Albert Murray: "Any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that the black people are not black." Photo: Craig Herndon / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Letter from Washington: Albert Murray and the case for complexity

A dissenting opinion in a revolutionary moment

Artillery Row

In CHAZ, the activist-run “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” in Seattle, white activists enforce the borders of an “all-black healing space”: blacks over here, whites over there. 

In Lincoln County, Oregon, officials issue an order requiring face coverings be worn in public, but exempt non-white residents because of “heightened concerns about racial profiling and harassment”. (They reverse the carve out when it prompts “expressions of racism”.)

In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a statue of Ulysses S Grant, the leader of the Union army that defeated the Confederacy, is torn down by protesters. 

In Minneapolis, a white man dials 911 after two black teenagers ask him for his car keys and one of them points a gun at his chest. He later tells the New York Times he regrets doing so. “I put those boys in danger by calling the cops,” he says. 

At risk of being seen to be out of step with the march of progress, these do not seem like entirely positive developments, and they leave me wondering if something, somewhere isn’t going wrong in the racial reckoning underway in America. 

First, let’s consider the case for not getting too hung up on the excesses of the wokest of America’s woke. 

Away from the most progressive enclaves of America’s most progressive cities, something overwhelmingly positive and important is happening: a widespread acknowledgment of the injustice and unfairness still faced by black Americans — inequities that the Trump presidency has made impossible to ignore. Public opinion has shifted on the scale of the problem. On Capitol Hill, legislators from both parties agree on the need for police reform (the subject of my dispatch for the print issue of the magazine this month), even if they disagree on what the legislation should look like. Cultural behemoths like the NFL and Nascar — hardly America’s most liberal organisations — have changed their tune dramatically. Perhaps we will look back on 2020, and the left-liberal overreach will be a footnote in an otherwise good news story. 

Unfortunately, I’m not so sure one can cheerily brush aside what is happening in America’s elite liberal institutions. In the newsrooms, campuses and beyond that set the tone for much of America’s cultural and political life, the steady stream of cancellations and firings reveal a new, profoundly illiberal ruling ideology. A desire for racial equality is not enough. To recognise the progress America has made in the half a century since the end of legal segregation makes you an unwitting agent of white supremacy. According to the new progressivism, Martin Luther King’s famous dream that his children would one day live “in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” was woefully, even dangerously, naive. Group identity must come first, individuals second. 

For a dissenting opinion, I reached for a book published 50 years ago that feels like it came out yesterday. In The Omni-Americans, the late critic and writer Albert Murray takes aim at “race-oriented propagandists, whether white or black” for whom his title would “make no sense”. He argues that “the United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that the black people are not black.” This, for Murray, is not a kumbaya plea for unity but simply a statement of the biological and cultural obvious. Unfortunately, it is also an increasingly fringe view. 

Murray wasn’t insisting on some unrealistic version of colourblindness. He was advancing his view of what it meant to be American

Writing after the unrest of 1968, Murray claimed that “the present domestic conflict and upheaval grows out of the fact that in spite of their common destiny and deeper interests, the people of the United States are being misled by misinformation to insist on exaggerating their ethnic differences. The problem is not the existence of ethnic differences, as is so often assumed, but the intrusion of such differences into areas where they do not belong. Ethnic differences are the very essence of cultural diversity and national creativity.” 

Murray, who was black, wasn’t insisting on some unrealistic version of colourblindness, nor was he trying to obscure the racial injustices of which he was acutely aware. He was advancing his view of what it meant to be American.

To do so, he borrowed heavily from Constance Rourke, for whom homo Americanus was, in Murray’s words, “part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian, and part Negro”.

According to Rourke, “each had been a wanderer over the lands, the Negro a forced and unwilling wanderer. Each in a fashion of his own had broken bonds, the Yankee in the initial revolt against the parent civilisation, the backwoodsman in revolt against all civilisation, the Negro in a revolt which was cryptic and submerged but which nonetheless made a perceptible outline.” 

Murray was steadfastly opposed to the separatism advanced by the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. He took aim at the “theorists and social welfare technicians whose statistics-oriented interpretations of black experiences add up to what functions as a folklore of white supremacy and a fakelore of black pathology”. And he was critical of writers like James Baldwin whose work “seems to be designed to make those toward whom it is directed — i.e., white racists — feel guilty and fearful: white man, listen— or be damned. Take heed and mend your sinful ways because if you don’t, I foresee fire and brimstone next time and believe me, you’re going to get just what you deserve! Producing guilt may or may not be fine, but stimulating intelligent action is better. And intelligent action always needs to have its way paved by a practical estimate of the situation.” 

As leading liberal American journalists want to drop any pretence of objectivity in favour of “moral clarity”, and both sides of the culture war increasingly pursue their own versions of reality, the country could do with more practical estimates of the situation.

In his foreword to the 50th anniversary edition of The Omni-Americans, Henry Louis Gates Jr — a black Harvard professor who in 2009 was thrust into the national spotlight when Cambridge, Massachusetts, police arrested him for the absurd non-crime of breaking into his own home — writes: “Quite simply, Murray stood for complexity, and the black experience was — and is, and always will be — complex. What he was saying is that there is no prescription for being black, no program to conform to, despite what groups were calling for from their various corners.”

It may not get you retweets, but complexity feels more important than ever today. Especially in a country as vast, maddeningly self-contradictory and, yes, complicated as America. 

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