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  To get to Rivers' "Beyond the Nationalism of Fools," click here.

To the Editors:

Gene Rivers's call for a black nationalism should come as no surprise. It fits easily with current trends, and has been a long time in coming. However, not all of his specific proposals follow naturally from recent trends. What follows is the perspective of one member of the publishing industry on the origins and possible futures of the idea. Some of these futures are consonant with Rivers's proposals, some are not.

Origins: Three strands of recent intellectual history join together in the Rivers idea:

1. The new rise of separate but equal, and the attack on the Brown decision. The junior-high-school civics version of Supreme Court history must have caused great cognitive dissonance among its many teachers. Every year, in classrooms across the land, the lesson was read: "Plessy v. Ferguson: separate-but-equal was constitutional. Brown v. Board of Ed: separate-but-equal became unconstitutional." Somehow, the Justices' version of a Great Lie was accepted even after it had been overthrown. Call it Plessyspeak: separate-but-equal came to mean separate-but-unequal. It is only now, in the views of many (including Clarence Thomas), that the impermissibility of separate-but-equal--and the Brown decision--are being challenged.

To Thomas, Brown is patronizing. Why can't blacks make it on their own? Given equal resources, why can't they set up stong school systems? Why must they integrate into white schools to get a good education? To Gerald Rosenberg, in The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? (University of Chicago, 1991), Brown has been misinterpreted. He argues that the decision did not have much effect; the integration of America's schools came about later, as a result of legislative and executive decisions. Further, Rosenberg argues that the left has been lulled into a wrong-headed strategy of depending on the courts rather than keeping up the hard work of mobilizing public opinion and influencing elections. But what began as a tactical debate on the left has now swung around. If the battle is to be fought in the court of public opinion, the consensus result may not be a consensus at all--it may be a tacit agreement to splinter.

The result may be a rough-and-tumble, post-Civil Rights, every-group-for-itself world. Both Rosenberg and Thomas open the door to newly separate spheres.

2. The devolution movement. The revolt against big government began, of course, on the right, but it has now swung around to the left. Just as the paranoid anti-government conspiracy theorists that used to be on the fringe left have now migrated to the Michigan Militia, so has the mainstream, neocon, anti-centralization movement now joined with the "small is beautiful" communitarians. The upshot: localism and self-help is in; centralization and massive intervention is out. If the left really thought that Washington could help if only the Republicans could be beaten,would Rivers be making his plea? Surely not. It is not just pessimism about whites' commitment to blacks that leads to the new nationalism; it is pessimism about a concerted national-interventionist politics of any sort.

3. The fall of utopianism (especially the social-constructionist variant). This one may seem a bit abstract, but it is relevant. Michael Oakeshott has had a lot of behind-the-scenes influence on recent intellectual trends; the radical liberationism of the '60s has now been replaced by a sober sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But more fundamentally, the decline of social constructionism has had the largest impact on the decline of utopianism. Constructionism led to the most radical utopianisms. In debates on race, constructionists liked to point out that the concept of race is biologically untenable. But did they really expect a future in which we all stop noticing melanin levels? The claim was not only wrong (surely genes have something to do with skin color, hair, et. al.); it was wrong-headed. It led nowhere.

The decline of constructionism has come from within, as the idea has become exhausted, but also from without. As the great genome revolution has roared onward, strange bedfellows have joined together. Charles Murray and Richard Hermstein, in The New Republic, echoed the multiculturalists argument that we should all live in a clannish patchwork of plural excellence. Though theirs was the only patchwork that the left didn't like, the resemblances between the two sides were more compelling than their disagreements. Difference is the subject of the day, whether it is "natural" or "identity-political," whether it is produced by genes, culture, or an interplay between the two.

Rivers is sufficiently worried about this point that he insists that "Endorsing (my] serious nationalist project does not mean adopting an essentialist or biological conception of racial difference". But it doesn't stand in its way, either. The "difference" strand, like the other two, feeds the Rivers idea.

Futures. Rivers calls for black elites to study the black condition, as DuBois once led a series of studies at Atlanta University. He wants to reconsider the political alliance between blacks and the Democratic party. He wants urban economic development; attention to narcotics, crime, and the state of the black family, all in a spirit of black responsibility (individual and group). He calls for renewed focus on black institutions, especially schools and churches. Some of these institutions may form "strategic alliances" -- for example, "with largely Whitte unions and environmental groups in efforts to rebuild metropolitan communities." Is this vision coherent? I would argue that he is wrong about the studies; right but too tame about the Democrats; right about development and institutions. But the most worrisome is last: his call for strategic alliances ignores the full force of the "natural differences" strand.

His call for studies stems from his peculiar hostility to black academics. As an activist, Rivers has little patience for the comfortable middle-class life of the black professoriat. But while it is sensible to debate whether activists like Rivers accomplish more than armies of ivory-tower scholars, it is nonetheless the case that we don't need more studies. There has been plenty of attention to the underclass, unlike in DuBois's day. Scholars have not been wasting their time or neglecting the black condition.

More interesting is his call for reconsidering the usefulness of the Democratic Party. If I am right in thinking that his call for nationalism follows logically from the devolution and self-help movement,then we should expect more than a reconsideration. We should expect a revolt. The devolution movement is mainly Republican. The Democrats, in response to the collapse of the Great Society agenda, sometimes seem to be imploding, sometimes lamely following their opponents. Either way, the Republicans are more likely to embrace the Rivers agenda. We should thus expect a steady rise of black support for Republican candidates, and a decline in the demonization of black conservatives. In the 80s, the NAACP opposed the Dallas black school district at East Oak Cliff Bluffs, when it chose to remain all black. In the late 1990s, I suspect the Republicans and the NAACP would agree not to obstruct such efforts.

The attention to black responsibilities is, of course, likely to increase just as Rivers would have it. And everyone -- nationalist, integrationist, black, and white -- will applaud it. This has already begun, and it does not require a nationalist program so much as a simple relaxation of the "root causes" school of determinists who refuse to admit individual responsibility. It does, perhaps, follow naturally from the attack on the Brown decision, and from the devolution movement, but it also has momentum of its own.

The most unusual and perhaps most constructive of Rivers's suggestions is his call for new attention to black institutions. He mentions the church and schools; I would add one other, purely historical subject: the black aristocracy of the Jim Crow era. Though black clergy (Rivers included) continue to work hard on behalf of the black community, and though they played a key role in the civil rights movement, black scholars, for the most part, ignore the history of the black church. It is almost equally surprising that there has never been a grand history of the nation's black colleges. As for the future, it is quite possible that there will be new uses of "talented tenth" arguments; quite possible that there will be new black schools and a reinvigoration of black colleges. Will the black church be rediscovered both personally and professionally by black intellectuals? If so, they would only be mirroring trends in society as a whole.

But here's the rub: the limit of Rivers's idea is hinted at in his hope for strategic alliances. I don't understand the specifics of an alliance among black institutions, white labor, and environmentalists. Putting that to the side, however, I wonder why there would be any alliances at all. I don't think Rivers can prevent the splintering effects of his program. We remain largely a segregated society, and with the decline of integrationism, why should any group help any other?

For all that Rivers doesn't want to hear about biology and natural differences, here is where the end of constructionism plays a part. I expect a rise in attention to black-white differences; The Bell Curve was just the tip of this iceberg. If the Rivers program were to be adopted (as, in many ways, I think it will); if integration were to be abandoned; then differences among segregated groups will tend to rise. If they rise, so will attention to (and theory about) them.

Is there any way to avoid the full range of splintering effects that would be encouraged by a new nationalism, and are already under way without it? Well, if instead of a nationalist future every group proceeded to intermarry at dizzying rates, that would obviously be one. But as an editor, I know that a good book on black nationalism would find an audience, and that a good book on intermarriage would not.

Bruce Nichols

Free Press

New York City

Click here to return to the Boston Review Forum, Black Nationalism.

Originally published in the October/November 1995 issue of Boston Review



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