Last week, Michael Eric Dyson’s New Republic essay taking Cornel West to task for various perceived missteps, including West’s harsh critique of Obama, raised questions, for me and many others, about the role of the black public intellectual. Just days after that article’s publication, as spirited responses continued whizzing around the Internet, news broke that another esteemed black academic was embroiled in a controversy involving actor Ben Affleck. Henry Louis Gates was accused of scrubbing evidence of Affleck’s slave-owning ancestry from an episode of his celebrity genealogy show on PBS. Affleck had requested the storyline be left out.
All of this left me wondering, do these highly publicized but narrowly focused events tell us anything about the state of black public discourse? At a moment when the killing of black people by police officers and vigilantes is finally at the center of mainstream conversation, who are the black academics demanding that we dig beneath pat explanations? And do you have to be a man and over the age of 50 to be among their ranks?
So I reached out to some black scholars who have sizable followings outside the academy. I asked what conversations are vital to black American communities right now. This is a purely subjective sampling; there are a great many more thinkers to note, but these are some of my own favorites. Some responded in conversation, others via e-mail. Their answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago
Founder of the Black Youth Project, a national organization that amplifies the voices of young black activists
When I asked Cohen what conversation black people need to be engaged in now, she said, “It’s hard to say anything other than Baltimore. In many ways, Baltimore is representative of what many people have called the neoliberal city.” She defined this as a city that has adopted policies that prioritize “privatization, disinvestment from poor communities and communities of color, disinvestment from the welfare state and reinvestment in the carceral state.
“How do we begin to think about the larger context in which the killing of Michael Brown or Tamir Rice continues to happen? These aren’t isolated incidents. This is about how we invest in cities, how we humanize black people, the segregation of white people.… Whites are probably the most segregated group in the country. That allows for the dehumanization of young black people, in that you get police officers who really do believe that they fear for their lives when they encounter young black men, because they are only privy to pop cultural representations.
“We also want to pay attention to the type of resistance and mobilization that we’re seeing from young black people in this moment. We’re in the process of reimagining what black politics is going to look like.” Cohen points to Millennials’ use of online social networks for organizing, as well as their efforts to build movements that explicitly reject sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. “Those of us in the academy, we have an opportunity to help amplify the voices of young black activists who are really reframing what black politics might be in the 21st century. We have an opportunity and a responsibility to empower them.”