Tommie Shelby

by Jon Mandle on January 13, 2006

When the eminent sociologist Orlando Patterson says that someone is “a sparkling new talent with all the boldness and intellectual self-assurance necessary” to pursue “critical reflections on African-American identity”, it makes sense to pay attention. This is how he describes Tommie Shelby in his review of Shelby’s new book, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. (Shelby and I went to graduate school together.)

Here’s Patterson’s description of the book:

Although black Americans have led the way in practical matters, insightful theoretical reflections on identity politics are still wanting. Shelby’s “We Who Are Dark” is respectful of such politics, but severely critical as well. His book contests the movement’s central claims at a level of sociophilosophical sophistication that one rarely encounters….

He maintains that the black power call to collective action based on exclusive black organizations is now inappropriate because of the economic and regional heterogeneity of the black population. It is also, he says, politically counterproductive since it risks alienating badly needed progressive allies among the nonblack population….

Shelby’s powerful critique of black cultural particularism incorporates and supersedes all previous discussions of the subject. He identifies eight basic tenets of this tradition: blacks have a distinctive culture; they should collectively and consciously reclaim that culture; they should take pride in conserving and reproducing it; unlike white culture, it provides a valuable foundation for their individual and communal identities; it is an emancipatory tool in resisting white hegemony, providing an alternate set of ideals to live by; it should be accorded public recognition by the state; blacks, as the main producers of this culture, should benefit from it in financial and other ways; and as “owners” of this culture, blacks should be the foremost authorities and interpreters of it.

We hear these arguments all the time, sometimes subtly, often crudely. Most non-blacks are either contemptuous of them or quietly dumbfounded. Many simply turn a blindly patronizing eye. Shelby takes the arguments seriously, and meticulously demolishes them all. He does not deny that there are distinctive forms of Afro-American culture. Far from it. His concern, rather, is with the ways black spokesmen think about this heritage and the chauvinistic claims commonly made about it, beginning with the questionable view that being black means one is, or ought to be, culturally black….

What is needed, Shelby says, is a pragmatic nationalism that encourages “individual blacks to maintain solidarity with one another regardless of the racial composition of the political organizations in which each participates.” Solidarity of this sort – identification, special concern, loyalty and trust – has to be black rather than part of a wider program of color-blind liberal or radical reform, because blacks suffered a unique history of injustice under slavery and Jim Crow, and continue to do so through patterns of institutional discrimination and more subtle forms of personal racism. But it cannot be too black, since this risks entrapment in the manifold errors of thick identity. And it has to be thin because blacks have got to come to terms with the fact that most of the socioeconomic challenges they face in modern America have little to do with their blackness. Yet it cannot be too thin, or it becomes mere shallow rhetoric.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have expected anything less from him – a thoughtful and insightful book written for grown-ups.



Freddie 01.13.06 at 10:22 am

I am not at all convinced that there is or will be such a thing as “black solidarity.” After all, there is now a black middle class; black Republicans; black Democrats etc True, they have in common skin color, but then how would they express “solidarity” at the polls, the place where in America politicians look to countr votes.


abb1 01.13.06 at 10:47 am

I can’t understand why any kind of racial solidarity could be a good thing, even if it’s ‘thin’.


Matt 01.13.06 at 11:31 am

Abb1- Maybe that’s a good reason to read the book!


Teju Cole 01.13.06 at 11:41 am

This is the book I’ve been waiting for.

I was a little awed by Patterson’s review, and I very much look forward to reading Shelby’s book.

The American discourse around race is definitely ready to go to the next level. Has been for a while.


Marc Mulholland 01.13.06 at 12:03 pm

It seems odd that group solidarity – which I have no problem with – needs to be justified by reference to a “a unique [and continuing] history of injustice”. Whilst one can justifiably object to any negative externalities produced by group identity, I don’t see that a group only deserves recognition if it demonstrates a defined quantum of grievance.


jet 01.13.06 at 12:06 pm

I’ve recently been on the market for a house and had to break contract with my realtors after it became apparent they might be taking race into account. Since African-Americans still face political and economic racism from a significant portion of America in the economic and somewhat in the political field, I can see a need for some racial solidarity. But I’m not sure where the line is drawn and after which African-Americans showing racial solidarity become the flip side of my realtors. So perhaps I’ll read the book.


abb1 01.13.06 at 12:40 pm

Racism does, of course, exist and anti-racist solidarity is, of course, a good idea. But ‘black solidarity’ is something else. Why would a rational person want to maintain solidarity based on skin color of all things?


Teju Cole 01.13.06 at 12:46 pm

You make a good point. I’m an American-African (not an African-American), and though I share in the suffering of the black people in this country and elsewhere, I don’t have a great instinct for unity. Solidarity, yes. Unity, no.

And I think that racialism is deeply problematic- indeed, I believe it (the assignation of essential value to race) had a role to play in the emergence of racism.

But I think I’m perhaps too distrustful of group-think, and I’m keen to hear a good philosophical argument in support of racial unity.


PersonFromPorlock 01.13.06 at 1:48 pm

When the eminent sociologist Orlando Patterson says that someone is “a sparkling new talent with all the boldness and intellectual self-assurance…

Actually, no. When he sees blurb like that (“A sensitive and intelligent recounting of a young person’s coming of age”, etc.) the intelligent man screams loudly and throws the book as far as he can.


Wrong 01.13.06 at 1:54 pm

Why would a rational person want to maintain solidarity based on skin color of all things?

Because they are oppressed on the basis of their skin color. This seems rather obvious.


Dæn 01.13.06 at 1:59 pm

The comments to this post are very enlightening for me as a young black man who has often struggled to parse white liberals’ misgivings regarding black solidarity (sentiments like abb1’s are common among whites I know). I haven’t studied black identity politics formally so I can’t really do the subject proper justice; all I can say is that there’s something about feeling the weight of collective punishment (which is how racism can feel sometimes) that brings us together. Sharing the burden lessens it and also creates a need to maintain exclusive control over black cultural property, especially that which is directly connected to “the struggle”.

There still exist strong anti-assimilationist pressures against among certain black subgroups. These are the result of an enduring sense of disconnection from and distrust of American society engendered by our unique and often tragic history. I’ve often heard it said that this cultural and social segregation was codified and/or brutally enforced for so long that it became integral to black identity. I dunno, maybe I’ve been steeped in it so long that I’m just trying to rationalize the irrational, but racial solidarity seems to me a perfectly natural response given black history. I suppose if you really can’t understand it, there may be nothing else to do but accept it.


abb1 01.13.06 at 2:40 pm

Dæn, you right: I can understand it as a natural response. But not as the result of an intellectual exercise.


Steve 01.13.06 at 3:30 pm


Hell has frozen over; I actually agree with you. You’d better hurry up and drink the koolaid-occasional forays into independent thought are ok, but don’t make a habit of it-you wouldn’t want to get yourself banned from the club.



Matt 01.13.06 at 9:27 pm

I don’t think anyone here is threatening to ban abb1 from the club (if it’s not been done yet, is it really likely here?). Rather, abb1 says he doesn’t understand the reasons for something, and apparently those reasons are discussed in this book in a useful and interesting way. It’s been suggested that this might be a reason for looking at the book. Does this seem so unreasonable, Steve? Certainly abb1’s position isn’t very unusual, especially among those who are, say, white and privilaged. (I, of course, have no knowledge of, nor interest in, abb1’s race.) So, it’s far from obvious that this is an exercise in “independent thought” in any interesting sense at all, especially since all we’ve been told is that abb1 doesn’t understand, not that he or she has made any serious attempt to try and understand by engaging in the best arguments, or that abb1 has had to exercise anything that might reasonably be called “independent thought” here. So, it seems to my mind that your remark, Steve, is a bit silly.


david 01.13.06 at 9:46 pm

I doubt from Patterson’s description that I’ll like the book all that much, though I’ll like reading it. But then again, I’m white, and by any reasonable definition rich. Still, I’m surprised that there are a pack of people who still think it’s risky, and meritorious, to challenge the great big fat powerful social truth that identity politics for black people are too powerful in this country. Abb1 is an unsurprising proponent, but for goodness sake people, the ruling party in all three branches of gov’t has as a fairly central belief that black people get too much from society.


Robin Green 01.14.06 at 8:02 pm

but for goodness sake people, the ruling party in all three branches of gov’t has as a fairly central belief that black people get too much from society.

Sounds like the book comes at identity politics from a very different angle, though. i.e. that black people need to stop focusing so much on exclusively-black coalitions etc. in order to be more effective politically. It’s possible that the book’s angle is right and the GOP’s angle is completely wrong (because they are talking about different things). I don’t know.

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