“African-American studies, broadly defined, is the systematic study of the black experience.”

African-American studies, broadly defined, is the systematic study of the black experience, framed by the socioeconomic, cultural, and geographical boundaries of sub-Saharan Africa and the black diaspora of North America, the Caribbean, Brazil, and Latin America and increasingly, Europe itself. At its core, it is also the black intellectual tradition as it has challenged and interacted with Western civilization and cultures. In the social sciences and the humanities, that intellectual tradition has assumed a complex burden over many generations, seeking to engage in a critical dialogue with white scholarship on a range of complex issues, and most significantly, the definition and reality of race as a social construct, and the factors that explain the structures of inequality which greatly define the existence of black people across the globe. This definition was at the heart of W.E.B. Du Bois’ assertion nearly a century ago, that “the problem of the [twentieth] century is the problem of the color line.”

From Du Bois’ point of departure, we can assert that the problem of the twenty-first century is the challenge of “multicultural democracy”—whether American society can and will be restructured to include the genius and energy, talents and aspirations of millions of people of color—Latinos, Asian Americans, American Indians, Arab Americans, African Americans, and others.

I would like to explore three interrelated issues which provide a framework for discussing the study of the contemporary African-American experience, and questions of racial and ethnic diversity within a democratic society. The first topic is to consider the debate over black studies and more generally, what has been termed “multiculturalism,” especially in the context of higher education. The critics of both multiculturalism and black studies have linked the concepts with the concurrent controversy surrounding “political correctness” on campuses and in public school curricula. But we need to go beyond rhetoric to define multiculturalism properly.

Second, what is the social context for a discussion of racial diversity and pluralism within American society as a whole? Because I am a social scientist of the African-American experience, my commentary will focus briefly on the disturbing trends away from equality within the national black community. These inequalities are leading us to two unequal Americas, divided not simply by racial identity, but by sharply divergent levels of skills, learning, and access to educational opportunities.

And finally, there is the larger issue of the future of race and ethnicity within American society itself. The question of difference within any society or culture is always conjunctural, ever-changing, and conditional. “Race” is not a permanent social category, but a historical product of slavery and human exploitation, an unequal relationship between social groups. We must rethink old categories and old ways of perceiving each other. We must define the issue of diversity as a dynamic, ever-changing concept, leading us to explore problems of human relations and social equality in a manner that will expand the principles of fairness and opportunity to all members of society.

For any oppressed people, questions of culture and identity are linked to the structure of power and privilege within society. Culture is the textured pattern of collective memory, the critical consciousness and aspirations of a people. When culture is constructed in the context of oppression, it may become an act of resistance.

Definitions of “multiculturalism”

A working definition of multiculturalism begins with the recognition that our nation’s cultural heritage does not begin and end with the intellectual and aesthetic products of Western Europe. Multiculturalism rejects the model of cultural assimilation and social conformity which, within the context of our schools, has often relegated African Americans, Latinos, and other people of color to the cultural slums. The mythical melting pot in which a diverse number of ethnic antecedents were blended into a nonracist and thoroughly homogenized blend of cultures never existed.

Assimilation always assumed that the price for admission to America’s cultural democracy for racial and ethnic minorities was the surrender of those things which truly made us unique: our languages and traditions, our foods and folkways, our religions, and even our names.

The cultural foundations of the United State draw much of their creativity and originality from African, Latino, American Indian, and Asian elements. Multiculturalism suggests that the cross-cultural literacy and awareness of these diverse groups is critical in understanding the essence of the American experience “from the bottom up.”

Part of the general confusion about the concept of multiculturalism is that there are strikingly different and sometimes conflicting interpretations about its meaning. For example, in Western Europe, particularly in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, a highly restrictive and regimented interpretation of multiculturalism exists. Different ethnic and racial minorities are, in effect, locked into their respective cultures, with an emphasis on the societal management of real or possible cultural, religious, and social differences. “Tolerance” for diversity is the common denominator; all people are perceived as being equal, politically and socially, free to pursue their own unique rituals, collective traditions and creative arts, without fear of discrimination or harassment. Within the parameters of this type of tolerance, there is an emphasis on the contours of difference, within the values, heritage and group behaviors of distinct cultural constituencies. Rarely is there any discussion linking culture to power, to a minority group’s access to the resources, privileges and property which is concentrated within certain elites or classes. Institutional racism is hardly ever mentioned or even acknowledged.

Within the United States, there are at least four major interpretations of multiculturalism, reflecting the widely diverse ethnic, racial, and social class composition of the nation. African-American studies is an integral part of the multicultural debate. In very simplistic terms, these contradictory interpretations are “corporate multiculturalism,” “liberal multiculturalism,” “racial essentialism,” and “radical democratic multiculturalism.”

Corporate multiculturalism seeks to highlight the cultural and social diversity of America’s population, making managers and corporate executives more sensitive to differences such as race, gender, age, language, physical ability, and sexual orientation in the labor force. A number of major corporations regularly sponsor special programs honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, or the Mexican-American holiday, Cinco de Mayo. Others hold “multicultural audits” for their staff and personnel, workshops and training sessions emphasizing awareness and sensitivity to people of color, women, and others.

The major reasons for this multicultural metamorphosis among dozens of America’s largest corporation can be summarized in two phrases: minority markets and labor force demographics. The value of the African-American consumer market in the United States exceeds $300 billion annually; the Spanish-speaking consumer market is not far behind, at $240 billion annually. Since the early 1960s, there has been substantial evidence from marketing researchers indicating that African Americans and Latinos have strikingly different buying habits than whites. To reach this growing consumer market, white corporations are now forced to do much more than produce advertisements featuring black, Asian-American, and Hispanic actors displaying their products. Multicultural marketing utilizes elements of minority culture in order to appeal directly to nonwhite consumers.

As the overall labor force becomes increasingly Asian, Latino, Caribbean, and African-American, the pressure increases on corporations to hire greater numbers of nonwhite managers and executives, and to distribute their product through minority-owned firms. Of course, nowhere in the discourse of corporate multiculturalism is the idea that racism is not an accidental element of corporate social relations. Instead, the basic concept is to “celebrate diversity” of all kinds and varieties, while criticizing no one. Troubling concepts like “exploitation,” “racism,” “sexism,” and “homophobia” are rarely mentioned.

Lliberal multiculturalism is liberalism within the framework of cultural diversity and pluralism.”

Liberal multiculturalism, by contrast, is explicitly antiracist, and takes for granted that educational institutions have a powerful social responsibility to deconstruct the ideology of human inequality. It is genuinely concerned with aesthetics, ideology, curriculum theory, and cultural criticism. Liberal multiculturalism is broadly democratic as an intellectual approach for the deconstruction of the idea of race. But like corporate multiculturalism, it does not adequately or fully address the inequalities of power, resources, and privilege that separate most Latinos, African Americans, and many Asian Americans from the great majority of white upper- and middle-class Americans. It does not conceive of itself as a praxis, a theory which seeks to transform the reality of unequal power relations. It deliberately emphasizes aesthetics over economics, art over politics. It attempts to articulate the perceived interests of minority groups to increase their influence within the existing mainstream. In short, liberal multiculturalism is liberalism within the framework of cultural diversity and pluralism. The most articulate and influential proponent of this perspective is Henry Louis Gates, Harvard University’s director of African-American studies.

The third model of multiculturalism is racial essentialism. Here, advocates of diversity praise the artifacts, rituals, and histories of non-Western people as original, unique, and even superior to those of Western Europe and white America. They juxtapose the destructive discrimination of “Eurocentrism” with the necessity to construct a counter-hegemonic ideological and cultural world view. For many people of African descent, this has been translated into the cultural and educational movement called “Afrocentrism.” First developed as a theoretical concept by Temple University scholar Molefi Asante, Afrocentrism has quickly inspired a virtual explosion of child’s books, curriculum guides, cultural, historical, and educational textbooks, and literary works.

The strengths of the Afrocentric perspective and analysis are undeniable: the fostering of pride, group solidarity, and self-respect among blacks themselves; a richer appreciation for African languages, art, music, ancient philosophies, and cultural traditions; a commitment to unearth and to describe the genius and creativity of blacks in the context of a racist and unforgiving America. As a paradigm for understanding and reinterpreting the contours of the African experience, Afrocentrism also advances an internationalist perspective, drawing correlations between black communities from Lagos to Los Angeles, from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant to London’s Brixton. As white Americans have retreated from an honest dialogue about the pervasiveness of racial inequality in American life, many black Americans are attracted to an Afrocentric perspective. In hundreds of communities where black parents are attempting to pressure boards of education to make curricula more culturally pluralistic, Afrocentrism provides a logical oppositional framework to traditional Eurocentrism. In many ways, Afrocentrism is broadly defined by many blacks as simply an awareness of one’s cultural heritage and a recognition of the common destiny of all people of African descent.

The contradictions and weaknesses of Afrocentrism are just as striking. Although frequently discussed in the context of multiculturalism, in many respects Afrocentrism is theoretically and programmatically at odds with the larger trend toward pluralism and educational diversity. Conceptually, many Afrocentrists have absolutely no desire to engage in a critical discourse with white America, at any level. They retreat into a bipolar model of racial relations, which delineates the contours of the black experience from a photographic negative of whiteness. In effect, this “freezes” the meaning of culture, reducing the dynamic and multiple currents of interpersonal and group interactions to a rigid set of historical categories.

From a practical standpoint, an Afrocentric perspective perceives black studies as a unified discipline; that is, a distinct body of knowledge informed by a coherent methodology and a distinct body of literature which helps to define the field. William M. King, for example, characterized the “Afrocentric perspective” in scholarship as the application of that “world view, normative assumptions, and frames of reference [which] grow out of the experience and folk wisdom of black people.” But this approach raised a host of questions. As Delores P. Aldridge, long-time coordinator of black studies at Emory University observed, “many black studies departments, originating as a result of pressure and flawed liberal consciences, lacked an agreed-upon body of knowledge, disciplined frames of reference, or bases of knowledge—the very characteristic that defined every other standard academic discipline.” To create the character of a discipline, Afrocentrists utilized various tactics, both administrative and political. In the case of the African-American Studies Department at Temple University, chairperson Molefi Asante insisted that all faculty hired adhere to an “Afrocentric perspective” as their primary commitment toward scholarly research and teaching. Asante was sophisticated enough not to insist that this meant that whites were unqualified to teach in his field. Asante’s followers at smaller institutions frequently did not make his subtle distinctions, and reduced his Afrocentric theories to their lowest common theoretical denominator.

In my judgment, the argument that whites were unqualified by their racial classification and/or experiences to teach the African-American experience, has been made far more often by white administrators and faculty than by blacks. The hidden assumption at work here is that no one who was not born black would have the interest or proper dedication to the study of black life. Setting aside the example of Herbert Aptheker, and the hundreds of gifted and dedicated white intellectuals who disprove this hypothesis, the great danger in this argument is that it assumes that knowledge is grounded in racial, biological, or even genetic factors. But if race itself is a social construct, an unequal relationship between social groups characterized by concentrates of power, privilege, and authority of one group over another, then anyone of any ethnic, class, or social background should be able to learn the complex experiences of another group. Membership or identity within an oppressed racial group often yields unique personal insights, which may be translated into texts, and in classroom teaching. But our imaginations do not have to be imprisoned by the boundaries of our skin color—or by our gender, religious upbringing, physical impairment, or sexual orientation, for that matter.

“The most serious weakness of Afrocentrism is its general failure to integrate the insights of cultural difference.”

The more separatist and racially essentialist variety of Afrocentrism rarely explores the profound cultural dynamics of creolization and multiple identities of nationalism and ethnicity found throughout the black world, from the Hispanicized blackness of the Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Colombians, to the vast complexities of race in Cuba and Brazil, to the distinctions and tensions separating rural conservative Christian blacks in the Mississippi Delta and the cosmopolitan, urban, secular, hip-hop culture of young blacks in Watts, Harlem, and Chicago’s South Side. But the most serious weakness of Afrocentrism is its general failure to integrate the insights of cultural difference drawn from the perspectives of gender, sexual orientation, and class. It has no theory of power that goes beyond a racialized description of how whites, as a monolithic category, benefit materially, psychologically, and politically from institutional racism. Thus, rather than seeking allies across the boundaries of race, gender and class, most Afrocentrists approach the world like the main character in Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, Invisible Man: enclosed inside a windowless room filled with thousands of glowing light bulbs—illumination without vision.

Finally, there is the insurgent movement toward “radical democratic multiculturalism,” or what might be described more accurately as a transformationist cultural critique. These educators, artists, performers, writers, and scholars are inspired by the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. They emphasize the parallels between the cultural experiences of America’s minority groups with oppressed people throughout the world. Discussions of culture are always linked to the question of power, and the ways in which ideology and aesthetics are used to dominate or control oppressed people. The goal of the radical democratic multiculturalist is not the liberal inclusion of representative numbers of blacks, Latinos, and others into the literary canon, media, and cultural mainstream, but the democratic restructuring of the system of cultural and political power itself. It is to rethink the entire history of this country, redefining its heritage in order to lay claim to its future. It is to redefine America itself. Scholars in this current include Harvard University philosopher Cornel West; feminists Bell Hooks, Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins; legal scholars Patricia Williams and Lani Guinier; anthropologist Leith Mullings; and political theorist James Jennings.

“Who and what is the African American, culturally, socially, and in the oppressive context of racial domination?”The democratic multiculturalists approach black studies in a very different manner. They insist that African-American studies is not a discipline, like physics or psychology, but a broad intellectual dialogue and exchange which incorporates divergent perspectives and concerns. Its intellectual anchor rests with a series of themes and questions which cut across individual disciplines. At the center of this exchange is a debate and dialogue concerning the nature of identity—Who and what is the African American, culturally, socially, and in the oppressive context of racial domination? How has the black community in America and elsewhere evolved over generations? What common cultural and social elements transcend geography and influence the construction of black reality in America, the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere? What is the future of African-American people within the context of a pluralistic democratic society which has yet to fulfill its promises of equality and social justice? Such questions can be pursued through history, political science, religion, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, literature, and a host of other disciplines.

This is not to say that the radical democratic multiculturalists agree with each other on all the essentials. Far from it. West has major reservations and criticisms about the term “multiculturalism.” Hooks emphasizes the cultural dimensions of social change, and sharply dissents from a theoretical perspective that would place class at the center of her analysis of society. Guinier, the outstanding voice for challenging the problems inherent in “majority-rule democracy” of her generation, emphasizes the legal and policy dimension of politics, and is much less concerned with cultural or ideological phenomena. Collins’ analysis of black feminism is close conceptually to that of many Afrocentrists. Mullings and Davis, among others, approach social analysis from the vantage point of class relations. One could argue that the differences between these public intellectuals of the multicultural left are just as significant as their similarities. Their “unity” is created to a great extent by the criticism of their opponents on the right, and by their common commitment to expand the definitions and boundaries of academic discourse and intellectual engagement to relate to the very real and practical problems of inequality which define urban America today.

Deconstructing race

“The quest for a unified theoretical framework and approach to the study of race and diversity has been elusive.”

The quest for a unified theoretical framework and approach to the study of race and diversity has been elusive. For nearly half a century, we have pursued the goal of diversity in higher education, with at best mixed and uneven results. In the 1950s and early 1960s, liberal educators declared proudly that they were committed to the goal of a “color-blind environment.” I distinctly recall professors saying to me that they “could not remember” whether this or that student was “a Negro.” They fully embraced the liberal perspective of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that individuals should be judged “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”

At the same time, we should assert that “color blindness,” the eradication of white privilege and superiority and the abolition of all hierarchies that perpetuates black inferiority, should be our ultimate goal. As the great reggae artist Bob Marley of Jamaica once observed: “Until the color of a man’s skin is of no greater consequence than the color of his eyes, there will be war.”

But the question should be, “How do we get there?” How can we “deconstruct” race? We cannot get there by pretending that race and color no longer matter, that they have magically declined in significance since the sixties. In a racist society, color symbolizes the inequality of power relations, the ownership of property and resources, between various groups and classes. To end racial prejudice, we must restructure the power relations between people of color and upper- to middle-income whites. This means that we must pursue a “color-conscious” strategy to create the conditions where color is one day irrelevant to determining the position of power, educational access, health care, and other opportunities of daily life.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the ideal of color blindness gave way to what could be termed “symbolic representation.” Liberal educators believed that the recipe for cultural diversity would be achieved by bringing representatives of a new spectrum of interests into the academy—women, racial minorities, physically disabled people, lesbians and gays, as well as others. Programs were established to create new academic courses in women’s studies, black studies, Chicano studies, gay and lesbian studies, and Asian-American studies. Minorities and women were appointed as counselors and college recruiters. Multicultural student services centers were established to address perceived concerns of the students of color.

“At many colleges and universities, progress seems to have stalled.”

These reforms should have represented a beginning, rather than the end, of a process of educational reconstruction on issues of social and cultural difference within the academy. Instead, at many colleges and universities, progress seems to have stalled. One reason is that women and racial minorities were usually hired and subsequently located in the bureaucratic margins of academic institutions, rather than within real centers of power. There were few deliberate programs which actually tried to identify scholars of color and/or female faculty with administrative abilities who could mentor and cultivate them and help them advance. At some institutions, minority faculty occupied a revolving-door position, usually at the designated ranks of instructor or assistant professor, never to be tenured or reappointed.

Many white administrators implemented affirmative action programs and employed the discourse of diversity but, privately, never really believed in its validity. They never accepted the academic rationale of African-American studies, yet they adopted these programs on their campuses largely out of political necessity. To quell student unrest, to reduce criticism from minority educators and elected officials, they created such programs and departments on a ghettoized basis. Such programs, white conservative (and liberal) educators were convinced, would appeal to minority students. Moreover, departments with traditional curricula would not be forced to alter their way of teaching or their discriminatory hiring policies. History departments wouldn’t have to offer African-American history to students if the black studies program was deemed responsible for it. Music departments could ignore Duke Ellington. Literature departments could skip Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin.

The conspiracy of silence on the part of some second-rate, yet politically astute, black educators was expressed in the construction of academic ghettos. Some African-American studies programs actively discouraged the cross-listing of courses with traditional departments, on the grounds that this would undermine the unit’s academic autonomy and integrity. Students received the dangerous and erroneous impression that only individuals who happened to be of African descent had the cultural background and intellectual training necessary to teach all things black. Active, dedicated younger African-American scholars who were hired by such programs were frequently discouraged from interacting with colleagues who were trained in their same disciplines but who were affiliated with different academic departments. One example of this process is represented by the Black Studies Department under Professor Leonard Jeffries at the City College of the City University of New York. The controversy surrounding Professor Jeffries over the past three and one-half years—his anti-Semitic speech in Albany, New York, in the summer of 1991, his subsequent, hasty firing as chairman of black studies at City College, and his successful legal suit to reclaim his position and damages of $400,000—ignores the fundamental issues at stake. Jeffries had been reinstated as chair of black studies many times, going back over two decades, by the presidents of City College. His last reinstatement as chair had occurred barely one month prior to his controversial speech, which had sparked alumni and public criticism calling for his immediate ouster. Yet the CUNY central administration knew full well about the major academic shortcomings within the department—the fact that students received grades for submitting absolutely no written work, or that Jeffries skipped classes, or that an atmosphere existed of intimidation and harassment for other black faculty who disapproved of Jeffries’ version of racially separatist Afrocentrism. They ignored a mountain of student and faculty complaints because of their own institutional racism; the vast majority of white, middle-class students at CUNY were unaffected.

Possible approaches

“We must be honest and rigorous in our criticisms of such programs.”

We must be honest and rigorous in our criticisms of such programs. But we must also criticize those who have concluded that multicultural studies have no relevance to higher education. On the contrary—the criteria for educational excellence must have at its core a truly multicultural vision and definition. We must have African-American studies programs and research institutes; women’s studies and ethnic studies programs; and academic programs reflecting the totality of the cultural and social diversity which is America. The challenge before us is to create programs designed to impact the totality of the learning experience for all students. The challenge is to retrain our teachers and faculty so that they approach the art of instruction with a richer appreciation of the intricate factors of ethnicity and cultural diversity within their own disciplines. We must go beyond the traditional definitions of diversity, the idea of cultural difference as a secondary feature of higher education’s periphery, to redefine the core or the mainstream of the academy’s central mission for itself. We must assert, for example, that the serious study of the African-American experience is important not just to black students for ethnic and racial pride reasons, but for everyone; that all students, regardless of their ethnic background or heritage, can become intellectually enriched by exploration into the African-American experience.

In practical terms, this means that black studies scholar must go beyond simply the development of new courses, to engage in a general discussion about faculty and staff development, and the use of racial diversity criteria in the promotion and tenure of teachers, and in the evaluation of classroom instruction. Courses in black studies must be placed in the general requirements for all students, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. We need to initiate collaborative projects linking research to the development of issues that impact black and other people of color not only inside the United States, but across the globe.

Most importantly, black studies need to reassert the connections between academic excellence and social responsibility. The black community is faced with a series of economic, social, and political problems, and scholarship can be a critical tool in analyzing the means for resolving and addressing contemporary issues. In the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois and others, we should recognize that liberation is linked to the best scholarly research. The next generation of black studies programs must recognize that “knowledge is power,” and that the purpose of scholarly research is not merely to interpret but to change the world.

A diverse community

Compounding the challenges for the study of the black experience is the fact that the social composition of the African-American community itself has changed sharply since the 1960s. One cannot really speak about a “common racial experience” which parallels the universal opposition blacks felt when confronted by legal racial segregation. Moreover, the contemporary black experience can no longer be defined by a single set of socioeconomic, political and/or cultural characteristics. For roughly the upper third of the African-American population, the post-1960s era has represented real advancements in the quality of education, income, political representation, and social status. Social scientists estimate that the size of the black middle class, for example, has increased by more than 400 percent in the past three decades. One out of every seven black households, as of 1990, had annual gross incomes exceeding $50,000. For the middle third of the African-American population, its recent experience has been a gradual deterioration in its material, educational, and social conditions.

For example, since 1974 the median income of black American has declined from 63 percent of that for white Americans, to 55 percent. However, it is the bottom one-third of the black community which in this past quarter-century has experienced the most devastating social consequences—the lack of healthcare, widespread unemployment, inadequate housing, and the absence of opportunity.

Change in public policy towards black America and our central cities and the resultant divisions within the black community have contributed to a profound social crisis within black households and neighborhoods. For example, the infant mortality rate for black infants is twice that for whites. Blacks who represented only 13 percent of the total United States population, now account for approximately 80 percent of all “premature deaths” of individuals ages 15 to 44, who die from preventable disease and/or violence.

Currently, more than 650,000 African-American men and women are incarcerated and at lea t one-half of these prisoners are under age 29. In many cities the dropout rate for nonwhite high school students exceeds 40 percent. The majority of urban homeless people are black and Latino, and, as of 1989, nearly one-half of all poor black families were spending at least 70 percent of their income on shelter alone.

Black America also faces a crisis in leadership. In 1964 there were 104 black elected officials in the United States, with only five members of Congress and not one black mayor. Though small, this group of leaders understood the interests and needs of those they represented because they had largely grown up in, and continued to live within, their constituent communities.

By 1994 there were more than 8,200 black office holders throughout the nation, including 40 members of Congress and 400 mayors. This growing number of African-American leaders, with a broad influence in federal, state and local governments, is largely comprised of individuals who have their roots in the middle class, the upper third of the income earners within the African-American community.

Black leaders frequently lack organic connections with working-class and low-income communities; although they frequently speak for the interest of the entire black community, they lack a scientific or critical method for assessing or articulating mass public opinion. Organizations such as the NAACP, for example, do not have any scientific or quantitative measurements of their own members’ opinions. National black leaders rarely, if ever, interact with key African-American social science scholars or are familiar with recent research on the socioeconomic state of the black community.

“Black America stands at a challenging moment in its history—a time of massive social disruption, class stratification, and political uncertainty.”

Black America stands at a challenging moment in its history—a time of massive social disruption, class stratification, and political uncertainty. The objectives for black politics in the age of Jim Crow segregation were simple: full equality, voting rights, and the removal of “white” and “colored” signs from the doors of hotels and schools. Today’s problems are fundamentally different in scope, character, and intensity: the flight of capital investment from our central cities, with thousands of lost jobs; the deterioration of the urban tax base, with the decline of city services; black on black violence, homicide and crime; the decline in the quality of our public schools and the crisis of the community’s values. To this familiar litany of problems one more must be added: the failure to identify, train, and develop rising leaders within the African-American community who are informed by a critical and scientific understanding of the needs and perspectives of their own people.

These are the social science challenges of black studies. In order to respond to them we must not only know the statistics; we must also acquire a concrete understanding of the views of black Americans. We must, furthermore, respond to the needs of African Americans by encouraging the production of socially-responsible scholarship and by nurturing the development of rising young leaders from within the black community. We need to engage in a dialogue with painful honesty and to examine, with a clarity of vision, the real roots of the current economic, social, political, and educational problems within African-American society. Equipped with this critical perspective, we can begin to implement long-term and comprehensive strategies for democratic empowerment and social change.

The mission of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University is to generate scholarship which explores the historical and socioeconomic contours of black New York and of urban black America generally, with a commitment to social responsibility, addressing the contemporary political, social, and economic problems that challenge race relations throughout our society. The Institute’s “Black Leadership and Public Policy Project” is one of several major research initiatives, concentrating on the present state of the African-American community’s efforts to achieve power, social development, and influence within the structures of American democracy. The project seeks to bridge the gap between African-American scholars and leaders in practical fields of politics and public policy, economic development, civil rights, and society.

This essay is based on a lecture delivered by Manning Marable to the Social Science Research Council in March. It appeared in a slightly different form as a chapter in Beyond Black and White: Rethinking Race in Politics and Society


Manning Marable (1950–2011) was a professor of history, political science, public affairs, and African American studies, as well as the founding director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies and the Center for the Study of Contemporary Black History at Columbia University. Previously, he directed ethnic studies programs at a number of colleges, taught ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and was chairman of the Black Studies Department at Ohio State University.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 49, Issue 2-3 in the fall of 1995. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.

Posted on November 15, 2016