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Not All Black Intellectuals Think Alike

The oft-repeated sentiment that African-Americans should avoid public disagreements and settle matters internally to present a united front is just plain wrong.

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Citizenship in a democratic system rests on the ability to freely and openly choose, criticize and depose one’s leaders. This must obtain whether those leaders are elected or self-appointed. It cannot be contingent on whether the critiques are accurate or false, empirical or ideological, well or poorly made. Citizenship is voice. West exercised his voice, and I mine. But the history and persistence of racial inequality and white privilege in America means that the exercise of voice for black citizens is fraught with the dangers of surveillance. It’s yet another challenge of being black and exercising citizenship in the United States. Even as we articulate our grievances, black citizens are haunted by that “peculiar sensation” that W.E.B. Du Bois described as “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Whatever the accuracy or erroneousness of West’s remarks, there was little new in them. Arguments about the corporate control of American politics, the ascendance of Wall Street over Main Street and the imperial impulse of American foreign policy have been the standard talking points of the left for more than a decade. What fascinated the press were the salacious tidbits offered by West that suggested black-on-black infighting. My response and those that followed added to the impression that black intellectuals were engaged in a battle royal. As in Ellison’s opening scene, it is the fight, not the speech, that is the main attraction. That African-Americans strenuously disagree among ourselves about goals and strategies is an ancient historical truth that is masked by our nominal partisan similarities. But the intense media attention over West’s critique of President Obama can be understood only by the repeated refusal by mainstream media and broader American political culture to adequately grasp the heterogeneity of black thought.

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