The Complex Roots of Black Conservatism

The Complex Roots of Black Conservatism

Few fixtures on America’s political and cultural scene tell us more about the perilous state of our racial discourse than the phenomenon of black conservatism. While virtually every other confluence of race and ideology is par for the course—white people, Asians and Hispanics can be liberal or conservative—the notion of a black conservative still strikes many people as dubious. It’s not that a black American who holds conservative policy positions is inconceivable. But, within the tangled fray of American identity politics and the culture wars, black partisanship for the anti-woke side comes across as an aberration, even a kind of betrayal. However, black conservatism is far more complex than that and highlights broader issues around race, identity and the national culture.

Black Americans are no less likely to be conservative than any other group. According to a 2016 Washington Post analysis, a full 45% of black people identify as conservative, compared to 47% who identify as liberal. Still, the overwhelming support for the Democratic Party among blacks, coupled with the popular narrative propelled by Black Lives Matter that places white racism and black oppression at the center of the American story, gives the false impression that there is no cultural or political debate on race issues in the black American community. Yet black opinion often diverges from these expectations. For instance, according to a 2016 Pew poll, 60% of black people without college degrees reported that race hadn’t affected their chances of success in life. Whether or not that is true is secondary to the disposition it reflects. Likewise, despite activist calls to defund the police, a full 81% of black people report wanting as much or more policing in their own communities. So why are these opinions ignored?

This misperception has its origins in the cultural and moral transformation of the 1960s following the civil rights movement, when a critical mass of the population finally came together to abolish institutional white supremacy and legalized segregation. But this tectonic shift also delegitimized the country’s moral core. By acknowledging the scope of racism, white people and their institutions underwent a significant loss of authority and white Americans felt complicit in historical racism. Meanwhile, black identity became linked to victimology and protest politics: to be authentically black was to shake one’s fist at the white world. This marked the beginning of white guilt and black power politics, a dynamic that has set the terms of America’s implicit racial contract ever since.

A new moral identity was created to dissociate white Americans from the shame of the past. Progressive, right-thinking white people are encouraged to act deferential and guilty toward black people whenever the issue of race comes up, while black people are meant to be angry and indignant towards white people in order to trigger their collective guilt. This arrangement allows both groups to feel a sense of historical innocence: white people can shuck off the stigma of racism by pretending to feel guilty about things that occurred before they were born, while black people can shuck off the stigma of inferiority by attributing all their problems to white racism. And yet, because we are all individuals and not simply avatars of our races, these attitudes quickly came to seem like mere posturing.

But changing the moral order of society inevitably creates new moral taboos. To dissent from the prevailing post-civil rights racial script in polite society is to open oneself up to the charge of being a self-hating Uncle Tom if one is black.

Black conservatives reject the notion that white racism is the main obstacle to racial equality, while embracing an inclusive multi-ethnic national identity over an exclusive racial one. While black protest against white racism is calcified in the public imagination as the central vehicle of racial progress, a black conservative sees cultural development as the greatest agent of change—recognizing the cultural and economic underdevelopment of black people that is the legacy of past racism as the greatest barrier to advancement, rather than systemic racism or structural bias in the present. Moreover, black conservatism measures progress in terms of the declining significance of racial categories in public life, rather than in terms of equal outcomes between racial groups and acknowledges the brutal history of anti-black racism without creating a moral identity out of it.

In this sense, black conservatism is more of a cultural disposition or sensibility than a political doctrine. This helps to explain the diverse array of writers and thinkers who fall under the black conservative umbrella, from the liberal commentator and linguist John McWhorter, libertarian economist and author Thomas Sowell, jazz critic and polemicist Stanley Crouch, centrist professor and economist Glenn Loury, as well as younger writers such as Coleman Hughes and Thomas Chatterton Williams, who synthesize these views.

There are two major attitudes underlying the black conservative tradition: individualism and humanism—an emphasis on black autonomy as against the historical determinism of the cultural left, and the form of cultural nationalism that Ralph Ellison called “American humanism,” which values our common bonds as citizens over our racial and ethnic differences and rejects all forms of racial essentialism and separatism.

Naturally, black conservatives tend to critique the prevailing progressive narrative on race, asserting that much modern anti-racism—from Black Lives Matter to the New York Times 1619 Project and the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates—is an overcorrection for past racism that effectively reinforces fictitious and harmful racial categorization. By imbuing skin color with moral meaning, the progressive effort to defeat racism abides by the same logic as white supremacy. This shift away from the principle of colorblindness toward a renewed race-consciousness is seen as a step backwards by black conservatives.

Shelby Steele articulates this vision in his award-winning 1990 book The Content of Our Character. The book is an attempt to make sense of the dissonance between the clear decline of racism in society over the past 60 years and the persistence of racial gaps between white people and black people. While the progressive intuition is simply to expand the definition of racism, viewing it as an all-encompassing system that churns out racist outcomes even without overt discrimination, Steele’s approach is more holistic and interpersonal.

To Steele, the civil rights movement was successful in winning blacks equality under the law, but an unforeseen consequence was that black people came to identify with their victimization as the sole means to acquiring power and recognition in society, thus shifting their locus of control outward rather than inward. White people, to distance themselves from the stain of historical racism, came to see black people as a means to their own moral ends, rather than as full human beings. This justified a slew of paternalistic policies and programs that were more about assuaging white guilt than helping black people. In this sense, both groups became invested in the existence of racism, the continuation of which presents an endless series of opportunities to prove our inherent goodness. This explains the obsession among a certain segment of the media with any event that smells like racism, even if further information suggests otherwise.

In short, our psychological need to show ourselves innocent of the past effectively keeps us trapped inside that past. Steele writes:

I think the racial struggle in America has always been primarily a struggle for innocence. White racism from the beginning has been a claim of white innocence and therefore of white entitlement to subjugate blacks. And in the sixties, as went innocence so went power. Blacks used the innocence that grew out of their long subjugation to seize more power, while whites lost some of their innocence and so lost a degree of power over blacks. Both races instinctively understand that to lose innocence is to lose power. To be innocent someone else must be guilty, a natural law that leads the races to forge their innocence on each other’s backs.

If Steele provides the moral and psychological dimension of the black conservative tradition, Thomas Sowell provides its economic and cultural dimension. In his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Sowell tracks the history of various ethnic groups across the world and disentangles the complicated bundle of cultural, demographic and historical factors that account for their divergent economic and social outcomes—so regularly attributed to racism in the American context. Contrary to the widespread belief that every gap between two groups must be a consequence of one group subjugating the other, Sowell shows how unequal outcomes between groups is the norm in multi-ethnic societies. Many ethnic minorities have achieved astonishing success despite the negative attitudes the majority held toward them, and conversely, many groups lag behind on various metrics and have no history of oppression to blame this on.

The potential for ethnic and racial grievances to boil over into political violence is ever present when those grievances are granted legitimacy by the educated classes. As Sowell argues in The Quest For Cosmic Justice, the demand for perfect racial parity in all spheres of society is a totalitarian and unachievable pursuit that arouses the ancient tribal impulse for revenge. Indeed, there is nothing more natural than hating someone who belongs to a different group, especially when that group has tangible advantages over yours.

Intergenerational collective guilt and retributive justice can turn a flourishing multi-ethnic democracy into a cultural battleground of ethnic strife. Moving towards a society where racial difference is rendered meaningless in public life means resisting the impulse to create an identity out of historical injustice.

It is commonly assumed that the black conservative tradition goes back to the self-help rhetoric of Booker T. Washington, but its roots are more recent than that. It was Ralph Waldo Ellison, author of Invisible Man, who laid its foundations. Ellison rejected Booker T. Washington’s warning to go slow on civil rights and focus on economic uplift. The two central strands of black conservatism—individualism and humanism—are deeply entrenched in Ellison’s writing and Ellison was a major influence on Shelby Steele. For Ellison, the problem was “not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of our race but creating the uncreated features of our face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals. We create the race by creating ourselves and then to our great astonishment we will have created something far more important: we will have created a culture.”

Invisible Man is a parable of individualism. It tells the story of a young black man who, haunted by his grandfather’s dying words that his own life was a lie, wins a scholarship to a black university and sets out to become the next Booker T. Washington. But the invisible man is betrayed by Dr. Bledsoe, the headmaster of the school, whose character seems to be heavily based on Washington’s, after the protagonist shows a rich white man too much of the black world, which almost ruins Bledsoe’s plot to present the black pupils as innocents to the school’s white donors. He then travels to New York where he is used and abused by various people and organizations, and never really seen for who he is. In a heroic act of negation, the invisible man eventually embraces his invisibility and rejects the standards the world has projected upon him, determined to set the terms of his own life. It is a classic journey from innocence to self-knowledge and illustrates the individual’s need to find meaning apart from the group and the barriers of human blindness we face along the way.

If Invisible Man is a testament to individualism, Ellison’s follow-up book of essays Shadow and Act is a masterclass on humanism in the American context. Ellison attempts to establish that elusive American cultural heritage and identity that connect black American experience and culture with the nation as a whole. The book makes the case for a cultural nationalism that transcends racial categories and is grounded in an appreciation of diversity and pluralism. As Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad puts it, “Ellison believes in an America in which blacks know they are part white and whites know they are part black.”

Ellison recognized that being a member of an oppressed group does not spare one the burden of being human. He was disgusted by the sociology that rendered black life nothing more than suffering and degradation—almost to the point of making black people seem less than human—and was suspicious of protest movements that depicted black people as perpetual victims without agency.

This kind of individualism and humanism were anathema to the new strain of black identity politics that arose in the 60s. Ellison’s cultural nationalism, along with his utter disdain toward the black power movement, made him a figure of scorn on college campuses and severed his ties to the younger generation of black writers.

Ellison’s vision was supported by Albert Murray in his classic book The Omni-Americans. Like Ellison, Murray wanted to dissociate national culture and identity from reductive notions of race and argued in favor of a multi-ethnic national identity that embraces America’s mixed heritage:

The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that white people are not really white, and black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another. American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and the so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world as much as they resemble each other.

The ideas of Ellison and Murray reveal a flexibility in the black conservative tradition that is often missed today. Part of the reason for that is its association with free-market libertarianism and bootstrapping personal responsibility. Because the post-civil rights racial contract is associated with redistributionist policies and social programs, opposition to that contract has naturally gravitated in the opposite direction. Moreover, the same skewed system of moral incentives that generated the demand for black conservatism has led to some of its excesses. The historical and moral power wielded by the left on race issues creates a socio-cultural asymmetry in public discourse that encourages increasingly extreme positions among black conservative types—right up to denying the prevalence of anti-black racism altogether. This is a shame, because the black conservative tradition has so much more to offer than the reactionary polemics and reflexive partisanship embodied by the likes of Candace Owens. And you don’t have to be black to share these views or the sensibility that undergirds them.

At a time when the country could not feel more divided along issues of race, the black conservative tradition offers us another way. As the country becomes more ethnically diverse, it’s increasingly important to go beyond race as an organizing principle of public life and uncover ways of seeing each other as individuals. We are in dire need of a national identity and culture that can emphasize our commonalities without ignoring our differences. The choice is not between a repressive color-blindness or a race-conscious anti-racism. There is also the new American humanism expressed by Ellison and Murray, which reveals the cultural continuity between our past and present and aspires to a transracial humanist future that views the individual as the ultimate minority. This country has never been strictly about race. Black people have always been part white and white people have always been part black in America. It’s high time we realized this. As long as blackness is measured against whiteness, and whiteness against blackness, the challenges of multicultural democracy will never be met.

If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:

Related Topics

Samuel Kronen is an independent writer interested in American culture, identity, and race politics.

Like our articles?

Subscribe to our newsletter

You May Also Like
  1. Brilliant essay, Samuel Kronin. Thank you, very illuminating, clearly written, great use of language, especially in the first half of the essay. You’ve put a lot of work into getting the flow right, and it’s an enjoyable read as a result. Some of the commenters are questioning the fit of “conservative” in the list of writers you discuss. G Thomas Burgess wrote an illuminating article in Quillette recently, and I wonder if his distinctions can get over some of these objections — https://quillette.com/2020/09/13/anti-racist-structuralists-and-non-racist-culturalists

  2. I’ve got to agree with all of those who point to Kronen’s misleading use of the term conservative. He, like Humpty Dumpty, demands that words mean exactly what he wants them to mean, no more, no less, and not mean what other people think that they mean. Critical race theorists devote massive energy to redefining terms so that anyone who disagrees with them is deligitimized, and Kronen contributes to their project, unwittingly, I guess. He uses Candace Owens as the summing up representative of the group! As if Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes, Glenn Loury, and John McWhorter better hastily read more Ralph Ellison so they quit being little Candace Owens. Has he read them? And then his responses show how unaware he is of his own blinkered vision:left/right, Progressive/Conservative, Democratic/Liberal. A paucity of distinctions.

  3. Really enjoyed your article, Samuel. I have no idea who ‘Anne Smith’ is but it seems she needs a bit of fresh air…

  4. Blinkered, shoddily researched, and absurd. Essays like this come from intellectuals sequestering themselves in libraries and reading books in order to learn about life. Did you interview any black Republicans? My family were Rockefeller Republicans. They had built a very successful business from nothing, and said that they’d never met rich Democrats who valued doing the same thing. I assure you an exegesis of Ellison’s writings had nothing to do with their support for the GOP. They also disdained the welfare mentality of the Democratic party. You’ve done a grave disservice to this topic. I question your motives, though I realize you’re probably just callow, ignorant, and looking for a niche. Find another one, and leave my history out of it. Very poor work.

    1. Again, I tried to make it clear that BC is not about politics and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Republican Party. But yes, I believe Ellison’s writing has influenced the younger generation of BC or black American humanists or whatever you want to call it. The rest of your criticism seems to be fairly personal, so there’s not much I can say in response other than IT IS MY HISTORY TOO!

  5. This is a superb argument here, worthy of being developed into a book. I too find myself uncomfortable seeing these thinkers labeled as “conservatives;” only Steele and Sowell truly fit that description. Chatterton is most definitely on the left. “Black American Humanism” might be a more accurate alternative and escape of the trap of labels such as “left” and “right” that no longer have any meaning. The identity-politics “left,” for instance, has adopted themes such as cultural purity and separation formerly held by the nationalist far-right.

  6. Superb writing there Sam. This is an outstanding essay.

    BTW, is it possible to subscribe to comments automatically? The going to WordPress every time is a nuisance.

  7. McWhorter & Hughes have both made it clear they aren’t conservatives even if they admire Steele & Sowell.

    Even Loury says he no longer defines himself as one even if a number of his views are similar to those held by conservatives.

    Williams isn’t a conservative either.

    It really doesn’t help matters given the far left try to label anyone who opposes CRT or defends free speech as right wing or conservative, if people whose views are either broadly centre left/centrist get labelled conservative simply because these challenge a cultural orthodoxy which is essentially far left.

    1. I tried to make it clear that BC is not about politics but a cultural sensibility. What term should I use for what I’m describing here? Actually. Should I pretend that Coleman and Thomas aren’t on the anti-woke (right-leaning) side of this debate or make constant caveats throughout (which I feel like I pretty much did here)? It gets frustrating.

    2. “i tried to make it clear that BC is not about politics but a cultural sensibility”

      But almost every issue they’re discussing is political. Using a term as a descriptor that is almost exclusively political. ‘X is a conservative’ is a political label, ‘X hold views that can be considered conservative’ isn’t.

      Hughes has openly expressed support for the use MDMA which seems hard to tie with a conservative outlook on any level.

      They’re all liberals is the most straight forward sense, and definitely all humanists.

      Also, how on earth can being ‘anti woke’ ‘right leaning’. Opposition to woke ideologies comes from everyone from old school Marxists to Rawlsian liberals to any other number of view which accurately be call ‘right leaning’.

  8. Finally, something that doesn’t leave me with a headache. Thanks. As the founder of the Conservative Brotherhood, a blog league with a large following earlier this century, it’s good to hear how we have been vindicated in principle if not in social media virality. But I am not surprised that someone of the temperament of John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes are front and center these days. They are the kind and gentle men whose patience has not been tried to the bitter end by the devolution of civility. There’s quite a bit of history to speak about.

  9. Great article! Made me remember when I studied abroad in Ghana. We had a cohort of black and white students. To all of the Ghanaians, we were all just Americans. Our shared culture stood out to them far more than anything else. A bit more of a simplistic idea than your article, but somewhere in the same realm, I think. Thanks for this!

  10. Excellent article, one of the very best I’ve seen on “AREO”! Bravo!

A better world than this is possible

A better world than this is possible

The Republican Choice – “How a party spent decades making itself white.”

“The GOP is a white party advocating for white (rural & suburban) interests. It did not become that way accidentally: it was the result of a long series of deliberate, shameful choices.”[1,2] –@drvox

The political wisdom is ingrained at this point: Black and brown people don’t vote for Republicans. From that principle flows all manner of Republican strategy… The GOP’s whitewashed political reality is no accident — the party has repeatedly chosen to pursue white voters at the cost of others decade after decade. Since the mid-20th century, the Republican Party has flirted with both the morality of greater racial inclusion and its strategic benefits. But time and again, the party’s appeals to white voters have overridden voices calling for a more racially diverse coalition, and Republicans’ relative indifference to the interests of voters of color evolved into outright antagonism.

Racism Is the Biggest Reason the U.S. Safety Net Is So Weak – “Harvard economist Alberto Alesina, who died last [month], found that ethnic divisions made the country less effective at providing public goods.”

“Opponents of redistribution in the United States have regularly used race-based rhetoric to resist left-wing policies… Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state.”


To some, this might seem like a confirmation of right-wing ideas that diversity is bad for a country. But although it might help explain the success of homogenous countries such as Sweden and South Korea, Alesina’s theory is much more subtle than it might appear. As he explained in a 2003 paper, the key isn’t how similar the inhabitants of a country might appear on paper, but how much they see themselves as one people; fractionalization is in the mind, rather than in the genes. That implies that the way forward for the U.S. and other diverse countries, to become more equal and prosperous, is to de-emphasize racial and ethnic divisions and promote a shared identity.

Beyond ‘White Fragility’ – “If you want to let freedom ring, hammer on economic injustice.” (via)

Which brings us back to the present. The activists behind the Black Lives Matter movement have always connected its aims to working-class, egalitarian politics. The platform of the Movement for Black Lives, as it is formally known, includes demands for universal health care, affordable housing, living wage employment and access to education and public transportation. Given the extent to which class shapes black exposure to police violence — it is poor and working class black Americans who are most likely to live in neighborhoods marked by constant police surveillance — calls to defund and dismantle existing police departments are a class demand like any other.

But while the movement can’t help but be about practical concerns, the predominating discourse of belief and intention overshadows those stakes: too much concern with “white fragility” and not enough with wealth inequality. The challenge is to bridge the gap; to show new supporters that there’s far more work to do than changing the way we police; to channel their sympathy into a deeper understanding of the problem at hand.

To put a final point of emphasis on the potential of the moment, I’ll leave you with this. In a 1963 pamphlet called “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook,” the activist and laborer James Boggs argued for the revolutionary potential of the black struggle for civil rights. “The strength of the Negro cause and its power to shake up the social structure of the nation,” Boggs wrote, “comes from the fact that in the Negro struggle all the questions of human rights and human relationships are posed.” That is because it is a struggle for equality “in production, in consumption, in the community, in the courts, in the schools, in the universities, in transportation, in social activity, in government, and indeed in every sphere of American life.”

“an underappreciated benefit of social democracy is it might diminish people’s incentive to exaggerate and lie for a living. ‘grift’ is a macroeconomic, not just a moral, failing. most people would do better things if they were under less stress and/or knew better things to do.” –@interfluidity

“This is a really great example of the culture around social welfare distribution in the US. A 0.5% error rate of overpayment merits front page headlines. That *20%* of people eligible for food stamps or the EITC don’t receive them is given little heed.” –@pamela_herd

“Still waiting to see a big in-depth news story about how much enhanced unemployment benefits are helping lower wage workers. There are literally millions of people receiving benefits over 100% of their normal income.” –@wsbgnl

“Just a handful of anecdotes via twitter replies of the impact of what @MattBruenig

calls the ‘superdole’ — much bigger unemployment benefits + $1,200 checks — approved by Congress in March” –@JStein_WaPo

“Policy ideas that redefine the rules of the game in order to win are really underrated. Want to increase GDP? Increase the population. Want to end illegal immigration? Make it legal. Want to end poverty? Give everyone money.” –@albrgr

“The 3 rules of pandemic economics: 1. Get families cash, or people will die. 2. Get companies cash, or firms will die. 3. Stop the pandemic, or there will be a lot of death no matter how much cash you spend.” –@DKThomp

COVID-19 Broke the Economy. What If We Don’t Fix It? – “Instead of reopening society for the sake of the economy, what if we continued to work less, buy less, make less—for the sake of the planet?” (via)

“Whenever there’s a crisis, everybody says we have to work more. Actually no, at the moment you want to save the world, work less,” said David Graeber, an American anthropologist and the author of Bullshit Jobs, a book that argues that many jobs that we currently work are meaningless.

As a society, we place moral value on working. “We really do believe that if you’re not out working hard you don’t deserve anything. You’re a bad person,” Graeber said. “But that morality is perversely destroying the planet.”

“in the old class analysis the people workers resent, who boss them and underpay them, are capitalists. @davidgraeber points out that for most workers, it’s managers and professionals who directly boss and underpay, rather problematizing contemporary ‘left’ political parties.”[3] –@interfluidity

America’s Democratic Unraveling – “Countries fail the same way businesses do, gradually and then suddenly.”[4,5] (via)

U.S. institutions were vulnerable to Trump’s attack because public trust had been quietly ebbing away from them for some time. For more than three decades after World War II, growth was not just rapid but broadly shared, at least among whites, enabling most Americans, even those without college degrees, to find good jobs. But instead of spreading those gains even more widely, and cutting African Americans into the American dream, U.S. economic institutions became less inclusive over the last three decades, and politics became more beholden to moneyed interests. Endemic racism persisted, and economic inequality deepened, producing radically disparate outcomes for different groups of Americans. The financial crisis of 2008, and the subsequent bailout for banks, only accelerated the trend toward inequality and deepened distrust in Congress, the judiciary, the Federal Reserve, and regulatory agencies.

Do Protests Even Work? – “It sometimes takes decades to find out.” (via)

So why don’t authorities always ratchet up the repression until people give up? Why do they sometimes give in to protest movements? The key to understanding that is also the key to understanding the true long-term power of social movements. Movements, and their protests, are powerful because they change the minds of people, including those who may not even be participating in them, and they change the lives of their participants.

“I cannot believe that we literally witnessed more progress being made from a week of riots than a decade of electoral politics, we are witnessing massive voter suppression & election rigging in real time and so many of you are STILL on some ‘wait til november…’ shit. GROW UP”[6] –@themermacorn

“Noam Chomsky on the legacy of Bernie Sanders’ campaign: “It’s the constant activism that is reshaping the array of choices, issues, policies. You don’t win by snapping your fingers. Some things work, some things fail, and you pick up and go on from there.” –@jacobinmag

“For the political time junkies – I wrote a long blog post about the possibilities of a Biden ‘reconstructive’ presidency. Hint: it’s about social movements, not just the president.” –@julia_azari

Never The Same – “Things are different now. They started to change in 2008, when Congress and the Federal Reserve threw unprecedented money at the economy to keep it from collapsing. They’ve done it again this year with even more money. Trillions and trillions of dollars. It was a huge debate in 2008. It’s much less controversial today.”[7]

My theory is that once a new kind of stimulus is tasted it becomes a permanent feature of how downturns are handled. This isn’t about the technical details of stimulus. It’s not even about whether you think it works. It’s about the perceptions of struggling people who demand something be done, and their knowledge of what can be done…

I don’t care whether you think those things are right, wrong, moral, or will have ugly consequences. That’s a different topic. All that matters here is that people’s perception of what policymakers are capable of doing when the economy declines has been shifted higher in a huge way. And it’s crazy to think those new expectations won’t impact policymakers’ future decisions.

It’s one thing if people think policymakers don’t have the tools to fight a recession. But now that everyone knows how powerful the tools can be, no politician can say, “There’s nothing we could do.” They can only say, “We chose not to do it.” Which few politicians – on either side – wants to say when people are losing jobs.

The Jobs We Need – “Workers have been left behind as the U.S. economy expanded and chief executive salaries skyrocketed over the last four decades.”[8,9,10,11] (via)

American workers need a raise. But it is not enough to transfer wealth from the rich to the desperate. In confronting the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood that a sustainable improvement in the quality of most American lives required an overhaul of the institutions of government.

“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” Roosevelt said in 1936. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”

Now as then, the profound inequities of American life are the result of laws written at the behest of the wealthy and public institutions managed in their interest. Now as then, the nation’s economic problems are rooted in political problems. And now as then, the revival of broad prosperity — and the stability of American democracy — require the imposition of limits on the political influence of the wealthy. It requires the government to serve the interests of the governed.

Americans especially need to confront the fact that minorities are disproportionately the victims of economic inequality — the people most often denied the dignity of a decent wage. That inequity is the result of historic and continuing racism, and it should be addressed with the same sense of fierce urgency that has motivated the wave of protests against overt displays of racism.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a civil-rights leader who emphasizes the foundational importance of economic justice, has pointed to the constitution that North Carolina adopted after the Civil War. The document affirms the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But African-Americans were among the state’s legislators for the first time, and the former slaves got another principle enshrined as well: that workers are entitled to “the fruits of their own labor.” They understood that economic security makes other freedoms meaningful.

It is time to ensure that all Americans can share in the nation’s prosperity.

You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument – “The black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from. The white people I come from fought and died for their Lost Cause. And I ask you now, who dares to tell me to celebrate them? Who dares to ask me to accept their mounted pedestals?” (via)

Architecture of Oppression: Racism and Bias in Community Planning

Architecture of Oppression: Racism and Bias in Community Planning

There’s No Such Thing as a Dangerous Neighborhood. Most serious urban violence is concentrated among less than 1 percent of a city’s population. So why are we still criminalizing whole areas? (Stephen Lurie, CityLab) On the other hand, a study in 2019 (abstract only) shows that growing up in an affluent community brings “compounding privileges” and higher educational attainment—especially for white residents. (Tanvi Misra, CityLab)

America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress. Architects and planners have an obligation to protect health, safety and welfare through the spaces we design. As the George Floyd protests reveal, we’ve failed. (Bryan Lee Jr., architect and design justice advocate, CityLab)

For nearly every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that has been planned and designed to perpetuate it. That’s a key principle of the Design Justice movement, upon which I base my practice. Design Justice seeks to dismantle the privilege and power structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression and sees it as an opportunity to envision radically just spaces centered on the liberation of disinherited communities.

That built-in oppression takes many forms. It’s in the planning decisions that target non-white communities for highway projects and “urban renewal” schemes conceived to steer economic benefits away from existing residents. It’s in a design philosophy that turned neighborhoods into mazes of “defensible space” that often criminalize blackness under the guise of safety. And it’s in the proliferation of public spaces that often fail to let certain cultural communities congregate without fear of harassment.

This moment, like so many others, rose out of the state-sanctioned murder of black people. It emerged from the killing of George Floyd, and Tony McDade, before that, Breonna Taylor, before that Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. It grew out of the specter of impending violence that follows black and brown people daily. And it grew out of the apathy of this nation toward a black community so profoundly sickened by our built environment that a global pandemic disproportionately impacts us.

Rebellion is a response to a prolonged dehumanization of a people unwilling to be participants in their own demise; it is often the soft power of the built environment that provides the preconditions for that dehumanization and the atrocities that follow.

‘Safe Streets’ Are Not Safe for Black Lives. (Destiny Thomas, anthropologist and transportation planner, CityLab)

This spring, a pandemic cleared cars from the streets. Many U.S. cities seized the moment by announcing new bike lanes and networks of “slow streets” that limit vehicle traffic. It is a transportation planner’s dream to hear that thousands of miles of streets are being reorganized to make room for more walking, biking and playing.

But to me, as a Black planner and community organizer, the lack of process and participatory decision-making behind these projects was an absolute nightmare. Pop-up bike lanes, guerrilla-urbanist playgrounds, and tactical walkways have been notorious for being politically crude for as long as I’ve been in the field: By design, their “quick-build” nature overrides the public feedback that is necessary for deep community support. Without that genuine engagement, I feared that pandemic-induced pedestrian street redesigns would deepen inequity and mistrust in communities that have been disenfranchised and underserved for generations.

Why Race Matters in Planning Public Parks. A major overhaul of a huge Houston park reveals disparities in what white, black, and Latino residents want—and need. (Brentin Mock, CityLab, 2016)

Houston is embarking upon a $220 million parks project called Bayou Greenways 2020, a 150-mile network of continuous hiking trails, biking paths, and green space that will run throughout the city. When completed in 2020, it will make good on plans made by the urban planner Arthur Comey in 1912 to connect the city’s parks with the many strips of bayous scratching open the Houston landscape. Residents approved by ballot referendum a $166 million bond in 2012 to pay for the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, and for improvements to the near-50,000 acres of park space in the city. The goal is to connect the area’s bayous and parks to neighborhoods spanning the region.

While this connectivity is the stated priority for this massive parks overhaul, not everyone in Houston is feeling it. In fact, connectivity seems to matter most only to Houston’s whiter and wealthier residents. When the city’s parks and recreation department conducted its Master Plan Parks Survey in 2014, the majority of respondents replied that they wanted their neighborhoods and parks linked to biking and walking paths. The problem with that survey is that about two-thirds of the respondents were white with household incomes over $75,000. This is clearly not a good starting point for Houston, one of the most racially diverse, (and heavily segregated) cities in the country.

To correct this misrepresentation, a group of researchers from Rice University, conducted another survey, with the parks and rec department’s blessing (and funding!). This one was targeted at African-American and Latino neighborhoods to find out what they wanted from the new park upgrades. Lo and behold, the priorities differed from those of the initial survey. As the researchers write in the report about the surveys, “More Inclusive Parks Planning: Park Quality and Preferences for Park Access and Amenities.

Houston’s Bayou Greenways is still proceeding, but is being followed with the more inclusive Beyond the Bayous project, which aims to make green space available to all Houstonians, so that everyone can enjoy equitable access to green spaces, according to the official Houston Parks Board website.

The Asymmetry of Racial Discourse

The Asymmetry of Racial Discourse

No political topic can turn friends into strangers and strangers into enemies as predictably, swiftly and decisively as that of race in America.

A recent conversation with friends went sour after I asserted that racism itself can’t explain the persistence of racial inequality in the country. The psychological and moral tone of the conversation shifted tectonically and we became awkwardly conscious of the optics of discussing this issue as three white males ensconced in relative comfort and security. What followed was a prolonged ear-beating about the continuing prevalence of racism and white privilege. I had to convince people whom I’ve known for most of my life that I wasn’t a racist or unconsciously supported a system of racial inequality.

It all felt so rehearsed, impersonal and surreal, as though we were each acting out our prescribed roles in a larger drama that had been determined by the momentum of history. In this tragicomedy, I was the bad white who didn’t understand racism and my friends were the good whites putting me in touch with the latent knowledge of my unearned advantages in life. Stranger still, it felt as though each of us were more preoccupied with staving off the underlying moral terror of being associated with the evils of historical oppression, than debating an important political issue. But how can any progress be made on the racial front when close friends, in private, can’t even bring themselves to discuss the issues openly without censoring each other for perceived transgressions?

This anecdote speaks to the theatricality of racial discourse in America and the interpersonal contortions compelled by the prevailing narrative on race.

The Prevailing Narrative

This narrative goes as follows. Race is an invention of the west, constructed to vindicate the economic exploitation of nonwhite groups; the cultural phenomenon of racism is the inevitable outgrowth of this invention, designed to justify the elevated social status of white populations. Although the civil rights revolution brought about some noteworthy changes, racism lives on in tropes, stereotypes, stigmas and implicit associations, manifested in social policy. In addition to the intergenerational injustices of slavery and Jim Crow, these forces wholly explain present inequalities that appear as racial disparities of outcome.

The logic suggests that, if not for the subjugation of nonwhite groups, there would be no America to speak of. All the nation’s wealth and power—of which whites have been the foremost beneficiaries—was the result of the exploitation of people of color. And if white privilege is a direct historical consequence of minority disadvantage, it is incumbent on whites to come to terms with the costs of their historic privilege, take greater responsibility for racial inequity and set about dismantling systemic racism by extracting racist people and ideas from our institutions and expanding the concept of racism to encompass a wider scope of offenses. When there is basic parity between blacks and whites on various socioeconomic metrics, we will finally have taken account of our original sin, exorcised the source of our collective guilt and can move on to other issues.

There is a certain internal coherence to this narrative. It includes a diagnosis of the problem (historical racism and its present implications), a methodology to fix it (acknowledging privilege/oppression and offsetting bias) and a terminus at which point it will be resolved (racial equity). It is crucial to understand why so many people feel compelled by these ideas and can identify with the moral vision guiding them. Bringing the unconscious elements of this narrative to light may help tame its excesses.

The Alternative Narrative

A number of commentators and analysts, many of them black and well to the left of center, have noted the fallacies, inconsistencies, hyperboles and discrepancies embedded within this story.

Thomas Sowell has argued that disparities between ethnic groups are the norm rather than the exception, and that the need to explain racial disparities in terms of justice, rather than as a result of underlying social conditions, is a misguided attempt to create a nonexistent order from the chaos of the cosmos. Coleman Hughes has expanded Sowell’s work on the disparity fallacy by arguing in favor of cultural explanations for present inequalities, which allow for greater black autonomy, and against the left’s stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge racial progress. John McWhorter has long argued that anti-racism has become a secular church bearing all of the motifs of religious faith—atonement, heresy, original sin, judgment day, sainthood—encouraging a cult of victimhood, which discourages blacks from meeting their true potential. Glenn Loury has discussed the chasm between elite intellectual rhetoric about race and the lived experience of poor blacks in crime-ridden inner city neighborhoods. Thomas Chatterton Williams has made the case that today’s racial activism mirrors certain white supremacist beliefs by tacitly presuming that the fate of black Americans remains in the hands of all-powerful decision-making whites. And Shelby Steele has discussed the moral and psychological excesses of post-civil rights liberalism, which sacrifices national unity and colorblind principles at the altar of white guilt.

These views have shaped an alternative narrative about race in America, which emphasizes humanist ideals, individual self-determination and political pragmatism over intertemporal racial justice. In this telling, since the demise of legalized segregation in the 1960s, Americans have been incentivized to exaggerate the effects of racism in society to explain recurrent socioeconomic inequities between blacks and other groups, either to endow themselves with a sense of virtue and assuage personal insecurities or to dissociate themselves from America’s past sins and appear innocent of historical racism. This has resulted in increasing cultural polarization. By framing issues that impact Americans of all colors—although they may disproportionately harm certain groups—in strictly racial terms, we render necessary compromise anathema and muddy policy issues. Is mass incarceration a problem because it’s racist, for instance, or because the prison system is punitive, brutal and dysfunctional?

We ought to be moving toward a society in which our cultural, political and ethnic identities are less relevant to public life and Americans are socially, economically and morally better off than in the past—as opposed to a society in which racial groups are closer to enjoying a parity of opportunities and outcomes.

Responses to These Two Narratives

It is not obvious which narrative is closer to the truth. But there is an asymmetry in the ways in which media, academia and the broader culture respond to these competing visions. After Coleman Hughes’ testimony before Congress against reparations, notable Twitter users with hundreds of thousands of followers tweeted out pictures of his family and unearthed old posts intended to embarrass and discredit him. Similar responses have met most of the other writers named above.

It would be unthinkable for anything similar to happen the other way round. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X Kendi, Michael Eric Dyson and other progressive analysts of race would never be no-platformed or shouted down in public—because they represent the mainstream orthodoxy and awaken many Americans’ need to distance themselves from the brutal history of slavery and Jim Crow. Those championing the counter narrative, however, are often accused of being racists, race traitors or just callous and ignorant. One side receives praise or quiet acquiescence, while the other is routinely stigmatized, anathematized and pathologized.

Yet the counter narrative has become increasingly difficult to ignore due to the widening gap between the moral proprieties of our institutions, enforced from the top down, and the lived reality of generations of Americans emerging from the bottom up—most of whom aren’t identifiably white. Whites will no longer be the majority in America by the middle of the twenty-first century; 60% of Black Americans without college degrees say that racism hasn’t harmed their chances of success in life according to various polls; several dark-skinned ethnic groups outearn white Americans by a significant margin; about 40% of Americans living in poverty are white. This all contradicts the notion that an amorphous white supremacy remains the central organizing principle of American society. Fitting these facts into a narrative of racial oppression is like wrenching a square peg into a round hole.

This disconnect creates an opportunity for far-right and/or ethnonationalist figures, who leverage the incongruities of mainstream discourse to build online audiences, to promote a grand narrative of white victimhood and encourage conspiracy theories.

The progressive narrative about race isn’t going anywhere—nor should it—but it’s sorely in need of a sanity check. We’d all have a deeper grasp of the issue if debates were to happen more openly. 

The conflict of visions about race in America is not a disagreement over facts. It involves deeper questions of national and moral identity—of how we conceive of ourselves and relate to our fellow citizens. While one side contends that America will never be free of its historical legacy until we collectively acknowledge the depths of racism in the country, the other side asserts that we won’t move forward as a nation until we stop blaming each other for past sins. On one side, we have a demand for atonement, and, on the other, for forgiveness. Which is more needed at this moment in history? That’s the question each side must definitively and publicly answer.

If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:

Related Topics

Samuel Kronen is an independent writer interested in American culture, identity, and race politics.

Like our articles?

Subscribe to our newsletter

You May Also Like
  1. Race theory implicitly assumes that blacks are helpless and need whites to “save” them, which is a racist belief in itself. One can make a good argument that the welfare system instituted in the 1960s destroyed the black family and black culture, creating dependence. Why, if racism is so oppressive, can black immigrants from Africa have a higher average income than whites? Why do Persians who arrived here barely speaking English do so well? It is cultural. The inner city black culture teaches the men in particular that they have no place in white society (black women do much better) and only gangs are their option. As Amy Wax pointed out, if blacks finished school, got married and stayed out of jail (and going to church wouldn’t hurt) they would probably double their income. But Leftists want black culture to be equated with skin color and not to be criticized.

  2. I’ve had to be very careful in navigating these issues as both a university professor and a member of the Unitarian Universalist church — three years ago I had no idea I was joining a church that was “saturated in White Supremacy culture” until the UU Association started pumping Critical Race Theory into its magazine and into the services of local churches!

    The balance I have found is in agreeing that there are some changes that can/should be made both individually and (especially) institutionally, while simply avoiding the rhetoric of self-flagellation. In following this approach I have discovered that most of the “good white people” aren’t actually all that interested in taking concrete steps to remedy the effects of historical, systematic, or institutional racism — mainly they are just interested in talking non-stop about racism. So these people are pretty easily side-stepped, so long as you yourself have worked out your own issues about being white.

    1. Shame on you for submitting to any BS involving Critical Race Theory. They’ll never be satisfied so don’t even bother.

    2. Shame on me? And how are you going to respond if you end up in a mandated diversity training at your place of work where you are basically asked to learn about and agree with teachings that come from Critical Race Theory? Are you going to tell the facilitators that they can “go fuck themselves” and then lose your job and possibly your career? I suspect this is going to be rolled out ever more fully into our culture (especially as liberals gain institutional power in the next few years) and I believe my “middle path” is about the best anyone can hope for.

    3. I appreciate your problem, Boethius, and I understand your compromise. But we can hope for more than a middle path. We should beware of concealing or falsifying our preferences too much and for too long. Even by commenting anonymously here you have already taken a step in the right direction. Rest assured there are many more like you than you may think.

    4. As a Unitarian Universalist you are, no doubt, familiar with the Gadfly Papers controversy. The man who wrote those essays is my minister. He has been put through the wringer by those who want to push the “white supremacy culture” paradigm, both in the UU Association and among a sizable minority of his congregation. I agree with you that you could have your livelihood threatened by refusing to adopt the preferred antiracism agenda put forward by the ideologues: Look at how Bret Weinstein and Heather Heyer were treated at Evergreen State University a few years ago. I am glad that I am retired or I would probably have to face these issues at my workplace. I would probably end up being fired.

  3. I am amazed that this debate in the USA focuses only on racism in the USA. Why not broaden this debate to the rest of the world? White Europeans have been oppressed & enslaved by the following: 1. Arabs & Berbers after the invasion of Visigothic Spain in 711 CE. 2. Turks after the conquest of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, especially after 1453 CE. 3. Mongols after the conquest of the Kievan Rus & the other Russian principalities. 4.Arab & Berbers (Moors) from north Africa raiding trading & fishing ships & coastal communities in Europe from 1492 CE to after 1815 CE. See “White Gold”, a non-fiction history by Giles Milton for information about this last subject.

  4. @johntshea yes sir. yet many sadly butt hurt on this thread from that comment.

  5. Maybe the very worst thing about the currently prevailing politically-correct progressive “racism” narrative is that it increasingly discredits liberalism and progressivism in general, even anti-racism itself, in the public mind, associating liberalism and even plain anti-racism more and more with the politically-correct, “woke” mentality and the “callout culture” in the popular mind. More and more Americans, even in the educated classes, seem to feel these days that if you can’t agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X Kendi, Michael Eric Dyson, the intersectionalists, and the no-platformers, then you must agree with Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Breitbartm and Fox News–that if you aren’t thrilled by the intersectionalists, no-platformers, and “white privilege” ideologies, you should join the tribe of the folk who would privatize Social Security and the Post Office, abolish Medicare, criminalize abortion, bring back school prayer, build a 1500-mile Berlin Wall along the US-Mexico border. and end gay marriage and the graduated income tax. There seems to be less and less “public space” these days for people (like myself!)who might. for instance, happily go along with an out-and-out Socialist economic agenda (or at least an expanded “welfare state” along Scandinavian lines) while at the same time vigorously rejecting the “white guilt” ideology (as I myself likewise do)!

    1. * More and more Americans, even in the educated classes, seem to feel these days that if you can’t agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X Kendi, Michael Eric Dyson, the intersectionalists, and the no-platformers, then you must agree with Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Breitbartm and Fox News–that if you aren’t thrilled by the intersectionalists, no-platformers, and “white privilege” ideologies, you should join the tribe of the folk who would privatize Social Security and the Post Office, abolish Medicare…”

      There is something wildly reductive about the bazooka that fired that series of false choices.

    2. Glen Loury’s account of the disparities of outcome by group being down to a gulf in what you could call human capital is by far the most convincing.

      It’s unquestionably true that if you were to unpick the reasons for that gulf, racial prejudice particularly historic race prejudice would obviously play a significant part. Not the only part, but a significant one.

      The key point is that if we woke up tomorrow with all racial prejudice having been eliminated, and even if there was the great reckoning that the ‘people with three names’ (copyright John McWhorter) are calling for, then that gulf in human capital would still be there. No amount of naval gazing on the part of white people is going to change that.

      Changing it is incredibly difficult and incredibly complicated. It will be in part down to public policy, in part down to individuals, in part down to changes of culture and in communities, but only that hard work will ultimately make a difference.

      That so many white people have for various reasons fallen under the sway of the ‘people with three names‘ and Critical race theory in general is at best a divergence and an irrelevance at worst it’s a disaster for all involved.

    3. Right on! Fortunately, we have brave souls such as Coleman Hughes and John McWhorter to contribute rationality to the discussion!

  6. This author describes the verbal battles I have been having with people who insist that I confess my privilege and acknowledge my having benefited from and been complicit in racism. My refusal to comply has caused some to consider me an enemy and is dividing groups across the country who should be working together to advance genuine social justice, including many church organizations and school faculties. Self-flagellation should have died with the Middle Ages, yet it continues in another pernicious form on the political left today.

    1. Just like Marian Elizabeth Hennings, I too am saddened and dismayed that people and groups who could be working together to advance genuine social justice are considered “enemies” because they refuse to confess their “privilege” and acknowledge having “benefitted” from or being “complicit” with racism. Conversely, if I call myself a liberal and an anti-racist, or admit to generally supporting the Democrats in American politics, I find myself all too often lumped together with the “woke” politically-correct “social justice warriors” and “white privilege” ideologues whom I actually abhor almost as much as I abhor the racists, white supremacists, and “Alt-Right’ers.” Again just like Ms, Hennings, I think self-flagellation should have died out with the Middle Ages, as a practice that belongs with ascetic world-denying hellfire-and-brimstone religions and not with people professing to be progressive humanists–it makes me think of the self-flagellating albino Opus Dei monk in “The DaVinci Code” who regularly whips himself bloody with his “cilice” for having indulged in “sinful,” “fleshly” thoughts in-between his holy mission of piously assassinating enemies of the Church!

    2. The Left has always been obsessed with doctrine. From Marx, the Left has constructed vast edifices of theory on very little experimental evidence.

  7. The previous “comment” is an embarrassment, and whoever wrote it should be ashamed of themselves. The writer of the essay was making a good-faith and intelligent attempt to understand an issue of primary importance in America today. Frankly, I don’t know where I stand. Racism is still very, very real in our country, but to say that it is an all-explaining cause of socio-economic inequity is an inadequate explanation. So I guess I do know where I stand. I stand with the writer of this essay, and against the total thoughtlessness of the writer of the comment.

    1. Just FYI, it’s really unclear what “previous” means in a system that shows threaded comments ordered with the most recent thread starters first. It’s best to say “the comment by X” in this case.

    2. @Josh Gidding Sure, racism is real. And your friendly neighborhood leftist is likely the main exponent of such beliefs. Off with you, dolt.

    3. “The previous “comment” is an embarrassment.”

      Only to those who don’t, or don’t want to, really understand what’s popping.

      The massive belligerence/ manipulativeness of most Awoken Ones is, not embarrassing, but monstrous.

      Those who dare to stand up to these monsters should be proud, not embarrassed.

      While I understand Mr. Kronen’s effort at a good-faith and intelligent understanding of this stuff, he ducked facing elephants in the room.

      Racism is “an issue of primary importance in America today…. Racism is still very, very real in our country”. HaHa.

      “Racism” is an issue of primary importance, mostly to those who get off on playing games with their *fluctuating* definition of “racism”, and who live for their **hate** of “Deplorable” whites (i.e. those whites below the Upper Middle class level).

      Such folks are known as Awoken Ones, and are (if possible) shunned by all who have any street smarts.

      Most Dems/ Lefties (esp. the activists) see *white* racism as an issue of primary importance, but have not the slightest problem with racism VS. whites, tho they’ll NEVER admit this.

      The only liberals/ Lefties remotely worth talking to, are those who at least can take some steps, toward admitting what is brutally obvious to street-smart people.

      Those who can’t go near such admissions are, more or less, embarrassments.

  8. You need new friends man lmao

    1. Amen! With “friends” like that, who needs enemies?

Homage to Albert Murray

Homage to Albert Murray

The Omni-Americans: Some Alternatives to the Folklore of White Supremacy by Albert Murray. Library of America, 260 pages.

When I first met Albert Murray, in the spring of 1994, I was a relatively young man, thirty-one years old, and he was in his upper seventies. At the time, I worked at a reference publication called Current Biography, and my excuse for visiting Murray’s book-filled Harlem apartment, which I would do many more times over the years, was to profile him. Murray had by then published some half-dozen books—essay collections, novels, a memoir, an as-told-to autobiography of Count Basie, and Stomping The Blues, his classic meditation on jazz and blues—connecting music, literature, race, and the American identity in his singular manner. His work had meant a lot for me, one book standing above the rest.

I had grown up in the 1960s and ‘70s in an all-black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., before leaving for the Midwest as a college student, where I slowly found my way to integrated circles. I was now in New York, in an interracial marriage and a new father to a biracial child. As happy as I was about those developments, they raised some tricky questions. In my youth, I had bought into the idea of America as a—remember this term?—melting pot, and while I still played down the importance of skin color in my own life, a touch of this country’s race obsession had over time penetrated my consciousness. The result was confusion. What did it mean for me to be in non-black circles? Was the difference between me and those around me truly meaningless? I was, contrary to what some must have thought, proud to be black, but did being black in an integrated world mean losing part of yourself? Which part? And what would be left? No one I knew seemed to have the answers.

And then I read The Omni-Americans, Murray’s first book, originally published in 1970 and now reissued in a fiftieth-anniversary edition by the Library of America. It would be difficult to overstate the impact that this essay collection, especially the title essay, had on my life. The Omni-Americans made it clear that American blacks and whites (and Americans of Asian, Native, and Latinx descent, too) are unlike people anywhere else in that they have, however little any number of them may want to admit it, comingled, both physically and culturally, to the extent that the nation is, in Murray’s words, “incontestably mulatto.” Black culture is of course a central part of this mix, and what I took from the book was that there was no place in America a black person could go—even if there were places that person wouldn’t particularly want to go—and not still be among his or her or their own.

Did being black in an integrated world mean losing part of yourself? Which part? And what would be left? No one I knew seemed to have the answers.

To be sure, that view put Murray at odds with black separatists, who felt that it was folly to identify with a country that had for so long oppressed them. Murray countered that it was equally a folly to voluntarily give up one’s place in a nation one has helped to create. One could be—one was—both black and American, the two contained in a single person, who not only was integrated but had integrity. This was the piece of the puzzle I had been missing, the insight that allowed me to get on with my life and my writing, as I factored Murray’s insights into my own developing ideas about race and family, about jazz and books and film.

And so my trip to Murray’s home was as much pilgrimage as work. That first visit set the tone and pattern for those to follow: in a chair pulled up to Murray’s desk, where he would sit among papers and books, I would do much more listening than talking while he held forth, his words coming as rapidly as notes from the bell of a jazz saxophone as his thoughts roamed over the subjects of literature, music, and history. Once in a while he would send me to his extensive bookshelves in search of a passage from a novel he wanted to read to me; if I was really lucky, he would break out a bottle of Armagnac and a couple of glasses. At his memorial service, one speaker noted that Murray might have written more books if he spent less time with younger people. But if books are a way of ensuring that one’s ideas live on, then so, in Murray’s view, were the afternoons he invested in aspiring writers of the kind I was then.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice,” Heraclitus tells us, “for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” It might also be said that no one ever reads the same book twice. The reader, obviously, changes between one reading and another—growing older, learning more—but the book changes, too, taking on new shades of meaning with the changing historical context. I am no longer thirty-one; 1970 was a long time ago, and so was 1994. With regard to The Omni-Americans, perhaps the most striking change wrought by all of this, at least for me, is how Murray himself comes across on the page. A writer who insists on the Americanness of blacks might be thought by some to be complacent, to equate accepting one’s Americanness with accepting the status quo. Even in 1994, I thought that was not true of Murray—but I had forgotten how very much it is not true.

The original edition of The Omni-Americans appeared at a time when the wound in black Americans’ collective psyche from Martin Luther King’s assassination was still fresh. Many blacks had abandoned integration as a goal in favor of separatism and nationalism, ditching King’s nonviolent protest to embrace the mantra of self-defense. “Black Power” was the slogan, Afros grew out to there, and Africa, not America, was the land many blacks sought to identify with—you never saw so many dashikis in your life, at least not in black neighborhoods like the one in which I was then seven years old. Meanwhile, there were modest signs of the success of the Civil Rights Movement in the realm of culture, with blacks popping up here and there in non-stereotypical roles in TV shows or on their own shows. At any rate, it was difficult, whether one watched TV, flipped through magazines, or read books, to escape the subject of what ailed black America, the clueless and condescending nature of much of the discourse captured perfectly by the ubiquitous phrase “the black problem.” (“I always thought white people were the ones with the problem,” I remember an African American character quipping on the sitcom All in the Family, speaking for millions.)

Murray uses the approach of one of the jazz musicians he holds in such high esteem, stretching a simple idea in so many directions that its mother wouldn’t recognize it.

Into this mix came The Omni-Americans, which celebrated the advances made by the Civil Rights Movement while rejecting seemingly every other trend of the time. One the one hand, Murray critiqued black nationalists of all hues, who he felt were relinquishing their birthright: Why should we, by refusing to identify with our country, voluntarily cede to others what we helped build? At the same time, Murray attacked those who wrote about the wretchedness of black life, not only the avowed racists but also—and especially—the ostensibly well-intentioned social scientists, usually but not always white, who, in their supposed efforts to help blacks, portrayed the very people they sought to assist as being less than human, who painted black culture as a large-scale pathology. Murray was not denying that things were tough for his community, nor was he asking blacks simply to accept their lot; he just maintained that black life should not be defined solely as suffering. The Omni-Americans was to “provide a basis for action,” he writes in the introduction, action that would resist the misrepresentation of American blacks.

The book has three parts. In the opening essay, “The Omni-Americans,” Murray offers a kind of overture of his themes. He begins by asserting and celebrating the central place that blacks have historically played in the country—in terms of everything from culture to physical labor, before moving on to an indictment of the above-mentioned misrepresenters. The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, popularly known as the Moynihan Report, comes in for some savage treatment here. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s study offered a “sociological” explanation for the phenomenon of single-mother black households, attributing it to a debilitating strain in black culture that stemmed from slavery. Murray attacked the study for its essentialist assumptions about the inferiority of blacks, noting that “the Moynihan Report is the stuff of which the folklore of white supremacy is made.” The essay concludes with a celebration of the resilience of black culture as represented by the blues, which Murray defines as its signature artistic achievement. “[W]hen the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues,” Murray writes, “he is fulfilling the same fundamental existential requirement that determines the mission of the poet, the priest, and the medicine man. He is making an affirmative and hence exemplary and heroic response to that which André Malraux describes as la condition humaine.” This is vintage Murray, linking the achievements of black Americans with those of people everywhere whose ultimate aim is to define, and thus advance, the human story.

The essays in the second section, “The Illusive Black Image,” are combative, intended as Murray puts it, “as sketch page erasures of images that were unlikenesses.” In a number of these pieces, Murray uses the approach of one of the jazz musicians he holds in such high esteem, stretching a simple idea in so many directions that its mother wouldn’t recognize it. “Oneupmanship in Colorful America” takes issue with the term “nonwhite,” a symbol, for Murray, of the way white Americans set themselves as the standard and everyone else as a deviation. “Who That Say, What Dat, Every Time Us Do That?” is an extended response to a supposedly sympathetic white southerner’s statement that he “had never met a Negro who didn’t trust white people too much and that he had met very few who really understood what white people were really doing to them.” Much like a horn player who sets out to see what a single musical phrase will yield, Murray works up a prose lather whose theme is essentially, We understand more than you think we do, buster.

The third section, “Getting It Together,” is made up of essays on black consciousness. Those include the wonderful “Identity, Diversity, and the Mainstream,” a meditation on black art, tradition, and culture through the ages—much of it “oral rather than written.” Murray argues that blacks should not overlook the shining examples of achievement here at home—he cites the music of Duke Ellington as a pinnacle of such achievement—while pining for lost connections to Africa. At the same time, he points out that an American educational orientation allows blacks to research that largely oral African culture in a way that they might not be able to otherwise. The essay concludes:

[I]t is all too true that the “Americanization” process that captive Africans were forced to undergo stripped them of many of the native accoutrements that they held most dear and wished to retain. But it was also a process of Americanization that has now equipped and disposed them not only to reclaim and update the heritage of black Africa but also to utilize the multicolored heritage of all mankind of all the ages.

This is all well and good. But for my money, what makes The Omni-Americans essential reading half a century after its publication is not that it celebrates and defends blacks (who, Lord knows, can always use defending), or that it finds a novel angle from which to mount that defense (counter-attacking black people’s so-called friends as well as their declared enemies), or even that it showcases Murray’s inimitably lively prose (Richard Wright “was still given to ripping red hot pages of accusations from his outraged and smoldering typewriter and angrily flinging them all the way back across the Atlantic and into the guilt ridden lap of America”). No—the reason to read Murray is the quality of his that we so desperately need today and always, the quality that his work might just encourage in us: namely, his utter refusal to be sentimental, his unwillingness to be swayed by received notions about race or by anything other than a clear-eyed look at what is in front of him, his having “a mind so fine, no idea could violate it,” as T.S. Eliot noted about Henry James.

Murray’s arguments were based not so much on loyalty to black Americans as on a commitment to truth, whose cold light he turned on brown-skinned folks too. As much as he admired leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, for example, he did not think they walked on water. And Murray’s own lack of sentimentality allowed him to see the same quality in those whom black leaders had to deal with, powerful whites whose moral sense could not be too heavily relied on. Check this out:

There is, as no man of good will would ever dispute, everything to be said for the high priority that most Negro leaders and spokesmen have always placed on emergency measures to counteract poverty, exclusion, and injustice. But in giving so much emphasis to the moral aspects of the case, they often seem to neglect the fundamental nature of the hardheaded pragmatism that underlies so much American behavior. Sometimes Americans are disposed to fair play and sometimes they are not.

In other words, black leaders should appeal to whites’ sense of self-interest, which would motivate them in ways that altruism would not. If whites could be made to see their own actions as investment rather than charity, they would be more willing to help. Americans, Murray concludes, “almost always invest their time, money, and enthusiasm in assets with promise, not liabilities. Even those who become involved in salvage operations have been sold on inherent potential.” 

Murray’s arguments were based not so much on loyalty to black Americans as on a commitment to truth, whose cold light he turned on brown-skinned folks too.

Murray considered fiction to be one of the most important means of capturing life in all its complexity; his heroes included Faulkner, Hemingway, and Thomas Mann. For that reason, he took aim at a publishing industry that encouraged blacks to write tales of woe that portrayed dark-skinned people as little more than victims of oppression, and he was equally contemptuous of black writers who fell into this trap. “It is about time,” he writes, “U.S. Negroes realized that whether or not these particular white friends themselves have any literary taste and maturity (and one wonders), they do not assume that Negro writers have any.  . . . To be conned by such self-styled good will as is usual with so many of these cheap-note aristocrats is not only to invite contempt and not only to encourage it, but also to deserve it.” In The Omni-Americans, Murray criticizes writers including Richard Wright and James Baldwin for producing the kind of dehumanizing protest literature that the latter had once deplored in the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe (and, famously, of Wright himself). One book he does celebrate is Invisible Man, by his longtime friend and fellow Tuskegee University alum Ralph Ellison, for embodying the blues tradition.

Murray never became a household name in the way that, say, Ellison or Baldwin did. Yet in his lifetime he attracted a set of disciples including Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis (one of his collaborators on Jazz at Lincoln Center), and avid readers like Henry Louis Gates (editor of the LOA volume). Over time he has also won a kind of cult following; Murray devotees, whether they discover each other at cocktail parties or on social media, instantly know they have something in common—a way of thinking about literature and music, about the country and living in it.

Murray died in 2013 at age ninety-seven. I wonder what he would have had to say about so much that has happened since. What, for example, would he have made of the Black Lives Matter activists who came on the scene at just about the time he left it? A passage from The Omni-Americans leads me to think he would have cheered them on:

It is the political behavior of black activists, not that of norm-calibrated Americans, that best represents the spirit of such constitutional norm-ideals as freedom, justice, equality, fair representation, and democratic processes. . . . It is the non-conforming Negro who now acts like the true descendant of the Founding Fathers–who cries, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and who regards taxation without representation as tyranny.

Murray was a thinking patriot, the best kind, the only good kind—one who knew that to serve our country, one must not celebrate or rationalize whatever America does but must seek to make it better, to help the nation strive to live up to its ideals of democracy and many-as-one, even if we never quite get there. I miss that about him, as I miss so much else about my handsome, cantankerous old friend—his high-pitched and rapid speech, his sense of humor, his throaty laugh, his fondness for reading aloud to me passages from books he loved, the Armagnac he occasionally shared with me. Not long ago, thinking of him, I bought a bottle of Armagnac and had some at home. It wasn’t the same.