Public discussions of emotionally charged issues such as civil rights or affirmative action typically descend into an exchange of cliche’s, of “politically correct” statements that mask the absence of a deeper consideration of what is at stake for the future of a common and united American experience and culture. Too often, such discussions merely generate a tense uneasiness for most in the audience and a resignation to the damning fact that all has been heard and that the only task left is simply the assigning of blame for a certain state of affairs. To assume otherwise is to belabor the obvious and to wander in naive and errant optimism. Rare is the thinker who can penetrate to the heart of race-related issues in order to move beyond stereotypes and intractable generalizations.
In this collection of thirty-seven disparate essays and reviews written between 1979-1989, Stanley Crouch, former jazz columnist and itinerant social critic for New York City’s The Village Voice, proves he is exactly such a thinker. Notes of a Hanging Judge brings together an eclectic set of pieces that nevertheless emanate from a single, piercing vision that refuses to accept the received wisdom about race and class in contemporary America. They chronicle a decade of Crouch’s nonconformist musings on what he calls “the Age of Redefinition,” by which he means an age in which both disillusionment with and confusion about the recent past and its meaning dominate our society, placing the African American in particular historical peril and perplexity. The Civil Rights movement, Crouch avers, helped in many ways to transform a fossilized, comfortably racist America and to make it possible to envision a new kind of community in which both dominant and dissenting cultures could thrive and even merge in peace and harmony.
Yet, the opportunity for such a society has been lost, Crouch believes, because the black community has largely accepted the dogrna of racial preferentialism, forgetting the emphasis that Martin Luther King, Jr. placed on developing a society in which people are judged as individuals, “by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.” Relinquishing this quest for equality, Crouch argues, has bred an ideology of blood guilt and a reliance on unproductive sloganeering that reduces rather than enlarges black character.
The phrase “by the content of their character” in many ways encoded the ethos of the Civil Rights movement and recalls the ideal, as expressed in the 1960’s, of a “color-blind” society. In reading Crouch, one can look back on that period with some nostalgia as well as some alarm, as the color-blind society has not, apparently, been achieved and now is seldom even sought let alone held up as a rallying metaphor. This is the case partly, some would argue, because of the dubious success of the Civil Rights movement in making the ethnicity of racism’s victims such a prominent feature of the proffered solutions offered by both white and black political leaders. The result is ever-increasing race consciousness and racial bickering.
To such an assessment, Crouch would say ’Amen.” Believing that he is part of an “undeclared lost generation,” Crouch searches for the key that will rescue his contemporaries in the larger dominant culture and his peers in the black community from a noble cause that has now “gone loco.” He seeks nothing less than an end to what he regards as a debilitating politics of victimhood that serves to promote only the twin evils of racial warfare and self- segregation. In this posture, Crouch writes courageously and courts alienation from mainstream black activists who, perhaps, most need to hear his contrary opinions of their exploits. Against seasoned politicos such as Jesse Jackson or pop culture avatars such as Spike Lee, Crouch mounts a convincing argument that they are too comfortable in fomenting stereotypes of both white and black culture that engender the breakdown of a once hoped-for community of shared values between the two groups.
Like his fellow dissenting black writers and social commentators Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, and Anne Wortham, Crouch is hard to classify politically; is he, as the National Review’s Brad Miner wonders, a “liberal, neo-liberal, neo-conservative, or what?” Whereas it is unlikely that Crouch would be happy being labeled a “conservative,” much of his criticism of the legacy of the Civil Rights movement—as well as his depiction of the more elusive problems of black family life—sounds the familiar themes of self-help and the appeal to color-blind justice associated with Reagan-era policymaking.
Merely to categorize the focus of Crouch’s cumulative wisdom on these matters as politically to the left or to the right is to misconstrue both his intent and the nature of these essays. Crouch is writing not only to or for minorities, but for all Americans—trapped as they are in the morass of their own history and failed attempts to bring equal rights before law to all citizens. For non-black readers, Crouch provides an uncommonly incisive...
(The entire section is 2092 words.)