Gates' Cold Shower on the Reparations Debate

The Harvard professor's hard facts on slavery are a blow to the "victim studies" hustle.


In the world of slang, smack means either heroin or dung. The academy has been overrun by intellectual smack dealers for a good while, but the biggest bust of the game has just taken place.

With intellectual honesty as his intent, Henry Louis Gates Jr. set off a bomb in the black wing of "victim studies" that has long bedeviled higher education and created a lucrative arena of complaint. That is no small hustle, for there is no better business in America than the supposed consciousness raising that goes with self-help. If one is either clever or ruthless enough, a successful career can result.

Overstatement, melodrama, militant distortion and absurd academic theories have dominated the business of racial complaint since the early '60s. Then, James Baldwin and Malcolm X were sought after speakers nationwide, on and off television. One provided eloquent weeping and moaning, the other, impotent saber-rattling. Baldwin encouraged guilt for a long tradition of injustice, the X man terrified as a conveniently impotent boogey monster in the horror movie of race. Intentionally or not, each became an entertainer.

Money and attention are a big part of the interest in such careers. Aspirants have discovered the demographic importance of sanctimonious and hostile pronouncements that resulted in a serious cottage industry specializing in fertilizer for intellectual weeds. The irony is that weeds are not always grown.

This business works in two parts. One side can provide very important observations, good insights and thoughtful aspirations to the discussion table of American life when its inherent sentimentality is unpacked and discarded. The other side is primarily a hot mess of stuff and nonsense in which "being true to the game" results in two things.

The first is wealth, attention and a reputation for what is presented as "prophetic" or "speaking truth to power." This draws innocent, gullible, badly educated or pretentious followers, whose leaders are not expected to suggest any detailed action based in successful records of engagement. (See my New York Daily News column about the revolutionary track record of Central Harlem public school students under Danielle Moss Lee's Harlem Educational Activities Fund. You will be quite surprised by what Lee and her project have brought off among those students.)

Expecting substance would be too much. It's already hard out here for a colored man or woman with a university degree, especially if ready to pimp the troubles of the colored people. True to the national impulse, their audience remains quite willing to keep the coins clinking, the cash stacking, and the credit cards sliding into place. As the third-rate gospel song goes, "Oh, happy day."

But it was a sad day for the racial gloom industry when Skip Gates took out a licking stick and brought it to the editorial page of the New York Times. His short essay left thick welts of the hard, truth-telling blues on the rumps of willfully ignorant or inaccurate academicians. Those most disturbed by the humanizing elements of the facts are usually ideologues who have made careers peddling a convenient simplification of the African slave trade that breaks down into an irresponsible cartoon about good guys and bad guys.

Such people have never been able to address the backward and evil elements of African culture that are stubbornly in place and remain fused to all of the elements that deliver universal clarity about the mournful unpredictability of human life. This is difficult information for children to absorb; they prefer cartoons that make everything seem simple. With its many cultures and peoples, Africa is anything but simple. So the slave trade was very different from a soap opera.

Ideologues have resisted this because ideology is always at war with humanity. In what Langston Hughes called "the quarter of the Negroes," the ideologue has a preference for overwhelmed African victims and overwhelming European and white American victimizers. Africans do not show any fewer human traits than any others and show no worse ones when evil is found to exhibit itself with the same level of ruthlessness or paranoid hysteria that we see everywhere else in the world.