III. African American Identity and U.S. Universalism: Denial and Dissent

The Black Nationalist project, which is fundamentally concerned with creating a common cultural, economic and political space for the black community, is in large part a reaction to the degrading treatment and debasing representations to which blacks have long been subject. The Afrocentric movement, on the other hand, was initially framed as an ideological response to these very hostile attitudes toward blacks and blackness. Both movements, however, attempt to create alternative discourses expected to promote black self-esteem and improve the community's view of itself, its past, and its future. In fact, one can safely place the Afrocentric discourse within the larger Black Nationalist movement as the kind of theoretical mold that gives it form and structure, while revolving essentially around African and African American histories and cultures. This is specifically what Black Nationalism and Afrocentrism have in common--a relationship built upon cross-fertilization and complementation.

This brief reminder of the main goals of these two central movements within the larger struggle of African Americans to achieve a better socioeconomic standing may serve us as a gateway to discuss the identitarian crisis of the community in question. This crisis no doubt borrows many of its features from similar ones experienced by communities and nations throughout the postcolonial world; the most typical of such features is a characteristic rage and a pungent expression of anger and protest. The cost of identity reinvention for African Americans, however, has been a more serious form of alienation and denial, as it implies a struggle against the very ideals and values that the community has been struggling to protect.

American liberal nationalism has, in theory, set up the framework for a participatory, inclusive social model, where racial and ethnic minorities are expected to give antecedence to the civic principles of the republic as they put aside the narrow interests of their communities for the common good of society *366 at large. It was essentially a civic philosophy, constructed around right, duty, and shared responsibility, reinforced by the set of democratic ideals of freedom, equality, and justice. However, what finally emerged was a completely different sociocultural construct from the one its early theorists, such as Cr‚vecoeur, initially conceived. For the universals generated in the process of nation-making were essentially exclusionary, as they associated Americanness--or being American--with whiteness, creating an enduring paradox that continues to fuel interracial antagonisms: how is it possible to be American, and yet feel comfortable in one's colored skin? American Universalists, including some prominent integrationists such as Thomas Sowell, claim that the democratic values upon which the nation was founded have always constituted a type of guiding rules applied indiscriminately to all Americans, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, and national origin, despite the episodic crises in interracial relations. Sowell is only one among several other thinkers representative of this integrationist trend in contemporary scholarship on race and ethnicity. Together with other prominent integrationists, such as David Hollinger and Arthur M. Schlesinger, he supports the idea that American Universalism has always provided a defensive line against racism and that this particular system of values and principles still works, despite the past and current injustices done to the black community. But history teaches us a different lesson. The spearhead values of American Universalism, namely freedom, equality and justice were, and still are, constantly challenged by white supremacy and the cultural narratives associated with it.

*367 Of all the racial and ethnic groups that make up American society, the African American community has been the only one to be denied the right to maintain a cultural identity, foster supportive networks of relationships among its individuals, or claim uniquely ethnic values and be proud of them. On one hand, if large numbers of African Americans are still on the margins of the socioeconomic mainstream, all the blame is put on the “degenerative” habits and patterns of behavior, whose bedrock is the ghetto culture. On the other hand, attempts to integrate into the mainstream are countered by deeply-entrenched prejudices against the community at large, creating a double-bind where even meritorious individuals can have difficulty improving their socioeconomic conditions. This situation is, of course, reminiscent of Ralph Ellison's antanaclasis where the black man is “damned” twice, once for wanting to integrate and once for wanting to “separate.” The deceitful discursive practices of Universalists (and of many integrationists, for that matter) trap the African American in an unsolvable paradoxical situation where, for many individuals, only ethnocentric monoculturalism appears to provide a way out. Ethnocentric monoculturalism, which, in the context of our discussion, refers to any type of community-centered ideology seeking to support identitarian values by attempting to avert external cultural influences, has served as a means to protest against the structural barriers erected by social practice and tradition to hinder the integration of the African American community. Both Afrocentrism and Black Nationalism have played a key role in fostering a uniquely African American identity by, first, regenerating old African cultural values and symbols, and then, by popularizing them. The tasks of “regenerating” and “popularizing” such ethnocentric values and symbols have been facilitated by influential black thinkers such as Ron Karenga, Baraka, and Molefi Kete Asante, to mention but a few. yet, some of them have been considered “not radical enough” to help promote real African American autonomy by certain cultural Nationalist groups, such as the New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense *368 (NBPP), which has recently engaged in designing an even more radical discourse. Against the backdrop of a rebelliously antisocial and anti-white discourse, one witnesses the emergence of a dissent movement that questions the very principles and values around which the liberal republican system revolves. When, in the view of several Black Nationalists, such long-cherished dogmas as color-blindness and equal opportunity come to be associated with whiteness, then the whole integrationist movement is put in serious jeopardy. It follows that the African American community at large would suffer even more serious divisions and controversies on how best to preserve a common identity while seeking a better socioeconomic standing. It is this very ideological polarization that made Thomas Sowell, among other classical liberals, correlate the “Negro community” with “social pathology” throughout all his works. It may be for that same reason that Gunnar Myrdal, well before Sowell, had associated the black community with a serious “cultural lag” and argued for immediate integration. Since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans have been grappling with a knotty dichotomy. This may be one possible description to depict the enduring friction which has typified African American “position” on integration. But, regardless of which ideology one may consider to better serve the interests of the community, one fact remains obvious to the critic of liberal nationalism--namely that blackness has often been reputed antithetical to Americanness, and therefore, as Etienne Balibar argues, has been “replaced” by a “fictive ethnicity” (Americanness) for the sole purpose of obliterating any remaining vestiges of its early existence. Substituting “blackness” for “Americanness” and accepting this new “configuration of values” as an alternative to true blackness (as an ethnicity and a world-view) defeats the very soul and spirit of democracy, of which even would-be “total integrationists” can be accused. Again, this thesis postulates that maintaining a black ethnic identity *369 remains an important component of the community's search for a better position in American society, a postulate counter to Sowell's constant denunciation of ethnic identification.

With African Americans accounting for about 38% of the prison inmate population, despite comprising only 13.3% of the U.S. population, there is reason enough to expect a resurgence of old anti-integrationist sentiment inside the community. In effect, this higher frequency of incarceration within the black community, compared proportionally to other groups, gives reason for Black Nationalist and separatist groups to criticize the judicial system for allegedly victimizing blacks. An unusually large prison population also provides them with a sizeable pool of potential adherents, which has specifically been a focus of the Nation of Islam over the past few years, as it recruited many of its “revolutionary nationalists” from this particular category of blacks. This resulted in a rising threat to the integrationist heritage of the civil rights movement, which generations of black moderates have painstakingly attempted to preserve.