The Way Out of Here

The Strange Career
of a Troublesome Word.
By Randall Kennedy.
226 pp. New York:
Pantheon Books. $22.

On Being a Black Man in America.
By Ellis Cose.
163 pp. New York:
Washington Square Press. $22.

By Glenn C. Loury.
226 pp. Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press. $22.95.

THE Martin Luther King holiday and Black History Month offer African-American intellectuals something like a season, not only a marketing device but also an occasion of some moment, a moment almost exclusively the creation of African-Americans themselves. (Blacks pushed for the King holiday, and the black historian Carter G. Woodson originated Negro History Week in 1926. It has since morphed into a month, a result of black advocacy.)

On the other hand, there is something about this that smacks a bit of separate-but-equal, and something that seems to put African-American intellectuals in a ghetto that limits, in both subtle and blatant ways, what they can talk about and when it is best for them to do so. But in the United States it is probably better to have a niche one needs to rebel against than to have no niche at all, better, as James Baldwin suggested in 1955, to have a ”special space in this scheme” than to ”have no place in any scheme.”

Three new books share the concern of race, of being ”raced” as stigma, of blackness as a socially and politically compromised identity. But their approaches, through their subject matter and arguments, are quite energetically different.

Randall Kennedy’s ”Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” has everything to make it popular: it is short, easy to read and provocative. But a book must be more than that to be good or to have been worth writing. On its face, the topic seems worthy. After all, Kennedy, a Harvard law professor, is writing about one of the most powerful obscene words ever invented. As he notes: ”If nigger represented only an insulting slur and was associated only with racial animus, this book would not exist; rather, ”nigger is fascinating precisely because it has been put to a variety of uses and can radiate a wide array of meanings.”

But isn’t this true of other obscene words? Would there be much profit in writing books about the history of one or another of them, using the word as the title to force self-respecting folk to say it if they wish to refer to the book? Maybe. But there is also something about these enterprises that seems a bit like urinating in the punchbowl at a fancy party or mooning in a church.

Kennedy starts out by giving us the history of the word nigger, challenging the view that it arose, in part, as a mispronunciation of Negro. As he makes clear, by the 1830’s, when the abolitionist movement had become a significant political threat to the South, the word was unquestionably a racial insult. In fact, it became pervasive, with expressions like nigger hair (scouring pads), niggertoes (Brazil nuts), nigger hams (watermelons) and the like. It became an important part of white American humor in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is, of course, still used this way today, in some quarters.

But Kennedy goes on to talk about other uses of the word, particularly among African-Americans, who employ it sometimes as an insult but often as a term of friendship and endearment or humor — the way many black comedians, most famously Richard Pryor and Chris Rock, do — and frequently in rap music. Its use in literature also comes up; indeed, as I remember, several works by black authors have nigger in the title: ”Nigger” and ”Up From Nigger,” by Dick Gregory; ”The Nigger Bible,” by Robert H. deCoy; ”Die, Nigger, Die,” by H. Rap Brown; ”The Nigger Factory,” by Gil Scott-Heron; ”The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger,” by Cecil Brown; ”The Electronic Nigger,” by Ed Bullins.

Kennedy takes two strong positions throughout: he opposes any attempt to erase the word from the English language or to ban its use, and he opposes any ethnic-group ownership of the word. Anyone can use it.

The second chapter, the strongest in the book, looks at the impact of the word in court cases of four sorts: defendants seeking to have convictions overturned because a criminal justice official connected with the case used the word; defendants seeking reduced punishment in cases where they assaulted or killed someone because they were provoked by the use of the word; complainants seeking damages under tort or antidiscrimination law because they were abused by the word; and cases in which judges must decide whether to inform jurors about whether witnesses or litigants have ever used it. On the the fighting-words defense, for instance, Kennedy’s view is that ”bright-line limits” shouldn’t be applied to provocations. The jury should decide whether a defendant lost control, and if, therefore, punishment should be mitigated. But he supports the judge’s decision in the O. J. Simpson case, that Detective Mark Fuhrman could be asked by the defense if he ever used the word.

Kennedy then turns to the phenomenon of black overreaction, citing, among other examples, the exception taken to Quentin Tarantino’s films, in which the word appears liberally; the uproar over the white city bureaucrat in Washington who said ”niggardly” in the course of a budget discussion, which expression put him temporarily out of a job; and attacks on ”The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which probably sets a record for the word’s use in a literary work, 215 times.

Kennedy’s book feels a bit like an inflated essay and a bit hastily composed. It is often engaging and informative, but the arguments don’t seem quite telling or quite convincing. ”The N-word is not self-defining,” Kennedy writes. ”Its actual meaning in any given instance always depends on surrounding circumstances.” But isn’t this true of other obscene words as well? The seeming multiplicity of uses of nigger is driven by its power as an insult, as an extraordinary stigmatizing word, a power that all speakers acknowledge and actually defer to, however they use the word. ”Still,” Kennedy says, ”there is much to be gained by allowing people of all backgrounds to yank nigger away from white supremacists.”

But why is that better than having black people exercise the power of self-determination to eliminate the word or curtail its use? Does this word exist through some cultural necessity? Or perhaps we should rehabilitate all our cuss words and thus achieve our psychological salvation through rap stars, raunchy comedians and tart-tongued authors. Can stigma be destigmatized — the true subject of Kennedy’s book — through making a word like nigger kinder and gentler?

This is a real question, but I am not sure Kennedy answers it convincingly because in some ways he rather simplified the context of his inquiry. I think the subject would have better served had Kennedy done a broader study of racial or social blasphemy, or had he examined the word in connection with a study of what African-Americans have been called, both by themselves and by whites.

”The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America,” by the Newsweek columnist Ellis Cose, shares with ”Nigger” the qualities of being short, easy to read and provocative. But Cose’s book lacks an unsettling title. The phrase ”envy of the world” was taken from a passage in Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel, ”Sula”; Cose’s book is a journalist’s report on the state of the black male (and black masculinity) at the start of the 21st century. ”We begin by recognizing a simple fact: Though this may be the best time ever to be a black man in America (and here comes the all-important fine print), you only prosper if you make it through the gantlet,” Cose writes. ”Your best chance at life lies in rejecting what they — what much of America — tell you that you are.” This quotation tells us two things: first, that Cose intends to offer his readers advice and, second, that his advice is largely how to deal with the stigma of being a black man. To the white public, ”we are athletes, rappers, preachers, singers — and precious little else.” We are also robbers, rapists, mentally deficient and sexually well endowed. For Cose, the problem is that so many young black men have come to believe these ideas about themselves.

He opens with the stories of two black men who have achieved success in unexpected places, ”slayers of stereotypes”: Maurice Ashley, a grandmaster in chess, and Franklin Delano Raines, President Bill Clinton’s director of the Office of Management and Budget and now the chief executive of Fannie Mae.

After this grand overture of inspiration and accomplishment, we get several chapters detailing the black male crisis. (Nearly all contemporary books on race and public affairs have crisis as their stock in trade, and thus often feel the same.) There is a chapter on masculinity and the street, where many black men accept a distorted view of masculine prowess. This view has been fed by the white media and white intellectuals like Norman Mailer, in, for example, his 1957 essay ”The White Negro,” as well as by the middle-class black fascination — as old as the bourgeoisie itself — with the lower class and the criminal as more authentic and anticonformist. So, black men seem nothing more than the personification of a criminal libido and creative psychopathology.

Cose then goes on to detail the black male story in certain institutions: school (where we underachieve, in part, according to Cose, because we have internalized the stereotype that being smart is for white folk), prison (where a tragically high number of black men are now housed because of the illegal drug trade) and the family (where many black men seem to have failed in their responsibilities as fathers and husbands).

Cose provides personal narratives, expert testimony and statistics as he blames the country for its failure to deal with many of these problems. He also reminds his reader that racism is far from dead. But in the end the advice he offers, like the analysis he performs, is largely personal, probably because he is aware that his black readers want to have their sense of agency reaffirmed. Sounding like a black version of Dr. Laura Schlessinger will make the book appealing. ”The Envy of the World” is, finally, something of a self-help book, which gives it a manipulative, pontificating air. This is central to its appeal.

The left and the hard-core black nationalists will criticize Cose for not providing more of a structural analysis, and he will probably be accused of missing the implication of his own reporting; all the people he describes are working for organizations, however modest, that are trying to improve life for the black male. In other words, some will say that personal advice is beside the point; Cose’s message should have been organize, organize and organize some more

(A. Philip Randolph’s mantra) and challenge the way things are ever more vigorously. In the end, Cose wishes simultaneously to alarm and to reassure his readers, to provide a pep talk and a jeremiad — also standard features of contemporary race books by black authors.

Structural analysis is the meat of Glenn C. Loury’s ”Anatomy of Racial Inequality,” the most intellectually rigorous and deeply thoughtful of these three books. Those familiar with Loury’s career will remember that he made a splash with his doctoral dissertation, which helped promulgate the concept of social capital — the web of connections and relationships that account for success as much as talent or money, the lack of which puts blacks at a competitive disadvantage; he later worked for the Reagan administration and became a formidable conservative critic of the so-called civil rights establishment. He has since parted ways with the conservatives, resigning from the American Enterprise Institute in 1995 over its support of Dinesh D’Souza’s book ”The End of Racism.” There is much in Loury’s career that brings to mind black intellectuals like George Schuyler and Amiri Baraka, both of whom were famous for dramatically changing their views in midstream and both of whom were temperamentally, like Loury, fiercely independent contrarians fiercely buffeted by ideology.

”The Anatomy of Racial Inequality,” as much as anything, might be considered Loury’s declaration of independence, his fully articulated position as a neoliberal. Like ”Nigger” and ”The Envy of the World,” Loury’s book deals with racial stigma quite directly, but in its political and philosophical aspects as a cause of black disadvantage. ”I endeavor to fathom the deeper causes of racial inequality so that, ultimately, I can assess the public morality of American social policy on this issue,” Loury tells us.

Loury carefully and intricately frames his argument (sometimes a bit repetitiously): that race is an important social convention, even if it has no scientific basis, and that it has been of undeniable importance in the distribution of rewards in the United States. Race as a category, in his view, is an expression of power, with one group being able to assign qualities or characteristics (stereotypes) to another and then have these qualities affirmed by the behavior of the stereotyped group through institutional structures designed to predict and confirm that behavior. What is worse for blacks is that the stereotype, because of the degradation and devaluation of their humanness under slavery and segregation, is a form of stigma or ”spoiled identity.” The effect lingers today and is, in fact, reinforced by social structures: this explains why blacks, despite advances, are still at the bottom on many social and economic indexes, and why traditional individual-based, colorblind liberalism will not solve the problem.

Blacks were victimized by more than just procedural discrimination — rather, by soul-crushing, psychological disfigurement. So what Loury ultimately argues for is a public policy that promotes racial egalitarianism. This sounds a great deal like the arguments of liberal sociologists in the 1940’s and 50’s that led to the Brown decision: a humane ”damaged goods” theory about blacks. It is similar also to the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr., who argued for a Marshall Plan for racial equity. The moralizing tone of Loury’s work — why don’t we care about the black poor? — also sounds a great deal like the civil rights and liberal church rhetoric of the heady days of the Movement.

There are a few problems with Loury’s book: first, he needs to tell us more about ”the conservative line” than that it is ”simplistic” and ”ahistorical.” In fact, the book needs to distinguish concisely between various forms of conservatism in the United States, their historical transformations and how these forms of conservatism have influenced American public policy on race. Perhaps a short but thorough critical overview of D’Souza’s ”End of Racism,” the major conservative statement about racism and racial identity in American history, or ”America in Black and White,” by Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, or Charles Murray’s ”Losing Ground,” might have helped greatly. Conservatism, popularly understood, may be simplistic, ahistorical, even racist, but Loury owes it to his readers to argue this fully and not simply display a smug intellectual disdain or philosophical airiness.

Second, I am not entirely convinced by Loury’s separation of personal attitudes and social meaning: one has only to look at the transformation of jazz from a stigmatized music to a respected art form to see the vital connection between personal attitudes (of musicians and the audience) and social meaning (how and where this music was played and interpreted).

Third, most blacks would agree with Loury’s positions. (Some would probably wish that he would support formal reparations, which he does not.) Few would deny that structural racism impedes their progress and supports racial stigma; however, the idea of making it on our own is enormously appealing, deeply and richly historical and lies at the heart of strains of black nationalism that still resonate deeply in some black communities. As Ellis Cose knows, blacks want sermons about exercising agency, not elaborate analyses about how they are hopelessly stigmatized; there is something about ”The Anatomy of Racial Inequality” that, like the philosopher’s God, gives cold comfort to the faithful. Loury’s plea for a more socially conscious public policy and ”social vision” seems so earnest in its moral rectitude as to be almost quixotic. Why and how should white people’s hearts and consciences change — and Loury’s hope depends a great deal on this — if their general indifference is the cause of the problem? What would change them? Loury almost seems to be making a naïve appeal to reason or moral suasion, which the very structures of the society he so tellingly describes would seem to limit, compromise or co-opt because, as he argues, personal attitudes have little effect on social meaning. Despite arguing itself into a cul-de-sac, ”The Anatomy of Racial Inequality” is an incisive, erudite book by a major thinker.

Gerald Early, the director of the International Writers Center at Washington University in St. Louis, is the John Hope Franklin senior fellow at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C., this year.


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