Essays & exchanges:

Race, secularism, and the public intellectual

posted by Vincent Lloyd

Writing | Image via Flickr user Jonathan KimWho counts as a black Christian public intellectual? There are certainly public figures who are not intellectuals, and there are intellectuals whose primary audience is in the academy. Similarly, when adjectives are added, not all Christians who are public intellectuals are Christian public intellectuals, as they may not engage publicly or intellectually with Christianity. And not all black people are intellectuals, or Christians, or speak to a given public.

The critic, one particular type of intellectual, is in the business of taking risks: making distinctions and judgments that will not perfectly map onto the world, but hoping to fail better. And the critic intends to help her community fail better: She hopes that the distinctions and judgments she makes will help her community see aspects of the world that have been overlooked, see in new light aspects of the world taken for granted, and ultimately better orient her community toward truth, goodness, beauty—and toward justice. In this sense, the vocation of the critic has similarities with a religious vocation.

Observers have long noticed the particularly white, particularly male, nature of the elite public sphere in the United States. In a recent essay, Alan Jacobs points out how, over the past half century, that elite public sphere has also been particularly secular. Colleagues and I have argued that secularism and racism are intimately intertwined in the United States, and I responded to Jacobs’s essay by discussing the double exclusion of black Christians from the elite public sphere.

Some readers of my essay pointed out, quite rightly, that not only are racism and secularism linked, they are also linked with misogyny; blacks, women, and religious thinkers have all been excluded from the elite public sphere. Other readers suggested that the exclusion Jacobs and I notice is not as stark as it seems. They suggested that there are public spaces where black Christian intellectual work is happening, and they named individuals—especially women—who are doing this work. I agree that such spaces exist, but I think it is important to focus on the elite public sphere, and this space continues to be largely white, male, and secular.

I worry that something important is lost when we turn from challenging the homogeneity of elite spaces to celebrating the heterogeneity of alternative spaces. We are tempted to forget that power still resides with elites. And we are tempted to forget that alternative spaces have their own limitations. I agree that we should celebrate intellectual work at the grassroots. Nevertheless, I worry that such work faces particular pressures in an age when counter-public spaces often lose their oppositionality now that multiculturalism has been embraced by the powers that be. I also worry that some alternative public spaces, situated between the elite and the grassroots, offer more of an appearance than a reality of intellectual conversation.

Alan Jacobs and I both addressed, as critics, the role of the Christian public intellectual. Like all critics, we failed, but we hoped to help others fail better. Critics must be attuned to specifics and to context. Jacobs attempts this admirably, though not flawlessly, and I attempted to follow him as I explored the social and historical conditions that shape the possibilities for black Christian public intellectual engagement. The “public” of the public intellectual here is quite specific: it is a space where ideas circulate among the elite, and it is dominated by white, male, and, in the last half century, secular participants.

There are certainly other publics, some reaching wider swaths of the middle class (where television, USA Today, and Twitter circulate) as well as counter-publics reaching marginalized communities. But the public sphere of the elite, where relatively long, relatively literary essays in the New York Review of Books, Harpers, Boston Review, n + 1, and other venues participate in an ongoing conversation growing out of and advancing a shared literary and cultural tradition, is not just one among many publics that exist. It is where power is concentrated.

Simply expanding the denotation of the term public intellectual to include intellectuals active outside of the elite public sphere may seem an act of linguistic democratization, but in fact it obscures the material conditions that perpetuate injustice. If we are concerned with anti-black racism or misogyny, or their intersection, we must concern ourselves with the ideas of elites and the specific institutions and practices that allow those ideas to circulate. We must also concern ourselves with lifting up—and joining—the long traditions of grassroots organizing against these injustices. Organizing without ideology critique is blind; ideology critique without organizing is empty.

It is a fact that an elite public sphere exists, whether we like it or not, and that Christian, black, and female voices are underrepresented in it. One response (that of the critic) is to call attention to this fact and to consider what we can learn from it. Another response (observed by the critic) is to insert new voices into that elite public sphere or to challenge its power. Simply listing names of those to whom elites ought to listen or pointing toward alternative publics is not enough. It is necessary to consider the material conditions: What pathways are there from the world we have to the world we want? Where are ideas percolating that could potentially enter and challenge elite conversations? This, again, requires judgment.

Setting aside the question of the public, equally troublesome is the question of the intellectual. In our promiscuously democratic age, it is tempting to offer this label quite liberally. But in doing so, distinctions are neglected. Intellectual work is not repeating what is obvious, and intellectual work does not leave the observer thinking in the same way she was thinking before. Some intellectual work weaves together disparate threads. Some intellectual work makes explicit what was once implicit. Some intellectual work provides a new framework for approaching an activity or seeing an aspect of the world. Those performing intellectual work, then, can be singers or dancers, professors or politicians, poets or preachers or tweeters.

But intellectual work is different from the role of the intellectual. The latter suggests second-order reflection: not just changing the way others see the world but explicitly addressing the ideas and perspectives that are to be changed and how they are to be changed. Intellectuals can be found at elite levels, including in universities, in literary reviews, and in think tanks, but they can also be found at the grassroots, among those challenging their marginalization. They are not found in between. At a conceptual level, the bourgeois intellectual is an oxymoron, as the essence of the bourgeoisie is a needy clinging to the perceived security of worldly order.

The experience of marginalization breeds intellectuals, but the privations of marginalization suppress the possibility for those intellectuals to express themselves. Those at the margins, who suffer at the hands of elites, by means of the ideas of elites, automatically question those ideas. At the margins, it is natural to imagine the world otherwise—but it is also exceedingly difficult to sustain this imagination, given the power and violence of elites. Despite these odds, impressive intellectuals emerge from the margins: Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells, Paul Robeson and C. L. R. James, Ella Baker and James Lee Boggs, to name just a few black examples.

Circumstances change. Oppression takes new forms. Anti-black racism may persist in its virulence, but the current economic and cultural regime of neoliberal multiculturalism is particularly skilled at sowing confusion and misdirection. Many aspects of this phenomenon have been carefully discussed (for example, by Lisa Duggan, Jodi Melamed, and Lester Spence); the effect on black intellectuals is often avoided because of the sensitivity of the questions it raises. With the gateway to the elite public sphere cracked open but carefully managed, and with broader participation in middle class publics, ambiguity develops around the category of the black public intellectual.

The result of these cultural and economic shifts is a tendency to forget the importance of the specific circumstances that gave rise to the great black (counter-public) intellectuals of that bygone era. To take one crucial example, the distance between those figures and oppositional social movement organizing was dramatically smaller than that distance for most black middle class and elite intellectuals today. When Anna Julia Cooper saw a chain gang, she thought she should write about it, and she also thought she should start an organization to oppose it, as I discuss elsewhere. Ideology critique and social movement organizing more naturally went hand in hand.

A consequence of this shift is that black intellectuals formed primarily by the experience of marginalization—rather than by elite institutions and networks—are even more marginalized today. Groups like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Project South, and Southerners on New Ground, all chalked full of grassroots black intellectuals, barely register even in counter-publics, let alone middle class or elite publics. Intellectuals in such formations must have steely commitment, given the pressures they face.

One word for such commitment is faith. When pushing against the wisdom of the world, as the intellectual necessarily must, there needs to be a commitment to something beyond the comfort of the familiar. The necessity for such commitment is doubled when the intellectual is black, when the role of the intellectual has already been compromised in many ways, put in the service of white, secular elites. The commitment to secularism is not unrelated to a refusal of black intellectualism. It is a refusal of the space to think, perform, and imagine radically otherwise.

The problem of compromised black elites is not a new one. Malcolm X was particularly strident in his calls for those at the grassroots to turn away from those who would purport to lead them but who were beholden to white elites. In his day, when the elite public was invested in liberal religion, the appropriate target for this challenge was black liberal religious leaders. In our day, with secularism an article of faith among the elite public, we must be suspicious of black secular elites.

Both then and now, the solution Malcolm pointed to remains persuasive. He argued that there is a type of religious commitment found at the grassroots, among “Ma and Pa,” that takes opposition to worldly powers as its heart. This type of religiosity was found among Muslims but also Christians, he asserts, and we might ask whether in today’s age of “nones” it might exist among those outside of institutionalized religion altogether. It entails a faith that the wisdom of the world—of the white world, the elite world—does not determine how we may think or act or pray, a faith that we must work collectively to imagine otherwise, and to live otherwise.

Is it possible for black public intellectuals, formed and surrounded by white, secular elites, to continue to occupy the role of intellectual given the constraints of our current cultural and economic regime? If it is possible, it will be because such intellectuals believe in that religion Malcolm so adored: what he would call the religion of the field Negro.


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