MAXWELL:  Sapped by intellectual incest

2/5/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


After becoming the president and chief operating officer of the National Urban League last July, Hugh P. Price gave a speech that angered many leaders and rank-and-file members of mainline civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Price, 52, became anathema for focusing on self-reliance and by publicly de-emphasizing white racism as the most significant cause of poverty among urban blacks.

While acknowledging racism’s undeniable reality and its well-documented pervasiveness in areas such as black employment, lending and housing, Price cautioned: “We must not let ourselves . . . fall into the paranoid trap of thinking that racism accounts for all that plagues us. The global realignment of work and wealth is, if anything, the bigger culprit.

“For all our suffering, we cannot become so fixated on our problems that we ignore our commonality of interests with others. If we’re ever to deal with (black problems) on a scale remotely equal to their size, we must coalesce with people of other complexions who feel the same pain, even if it isn’t as acute.”

By expressing these ideas, Price stepped outside the ideological grid that the civil rights establishment follows in lock step.

Armed with the experience of having been vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Price rejects the intellectual incest _ grounded in victim-consciousness _ that has sapped the vitality of the nation’s major civil rights groups. Intellectual incest is the political, although not necessarily the personal, act of selecting the fellowship and advice of only those who share your Weltanschauung.

Let me differentiate between personal and political selectivity. A man might personally believe that black people must assume responsibility for their own well-being. The same man might, in fact, be a model of self-reliance. But to remain an acceptable member of the political family, he chooses not to publicly advocate the unpopular notion of black responsibility.

Intellectual incest is one of the main reasons that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for example, is near collapse. Since its inception in 1910, when W.E.B. Du Bois merged the Niagara Movement with that of a group of whites, many of them Jews, the NAACP has been the country’s most powerful civil rights organization to exploit white racism and violence.

As a result, the group has developed a culture of blame and victimhood. Its 64 trustees and its regular members feed from the same trough, sleep in the same bed, as it were, share the same vision of America and believe in the same anemic solutions to black problems.

The truth is that the NAACP, like most other civil rights groups, has not had a significant infusion of positive, new ideas in many years. Its intellectual gene pool is weakening by the day. It needs fresh, vital blood. Even though Benjamin Chavis, fired last summer as director, seemed to have had some new ideas, he proved to be another in a long line of race-baiting demagogues who hurt civil rights efforts.

And, as much as I admire Myrlie Evers-Williams, the 64-year-old widow of slain NAACP field director Medgar Evers, I do not believe that she can cure the chronic ills of the organization if she becomes its new executive director. Too much of the old culture’s blood runs through her veins.

The NAACP aside, most other areas of African-American culture also suffer from intellectual incest, a condition that is exacerbated by today’s preoccupation with Africa. Yes, word is out that black thought is not monolithic. But people who challenge tradition _ those whose pragmatism can literally save future generations _ are ostracized.

To truly appreciate this fact, take a look at the Black History Month speakers’ lineups for most cities.

You probably will not find these names: Glenn Loury, a conservative political economist at Boston University who lectures about the “enemy without” (racism) and the “enemy within” (dysfunctional behavior responsible for dependency and poverty); Thomas Sowell, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, who blasts the need for preferential programs; Shelby Steele, author of the book The Content of Our Character, who wants blacks to shed their victim persona; Robert Woodson, founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, who advocates “interior activism” (self-help).

In their book, Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment: Profiles of a New Black Vanguard, Joseph G. Conti and Brad Stetson explicate the philosophies that set Loury, Sowell, Steele and Woodson apart from influential civil rights leaders.

Although these social critics represent a wide spectrum of opinion, they agree in several important ways:

They reject the notion that racial loyalty requires ideological homogeneity.

They argue that a self-destructive silence has been imposed upon an inner-city culture of poverty by black activists who believe that publicly discussing black problems plays into the hands of racists.

They insist that racism alone does not account for black poverty and other social ills that African-Americans experience.

They condemn civil rights leaders for relying on the political capital of white guilt.

Members of the “new black vanguard” are despised in traditional African-American circles. I, too, often disagree with them, and I believe that Sowell is too mean-spirited. But their bold ideas are exactly the new blood the establishment needs to save itself from the slow, certain death of intellectual incest.

Members of the old guard must face the ultimate truth: Their solutions have failed. The time has come to try new ones.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.