From Du Bois to Obama: African American Intellectuals in the Public Forum
by Anthony Monteiro
Elite educational institutions are turning out a bumper crop of neo-liberal Black intellectuals who are anything but “new.” Charles Pete Banner-Haley has much more in common with Booker T. Washington than the iconic Black intellectual and activist, W.E.B. Du Bois. “A new talented tenth” has emerged from mostly white universities, “which attempts to straddle the ideological divide between Booker T. Washington and Du Bois. They claim Du Bois in words, but substantively are Bookerites.”
Obama and the Crisis of Neo-Liberal Black Intellectuals
by Anthony Monteiro
“The Obama presidency seeks to fashion a racial compromise with conservatives, similar to Booker T. Washington’s compromise with the Jim Crow South.”
Charles Pete Banner-Haley’s book From Du Bois to Obama: African American Intellectuals in the Public Forum (2010) is a history of African American intellectuals from the standpoint of Barack Obama ‘s presidency. From an Obama post racial dream-world, Banner-Haley tells us, “African American intellectuals in the twenty-first century can take their cue from an Obama presidency and the words he spoke in Philadelphia during the race for the nomination. They can become “transformative black intelligentsia’ (123).” It should be obvious, the last thing black intellectuals need to do is “take their cue” from a pro-war, pro Wall Street, pro American imperialism presidency. Rather than fulfilling the legacy of W.E.B Du Bois (as the author claims) it is its opposite. Obama’s presidency represents a rupture with Du Bois and the progressive wing of black intellectuals. Obama’s Philadelphia speech was a neo-Booker T. Washington compromise speech (equivalent to Washington’s Atlanta Compromise Address delivered in 1895). Obama decidedly argued that we had moved beyond racism’s most lethal forms. While slavery was the nation’s “original sin,” racism left blacks and whites scarred. Hence, his white grandmother and Reverend Jeremiah Wright evidenced racial prejudice, stereotypes, fear, animus and anger. He positioned himself as representing the future of racial compromise and reconciliation. In neo-Booker T. Washington style he urged black folk literally to “cast your buckets down where you are,” instead of challenging white supremacy. The Obama presidency, in the end, seeks to fashion a racial compromise with conservatives, similar to Washington’s compromise with the Jim Crow South.
“Obama accepts the neo-liberal position that the major problems confronting black folk are rooted in black culture, psychology and behaviors, especially of the poor.”
In Banner-Haley’s dreamscape, Obama’s election is both an end and a beginning. He insists, “Barack Hussein Obama in many ways was a culmination of the civil rights movement and the starting point for African American intellectuals to confront those new definitions of race and identity (7).” What he implies is that “the new definitions of race and identity” are those that arise from an alleged post-racial America. African Americans, to cite Obama, have come 90% of the way to freedom. Obama, and by implication Banner-Haley, accept the neo-liberal position that the major problems confronting black folk are rooted in black culture, psychology and behaviors, especially of the poor. The author says Obama gravitated to Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson’s “synthetic analysis” that drew from both political liberalism and right wing conservatism. Wilson claims that since 1968 we have been in a period of the “declining significance of race”.
The book points to a new crisis of African American intellectuals. Cloistered in elite universities and increasingly leaning towards neo-liberal ideas on race, economics and politics, they are separated from black working people, the poor and the black middle class. While Obama, remains popular among African Americans as symbol of racial progress, his policies, that favor large banks, Wall Street and the military, places him and those black intellectuals who “take their cue” from him, at odds with the fundamental economic and social interests of the vast majority of African Americans. On the other hand, Obama’s insulting and practiced indifference to black suffering, his performance of post racialism, while savage racism engulfs him, his family, his presidency and all African Americans, his practice of keeping most blacks at arms length, yet on occasion inviting chosen Negroes to the White House, is nothing short of a put down of African Americans; behavior none of us would accept from a white President, Democrat or Republican.
Banner-Haley says, “Unable to make the connection either with the immiserated black poor or many of those newly arrived in the black middle class, black intellectuals found themselves visible, but encapsulated in an insulated academic world that may listen but often does not hear and does not act on the ideas, analyses, and prescriptions that these women and men present (45).” Because they are preoccupied with talking to white elites, they lack moral standing with black people. This is the price they pay to integrate white elite and capitalist circles. This, however, is only part of the problem. The larger part is that politically they are race neo-liberals. At the highest levels there is hardly a radical among them, unlike most in the past, who were race radicals. The other problem is that they choose not to live among black people. They have separated themselves in their life styles, culture, and aspirations form the working class and poor in particular.
“Neo-liberal black intellectuals become apologists for race and class oppression, while performing a not very convincing symbolic blackness.”
Finally, they’re caught in the bind of trying to appear to serve opposing social and economic class constituencies. Elite universities demand that black intellectuals assume a post-racial sensibility and lifestyle; on the other hand, the black masses daily experience the most savage racism. Faced with this dilemma, neo-liberal black intellectuals become apologists for race and class oppression, while performing a not very convincing symbolic blackness.
Banner –Haley has it wrong, there is no trajectory from Du Bois to Obama. A more accurate description would be from Booker T. Washington, and race compromise to Barack Obama and race neo-liberalism. Du Bois started his public intellectual career in 1897 founding, along with Alexander Crummell, Anna Julia Cooper and others, the American Negro Academy. In 1903 he publically presented his position on black leadership in the essay “The Talented Tenth.” He assumed that leadership would come from the educated. Reviewing his earlier position on the talented tenth in 1948, he said, “I assumed that with knowledge sacrifice would automatically follow.” Rather, he insisted selfishness was a far greater impulse. He criticized himself for not realizing that most in a privileged group would tend to constitute themselves as an aristocracy, rather than a leadership connected to the masses and their uplift. In the year that he published the Talented Tenth essay he published The Souls of Black Folk. He made the famous prediction that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line. What he meant was that liberal, or bourgeois democracy, could not advance, in fact would turn in upon itself, if the race issue went unresolved. While not being in the camp of liberalism, or of bourgeois democracy per se, he rightly understood that the obstacle to democracy for all excluded groups rested on resolving the race problem, especially the issue of black civil rights and the vote. But its resolution demanded the agency and activism of black folk, and black folk needed consistent and reliable leadership. At a time when Booker Washington was arguing that race and civil rights should be taken out of public and political discourse and that black leadership should take a back seat to white intellectuals, Du Bois argued the opposite. In 1948, he disappointedly concluded, most of the talented tenth abandoned its possible historic mission and became consumed in universal selfishness. He called for a new configuration of black leadership and black intellectuals. Rather than a talented tenth he called for a guiding one hundredth; a new leadership cadre drawn not only from the educated, certainly not from the ranks of those chosen “to lead Negroes” by white elites, but from the educated lower middle classes and the working masses. At this point he saw class origins and class loyalties as a critical determinant of black leadership.
With the Civil Rights and Black Power movements completed and civil rights legislation on the books, rather than a new racial democracy we witnessed a counter-revolution against black equality, rooted in preserving white racial privilege, branded as a new conservatism (Reaganism). Yet a small segment of blacks have progressed. A new talented tenth, which attempts to straddle the ideological divide between Booker T. Washington and Du Bois. They claim Du Bois in words, but substantively are Bookerites.
Banner-Haley implies Du Bois ceased thinking after 1903, the year of The Souls of Black Folk. In truth, Du Bois became more radical the older he got. In the last quarter of his life he was a radical, anti-imperialist, socialist and communist. On this matter Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “We cannot talk of Dr Du Bois without recognizing that he was a radical all of his life. Some people would like to ignore the fact that he was a Communist in his later years.” Most scholars wish either to ignore this fact or claim that Du Bois had by the 1940’s lost his way and chosen “another path.”
“They claim Du Bois in words, but substantively are Bookerites.”
The break by significant elements of the black elite with Du Bois started with the Cold War and McCarthyism. The US government labeled him “an agent of a foreign government ” for his pro-peace and anti-nuclear war stance. Many took solace in looking at the Du Bois of the early twentieth century, saying that his radicalism represented his loosing his way. He was, they insisted, no longer a part of civil rights movement, but of the far left. In the universities his name was seldom if at all mentioned. It was only with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, that it became permissible to mention his name and write books and article on him. Still his radicalism was viewed as that of a disappointed and isolated elder. They explained his radicalism as the result of bitterness towards the talented tenth and not of his ongoing engagement with the realities of racism, war and colonialism. Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis, along with Cornel West and most recently Harvard professor Martin Kilson have looked on the last quarter of Du bois’ life as a rupture with his “great period”, the period before 1945.
If we, as Dr King suggests, look at Du Bois’ life as a whole and view his latter years as part of an intellectual and scientific continuum of philosophical and practical development of the race question, his radicalism makes all the sense in the world. Elite African American intellectuals, most educated in white universities and who teach in these institutions, have made a break with Du Bois, while many, oddly enough, claim to be Du Boisian. American liberalism reached its high point in the 1930’s with the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Since the 1980’s American democracy has become more right wing and more authoritarian and liberalism has become increasingly neo-liberal rationalizations of American empire. The banks, Wall Street and the military have undermined most avenues of democracy, including elections.
Black intellectuals in the second decade of the 21st century should not take a cue from Obama’s presidency, but from Du Bois. They should stop being afraid of Du Bois’ radicalism and anti-imperialism and end their kowtowing to the conservatism of the white academic establishment. Dr. King, one of the greatest black intellectuals, was right, “It is time to cease muting the fact that Dr. Du Bois was a genius and chose to be a Communist. Our obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires.”
Charles Pete Banner-Haley’s book is a political failure, but more, it distorts the truth and obscures the paths to developing a 21st century radical African American intelligentsia. Anchored in Obamism, and by implication neo-liberalism, Banner-Haley is blind to the real history of black intellectuals and of Du Bois. We do need a history of black intellectuals, (a project that professor Martin Kilson has for some years been working on) which is not an apologia for American capitalism and empire. We need 21st century intellectuals who are not afraid to reject neo-liberalism, who will speak the truth about the Obama Administration and race and US Empire, who are not fearful of criticizing free market capitalism, and indeed like Du Bois stand for a human future beyond capitalism. Black folk need a new radical intelligentsia in the Du Boisian tradition.
Anthony Monteiro is a professor of African American Studies at Temple University. He can be contacted at tmon(at)comcast.net.