Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul
by eddie s. glaude jr.
crown, 288 pages, $26
There are two sorts of individuals who enter the spotlight in the wake of a charismatic leader. The first type imitates the outward performance of the charismatic leader but with none of the depth of soul that characterizes charisma at its noblest. This is Jesse Jackson attempting to succeed Martin Luther King Jr. The second type turns from charisma to routine, creating rules, policies, and bureaucracy meant to sustain the message of the charismatic figure. This is George H. W. Bush attempting to carry on the legacy of Ronald Reagan or Al Gore following Bill Clinton.
Cornel West is not dead, but his purported heirs are positioning themselves to enter the spotlight that was once focused on him. Whatever one thinks of West’s ideas or his writings, he is undeniably a talented performer. At his best, he uses his intelligence, cleverness, and broad learning to disturb his listeners’ comfortable habits of thought. West has produced many imitators and many routinizers. Eddie S. Glaude Jr., who dedicates his new book to his son and to West, his Doktorvater, aspires to be both. Democracy in Black is framed to make precisely the same intervention in American public culture that West’s Race Matters did in 1994, but the spirit, the soul, of West’s thought is gone, replaced with tedious statistics, over-polished anecdotes, and clunky slogans.
Glaude assembles a host of statistics to show just how badly black Americans fared during the Great Recession (hyperbolically labeled by Glaude “The Great Black Depression”). The homeownership rate among blacks declined 6 percent, the black unemployment rate reached 16 percent, extreme poverty now afflicts 20 percent of black children, and in some black neighborhoods, three quarters of mortgages remain underwater. These facts are supplemented with stories of individual black Americans who suffered economic catastrophe. The first paragraph of the book’s first chapter offers a taste of these anecdotes’ saccharine style: “Christine Frazer cried softly,” it begins. She had “worked hard all her life” and “played by the rules,” but now “her dreams [had been] shattered.”
America suffers from a “value gap,” Glaude tells us. Black people are valued less than white people because of “white fear” and “racial habits,” a fancy way of describing stereotypes, which Glaude reports scientists have located in the brain’s basal ganglia. Policymakers, mortgage bankers, regulators, real estate agents, potential employers, and others are all beholden to the value gap, white fear, and racial habits. Thus black suffering.
Glaude goes on to make a stronger claim: The ideals animating America have always been tainted by racism, and American history is laced with it. In order to end the disproportionate harms afflicting African Americans, we need “a revolution of value” that will make us see the world differently and live differently. Glaude sees the beginnings of this revolution in the tweets of Black Lives Matter leaders and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of Michael Brown.
How will tweets lead to social transformation? Glaude doesn’t say. And though he criticizes the media’s focus on black political celebrities, he deifies black Twitter celebrities including DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, ignoring the three women who founded the Black Lives Matter movement: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. These women are long-time community organizers, not protest tourists. In their words, they root their work in a “belief that everybody’s life is sacred” as they “build and nurture a beloved community.” To cause a revolution in values, which this country certainly needs, why not turn away from political rhetoric and toward the intellectual, practical, and ultimately theological ideal of beloved community?
Some of Glaude’s most compelling observations regard the shortcomings of black liberal politics. He rightly worries that black political interests have been subordinated to Democratic party allegiance, and he explores the history and various manifestations of this problem. Sometimes black politicians are primarily concerned with their own self-interest; other times they buy into a liberal, post-racial ideology; and other times they make a flawed political calculation that ends up benefiting white political elites. Glaude’s grand solution is “Blank-Out 2016.” He urges blacks to vote in the 2016 elections but to leave the presidential line on their ballots empty. This is a “bold” plan, he writes, “that will upset the entire game.”
How’s that? Without a compelling account of how this plan would work, and without an appeal to faith, “Blank-Out 2016” functions as a reminder that this book is mainly a compilation of facts, stories, and more or less catchy slogans that avoids the intellectual heavy lifting that the profound question of racial justice requires and deserves.
God does not enter into Democracy in Black. Where West’s work is suffused with the prophetic, Glaude’s only substantive mention of religion is to note what he considers the homophobia of some black churches and the avarice of some black preachers. West has certainly overused and under-developed the concept of the prophetic, but at his best he points us to the fact that there is some higher law, some divine justice, accessible to us through reflection on our human nature. Feelings of angst and love point to the fact that some worldly laws and norms are unjust. This practice of discernment is grounded in West’s faith in God incarnate.
West’s criticisms of President Obama, at their subtlest and strongest, have been criticisms of his secularism. Obama limits himself to the facts as they present themselves, navigating a middle path, rather than tapping into a prophetic imagination that would allow a new story to be told. Glaude also criticizes Obama, but on Obama’s terms. He rejects the president’s attachment to color-blind rhetoric not because it is insufficiently prophetic, but because it doesn’t do enough to improve the lamentable statistics of black life. He speaks Obama’s language, and one can envision the two having a pleasant chat about all their disagreements. Neither Obama nor Glaude would probe how the wisdom of the world, distorted by sin, masks the depths of injustice—and when it comes to race, these depths are, indeed, abysmal.
When I entered my final year as an undergraduate student at Princeton, Cornel West and Eddie Glaude both joined the faculty. Some professors complained about West, arguing that our university should not be a stage for showmen. Many of those who had met or heard West differed. Peer-reviewed articles and university press books may not be his forte, but he had achieved intellectual excellence, and he was a charismatic presence in the very best sense of the word, possessing the ability to direct others toward the good, the true, and the beautiful. Like West, Glaude uses academia as a stage for public performance, using the same gestures as West, but routinized and formalized, with orthodoxy given rather than examined. The summer after I graduated, Glaude sought me out. (I had not taken his classes.) It’s too bad about my politics, he told me, because if they were different I might have a chance of returning to teach at Princeton one day, just like he did.
Vincent Lloyd is associate professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University.