African Americans fight a multifront struggle in pursuing their ambitions. Along with the difficulties that others face — bad luck, personal deficiencies, talented competitors — blacks face additional obstacles. On one front they encounter prejudiced Caucasians. On another they encounter Negroes who, attached to stunted conceptions of racial solidarity, habitually castigate as disloyal blacks perceived as "acting white," being "oreos," "selling out."
Blacks characteristically confront white racism with uninhibited fury. With black critics, however, they often display ambivalence. Even when chafing miserably from constraints imposed by racial solidarity, many blacks nonetheless bite their tongues. They refrain from speaking openly and frankly because the rhetoric and performance of racial solidarity occupies an honored position in black American circles. It has claims on blacks' psyches even as they wrestle with the restraints that solidarity entails.
In Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to Be Black Now (Free Press), Touré assails "self-appointed identity cops" who write "Authenticity Violations as if they were working for Internal Affairs making sure everyone does Blackness in the right way." His aim is to "destroy the idea that there is a correct or legitimate way of doing Blackness," maintaining that "if there's a right way then there must be a wrong way, and that [that] kind of thinking cuts us off from exploring the full potential of Black humanity." Touré claims that he wants African Americans to have the freedom to be black in whatever ways they choose and that he aspires "to banish from the collective mind the bankrupt, fraudulent concept of 'authentic' Blackness."
"Post-Blackness" is the label Touré deploys to describe the sensibility he champions, a "modern individualist Blackness" that enthusiastically endorses novelty and diversity, fluidity and experimentation. "Post-Blackness," he insists, "is not a box, it's an unbox. It opens the door to everything. It's open-ended and open-sourced and endlessly customizable. It's whatever you want it to be." "Post-Blackness" means, he says, that "we are [like President Barack Obama] rooted in, but not restricted by, Blackness."
Touré, a 40-year-old author of three previous books, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and a correspondent for MSNBC, is a keen student and practitioner of publicity who rounds up a posse of artists, scholars and journalists to assist with the promotion of his brand of "post-Blackness."
In Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness, he prominently features, for example, professor Michael Eric Dyson. "We've got to do away with the notion," Dyson writes, "that there's something that all Black folk have to believe in order to be Black. We've got to give ourselves permission to divide into subgroups, or out-groups, organized around what we like and dislike, and none of us is less or more Black for doing so."
"The undeniable need to fight oppression," Dyson declares, "can't overshadow the freedom to live and think Blackness just as we please." "Post-Blackness," he insists, "has little patience for racial patriotism, racial fundamentalism, and racial policing."
Selling Out or Not?
Touré and his allies are right to be concerned about charges of racial disloyalty. As I showed in Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal, the specter of defection occupies a salient place in the African-American mind and soul. It figures in novels (such as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man), in films (Spike Lee's Bamboozled), in hip-hop (the Geto Boys' "No Sell Out") and in writings questioning whether blacks have an obligation to reside in "the hood," marry within the race or decline certain careers, such as prosecutor.
Anxieties over racial loyalty are echoed in incantations such as "Don't forget where you come from" and "Stay black." They are glimpsed in the obsessive scrutiny of prominent blacks for evidence of inadequate commitment to black solidarity.
These fears prompt blacks, especially those in elite, predominantly white settings, to signal conspicuously their allegiance to blackness. This angst contributes to the rise of what journalist John Blake termed "soul patrols," cliques of black folk "who impose their definition of blackness on other black people." Writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1992, in an article that Touré could have usefully cited, Blake complained that soul patrols are not content with choosing your friends. "They want to tell you how to think, where to live, how to do your job."
Touré's principal complaint with those he sneeringly dismisses as racial-identity police is that their disapproval trenches on personal freedom. He wants black people to be able to do what they please, free of inhibitory racial expectations. He wants blacks to be able to occupy offices as corporate or governmental chief executives without being immediately hectored as sellouts.
He wants African Americans to be able to have nonblack romantic partners without facing charges of racial abandonment. He wants Negroes out in public to be able to eat fried chicken or watermelon without feeling that they are disgracing the race. He wants black artists to be able to play with depictions of slavery, segregation or anything else without being indicted for defaming Afro-America.
Call the Blackness Police
Touré rightly assails principles or tactics that impose wrongful constraints on blacks (or anyone else). He errs, however, when he adopts a stance of libertarian absolutism, according to which it is always wrong for one black person to question another black person's fidelity to black America. This is the stance taken by Stephen L. Carter in Confessions of an Affirmative Action Baby, in which he wrote, "Loving our people and loving our culture does not require any restriction on what black people can think or say or do or be … "
No restriction? But what about an African American who expresses racial hatred for blacks? Or what about an African American who joins a legitimate black-uplift organization for the purpose of crippling it? Blacks (or anyone else) who do or say such things ought to be shunned as forcefully as possible in order to punish them, render them ineffective and dissuade others from following a similar course.
Some ideas ought to be stifled. Determining what ideas should meet that fate under what circumstances and by what means are large, complex, daunting questions that warrant the most careful attention. The world is awash in destructive censorship. And the broad swath of cultural freedom that has been painstakingly won in the United States is a treasure for which Americans should be willing to fight. At the same time, it bears repeating that under some circumstances, people behaving in certain ways — which includes the expression of certain ideas — ought to be ostracized.
Touré is rightly appalled by the pettiness, narrowness, bigotry and dictatorial character of those who have intermittently afflicted Negroes with destructive bouts of internecine warfare. Hence the purgings committed by proponents of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association, Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam and H. Rap Brown's Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. "We've all heard and felt," Touré observes, "the Blackness police among us — or within us — judging and convicting and sentencing and verbally or mentally casting people out of the race for large and small offenses."
What Does It Mean to Be Black?
Touré's response is to so broaden the boundaries of blackness that no black person can properly be "convicted" of straying outside. In this post-black era, Touré writes, "the definitions and boundaries of Blackness are expanding … into infinity … [O]ur identity options are limitless." According to Touré, "Blackness is not a club you can be expelled from … We've been arguing for decades and decades about identity and authenticity and who's Black and who's not and I want to yell above the din — Truce! We're all Black! We all win!"
There are several problems here. First, Touré himself does not fully believe in the unbounded conceptions of blackness or post-blackness that he sometimes seems to propound. "Our commonality," he writes, "is too diverse, complex, imaginative, dynamic, fluid, creative, and beautiful to impose restraints on Blackness."
To what, however, does he refer to when he says "our"? For "our" to have meaning, it must have some boundary that separates "us" from "them." If post-black opens the door to everything, does that mean that anyone can rightly be deemed "Black"? Just suppose that Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly, as a joke, declared themselves to be black. If there really are no restraints on blackness, no boundaries distinguishing "Blacks" from "non-Blacks," then it follows that there would be no basis on which to deny their claim. That, in my view, would be unsatisfactory.
What Touré and his allies seek to escape are fundamental aspects of any community: boundaries and discipline. Every community — be it a family, firm or nation-state — necessarily has boundaries that distinguish members from nonmembers. That boundary is a constituent element of the community's existence.
Touré could opt to reject affiliations that are organized around racial identity. He could abandon blackness or post-blackness or any and all racial labelings and groupings. But Touré eschews that option. It is, among other things, all too unpopular for his taste.
Despite his avant-garde pretensions, Touré is at bottom rather conventional: a politically liberal black guy who wants to make it in the white-dominated world of print journalism and television broadcasting without catching flak from "brothas" and "sistahs" because of the way he talks (preppy), because of his significant other (a woman who is not African American) and because of his attachment to ideas that he knows some blacks will disdain.
Touré voices, for instance, an instrumental patriotism: "We may need to more fully embrace our American-ness in order to maximize the power we have as individuals and as a collective." He praises "Black people who can make the leap to loving and trusting white people" because these African Americans "have far more ability [than others] to climb the ladders of power." He frankly propounds a preference for insiderism:
We need more and more Blacks sitting at tables of real power. Let's be like Barack and get what we want from America in spite of racism … Let's buy into the promise of America and get what we deserve: a place in the American life lottery. Let's come home. You can fight the power, but I want us to be the power.
Aware that some African Americans will see in these beliefs an ugly ethic of racial brownnosing aimed merely at attaining robust tokenism, Touré seeks a general truce whereby blacks forgo judging the racial politics of one another. But that aim is futile; judgment is inevitable.
Touré claims to accept as equally "Black" all beliefs advanced by African Americans. But he doesn't really believe this. He insists repeatedly, for instance, that he is no "oreo" — an inauthentic Negro — black on the outside but white on the inside. In saying that he is not an oreo, however, Touré concedes that someone is.
Touré supports the continuation of blacks as a distinct community in America. He situates himself in a racialized "we": "We Blacks." He views his book as a contribution to a more effective and enlightened black collective action. Collective action, however, requires coordination; coordination requires discipline; and discipline requires coercion.
Consider the magnificent Montgomery Bus Boycott triggered by the arrest of Rosa Parks. The boycott is typically portrayed as an entirely voluntary enterprise in which the heroes of the story wage their struggle against racist villains without morally soiling their hands. The reality, however, was considerably more complicated. The boycott was mainly animated by the commitment of blacks to resisting Jim Crow oppression. It was also reinforced, however, by fear. While few African Americans rode the buses, more would have, had they not feared reprisal.
Improper policing can indeed impinge unduly on individual freedoms, prompt excessive self-censorship, truncate needed debate and nurture demagoguery. But policing is part of the unavoidable cost of group maintenance. That is why all nations have criminal laws, including prohibitions against treason.
Boycotting Clarence Thomas
To the extent that Touré wants to perpetuate black communities but eschew policing, he seeks a sociological impossibility. The erection of boundaries and the enforcement of stigmatization, including the threat of expulsion, are inescapable, albeit dangerous, aspects of any collective enterprise.
Some folks ought to have their racial credentials lifted. Consider Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — the most vilified black official in American history, a man whose very name has become synonymous with selling out. Many organizations, including scores of law schools, refuse to bestow any semblance of prestige or support through association with him. He is being massively boycotted. And like all boycotts, this one is coercive. It applies pressure to the target.
It also applies pressure to third parties, threatening with disapproval those who might cross the boycotters' picket line. The boycott of Thomas is largely monitored by blacks who detest his reactionary politics and rue his paradoxical success in exploiting black racial loyalism. Remember that but for his appeal for protection against a "high-tech lynching," he would probably have failed to win senatorial confirmation to the seat once occupied by Thurgood Marshall.
Is it right for blacks to cast Thomas from their communion? Is it appropriate to indict him for betrayal? These questions have arisen on numerous occasions. In confronting them now, I conclude that I have erred in the past. Previously I have criticized Thomas' performance as a jurist — his complacent acceptance of policies that unjustly harm those tragically vulnerable to ingrained prejudices; his naked Republican Party parochialism; and his proud, Palinesque ignorance. But I have also chastised those who labeled him a sellout.
I was a sap. Blacks should ostracize Thomas as persona non grata. Despite his parentage, physiognomy and racial self-identification, he ought to be put outside of respectful affiliation with black folk because of his indifference or hostility to their collective condition. His conduct has been so hurtful to and antagonistic toward the black American community that he ought to be expelled from membership in it.
Touré rejects the idea that an African American can ever properly be dismissed from the race — "de-blacked," to use the memorable term coined by Washington University professor Kimberly Jade Norwood. How one stands on this matter depends on how one conceptualizes racial membership. Some view racial membership as an immutable status — you are born black and that is it. I do not. I view choice as an integral element of membership. In my view, a person (or at least an adult person) should be black by choice, with a recognized right of resignation.
Carrying through with that contractualist conception, I also believe that a black person should have no immunity from being de-blacked. Any Negro should be subject to having his or her membership in blackness revoked if he or she pursues a course of conduct that convincingly demonstrates the absence of even a minimal communal allegiance.
Unlike the United States, individual states or Indian tribes, black America lacks mechanisms of sovereignty — courts, for example — that can provide centralized, authoritative and enforceable judgments regarding membership. In black America, only an amorphous public opinion adjudicates such matters, generating inconclusive results. Nonetheless, black public opinion should and does exercise some control over its communal boundary, determining in the process a person's standing as member, guest, enemy and so on.
Keeping It Real
Opposed to the idea of racial boundaries, Touré is also against the idea of racial authenticity. His opening chapter is titled "Thirty-Five Million Ways to Be Black," an homage to a statement he attributes to Henry Louis Gates Jr.:
If there are thirty-five million Black Americans then there are thirty-five million ways to be Black. There are ten billion cultural artifacts of Blackness and if you add them up and put them in a pot and stew it, that's what Black culture is. Not one of those things is more authentic than the other.
Recall that one of Touré's aims is "to banish from the collective mind the bankrupt, fraudulent concept of 'authentic' Blackness." That aim is misleading. To be sure, there are numerous instances in which blacks' racial authenticity has been challenged on spurious grounds by people claiming that "real" blacks don't (fill in the blank) fence, ski, enjoy Mozart, climb mountains, study hard, etc. These ignorant suppositions have generated destructive consequences — shriveling expectations, discouraging curiosity, reinforcing stereotypes.
One should differentiate, however, between specious and defensible notions of racial authenticity. Out of frustration with the former, Touré throws out the latter. Authentic blackness can be discerned by comparing it with performances in which people self-consciously dilute their artistry or message to give it "crossover" appeal. Whether such dilution is warranted or not in a given circumstance is not the immediate point. The point is simply that in some circumstances, African Americans do vary the racial character of their performances, and the language of authenticity is one way of noting that variation.
When African-American artists, politicians or activists assert that they are going to "keep it real" despite complaints that they are "too black," they are adopting a stance that is important to appreciate even if one disagrees with it. That stance, like the strategy of dilution, is no figment of the imagination. It is a choice that gives rise to different grades of blackness. That is why it is proper, Henry Louis Gates notwithstanding, to recognize that the music of James Brown at the Apollo is more authentically black than the music of the Supremes at the Copacabana.
Racial solidarity will always depend to some extent on self-appointed monitors of racial virtue. Touré himself, of course, is just such a monitor. His chiding of black political correctness is itself a variant of black political correctness.
Those who want to maintain black community while containing the peer pressure that makes collective action possible must recognize that solidarity always poses a problem of balance between unity and freedom. That is why libertarian romanticism is untenable when conjoined with a desire for collective advancement.
Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard University and the author of The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency.