By Agya Boakye-Boaten, Ph. D. –
Inadequate Activism by Black Intellectuals
A study recently published by authors from Yale University, “Americans misperceive racial economic equality,” was revealing, yet not surprising or shocking to those who have been paying attention to the dynamics of racial politics in this country.
The study primarily revealed a lag between the actual progress of black Americans and the perception of that progress by white Americans. The study also reiterated the fact that race is the fundamental organizing principle of this society.
“An important, often overlooked, facet of economic inequality in the United States is that it is a product of historical and present-day forms of racism—labor, housing, and other policies and practices—that have systematically disadvantaged racial/ethnic minorities in their pursuit of economic opportunities.” So the question becomes, “Why the disparity in perception and actuality of Black progress in this country?”
Heather Long wrote in the Washington Post on Sept. 15, 2017, that “African Americans are the only racial group the Census Bureau identifies as being left behind. White, Asian, and Latino households have all seen at least modest income gains since 2000.”
The article further states, “African Americans have the lowest earnings of any racial group by far. While median household income for African Americans was just over $39,000 last year, it was over $47,000 for Latinos, over $65,000 for whites, and over $81,000 for Asian American households.”
I will resist the temptation of indulging in the debate between blaming the individual versus blaming the system. What is undeniable are the facts of the widening disparity between black and white Americans. Equally troubling is whites’ misperception of black progress, a misperception with profound negative policy implications. The illusive idea of a post-racial society diminishes advocacy for racial equity, as well as for programs needed to correct historical and contemporary constructs that have used racial hierarchies as a foundational organizing principle.
So what is the role of black intellectuals in engaging in a deconstructive process to correct these anomalies? I contend that black intellectuals have been preoccupied with “blacksplaining” the conditions of black people to white Americans and institutions, rather than focusing on community-based activism to empower black folks.
Black intellectuals are quick to organize conferences, write academic papers, and sit on boards and committees with the objective of advancing black ideas, and conditions, mostly to white audiences. They are trained to operate from epistemological spaces that have been detrimental to blacks and their progress, and are thus complicit in the continued stagnation of black progress.
Black intellectuals are themselves beneficiaries of this race-based structure, and therefore are cautious in their engagement with the white establishment in order to maintain their positionality and that of their white benefactors. Educated black elites are granted a seat at the table—so long as they are willing to offer the white establishment atonement for the epistemic violence they have meted out to black folks.
This positionality of black intellectual elites compromises their ability and capacity to be agents of change. The tragedy may lie in the very miseducation of the educated black elites “who so readily forsake the belated element of his race,” according to Carter G. Woodson. Educated black elites should lead in the processes of true liberation.
Woodson says, without hesitation, “In our time too many Negroes go to school to memorize facts to pass examinations for jobs. After they obtain these positions they pay little attention to humanity.” This is a call for a radical intellectual detoxification, and a purging of the psychological damage of what has been inflicted through epistemicide and epistemic fundamentalism.
Black intellectuals must lead in challenging the internal dynamics within black communities that continue to stifle black progress: most importantly, self-destructiveness emanating from miseducation, where black people are not able to disentangle themselves from the shackles of epistemologies of destruction.
It is time for educated black elites to exhibit moral leadership: to use their privileged position to engage black communities and provide opportunities for uplift and progress. A truth and reconciliation of some sort is needed. Black folk should seek a reconnection to their spiritual and ancestral roots.
The souls of black folks continue to be in turmoil, and black intellectual elites have lacked the capacity, the will, and the leadership to deconstruct the lingering effects of epistemic violence. This very period should usher in a new wave of black intellectual activism, beyond Blacksplaining.
Agya Boakye-Boaten, PhD, is Chair and Associate Professor of Africana & Interdisciplinary/International Studies at UNC Asheville. He can be contacted at (828) 350-4564 or firstname.lastname@example.org.