Afropessimism, or Black Studies as a Class Project
Conviction that identifying (actually, often constructing) and addressing racial disparities will improve the general black American population’s material circumstances is rooted in the upward mobility ideology that was a default premise of American political culture at least through the postwar decades and has also been a cornerstone of the racial-democratic ideal.1 As the persisting rhetorical force of the trope of the “black first”—e.g., first black president, first black female Supreme Court justice—attests, being able to pursue occupations and careers that segregation and discrimination had rendered inaccessible remains an important marker of personal, and supposedly racial, accomplishment. But the prospect of upward mobility, either intra- or intergenerational, was always problematic as an egalitarian ideal. It is an individualist remedy for a collective problem of inequality. The promise of upward mobility has been a poor substitute for a robust system of social protection, and it has rationalized the existence of degraded employment by characterizing it as part of the natural order of things, in principle temporary and justified based on desert or merit. Most of all, the ideology was tied to a presumption of continuing economic growth that promised indefinitely expanding opportunity structures. The past half century of wage stagnation and even declining living standards for an increasing share of the population has undercut the ideology’s power as a popular faith.
Through the racecraft2 of representing gains for black individuals (e.g., Barack Obama’s election to the presidency or O. J. Simpson’s acquittal on murder charges) as gains for the race as a whole and its separation of socioeconomic conditions among black Americans from characteristics of the political economy, race reductionism deflects from the reality that the dream of upward mobility has largely lost its objective foundation. Reinvention of the ideal of upward mobility in groupist terms sustains the ideology even as it becomes increasingly unattainable materially for individuals. Racial alchemy thus recasts upward mobility in the form of a vicarious, symbolic trickle-down—e.g., first Asian American to start for an NBA team, first Native American cabinet secretary. At the same time, a political critique that boils down to the charge that blacks have it worse denies the significance of the most important sources of even inequalities understood as racial in the present. And, as I and others have pointed out relentlessly, in contending that strict equality of opportunity, expressed as ascriptive group parity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, is the definitive standard of social justice, the anti-disparitarian notion of a just society is compatible, even symbiotic, with neoliberal inequality. Michaels and Warren point out in discussing the related issue of reparations: “From the replacement of public schools with charters to the replacement of cabbies with Uber drivers, neoliberalism argues that the only solutions to the inequalities created by markets are more efficiently functioning markets. And that the true victims of capitalism are not all the workers impoverished by exploitation but only those workers even more impoverished by discrimination.”3
Inattentiveness to racial inequality’s embeddedness in capitalist political economy links directly to the fact that antiracist discourse posits “racism”—rather than historically specific political-economic and legal institutions, relations, and practices—as the causal source of (unjust) inequality affecting black people past and present. Racism, however, notwithstanding efforts to represent it as something more concrete via modifiers like “structural” or “systemic,” is an abstract idea, an attitude or belief, and is therefore incapable of causing anything.4 Insofar as the idea is regarded as the motive force determining blacks’ position in society across time and context, persistence of black people’s disproportionate representation among the most vulnerable, marginalized, and impoverished populations today can appear continuous with slavery and Jim Crow. According to that idealist reasoning, which also underlies Afropessimism’s ontological devil theory and is the essence of race reductionism, racism is the cause, rather than the result, of slavery, of the Jim Crow regime, and of contemporary inequality as well.
Race, in this view, is not a historically contingent “taxonomy of ascriptive difference”;5 it is an extra-societal phenomenon that imposes itself across social formations, what a despairing liberal colleague once described as a “dark force” or, also in the lexicon of postwar racial liberalism, America’s “original sin” or “national disease.” Discrete characteristics of the different social orders—slavery, codified racial hierarchy, sharecropping, free labor, and broadened employment opportunity, industrial unionism, civil rights enforcement, black office-holding, and class differentiation—are incidental to the deeper reality defined by racism. Thus, literary scholar Saidiya Hartman refers to “the nonevent of emancipation”;6 for Hartman, Emancipation did not dissolve or defeat racism or alter its significance as the crucial determinant of black people’s subordinate condition and therefore did not represent a qualitative break from slavery because the power of unrelenting racism overrides discrete historical context. This chain of reasoning is how the mantra that “nothing has changed” can seem to be at all plausible in the face of contemporary reality and the last century and a half of U.S. and black American history.
The close parallel between fin-de-siècle racist ideologues’ assertions of the primordial and immutable nature of white supremacy and contemporary race reductionists’ can provide perspective helpful for ascertaining what lies behind the impulse to insist, in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that nothing has changed for black Americans and, yet more strikingly, Hartman’s dismissal of Emancipation as a “nonevent.” I have argued that the assertion “is not to be taken literally as an empirical claim, even though many advancing it seem earnestly convinced that it is; it is rhetorical … more a jeremiad than an analysis and is usually advanced in response to some outrage.”7 However, Afropessimism (sometimes rendered as Afro-pessimism), an ideological tendency that emerged from the academy in recent years, doubles down on the claim that nothing significant has changed for black people by explicitly situating it on an abstract plane of ontological just-so stories in the context of which concrete social realities at any moment are illusory and quite beside the point. Hartman has been identified with Afropessimist discourse since its emergence,8 and her dismissal of Emancipation illustrates this doubling down. In her view, the deeper reality of Emancipation and the Reconstruction Amendments, and by extension the landmark legislation of the mid-1960s that ended the Jim Crow southern order, is that “stipulation of abstract equality produces white entitlement and black subjection in its promulgation of formal equality … [because] the texture of freedom is laden with the vestiges of slavery, and abstract equality is utterly enmeshed in the narrative of black subjection, given that slavery undergirded the rhetoric of the republic and equality defined so as to sanction subordination and segregation” (SOS 116).
Afropessimists, that is, forswear ambiguity in their version of the proclamation that nothing has changed and demand that it be taken literally. It is telling that Hartman and others dismiss the rights that black Americans have struggled for and attained as “abstract” and ephemeral, notwithstanding their concrete effects on actual black people’s lives, and posit the theory’s just-so formulations as the deeper truth of black life. Afropessimism is an idealist discourse that proceeds from a claim that “antiblackness” is a definitive force in world history and that there is, as Frank Wilderson III, another literature professor prominently identified with this tendency, puts it, an “essential antagonism … between Blacks and the world.”9 Wilderson also diminishes the significance of Emancipation and asserts repeatedly, echoing John C. Calhoun, Josiah Nott, and George Fitzhugh, that blacks are a special, non-human species of existence whose inescapable condition is enslavement.10 He contends that belief that Emancipation altered blacks’—or “the Black’s”—slavery is not “in the slightest way convincing—it is not an arc, an argument, it is a sentimental assertion, mobilized by the interlocutor’s fear of thinking of slavery as a relational dynamic; the interlocutor insists that slavery is a historical event, a thing of the past. Such assertions are exemplary of the anxiety of antagonism,” which in Wilderson’s view is the fundamental relation of “the Black” to all other human beings (AP 199).
To be blunt, Afropessimism is wordplay and sophistry. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection is a formalist exercise of linking airy ontological assertions to their apparent logical negations; although her moves are often clever on their own terms, their argumentative effect is that nothing ever changes. Wilderson makes bold, empirically groundless assertions, repeats them emphatically and relentlessly, and spins accounts of how things would seem to be if those assertions were correct. And he often extrapolates the bold assertions from fiction—the film 12 Years a Slave (AP 276); the Sethe character in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved (AP 242, 303); and an episode of the reactionary television series, Homeland (AP 192f)—which he then blends with and takes as the normative basis for interpreting actual events. Critical appraisals of Wilderson’s work in particular can be read allegorically as a contemporary update of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The gullible and the dilettantish strain to argue that Wilderson’s and other Afropessimists’ more outlandish, clearly absurd assertions should not be read as intended to be claims of literal fact.11 Academic reception of Wilderson is even more revealing than the popular assessments. I daresay that, if the academy were more like an honest craft guild, professors who blurbed his Afropessimism or otherwise have praised and recommended it might be at risk of having their doctorates revoked, as could happen, say, to a shoddy and irresponsible member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for the quality of American intellectual life, particularly at its nexus with civic and political concerns, few acknowledge the extent of social harms that can ensue from academic malpractice.
Underneath displays of high theory and sweeping, peremptory assertions that mime radicalism, Afropessimism is another iteration of a familiar, “do for self” race nationalism that had its heyday in Black Power and post-Black Power militancy.12 The claims that blacks’ enslavement never ended, that there is a “structural antagonism between Blacks and Humans,” or that “there is no analogy between the suffering of Black people and those others who find themselves subjugated by unethical paradigms (such as patriarchy and capitalism) … in part because, once the subjects of unethical paradigms are liberated from their chains, they will stand in contradistinction to the Slave. They will still be human. Ergo, they will still be the Black’s antagonists,” are preposterous other than as instruments of the contention that black people can have no dependable allies in (an impossible) struggle to make their lives better and the society more egalitarian and just than it currently is (ARA 40–41).13
Wilderson and Hartman insist that Afropessimism is not a politics (ARA 42–43, 56–57; SOS 65), but that demurral is either naïve or disingenuous. Counsel against pursuit of solidarities with nonblacks is a political stance and a potentially quite consequential one at that. And Afropessimism’s groupist focus proceeds from a class politics that represents the perspectives and concerns of a narrow stratum as those of the entire racialized population. Wilderson displays this class perspective in his romanticization of “Black suffering” (AP 328–331f).14 He gives away the game more directly when he says that one should think of Afropessimism as “a theory that is legitimate because it has secured a mandate from Black People at their best; which is to say, a mandate to speak the analysis and rage that most Black people are free only to whisper” (AP 173). Similarly, Hartman indicates in discussing Scenes of Subjection that “the book is about the problem of crafting a narrative for the slave as subject … That’s where the whole issue of empathetic identification is central for me … In many ways, what I was trying to do as a cultural historian was to narrate a certain impossibility, to illuminate those practices that speak to the limits of most available narratives to explain the position of the enslaved.”15 This sensibility positions Wilderson, Hartman, and other Afropessimists as Black whisperers. So, when all the high-theoretical pyrotechnics and bluster are burned off, Afropessimism is another expression of the black professional-managerial class political ideology that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century and congealed largely around pursuit of managerial authority over black political aspirations. Its political project, which, as Kenneth Warren makes clear, was also always an intellectual one,16 is preserving and reinforcing the racecraft—most of all the mythology of black distinctiveness and unitary racial interest—that enables black upper-status Racial Voices to ventriloquize the black population as a whole. And, for Afropessimists, the collective ventriloquist dummy is not merely the forty-two million officially black individuals in the United States (a population larger than the entire population of Canada), but black people all over the world and across time.
Warren points out that the premise that all black people live with “an ever-present sense of doom” has always burnished the credentials of black intellectuals “whose job it is to produce expression and analysis, in their claim to represent a degraded population, presumably unable to turn anywhere else in solidarity around a goal of building a better world.” And he reminds that “it is crucial to locate the origins of the project of Black distinctiveness, politically and historically, in the ‘cultural turn’ of the late 1890s and first decade of the twentieth century that followed Black disfranchisement and arose with the consolidation of the Jim Crow regime.” From this emerged a new “form of political action, centered on the idea of leadership, unelected but presumably attuned culturally and spiritually to the needs and desires of the race as a whole and, on that basis, able to speak for all Blacks.” And that class-skewed politics of race leadership “became the prevailing ideology of the last century” (BTB 371–72).17 These insights provide a context for making sense of Afropessimism and its appeal to people who should know better, for understanding the material foundation of its almost clinically absurd representations of black social reality and the broader world in which that reality is constituted.
In the fin-de-siècle moment, the stratum of emerging professional race leaders or race relations managers exemplified by Washington, Du Bois, and others took shape as first a class-in-itself and then a class-for-itself in a context that assumed mass black disfranchisement and general expulsion from southern civic life. Blacks’ civic muteness was both a fact of life and a condition of the race leadership role. Re-enfranchisement of the black American population in the mid-1960s and defeat of the Jim Crow order opened possibilities for more diverse, interest-based political engagement among black Americans. However, the black political class whose legitimacy rested on presumptions of black racial distinctiveness, political uniformity, and civic muteness resisted acceptance of those new possibilities and instead oriented nominally black political discourse—the new black ethnic pluralism, as Cedric Johnson describes it18 —increasingly toward challenging the persistence of generic “racism.” This is the environment in which anti-disparitarianism has become the programmatic and rhetorical center of gravity of black political criticism and the context that has encouraged arguments framing contemporary inequalities, or apparent racial disparities, as legacies, or substantive continuations, of slavery or Jim Crow. It is resistance to accommodating the new political possibilities and challenges presented by the sea change of the 1960s that prompted political scientist Willie Legette’s powerful apothegm that “The only thing that hasn’t changed about black politics since 1965 is how we think about it.”19
Resistance to accommodating the changed political circumstances is not simply a result of stubbornness or short-sighted habituation. It is the product of concerted ideological effort in service to a class-based political program. For more than a half-century since passage of the Voting Rights Act, those committed to black professional-managerial class politics—now universally recognized as “black politics”—have had to become ever more emphatic in stipulating that black Americans’ legitimate concerns are exhausted by identifying what appear, or can be construed, as aggregate racial disparities. At the same time that class and income differentiation have sharpened among black Americans,20 predatory neoliberalization has steadily intensified income inequality and polarized economic and social insecurity across the society at large in ways that widen and entrench the gap between the richest and everyone else to historic proportions. And especially after the global and national shocks of the Great Recession, the COVID pandemic, catastrophes linked to climate change, and more, a politics based exclusively on stressing groupist disparities is less and less capable of addressing actual people’s felt needs and concerns. In this context “but blacks have it worse” is more a deflection from addressing deepening inequalities—even those that may appear as racial—than a formula for addressing them.
This is the context in which contention that “nothing has changed” has become such a central trope in race-reductionist politics. Unlike Washington, Du Bois, et al., who could assume the charge to speak for a black population universally understood to be racially distinctive, politically uniform, and civically mute, their post-segregation era counterparts operate in an environment in which that view of a large, significantly undifferentiated black American population must be imposed rhetorically because it is manifestly contradicted by the facts of black American life. Afropessimism, from that perspective, is in part a response to the legitimation problems confronting dominant race-reductionist ideology. No less than “white replacement” theory, it is a pickpocket’s dodge, a flamboyant misdirection deployed to undercut solidaristic working-class based political agendas. In that sense, the absurd ontological premises and formulations on which Afropessimism depends reflect the desperation that attends an interpretive paradigm in crisis. At the same time, the extent to which Afropessimist discourse and its precepts have been normalized not only among academics but also in activist discourse indicates the depth of race-reductionism’s hegemony even among those who presume to be fighting for a better world.