U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Black Intellectual History, the New Republic, and American Liberalism

Jeet Heer’s essay in the newest The New Republic has brought our attention back to a   conversation that, for a while at least, was on the backburner while others debated the latest Jonathan Chait piece on political correctness. But Heer’s essay also requires some serious thinking from intellectual historians. What he’s done is chronicled the long history of African Americans within the pages of The New Republic—both as writers and as subjects. However, Heer’s piece is not just a meditation on The New Republic. Instead, it needs to be read as part of a larger and more complicated history. American liberals and African Americans have had a testy, sometimes beneficial, sometimes wary, relationship. The New Republic’s own history is testament to that.

The New Republic’s own reputation over the last century has been as a bedrock of modern American liberalism, an institution not afraid to stand up for liberalism but also willing to critique its own viewpoints. Heer’s essay offers a fantastic summation of what The New Republic stood for during most of its own history on race relations: willing to challenge the status quo here and there, but also far too willing to go along with mainstream opinion on African Americans. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise to historians. For all the talk today about political correctness, being a good “ally” to disadvantaged groups, et cetera, liberalism’s own history is filled with individuals and organizations having to wage internal battles against biases inherited from racism and sexism permeating mainstream society.

I was glad to see Heer’s essay include a great deal on TNR’s early history through the 1940s. One element of this debate that has gotten a great deal of attention—and understandably so—is what TNR became in the 1980s and 1990s under Marty Peretz. For many writers looking back at the magazine’s history, whether those worried about the institution’s future or those who remembered all too well the magazine’s essays from the 1990s, there was little reason to look back to TNR before the 1970s. Nonetheless, like much about race in American history, looking to just what occurred after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act does little to provide historical context on both TNR and more broadly, American liberalism.

Heer’s essay is a must-read. I’d like to add a brief aside, however, to think about as you read his piece. We need to consider African American responses to what was being run in TNR in the 1980s and 1990s. I’ve written elsewhere about various African American journals and magazines, such as Ebony/Jet,  The Black Scholar, Freedomways, and Negro Digest/Black World, and how they provide a window into an area of American intellectual history that’s essential if one wants to understand the role of race in American intellectual discourse. While these magazines all represent varying strands of radical black scholarthought, nonetheless we need to understand how they provided African American writers and intellectuals with a haven from which to respond to what was being written in TNR. For example, The Black Scholar responded to TNR and The Bell Curve in 1994 with an entire issue titled simply, “Black Intelligence.” [1]

The editor’s note, written by Robert Chrisman, summed up why the debate mattered so much to the intellectuals writing for The Black Scholar: “Some battles are not won permanently; they must be won every generation. The continuing assault by white racists upon black intelligence, moral capacity and social coherence is such a battle.”[2] This was only the opening salvo in a two issue symposium on The Bell Curve run in the pages of The Black Scholar. In short, when we talk about The New Republic¸ we must take care to consider that there was considerable push back to much of what they did in the 1980s and 1990s from African American intellectuals. The essay I linked to above by Ta-Nehisi Coates briefly mentions his time at Howard University, and the response on that campus to The Bell Curve. That perspective is one that needs to be considered when talking about The New Republic, or any magazine of the left (or right) that has a history of providing a forum in which to talk about race. This is all part of a much longer African American intellectual tradition that has spilled much ink in countering claims made by white intellectuals about the African American experience.

[1] The Black Scholar, Volume 25, Number 1, Winter 1995.

[2] “The Bell Curve and the Struggle Against Racism,” The Black Scholar, Vol. 25, No.1

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Great post, Robert! Do you have your hands on the “Black Intelligence” issue? I would love to see a close reading of it by you, as I am sure would so many others. Seems super-urgent, especially as many TNR-ites are trying to gaslight the universe with: “well, SOMEBODY was going to revive early 20th century racist science, so we thought it should be us” narratives. These sorts of apologias always obscure the enormous extramural work then created for African American activists, who all of a sudden need to read and refute some stupid book, in addition to all of the preexisting work of struggle.

    • I do! Just happened to get lucky and procure a copy about a year ago. I think I might do that for my next post, because there’s a lot of fascinating analysis here of “The Bell Curve.” And I agree: this kind of work had to be exhausting for African American activists and intellectuals in the 1990s. Especially consider that, in the 90s, there were so many other issues surrounding race, and then this also popped up.

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