ESPN’S Journal of Black Respectability Politics
The Undefeated, and the Surrender of the Black Middle Class
“. . . before you know it, we’ll have Negro Imperialists.” Fred Hampton
In a June 1st article for ESPN’s new African-American focused property, the Undefeated, celebrity intellectual Michael Eric Dyson takes darker-skinned blacks to task for their begrudging refusal to exalt in the accomplishments of lighter-skinned blacks such as the National Basketball Association’s two-time Most Valuable Player, Steph Curry.
“The resentment by darker blacks of the perceived and quite real advantages accorded to lighter blacks has sometimes led to a wholesale repudiation of all fairer-skinned blacks. There is, however, a big difference between asking for racial transparency in light privilege, and the unvarying treatment of fairer-skinned blacks as automatically guilty of exploiting their status.”
As a work of either reportage or critical inquiry, Dyson’s 2,000-word essay is an abysmal failure. Didactic, artless and populated with misshapen straw-men, it fails to identify a single African American who articulates anything resembling envy or disdain for Curry, let alone anyone whose resentment is grounded in his fair complexion. In fact, the two African Americans who Dyson quotes at length, current NBA player Kevin Durant, and the retired Hall-of-Famer Allen Iverson, are effusive in their praise of Curry.
But as a written reprimand to blackness, or a textbook example of how a feckless Black elite has corroborated the white settler state’s attempt to alibi its criminal enterprise by manufacturing the Other, Dyson’s critique is a singular achievement.
Consider that at no point in his polemic does Dyson mention the word “rape,” for doing so would be tantamount to handing up an indictment for a 500-year-old crime spree that is unlike anything the world has ever seen. Virtually from the moment they alighted in the Americas, European expatriates set upon indigenous and African women, creating, from whole cloth, a language of sexual defilement — -mulattoes, octoroons, quadroons and Latinos — and giving birth, quite literally to the New World, and the Steph Currys that populate it.
“God, forgive us,” writes a Civil-War era diarist wed to a South Carolina planter, “but ours is a monstrous system, a wrong and an inequity! Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mulattos one sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all mulatto children in everybody’s household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds.”
It is unfathomable that the Ivy-League educated and employed Dyson, is unfamiliar with this history, or unaware that skin-tone has played no discernible role in the radical black political movements that are the sine qua non of liberal democracy in the US. Hence, the reddish-colored, first black mayor of Dyson’s hometown of Detroit, the late Coleman Alexander Young, is as revered by African Americans in the Motor City as much — if not more — than the blue-black former mayor of Washington DC, Marion Barry.
Dyson’s cognitive dissonance is hardly accidental and these clumsy but willful misrepresentations are a staple of the Undefeated, which is not an online chronicle of the African American experience so much as a literary journal of black respectability politics, or better yet, a declassified dossier of tribal dysfunction. Since it debuted in mid-May, the Undefeated´s virtually-all black staff, has consistently trafficked in narratives in which history is inert, racism exists only inasmuch as it vexes Obama, and no injustice is so grave that it cannot be resolved by black folks pulling up their pants.
In his groundbreaking 1978 book, the late Edward Said posited that the West has historically sought to qualify its imperialism by assigning men of science and letters the exercise of shifting the blame for colonialism, from the colonizer, to the colonized.
Said named this brand of racist pseudo-science for the unfortunate term coined by the West to describe the Arab world to its East — — Orientalism — -and dated its practice as far back as France’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, when Napoleon encouraged artists, writers, and anthropologists to re-imagine the Nile’s inhabitants, or to Orientalize the Orient.
Of the famed French novelist’s depiction of a 19th-century dancer, Said writes:
Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her. He was foreign, comparatively wealthy, male, and these were historical facts of domination that allowed him not only to possess (her) physically but to speak for her and tell his readers in what way she was “typically Oriental.”
It does not require a postcolonial scholar to recognize the elasticity of Said’s theory and how it provides a framework for contextualizing Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, DW Griffith’s landmark 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, King Baudouin extolling the civilizing virtues of Belgian colonialism on the eve of Congo’s liberation in 1960, or the 2009 Sandra Bullock vehicle, the Blind Side. Orientalism even explains the 2003 remarks made by former Harvard College President Lawrence Summers when he sought to exorcise patriarchy from the body politic by wondering aloud if women aren’t underrepresented in American laboratories because they lack the “aptitude” to succeed in math and science professions.
They do not, and the scientific consensus had said so for nearly 50 years.
Yet, if scholars define Orientalism as white people writing about people of color for white people, then the rise of a Black Jacobin class that is all-too-eager to validate a hierarchy in which they are invested has reformulated the colonial syntax. With the American Empire at its nadir and seeking both absolution and scapegoats, black journalists, academics, police, filmmakers and philanthropists in the Obama age are increasingly charged with Niggerizing the Nigger.
Orientalism is the new Black.
A May 18 Undefeated profile of the African American quarterback Robert Griffin III practically rebukes readers for believing their lying eyes. In 2012, Griffin set NFL rookie records for passer rating, and led the league in rushing yards-per carry. But his play tailed off sharply after the Washington Redskins’ January 6, 2013 playoff loss when even a casual fan could plainly see that the rookie was hobbled and playing on an injured knee. And yet the veteran coach, Mike Shanahan — who once suggested in an interview that an All-Pro black quarterback was too dumb to understand the playbook — — refused to substitute for him until late in the contest.
“Look at his face Daddy,” former Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas quoted his seven-year old son, Malcolm, asking him in a Washington Post editorial published the day after the playoff game. “Why is he still playing if he is in that much pain?”
Seemingly intent on helping Shanahan land another coaching job, however, the Undefeated posited that Griffin is the real villain in this sporting drama, because, he’s, well, uppity.
“Talk to people who worked with Griffin in Washington, and most will tell you he had chances — too many — to salvage his starting position and that many of his problems started with him. Griffin was too focused on his endorsements. He overindulged in social media. He alienated teammates by deflecting blame for his poor performances and ran his mouth too much in interviews. He should have spent more time in the film room and less on enhancing the cult of RG3.”
Why would African-Americans traffic in such seditious caricatures, particularly at a moment when dehumanizing stereotypes conspire with wrenching austerity policies to produce material circumstances reminiscent of 1930s Germany when a demagogue blamed that country’s immiseration on a population he categorized as nonwhite?
I was first confronted with the notion of black Orientalists when I read a fawning 2005 New York Times profile of Harvard Economist Roland J. Fryer, whose research explores genetics as a critical factor in racial disparities in intelligence. That no such disparities exist did little to discourage former New York City Public Schools Chancellor Joel Klein from hiring the African American Fryer as a consultant to help untangle the student achievement gap.
Fryer was followed in quick succession by the likes of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, Dyson, and most recently, the historical illiteracy of Ta-nehisi Coates who asserts that Obama is the heir to Malcolm X’s political legacy, and that blacks should eschew the game-changing traditions of political resistance for a monthly reparations check, cut by the US Treasury.
To be sure, financial remuneration partly explains the phenomena of Black Orientalists, but more than anything, the defection of the Black Vichy class is grounded in the twilight of the American century, and the post-industrial epoch that Gramsci refers to as the interregnum, in which the “old is dying, and the new cannot be born.”
This was also the case a century ago when a precarious new economy and social order was beginning to take shape and mobs of alienated white youths terrorized the country in waves, climaxing in 1919 when racial violence washed over the country like a foamy, heaving sea.
Atlanta’s Black unwashed rescued the city’s Black elite from marauding white mobs in 1906, dutifully patrolling segregated neighborhoods with pistols and shotguns a-ready. When the smoke cleared, Atlanta’s Urban League sought to reassure their white patrons of their fealty by organizing neighborhood clubs to teach “better housekeeping” practices to black maids and washerwomen, Karen Ferguson wrote in her book, Black Politics in New Deal Atlanta.
The domestics complied initially, listening intently to lectures on cleanliness and punctuality. But when, they began to wonder, would the forum address the subject of pay raises for making an extra effort? Told that no pay raises would be forthcoming, the black domestics bolted, giving their Urban League sisters the side-eye as they left.
Similarly, an effort to organize black workers at the cigarette-maker RJ Reynolds in 1919, was met with opprobrium by Black mercantilists in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. According to Robert Rodgers Korstad, author of Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth Century South, one Black banker, J.H. Hill, implored “my people” not to be tempted by “strangers. . . There is no need for a poor laboring class of people to try to make demands on any rich corporations. We are dependent upon these corporations for employment”
Underwhelmed, black tobacco workers boycotted stores that did not support the union, and threatened to withdraw their money from Hill’s bank if he didn’t relent. Conversely, Reynolds management tried to slow the employees’ momentum by proposing a company or “yellow dog” union, recruiting another black merchant, Simon Atkins, to champion its advantages at a meeting with workers. But, Rodgers Korstad wrote, “Black workers. . .did not look to the middle class for their cues” and responded with “hoots and jeers.”
Blacks’ frustration with what W.E.B. DuBois famously heralded as the Negro’s most “talented tenth” detonated following the 1931 arrest of nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a freight car just outside of Scottsboro, Alabama. The NAACP’s timid, ineffective legal defense paled in comparison to that of the Communist Party who hoped to make inroads in the country by defiantly putting American racism itself on trial, organizing rallies as far away as Chicago, New York, London, Moscow and Johannesburg, and featuring as actors rather than victims, the plain-spoken but sympathetic mothers of the accused teenagers.
Initially reluctant to even accept the case for fear of tarnishing their brand, the NAACP’s attitude towards the mothers was one of condescension; they soon withdrew from the case, leaving the Communists’ to eventually win the release of all 9 accused.
Six days after excoriating Griffin, the Undefeated published an article by the veteran sportswriter Michael Wilbon that parrots the NAACP’s gradualist approach in the Scottsboro case. Too clever by half, Wilbon’s essay laments black indifference to the the new analytics methodology that is all the rage in NBA front offices. Wilbon dismisses out-of-hand the trope that blacks are incapable of understanding mathematical concepts, and while he stipulates that there is no demonstrable value-added to analytics in evaluating players, he still urges blacks to assimilate.
“For more than a few moments I felt guilty as hell for hating the intrusion of advanced analytics as much as I generally do. Because even though the reliance on this stuff seems to be a new safe haven for a new “Old Boy Network” of Ivy Leaguers who can hire each other and justify passing on people not given to their analytic philosophies, an entire group of people can’t simply refuse to participate in something as important as this phenomenon. The cynical me can easily make the argument this is a new path to exclusion, intentional or not. Or is it creating an entirely new way of approaching sports that’s reserved for the few?”
In Ferguson’s book, Black Atlanta professionals wrote to New Deal bureaucrats to offer their services as race interlocutors in an effort to “help the Negro masses to adjust themselves to the type or world in which they must live.”
The problem is that the Negro masses had no intention of living in such an immutable world, and in the days, months and years following the Scottsboro Boys’ arrest, began to join Communists, and other working-class white allies to turn bad jobs into good ones, democratize the state, and create the singular achievement of the Industrial Age: the American middle class.
During World War 2, the Black RJ Reynolds employees who the Winston Salem elite had earlier scolded, collaborated with their white co-workers to integrate the union, but they didn’t stop there, using the reconstituted collective as a springboard to produce what is likely the closest iteration this country has ever seen to the Paris commune. Led by an African-American, lesbian Marxist named Moranda Smith, Local 22 promptly proceeded to register thousands of African American voters, who in turn helped elect a black minister to the City Council, the first since Reconstruction to win an election in the Deep South against a white candidate. With their proxies at City Hall, Local 22 spearheaded efforts to build public housing, adopt price controls, improve schools, and expand bus service and jobless benefits.
Wilbon’s call for black acquiesce mirrors that of his antecedents in Atlanta, North Carolina and Scottsboro, and like the Undefeated itself, does not account for the laboring classes’ cycle of resistance, triumph, reversal, replayed endlessly as if on loop.
In the Orientalist war of narratives, the Undefeated, ironically enough, views African Americans as a thoroughly defeated people, and the Black elite as a kind of advance squadron trapped behind enemy lines, its reportage a kind of Morse code, tapped out daily on fiber-optic cables to warn the rear encampments that we are hopelessly outgunned.
But Wilbon, the staff of the Undefeated, and the Black middle class writ large would be wise to revisit the words of an African American named William H. Crogman, who in the days following the 1906 Atlanta riots, wrote a letter to a northern white liberal crediting the Black proletariat–lumpen and otherwise– for coming to the defense of the black elites who lived in an aspirational neighborhood known as Dark Town.
“Here we have worked and prayed and tried to make good men and women of our colored population, and at our very doorstep the whites kill these good men,” wrote Crogman, who would go on to become president of Clark College. “But the lawless element in our population, the element we have condemned fights back, and it is to these people that we owe our lives.”