Silencing Dissent

After years of procrastination, I finally got around to reading Yale University law professor Stephen L. Carter's, book, Reflections of An Affirmative Action Baby. Carter writes engagingly about race issues like affirmative action, racial stereotypes, and the civil rights movement. Particularly interesting was a group of chapters titled "On Being a Black Dissenter."

During the 70s and 80s, Dr. Thomas Sowell and I came under scurrilous attacks for our departures from the conventional wisdom on race by the news media, campus intellectuals and members of the civil rights establishment. To give a sample of the viciousness of the attacks, Carl Rowan said in his nationally syndicated column, ". . . Vidkum Quisling, in his collaboration with the Nazis, surely did not do as much damage to the Norwegians as Sowell is doing to the most helpless of black Americans. Sowell is giving aid and comfort to America's racists . . . ." Not long after, a black reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer found Rowen's column so compelling that he plagiarized it, simply substituting my name in place of Sowell's, to attack me. Both during and after confirmation hearings, and right up to today, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been called "Uncle Tom", "Oreo", "race-traitor" and caricatured in cartoons in national publications in most unflattering ways. Other targets of these attacks have included: California State University San Jose Professor Shelby Steele, Robert Woodson, Director of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprises, University of Massachusetts Professor Julius Lester and many others.

Stephen Carter points out that these attacks and the stifling of dissent is not new among blacks. When W.E.B. Dubois criticized Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement, Garvey dismissed him as "purely and simply a white man's nigger." Dubois responded in kind, blasting Garvey as "without a doubt the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world." There were attacks and counterattacks between Booker T. Washington and DuBois. Carter adds, "Many a great thinker in our history, from Arna Bontemps to Ida B. Wells to James Weldon Johnson to Paul Robeson, has chafed under the pressure to conform or be ostracized. Black intellectuals had no monopoly on being attacked for straying away from the conventional "wisdom". In a 1960 speech to the Nation Association of Manufacturers, S.B. Fuller, founder of Fuller Brush, opined, "Even more than racial barriers, it is a lack of understanding of the capitalist system that keeps blacks from making progress." Fuller was echoing Booker T. Washington's argument that racial progress came from having something to sell. For that sin, black leaders led a boycott against Fuller Brush, causing him $8 million in loses and near bankruptcy.

Carter says, and I agree, "We as a people should have learned a lesson about the importance of permitting, encouraging, even cherishing, critical thinking. By encouraging open and robust debate about the problems confronting our community, we can march upward toward a better tomorrow. If instead we choose to stifle the voices of dissent, it is hard to see how we will get anyplace at all."

No people, particularly black people, can afford a monopoly on ideas. Only in an unfettered marketplace of ideas will better ideas emerge. And black Americans need better ideas. After all who in their right mind can say that: after years and trillions of dollars spent on government programs like urban renewal, Head Start, and War on Poverty there's no more urban blight, black kids can read and write as well as white kids and poverty has been eliminated?

Walter E. Williams


June 17, 1997