Black Elite: Reductio ad absurdum

By Houston A. Baker and K. Merinda Simmons

Reductio ad absurdum is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “method of proving the falsity of a premise by showing that its logical consequence is absurd or contradictory”. In this article, the authors do just that when addressing the notion of the “Black Elite”.  


The millions stolen from Africa and transported around the globe for white European profit did not arrive at new world littorals ranked by class and status. The slave trade broadcast its preferences. The wish list included physically healthy males with strong labour power and robust African women endowed with childbearing capacity. Given the trade’s common assumption of the inferiority of all blacks, there was certainly not even a murmur of a possible “black elite”.

In new world colonies of British North America, for example, Thomas Jefferson made clear in his Notes on the State of Virginia that he and his white planter class found no exceptions to their definition of African slaves as “brutes”. For Jefferson and his class, blacks were considered lower on the great chain of being than Native Americans. They were dark and fit only for brute labour in white agricultural fields. Still, profitable management of plantations was a demanding business. Slave owners soon found it convenient to designate some few among their chattel to those who they anointed more adept than others. There emerged Negro slave drivers and house servants. These blacks were exceptions to the rule and gained small compensatory benefits for their enhancement of their masters’ profit and pleasure. The black majority remained consigned to the fields.  And it was precisely, and ironically, the black majority that moved black America from bondage to what freedom we now possess.  The fearless rebellion, creative genius, and abiding fortitude of the majority fostered freedom.

Among generations of “experts on slavery”, the actuality of the black majority’s undeniable primacy in liberation has been consistently overshadowed by white popular and academic allegiance to the seemingly inerasable myth of American exceptionalism. This indefatigable myth holds, in every instance, that all and only white men are ordained and destined to gain fortune and run the world. This racist, mythical, and completely irrational mumbo jumbo has motivated and justified the following from white America: genocide of aboriginal peoples, rampant murder of blacks, global ecological disaster, massacre of thousands in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, inequity so gross the Borgia would discredit it.

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 The most devout exceptionalists, however, still favour tentative loopholes of identity. For example, the need for “native translators and negotiators” gives birth to wanted posters for the exceptional “other”. Something on the order of: “Seeking somewhat smart and eager coloureds: Wanted for management position”.  Management is understood to mean of your people – the black majority in its incessant, righteous, and vociferous discontent with white racism and violence. Here, we witness the return of slave drivers and house Negros. When obtained, they assume the adjective “exceptional”. And indeed they are exceptions in the always endangered and unsettled habitus of the black majority. Yet, those of us who seek freedom and safety realise that black lives matter only when the black majority strategically repeats its everlasting “NO!” to the enduring American assault of white supremacy.

Which brings us to the presidency of Barack Obama. There is no plausible denial that Barack Obama arrived with all the educational perquisites, donated capital, and dark money that condition “elite” acceptance in American electoral politics. But like the black mediators and middlemen for white privilege through generations, Obama had virtually no urgent and fundamentally grounded commitment to forwarding at all costs the interests of the black majority. Even though the black majority was fundamental to his presidential electoral victory, he was wont to pronounce himself the president of all America

This indefatigable myth holds, in every instance, that all and only white men are ordained and destined to gain fortune and run the world. This racist, mythical, and completely irrational mumbo jumbo has motivated and justified the following from white America: genocide of aboriginal peoples, rampant murder of blacks, global ecological disaster, massacre of thousands in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, inequity so gross the Borgia would discredit it.


Obama’s eight years in office were equivalent in their efficacy for the black majority to the always-meager gains in store for the black majority when the “black exceptions” are in charge. The irrational exuberance that greeted Obama’s election blinded many to the unarguable fact that the white elite world runners would continue to refuse to cede one whit of their cultural, financial, and social power to black folks at large. It was the naïve and joyful pronouncements of “post-blackness” from the black exception chorus that prompted our collaborative production of The Trouble With Post-Blackness.

When we began compiling the scholarly and creative offerings that would ultimately become   The Trouble with Post-Blackness, something that could be called “the black elite” might have seemed easily identifiable and consumable –available to anyone picking up a magazine with a photojournalistic cover story about the first family. While many progressives found much of Obama’s lofty rhetoric lacking, the visibility of what appeared to be a black elite was indisputable. One could imagine the ascent of a black power and excellence seemingly on par with white elites. The so-called Age of Obama effectively offered an image of an African American Dream – one still heavily reliant on Lincolnian rhetoric of humble beginnings and some hefty bootstrapping.

The trouble as we saw it with “post-blackness”, then, was not its deconstruction of a presumably “authentic” racial performance. That authenticity has always been deeply suspect and post-blackness advocates were justified in their assertion that there are myriad ways to “be black.” What we questioned was the huge blind spot in their proclamation, namely its refusal to acknowledge that a sumptuously wealthy and powerful white American elite would never make social or structural adjustments that would cede a single watt of its power and privilege. The American Dream was violently constructed from the bones and bodies of African slavery.  Blacks had no choice but to live in hope, a word that became the cornerstone of the Obama administration. Live in black hope until the dream is seized. In retrospect, of course, one sees that the eight Obama years were placeholder days until the excoriating founding forces of American white supremacy could regroup and inaugurate a business mogul as the forty-fifth president of the United States. There is not much talk of “post-blackness” in present arenas of power.

The backlash to Obama’s ascent that swept Donald Trump into office was predictable to many progressives and people of colour, despite the shock and subsequent hand wringing on the part of white journalists who couldn’t believe the failures of their own statistical machine. There is a history as old as the republic, after all, of steps toward racial progress being met with intense policing of the boundaries that keep up and running white supremacist underpinnings of capitalism and the American democratic process. Marching and protesting these setbacks gives useful visibility to resistance efforts, but as long as a neoliberal vision of a post-racial era is seen as the endgame, specific policy moves to localise progress for specific communities will be seen as unnecessary and avoidable. In this case, a rhetorical nod to racial unity will continue to stand in for structural critique and localised agency. Seemingly defiant and activist proclamations and performances will continue to be wrapped in popular cultural trappings and sold to the gullible as radical action toward change. Meanwhile, the white owners and distributors smile at their profit.  And the notion of an effective black elite for real social change remains a reductio ad absurdum.

Featured Image: Woman protestor with a sign that says: Black Lives Matter © PA


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Houston A. Baker is Distinguished University Professor of English and Afro-American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author and editor of a number of books devoted to the criticism and theory of African-American literature. His recent monograph titled Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals Of the Civil Rights Era received an American Book Award. He holds honorary degrees from a number of American colleges and universities.

Merinda Simmons is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Her books include Changing the Subject: Writing Women across the African Diaspora (2014), The Trouble with Post-Blackness (co-edited with Houston A. Baker Jr., Columbia University Press, 2015) and Race and Displacement (co-edited with Maha Marouan, University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is currently at work on a monograph entitled Sourcing Slave Religion: Theorizing Experience in the American South.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.