The Trouble With Uplift
How black politics succumbed to the siren song of the racial voice

Reed, Adolph
Publisher:  The Baffler
Year Published:  2018
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX24332

I've long suspected that, to a certain strain of race-conscious or antiracist discourse, historical exploration in popular culture was less important than the propagation of tales of inspiration and uplift. These fables typically feature singular black heroes who have overcome crushing racist adversity against all odds. In recent years, a steady stream of films and other narratives have openly embraced that preference.



the pronounced animus trained on the figure of the “white savior” emerges as litmus test for the critical role of racial gatekeeper in respectable political discourse. The gatekeeping question has, for more than a century, focused on who speaks for black Americans and determines the “black agenda.” And the status of black leader, spokesperson, or “voice” has always been a direct function of contested class prerogative, dating back a century and more to Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and Anna Julia Cooper. Specifically, the gatekeeping function is the obsession of the professional-managerial strata who pursue what Warren has described as “managerial authority over the nation’s Negro problem.” How do “black leaders” become recognized? The answer is the same now as for Washington in the 1890s; recognition as a legitimate black leader, or “voice,” requires ratification by elite opinion-shaping institutions and individuals.


From Black Power to Black Lives Matter, claimants to speak on behalf of the race have courted recognition from the Ford Foundation and other white-dominated nonprofit philanthropies and NGOs. And the emergence of cable news networks and the blogosphere have exponentially expanded the number and types of entities that can anoint race leaders and representative voices.

This new welter of platforms and voices seeking to promulgate and validate the acceptable terms of black leadership has made the category seem all the more beyond question, as black racial voices pop up all over the place all the time. So, for example, the self-proclaimed black voice Tia Oso was brought front and center in the 2015 Netroots Presidential Town Hall featuring Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, where she proclaimed that “black leadership must be foregrounded and central to progressive strategies.” Likewise, the presumed moral authority of race leadership enabled Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford to prevent Sanders from speaking at a Social Security rally in Seattle—as though the long-term viability of Social Security were not a black issue. The instant recourse to a posture of leadership is how random Black Lives Matter activists and a vast corps of pundits and bloggers are able to issue ex cathedra declarations about which issues are and are not pertinent to black Americans.

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