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October 25, 2005

A Conservative Review of Black Identity Politics

I've just had a bracing experience in one of the other realms of cyberspace, a webchat forum. It reminded me of the good old days which in the end weren't so good. But like many of our cherished memories, we didn't know how poor we were.

It's certainly because of this experience which I'm fairly certain was witnessed at least in part by Dell Gines (whose blog is currently undergoing a rather queer thematic change from 'urban conservatism' to 'adequate defense') that this post emerged at Booker Rising. Subsequently to that, Ms. Manhdisa registered a few axioms at her site.

Like with the Gay Banana Split, I am fairly convinced that what black conservatives want to achieve and express has little to do with what black progressives and liberals want to hear. So as well-meant as this coaching might be, I think it addresses a point that doesn't need to be made. In fact, I believe that a bit of combat is perfectly well in order precisely because entanglement isn't necessary. Then again I'm only speaking for conservatives like me.

In my case, I found it rather sad that the cat engaging me was literally screaming for the answer to the question - What is the Republican plan for helping blacks in the ghetto? The quick answer to that question, any conservative will tell you in well rehearsed soundbites: We need you to help yourself out of the ghetto - it's a plantation of dependency from which you must escape. Of course when you get down into the details there's much more nuanced stuff to say, but there is one basic undeniable point on which most all on the Right will agree. America is not responsible for solving the ghetto dysfunction. In the infamous post-Katrina phrasing: "You're on your own".

This really sounds harsh to progressives, who are looking for ways to improve life through innovation and reform in government. It sounds downright evil to liberals whose expectations of government are to manage the problems of the relatively indigent. To conservatives, it sounds bracingly honest, forthright with a minimum of BS. It is the political equivalent of spinach, an ugly vegetable that actually is good for you and makes you stronger.

But here's where it get's particularly ugly - we inject race into it. And with race comes identity. As soon as you say 'black progressive' or 'black conservative' you've raised the complexity and volume of this simple ideological conflict. Here's why.

The Black Nationalist movement sought to, and very successfully wedded black identity to political struggle. In moving from Negro to Black, African America enjoined a broad redefinition of itself in the immediate post-Civil Rights America to push harder for those rights and privileges long denied. It was a brilliant idea and it worked. But what it has failed to do since then is adapt to new economic realities, new crossover influence and new multicultural perspectives, not to mention a Republican majority. But its greatest failure has been to evade the trap of identity politics that it laid for itself. If I were more scholarly, I would adequately qualify the separate and distinct influences of Black Consciousness, Pan Africanism, Black Power, Black Arts and Black Nationalism in this mix but I'm shortcutting that. Suffice it to say, that's a lot of blackness in a lot of different directions and it left very little room for any African American to assert any other kind of identity.

The very invention of the term 'African American' was largely due to the problems created by this monolithic identity. In the 1980s we needed within 'the black community' to realize that we weren't all one community. Further, we needed the rest of America to recognize that too. We had to transcend the boundaries of Black and yet be true to history as well. So while the term 'African American' connoted a little afrocentricity, it also allowed us to compare and contrast ourselves to Irish Americans. It put us here in America and there in our land of origination equally, like other ethnics. That was an excellent change. And yet blackness persisted in ways both good and bad.

Just as with 'Negro' in 1968, you'll find people today who can't stand the idea of giving up 'Black' for a new term. People are invested in blackness for an entire spectrum of reasons. The most important is one of identity and positive self regard. Unfortunately very close behind that is the reason of political struggle. 'Black' is potent political stuff. And as many have written, matters of authentic identity are very often entangled with political positions. Both are important, but they are also independent, and I worry that only a few (especially those of us who were born Negro) recognize the difference. People tend to forget that black political/cultural nationalism was an invention, and it's orientation to America was an invention as well. It can't be uninvented, but the pieces must be separated.

For the purposes of my discussions, I have used the example of Nikki Giovanni's Poem to illustrate the difference between mental liberation and political liberation.

I maintain that black mental liberation in the classic Carter Woodson sense is still a necessary component of African American life. African Americans still suffer the deprivations of self-doubt and identity crisis among the hobbling portrayals and racial stereotypes. 'Knowledge of self' is still crucial. It's not hard to get, but it's still crucial.

I further maintain that having achieved this one is free as anyone. And yet the presumption persists that any African American who is truly liberated must only select from a narrow selection of political ideologies. Conservatism is not one of them. Why? It's not because those people we idolize as leaders of the Movement weren't conservative, but because they didn't initiate anything that could be called 'black conservatism'. In the pantheon of black creations of the 60s and 70s there was no 'Black Conservatism'. And so black conservatism is percieved largely as a new invention rather than simple conservation of African American traditions that predate Blackness. Well, that's partially black conservatism's fault for calling itself black - a practically no-win situation.

So the first major problem with black identity poltics is that it's static and monolithic. The second major problem is the rhetorical device I call the 'Black Human Shield'.

When confronted with a conservative opinion which appears to be or is actually in conflict with the expressed or assumed interests of 'the majority of black people', progressives and liberals tend to respond not only in an attack agasint the opinion, but of the blackness of the conservative himself. So deeply ingrained is the notion that the fate of all blacks are tied to that of a few that this attack is inevitable.

Let me be clear in saying that this black human shield phenomenon works both ways based upon the racial myth that the fate of all is sealed by the fate of a few. Black conservatives make the mistake of thinking their exceptionalism can save the race. Black progressives and liberals make the exact same mistake. Where the conservatives tend to speak for themselves as arbiters of advancement for the race, progressives and liberals tend to speak of themselves as spokesmen for the downtrodden whose advancement speak to the advancement of the race. Progressives and liberals have one thing going for them, if the masses of African Americans suffer or gain, more or less as statistical abstracts of them present, they do have the legitimate claim that 'the race' is moving in one direction or another. But they run double the risk of not actually being of the people for which they speak and that there is actually a disjoint between progress for certain blacks and real progress.

For example, law and order conservatives generally draw a hardline on illegal drug use. Progressives and liberals have long argued for decriminalization of marijuana and liberalization of crack cocaine laws because of sentencing inequities between blacks and whites. Liberals and progressives take up the black human sheild of convicted black drug users and say that conservative opposition to liberalization and decriminalization is against the interests of the black race. They engage these positions even though they don't actually advocate drug use and know it to be destructive of black families. So here you have conservatives facing off with others taking polar opposite positions on matters with both claiming the interests of blacks.

This is where the great divide lies between black conservatives, liberals and progressives - over the fate of black communities. And here's where I simply must reiterate what I've said earlier.

Just as for all other Americans, African Americans' greatest responsibility is to their families, not to politically ineffective, overburdened and outdated notions of black cultural nationalist unity. In other words, they should pursue happiness. After all, they're free.

I find it fascinating that I got into this kind of mess precisely coinciding with the battle that Robert George has gotten into. It's personal.

Posted by mbowen at October 25, 2005 01:22 AM

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yikes, good luck over at aa.org. not very long winded, but i'm in your corner and enjoy reading here. JR

Posted by: Jonathan at October 25, 2005 07:25 AM

I agree Cobb, that there is no "plan" by which every single black person can be made better off. People really do have to help themselves. I've seen many people get out of the ghetto, so I simply do not believe that everyone who wants to do it can't do it. The idea that white people are going to come up with some wonderful scheme to rescue us is an idea we have to give up. But we're clinging desparately. And as far as getting out of the ghetto is concerned, what is wrong with the ghetto that we cannot improve ourselves. It has not been normal for most of our history for a neighborhood to be dirty and dangerous just because it is poor, or rather, not rich. People who live in what we call the ghetto have money for all sorts of things, music, movies, cars, beauty parlors. I don't believe that people can't stop putting garbage in the street in front of their own house. This is the really hard thing for liberals to accept, that we can improve ourselves without a complete revolution in the United States or the complete end to all racism, or something equally miraculous, that even though life is unjust, you still have to be what is called decent. We invest a lot of energy trying to show white people how pitiful we are. For this reason any statement that we can help ourselves or that our situation has improved is greeting with howls of rage and betrayal. We have to keep on pretending that we're the most pathetic people on the earth, who can't do a thing for ourselves. But it's not true. And I don't think the pretense helps us any more. If the aim is to influence other races, I think they're tired of it. For us to say we can do for ourselves is not an admission of defeat. It's not giving some kind of bonus to racists, as we seem to think. It's a matter of self-respect. I don't know if this means less racism, but it definitely won't mean more, except for a few white liberals who like to think they are our keepers. In any case, we have to do what is right for us, and not always seem to beg others for something.

Posted by: Anita at October 25, 2005 07:44 AM

Cobb, I would argue that we don't need to reject black identity politics, we need to adjust how we frame black identity politics.

See, what has occurred is that black identity politics has descended from pushing for black elevation vis'a'vi whites, and embracing and acknowledging black beauty and black accountability, to an identity around black beggary, that manifest itself in a constant shift of personal accountability and blame to the white man, for things we ourselves should police within our communities. "You shouldn't criticize hip hop, then are just expressing what they see, in a reality created by white racism" etc.

This metamorphosis has allowed and tolerated massive destructive forces within our own community which infected us, and because our 'identity politics' are now based upon a pure assign blame to whites, and beg, we have neutralized our ability as a collective to resist the negative cultural trends we impose on ourselves.

Our kids see this, and recognize there is no longer 'corporate discipline' within our communities, and they run wild. Politically we are marginalized because no one respects a beggar.

I advocate a return to black identity politics, that embraces individual accountability to the group and to family, and corporate community discipline and love, while simultaneously fighting racism where it needs to be fought but not as a beggar, but as one who demands respect.

Within that Garveyesque rubric, I submit that there is room for a modified conservative philosophy, and free market capitalism…and that is why I am still a conservative, even though I changed the name of my site so as not to be pigeonholed.

But as it stands now, the conservative movement quite frankly sucks for blacks, because the black infrastructure isn’t in a position to support what the ‘help them help themselves’ conservatives profess. In fact, that statement is a hypocritical statement.

So I would argue we need black identity politics, which incorporate key conservative elements. We need a new pro-black movement, that embraces the economic and social situation of blacks today, rooted in self-determined capitalism, and a demand for political power to execute black elevation.

Posted by: Dell Gines [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 25, 2005 08:05 AM

If black capitalism were further along, we could have some coalition of black businesses strategically target various black communities in need of capital infusion. As it stands, that's just Magic Johnson. In other words, I don't think blacks control resources adequate to transform the living conditions of folks in ghettoes. So in one way I agree with you that the conservative movement sucks for blacks in the ghetto. All anybody can afford to do is talk. But the fact that it works so well outside the ghetto is undeniable. It simply means that there is going to have to be different politics for different African Americans.

Given that, there is plenty that could be done to coordinate a sensible program of cooperation with monies already earmarked for ghettoes. Nobody's going to stop collecting the trash, sending water and electricity in or policing, putting out fires and rescuing the injured. From where I stand, I don't understand how people in the ghetto can put up with the kind of violence and fear that interferes with their children's education. So I have very little sympathy for those who politically oppose police in general for their specific mistakes. From family experience I know it takes work to get drug dealers off your block. I can't see how that can't be a first priority.

Anyway, I disagree that black identity politics is necessary or desireable. People can represent their neighborhoods and need to stop expecting that there will be some kind of national mission and allies in every other part of America because of a black agenda. I know that very little that makes sense for South LA makes sense for North Houston. That's what people need to recognize.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 25, 2005 08:52 AM

10 25 05

Hey Cobb:
Interesting that you used my name; I am honored. I love the flexibility with which you have written. What is good for one, may not be good for the other and so forth. Far too often, Black identity politics is expected to be monolithic; either loving Jessie Jackson or Jessie Lee Peterson. Both extremes are problematic because these men are charicatures of themselves. However, each has a different message that could be valid for different communities. So flexibility in thought is what will elevate the condition of our people. Good read. I will have to read it a couple more times, to digest it:)

Posted by: Mahndisa at October 25, 2005 09:08 AM

10 25 05

Oops, the link you provided with axioms does not work!

Posted by: Mahndisa at October 25, 2005 10:29 AM

"I don't think blacks control resources adequate to transform the living conditions of folks in ghettoes".

As was stated, people in the ghetto have the money to buy various products. And so do the rest of us. So we have the resources to transform the ghetto. We have great economic power. But we continually fail to see it and use it to our advantage. Magic Johnson can’t do it alone.

Many of us feel we are owed something. And collectively we are. But waiting on a government that we think “doesn’t care about us” is not the answer.

Also, I have to agree that “flexibility in thought is what will elevate the condition of our people.”

Posted by: MidLifeMan at October 25, 2005 10:49 AM

I tried to post a track back but I don't think it worked :(. I wrote an argument for black identity politics from based upon transcendent ideals on the blog. Check it out.

Posted by: Dell Gines at October 26, 2005 08:02 AM

Excellent article.

Posted by: child_god at October 26, 2005 08:47 AM

As a point of information, I believe it is important to properly locate the roots of black political and cultural nationalism back in the 18th and 19th century - rather than in the 1960's. I recognize that's a big piece to take on, but I think it's important because the 19th century was really the defining time period. I believe a number of your most compelling points are consistent with the logic of locating nationalism in the 1960's, but would not flow from an earlier positioning. The tension between conservative and liberal (with respect to what government does for black folk) is not a recent phenomenon. Garvey had few expectations, if any, of government. Elijah Muhammad had none. This is significant because they held these positions even there more legal impediments than there are today. Today's conservatives, however, don't seem to be cut from that same cloth.

I don't think you've teased out enough of the nuances among black conservatives to really get at the heart of the dynamic. The conflation of conservatism and assimilation seems to be at the heart of it for many folks today - and that has not always been the case. Nationalists tend to have FAR FEWER expectations of government than do integrationists or assimilationists. So, conflating nationalists (cultural, political or otherwise) with LIBERALS (who place demands on government) is not necessarily an accurate representation of this historical continuum. Nationalists, revolutionaries and conservatives tend to do for self. Integrationists, reformers and such tend to seek coalitions and build connections.

Today's so-called "black conservatives" appear to be vilified as much for their cultural approach (or style-ethos-teleology-axiology-etc.) as for their "politics." It is not obvious to me that your defense of "conservatism," per se, is accurate or needed. By that I mean, conservative Black leadership of a different cultural approach has seldom been vilified by black folk...they have been vilified by liberal integrationists. Conservatism is a widely embraced ideology among black folk. The ideology has always had a home - and always will. What is at issue, seems to be, the authenticity of the carriers of the message. To the extent that these people are attacked by "liberals," it should matter little as this represents business as usual - but to the extent that AS INDIVIDUALS they are unable to get a hearing among black folk, they should be concerned...because the black polity is as wise and dynamic as conservatives say it is.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 26, 2005 10:17 AM

10 26 05

YOu hit the nail on the head! I do believe that the conservative message has always lived in the lives of Black folks. I often hear the elders of the family talk about the government what? They weren't gonna do anything to help us; we had to do it for ourselves! But the focus on family integrity (via extended family networks etc), education and discipline was the hallmark of many in Black communities. One of my grandpas came from an illegitimate relationship in the thirties and his mommy never did marry. Yet he is highly successful and has always been motivated to that end. He got support from his COMMUNITY! The decimation of extended family networks and our communities really increased government reliance and created a schism between Blacks that have and Blacks that don't. I also think your statements about going back to Black Identity politics of the past 2 Centuries is intriguing! And in many ways, what happened then is quite relevant to what is happening now. Say, I did an article about what Would have happened had different choices been made Post Reconstruction. Here is the link:


Cobb, quite a thought provoking post! Thx!

Posted by: Mahndisa at October 26, 2005 06:51 PM

That's a lot to ingest folks.

The question of integration is probably one that gets the most heated, because the ultimate failure of black nationalism seems to be the thing that fuels much to today's disdain for black conservatives.

The Black Power Movement failed to deliver. People are still frustrated about it, but the power that has been delivered has been delivered through the American mainstream - and that's what black radicals hate. It is only the wannabe-radical that distrusts and disdains the real promise that integration holds for blacks still trapped in ghettoes. They keep believing that somehow, someway there is vast untapped power in impoverished blacks that is going to become manifest through collective upheaval. They hate the idea that black liberation is coming from things as boring (and in such close proximity to whitefolks) as an apartment in the suburbs and a desk job.

So the express economic message of contemporary black conservatives is rejected as soulless. And it is precisely this dialectic that generates friction. Black people don't want competence so much as they want blackified competence, and some want it blackified so badly that they would rather have black incompetence.

What speaks loudly about this is that when I say 'conservative black', everything's cool. It immediately brings forth images of Boondocks Grandpa, who is decidely non-mainstream and outrightly cynical about whitefolks. But as soon as I say 'Republican' the white-proximity alarms go off, as well as the instant association with soulless 'evil' capitalism.

The problem with all of this ought to be transparent. It's OK if Master P gets PAID, because of his identity, which is presumeably pro-black. But extract the economic message and place it in the mouth of a white Republican and it becomes transformed into something unappetizing - revolting even.

As long as black politics plays the role-monkey game, there can be no honesty.

Posted by: Anonymous at October 26, 2005 10:08 PM

So the express economic message of contemporary black conservatives is rejected as soulless. And it is precisely this dialectic that generates friction. Black people don't want competence so much as they want blackified competence, and some want it blackified so badly that they would rather have black incompetence.

Somebody's got a bad case of "white folks ice is colder" syndrome. Funny they posted this weak ish anonymously too. Under the present circumstances it seems highly inadvisable to conjoin conservative and competent in the same sentence.

The primary dishonesty and self-abasement is among so-called black conservatives who are simply too soft to repudiate the white racist policy and praxis that contaminates the GOP, and too weak to demand that their allegedly non-racist white allies do the same. These sissies would all just rather switch, than fight.

There are moments when I feel a bit sorry for this 2% element that has lost its roots in the black community, and is incapable of taking root in the white community it adores. These are the most broke playaz on the face of the earth. They got no social capital with anybody, anywhere...,

Posted by: cnulan [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 27, 2005 07:53 AM

There has always been a distinction between form and essence. Human beings unable to make this distinction typically suffer from profound disorders that undermine their ability to engage in social situations. Such is the case of the anonymous poster lamenting the different reactions to "conservative Black" vs. Republican. It should be patently obvious that conservative ideology has standing in the black community and therefore does not generate immediate ire. Republicans, too, have a track record. It is at odds with the empirically measured priorities of blacks in the US. Anecdotes and isolated incidents are not sufficient to counter the weight of the Republican agenda. Therefore, the black community is differentiating between form and essence. The form is distasteful...the essence remains viable. Such wisdom has little to do with role-monkey games, it has everything to do with questioning one's motives. If, after all, the objectionable form is chosen, advocated and defended there MUST be another reason since there is common ground about the essence. If the cost of being Republican is to lose the hearing of black folk, is not sufficient to be conservative and an individual? Of course not...because Republican positions (like Democrat positions) are subsidized. And, the people can see the form for what it is - an objectionable affront to their sensibilities.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 27, 2005 09:31 AM

Integrationists need to come with some numbers. In other words, if your belief is that this is a viable paradigm, it should be demonstrable. There should be baseline data to form the basis of the empirical analysis...there should be benchmarks...and a predictive theory to test the hypothesis. In addition, it would be helpful is proponents of this ideology could flesh it out with respect to politics, economics, social and cultural life.

The problem of laying out this paradigm intellectually will be that the most articulate voice for the paradigm abandoned the position. Intellectually, little has been done to pick up where he left off after his break with the NAACP or subsequent to his departure from the US to spend his final days in Ghana.

I don't write to suggest that an articulate defense will emerge here...after all, John McWhorter and others are still fumbling with Piscarcikian aplomb. I am suggesting that proclamations without nuance to centuries old discussions does a disservice to the conversation. It is not the best invitation to those new to the conversation and it amounts to a Black America 101 class for others.

The question of "delivery" is one such point. It seems that the idea of a Black Power movement failing is something born of myopia. When did this movement start - who led it - what was the goal - when did it end - what remains? All valid questions. Proclamations of failure, while pithy, yield precious little. As for the American mainstream...is it worth noting how much that "mainstream" has shifted since 1950. Integrationists have had virtually nothing to do with that from an economic, cultural or political standpoint. Why?

1) Integrationists don't have an economic position and as such do not build wealth beyond the scope of individuals. Blacks continue to spend 96 cents of every dollar in non-Black communities and do not control a single industry. This situation is not even a concern of integrationists, generally, because an economy already exists - and legal access is the only barrier of concern.

2) Integrationists operate beyond the rich cultural templates and creations of most black folk - and therefore, are grounded in other communities. There is no program or work effort expended to galvanize cultural development as an engine for educational, economic, technological or territorial development. This area is beyond the paradigm.

3) In the political realm, integrationists have reaped the largest benefits - operating principally as gate keepers against an undifferentiated black mass beyond the door. Nationalists who used integrationist methods (as Cobb noted in discussing a recent Fortune article) appear to have generated different results.

I'm throwing this out to start the conversation - if folks want to engage...let's get it going.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 27, 2005 09:49 AM

I'm remote. Keep it coming. I would say that the proof pf the integrationist plan is twofold. One is support of Affirmative Action. Two is the demographics of blacks in New Hampshire et al See Booker Rising.

Posted by: cobb at October 27, 2005 10:39 AM

T3, before you spend any further cycles attempting to enlighten the brother, recall that he has no subjective appreciation for identity transparency and the actual experiential objectives of interpersonal communion.

He has previously staunchly defended normotic illness as a way of life, and will reflexively dismiss the the objective of participation mystique because he seems genuinely never to have experienced it in a group context.

Even though his education and profession have all the requisite mapper hallmarks, brother Cobb has been quite thoroughly conditioned to filter the world via some pernicious packerism. These filters find their principal expression in his politics.

The brother only knows black packing, he has no personal experience of black mapping, until he experiences the latter, no argument will rescue him from dwshelfian circularity.

Posted by: cnulan [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 27, 2005 12:39 PM

You took the words right out of my subconscious. Amazing!

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 27, 2005 12:53 PM

I rea your article Cobb and even though there are parts I disagree with I can see there are some thoughtful black conservatives.

Unfortuantely as long as Black Conservaives like Ken Hamberlin, La Shawn Barber, Larry Elder, Star Parker and The Reverend Jesse Peterson are the poster children for your type of thought most idependents (like me )and progressives will tune you out because you will not condemn what many so-called "colorblind" white conservatives has said (Limbaugh, Savage, Beck, Boortz Hastert)and calling hurricane victims parasites and Welfare mentality types like Parker and Peterson have stated on various T.V. shows (black folk who were starving and could not afford to get out of the city)The average black person thinks your cons are more concerned with defending the GOP and President Bush than the safety of AA.

Posted by: eric at October 28, 2005 09:40 AM

What P6 has done with Shelby Steele seems somehow apropos to the subconscious motives (and aren't they all?) which dictate preference for white ice. Now I'm not saying that the political certainty that white ice is colder is the same as shame, but from where I sit, it seems to exist in the same realm of emotional vice because I've read your not infrequently repeated assertions that black pride is all that separates us from getting with the conservative program and abandoning our own.

Shelby Steele has really played himself this time...,

Thankfully, Prometheus 6 has brought Steele's self-loathing tripe up for examination

and after a little participatory deliberation, done the exceedingly dirty and unrewarding work of deconstructing the psychological mess that Steele very publicly disclosed in service to his appreciative overlords.

In three parts; Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 P6 exposes the root cause of Steele's 2% angst.

Mr. Steele writes as though he knows Black folks feel this shame over being inferior, but all he has presented indicates that feeling of shame is his alone. Frankly, given his public accomplishments I'm not sure why he's only buried rather than banished any such concern; having had the concern though, it's just not that unusual to assume everyone else feels just like you.

Posted by: cnulan [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 28, 2005 09:40 AM

Unfortuantely as long as Black Conservaives like Ken Hamberlin, La Shawn Barber, Larry Elder, Star Parker and The Reverend Jesse Peterson..

Demonizing them doesn't help. That's why I've put together a community portal so that the wide variety of black conservatives can express themselves and defeat the media portrayals of who we actually are. Join the discussion at conservativebrotherhood.org

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 28, 2005 10:37 AM