MAXWELL:  The heavy burden of black conformity

5/12/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Four weeks ago, I spoke to a group in the Tampa Bay area about the need for blacks and whites to cooperate for the good of future generations of young people. A prominent black civil rights activist stormed from the room after I said that blacks must stop seeing racism in the ordinary “comings and goings” of human relations and that “some things are the inescapable hazards of living in a pluralistic society.”

A week later, I was showing social service professionals how to write effective letters and guest columns to the editor and how to arrange meetings with the editorial board of their local newspaper when a black man interrupted. He demanded, inappropriately for the topic at hand, that I explain why the St. Petersburg Times, the newspaper for which I work, has not employed more black executives and has not appointed a black to the board of directors.

After I said that the paper is slowly changing for the better, that blacks cannot force themselves into executive jobs or onto the board, he stormed out, but not before suggesting that I am an Uncle Tom.

A week ago, as I told a group interested in crime prevention that young blacks _ especially males _ must learn the practical virtues of citizenship, Perkins T. Shelton, former St. Petersburg NAACP president and one of the self-anointed seers of black esprit, marched out of the auditorium.

Although these acts of rudeness and ugly manners were not directly related, they show that monolithism _ the compulsion for sameness and oneness _ thrives in black society despite loud cries to the contrary. Certainly, all black Americans are free to speak their minds. But woe unto the errant fool who bucks prevailing thought, who dares to think un-black, as it were. Blacks wanting to enjoy an unmolested life must conform to the tenets of the unwritten manifesto of the Soul Patrol, the group to which the three men who walked out on my speeches belong.

What is the Soul Patrol? What are its tenets? And, of course, how do the patrol and its manifesto affect black society in general? The Soul Patrol is not an organized body. Rather, it consists of loosely connected opinion leaders _ elected and appointed officials, preachers, journalists, gangsta rappers, business owners, teachers, school administrators and others _ who wield considerable influence, who possess the “right” attitude and use coded rhetoric.

These mind cops, practicing the ancient art of saving face for their ethnic group, are said to think black. They include the likes of O. J. Simpson attorney Johnny Cochran, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Chavis, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The list does not include the likes of O. J. prosecutor Christopher Darden, Harvard intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr., English professor Shelby Steele, retired Gen. Colin Powell.

In the broadest sense, the manifesto of the Soul Patrol is the centuries-old prohibition against saying or writing anything negative about fellow blacks in the presence of whites or for their consideration. Its rationale, framed by the instinct of self-preservation, is that negative observations by blacks about other blacks only aid and abet the enemy by justifying racism and other forms of malevolence and by validating ugly stereotypes.

True brethren of color, therefore, do not air the race’s dirty linen in public, a stricture that has created the pseudonegritude _ false consciousness of and false pride in the cultural and physical aspects of our African heritage _ that diminishes the quality of black life. Negritude itself, genuine consciousness and pride, is desirable, undergirding the positive aspects of African-American society.

Genuine negritude realistically assesses our heritage, actively makes our own personal behavior a shining example of the positive and publicly rejects self-immolation. The pseudonegritude of the Soul Patrol’s manifesto, however, has produced a pernicious and dangerous cult of silence that embraces unwholesome sacred cows, unsavory personalities, self-defeating behavior and rationalizes various forms of criminality.

So, when I said that young black males often are their own worst enemies, that they should not be permitted to terrorize their neighborhoods, that they must learn to be good citizens, the protectors of negritude saw me as a traitor.

Outsiders would think that because blacks do not discuss their intrarace problems in public, we surely must discuss these problems behind closed doors. The truth is that, because we often are too busy heaping blame on others, we rarely discuss among ourselves the root causes of our own self-destructiveness.

And we see the ugly results of this silence everywhere: in the squalid conditions of our neighborhoods; in the high number of our young men behind bars; in the high incidence of teen pregnancy; in the excessive school dropout rates; in the alarming suspension and expulsion trends; in the crime statistics; in the number of unemployable blacks.

Is the silence of saving face a sensible trade-off for such personal, spiritual and societal carnage? I think not. The real enemies of African-Americans are not the self-critics who speak out publicly, but the blindly loyal soul brothers and sisters who storm out of auditoriums, who bite their tongues even as black life implodes.