Monday, October 03, 2011

Herman Cain and the Legacy of Booker T. Washington

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a characteristically excellent post on Herman Cain and ill-conceived comparisons to Booker T. Washington. The claim is that Washington, unlike more "protest" modeled Black leaders, emphasized a program of self-uplift which is absent amongst dependency-minded Black leaders today. That's descriptively so wrong on every level as to be insulting, but Coates also observes that Washington's defining characteristic was that he was a leader in the Black community. "He built a black institution, that educated black people, and took his message to black audience. In short, Washington was a legitimate organic black conservative, rooted in the black community, propelled forth by his relationship to that community."

Cain, on the other hand, targets his message not to Blacks but to White populists largely hostile to Blacks. Coates thus draws a different analogy, to one William Hannibal Thomas, who once wrote the following:
The negro not only lacks a fair degree of intuitive knowledge, but so dense is his understanding that he blindly follows weird fantasies and hideous phantoms. So great is his predilection in this direction, that he appears incapable of understanding the difference between evidence and assertion, proof and surmise. These facts warrant the conclusion that negro intelligence is both superficial and delusive, because, though such people excel in recollections of a concrete object, their retentive memories do not enable them to make any valuable deductions, either from the object itself, or from their familiar experience with it.

Thomas (who fought for the Union in the Civil War and was wounded in combat) had great appeal to White populists at the turn of the century, but his support within the Black community was virtually nil even as Washington was at his apex. The problem isn't that there is no Washingtonian tradition in the Black community (if anything, it is found more in quasi-nationalists like Rev. Jeremiah Wright). The problem is that Black people don't like to be lectured out by "leaders" whose only connection to the Black community writ large is to harangue them.

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