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On Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following extract was reproduced from the Los Angeles Review of Books, June 13, 2011.


One way of understanding Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature? is as a book about literary history, about a period, now over, in which writing by black people was oriented toward a response to the conditions of Jim Crow. In an exchange between Warren and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Warren himself suggests this approach when he says that he could have called it What Was Negro Literature? To which Gates replies “The end of Negro Literature? I like that.” But for precisely the reason that Gates wishes he had, Warren didn’t call it What Was Negro Literature? Negro literature—the negro himself—is comfortably a thing of the past: Gates and Warren are professors of African American not Negro Studies; there are hundreds of universities and colleges that grant degrees in Black or African American studies, but not one that grants a degree in Negro studies. Warren’s point in insisting on “African American” is to insist that, even while eagerly putting the Negro behind it, African American literature has just as eagerly hung on to the legacy of Jim Crow, has mistakenly continued to understand racial disparity as the lynchpin of American inequality and thus, to put all his cards on the table, has become a force that works against rather than for the equality it imagines itself to seek. (And to put all mine on the table, Warren, Adolph Reed and I are working together on a book, You Can’t Get There From Here, about neoliberalism and the current politics of race.)

At the center of Warren’s understanding of African American literature is the idea that it was written by people for whom the fact of their supposed racial difference from whites was both absolutely unproblematic (since it was everywhere and at all times enforced by white racism) and just as absolutely problematic (since the reason they were writing was to discredit white racism). In other words, once white racism actually was overcome, what would be the point in continuing to write as an African American? More generally, Warren asks, how would or should “black difference”—other than as a mere matter of skin color—“persist absent the systematic social and political constraints imposed on the nation’s black population” by white supremacists? A black man, Du Bois famously said, was “a person who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia.” So once no one had to ride Jim Crow in Georgia, what would a black man be? And if African American literature was a response to state-sponsored “racial subordination and exploitation,” how, once state-sponsored racial subordination and exploitation came to an end, would African American literature also not come to an end? How can there—why should there—still be African American literature?

The most obvious and popular response to this question (on display most recently in every Obama-to-the-contrary-notwithstanding reminder that we don’t live in a post-racial world) has been to argue that racial subordination and exploitation have not in fact come to an end and that our era is one in which “the most obvious expressions of segregation and discrimination” characteristic of Jim Crow have only been replaced by “more covert but equally pernicious manifestations of racism.” Thus the question of what Warren calls continuing “black particularity” in the absence of white racism doesn’t need to be answered because the conditions under which it would need to be asked (the disappearance of white racism) don’t yet exist. And Warren himself is quick to agree that the effects of white racism are widespread in American society today. The black man who is no longer forced to ride Jim Crow is still, he points out, unlikely to be able to “afford to ride first class in Georgia or in Illinois or in California,” and may even be unable “to afford the price of any ticket whatsoever.” African Americans today are about 13% of the population but about 23% of the poor. Whites today make up about 65% of the population but only 42.5% of the poor. The most recent unemployment rate for black men is 16.8%; for white men, it’s 7.7%. So, at the very least, the post-Jim Crow black man is still much more likely to be poor and/or out of work than any white man, and much less likely to have decent health care or go to college or participate in the benefits of middle-class American life.

But to understand American inequality in these terms—to argue, in effect, that “current inequalities are simply more subtle attempts to reestablish the terms of racial hierarchy that existed for much of the twentieth century”—is, Warren thinks, to “misunderstand both the nature of the previous regime and the defining elements of the current one.” His point here is not that the civil rights movement rid America of racism. It is instead that the way we do inequality now (including the way we do racial inequality) is not the way we did it then, and that acting as if it is constitutes both an intellectual mistake (you get the history wrong) and a political mistake (you end up making things more unequal instead of less). In other words, he’s not denying that “post-Jim Crow remains a society of dramatic inequalities” or that “black Americans are disproportionately represented among those who lack adequate health care, incomes,” etc. On the contrary, as Warren understands very well, post-Jim Crow society is actually even more unequal than Jim Crow society was. Back in 1952, the top 10% of American wage earners made a little over 30% of all money earned, while today they make almost 50%. In 1952, the bottom quintile made 4.9%; in 2009, it made 3.4%. And blacks are still underrepresented at the top and over-represented on the bottom. But, of course, getting the proportions right—making sure that blacks were 13% of the poor and 13% of the rich—would alleviate the inequality between blacks and whites while leaving the difference between the rich and the poor untouched. So the question What Was African American Literature? raises is: on what basis does the commitment to creating a few hundred thousand more rich black people count as a commitment to “social justice”? Warren’s answer, expressed in terms he cites from Adolph Reed, is a “class basis.” The on-going anti-Jim Crow commitment to proportionality as a marker of racial justice, he argues, has instead functioned to legitimate inequality, and the ongoing commitment to African American literature (and indeed to African American identity itself) is a class project, in the service of both black and white elites.

We can begin to see how this works in his brilliant framing of the central dilemma of Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down (2007) in which the narrator’s problem of how to comply with his wife’s demand—“We need to make $140,000 a year”—poses for the novel itself a slightly different problem: how, as Warren puts it, to make “the personal victories and defeats of those with petit bourgeois aspirations matter in the broadest sense.” And once this problem is put this way – how, in a period of widening economic inequality, can we be made to feel that there’s something attractive or significant about one American trying hard to become richer than 95% of all the other Americans?—the solution is clear: just make him a black guy. Instantly, the effort to make enough money to pay private school tuitions is turned into the fight against racism; the desire to have more than everyone else becomes the desire to be as worthy as everyone else; the struggle for wealth becomes the struggle for equality. And the winners (the mean income of the top quintile of black families in 2009 was $133, 351; the mean income of the bottom quintile was $8,137) get to think of themselves as having achieved not only success but also “justice.”

There are, however, as Warren insists, limits to the transformative powers of anti-racism. For one thing, it’s not at all obvious that racism is the central obstacle to black wealth today, a point he makes by suggesting that what Thomas’s narrator “experiences as racial exclusion is also—perhaps even primarily—a matter of economic exclusion.” We can get a good idea of what Warren means by the distinction between racial and economic exclusion by noting that in today’s America, black students—if you net out their socioeconomic status—are more likely than white students to go to college, and thus to have access to the multitude of economic benefits still conferred by a college degree (sociologists call it the “net black advantage”). Nonetheless, black students are still under-represented in college because, unlike sociology, reality doesn’t net out socioeconomic status, and the reality is that socioeconomic status is by far the largest factor in determining who goes to college and who doesn’t. So black students are still excluded but it’s their poverty and not their color that’s excluding them.

A plausible and entirely accurate response is, of course, that their color continues to play a role because the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is responsible for their disproportionate poverty. Without Jim Crow, black kids today wouldn’t be so disproportionately poor and would be going to college in at least the same proportion as white kids. The way race continues to matter, then, is as history, which is why Warren emphasizes what he describes as a kind of structural nostalgia for Jim Crow in African American literature today. The writing of the Jim Crow period itself was, he says, “prospective”—oriented toward the goal of a future in which Jim Crow would be overcome. African American writing now is “retrospective”—occasionally nostalgic for the racial solidarity achieved during (actually enforced by) segregation itself, and usually committed to remembering the abuses of the past as the key to understanding and overcoming those of the present.

But insofar as poverty is the problem, Warren argues, history has nothing to do with the solution. After all, from the standpoint of the poor, why does the history of how they became poor matter? For some people, as Warren points out, “the story of their current impoverishment can be narrated as a tale beginning with the capture and enslavement of their ancestors, for others such a tale is not possible,” yet, he acidly concludes, “their impoverishment is equally real.” If our goal is to minimize inequality, why should we care how that inequality came about? Why should it matter that one kid is too poor to go to college because, say, racism kept his parents out of the union while another kid can’t go because his parents’ union got busted?

What Warren argues, then, is not only that we misunderstand contemporary inequality when we explain it in terms of the ongoing legacy of racism but also that we render ourselves incapable of doing anything about it. It’s not that racism has disappeared; it’s that anti-racism can make much less of a contribution to ending poverty than rebuilding the union movement might. After all, the most anti-racism ever promises is to replace disproportionate black poverty with proportionate black poverty, swapping out some upwardly mobile blacks for downwardly mobile whites or Asians. Even if it succeeded, in other words, it would do no good for the vast majority of black people who, like the vast majority of white people, wouldn’t be making anywhere near $140,000 a year. And the idea that we should expect poor black people left behind to be gratified by the success of rich ones moving up is about as plausible as the idea that poor whites, contemplating, say, Lloyd Blankfein’s recent $14,000,000 paycheck, should think to themselves, “Hell yeah — he’s doing it for all of us. That’s what Warren means when he says that the success of black elites “has less and less to do with the type of social change that would make a profound difference in the fortunes of those at the bottom of our socio-economic order.” He might have put the point even more strongly. He might have said that not only does their success have less and less to do with alleviating inequality, it has more and more to do with producing it.

Which is, in effect, what he does say when he characterizes “black intellectuals” as pursuing a politics that serves their own interests rather than the interests of “their people,” and notes that Jim Crow at least “made such a politics seem plausible as a race-group enterprise.” Those cultural politics are no longer plausible as a race-group enterprise, unless the race-group in question is the black elite. Or unless we give up the “race,” turn the “group” into a “class,” and point out that white elites get at least as much out of this politics as black elites do. After all, once social justice is reconfigured as diversifying elites rather than eliminating them, the point of what Warren calls a “class politics” is clear: economic inequality is fine so long as the white people who benefit from it start including an appropriate number of African Americans. And the array of intellectuals of all colors standing shoulder to shoulder in their commitment to contesting “the status quo” by reminding us of “the history of racial trauma” testifies to the attractiveness of that politics. Black and white, unite and fight! For rich people!

For the rest of the article, visit the Los Angeles Review of Books’ website.