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The Retrograde Quest for Symbolic Prophets of Black Liberation

Moving beyond the Moses Complex

One little-examined legacy of the broader intellectual embrace of race-reductive thinking is something we might call the Quest for Moses(es)—the shorthand branding exercise of privileging the content of individual characters in our debates on racial injustice. We see this tendency in much of today’s wokeness-inflected discourse, which leans heavily on appealing to the authority individuals considered to be exemplary, from differing times or historical contexts, in lieu of empirical arguments to support assertions concerning how we should understand racial injustice. Some of the figures in the Moses pantheon are James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Marcus Garvey, Amílcar Cabral, Stuart Hall, the Black Panthers, Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King Jr., or the authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement.

Of course, the contributions of all these figures are estimable, and there’s traditionally much to be gained from historically informed encounters with past advocates of racial justice. Still, one striking shared trait in the revived interest in these thinkers and movements is that none is enmeshed in the particular, post-segregation neoliberal regime that confronts us today. None of them can help us figure out how to respond to the overlapping crises that now bear directly, even disproportionately, on black people—e.g., privatization of education and other public services, health care reform, the dynamics of metropolitan rent-intensifying redevelopment (a.k.a. “gentrification”), rise and reproduction of the carceral apparatus, or income inequality. And some of them—Cooper and the younger Du Bois, for example—advanced arguments that would likely be cold comfort to egalitarian interests today. Both figures assumed upper-class whites to be the key allies in racial uplift, and implied that restriction of the franchise from the “low and vicious” was fine, so long as such strictures applied equally to blacks and whites. They also held that segregation’s gravest injustice was that it did not recognize class distinctions among blacks. Cooper, in addition, was anti-union, anti-radical, and anti-immigrant.

The reflexive attribution of today’s battery of racial inequalities to a generic, transhistorical racism or white supremacy actually serves to shift attention away from the discrete, historically specific mechanisms that inform actual racialized social outcomes. For example, early in the Covid pandemic, Merlin Chowkwanyun and I cautioned that glibly categorizing its apparent racial disparities as a direct function of race or racism explains neither the origins of disparate Covid susceptibilities nor vulnerability to the disease’s worst effects. We also noted that slippage between “race” as a nominal social status and “racism” as either an attitude or a pattern of structured social relations could readily translate into its own kind of racial essentialism. A race-driven breakdown of Covid transmission could readily shore up long-discredited but nonetheless lingering assumptions that blacks and Hispanics either bear distinct racial biologies or have developed group-specific cultural practices that account for their seemingly elevated vulnerability. Other scholarship has affirmed the reality of that danger. What’s more, recent Covid research has shown what should have been apparent from the outset—that early disparities in infection and death among blacks and Hispanics result most crucially from working and housing conditions that increase exposure and vulnerability.

In much the same vein, I’ve devoted several recent TNR columns to showing how ill-suited the generic invocation of racism or white supremacy is when it comes to explaining apparent racial disparities in distribution of wealth and income. Notions such as the racial wealth gap don’t provide a causal explanation of economic inequalities; rather, they encourage us simply to ascribe mystic racial momentum to the causal mechanisms that actually generate such socioeconomic forces. Because race reductionism does not explain concretely how such inequalities are generated and reproduced, it also does not point toward practical strategies for tackling inequalities.

This, indeed, is one of the most frustrating features of the race-reductionist mindset. In underwriting characterizations of the roots of racial inequalities that are both shallow and inadequate, it has no analytic value for those who want to pursue a more egalitarian and just society, even as it seeks to give the casual name-checking impression of advancing racial justice. And the literal name-checking of Moses figures within its ambit clearly springs from the same intellectually homogenizing impulse.

Race reductionism is also fundamentally corrosive to more focused efforts to reckon with this new era of inequality, thanks to its constitutional failure to recognize change and the workings of historical processes, both on and among black people. One plain rhetorical tic in the world of race-reductionist scholarship is the casual referencing of black American experience across space and time in the first-person plural. Although this tendency seems to have become a zealously defended norm in the Great Awokening, it’s hardly new. My son, as a graduate student teacher’s assistant in the mid-1990s, would query African American history students who used “we” in their seminar papers to refer to slaves and sharecroppers: “Were you alive” in 1860 or 1880? More recently, this tendency has proliferated in constructs like “We’re tired of having to explain racism to white people,” or assertions that we all share in a collective history of suffering, or struggle, that reaches back at least to 1619.

Such laments express, on the one hand, a key trope underlying notions of heritage: that the past, the experiences of ancestors, lives on in us. On the other hand, though, the heritage idea can succumb to a far more baleful pattern of rendering widely divergent modes of experience and change in terms that are essentializing, if not flatly racist. This discomfiting fact is particularly ironic in the framework of the catechism of today’s Great Awokening, which negatively sanctions the appropriation of others’ experiences as one’s own. The ancestors’ experiences, after all, were theirs, not ours. And as fits our historical moment, this notion of heritage is tied up with property claims; our heritage is ours, and therefore cannot be yours. It also feels uncomfortably like an endorsement of the hoary racist trope of “thinking with the blood.”

We tend generally to overlook these abrasive features of race-reductionist thinking amid its own sweeping generalizations about a transhistorical “black liberation struggle” and “black freedom movement.” Such constructs perpetuate a view that all black American political action and aspiration, past and present, is essentially unitary and can be distilled into large abstractions like “liberation” or “freedom.” On one level, that contention is no doubt true—who, least of all among exploited and oppressed people, would not desire some ideal of liberation or freedom? At the same time, and for the same reason, it is also trivial. Politics and social action reside in the effort to bring such superficially appealing abstractions down to earth—to translate their meaning in concrete circumstances, and to set them against the shifting constraints of historical necessity. We cannot meaningfully interpret the fight for racial justice via ethereal objectives like black liberation; narratives that proceed from such grand abstractions cannot help us understand politics or political history at that concrete level. To take just one example, Black Power, as Cedric Johnson, Dean Robinson, and other scholars have demonstrated, cannot be understood apart from the emergence and incorporation of a black ethnic-pluralist politics in postwar America. Nor can the Black Power movement be rendered historically intelligible without reference to conflicts within urban redevelopment regimes, the federal interventions orchestrated under the War on Poverty and the Great Society, changing metropolitan demographics, and the victories of the civil rights movement.

Indeed, the unitary constructs of race reductionism themselves originate from historically specific sources. The postwar decades that launched the academic study of black American political thought centered on artificial production of “traditions” purported to taxonomize “black thought” around generic questions like the Negro’s pursuit of freedom or equality or relation to America. That scholarship, which pivoted on the central role of “race relations,” generated an analytic series of dichotomous alternatives—protest versus accommodation, militancy versus moderation, and eventually nationalism versus integration—assigned to individuals who allegedly represented one tendency or another, sometimes even casting the same individual to different sides at different times. This was a woefully uninformative approach to examining the history of black political debate—and the likely source of today’s proliferation of Moseses in the black political imagination.

Lest anyone think I’m disowning the broader study of black political thought, I wrote a book on Du Bois’s politics and taught in that field for nearly four decades. I remain convinced that we can learn much from such serious historical inquiry. Nevertheless, it makes no more sense to look to Du Bois—much less the likes of James, Hall, or Fanon, who didn’t work in the American context—as a guide for addressing any of the signal inequalities of our neoliberal age than it would to consult him on how to operate an iPhone. Instead, such thinkers, when adduced as Moses surrogates, mostly offer timeless verities—and timeless verities belong in fortune cookies.