Politics & Policy

Black Authenticity

Justice Thomas doesn't make pass the litmus test.

Every now and then C-SPAN broadcasts a panel discussion hosted by radio talk-show personality Tavis Smiley, during which a half-dozen or so liberal black leaders hold forth on the progress of and prospects for African Americans. These tend to be depressingly paranoid cliché-fests, scattered with gratuitous swipes at the Bush White House, John Ashcroft, the Florida presidential vote, “white supremacy,” “the prison-industrial complex,” and “the invisible hand of structural oppression”–all of which came up during Saturday’s colloquium on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The guests included activist Jesse Jackson, law professor Lani Guinier, social psychologist James Jones, and several lesser lights, including a token Latino and Asian. The conversation followed predictable lines, with Guinier trotting out her socialist cant and Jackson speaking in trite parables; the Asian panelist rejected the “model minority” tag, insisting Asian kids score highly on standardized tests chiefly because their parents are themselves highly educated.

Still, the issue of culture and education elicited a rare self-critical comment by Smiley, who decried the phenomenon of black kids teasing other black kids who were “getting their learn on” because, to their tormenters, doing well in school was “acting white.” Jones echoed this sentiment, critiquing the mindset that holds that “failing at school is somehow a validation of your black heritage.” Such a narrow concept of racial authenticity, the panelists concurred, was indeed deplorable.

Yet an hour later, when Guinier noted in passing, “We have a black person on the Supreme Court,” Smiley responded, with mock incredulity, “We do?” By which he meant, of course, that Clarence Thomas–because he doesn’t share the panelists’ left-liberal politics–is not authentically black. He is, as Jackson explained, “an unrepresentative aberration.”

So there you have it: Black kids who take a different view of schoolwork get teased by other black kids for not being authentically black–and black adults who take a different view of politics get teased by black leaders for not being authentically black.

Which begs the question: Will black leaders ever grow up?

Mark Goldblatt is the author of Africa Speaks, a satire of black culture.

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