- We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity
In the post-civil rights U.S. context, racism is routinely conceptualized as an unfortunate historical artifact. Current disadvantages experienced by blacks must either be their own fault or due to non-racial structural factors such as social class. Group-based, black political solidarity is recast as a similar relic of past anti-racist social movements, leaving little room for collective black identity to provide cultural explanations for black disadvantage. This context creates a catch-22 for black Americans. Blacks might experience group-based disadvantage stemming from contemporary forms of racism yet be discouraged from deploying race-based, collective political strategies to deal with it.
Tommie Shelby’s impeccably researched We Who Are Dark, a philosophical reflection on the current significance of black political solidarity, navigates these rocky waters of contemporary U.S. racial politics. Shelby analyzes the dual foundation for black unity, namely, positive collective identity and shared oppression. Shelby seeks to identify a basis for a contemporary pragmatic black political unity that grounds collective identity not in a uniform, idealized blackness, but rather in a shared social agenda. This solidarity should reflect respect for the heterogeneity of the black population. Shelby also counsels blacks to move beyond conceptions of black solidarity grounded in questions of identity in order to embrace a renewed collective commitment to defeating racism and to improve the material prospects of the most disadvantaged black population.
For Shelby, political blackness is exercised and organized in numerous ways. Blacks should agree on basic principles and goals, yet allow room for disagreement [End Page 473] over the precise content of political action and policy initiatives. One signals political solidarity by demonstrating a commitment to principles and goals and identifying with, showing special concern for, being loyal to, and trusting other blacks. Identification, special concern and loyalty should extend to all blacks, because blacks constitute themselves as a unified group for the well-being and freedom of all blacks. In contrast, trust is reserved only for some blacks, specifically those who exhibit black political consciousness. Blacks could not productively engage in collective action unless they knew they could rely on each other.
The basic arguments in We Who Are Dark are important, yet Shelby’s framing assumptions limit the core ideas of his argument. For example, Shelby aims to “rescue” the idea of black solidarity from the contested politics of black nationalism. Yet pushing the messy, contradictory and vibrant strands of black nationalism into Chapter 1’s somewhat sterile categories of classic and pragmatic black nationalism flattens the complexities of black solidarity as actual political practice. Within Shelby’s philosophical framework, the conflation of strategies proposed and followed by black nationalists during different historical periods erases from consideration certain key topics more extensively engaged in the social sciences. In their place, Shelby presents his straw man argument of classic black nationalism, a move that enables him to return repeatedly to a static, classic black nationalism as the benchmark of a failed political philosophy. The black nationalism depicted here, expressed primarily as a set of philosophical ideas of a hand-picked list of key black male thinkers, differs dramatically from a sociology of knowledge approach that investigates the synergy between black nationalist frameworks and black political behavior.
We Who Are Dark might also benefit from a more comprehensive dialogue with social science understandings of ethnicity and culture. Viewing black identity and culture solely through philosophical understandings of race limits Shelby’s ability to grapple with questions of how racism routinely uses culture. In his quest to prove that blacks constitute a political community linked by shared oppression, Shelby downplays the significance of cultural affiliation for political solidarity. He examines ethnicity and culture primarily through the lens of black cultural nationalism and/or contemporary cultural studies, and thus downplays the significance of ethnicity within U.S. politics. It’s as if Shelby is saying that Jews should have nothing in common, save a political identity dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and protecting Israel; yet...