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October 25, 2004


You say that it's the institution, well
You know you better free your mind instead.
-- The Beatles

Spence is undertaking the decision to homeschool his kids. Aside from the drain on scheduling, I really can't see where he might go wrong - other than raising kids who might not excel at team sports and other sorts of collaborative endeavors. I'm sure he'll work it out.

His initiative is courageous and independent-minded. Why can't more people be like Spence? Such observations and questions, in a black vein bring to mind older more persistent questions about leadership and prospects for the future. Let's start, as usual, with King and X.

One of the first things I recall absorbing in regards to these towering figures of American history was that they left little in regards to institutions that would carry forward the work they were doing. Aside from this very dynamic nature of history, I was inclined to believe that if somebody did something excellent that everyone saw, we as a people ought to have learned the lesson and not made the same mistakes twice. And yet many of the same problems blacks had back in the day were resurfacing - every year someone was discovering the brilliance of King and X all over again.

Although we've had some reasons to lower the volume of our complaint of late, blackfolks have always argued that we could never progress as a nation unless the real stories behind these exceptional men was taught. Continuing in the tradition of Carter G. Woodson, we insist that black progress depends upon a sound understanding of black history. And in the early 70s much of the energy off the street was deflected towards the academy. With all the emphasis on the documentation of the black experience, it was inevitable that America would find some element of compromise by swallowing whole cloth every aspect of every complaint mau-mauing radicals could get across. The university was under assault, a non-violent intellectual radicalization whose effects remains staggeringly weighty now 30 years later. The revolution went to off the streets and onto the page.

We have also made, rightly I think, the unavoidable point that there is this thing called 'institutional racism' that persists beyond the bigotry of individuals. And so these opposing twins of institutionalized revolt and institutional racism have commanded the attention of people interested in the fate of blackfolks. It is an institutionalized battle.

We all remember the old joke that marriage is a great institution, but who wants to be committed into an institution. I oftimes wonder if our attention to institutions isn't buried a little to deeply into the psyche of black liberation. Surely any freebooting conservative will argue you into a corner about the liberating power of individualism. The traditional response to that has been that the success of any one or few blacks does nothing to raise the condition of the people. (One of the great ironies is that this very argument is a classic attack against affirmative action.) I dig affirmative action even when it's tokenism because of the freight that is handled by exceptional black individuals. For better or worse, we deal with the consequences of the acts and utterances of a few extraordinary blackfolks on the national scene. Whether it's Bill Cosby or OJ Simpson, some individual is always sucking up the oxygen. So sooner or later we ought to deal with individualism, keeping in mind the costs and benefits of institutional progress & battles.

On the leading edge of black society, those individuals show us things that we need to know - just as exceptional individuals like Angela Davis was showing us how universities could be transformed, pioneers like Earl Graves showed us how businesses could be transformed. These were new Americas to be exploited by masses of African Americans, and so in the 80s my generation did. For the first time, we started attending 'predominantly white' universities in numbers larger than HBCUs. For the first time, 'Corporate America' was under siege by massive numbers of black entry-level and mid-level employees. We changed the institutions forever.

In doing so we straddled individualism and collectivism. We advanced the race through mass integrative action. We institutionalized those initiatives that embedded us deeper in the institutional power structures of America. Affirmative Action was, by and large, the institutional engine of that initiative. But even without it, our cause was singularly focused on the establishment of a permanent black presence in instititutions that had previously barred us. It was our institutional integrations and revolutions against their institutional racisms.

Have I used the word enough times? Are you getting sick of hearing it? Me too.

Over the past 2 years or so, I've been focusing on class in the political context of Republicanism and the Old School. I see this now as part of gaining confidence of going down to the one. When I was growing up, everyone was a Negro. Then we split into Negroes and Blacks. We could handle that. As I started dealing with class (in college, big time and on the job with finality) it was mostly Buppies vs the rest of blackdom. Nelson George evolved us a good step with splitting up our generation, the post-soul generation, into B-Boys, Buppies, Bohos and Baps. In the early 90s I was a Bap/Boho. Having traveled to and lived in the 'Mecca' of Atlanta, I was able to see for myself how strongly class lines could be drawn between blacks, and as a family man I chose without hesitation. More recently I have colloquialized five classes of blackfolks - (Projects, Ghetto, Hood, Burbs, Hill). If my evolving consciousness signifies anything, I think it is the realization and reconciliation with that realization, that African Americans are all progressing and regressing at different rates, socioeconomically speaking. When America catches a cold, all Black America does *not* catch pneumonia. We're too diverse.

Whether or not the rest of America is ready, willing or able to deal with black America as something much more discrete than a monolith, we who see each other all the time, know it. The question is whether or not our politics is ready to deal with our socialization. But I don't want to frame this as a political question, so much as one that deals with the instrumentalities of our liberation and emergence. It's bigger than politics.

Just as I don't want anyone to glom on to the instrumentality or purported centrality of Affirmative Action policy in black progress, I want us to understand all of the different ways and means blackfolks have moved towards the mass institutions of power. Because now I see opportunities for smaller groups of blackfolks to cut paths into smaller institutions which are equally if not more empowering than those we changed over the past 20 years.

I'm talking Russell 2000 instead of Fortune 500. I'm talking Inc instead of Forbes. I'm talking charter schools instead of massive bussing. I'm talking Third World Kings and Second World Princes instead of First World Dukes. I'm talking about blacks taking advantage of the powers of decentralization and disintermediation heralded by virtual corporations, flat organizations and internet thinking.

There will be no institution, not even the United States Government its massive self, which will be able to provide the empowerment to masses of African American in our interminable quests for power and respect. There will be smaller ones giving a variety of powers to smaller groups of blackfolks heading in all sorts of different, and yes conflicting directions. This is what we should expect.

So when we begin to ask questions about education, our choices need to be more complex and diverse than those facing the black families of Little Rock 50 years ago. Don't be surprised if there is no one answer or that nobody institutionalizes the answer or result. We will be flexible and only that way will we persist and succeed.

Posted by mbowen at October 25, 2004 08:22 PM

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I was re-reading Cruse for the umpteenth time for a paper I wrote on black nationalism, and I caught a phrase I'd never caught before in his work--New Institutionalism. Now in political science that term means a new formal theory centered focus on the way that institutions (through norms, rules, and regulations) structure political behavior and political outcomes. But in Cruse I knew he was looking for something different. He never got around to what he meant by it.

Posted by: Lester Spence at October 25, 2004 10:07 PM

I'm not as conciously studied in this area, but what you say seems to confirm my suspicion that societal and economic diversity within the monolithic concept of "black America" is at the point that constructive efforts to "raise the condition of the people" should be economically based rather than racially based. As I have said to you before, I believe that perceived undeserved favoritism toward middle and upper class minorities based solely upon racial factors confirms for some an assumption of inadequacy that is behind much "institutional racism" as well as betrays the fundamental concept of fairness America supposedly stands for. A policy of economic uplift, informed by the real differences in life experience and culture that are ethnic based, has the same raising effect without a lot of the baggage associated with purely racial programs.

Posted by: submandave at October 26, 2004 01:44 PM