Following up on yesterday's conversation about Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, Randall Kennedy reviews Touré's new book urging an embrace of "post-blackness," meaning "we are [like President Barack Obama] rooted in, but not restricted by, Blackness."
Kennedy's book Sellout posited that communities--particularly historically oppressed ones--have a right to police their boundaries, because doing so can apply coercive pressure on those doing harm to the community. His argument held the caveat that the burden of justifying that pressure should be large and that excommunication, the harshest punishment, should only be reserved for the worst offenses--such as black people who argue that blacks are genetically inferior. In this vein, his book offered a strong defense of Justice Clarence Thomas as someone who, in his own way, was deeply concerned about black advancement and therefore wasn't worth of the label "sellout.' I agree.
Reviewing Touré's book however, Kennedy points out that any definition of blackness, no matter how inclusive, inevitably has to draw the line somewhere to have any meaning. Then he draws a line he previously refused to:
Is it right for blacks to cast Thomas from their communion? Is it appropriate to indict him for betrayal? These questions have arisen on numerous occasions. In confronting them now, I conclude that I have erred in the past. Previously I have criticized Thomas' performance as a jurist -- his complacent acceptance of policies that unjustly harm those tragically vulnerable to ingrained prejudices; his naked Republican Party parochialism; and his proud, Palinesque ignorance. But I have also chastised those who labeled him a sellout.
I was a sap. Blacks should ostracize Thomas as persona non grata. Despite his parentage, physiognomy and racial self-identification, he ought to be put outside of respectful affiliation with black folk because of his indifference or hostility to their collective condition. His conduct has been so hurtful to and antagonistic toward the black American community that he ought to be expelled from membership in it.
I agree with Kennedy's old argument. Kennedy's decision here seems too reliant on politics rather than the kind of racial betrayal he rightfully identified as the only reasonable justification for excommunication. Thomas' blackness informs his legal and political opinions in ways I disagree with, but I don't see any evidence of deliberate racial sabotage. His defense of gun rights in McDonald v. Chicago, premised on the history of black people being disarmed and made vulnerable to white supremacist terrorism, could not have been written by someone "indifferent" or "hostile" to the collective condition of black Americans.
Understanding that sometime such in-community policing is sometimes necessary, it should never be used capriciously--or merely to silence or ostracize those who don't possess the "right" political beliefs. Steve Harvey's use of "Uncle Tom" in the context of West and Smiley strikes me as capricious--and perhaps one of the first times in American history that anyone challenging the president of the United States has been accused of being a "Tom." Most of the time, that label is reserved for those who uncritically accept the narrative of American power as a universally benevolent force, not those who challenge it.
As for "post-blackness," I haven't read Touré's book but the argument seems a bit redundant. Blackness in America has always been an inclusive racial category, encompassing everyone from Romare Bearden and Mariah Carey to Claude McKay and Jay-Z. For all the complaints about "soul patrols," it is access to whiteness as an identity that has been most carefully and harshly policed throughout American history. Being "rooted in, but not defined by" blackness describes the casual internal existence of the vast majority of black people in the United States, who are only "defined" in a restrictive sense by external forces that continue to give blackness its socially constructed meaning.