Gerald Early's "The End of Race" misses the boat

From Liberator contributor Lydia Howell: "I shared the Gerald Early piece with quite a few people and the wonderful Black twin cities writer Syl Jones responded with his rebuttal. Please publish to continue the conversation! He asked me to send it to Liberator."

Gerald Early Misses The Boat (By Syl Jones): I could barely contain my astonishment at Gerald Early’s inaccurate and self-hating piece “The End Of Race As We Know It.” His portrayal of 1960’s and 1970’s era black radicalism and self-consciousness bears little resemblance to the great majority of African Americans I knew who were struggling with identity issues but in no way embraced Islam or even the faux Islamist stance of the Black Muslims.

In fact, Early’s article seems to belong to a mountain of revisionist history on 20th century African American failings – reflections that even incorporate Ronald Reagan’s ridiculous notions of America as “the bright shining city on the hill” – and that are intended to whitewash both the past and the present. Early certain knows better intellectually, but he has apparently succumbed to the misplaced optimism that attends the very real possibility that a black man might become the next President of the United States.

Leaving aside for the moment this irrational exuberance over the potential for an Obama Presidency -- the subtext for Early’s piece -- it is clear from the beginning that Early doesn’t get it. He states that the New Yorker Magazine cover of July 21 2008, in which Obama and his wife Michelle were portrayed as Muslim radicals, “was funny as a kind of political and cultural satire, but only if you view the Obamas as channeling the first generation of black students to attend elite, white universities.”

No, it was funny because it spoofed the rumors planted by McCain’s handlers that Michelle was an angry black woman and Barack was a Muslim. The humor springs from caricaturing the rumors as well as those who promulgated them, and showing white Americans the bizarre nature of the racist subtext in the current Presidential election. But Early can’t see that because he is intent on giving us a broader, more outsized lesson on black mythology from the 1970s. “That was my generation,” he says, “Many of us were secretly, in our imagination, Muslim back in those days, or we adopted certain superficial Muslim pieties. We didn't eat pork, castigating it as slave food, and we sometimes called God "Allah."

One wonders where Early attended college and why he feels the need to generalize about African American identity back in the day. The great majority of people I knew who stood up for black freedom and equal opportunity, who perhaps attained admission to good schools through Affirmative Action programs, were not caught up in pretend radicalism. The radicalism, as far as it went, was real. The institutions that gave us those scholarships were in no way prepared for an invasion of African American students. Some tried to offer support for the obvious differences we brought to a campus – such as our unwillingness to be told what to wear or which fraternities to rush, who to date, and how to deal with college expenses while sending money back home to Mom and Dad – but many expected black students to simply “fit in.”

We weren’t going to fit in after generations of substandard treatment, including relatively poor preparation for college by inadequate schools. Brown Vs. The Board of Education happened in 1954, but that was less than a generation before we entered college. As Early states, some succeeded and some failed but what stands out for me, in retrospect, is not the imagined cultural mau-mauing that Early references but rather the seriousness of purpose that most African American students brought to their studies. Most that I knew not only graduated but went on to contribute something to the greater community. And, they did this not because racism ended. They did it because the courts opened the door to equal opportunity and many of us out performed our peers despite continued racism.

To make matters worse, Early reprises the Dinesh D’Souza book The End of Racism that he describes as proposing, “if racism has a historical beginning (which it does), then it must be reasonable to think it would have a historical end.”

D’Souza has long since proven that his ulterior motive in writing this book was to ingratiate himself to conservative political activists who are determined to promote the idea that racism is a thing of the past and therefore, black anti-racist activism is anachronistic. Anyone who has been following the Presidential debate knows that this is untrue. The attacks against Barack Obama by John McCain’s proxies are replete with code words that even whites and their organizations – such as the Associated Press, which castigated McCain for his tactics -- recognize as racist. In addition, Obama himself has done very little to highlight issues affecting the poor, who are noticeably absent from the national discussion. Yes, the middle class is suffering but the poor have been all but forgotten, and so has America’s moral obligation to help its weakest citizens. This is not benign neglect. It is a blatant attempt to remove poor people of color from the America body politic. It is racist to its core and Early knows it.

Early’s obsession with discrediting what he calls “black victimization” is not so much a condemnation of his intellectual prowess as it is proof that he is doing well economically, socially and politically. So are many of the rest of us, but we are not sequestered in ivory towers or otherwise out of touch with those who are suffering each day from systemic racism. The number of poor people in this country is rising in direct relation to the number of millionaires who’ve been created by the machinations of Wall Street. Black and Latino people in particular are being ignored except as scapegoats for the meltdowns on Wall Street.

So, D’Souza’s premise that somehow we have reached the historical end of racism is patently absurd. Racism has simply mutated into a more virulent but perhaps less widespread disease. Those who are more prone its affects in this stage of its mutation tend to be 1) Angry whites who sense that America is no longer an exclusive club for its family members and 2) Wealthy black Americans who have “made it” and are eager to forget about the bad old days. Unfortunately for us, these two groups are on a collision course. If Obama does become President and his safety is compromised by those in the first group above – as it most certainly will be – then those in the second group above, wealthy black Americans like Early, will howl the loudest and will revert to 1960s radicalism in a heartbeat. If such a tragedy were to ensue, black intellectuals would be the first to take to the streets literally and figuratively.

Finally, Martin Luther King Jr.’s the term “beloved community,” which Early uses to end his most recent piece, is completely misrepresented. In their book, “Search For the Beloved Community,” Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr. note the following:

“The point is that King believed it was God’s intention that everyone should have the physical and spiritual necessities of life. He could not envision the Beloved Community apart from the alleviation of economic inequity and the achievement of economic justice. Harvey Cox has aptly pointed out that King combined with this emphasis two traditional biblical themes: the "holiness of the poor" and the "blessed community." In the movement King led, blacks were the embodiment of "the poor" and integration represented the vision of "the holy community." Cox explains:

“ ‘It is . . . essential to notice that the two elements, the holy outcast and the blessed community, must go together. Without the vision of restored community, the holiness ascribed to the poor would fall far short of politics and result in a mere perpetuation of charity and service activities.’ “

When you read this explanation of what the Beloved Community is, there can be little doubt that black Americans were to play a profoundly important role in creating and refining it. In fact, the poor and their desire for equal opportunity were to be pillars in the crafting of a more just society. Without a continual reminder that injustice is at the center of the American nightmare and that certain fundamental truths have eluded those who rule this nation, the Beloved Community is nothing more than a dream. Black Americans who agitate for reform, who point out the inequities of the system, who refuse to settle in comfortably with their middle class lifestyles and turn their backs on systemic racism, are not engaging in “black victimization.” They are doing what they can to ensure that the Beloved Community – if it ever comes to fruition -- is as inclusive as possible.

Finally, I cannot escape the feeling that Gerald Early somehow believes that his ancestors came over on the Mayflower while the rest of ours took different boats. The very real trauma associated with being African American and treated as the Other – just as Barack Obama is being treated right now in the Presidential campaign by no less than a Senator of the United States – does not go away because one attains a certain level of respect in society. Those who live in the real world know that such respect can quickly fade when one is outside a certain comfort zone, communing with the yahoos who’ve been taught that because of our skin color and our socialization, we are “not like” them. To pretend that black Americans are imagining this difference – and to do so while functioning as a prominent black intellectual – means one of two things: either you are not paying attention, or your zeal to be included in the good ole boy’s network has forever dulled your senses.

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