening up the city (and likely the state) to black contractors, and for one of the few organizations still dedicated to organizing working class Baltimore citizens (BUILD). I'm in Baltimore because of Rev. Dobson's daughter, Kim Sydnor (a stallworth figure in her own right). After Rev. Dobson passed away the few remaining members of the Goon Squad, including Homer Favor (Morgan State University professor emeritus), had a public event at the University of Baltimore. 

Favor passed away last week.

Several months ago the New York Times sponsored a debate/discussion on the latest generation of black public intellectuals.1 Among the participants were Melissa Harris-Perry (host of the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC, Professor at Tulane University), Eddie Glaude (Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University), Carl Hart (Professor of Psychology at Columbia University), Stephon Alexander (Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Darmouth University), and Khalil Muhammad (Director of the Schomburg Center).2 The question they were asked to tackle was a simple one. Do black intellectuals have a special obligation to address social and racial issues beyond the campus. 

Their answers? Focusing on three, recognizing public intellectuals of all races have a responsibility to speak the truth Prof. Harris-Perry says noProf. Glaude says yes arguing that black public intellectuals have abrogated their responsibility to serve as the moral conscience of (black) America. Prof. Hart gives a slightly different answer–suggesting that whatever black intellectuals do, they should stay in their lane, lest their lack of expertise cause more problems than they solve. Here he uses the example of the "crack baby" syndrome–black scholars did not plant the idea that kids born to crack-addicted mothers were somehow born with more deficits than we'd ever seen before, that would be Dr. Ira Chasnoff but in an effort to garner resources for black communities black elites reproduced it. We now know Dr. Chasnoff's research was flawed (to say the least) and babies born to mothers addicted to alcohol have more problems than babies born to mothers addicted to crack cocaine, or any other form of cocaine for that matter.3      

Although I am loathe to speak for the dead, I think Homer Favor would probably agree with Glaude, as measured by his participation in the Goon Squad and his creation of the Urban Institute (a Morgan State thinktank created to problem solve the various issues black Baltimore had to wrestle with). There's nothing he said at the University of Baltimore event that suggests he held a different opinion. And although this interview with Marc Steiner is several years old there's nothing in the interview to suggest Favor thought otherwise.

I have a different opinion.

Prof. Glaude's distinction between scholars who have in effect "sold out" out of self-interest, and scholars who are meeting their moral obligation to speak truth to power, is a bit too black and white (no pun intended). First I'm not sure what the standard is here. Gates, West, hooks, and others have all argued at one point or another that black cultural dysfunction is at least partially responsible for racial inequality and for the lack of a sustained black political response. Glaude and I have had a running discussion on the Clinton years–he argues that black intellectuals engaged in critique in the form of academic conferences and the like. I'm not convinced–and as this Boston Review article suggests a very similar critique was levied against black intellectuals during the Clinton era.4 

Furthermore Glaude distinguishes between individuals who have sold out to the Obama administration for loot and individuals who have instead spoken truth to power as it were…as if there isn't also a market for criticism, particularly in the academy. Tavis Smiley and Cornel West have lost the support they received from black elites and regular folk before they began to criticize Obama (see Joyner's latest attack). However there are still a variety of rewards critics of Obama can and do receive, particularly those with routine access to the mass media. Speaking engagements from organizations critical of the administration, book contracts from presses interested in critically interrogating the Obama era, increases in status from appearances on radio shows, as well raises and promotions based on the increased productivity and visibility all can come from speaking truth to power. Publishing an op-ed in the New York Times isn't spilt milk. Given this I'd suggest there's something more complicated than "selling out" occurring here, although there are a couple of examples of people who apparently switched their views on the administration after they received more access.5 

What could be more complicated than "selling out"? What are we missing? Recently Mel Rothenberg veteran Chicago organizer and Cedric Johnson, Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago and author of Revolutionaries to Race Leaders and The Neoliberal Deluge, participated in a panel about Obama and Black Politics at the University of Chicago, sponsored by The Platypus Affiliated Society. (Michael Dawson, John D. MacArthur Professor at the University of Chicago was supposed to participate but was unable due to emergency.) Here's the transcript.   

I spoke with Johnson the night Obama was first elected. Neither of us supported Obama during the primaries, but we realized his election represented a shift of sorts. What we both understood, and what Johnson articulates below, is that Obama is who we thought he was–a black neoliberal. He's never been anything different.

One reason Obama emerged as such a powerful figure during the 2008 election season has to do with the context of demobilization, particularly within black life. There was not a large and vibrant enough political movement on the ground, a movement that could connect to people’s realities in terms of their work lives, their everyday lives, and the character of life within neighborhoods. This created a void that was easily filled by a politics of recognition and the symbolism of the Obama campaign. But if we look closely at Obama’s politics, if we go back to that 2004 DNC address, when it comes to domestic politics he has always been clear: a minimized role for government. He wanted to do away with the benevolent role of the state that we had become accustomed to by way of the New Deal and Great Society. He even endorsed the Cosby tirade against the urban black poor. More than once before he announced his candidacy, and many times since—most recently in the address he delivered in February at the Hyde Park Academy—Obama has not emphasized the economy, but parental responsibility and behavior modification as a way of addressing the routinized violence in American cities. What Obama has done skillfully, particularly in his primary race against Clinton, is combine the liberal, public relation society of the new Democrats with neoliberal politics.

Most other black folk do not want to deal with these issues. For them, engaging in criticism of Obama is seen as airing dirty laundry, or as part of some insidious plot to sabotage him. So what we have also seen, in his rise to the presidency, is the wholesale decline of critical engagement within black publics. It is very difficult to find a spot where you can openly criticize Obama and have it heard—actually heard, understood, and appreciated in some meaningful way.

The neoliberal critique is one Adolph Reed brought up a long time ago6 but it is something that neither West, Smiley, nor Glaude to my knowledge understood until well after Obama's election. Up until this point, Johnson sounds a lot like Glaude and a number of other critics of Obama and critics of black responses TO criticism of Obama. But note the comments after:

Part of the problem, of course, rests in how we think about black politics. I want to distinguish black political life—a broad category stretching back across multiple decades, even centuries, in reference to black people engaging in various forms of politics, whether slave rebellions or the push for desegregation of the South—fromblack ethnic politics as a peculiar phenomenon that develops during the 20th century, particularity after the 1960s. When we talk about black ethnic politics, we are talking about a form of politics that is, first of all, predicated on the notion of ethnic group incorporation. Too many people talk about African-American political life and African Americans as a group, as if they constitute a corporate political entity, as if there are clearly defined interests widely shared by all African Americans. The way political scientists do this is to engage in public research—you find some issue for which there is 70% support, and from there make the leap that this constitutes black interests. This is deeply problematic, in my estimation, as it says very little about what black interests look like within real time and space.

Too many of us take the idea of "the black community" for granted, as if there really was one, as if such a thing as the black agenda really existed to sell out in the first place. Johnson calls this into question and brings up the sticky issue of class.

I want to introduce the question of talking about class politics in a racial idiom. This is something I take from Preston Smith’s work, Racial Democracy and the Black MetropolisIt is really a straightforward proposition, as I see it, though it is an approach to black politics that has been lost, both popularly and in academia. If you go back and read Jim Crow-era social scientists—Abram Harris, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ralph Bunche, even E. Franklin Frazier and Carter G. Woodson—all of them offer an analysis of black politics that looks at it in its full expanse. They address how class manifests itself among African-Americans.

One thing that happens within such discussions, particularly in our own time, is that we conflate race and class. There is a tendency to use race as the symbolic language of class. It used to drive me crazy when I taught at a small liberal arts college where many students automatically equated “black” with “poor.” They saw black people as being synonymous with poverty and they had no understanding of African-American life beyond that kind of image they got from pop culture. So, I tried to talk to them about Bronzeville, or about the fact that even in the small community that I grew up in in the 1970s and 1980s in Louisiana, we had black banks, black doctors, and black lawyers. The idea that there is an integral aspect of African-American life was something new to them. The task for us, and this is what I was trying to lay out before, is to talk about those differences.

Race is not the same as class. When we talk about class we talk about particular roles that people play, their specific relationship to production in our society. Race has its origins in slavery and imperialist expansion. But, ultimately, when we look at contemporary African-American politics, we need to address how communities are organized and how particular kinds of politics and sets of interests emerge. This flows from what I said at the very beginning about the disappearance of critical public engagement among African-Americans: I grew up along the Interstate 10 corridor—most of my family was in either Louisiana, Houston, or Mobile. Most of the people whom I learned from as a kid had grown up under Jim Crow. The teachers I had as far as high school were largely people who had taught at the old Jim Crow high schools in the area. They talked about class. They didn’t talk about it in the ways that academics talk about it. They had their own vocabularies for the differences of opinion and interests among African-Americans. And the discussions were often quite candid. Some of that has since disappeared. You hear it every now and again in, for example, the use of the term ”Uncle Tom,” which was one that I heard constantly as a kid. I recall adult conversations in the other room: They were talking about local politics, they were talking about people they knew personally, and they weren’t afraid to call these people out when their politics were out of step with the broader community of mostly working class African Americans. That kind of internal criticism has evaporated by and large. So why do we no longer have those forms of public engagement, analysis of everyday forms? Why have they evaporated?

What Glaude, West, and Smiley are attempting to do is create a space for internal dissent, a space that Johnson argues used to exist. What's the problem with that? In the case of all three, they oversimplify the process that causes black people to make the political decisions they make, and oversimplify the process that causes elites like Harris-Perry to defend Obama. Similarly their critiques of Obama suffer from the same degree of oversimplification that led them to support Obama in the first place (West and perhaps Glaude), or posit/support the creation of various national level "conversations" to change conditions of structural inequality (Glaude, West, Smiley).

Now I want to bring this back home to Baltimore and back to The Goon Squad. 

Around the same time Favor passed, journalists reported that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake recently stayed at the summer home of (black) lobbyist Lisa Harris Jones (this after Mayor Rawlings Blake officiated Harris Jones' wedding). The mayor paid Harris Jones (her staff provided a check to prove it) and didn't think there was anything wrong with it. For people with roots in Baltimore, not even deep roots, Baltimore is "Smalltimore" and the city is simply too small to be able to dodge these types of relationships. Or so Mayor Rawlings Blake says.

The Goon Squad is indirectly responsible for both of them being where they are. We can read the mayor and Harris Jones as having "sold out" black people in general, and the Goon Squad specifically, just as on a national scale we can read Obama as having sold black interests out. This reading can work for us…but the problem is that it ignores the plain and simple fact that "the black community" contains multitudes. Those multitudes contain significant numbers of black people with Rawlings Blake and Jones's background and with their interests. And while we can perhaps argue these interests are antithetical to black people, I'd argue instead they are antithetical to the black working class specifically and to the working class in general. To the extent these dynamics are best traced by left-leaning political scientists such as Johnson and Reed, I'd argue that what we need is not necessarily more public intellectuals speaking truth to power, but more political scientists committed to class analyses inside and outside of black communities. 

Notes:
1. I write "the latest generation" because this dynamic goes back to the rise of Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, Cornel West, Houston Baker, Toni Morrison, Shelby Steele, and Robin Kelley (among others) in the early nineties, in the wake of Bill Clinton's election, the Rodney King Rebellion, the explosion of hip-hop, the increased integration of black popular culture, and the increased demand for black studies courses at high tier universities. A variety of critical and laudatory articles appeared in The New Republic, The Village Voice. and The Atlantic Monthly among others. The laudatory articles connected them to the fifties era New York intellectuals and saw in them the future of scholarship on race and racism. The critical articles (most notably this one by Adolph Reed Jr.) argued they were exceedlingly weak on academic content in part because of their feigned activism. We have about enough critical distance from this period for someone to write a book length treatise on this group and on what this period meant for black politics in general. Houston Baker's Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Movement and Norman Kelley's The Head Negro In Charge Syndrome attempt the task but both ultimately fail.
2. In disclosure, I know or have met three out of the five participants. I consider Melissa Harris-Perry a close colleague and have appeared on her show. I’ve met Eddie Glaude and have had a number of discussions with him about these issues on the interwebs. And I’ve talked to Stephon Alexander at Dartmouth about issues of diversity.
3. Hart's recently come out with a book that examines the history of the supposed crack-baby epidemic and provides a set of common-sense solutions to the drug war.
4. Rivers article cited above generated a discussion worth checking out, not only because it asks the same question some 20 years earlier as the New York Times asks above, but because even then the comments from West, hooks, and others expresses an aversion to politics.
5. I'm thinking about Michael Eric Dyson here.
6. In fact, even longer ago than this. This is a quote from Reed's Class Notes, p. 13:

In Chicago, for instance, we've gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccible do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program–the point where identitiy politics converges with old-fashioned middle class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway. [emphasis mine]

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