“Today, the pressing question is no longer whether racial uplift will come from gradualism and self-improvement or impatient political activism. Instead, it is about how politics can encourage black self-improvement by removing the real as opposed to the imagined obstacles to its realization.”
The central debate in black social thought from Reconstruction until the 1960s was whether the advancement of the race should be pursued through political agitation for civil rights and equal treatment or through self-help in separate institutions. The former position tended to look outward, seeing bias, discrimination and oppression combined as the major obstacle; the latter position emphasized black self-help from within to overcome deficiencies within the black subculture. Each of these warring ideologies had a towering advocate: The former position was advanced by one of Harvard University’s first black graduates, the founder of the NAACP, W.E.B. Du Bois; the latter was advanced by the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington.
Today, in large part because of the success of the civil rights movement and the iconic status it now enjoys, the older clusters of commitment have broken apart and become virtually reversed: Separatists are now among the most vocal and belligerent activists, while integrationists often preach the gospel of quiet self-improvement. Today the central controversy is still whether blacks are mainly disadvantaged by bias, discrimination and a history of oppression, a moral deficiency in the political culture of the nation; or by their own lack of skills and initiative, a practical deficiency in black culture.
Two recent books carry on this debate. In Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics, University of Chicago Professor Michael C. Dawson describes a political culture that consigns black people to the “bottom of the social order” and to lives of “crippling disadvantage.” Mainstream politicians and the mass media routinely disparage and stereotype blacks and belittle or ignore their concerns, reinforcing a political and economic order that exploits most Americans—especially but not exclusively blacks—for the benefit of a privileged few. For Dawson today, as for Du Bois near a century ago, the solution is a revitalized black politics that can “mobilize, influence policy, demand accountability from government officials . . . in the service of black interests.”
Nothing could be further from Stanford University economist Thomas Sowell’s argument in Intellectuals and Race. Rather like Booker T. Washington, Sowell argues that today’s racial inequalities are the fault of a black culture that encourages the most talented to squander their time and energy mastering esoteric social theories that blame others for their problems, rather than learning the practical skills that will help them solve those problems themselves. He complains that a malcontented “intelligentsia have demanded an equality of outcome and of social recognition, irrespective of the skills, behavior or performance of the group to which they belong or on whose behalf they spoke.”
Anyone familiar with the academic trends of recent decades will recognize some of Sowell’s bêtes noires. Still, one has to wonder which country Sowell is writing about, where “intellectuals can influence the way millions of other people see race.” Is it France, a nation proud of its cerebral culture, where philosophers and social theorists are celebrities? Or perhaps Germany, birthplace of modern post-graduate education, where analytic precision is built into the mother tongue? Certainly not the United States, where folksy vernacular is a sign of moral virtue and erudition is held in contempt; where the ethos of democratic egalitarianism means the uneducated citizen feels entitled not only to his own opinion, but as Tip O’Neill once quipped, to his own facts. Whatever flaws one may find in America’s racial politics—and there are many—it strains credulity to blame them on the dominance of intellectuals. And this makes one worry that Sowell is playing up to a specific audience—an audience that is eager to attack “ivory tower professors” for their supposed “liberal bias.”