Getting It Wrong: How Black Public Intellectuals Are Failing Black America

How Black Public Intellectuals Are Failing Black America, Algernon Austin takes on the current trend of middle- and upper-class blacks to subscribe to the stereotypes attributed to poor blacks, such as that they are criminals, irresponsible, lazy, and/or promiscuous.

He notes that this is not a surprising fact, because the stereotypes are part of the culture that black Americans are raised in. However, he feels that the current trend toward conservatism is what has caused more affluent blacks to abandon, rather than defend, their poorer counterparts.

Austin’s claim is that he is endeavoring to “replace false stereotypes with real evidence about real people.” He further claims that the cultural reflex to think in stereotypes regarding blackness and whiteness must be disrupted in order for the problems American black face to be successfully analyzed and resolved.

Austin’s book is almost a direct contradiction of Michael Eric Dyson’s Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind? In that it attempts to examine the issue without bias.

Austin has impeccable credentials; he has taught sociology at both Wesleyan and DePaul Universities, and his book is not an ad hominem attack on Bill Cosby, but an examination of the work of not only Dyson, but other members of the African-American intelligentsia such as Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, NYU’s Derrick Bell , and TV talk show host Tavis Smiley.

His primary contention is that as the black intelligentsia has moved into ivory towers, they have lost touch with the majority of the Black community; therefore, they now feel comfortable castigating those black folks who have not made the same strides as exhibiting symptoms long-associated with prejudice and poverty. He further postulates that this practice is destructive specifically because it is based on the very stereotyping that leaves much of white Middle America reluctant to look at the culture and economy which, he asserts, is racist and exploitative, as the cause of the plight of the poverty-stricken black population.

Additionally, Austin points to the legal system as America’s most anti-black institution, and argues that the criminal justice system defines criminality as an inherent trait of blackness, rather than of poverty in general, offering the relatively hands-off treatment of white-collar criminals, a category consisting primarily of white perpetrators, as prima facie proof. He especially notes the differences in the pursuit, capture, and sentencing of these crooks, even though their crimes are greater in that they affect many more victims.

While this book has the advantage of dispassionately working to separate myths from facts, and is excellent in deliberately deconstructing the unfair, color-based stereotypes which both black and white middle class cultures use in referring to African-American ghetto-dwellers, it is a flawed book in that statistics are constantly changing. On the other hand, this short volume is important because of the very detachment Austin uses to analyze the situation and present his theories.