Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Whitlock and the Politics of Blackness

Jason Whitlock loves black people. He unapologetically loves blackness and embraces it without hesitation. In a country, no world, predicated upon the disposability of the black body such an open and unguarded expression of love for black peoples is a radical proposition. But, contrary to shallow, saccharine representations of MLK and Gandhi, love, even a radical love of self, is not a political platform, though it is a powerful political statement.

It is this common misunderstanding, mistaking for a love for self and "community" (however you define it) as a self-contained that obscures not only trenchant political critique but also a coherent, actionable, and, dare I say, radical program.

Whitlock's most recent column shows the pitfalls that arise from a politics centered on loving blackness instead of challenging anti-blackness. This politics of blackness, which I would say is different than a black politics, plays with a dangerous essentialism that not only threatens to turn the black community into an undifferentiated mass, but also displaces the object of black political concern away from anti-black racism, the liberal logics of unfettered property rights and individualist politics, and instead becomes a project of intra-racial disciplining. The result is an inverted pedagogy of the oppressed that seeks not to counter the conventional wisdom of the day, a wisdom that is always liberal, capitalist, and anti-black, but instead seeks to accommodate it and turn the supposed failures of the black community back onto itself.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are vital institutions for black Americans. Most HBCUs were founded in the immediate period after the Civil War in states with large black populations (read: former slave states) and were tasked with educating a nascent black elite. They have a long and proud history of producing black leaders and intellectuals. Until very recently, HBCUs were still responsible for producing the majority of black college graduates. But for-profit colleges like University of Phoenix, Everest College and countless locally serving for-profit secondary institutions have surpassed HBCUs in producing degreed black Americans. This shift reflects many things, the desire to be more economically competitive in slack job markets through gaining credentials, the desegregation of higher educational institutions that removed a good proportion of the captive student body HBCUs could draw from, and a concerted campaign of disinvestment from both the state and federal government over the past decades to choke the life out of these schools.

Something we can definitely agree on, though, is that the decline of HBCUs is not principally due to a lack of alumni giving or black Americans not caring for "our own institutions". Whitlock ignores the structural contexts of HBCU existence, again a context that is first and foremost virulently anti-black, and instead seeks to scold and discipline black people for insufficiently loving ourselves and our institutions. In other words, he attacks black people for being insufficiently in love with their own blackness, instead of recognizing the external attacks on black people and black institutions.

His column's most eloquent expression of racial disciplining is best exemplified in his comparison of Grambling State University and Notre Dame. Whitlock uses the example of Notre Dame and wonders whether the,"...well-to-do white catholics-- would flee their prized institution and let the football program rot from neglect, indifference, and a desire to make non-white Catholics love them?" This is in reference to the Grambling football team and its many trials over the past two decades. But what one should focus upon here is a fundamental misunderstanding of the context in which Notre Dame exists and the accusation of insufficient blackness as the primary driver of Grambling's issues.

Notre Dame is an elite private Catholic institution. It was started by and is still partially supported by the Holy Cross brotherhood of the Catholic Church. It has an endowment of over six BILLION dollars. It draws upon not only the private wealth of its esteemed alumni but also the support of the Catholic Church. A 2000 year old institution that is its own sovereign nation and is present in almost every country across the globe. And I would be remiss if I did not remind folks that  some proportion of the wealth of the Church comes from the benefits of black and indigenous slavery and the wealth benefits that white Catholics have gained over the years in profiting off of an economic system built upon the exploitation of black labor and the expropriation of black wealth.

Grambling State University is a public HBCU founded in 1901 in Louisiana for the purpose of educating black residents of northern Louisiana. The land on which the school was founded was donated by a local white lumber king. It has an endowment of nearly five MILLION dollars to serve approximately 5,000 students. Grambling has always depended upon the support of the state and Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal, has supervised a constant campaign of disinvestment, most recently cutting over $50 MILLION dollars of support. Grambling's decline is not due to the depraved indifference of a blind population obsessed with white acceptance, but is the inevitable result when states and the federal government disinvest from their own institutions. It should go without saying that the donated income of a few successful alumni will not be able to fill the gap made not only by more consistent external funding but centuries of accumulated wealth that black Americans have never had access to.

And this is what Whitlock's politics of blackness misses. It is not a radical proposition to retreat into the doctrine of "self-help" as the solution to black America's ills. This embodies what Adolph Reed Jr. calls a "politics of capitulation" that does not seek to demand that black Americans be afforded the same rights, privileges, and supports that non-blacks have, but instead turns away from "external" critiques and limits its critique at the racial line. Thus black disadvantage must primarily (because Whitlock and others will recognize racism's existence) due to black folks' unwillingness to properly support black people. This is the politics of blackness in its most pure manifestation. It is always a politics that rests upon a monolithic black particularity and is measured by one's racial authenticity and stated love for black people as opposed to actually representing or advocating for the interests of blacks. It not only abandons structural critique, but also subsumes intra-black difference by assigning a common political identity based upon racial identity as opposed to recognizing that black people, like any other group of people, is made up of a multiplicity of interests that cannot be boiled down to racial identity.

If black politics is to move forward, then it is time to abandon the politics of blackness that places responsibility for black community advancement squarely at the foot of black people as opposed to the racist state in which we live, and that equates black political success with the isolated success of black elites. Such a focus excuses someone like Barack Obama from concerted and vocal black critique due to a defensive posture that assumes that the criticism of one of us is a criticism of all of us. As long as Obama and other black political leaders support policies that contribute to increasing poverty in black neighborhoods, the imprisonment of black peoples, and, ultimately, the early death of black people, then we will never move towards a more responsible and radical black politics.