bell hooks
bell hooks; drawing by David Levine

1.

A growing conviction that the United States faces a crisis in black-white relations has inspired several writers to revisit the race question in search of new perspectives and solutions. One of these, the Princeton political scientist Jennifer Hochschild, has written a major study of current public opinion that offers some grounds for hoping that racial equality and harmony can be achieved on the basis of a shared commitment to a set of traditional American values. In her well-documented study Facing Up to the American Dream,1 she argues that most blacks and whites agree in principle that everyone in this society should have a fair chance to get ahead—in the words of President Clinton, “If you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you.”

But blacks are beginning to lose faith in the American dream, some in the ideal itself but a larger number in the hope that it can ever apply to them. Disillusionment with the prospect for equal opportunity, Hochschild’s data show, is more advanced among the relatively successful members of the black middle class, who believe that they still face day-to-day discrimination, than among the poor, who—to a surprising extent—blame their lack of success on their own shortcomings. Unless the dream can be shown to work for blacks, she warns, the nation is in danger of losing its soul and disintegrating. Despite the dream’s limitations—especially its invitation to self-seeking and callous attitudes toward those who fail to get ahead—it offers in her view the only conceivable basis for a just and harmonious America. Without it, she believes, whites will revert to racism and blacks will embrace a divisive ethnic separatism. But she remains hopeful that the egalitarian implications of the dream can be reemphasized to inspire an effective assault on racial inequality and disunity.

Two recent collections of essays by prominent black intellectuals repudiate Hochschild’s view of the American dream as a basis for the overthrow of white supremacy and do so without embracing the black separatism that she sees as the only alternative. Bell hooks is a professor of English and prolific essayist who has emerged as the most prominent exponent of black feminism. Manning Marable is a historian and commentator on current affairs whose inspiration comes in large part from the black Marxist tradition established by Paul Robeson and by W. E. B. Du Bois in his later years. Both hooks and Marable seem to be writing primarily for a black audience and hope to steer African-American opinion away from both of the ideologies that Hochschild’s surveys found to be the only ones that blacks in general are likely to find attractive—conformity to the liberal individualism of the American dream or a go-it-alone black nationalism. The essays are eloquent and well-argued expressions of opinion that present relatively little evidence or concrete examples, other than personal anecdotes, to support their general contentions. They are nevertheless valuable for what they reveal about the growth of radical dissent among prominent black intellectuals and academics. Their views are bound to influence their students—black and white.

Hooks’s Killing Rage is an angry book that pulls no punches. The first essay recalls the author’s intense fury when a white man, assigned the same first-class seat on an airliner as hooks’s black female traveling companion, pulled rank to get the already seated companion consigned to coach class. This was on a day filled with incidents of white rudeness and insensitivity. Hooks uses her reactions to such experiences to explain and justify black rage against white arrogance and abuse, and she takes the press and television to task for their assumption that when blacks get angry and strike back, they are being “pathological.” Although hooks disassociates herself from what she considers to be the dominant values of the black middle class, her reactions to discriminatory treatment might have provided supporting evidence for Hochschild’s contention that middle-class blacks feel the sting of racism more directly and acutely than do the more isolated members of the lower class. A poor black woman would hardly ever be in a position to be bumped from first class.

When she is being prescriptive rather than autobiographical, however, hooks criticizes the black middle class for concentrating on racism as the sole source of black disadvantage and for ignoring the role of class domination in a capitalist society.

Class divisions among blacks in a racially desegregated society have been the breeding grounds for those who are privileged to internalize contempt and hatred of the black poor and underclass. The connectedness of capitalism and the perpetuation of racist exploitation makes class a subject privileged blacks seek to avoid. More than other groups of black folks, they emphasize racism as a system of domination without drawing attention to class…. It is in their class interests to emphasize the way racism inhibits their progress.

Rarely, at least since the days of E. Franklin Frazier, has any black writer been so sharply critical of the black middle class.2 It seems at times that hooks’s rage is directed as much at elite African Americans as at white racists. Bourgeois blacks, she charges, have sold out to a capitalist system that oppresses the African-American majority. She excoriates them for buying into the American dream of personal success that is the subject of Hochschild’s inquiry. Her analysis of black values in general is in fact quite consistent with Hochschild’s findings, except that hooks deplores what she sees, instead of viewing it as a basis for eradicating racism. “The ethic of liberal individualism,” she writes, “has so deeply permeated the psyches of black folks in America of all classes that we have little support for a political ethic of communalism that promotes the sharing of resources.”

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For hooks, therefore, the fact that many blacks have been “eagerly embracing the American dream of wealth and power” is an obstacle to racial justice rather than a possible basis for it. She advocates coalitions for radical change between blacks who have become aware of their true situation and other people of color in this society who also suffer from “neocolonial white supremacist domination.” She also believes that blacks can make alliances with well-intentioned whites and encourage them to combat racism. (She deplores black anti-Semitism and writes that “working to eradicate anti-Semitism, we are equally working to end racism.”) Blacks, she writes, can construct “a practical model for social change” that will induce progressive whites to surrender their privileges and join in the struggle for a just society. How such a model might be constructor and then become persuasive, however, remains unclear in Killing Rage.

Hooks is a feminist as well as a socialist, and much of her book expresses a black woman’s anger at the sexist attitudes that she finds pervasive in the black community. She believes that up to now the struggle for black freedom has been waged on patriarchal principles—the emphasis was always on making it possible for blacks to act like “men”—and she is especially critical of the subordination of women in black nationalist movements and ideologies. Whatever one thinks of the practicality of her hopes, her frankness and willingness to face up to the divisive issues that refuse to go away make her a voice to be reckoned with in the debate on race in America.

The essays in Manning Marable’s Beyond Black and White are more topical and occasional than those in Killing Rage. Like hooks, Marable is on the far left of the current political spectrum, but he is more concerned than hooks with the day-to-day politics of building a black united front, as well as a broader progressive coalition. This makes him less disdainful of possible allies with whom he may disagree on some matters of principle. He has little to say about the feminist challenge to the black patriarchal tradition. He does not categorically condemn the black middle class, although he does question its capacity to represent the masses of black people, and his own ideology is anything but bourgeois. He is critical of black nationalism and Afro-centrism, condemning “Louis Farrakhan and other racial separatists” for serving “the interests of the white political and corporate establishment, by fragmenting oppressed communities and poor people by ‘race.”‘

Agreeing with hooks, he argues that blacks should not try to go it alone politically but need to act in concert with other oppressed and disadvantaged groups. But he takes black anti-Semitism less seriously than she does and supports the decision of former NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis to include Farrakhan in a summit meeting of black leaders. (He criticizes Chavis, however, for not making clearer his disagreement with the rabidly anti-Semitic views that have been expressed by spokesmen for the Nation of Islam.)

A recurring theme in Marable’s essays is the failure of “liberal integrationism” to address the fundamental problems of black Americans. What has been achieved by desegregation and affirmative action, he maintains, is merely “symbolic representation” in which individual blacks, women, or members of other minorities advanced into positions of prominence and responsibility but only in ways that do not actually give power to disadvantaged groups or address their basic social and economic problems. Whether they are elected officeholders, sports and entertainment celebrities, sports and entertainment celebrities, business executives, or police officers, successful blacks are not accountable to the black community and too readily become pawns of the white establishment. Pointing to the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court as an obvious example of the bankruptcy of “symbolic representation,” he calls for a new black leadership that is in closer touch with black communities and more willing to challenge the powers-that-be.

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The most forceful essay in Marable’s book is “Beyond Racial Identity Politics: Toward a Liberation Theory for Multicultural Democracy.” In it, he criticizes the concept of race—which he sees as a social construction based on changing power relationships rather than as biological fact—and calls for cooperation between blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans. He advances a theory of liberation that is neither nationalist nor integrationist but rather “transformationist.”

Unlike the integrationists, who seek “representation” within the system as it is, or the nationalists, who generally favor the construction of parallel racial institutions controlled by blacks, the transformationists basically seek the redistribution of resources and the democratization of state power along more egalitarian lines.

The hopes of hooks and Marable for what Marable calls a “left-of-center paradigm as an alternative to mass conservatism” are likely to strike many readers as quixotic. If whites and blacks alike are as caught up in the ideology of the American dream as Hochschild shows, and hooks concedes, what reason is there to expect that a socialist or social democratic movement can have a significant impact on American politics and social policy? The left seems to be in retreat, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Even those whose ethical instincts are socialist or communalist, rather than capitalist and individualist, should by now be aware that social movements based on a Marxist class analysis have either failed to mount a serious challenge to liberal capitalism, as in the United States, or have come to power with disastrous and sometimes monstrous consequences. Even the thoroughly democratic and humane Swedish welfare state seems to be unraveling.

Marable and hooks are aware that the left needs new theories of social change, but they do not provide them and they sometimes resort to rhetoric that seems tired and anachronistic. Hochschild may indeed be more realistic when she assumes that we are stuck with the liberal capitalism of the American dream and that the best we can do is try to reform it and make it more humane so as to provide a greater measure of justice and equality for blacks and other poor Americans. But a social scientist like Hochschild, who is limited in the scope of her analysis by a sense of the probabilities that can be inferred from her data, has different aims from those of public intellectuals like Marable and hooks, who are telling us what they think should be rather than what is or is likely to be. Circumstances change, and the world may turn again. Visions of a better society that seem utopian today may become feasible at some point in the future under conditions that we cannot yet foresee.

2.

Both Marable and hooks explicitly reject the black nationalist assumption that whites are inherently and permanently racist. They believe that it is possible for white people to purge themselves of white supremacist attitudes, empathize with the black experience, and become full participants in the struggle for racial justice and equality. The writings of the white sociologist Stephen Steinberg exemplify what Marable and hooks would, in all likelihood, recognize as committed, anti-racist scholarship. His Turning Back is a hard-hitting criticism of how social scientists (and the policy makers they influenced) have dealt with the race issue during the past half-century.

Like Marable and hooks, Steinberg believes that white racism is deeply rooted in economic and social inequality and is not simply a matter of prejudiced attitudes that can be changed by education and exhortation. He castigates Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma of 1944 for prescribing remedies based on the false assumption that the core of the problem lay in the white psyche and not in the consolidation of white power and privilege that the descriptive parts of Myrdal’s study had revealed. For the next twenty years, Steinberg points out, liberal social scientists and policy makers condemned racial prejudice and discrimination but for the most part failed to put their weight behind the kind of legislation that would alter the white-over-black power equation.

It is certainly true that the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 would not have been passed if southern blacks had not taken matters in their own hands and challenged southern segregation through mass nonviolent action. But Steinberg ignores the part played by the liberal integrationist thought of the 1940s and 1950s in preparing northern white public opinion to acknowledge the demands that southern blacks were making. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not entirely wrong when he credited Myrdal with making a significant contribution to the struggle for equality.

The anti-racist momentum generated by the civil rights movement was lost, Steinberg argues, in 1965, shortly after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. His close reading of President Lyndon Johnson’s Howard University speech reveals that its message was not quite what it seemed. Johnson famously acknowledged that blacks could not be expected to compete on equal terms with whites, despite the Civil Rights Acts. But he followed this view with a diagnosis of why African Americans remained at a disadvantage, which concentrated more on the cultural shortcomings of the black home environment than on a lack of money and jobs in the inner cities. Then came the Moynihan report which argued that the growth of families headed by women among poor blacks, rather than structural inequality, was the main impediment to black progress.

After that it was all downhill, according to Steinberg. As the white backlash that began in the mid- to late Sixties gathered force, a new model began to take hold in social science and government policy. It assumed that white racism had been overcome and that persistent black inequality was mainly the result of the cultural inadequacies of poor blacks. The obstacle to progress was no longer white racism, but deficiencies in the black family structure and character. Like other critics of this viewpoint, Steinberg sees this view as “blaming the victim” for his own victimization.

Steinberg accurately describes and assesses the rise of a conservative or neo-conservative approach to black-white relations during the past thirty years. But in his search for villains he casts his net too wide and is not entirely fair in the way he treats the liberal tendency to move away from racially specific policies toward color-blind measures to deal with economic deprivation and insecurity. Moynihan’s report was deficient in its analysis of what ailed the black community—its notion that family disorganization was a deeply rooted legacy of slavery rather than a result of modern economic conditions has been shown to be misleading.3 The report can also be criticized for its assumption that families headed by females are pathological by nature, although it can hardly be denied that children are usually better off when they have two nurturing adults in the household rather than one.

When it came to public policy, however, Moynihan did not recommend that government become involved in policing the private lives and family arrangements of poor black people. The general direction of Moynihan’s proposals was in fact opposite to that of the current conservative program to make the poor shape up morally and culturally by cutting off government aid. His suggestions included replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children with a universal, European-type, family allowance system and a government jobs program to make it easier for black men to support their families. It was tragic that the controversy over his report concentrated on a defective sociological and historical analysis rather than on Moynihan’s essentially social-democratic proposals. Had they been enacted, they might have improved the conditions of poor African Americans considerably. The demonization of the Moynihan report merely distracts attention from the real enemies of poor people. The Senator’s recent and eloquent defense of children’s entitlements on the floor of the Senate should have made this clear.

Steinberg is also guilty of polemical overkill when he berates William Julius Wilson and Cornel West for allegedly contributing to the current consensus that poor blacks are responsible for their own plight. Wilson, a liberal black sociologist who has been close to the Clinton administration, may have exaggerated the decline of racism as an obstacle to black progress. But once again, as in the case of Moynihan, the kind of social-democratic programs that he advocates would begin to address some of the most pressing needs of the black “underclass.”4

Steinberg is correct, however, in noting that Wilson’s thinking is beset by a basic contradiction. His call for government policies that will reduce class inequality rather than specifically racial disadvantages assumes that white voters will not support racially specific policies—hardly evidence of “the declining significance of race.” I fully agree with Steinberg when he criticizes Wilson and other exponents of a strictly class-based approach for failing to recognize that affirmative action and other racially specific policies are “meant to counteract the evils of caste, not class.” But we should not have to choose between programs aimed at poor people regardless of race and those which address the special problems of racial minorities. We desperately need both.

Steinberg’s attack on Cornel West, the prominent black religious thinker and public intellectual (whom he describes as “the left wing of the backlash”), is more difficult to fathom. West’s sin seems to be that he detects a moral and spiritual crisis—a growing tendency toward “nihilism” among inner city black youth, as well as a lack of resources and opportunity.5 Steinberg considers this to be another example of blaming the victims for circumstances beyond their control. But West has also been unrelenting in his denunciations of the policies and institutions that deprive blacks of equal justice and opportunity. And Steinberg can scarcely deny that the conditions imposed on many African Americans have produced self-destructive attitudes and behavior among some of them. Does he believe, therefore, that black intellectuals should assume that blacks can do nothing to improve the situation except appeal to the white establishment to change its ways? Such a denial of the possibilities of blacks might have been taken as a racist insult by many of the participants in the Million Man March.

One does not have to believe that black self-help and spiritual renewal would be sufficient in themselves to solve the problems of the ghetto to acknowledge that poor blacks can do more to improve the quality of their own lives. Again, there would seem to be no necessity to choose between two potentially fruitful approaches. Just as class-based anti-poverty programs and race-based affirmative action policies can both be justified and are not inherently contradictory, so the desirability of some combination of vigorous state action and self-improvement efforts from within the black community would seem to be self-evident.

For Steinberg, the only kind of black political action that would be efficacious would take the form of mass nonviolent demonstrations or even civil disorder. He may well be right that such militancy will at some point be necessary to shock the political establishment into decisive action. But so long as the current conservative mood of the country persists, mass demonstrations and civic disorder are more likely to intensify white opposition to anti-racist policies than to promote the sympathy for African-American aspirations that the earlier freedom struggle evoked. If blacks do not currently take to the streets, it may be because they have a good idea of what they would be up against.

Steinberg makes a useful contribution to clear thinking about race when he criticizes the Marxist tradition of viewing racism as a special case of class domination rather than as a distinct and autonomous form of social inequality. Neither hooks nor Marable makes this distinction with clarity and at times each seems to be according primacy to class. But Steinberg does not explain adequately the difference between “caste” and “class”; the emphasis that he puts on how politicians manipulate the race issue for electoral advantage conveys little sense of how much value most whites attach to their sense of being members of a racially defined upper caste. If caste status based on race is an essential and deeply rooted aspect of white identity in this society, antagonism against blacks can no longer be viewed as merely the product of unjustified fears aroused by political demagogues spreading false information about minorities. It becomes a deep commitment to racial hierarchy that can be activated whenever members of the bottom caste are viewed as getting out of their place.

3.

During the late 1930s and early 40s, just before Steinberg’s intellectual history begins, an entire school of sociological investigation of black-white relations in the American South was based on the categorical distinction between class and caste.6 Such writers as John Dollard of Yale viewed the southern racial order of the Jim Crow era as a caste hierarchy with class stratification occurring within each racial caste; acceptance of even the most successful blacks within the white caste was strictly excluded. But racial discrimination had distorted the black social structure so that, unlike that of the whites, it featured a huge lower class and only a tiny middle or upper class.

This use of caste as a way of understanding race hierarchy went out of favor after World War II, mainly because its implications were too pessimistic for impatient advocates of racial equality. True caste systems, as in India, had ancient roots and were sanctioned by religion; they were exceedingly difficult to change. American segregation, on the other hand, was thought either to be the product of prejudiced attitudes that were in contradiction to the democratic and egalitarian (i.e., anti-caste) values held by most white Americans or (in the Marxian variant) to have been sustained by deceitful ruling-class propaganda designed to divide the working class.

In 1978, however, John Ogbu, a Nigerian-American anthropologist on the faculty of the University of California, revived the caste concept and applied it to the situation of African Americans in the post-Civil Rights era. America’s persistent stratification of white over black, he argued in Minority Education and Caste, was analogous to the caste systems of India and Japan—most perhaps to the latter, which featured a single pariah group, the Burakumin, at the bottom of society rather than a multi-tiered caste hierarchy.7 Experience in other caste societies, according to Ogbu, suggested that only an external effort to equalize the status of caste-like minorities, which would entail giving them educational and occupational preferences, could make them equal to other citizens. In his view, immigrant minorities, even those perceived to be racially different from members of the host society, were not true castes and could usually make their way without special assistance. Only those groups—blacks, American Indians, and Mexicans—who had been incorporated into American society against their will and then treated as subordinate groups were in a caste-like situation.

Although Ogbu’s theories were relevant to the debate over affirmative action, they made little impression on the discussion of race in the United States. This was partly perhaps because the conception of affirmative action as straightforward minority preferences enforced by mandatory quotas was coming under increasing attack when his book came out and would soon be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Bakke case.

Now, however, a well-known cultural and social critic, Benjamin DeMott, has revived Ogbu’s theories as the basis for a refreshingly original assessment of the state of black-white relations in the United States. DeMott’s point of departure in his extended essay The Trouble with Friendship is his observation as a student of popular culture that a new myth about race has taken hold of the American imagination. Using examples drawn from recent films, television programs, and best-selling books, he exposes the currently popular illusion that the race problem can be solved by one-on-one friendships across racial lines. Danny Glover and Mel Gibson as good buddies saving each other’s lives in the Lethal Weapon movies provide one of many examples of the new myth. According to DeMott, many well-meaning whites may believe that they are contributing significantly to the solution of the race problem by making friends with black co-workers and neighbors; but this obscures the deeper realities of racial oppression and encourages the dangerous illusion that the problem is well on its way to solution.

The reality, DeMott argues with much cogency, is that we still live in the caste society described by John Ogbu, and Americans need to face up to the difficult challenge of transcending it. But his only concrete recommendation is analytic rather than constructive. Exposing the friendship myth for the sham that it is does not tell us how to eradicate caste lines. In fact, accepting the caste analogy in an unqualified and literal-minded way might immobilize us, as we confront the realization that other caste societies have, for the most part, failed to overcome status inequalities sanctioned by a long history of viewing people with allegedly impure or defective ancestries as pariahs, innately unworthy to associate with people who measure their self-worth by the higher value that they attribute to their own lineages.

In my opinion, the caste analogy has value as a means of understanding central aspects of the history of black-white relations in the United States. But racial or color caste must not be seen as an unchanging essence. The same criticism that has been offered of ahistorical and “essentialist” conceptions of “race” can be applied to “caste.” Caste terminology is certainly preferable to race terminology, because caste obviously refers to a social arrangement rather than to a fact of nature. But if caste is a social and historical construction, it is subject to change and may even disappear. As Ogbu himself conceded, there are ideological and legal traditions in the United States that are incompatible with a caste system of any kind. The idea of ascribed status is, of course, in obvious contradiction to Hochschild’s American dream. Racial caste has been condemned and contested throughout most of American history by black and white anti-racists; although it has not been eradicated, it has been greatly weakened, especially during the past half-century. African Americans have recently obtained positions of prestige and responsibility that would have been inconceivable in a strict caste system. Such “symbolic representation” may not solve the problems of the inner city, but it does have some meaning for the American conception of status. Being black does not inevitably mean being denied a place at the table, although it still means that getting a seat is likely to be harder and more stressful than for white aspirants.

Steinberg contends that the struggle for racial equality in the United States has always been a matter of two steps forward and one step backward and this seems to me apt. I have used that image myself to dispute the notion that there has been no progress whatever in black-white relations. The abolition of slavery failed to yield equal citizenship, except on paper. Basic civil rights were at last won in the 1960s, but substantial economic and social equality was not achieved. Slavery and legalized segregation are gone forever, but genuine equality remains elusive. That we are now apparently taking a backward step is disappointing and dispiriting. Although it may be little consolation to those who are currently suffering from the injuries of race and class, the long view of history gives us reason to hope that the American dream can be reconceived once again to make another great advance possible. In the current and future debate on how to make the struggle go forward, no potentially effective strategy should be ignored or rejected simply on the grounds that it violates someone’s idea of ideological purity or programmatic consistency. The American tradition of pragmatism and experimentation remains the best guide. There is more than one road to the promised land, and we need travelers on all of them.

This Issue

April 18, 1996