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Eugene Rivers' Challenge: A Response

by Eugene Genovese

Eugene Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974) redefined the study of American slavery. Here, Genovese replies to Eugene Rivers's "On The Responsibility of Intellectuals In the Age of Crack" (Boston Review, September/October 1992) and to the subsequent forum on that subject with Rivers, Margaret Burnham, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, Glenn Loury, and Cornel West (Boston Review, January/February 1993).

In his welcome open letter on "The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack," Eugene Rivers has posed hard questions "without horns." And the Boston Review is to be congratulated for publishing the valuable responses by leading black intellectuals. In a graceful and prudent style designed to discourage phrase-mongering and posturing, Mr. Rivers challenges, implicitly as well as explicitly, a good many reigning shibboleths and calls for an honest reassessment of ideological positions. I should like to respond to this call. As background, I will make some historical observations that may seem far removed from the current travail of black people that Rivers and the respondents have properly brought to center stage. But I believe that these historical matters bear directly on painful day-to-day problems, and will -- by the end -- show their importance for contemporary understanding and action.

Conventional discussions of black experience treat black Americans as a "class," "nation," or "colonial" people. Each of these views offers useful insights but all are partial and inadequate. The black experience in America has been unique -- literally without parallel in the experience of other peoples. Blacks came as slaves. Their masters imposed a strange new religion; assaulted their family relations (indeed denied legal sanction for any family at all); and sought to destroy their African cultures while denying them access to much in white American culture. As a rich and many-sided scholarship has demonstrated, blacks not only survived physically but spiritually. Against all odds, they forged a culture that interpenetrated with white culture and yet emerged as an independent Afro-American culture.

Other groups, by contrast, were absorbed into an American national culture that they enriched by their Old World experiences. To be sure, Irish, Jews, Italians, and others also faced harsh, sometimes brutal, discrimination. But they did not face anything analogous to racial exclusion. So they were able steadily to force their way into business, the professions, and positions of political power, and to consolidate every upward movement in the socio-economic scale. In the event, they contributed much to American national culture -- face it, we Italians taught Americans what good food really is. But there is nothing that can seriously be called an Italian-American or Irish-American culture.

For blacks, there was no such ratcheting upward. Repeatedly, they were hurled backwards from positions won through hard struggles. When freedom came to slaves in northern cities, they were at once flagrantly exploited and deprived of the measure of protection formerly provided by their masters. Skilled blacks of all kinds were driven from their trades by white violence. This widespread northern pattern recurred during Reconstruction in the South, when a nascent black leadership, formed in the interstices of the slave regime, was crushed by legal and illegal methods designed to maintain racial dictatorship. Indeed, until recent decades, most (perhaps all) of the so-called "race riots" in American cities were white assaults on black communities. And those hit hardest were not antisocial elements accused of some offense or other, but precisely the successful, upwardly mobile, "respectable" blacks who had accepted the standards of the white middle class -- who had become "uppity" and forgotten their "place." Until recently, there was virtually no room at the top -- or in the middle -- for blacks who tried to play by the rules of the marketplace and of bourgeois society.

The enforced segregation that replaced slavery did provide room for a small professional and middle class within the black community, but it virtually foreclosed any possibility for mobility in the larger society. As a result, the black culture forged under conditions of slavery was able to flower. And that flourishing helped to combat a tendency toward cultural disintegration that constantly threatened to overwhelm a people trapped by an unparalleled racial enmity and with little hope of rising above poverty. In short, segregation, however deplorable, did strengthen the cultural strivings for an autonomous political and community development.

And by no means just cultural strivings. For as W. E. B. DuBois emphasized in his famous critique of Booker T. Washington, blacks were entering the world of cities and modern industry at the moment at which the triumph of big business was aborting the possibility for the creation of a substantial black bourgeoisie. The tragedy of Booker T. Washington's efforts, from this point of view, lay not so much in his accommodation to white power, which could be defended as a necessary tactic for a people at bay, but in his illusions about black participation in a business class with no more room at the top. It is noteworthy that DuBois himself ended not only as a socialist and then a communist, but also as a strong supporter of essential features of the black-separatist program he had once opposed.

But if one-sided integrationism misrepresents black experience in America, so, too, does a separatist repudiation of American nationality. Recall that DuBois himself, even as he pioneered in African studies, never wavered in his allegiance to Western Civilization. The undeniable truth is that the West has been unique only in one respect. Thanks largely to its Christian heritage and the distinctive conception of freedom that emerged from Christianity, it has generated mass movements against racism, sexism, and imperialism and exported them across the world. The struggle of black people for equity and justice -- notwithstanding its many defeats and continuing frustrations -- has constituted an inseparable part of this legacy. Can anyone now seriously advocate a black path of development separated from the Christian tradition of spiritual freedom, or the personal and political protections of the Common Law?

In any case, it is true that today room is appearing for a minority of blacks in the professions and lower ranges of the corporate structure. Simultaneous with this economic integration, however, we are witnessing the renewed threat of a disintegration of an authentic black culture. On this matter we would do well to ponder Mr. Rivers's sober and penetrating observation:

As entry into labor markets is increasingly dependent on education and high skills, we will see, perhaps, for the first time in the history of the United States, a generation of economically obsolete Americans.

But, remarkably, the tragedy we face is still worse. Unlike many of our ancestors, who came out of slavery and entered this century with strong backs, discipline, a thirst for literacy, deep religious faith, and hope in the face of monumental adversity, we have produced "a generation who [do] not know the ways of the Lord" -- a "new jack" generation, ill-equipped to secure gainful employment even as productive slaves.

Even discretely wholesome changes are occurring in the worst possible way and with ominous effects. Religion provides a case in point. Blacks have not only preferred to worship in their own churches and in ways that reveal African influences; they have developed distinct theological perspectives on Christian doctrine. Since the period of slavery, their preferred doctrines of sin and soul have revealed strong African influences that have served as counterpoints to Euro-Asian Christian orthodoxy. For example, they slighted the doctrine of original sin while southern whites remained strongly attached to it. And their interpretation of the nature of sin and the soul downplayed one-on-one relations with God and included instead a strong emphasis on the relation of individuals to the collective spirit of both earthly community and the kingdom of the other world.

The political aspects of these African-based adaptations of Christianity contributed enormously to the ability to survive the rigors of slavery and racism. But they came at a price. And it is not at all clear that the implicit rejection of some traditional Christian themes -- in particular, the idea of a wrathful God who dispenses personal rewards and punishments -- has served constructively beyond its original purpose of fortifying black people against the rationale for slavery. Nor is it clear that that serious black Christians can maintain such doctrines within a genuinely Christian theology. (It should be said that there is resistance to theological liberalism and a dogged adherence to more "orthodox" versions of Christianity in some black churches. I am prepared to be corrected, but I do see some such healthy tendency toward orthodoxy implicit in the stance taken by Mr. Rivers, who displays a theological depth and seriousness all too rare these days in both white and church circles, to say nothing of our theological seminaries.)

To be sure, these differences with white Christians have been increasingly obscured, for the white churches have, for better or worse -- mostly worse, I fear -- abandoned orthodoxy for massive concessions to basically Unitarian, Universalist, and other doctrines once regarded as flagrantly heretical. Indeed, much in family life, sexual mores, and the work ethic that represented necessary and often admirable black adjustments to a painfully oppressive reality seem much less startling to whites today than they once did. For, superficially, similar attitudes are now the rage in middle-class white communities. But what constituted strategies for survival for a people at bay in the one case have now emerged, in a radically different context, as celebrations of self-indulgence and the abandonment of time-honored moral standards.

The upshot of this history is that specific manifestations of the intrinsically praiseworthy destruction of legal segregation threaten a disaster for black communities everywhere. Since the 1960s American society has been increasingly open to a minority of blacks who have access to the suburbs and white society. In consequence, the great majority of blacks are being stripped of their economic, social, and political leadership, with their communities left to fend for themselves in what are euphemistically called "inner cities" -- inundated with unprecedented levels of drugs, crime, hopelessness and supported by a soul-destroying public dole. Counter-currents are appearing, as the splendid efforts of Rivers's church -- the Azusa Christian Community -- demonstrate, but recovery presents a staggering task with unprecedented difficulties.

Throughout American history, then, the black response to slavery, segregation, and racism has been two-edged: integrationalist and black-separatist. And neither has worked. For reasons I need not belabor, the demands for a separate nation-state have proven absurd in a country in which blacks hold no contiguous territory. But blacks have always struggled to combine the elements of the two responses -- to project a black "national personality" (to borrow a suggestive term from General DeGaulle) while fighting for equality in the life of the American nation. It should be enough to recall that Martin Luther King rejected separatism and black nationalism and promoted integration through a movement based upon black communities and black churches, with black leadership, and, for that matter, a black following, however many whites were allowed to participate as spear-carriers. Had Dr. King taken any other road, he would have had no prospects for success.

In these and many other ways, blacks continue to assert their claims as a nation-within-a-nation, no matter how anti-separatist their rhetoric and pro-integrationist their genuine aspirations. They do so because -- to return to my earlier assertion -- the black experience in this country has been a phenomenon without analogue. It has uniquely forged a people at once culturally and politically American and yet a people apart in discernible ways that provide a legitimate basis for demands for a measure of self-determination.

n n n

Thus far, however, we have proven unable to confront this paradoxical historical development and political reality, and the cost of that failure is increasing every day. The fact is that we lack both an adequate political language in which to interpret it and a coherent ideological framework in which to construct solutions. But one thing seems clear: any effort by the black community to combat social decay and mobilize for an effective political struggle depends upon its ability to rebuild that community -- and that will require imposing considerable social discipline and reining in anti-social elements. Mr. Rivers has described a "reconstruction of civil society in the black community," and suggested that the struggle to restore a stable family life may well lie at the core of that reconstruction. More broadly, to speak of "community" at all means to recognize as unavoidable the existence of community prejudices, whether grounded in historically or religiously sanctioned sensibility or in response to an immediate threat to survival. Whites have a responsibility to support the efforts of black communities to solve such problems in their own way and in accordance with their own preferences and prejudices, so long as standards of common decency prevail.

But here we face a serious problem. For people who would respond constructively to the kind of agenda Rivers is projecting are being deserted by those whites who most loudly proclaim support for justice to black people. Especially sad and important in this connection is the irrational embrace by the left of a liberal program of personal liberation. Left-liberals have, to all intents and purposes, simply sloughed off the restraints formerly imposed upon them by religious convictions or a sense of civic responsibility. To be sure, the left continues to speak the language of groups, collectivities, communities, but as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese has demonstrated in her Feminism without Illusions, these "communities," once scratched, turn out to be political associations of those who claim individual rights and entitlements against the collective interests of anything recognizable as a community.

Who on the left, for example, is willing to show the slightest respect for the collective will of communities that choose to restrict abortion, resist affirmative action, oppose gay and lesbian rights, and provide even a modicum of religious instruction in their schools? The struggle for community autonomy and social justice cannot be sustained by such backing-and-filling. Several of the contributors to the debate in the Boston Review paid tribute to the historic role of the black churches and seemed to agree that those churches have an indispensable part to play in the salvation of their communities. Very well. But the same could be said about other communities. Why, then, do so many white and black progressives succumb to the nonsense that the American Constitution erected "a wall of separation" between religion and society? It did no such thing. Until well into this century virtually everyone agreed that our schools ought to teach basic moral values and that, in the specifics of our own historically developed nation, those values had to be rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The left has done a wonderful job of purging our schools of Christianity. But just what has it put in its place, except endless chatter about the beauties of self-expression? Could anyone argue, with a straight face, that we are better off in the event?

Speaking as an atheist, I would not feel threatened by having a teacher called upon to read from the Psalms of David to open school assemblies. I was not, as a Roman Catholic boy in Brooklyn, hurt by having to listen to our Protestant principal read from the King James version of the Bible. To the contrary, for working-class Italian-American boys and girls it was our first introduction to great poetry and to the astonishing power and beauty of the English language. Yet we are now called upon to revile Pat Robertson for making this simple point and to cheer on the sanctimonious ideologues whose primary contribution to the morals of our youth consists of encouraging nihilistic and increasingly life-threatening sexual mores.

Morality always finds its roots in community tradition, experience, and faith. It is intrinsically exclusive, discriminatory, and prejudiced. To pretend to respect community autonomy while denying each community its own exclusiveness is the last word in intellectual incoherence. I say nothing of hypocrisy. That does not mean that, as a nation, we must tolerate any and all forms of discrimination. Racism has cost us dearly and should be put beyond the pale everywhere. But that minimal demand is no excuse for a broadside program of reducing all communities to a single set of rules -- or, what is the same, of obliterating communities altogether and so undermining any project aimed at the "reconstruction of civil society in the black community."

Without clarity on these matters the case for the discrete national personality of the black community in America reduces to rubbish. Consider Cornel West's perceptive remarks on the critical importance of law and order to black survival. It should be enough to ask: Could this nation, without losing its soul, tolerate the realization of the statistical projections of a substantial majority of black males dead, on drugs, or in jail by the age of 25? With 50% of black teenagers out of school and 40% -- three times the rate of whites -- out of work, no one need be surprised at this statistical projection. And behind these statistics lies not merely the problem of the unemployed and underemployed, but -- as Rivers has emphasized -- of ever larger numbers of the unemployable.

If Americans are as yet unwilling to confront these issues, so are we unwilling to confront their flip-side. A government -- any government -- that cringes in the face of massive looting, rioting, and defiance of social order does not deserve to survive and probably will not long survive. If the American people are forced to choose between urban terrorism and authoritarian repression, it would be surprising if they did not choose the latter. And they would have every moral as well as political sanction for doing so. For if any "right" is well grounded in human nature, historical experience, and common sense, it is the right of self-preservation.

The imposition of the law and order necessary for the survival of the black community cannot be effected from without. In a racist society such an imposition would take predictable forms with predictable results and would be bitterly and properly resisted. But precisely for this reason, black communities have good reason to demand considerable political autonomy and the power to deal with their antisocials in their own way. Community survival and healthy development require considerable discipline and, necessarily, considerable repression. The essential demand ought to be that these specific communities solve their own version of what is now a general problem for America in accordance with their own experience, traditions, and collective sense of imperatives. Must, for example, black communities, to say nothing of white, exclude the churches from their schools and affairs if they conclude that their inclusion and close cooperation with the polity are essential for the re-establishment of moral order? And if the churches, following scriptural and historical authority, declare homosexuality sinful and a threat to community reproduction, discipline, and good order, are they to be told that their autonomy stops there? On what grounds? What, exactly, is the "self-evident truth" at issue here? To whom is it self-evident? We can have a wide measure of self-determination for black America or we can have the insufferable romance with individual rights demagogically paraded as group rights. But let us not delude ourselves: We cannot have both.

Consider another and closely related shibboleth -- that poverty causes urban crime. But the poverty that plagues the United States is nothing as compared to that of many African, Asian, and Latin American countries which suffer no such ravages. And everyone knows that only a small portion of urban crime results from desperate attempts to get food for the family. Moreover, during the horrors of the Great Depression of the 1930s neither blacks nor whites responded with the kind of crime rate that we now accept as normal. The problem, as Rivers bluntly said -- in implicit agreement with William Bennett, Pat Robertson, and a few other unmentionables -- lies in the destruction of family and civic discipline. The trouble with Bennett, Robertson, et al., but not with Rivers, is that they refuse to recognize that a self-revolutionizing capitalist system and its attendant marketplace mentality have been history's greatest solvent of "traditional values." Still, we have good grounds for a respectful debate with those conservatives and the political tendencies for which they speak.

That debate might focus on the precise relationship between community solidarity and marketplace savagery. And it should begin from Glenn Loury's excellent distinction between a marketplace society that reduces human relations and values to commodities and a market economy that has historically been proven to advance both prosperity and freedom. Loury may be faulted for the specifics of his analysis and program. But his astute observations should be taken as evidence of the need to include all voices in open and vigorous debate, including the voices of those "black conservatives" who have usually been shut out.

Nor should the inclusion stop there. Neither Glenn Loury nor anyone in the black movement or on the left seems to notice that this distinction and an attendant critique of finance capitalism has long been the common coin of the "traditionalist" (primarily southern) wing of the right. It is true that the southern-conservative movement has had a long history of white racism. It is also true that it has been struggling to exorcise that legacy and to purge its ranks of racist demagogues. There is little in the left's strong and valid attacks on marketplace morality and finance capitalism that has not marked the southern conservative tradition. But unlike the ideologues of the left, the principal voices of traditionalist conservatism have never fallen into the trap of radical individualism. To the contrary, they have insisted that all communities must be allowed their prejudices and discriminations; that the state must take full account of human depravity; and that respect for the inviolability of the human personality -- a concept rooted in Christianity -- must not be confused with the endless assertion of individual political and social rights against the collective exigencies of the community.

I shall say more on these matters in a forthcoming book on The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of an American Conservatism. Here, I wish merely to assert what everyone knows but few seem willing to say: The historical categories of radical, liberal, and conservative -- of left and right -- have spent their force. Future political alliances with a prayer of success will have to recruit from every portion of the ideological spectrum: both from those who have appreciated the constraints of marketplace morality and finance capitalism and from those who have underscored the importance of community and the moral order rooted in it.

I fear that I have been staging Hamlet without the Dane, for it should be clear to all that none of these problems can be discussed seriously outside the context of the emerging new world order of corporate conglomerates. Here I shall have to settle for a few brief observations. The international conglomerates are not in a conspiracy against black America. They do not favor genocide. They do not want to see the Third World savaged. They do not have a vested interest in the moral degradation of society and the spiritual crippling of our youth.

The truth is immeasurably worse. The conglomerates simply feel no responsibility for the solution of such problems unless they interfere with business. Thus they can live happily with the whole agenda of the radical liberationists and their egalitarian dreams, secure in the knowledge that even raw filth constitutes a field for economic exploitation. The primary counterforce to the sinister tendencies of our times lies in the reassertion of autonomous national and local communities that are strong enough to prevail politically. And on these critical matters the mainstream of the right waffles every bit as badly as the mainstream of the left. Worse, it tolerates -- when it does not encourage -- a smug indifference to the travail of those who are being programmed as the losers in the New World Order.

The reassertion of community life requires for the American nation as a whole, and for the black nation-within-a-nation, social discipline and a willingness to restrict individual rights to those which are proven to be socially safe. The struggle for black autonomy requires the struggle for American national self-consciousness and identity -- and vice versa. The many-sided implications of this formulation require a lengthy and careful debate. But one thing seems certain -- that this debate, if it takes place at all, will take place at the grass roots. In the meantime, we all owe Eugene Rivers a debt of gratitude for having taken the first step.

Click here to return to the Boston Review Forum, On the Responsibility of Intellectuals.

Originally published in the September/ October 1993 issue of Boston Review



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