When Fredrick Harris argued his New York Times piece (and t, that black elite have been more silent now than they ever were during the Clinton years, I thought he waxed a bit nostalgic. I was a graduate student during that time, and while during this period we did see–not coincidentally–a rise in the "black public intellectual" I do not believe this period was any more contentious or productive for politics than the Obama age we are now in the middle of.
Saying so on twitter made for an interesting conversation between me and a few other folks, who were more supportive of Harris' claim.
Because of the constraints Twitter poses, it was difficult to express my argument the way I wanted. So what I'm going to do, if for no other reason than future reference, is try to sketch out the contours of the claim, and then write through what I think was going on in the Clinton era, and then if I have room, engage in a comparison between that moment and now.
This is the argument Harris makes in his op-ed:
INSTEAD of urging Mr. Obama to be more outspoken on black issues, black elites parrot campaign talking points. They dutifully praise important but minor accomplishments — the settlement of a longstanding class-action lawsuit by black farmers; increased funds for black colleges; the reduction (but not elimination) of the disparities in sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine — while setting aside their critical acumen.
For some, criticism of Mr. Obama is disloyal. “Stick together, black people,” the radio host Tom Joyner has warned. (Another talk show host, Tavis Smiley, joined Dr. West on a“poverty tour” last year, but has been less critical of the president than Dr. West has.)
It wasn’t always so. Though Bill Clinton was wildly popular among blacks, black intellectuals fiercely debated affirmative action, mass incarceration, welfare reform and racial reconciliation during his presidency. In 2001, the Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree called the surge in the inmate population “shocking and regrettable” and found it “shameful” that Mr. Clinton “didn’t come out and take a more positive and symbolic approach to the issue of reparations for slavery.” But Mr. Ogletree, a mentor of Mr. Obama’s, now finds “puzzling the idea that a president who happens to be black has to focus on black issues.”
Boiling this down black intellectuals (defined as academics), were far more likely to engage in a critique of Bill Clinton than they are now. And this is because Barack Obama and others have effectively used his race to stave off criticism. And although Harris isn't explicit here, we can imagine a couple of different ways this might occur:
1. Through positing his election as a form of progressive policy in and of itself, separate from "real" policy change…
The best example I can think off the top of my head to this is Melissa's piece in The Nation.
2. Through actively condemning people who critique Obama's action/lack of action.
This latter thing itself happens in one of two ways:
1. Through scare tactics that argue Obama can only be elected through racial unanimity (critique here leads to decreased black support and turnout which diminishes the possibility of an Obama victory).
2. Through arguing critics don't really understand how policy works and how politics work in this moment.
Here we can place the Tom Joyner/Michael Baisden response, as well as the response of other Obama supporters, and that of Obama himself (for example when he speaks at the CBC and tells folk to shut up and roll up their sleeves).
Fred's argument then has two prongs. One prong is about the response of black intellectuals–they were more critical then than they are now. A second prong is about the response TO black intellectuals–this response is more critical of them now, than then.
I have serious and growing concerns about the general argument that we should look for the black vanguard among black intellectuals at ALL. The vast majority of black academics and intellectuals, don't have a real history of political engagement even at the university level to serve as a vanguard even at the spaces they should "naturally" organize in, much less 'the black community" as a whole. But even if I did believe it I'm not sure that it holds up.
To test this claim though we need to figure out what "contestation" means. For me as a political scientist, I'd say we would find contestation in votes against Clinton's policies. We would find contestation in public statements against Clinton's policies. We would find contestation in public protests against Clinton's policies. To the extent Clinton used rhetoric in further developing his claims we would find contestation in public statements against Clinton's rhetoric. And to the extent we're talking about the Clinton era outside of Clinton, we'd also see contestation in general public works that argue against the neoliberal turn that expects folk to be more entrepreneurial.
Note here that the type of contestation I'm referring to is not contestation that black intellectuals/academics by their nature, actually engage in.
With that said, I'd argue this doesn't happen. We particularly see this if we disaggregate "the black community". During the Clinton era the black poor were given the shaft. Policy wise Clinton both repealed welfare, hurting black working class and poor women and children, and ramped up the prison industrial complex directly hurting poor and working class black men. We see evidence that the CBC pushed back against the welfare bill–they largely voted against it. But there was no sustained public pushback. We see mixed evidence of movement on the Crime bill. Rangel for example voted against it, while Clyburn voted for it.
Obama wasn't the first person to make speeches condemning black culture. Clinton did that while in office on at least one or two occasions, speaking TO black people ABOUT black people. We don't see any pushback against this speech for example-CITE THE MLK SPEECH. This is not so much because black people love Clinton–although it's important to note that at least one black intellectual believed we did–but because Clinton and black people in general have the same ideas here. Black people are anti-racist but are definitely NOT anti-classist.
Clinton had black intellectual and clergy support for these positions. His election occurred at the same time as we see the growth of "the black public intellectual." If we take the work of people like Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, and bell hooks, in sum what we see with only a couple of exceptions is a body of work that is fiercely anti-racist, but almost virulently classist. Gates wrote in Forbes magazine arguing for a culture of poverty. West, even as he aligned himself with the democratic left, argued that the problem black people faced was that they lacked the love ethic and suffered from nihilism. bell hooks made similar claims. William Julius Wilson argued that black poverty was only the INDIRECT function of de-industrialization–in works like When Work Disappears he took the position that this played out DIRECTLY in the lack of responsible role models.
Three years into his election the biggest mass action black people have ever taken was the Million Man March. The goal? To get black men to take personal responsibility. Again, more of the same.
We do see some intellectual pushback to be fair. But outside of the votes, pushback comes from one segment of the black elite–the black left. People like Adolph Reed, and organizations like the (short lived) Black Radical Congress, wrote against these policies and the rhetoric. But besides them?
This is already going a bit long so i'm going to stop this here. A lot to think about.