I once had the fortune of attending the 2017 George E. Kent Lecture, hosted by the University of Chicago’s Organization of Black Students. The 2017 keynote speaker was Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. Her talk encompassed a range of topics, from what she asserted to be state-sanctioned violence against black women, to the constitutional disenfranchisement of felons. Such topics are at home on a modern-day liberal college campus, but at one point during her talk she quoted the Roman playwright Terence in response to a question about safe spaces, controversial ideas, and widespread divisions within the American political consciousness. The quotation was as follows: “I am human, therefore anything which is human is not alien to me.” I considered the statement, as well as its implications for our society.
Participants in today’s contentious American political arena would scoff at the idea that we all have much fundamentally in common. As a result of this mindset, we continually grow polarized and alienated from one another. One way to look at this polarization is through the lens of pro-blackness in America. By comparing liberal and conservative approaches to this philosophy, we can better understand the ideas at the core of these conceptions of black empowerment.
In the interest of clarity, a black person is anyone who is a part of the African Diaspora, including African-Caribbeans, African-Americans, and those who identify as black and are of a mixed racial heritage. Pro-blackness in the modern era is a nebulous concept, but its existence in American society is characterized by a racially cognizant mentality towards politics, culture, and society. This includes recognizing and rectifying circumstances deemed oppressive, protesting racist events and statements, promoting the advancement of black people into positions of power, encouraging the self-actualization and independence of black men and women, and celebrating people, places, and things integral to the sphere of reality described as the black experience. Some conceptions, like Pan-Africanism, also encourage the political unification of black people globally.
America has had a deeply divisive racial history, with many modern thinkers disagreeing about whether or not there has been a net improvement in racial relations. It makes sense to separate the public attitudes towards pro-blackness into two main camps: the liberal pro-black mentality and the conservative one. While some may raise an eyebrow at the notion of a conservative pro-black mentality, conservatives maintain that this mentality exists, that it is decidedly pro-black, and that it is the underlying framework for many conservative social policies. Proponents of the American liberal policy platform argue the same for their position. Regardless of which perspective one agrees with, it is difficult to deny the existence of a power struggle between these worldviews. At the core of these debates is a conflict wherein both conservatives and liberals pursue the political and social authority to enforce their worldview. Extremes of this power struggle emerge on both ends of the political spectrum, examples of which occur in the form of violent anti-police “pigs in a blanket” rhetoric on the left and the blanket characterization of inner-city-dwelling black youth as thugs on the right. To rectify these differences, it is necessary to try to evaluate these worldviews on their own terms, and in relation to one another.
The Liberal Viewpoint
The American liberal perspective can be characterized by a focus on individual experience, and a common desire to address societal problems. This often includes efforts to rectify the modern disparities caused by historically repressive, discriminatory, or corrupt actions of the American government, as well as to redistribute wealth on the basis of this history, an example being demands for reparations for slavery. Many black liberals emphasize the importance of considering the perspectives and worldviews of those black people who consider themselves a part of other identity groups. An example of this would be the worldview described as black feminism, which contends that mainstream liberal pro-blackness is overly centered on the lived experiences of heterosexual, cisgender black men. Modern American liberalism is egalitarian, diverse, and decidedly populist in nature, with many liberal organizations like Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Party seeking to advocate on the national stage on behalf of those perceived to be overlooked or marginalized in public policy-making decisions.
Liberals find themselves highly cognizant of political imbalances, disparities, and racial identity politics, often in an effort to keep those in power attuned to the concerns of those they represent. This often coincides with a particular notion of victimhood, wherein one is keenly aware of the social, political, and economic constraints one perceives upon black people in modern society. This mindset contributes to political problems. Since the Democratic Party is strongly associated with such attitudes, evidence has supported the notion that the more black people favor a particular issue, the less likely politicians are to support it. Political scientists have argued that the reason for this trend is the strength of black voters’ allegiance to the Democratic Party, which leaves many Democratic officials to take their black constituencies for granted.
The aforementioned victim mentality has colored not just the discourse on pro-blackness, but the underlying discursive framework of many pro-black liberals. This is reflected in the abundance of black think pieces, in which writers spend time discussing problems of their own identity and experiences. A point of concern here is that while this writing is very much like what you’d find in a journal, it isn’t journalism. Instead, we have an abundance of pieces centered on popular or attention grabbing topics like Beyoncé, Nkechi Amare Diallo (Rachel Dolezal), or the writer’s daily encounters with micro-aggressions, but with little depth behind them. This is not to suggest that such writings are problematic, but these writers are missing an opportunity to advance the national dialogue, something I believe every journalist should strive for. Instead of a more open-minded approach, these writers tend to assert a certain perspective, then write the article as if that perspective revealed the true nature of American society. It is fine to assert, but one must always consider a differing perspective, as well as question of whether or not certain events were actually as significant or characteristic of American society as one claims. The framework for analyzing such events should incorporate an appropriate degree of objectivity, skepticism, and desire for facts over feelings.
One way to address this practice would be to spend less time analyzing identity and the self. A more objective approach to writing, combined with writings on both macro and micro-level issues that are not overly self-centered, would help to shed light on problems within our society and provide a way for those ignorant of them to be educated. An example of such work would be the United States Department of Justice’s (DOJ) reports on police abuses in Baltimore and Chicago, which expose underlying problems of unconstitutional discrimination in urban police departments. Here we have room to analyze and discuss the development of a stronger system of ethics to guide the use of force, investigatory procedures, police-community relations, and accountability of the police, media, and public.
The DOJ has been criticized however, for what the US Office of the Inspector General called “improper partisan or racial considerations” which impede more nondiscriminatory defenses of the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans, rather than black or minority Americans. An argument can even be made that when those pro-black liberals with power or public platforms indulge in partial, overly partisan, or identity-based decisions or declarations, their actions contribute to pessimism, exclusion, or division within the very communities that many of them seek to improve. Since a society is the sum of the networks and relationships among all the individuals who are a part of it, it is difficult to improve one in its entirety when those in power attempt to single out certain groups for aid or defense. It would be wise to consider whether or not discrimination of this kind, even with good intentions, creates more problems than it solves.
For every policy proposal there are consequences. This is something all serious policy advocates of all ideological slants should consider. On a more social level, those skeptical of this kind of worldview would assert that a keen awareness of victim status does nothing to lift people out of cycles of depression, poverty, or hopelessness. Even if one is a victim, which can certainly be the case, skeptics argue that one’s perception of the circumstance can be as powerful as the circumstance itself. In modern America, it should be thus understood that there is the potential to use existing community and government resources to build coalitions, gather funds, raise support, empower black people, and to slow the cycle of poverty.
The Conservative Viewpoint
The conservative viewpoint on pro-blackness tends to encompass a particular focus on the discipline, agency, and responsibilities of the individual, rather than on his or her subjective experience. As the conservative asserts: Government cannot solve society’s problems. Progress has to start with the individual. More specific elements of the conservative pro-black perspective would include a pragmatic attitude towards the circumstances of one’s birth and day-to-day environment. Conservatives often desire a strongly cultivated work ethic that allows one to find opportunities to work hard and succeed regardless of race while still allowing room to appreciate and respect one’s heritage or ethnicity. This viewpoint is often paired with an aversion to certain elements of mainstream or lower-class black culture: for example, a black conservative would likely not use the n-word. Some of these moves come from a desire to leave and/or not to be associated with the lower class, a move to conform to mainstream notions of what is respectable, and an aversion to being an outsider from white culture. As the black liberal tends to contend with a self-imposed alienation from white society, the conservative contends with a willful desire to blend in with it.
A point of contention to be raised here is the potentially limiting nature of such a mindset, whereby one risks living life while constantly worried about the negative perceptions of others. A liberal might also interject here that it is good for mental health to live life on one’s own terms and conform to one’s own standards of creativity, achievement, or day-to-day living. If you do so, you may not always fit in, but people will respect you. Of course, it makes sense to use prudence and common sense with regards to these undertakings. Reputations are important, and first impressions are only granted once.
The conservative view of black empowerment posits that the fate of black Americans and their success will be largely dependent upon their willingness to be industrious, peaceful, and driven towards their goals. This encompasses shutting out negative stimuli (read: micro-aggressions, rude police officers, politically incorrect bosses) and embracing discipline, mental fortitude, and self-love in the face of adversity. Conservative intellectuals like Thomas Sowell and Larry Elder also actively assert that poorer black populations have been misled into complaining about racism. The argument is that black liberals are constantly searching for a white boogeyman to blame for their troubles when it would be more productive to seek out opportunities for their own personal empowerment.
A liberal might contend that the conservative mentality is overly individualistic, citing man’s status as a social being. The external environment should be understood as both an important means for successful enterprises and a mechanism for personal stagnation. Many in developing urban communities, especially young people, have constraints upon them that make it harder for them to advance. Among those constraints are gang violence, lead exposure, lower job application response rates, and disparities in punishments for black and white students. Additionally, many youths have a single parent, or unstable living conditions at home. This can have the effect of leaving less time for mentorship, or the establishment of supportive relationships with mature adults. Since one’s living environment can substantially influence one’s worldview, mindset, thought process, and development, to expect someone of an extremely challenging environment to “shape up” of his or her own accord is a big ask.
Few deny that personal responsibility, discipline, and accountability are essential aspects of maturity, but if government involvement or investment can be shown to help mitigate the effects of certain societal problems, should liberals be faulted for seeking to make policy accordingly? Someone who is politically predisposed to opposing large government might point out the fact that many cities suffering from problems of crime, political corruption, or unemployment are run by liberal Democrats. This doesn’t clear up the debate however, since many conservative-led states also suffer from similar problems, and there is great potential and development work being performed by Democrats in cities all over the country. There are no easy answers to these political disputes, but it is important to engage with them so that solutions can be found.
Many of these differences in perspective can be attributed to a key philosophical distinction between liberals and conservatives, including differing ideas on how the government, society, and the individual should act and co-exist. While this analysis was confined to the realm of pro-blackness, similar philosophical distinctions could be found at the heart of other ideological differences. One way to humanize other individuals, and to truly understand them, is to understand the philosophy that guides their worldview. Since this philosophy contributes substantially to who they are, it is possible that people who understand it will be able to view other individuals as more than just the sum of their various opinions, however passionately those opinions are held. To help mitigate the extensive and contentious modern-day political environment, it would thus be beneficial to attempt to understand the core of who your political opponents are and what they value, rather than to merely search for any reflections of yourself that may be lying within them. Doing so would help to generate a true human connection, and could be a first step to healing America’s divisions.
Given the great emotion that these two competing worldviews elicit, I find it helpful to attempt a thought experiment that can enable those on either side of the issue to come to some form of reconciliation. Read the following statements, and then follow the ensuing instructions.
- American historical figures are reflections of their time periods, and thus should not be judged according to modern moral paradigms.
- Many Americans in positions of power have ingrained racial prejudices, and act on them, sometimes even when they do not intend to.
- You alone are the biggest obstacle to your future success. If you fail, it is your fault.
Read each statement above and consider the following:
- If you disagree: As compared to what? What alternate perspective do you assert to be truthful?
- Take your counter-assertion, and consider Occam’s Razor: Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.
- What kinds of assumptions does your counter-assertion make about society? How might they be flawed?
While this method is not perfect, it has the benefit of enabling one to set aside wild, general assertions, which are often supported more by public opinion polling than by data, in favor of more reasonable ones which may be hard to swallow but are more intellectually honest. In general, it is wise to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism about one’s worldview, and an open willingness to genuinely consider that of another. All Americans should strive to learn from and understand one another, whether from the scientific discoveries of men like Edwin Hubble or the abolitionism of women like Harriet Tubman. When we refuse to understand or contend with ideas that we find different, strange, or alienating, we make the world a smaller place, because we are narrowing the scope of that which we could potentially experience or learn from. In using this mindset to understand pro-blackness, we should look beyond ourselves to engage with these cultural and political nuances. The kind of vitriolic back-and-forth that is often a staple of our public discourses stagnates our societal growth, and limits our capacity to engage with productive solutions and our capacity to bring about a more just, openly discursive, distinguished, and culturally elevated society. Open-mindedness is a path for America to move forward, and develop itself in a way that transcends the limits of ideology. The solutions to many of our problems lie in open discourse, and we must pursue them no matter how frustrating, elusive, or nuanced they may be.
The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.
Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising third year in the University of Chicago majoring in Political Science. He has served as the Communications Director of the African-Caribbean Students Association, as an intern in the office of Senator Claire McCaskill, and as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri. He looks forward to serving as a Senior Writer for the Gate!