The New Establishment and the New Uncle Tom
Below is a reprint of an article I wrote in 1998 titled The New Establishment and the New Uncle Tom. The recent "Porch" reference by Warren Ballentine to Juan Williams caused me to dust it off.
Related to this is the theme I have been trumpeting for the past several months of a New Establishment and the need for New Radicals. Roles have reverse since the 60s era idea of the establishment and the radical.
With the controversy surrounding Judge Clarence Thomas’s speech before the National Bar Association recently, and his stigma of being an Uncle Tom, I was caused to ponder. Why do he and many other men who are otherwise respected by their peers seem to have this image to deal with. I think of Reggie White who for standing up and speaking his heart gave up a lucrative media deal. I think of the Rev. Floyd Flake who after serving his people as a Democratic representative for years was unwelcome by his black colleagues. I think of Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams who because of their boldness to consider and put forth a new and scholarly way of thinking are continually ostracized by their own people. I think of J.C. Watts and Alan Keyes who should be heralded as examples of hard work and achievement but rather are ridiculed and ignored by those who should embrace what they have to say.
I was taken back in my thoughts to growing up in the 50s and 60s and remembering the words “I ain’t black, I’m colored.” Then while in my teens I once referred to someone as colored when a “hipper” brother corrected me saying, “hey brother, we ain’t colored we are black now.” We then went on to become Afro-Americans and finally African Americans, where we are today. I took each step in stride, as did most of us, and had no problem in adjusting to new days, and new ways of looking at things. One thing never seemed to change though, and that was the idea of the Uncle Tom Negro working for the man against his people.
In the early 90s the word paradigm seemed almost to have been discovered for the first time. It was the “power word” of choice in many circles. The business world especially seemed to love the word. I am convinced, though, that many of those using the word did not fully comprehend its meaning. For those who still do not know the meaning, essentially a paradigm is an accepted model, or way of thinking about and doing things. Or another idea is that it is the standard of how things are thought of or done. Therefore, if we have thought of cars looking or driving a certain way that was the paradigm. If education was thought of or practiced in a certain way that was the paradigm for education. We began hearing of paradigm shifts, or in common terms, a new way of looking at, thinking about, understanding, or doing certain things. New standards of how things are done or are to be thought of were established. In the business and scientific worlds it was either change your paradigms or get left behind and out of business. With communication and technology moving at such a rapid pace business and science must continually evaluate and often shift their paradigms. Tragically society and culture has not done the same, and lagging way behind is black society and culture.
A key to understanding paradigms is not in recognizing the new paradigm but rather first having a clear understanding of what the old or current paradigms are. How do we look at, think about and do things, and why? We can then decide if it is working or not and if we need to change things.
This brings me back to my original thought regarding Judge Thomas and others.
I think it is time we look at our thinking on the so called Uncle Tom. The stigma of Uncle Tom has traditionally been associated with the black man who speaks or works against his people on behalf of “the man”. Generally the “Tom” does this to keep the trouble makers in their place and in order to preserve his own power and prestige. In the 50s and 60s the “Tom” was considered to be those who don’t cause any trouble, aren’t uppity, etc.. The uppity ones were those who chose to question or speak out against laws harmful to black people and people of color in general. The “Bad Negro” was the one willing to risk his name and personal safety for speaking the truth. He had no fear of “the man.” I think we still have Uncle Toms and we have others who are portrayed as being out of line, the “bad negroes,” but are the circumstances the same as they were 20 years ago? Is it possible that there is a new paradigm that we need to recognize?
In his book The End Of Sanity: Social And Cultural Madness In America, 1997
If what Gross says is true and we are under the rule and influence of a “New Establishment” then we need to ask; is there a corresponding “New Uncle Tom?” We also need to ask how and why he works for the man? Who speaks for the man whenever he needs someone to get the minority vote out? Who speaks for the man when he wants to push a law or keep a law which is harmful to African Americans and
We need to rethink our idea of the Uncle Tom. He is not a traitor just because he is successful. He is not a traitor because whites listen to him. That is what the purveyors of the old paradigm would have you think. How dare Clarence Thomas allow himself to be nominated as Supreme Court Justice by a Republican president. How dare Reggie White say publicly what he (and most of us) are thinking. How dare J.C. Watts Jr. be elected to congress by mostly whites and to represent a predominately white district. We, the negro thought police and the man, did not give these men permission to do this. It is impossible for this to happen because we have preached too long that it cannot. If we say it cannot happen and it happens then it makes us look bad. The New Establishment Uncle Tom has everything to lose if these bad negroes succeed. His power his prestige and yes, his livelihood are at risk if this type of thing gets by. So he is at the forefront in decrying these uppity “Negroes”.
I will never forget a line in the film Ghost Busters when the main characters, who were lazy goof off professors at a public university, had just been fired for incompetence. One of them made the remark, “this is serious, you don’t know what it is like to work in the private sector. I’ve been there and they expect results.” It was a humorous but profound statement which I am afraid describes many of those who have gotten used to living on the New Establishment’s dole and get power and prestige from seeking the same for others.
I think it is time for African Americans shuck this thinking and establish new paradigms. Paradigms which are good for the people as a whole. We have heard a lot about dreams in America.. “The American Dream”, Dr. King’s Dream”, and we all tell our kids to dream, or should. Some people though would rather give up on the dream. They would rather destroy someone else’s dream and call it equality. In other words they have no faith that they can achieve what the most successful of people have, so they would rather bring the successful person down to their level vs. striving to achieve that level of success. In my opinion that is not achieving anything.
What if we achieve the American Dream of equality for all, and get our piece of the pie only to find the pie has been trampled under foot and is no longer what it was when it was fresh and whole? No one wants that. It is the same with our country. Now I do not believe that it is possible to bring an entire nation to that level, or at least I hope not, but that does not mean that there are not those who are seeking just that. “Give me mine or I’m ruining yours”, they say. It is like the kids who because the game is not going their way try and ruin the whole game for everyone else. I remember when as a kid in Philly I was invited to a party in another part of
Now having said all of this, do not mistake my words for looking blindly at injustice, prejudice, and the problems that we still face. These need to be addressed. There is allot of work to be done, but let’s not just assume that what worked in the 60s will work today. White people and for that matter every other kind of people, including many African American people are getting tired of our cry baby, wimpish behavior. We want equality but we want live in our own neighborhoods, keep our own colleges, have our own holidays, and month. We want to be respected but slam whites publicly every chance we get. Just let David Letterman or Jay Leno make a joke about a Black or Mexican person; he’s gone. But we can, and do, do it on stage, Radio, TV or anywhere. If we want respect let’s give it. Let’s show character, pride, and wisdom. I think I liked “I am somebody” much more than “I need something”. Let’s listen to what some of the new voices are saying. Let’s get our dignity back and negotiate with people who believe we are somebody and are able to make things happen for ourselves. Let’s also treat with respect our brothers and sisters who have made it through hard work and using their heads. I think if anyone sat down with Judge Thomas, Reggie White, or J.C. Watts, they would not buy the picture that has been painted by people with their own idea of what a black man should look like, think like and/or act like.
Power to the people!