On April 4, 2017, Harlem’s Riverside Baptist Church (along with Iliff School of Theology) hosted a 50th anniversary event to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, written in large part by the late Dr. Vincent Harding. “A Time to Break the Silence” was the subtitle of the original speech, which King knew would polarize some of his supporters, especially those who were against him speaking out on Vietnam. And indeed, King was assassinated one year later to the day.
The powerful event a few weeks ago featured Rachel Harding, Michelle Alexander, and Ruby Sales. It was very much on my mind this week as attended a rather tepid talk by social historian of Hip Hop, Jeff Chang, at the university of Denver. During the past two weeks, the United States government has sent missiles and bombs into two foreign nations in its ongoing imperialistic war on terrorism, including the largest non-nuclear bomb, the so-called “Mother-Of-All-Bombs,” MOAB.
Although news that it had been dropped had spread less than 24 hours before Chang’s talk, not a word was mentioned as he riffed on the necessity for reintegration and Kendrick Lamar’s “We Gon’ Be Alright.”
And indeed, as a dean of the school – who seemed more concerned with ending the event early – rudely prevented a young Asian woman from asking her question so the audience could go home without being challenged from the hallmark-card discussion about racism, I walked out of the mostly white filled auditorium saddened and thoughtful about the deep entrenchment of racism within knowledge-producing institutions. The deeper I look into this, the deeper I see racism at work in American political theology.
Before the event I had been reading Alan Gilbert’s Black Patriots and Loyalists, a thorough history of the roles of Black people in the American Revolution. After the event, as I went back to my reading, I was synthesizing its contents with that of White World Order, Black Power Politics, by Robert Vitalis. In the book he points to Edward Ross’s 1901address in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science entitled, “The Causes of Racial Superiority.”
Vitalis footnotes that the American Sociological Association’s biography of Edward Ross was edited during the circulation of his manuscript, suggesting an attempt to save face. In Ross’s 1901 statement, he claimed:
There is the equality fallacy inherited from the earlier thought of the last century, which belittles race differences and has a robust faith in the power of intercourse and school instruction to lift up a backward folk to the level of the best. Then there is the counter fallacy, grown up since Darwin, which exaggerates the race factor and regards actual differences of peoples as hereditary and fixed. (67)
Ross lamented historians’ overly broad characterizations of race based on categories such as affinities for monotheistic or polytheistic religion:
A keener analysis connects these great historical contrasts with a number of slight specific differences in body or temperament. For example, four diverse traits of the greatest social importance, namely, progressiveness, the spirit of adventure, migrancy and the disposition to flock to cities, can be traced to a courageous confidence in the unknown coupled with the high physical tone that calls for action.(68)
Ross went on, “it is only by establishing fixed, specific differences of this kind that we can hope to explain those grand race contrasts that enchant the historian.” As Vitalis notes, Ross attributed those superior traits to Anglo-Saxons (31). Behind this is a preference for the Northern United States and for cities over agrarian lands. In other words, the history of the South’s defeat in the Civil War is at work in Ross’s framing, and the remaining population of former slaves holds back its progress.
This frame leads Ross to an exigence that is twofold: first, in relation to Americans “multiplying indiscriminately” (miscegenation); second, Asians adopting white norms and enjoying “equal opportunity” (immigration). Both of these impulses, for Ross, risk the “race suicide” of Anglo-Saxons. This fear was, of course, in keeping with emergent Jim Crow laws and segregation during Reconstruction. Looking back on Ross’s sentiments helps to historically contextualize W.E.B. Du Bois’s words in The Souls of Black Folk a few years later.
The red-stain of bastardy, which two centuries of systematic legal defilement of Negro women had stamped upon his race, meant not only the loss of ancient African chastity, but also the hereditary weight of a mass of corruption from white adulterers, threatening almost the obliteration of the Negro home.(12)
Notice Du Bois’s use of metaphor in the passage. It links the genealogical to the legal frame that perpetuated slavery. What is inherited is the weight of a corrupt legal tradition. At the same time that “Negro sexuality” has been disrupted by the rape of African women, the forced relocation has left black people without a home. Emergent Jim Crow laws were reinforcing this alienation, and Du Bois claimed that African Americans needed to find their own cultural resources in addition to being forced into manual labor.
The bind of double-consciousness is not only the condition of being already alienated in mixed company, feeling one’s twoness, but also in the urgent necessity to find a place of one’s own in the midst of oppression, a place that is not divorced from history, family, and culture. Du Bois called for the space for African Americans to recover and create their cultural resources outside of the hegemony of white culture:
A people thus handicapped ought not to be asked to race with the world, but rather allowed to give all its time and thought to its own social problems. But alas! While sociologists gleefully count his bastards and his prostitutes, the very soul of the toiling, sweating black man is darkened by the shadow of vast despair. (12)
Amid the despair Du Bois describes is the coercive impulse to acculturate to white ethnic standards and behaviors. While Black people were expected to bow down to white notions of “progress” and “culture,” Du Bois was articulating what Gayatri Spivak would later call for in her famous question, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”
Du Bois describes African Americans as “well nigh speechless” before this presentation of a cultural hierarchy in which they are forced to willingly recognize their own inferiority (13). The result is a “disdain for everything black, from Toussaint to the devil.” Moving back to the discussion of legal frames, Du Bois notes: “And the Nation echoed and enforced this self-criticism, saying: Be content to be servants, and nothing more; what need of higher culture for half men? Away with the black man’s ballot, by force or fraud – and behold the suicide of the race!”
Of course, what Du Bois is describing is forced suicide, what Raphael Lemkin would later term genocide with respect to Armenian war. What I want to suggest then, is that in current terms, W.E.B. Dubois in The Souls of Black Folk was arguing against not just a racist “eugenics” that happily favored white or “Anglo-Saxon” stock but the implication that went along with such science: nsmely, that the black population was dying a “natural” death due to its genetic inferiority.
“Eugenics” merely framed in happy terms, genocide, masking the legally imbricatated and institutionally calculated impulse to exterminate. It was considered both scientifically and logically the end of a “natural” teleology. This same “end” was of course later the “end” of the so-called “final solution,” the solution to what was considered genetic “garbage.” And, as we know, Hitler admired the United States forced ghettoization of American Indians – a situation Agamben tracks in State of Exception.
The term “genocide” masks its own political theological roots in the west by erupting in the careful work of Raphael Lemkin. He coined it in 1943 and published “Genocide – a Modern Crime in the April 1945 issue of Free World – “A Non-Partisan Magazine devoted to the United Nations and Democracy.” Responding directly to remarks made by Hitler, Lemkin says:
The crime of the Reich in wantonly and deliberately wiping out whole peoples is not utterly new in the world. It is only new in the civilized world as we have come to think of it. It is so new in the traditions of civilized man that he has no name for it. It is for this reason that I took the liberty of inventing the word, “genocide.” The term is from the Greek word genes meaning tribe or race and the Latin cide meaning killing. Genocide tragically enough must take its place in the dictionary of the future beside other tragic words like homicide and infanticide. (39)
Lemkin was more prescient than he may have been aware of in this statement. He correctly attributes “genocide” to a shift of thinking with modernity. The “modern” nature the conception of genocide as a crime owes much to the 18th and 19th century development and expansion of Nation State and the role of imperialism in perpetuating its instantiation.
In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois notices this in his recognition of the “legal defilement” of African Americans through slavery. When we combine the sociological / “scientific” views expressed by Ross and other leading figures around the turn of the 20th century, we can see that the design of Jim Crow segregation was the preservation of whiteness against a black population that (like the Indians at their lowest population in the 1890s) would “natural” die off because of its lack of intrinsic strength.
Siphoning off their access to culture merely helped perpetuate the extermination of black people. Du Bois’s reference to Toussaint becomes especially relevant here, because the active alienation of Haiti by other nation-states proceeded by the same logic. Look at Haiti today.
What I believe Du Bois is really suggesting in The Souls of Black Folk is revolution. His revolution is articulated toward the end of the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk:
Work, culture, liberty, – all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each…in order that some day on American soil two world-races may give to each other those characteristics both so sadly lack. (14)
The revolution that Du Bois is calling for here is the eventual integration of two “races.” To white supremacists like Ross and the majority white American sociologists at the time, Du Bois’s call must have been read as a suggestion for their own “race suicide.”
Robert Vitalis points to other key figures in “scientific” white supremacy, not just Ross. John Wesley Powell connected Anglo-Saxons with Aryans and designed a good portion of the reservation system to contain indigenous people in North America (46). Vitalis also points to G. Stanley Hall (founder of The Journal of Genetic Psychology and the Journal of Race Development).
Du Bois developed counterhegemonic networks, according to Aldon Morris’s articulation of counterhegemonic capital in his book on Du Bois, The Scholar Denied. Morris claims these “have not been identified or analyzed in the [sociological] literature” (187). This leads Morris to articulate the novel idea of liberation capital, which “is a form of capital used by oppressed and resource-starved scholars to initiate and sustain the research program of a non-hegemonic school” (188).
Morris explicitly discusses Du Bois, who “was steeped in intellectual capital,” in contrast with Franklin Giddings who taught sociology at Columbia University. Giddings’s post at Columbia as well as his membership with the American Eugenics Society afforded him to promote racist views with scholarly authority. In contrast, “Du Bois, holder of one of the most prestigious degrees in social science, could secure only an academic appointment at a resource-starved historically black university, where he challenged the scientific racism promoted by Giddings and others” (180).
Liberation capital is one of the key outcomes of Morris’s in-depth account of Du Bois, and it is more sophisticated than a sense of “social justice” in that it is group-focused within a capitalist system. It is “a necessary condition for a nonhegemonic school to make up the resource deficits caused by refusal of elite funders to support liberation scholarship and the activism in which it is embedded.” (188)
As opposed to a social justice model that sustains itself while its advocates wait for people in power to take part in the “right side of history,” Morris’s thought echoes in ways Derek Bell’s critical race theory (and more broadly, critical legal studies). It recognizes a social construction of accepted scholarly discourse and – as Du Bois had done a century earlier – the fact that even the most scientifically “objective” criteria work in discursive frames that are built within social imaginaries.
The challenge to “scientific” racism is perhaps the supreme example of this, and yet many people who are epistemologically conservative with respect to knowledge production are still unable to come to terms with encultured and trans-generational racism.
For me, part of what is at stake in Du Bois, Vitalis, and Morris is what George Lipsitz long ago termed, in a book of the same title, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness – a possessiveness that I at one time had to wrestle with coming from a white, working-class family with nine children and feeling anything but privileged. I remember as a college student coming to understand this when I first read Du Bois as he pointed out the ways that African Americans are encouraged to buy into such an investment.
I think that pressure to invest – and the necessity to divest – continues today. In The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois recounts his memory of the rejection of a Valentine’s Day card by a fellow white student as a child, which made him aware of his blackness. Similarly, Kenneth B. Clark’s landmark sociological study, “How Children Learn About Race” produced evidence used to nullify Jim Crow law based on psychological studies of children of color who were enculturated to see whiteness as aesthetically superior.
In a more recent article, George Lipsitz titled “The Time Has Come Today,” he notes that “both parties” in the U.S. since the 1990s have benefited from the ideological success of blaming all social evils on the destruction of the nuclear family. Referencing Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative and the Moynihan Report, Lipsitz says:
Tukufii Zuberi notes the harm perpetrated by this innately anti-sociological frame that was developed and legitimated by social scientists. The emphasis on culture serves the same purpose that biology did in the era of eugenics. In this shift from one type of essentialism to another, “a focus on unproductive behavior of the unassimilated” Zuberi argues (p. 1577), constitutes “a return to viewing the Negro as a [peculiar] problem. (6)
The takeaway here is that the 21st century issue is not one of “social constructions” versus the sciences or rehashings of the Sokal Affair. As the Lipsitz quotation indicates, what needs to be addressed is something more than the encultured domination of heteronormative and nuclear family structures; it is also more than Black Arts and culture, despite the great power of Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
We will not be alright until we find ways to confront our investments in imperialistic impulses and strong-father scapegoats for the continuing lack of what Walter Benjamin called a “heightened presence of mind.” Raoul Peck creates a supreme aesthetic example of this in his film on James Baldwin, I am Not Your Negro, through a montage from glossy white, suburban escapist cinema to lynching.
And that is what the United States does daily, especially when it drops multimillion dollar bombs on poor Asian countries, pushing inevitably toward another World War. This is where we must seek our liberation capital. We need to skillfully and vigilantly connect the ways these impulses inhabit us, precede us, and disturbingly speak us when we call bombs “moms.”
Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado. His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics. He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles. In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn. He is also a performing musician and a composer.