The Crisis of the Intellectuals
Traditional notions of the intellectual were never meant to include people who looked like me or who had a background like mine.
This article was updated on March 26, 2023 at 8:30 am.
In 2017, I was trying to write How to Be an Antiracist. Words came onto the page slower than ever. On some days, no words came at all. Clearly, I was in crisis.
I don’t believe in writer’s block. When words aren’t flowing onto the page, I know why: I haven’t researched enough, organized the material enough, thought enough to exhume clarity, meticulously outlined my thoughts enough. I haven’t prepared myself to write.
But no matter how much I prepared, I still struggled to convey what my research and reasoning showed. I struggled because I was planning to challenge traditional conceptions of racism, and to defy the multiracial and bipartisan consensus that race neutrality was possible and that “not racist” was a definable identity. And I struggled because I was planning to describe a largely unknown corrective posture—being anti-racist—with long historical roots. These departures from tradition were at the front of my struggling mind. But at the back of my mind was a more existential struggle—a struggle I think is operating at the front of our collective mind today.
It took an existential threat for me to transcend my struggle and finish writing the book. Can we recognize the existential threat we face today, and use it to transcend our struggles?
As I tried to write my book, I struggled over what it means to be an intellectual. Or to be more precise: I struggled because what I wanted to write and the way in which I wanted to write it diverged from traditional notions of what it means to be an intellectual.
The intellectual has been traditionally framed as measured, objective, ideologically neutral, and apolitical, superior to ordinary people who allow emotion, subjectivity, ideology, and their own lived experiences to cloud their reason. Group inequality has traditionally been reasoned to stem from group hierarchy. Those who advance anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-classist, and anti-homophobic ideas have historically been framed as anti-intellectual.
The traditional construct of the intellectual has produced and reinforced bigoted ideas of group hierarchy—the most anti-intellectual constructs existing. But this framing is crumbling, leading to the crisis of the intellectual.
Behind the scenes of the very public anti–critical race theory, anti-woke, and anti–anti-racism campaign waged mostly by Republican politicos is another overlapping and more bipartisan campaign waged mostly by people who think of themselves as intellectuals. Both campaigns emerged in reaction to the demonstrations in the summer of 2020 that carried anti-racist intellectuals to the forefront of public awareness.
These intellectuals not only highlighted the crisis of racism but, in the process, started changing the public conception of the intellectual. Their work was more in line with that of medical researchers seeking a cure to a disease ravaging their community than with philosophers theorizing on a social disease for theory’s sake from a safe remove. We need the model these new intellectuals pursued to save humanity from the existential threats that humans have created, including climate change, global pandemics, bigotry, and war.
But this new conception of the intellectual and those who put it into practice face all sorts of resistance. Opponents denounce the “illiberal” dangers of identity politics and proclaim the limits of “lived experience.” They argue that identity politics makes everything about identity, or spurs a clash of identities. In fact, the term identity politics was coined in the 1970s, a time when Black lesbian women in organizations like Boston’s Combahee River Collective were being implored to focus their activist work on the needs of Black men, in Black power spaces; white women, in feminist areas; and gay men, in gay-liberation struggles—on everyone’s oppression but their own. They were determined to change that. “This focus upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics,” Demita Frazier, Beverly Smith, and Barbara Smith wrote in the 1977 Combahee River Collective statement. It is common sense for people to focus on their own oppression, but these activists did not wish to focus only on their own oppression. The Combahee River Collective was “organizing Black feminists as we continue to do political work in coalition with other groups.”
Forty-six years later, when intellectuals of all races produce work on matters primarily affecting white people, the assumed subject of intellectual pursuits, these thinkers are seldom accused of engaging in identity politics. Their work isn’t considered dangerous. These thinkers are not framed as divisive and political. Instead, they are praised for example, for exposing the opioid crisis in white America, praised for pushing back against blaming the addicted for their addictions, praised for enriching their work with lived experiences, praised for uncovering the corporations behind the crisis, praised for advocating research-based policy solutions, praised for seeking truth based on evidence, praised for being intellectuals. As they all should be. But when anti-racist intellectuals expose the crisis of racism, push back against efforts to problematize people of color in the face of racial inequities, enrich our essays with lived experiences, point to racist power and policies as the problem, and advocate for research-based anti-racist policy solutions, the reactions couldn’t be more different. We are told that “truth seeking” and “activism” don’t mix.
American traditions do not breed intellectuals; they breed propagandists and careerists focusing their gaze on the prominent and privileged and powerful and on whatever challenges are afflicting them. Intellectuals today, when focused on the oppression of our own groups—as embodied in the emergence of Queer Studies, Women’s Studies, African American Studies, Native American Studies, Critical Whiteness Studies, Disability Studies, Latino Studies, Jewish Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and Asian American Studies—are ridiculed for pursuing fields that lack “educational value,” and our books, courses, programs, and departments are shut down and banned by the action of Republicans and the inaction of Democrats. We are told to research, think, and write about people, meaning not our people. We are told to let our people die. We are told to die.
Think about the gaslighting of it all. We are told that white people are being replaced in society, in their jobs within the “intellectual” class. One of the most successful living authors, James Patterson, claimed that white men are experiencing “another form of racism” as they, according to Patterson, struggle to break through as writers in publishing, theater, TV, and film.
Aggrieved white people and their racist propagandists are offering similarly dangerous replacement theories across the “intellectual” class. If white people are being replaced by Black and Latino people, then why are Black and Latino people still underrepresented across many sectors of the “intellectual” class—among authors, in publishing, among full-time faculty, in newsrooms? (Such evidence likely compelled James Patterson to backtrack and apologize.) With all of this evidence, other commentators have focused on the extent of “self-censorship” or “cancel culture” affecting white people (as if people of color aren’t self-censoring or being canceled at least as often). Worst of all, the racist perpetrators of these theories, like Donald Trump, frame themselves as the victims. When Scott Adams has his comic dropped after he called Black people a “hate group” and told his white listeners “to get the hell away from Black people,” he claimed that the real problem is anti-whiteness.
And then, when anti-racist intellectuals historicize these white-supremacist talking points about anti-racism being anti-white and give evidence of their long and deep and violent history, when we historicize disparities like the racial wealth gap that are as much the product of the past as the present, when new research and thinking allow us to revise present understandings of the past, when we use the past to better understand the present and the future, we are told to keep the past in the past. We are told not to change the inequitable present, and not to expect anything to change in the future. We are told to look away as the past rains down furiously on the present. Or we are told that intellectuals should focus only on how society has progressed, a suicidal and illogical act when a tornado is ravaging your community. Yet again, we are told to let our people die. We are told to die.
“Above all, historians should make us understand the ways in which the past was distinct,” the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote. When we are told that historical writings should not emphasize their relevance to our contemporary debates, it is not hard to figure out why. History, when taught truthfully, reveals the bigotry in our contemporary debates. Which is why the conservators of bigotry don’t want history taught in schools. It has nothing to do with the discomfort of children. It is uncomfortable for the opponents of truthful history to have the rest of us see them, to have their kids see them. They don’t want anyone to clearly see how closely they replicate colonizers, land stealers, human traders, enslavers, Klansmen, lynchers, anti-suffragists, robber barons, Nazis, and Jim Crow segregationists who attacked democracy, allowed mass killings, bound people in freedom’s name, ridiculed truth tellers and immigrants, lied for sport, banned books, strove to control women’s reproduction, blamed the poor for their poverty, bashed unions, and engaged in political violence. Historical amnesia is vital to the conservation of their bigotry. Because historical amnesia suppresses our resistance to their bigotry.
Or, for others, it is about conserving tradition. James Sweet, while serving as the American Historical Association president last year, challenged what he calls “presentism” in the profession. He recently clarified that his target was the “professional historians who believe that social justice should be their first port of entry, which is not the way that we’ve traditionally done history.” And yet, throughout most of the history of history as a discipline, historians have centered Europe, white people, men, and the wealthy in their accounts and composed tales of their superiority. That is the way historians have traditionally done history until recent decades, all of this social injustice entering our collective consciousness clothed in neutrality and objectivity. So now, abolishing the master’s narrative and emancipating the truth must be one of our first ports of entry. To be an intellectual is to know that the truth will set humanity free to gain the power to make humanity free.
Maybe I did have writer’s block when I started composing How to Be an Antiracist back in 2017. I did not suffer from that sort of blockage when writing Stamped From the Beginning, several years earlier. Writing that book was like writing in a cave, to the cave. I didn’t think many people would read the book, let alone think of me as an intellectual. All I cared about was writing history.
But when Stamped From the Beginning won a National Book Award, I began to think about my standing as an intellectual. Suddenly, I was writing in the public square, to the public square. The traditional strictures kept blocking the writing. Be objective. Be apolitical. Be balanced. Be measured. Your primary audience should be others in your field. Keep them in mind. Do not defy the orthodoxy they created. Reinforce it. Satisfy them to advance your career. I faced a blockade of old and fraught traditions regarding what it means to be an intellectual that had nothing to do with the process of truth finding and telling.
Traditional notions of the intellectual were never meant to include people who looked like me or who had a background like mine, who came from a non-elite academic pedigree, emerged proudly from a historically Black university, earned a doctorate in African American Studies. Traditional notions of the intellectual were never meant to include people who researched like me, thought like me, wrote like me—or who researched, thought, or wrote for people like me. Traditional notions of the intellectual were never meant to include people who are not ranking groups of people in the face of inequity and injustice. Traditional notions of the intellectual were never meant to include those of us who are fixated and focused wholly and totally on uncovering and clarifying complex truths that can radically improve the human condition. Traditional notions of the intellectual were never meant to include our conception of the intellectual.
I knew this. I knew about the equation of the Enlightenment and “reason” and “objectivity” and “empiricism” with whiteness and Western Europe and masculinity and the bourgeoisie. I knew that Francis Bacon, the father of “empiricism” in the sciences, held anti-Black racist ideas, and that his work became the basis for “empirical” quests among eugenicists to assert natural human hierarchy that climaxed in the mass sterilization of Black and Latina and disabled and low-income women in the United States and in the Holocaust of Jews and other “undesirables” in Nazi Germany. I knew that the originator of “objectivity” in history, Leopold von Ranke, believed that the “world divinely ordered” meant Europeans, Christians, and the wealthy at the top. I knew that bigoted academics, who obscured their bigotry behind their objectivity, founded almost every academic discipline in the United States. I knew that objectivity and the construct of “balance” migrated from the U.S. academy to U.S. journalism as professional ideals after World War I, when a wave of newspaper mergers and closings compelled reporters to appeal to wide swaths of the public. (Sound familiar?) I knew that the Hutchins Commission, organized in 1947 to report on the proper function of the media, had warned against objective and balanced reporting that was “factually correct but substantially untrue.” I knew that traditional conceptions of the intellectual serve the status quo of injustice.
Intellectuals who are people of color, women, non-Christian, LGBTQ, or working class—indeed intellectuals of all identities who have challenged the status quo, especially traditional and bigoted conventions—have historically been cast aside as nonintellectuals. Commentators lambasted the investigative journalist and educator Ida B. Wells as “partisan” and “a licentious defamer” for the “obscene filth that flows from her pen”—all for finding and telling the hard truths about lynchings. Scholars described W. E. B. Du Bois, a pioneering historian, sociologist, and editor, as “bitter” after he wrote The Souls of Black Folk and his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction. In his landmark book, An American Dilemma, the Swedish Nobel laureate and economist Gunnar Myrdal dismissed the work of Carter G. Woodson—the father of Black History Month—and other Black scholars studying “Negro history and culture” as “basically an expression of the Negro protest,” in spite of its “scholarly pretenses and accomplishments.”
Gay professors were among those harassed and arrested by the U.S. Park Police’s “Pervert Elimination” campaign in Washington, D.C., in 1947—just as LGBTQ teachers are being harassed and censored today. Spelman College fired the Jewish professor Howard Zinn in 1963 for “radicalizing” Black women students by telling them the truth about U.S. history—and firings or threats of firing continue today at other schools and colleges. In 2021, the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees denied tenure to the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones over “politics.”
When the traditionalists today disagree with the evidence-based findings of intellectuals—or envy the prominence of our work—too often they do not contest our findings with their own evidence. They do not usually engage in intellectual activity. They misrepresent our work. They play up minor typos or small miscues to take down major theses. They call us names they never define, like “leftist” or “Marxist” or “woke” or “socialist” or “prophet” or “grifter” or “political” or “racist.” All to attack our credibility as intellectuals—to reassert their own credibility. In politics, they say, when you can’t win on policy, you smear the candidate. In intellectualism, when you can’t win on evidence, you smear the intellectual.
I knew the smears were coming, because I knew history. What blocked my writing bound my intellectualism. What finally set me free to be an intellectual was the face of death, a face I still stare at to amass the courage to be an intellectual.
It took me all of 2017 to write six chapters of How to Be an Antiracist. A slog. But when doctors diagnosed me with Stage 4 colon cancer in January 2018, when I figured I probably wouldn’t survive a disease that kills 86 percent of people in five years, when I decided that this book would be my last major will and testament to the world, everything that blocked my writing wilted away, along with my prospects for living. I no longer cared about those traditional conceptions of the intellectual—just like I no longer cared about the orthodoxy of racial thinking. I no longer cared about the backlash that was likely to come. All I cared about was telling the truth through the lens of research and evidence, reaction be damned. And just like that, between chemotherapy treatments, the words started flowing, furiously: 13 chapters in a few months.
Since I wasn’t going to live, I wanted to write a book that could help prevent our people from dying at the hands of racism. Yes, I was told I would die, but I wanted to tell my people to live. Like an intellectual.
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