On February 16, 2014, I posted the following statement on Facebook:
Is a display of some discretion and selectivity too much to ask? Do Jewish people cite and promote other Jews that repeatedly betrayed Jewish interests or were willing accomplices to their Holocaust during their celebration of Jewish history? Hell No! In this case at least, we might be wise to learn from their example. Black History Month should not involve a generic roll call of everyone or anyone who is Black in phenotype. And if you stubbornly insist on playing the ole’ BHM roll-call game, at least research the backgrounds, policies, and actions of people before citing and promoting them. Some of the people I see highlighted during BHM should actually be prominently placed on the “Wall of Shame” reserved for Black sellouts.
The notion of some Blacks being “Uncle Toms” or sellouts is highly contentious. This nefarious label creates resentment for those who’ve been accused of being one, and some Blacks say the accusation is difficult to prove and very divisive.
Those accused of being “Toms” say their accusers are just envious or ignorant. Yet despite controversy, the term continues to resonate with many Black folk.
Therefore the questions remain: do Black sellouts exist? Is “Uncle Tom” ever a valid description for someone? The writings and ideas of W.E.B. DuBois and Malcolm X give me reason to say “Yes.”
We all know DuBois’ famous “Talented Tenth” idea which he first wrote about in 1903. Many of his critics charge that the idea was elitist. What they fail to consider is that his vision involved the most educated/talented minority of Black people would dedicate their lives, minds, and talents to uplift the masses of the race.
DuBois wisely understood that this group of “race men and women” might lose their way and become seduced by the acquisition of wealth and status in an increasingly industrialist United States. In the Souls of Black Folk, he alludes to this concern:
Already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters; it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretense and ostentation. For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged,–wealth to overthrow the remains of the slave feudalism; wealth to raise the “cracker” Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim of politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.
Writing almost 50 years later in 1952, DuBois came to reject his talented tenth idea of leadership. Years of political struggle and interaction with educated and materially successful Black folk apparently caused him to lose hope in the talented tenth:
I now realize that the ability within a people does not automatically work for its highest salvation. On the contrary, in an era like this, and in the United States, many of the educated and gifted young black folk will be as selfish and immoral as the whites who surround them and to whom Negroes have been taught to look as ideals. Naturally, out of the mass of the working classes, who know life and its bitter struggle, will continually rise the real, unselfish and clear-sighted leadership. This will not be automatic or continuous, but the hope of the future of the Negro race in America and the world lies far more among its workers than among its college graduates, until the time that our higher training is rescued from its sycophantic and cowardly leadership of today, almost wholly dependent as it is on Big Business either in politics or philanthropy.
In this passage DuBois characterizes Black folk we’d refer to as “sellouts” today.
Perhaps no one person in the 20th Century was more responsible for shaping our ideas about “sellouts” than Malcolm X, with his oft-repeated analogy of “House Negroes and Field Negroes.” He articulated a sharp critique of college-educated middle class Blacks who gained and maintained their positions by defending and promoting white hegemonic interests and encouraging Blacks to “suffer peacefully.”
In fairness, it is not responsible to assign the sellout designation lightly or indiscriminately. Nor does it demonstrate integrity when we assign this label to someone simply because we disagree with his/her beliefs.
Nontheless, we need a responsible framework for identifying legitimate sellouts since they sabotage our personal and collective freedom and promote the agenda of our sworn enemies.
First, a few important points of clarification: 1) One’s phenotype (physical attributes) is not synonymous with their ideology or values nor can one’s physical ‘Blackness” accurately predict their politics or political affiliations 2) Black people are not monolithic, but representative of various class, religious and political sensibilities and 3) Everyone we disagree with is not necessarily an “enemy to the race.”
To illustrate how complicated this issue is, take the baseball legend Jackie Robinson for example. In the course of desegregating major league baseball he endured unbridled white hostility from fans, teammates, and others. Despite this enormous pressure, his on and off-field performances were impeccable. These factors – along with his intelligence, eloquence, and support of civil rights – made him a hero to Black people, and rightly so.
However we cannot forget or excuse Robinson’s public denunciations of Paul Robeson and later Muhammad Ali for their oposition to American military interests.
In both cases, U.S. government agencies personally called upon Robinson to support their imperialist foreign policies and denounce Black men that resisted it – and in both cases he patriotically accepted the invitations.
To his credit, while denouncing Robeson, Robinson also criticized Jim Crow America and insisted that Black people continue resisting it. Interestingly though, Robinson himself later came to regret his denunciation of Robeson:
In those days I had much more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today. I would reject such an invitation if offered now . . . . I have grown wiser and closer to the painful truths about America’s destructiveness. And I do have increased respect for Paul Robeson who, over the span of twenty years, sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.
Regarding Muhammad Ali, Robinson joined the ranks of Joe Louis and others who called Ali unpatriotic for refusing induction into the U.S. army. Fortunately, people like sports announcer Howard Cosell, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King supported Ali.
The question of Robinson’s loyalty to Black people is therefore complicated. He amassed a record of challenging racial segregation and injustice, but also allowed himself to be used by the U.S. government to publicly denounce other Black men. It would be unfair to completely dismiss Robinson as a sellout in my opinion.
But make no mistake… sellouts a.k.a. “uncle toms” do exist, and drawing from the framework provided by DuBois and Malcolm X, they tend to have some of the following characteristics:
- Upon invitation of government agencies (along with payment, status or job promotion) they willingly denounce or attempt to publicly discredit progressive Black people, institutions, or initiatives.
- They parrot condescending ultra-conservative pro-imperialist, and right-wing language in characterizing their own people: Welfare cheats, underachievers, beggars, licentious and irresponsible, lazy, entitled etc.
- Although they usually benefit from the Civil Rights Movement in tangible ways, they consistently make it their business to attack things like Affirmative Action and other measures designed to close Black-White employment, business, and education gaps created by centuries of discrimination and white supremacy.
- They routinely fail to criticize unfair policies and practices which disproportionately oppress their people. Instead they defend and become apologists for such policies and the racist powermongers that create them.
- They blame Black poverty and suffering solely on Blacks’ laziness, poor choices, clothing/speaking styles and ignorance. They believe racism, sexism and other systemic factors play no role in one’s success or failure, and sometimes even say racism, sexism and class bias don’t exist!
- They are more patriotic than America’s founding fathers. The government, military, corporate media and finance establishment can do no wrong, provided they represent right-wing interests. Like Malcolm said, “they identify with master more than master identifies with himself.”
In conclusion, for me the verdict is clear. Black sellouts and apologists do exist. Their greedy, self-serving and shameful affiliations along with their disturbing tendency to support policies, practices and people who work to destroy us are a matter of public record. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so terrible if such people adopted these positions in the naive belief that doing so would actually help Black people. This might be forgivable if not confusing to us. But the sad fact is that many of these negroes detest the race and culture that birthed them. They desire to distance themselves from us to receive validation, acceptance and material rewards from the evil lords of the empire. Regardless of why they love our enemy so much it stands to reason that those who are indispensable and ideologically married to the empire, are by definition, of no use to us. They have no allegiance to us, nor should we to them ….This includes Larry Elders, Ben Carson, and their other “Black” compatriots.