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SEHR, volume 4, issue 2: Constructions of the Mind
Updated 4 June 1995

conference review

the crisis in black and white is a crisis in social theory

Helga Wild

Twenty-six years after the publication of Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, a conference at Stanford University brought together a group of writers, scholars and students from a host of different disciplines to present their view of the current situation of the Black in light of Cruse's earlier prophesy that the fate of the Negro parallels that of the American Indian, with the difference that the Negro reservation lies in the inner city ghettoes.[1]

As the participants spoke, the contours of this reservation began to become visible: in the public policies of urban development;[2] in the descriptive categories of academic disciplines;[3] the writing and rewriting of history;[4] in the representations and images of textbooks;[5] and most forcefully, in the staggering statistics of joblessness, poverty, violence and imprisonment. An awesome systematicity was revealed in these discourses; a systematicity that seems prone to turn every attempt at social change into the reproduction of the same dividing line.

This "Color Line," as William DuBois called it, maintains the separation between the predominantly white and Asian middle class and the predominantly Black and Latino groups living in the ghettoes. Engulfed by an all-encompassing, autopoietic (i.e. self-maintaining) system, these groups are "doomed if they do," -- that is, accept the official explanations which attribute their inferior social position to their own lack of intelligence, education, culture or work ethic -- , for then they are made to repeat them in their professional and intellectual work, and "doomed if they don't," for then they are made to bear those distinctions out existentially, thereby affirming them as well.

Conference participants from outside the US also confirmed that these mechanisms of systemic self replication are not unique to the US, but can be discerned on the global level as well. The economic and political system that splits the earth into two unequal halves ( -- the West and "the rest [of us]"), employs the same capacity to replicate itself through a logic and a dynamics which keeps all nations in mutually defining polar positions; that is, the underdeveloped regions have to remain in the position of underdevelopment, the developed regions must remain at the forefront of technological and economic progress. Thus, Third World countries remain poised on the brink of economic catastrophes, whereas the First World has to consume with decreasing appetite what the ever accelerating industry dishes out.

Any kind of autopoietic system needs, according to Niklas Luhmann, a general "contingency factor" which explains its functioning and anchors its logic in a seemingly objective, extra-systemic truth. In other words, the fact that the system is bootstrapping itself every moment into continued existence has to be covered up by taking recourse to unquestionable evidence. (Different things will fulfill this function at any given moment in history. In the present system it has to be empirical evidence, but this should not be overgeneralized.)

In the case of the current economic system the 'contingency factor' is the concept of natural scarcity;[6] it explains obvious inequalities in the distribution of wealth in terms of a binary logic of gain and loss. In the culture-scientific system this function is played by the conception of the human as a natural organism.[7] If some groups are not found in advancing positions in society to the same extent as others, this can then be explained in terms of their "natural" deficiency. In the US, specifically, it is the structural coupling of the economic system with the cultural-scientific system which gives rise to the complex of self-serving arguments of the "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich" kind. Framed in this way, a person's poverty and joblessness alone is sufficient evidence for inferring biological, and consequently also intellectual and cultural inferiority. This in turn makes it obvious why that person cannot make it economically in this system; and it also automatically disqualifies the person as his or her own advocate. The double-bind of the system is such that, whatever one does, one cannot but confirm one's own place in it.

Historical inquiry into the grand movements of the West reveals different manifestations of the same logic at work through the centuries. In each case the principles are recognizably the same:

More recently, arranging artifacts in terms of increasing complexity was supposed to prove the theory of evolution by empirical evidence. Not surprisingly, this resulted in a ranking of cultures from more backward to more advanced which confirmed the anthropologist's belief in the superiority of his own, Western culture. However, this ordering of artifacts had been canonized long before a dating by radioactive method became possible; the pattern had been perceived even without accompanying scientific methods. In the same vein, comparative skull measurements were used to demonstrate empirically that the Black is halfway between ape and white man in terms of evolution. The choice of measure, here too, had been inspired by an already formed expectation with regard to its outcome, namely that it should demonstrate and justify the position of the Black at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Maybe the global economy is then also working with a built-in bias that prescribes modes of action which replicate the existing asymmetry between rich and poor. It might do this, for example, by instituting financial policies which preserve the poorer countries' dependency and debts, and use the resulting empirical facts (for, of course, they are empirical!) to demonstrate the "natural" inability of these countries to rise out of their current plight. Equally, if it is the Black who is made into the visible proof for the existence of natural, biological inferiority, then it makes sense that he is kept systematically at the bottom of the hierarchy -- else what would become of the proof? -- and that the ranks of the other ethnic groups are prescribed by their physiognomic distance to him. Then indeed the acronym N.H.I. (No Humans Involved) which has been used by law officers in LA. to talk about cases involving young Black males, is not the cynical expression of a single group, but rather the articulation of the 'political unconscious' of the system, a truth revealed in a joke.[8]

At the end one can also begin to understand the increasing degradation of the planet -- pollution, deforestation, disappearing species, global warming, and the growing ozone hole -- not just as a systematic byproduct, but also as the expression of a death wish which, according to Freud, accompanies every abstract system. If this is true, then all of us, regardless of color, creed, or gender, had better make sure that the system does not take us down with it.

The proceedings of the conference are currently being prepared for publication. The topics that have been raised in this conference will be pursued in an upcoming seminar.

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1. "The Two Reservations: Western Thought, the Color Line and The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual Revisited," was hosted by the African and Afro-American Studies Program under its Acting Director Sylvia Wynter and cosponsored by N.H.I., a Black student organization. The conference was held at Stanford University on March 3-5, 1994.

2. See C. Hamilton, "Apartheid in an American City: The Case of the Black Community in Los Angeles," Los Angeles Weekly, rpt. Labor Community Strategy Center, L.A.

3. See Paget Henry, "Caliban as Deconstructionist," C.L.R. James's Carribean, ed. Paget Henry and Paul Buhle (Durham: Duke UP, 1992); S. Adell, "A Function at the Junction," Diacritics, (Winter 1990).

4. See Cyril Robinson, "The Appropriation of Franz Fanon," Race and Class 35.1 (1993); Carlos Moore, "Cuba: The Untold Story," Presence Africaine 52.24 (1964).

5. See Sylvia Wynter, "Do Not Call Us Negroes," How Multicultural Textbooks Perpetuate Racism (San Francisco: Aspire, 1990-1992); J. King, "Diaspora Literacy and Consciousness in the Struggle Against Miseducation in the Black Community," Journal of Negro Education 61.3 (1992).

6. See Niklas Luhmann, Ecological Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

7. See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1973); Sylvia Wynter, "Is 'Development' a Purely Empirical Concept or Also Teleological? A Perspective from 'We-The-Underdeveloped,'" The Prospects for Recovery and Sustainable Development in Africa, ed. Aguibou Y. Yansane (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.)

8. See Sylvia Wynter, "No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to my Colleagues," Voices of the African Diaspora (Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan, 1992) VIII, 2.