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Joe, We Hardly Knew Ye 

The fear -- and loathing -- of a black hat

Wednesday, May 29 2002
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Last week’s L.A. Weekly feature story on Joe Hicks and his 30-year journey from the netherworld of black radicalism to the fold of uber-conservative David Horowitz was, as they say in Hollywood, irresistible material. Black man finally bites leftyliberal dust and goes where all of his brethren fear to tread. (I frankly think it‘s unoriginal; Glen Loury and Stanley Crouch did it first, and better.) I can swallow that as a treatment, a good pitch, but the devil was in the details -- or rather, the lack of details -- of the full-blown story. This was a piece that promised to be about race, that should have been, at least in part, but in the end was so eager to prove its point about the irrelevancy of race that it failed to live up to its own crucial premise. It decided that Joe Hicks pulled up stakes from the left and nowhere else -- not from the black community, with its hallmark concerns and its admittedly fractured politics. Of course black concerns overlap with those of the left, but they are not synonymous, yet the distinction between politics and people is never made in the story (it rarely is). So Hicks gets off the hook: Despite having cut his philosophical teeth on the civil rights movement and on outfits like Maulana Karenga’s Organization Us, Hicks makes a shift from left to right and it‘s seen as a purely intellectual decision, the best answer to a multiple-choice question about what brand of politics makes the most sense in a post-Marxist world. For Hicks it all ends up being about class and socioeconomic struggle; in his new equation, race is a dead end, a beaten horse that we all continue to ride at our peril.

Fine. It’s a free country. But the rather dangerous implication is that he is rational where all other public figures who still invoke race at all are emotional and terribly behind the times. Naturally, Hicks‘ sentiments are corroborated by several folks -- among them Horowitz and (surprise!) Larry Elder -- yet there are few comments from the scores of black people who knew Hicks when, and could best unearth the roots of his transition. The one willing to be named in the story is Connie Rice, cousin to Condi, a well-respected civil rights attorney and legal activist who nonetheless offers little insight into Hicks’ change of heart. The lack of scrutiny of Hicks‘ former life, even his very recent life at the city Human Relations Commission, is suspect and dishonest. Is it that criticism from Hicks’ black colleagues was presumed and therefore consciously avoided in an effort to paint Hicks as thoughtful and heroic? Was it plain old oversight? Any way you look at the omission, it‘s damning.

Creating a picture of a black success by cutting away the subject’s black past like so much orange peel, consciously or not, is an old and troubling story about the price of assimilation that gets new currency here. The underlying message is that black responses are eminently predictable and not worth cultivating, especially in this case: A story that announces the New Black Thinking is hardly interested in belaboring the old. But the nuances and gray areas and many points of connection between so-called new and old are precisely what is missing from this story which, despite the provocative presentation, is not a debate but a declaration: Joe Hicks is right -- in more ways than one -- and we can all throw down our cards and go home. The epiphany he describes about the essential meaning of Martin Luther King Jr. as an avatar of colorblindness is meant for all of us. Except that we‘ve experienced this kind of hijacking of big ideas by the right for years now, and it doesn’t wash. Let‘s all say it together: King championed equal opportunity and equality of the races, not colorblindness. He knew those goals would require work and engagement, not withdrawal. Now, I’m not insisting Joe Hicks take this position, but I‘m insisting that the Weekly, a left-leaning paper by tradition and reputation, at least challenge what’s become a thoroughly overplayed conservative trope. But maybe I presume too much.

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Let me pause for some station identification and say that I don‘t disagree with everything Joe Hicks believes. Not by a long shot. Many of the black people left out of his story would say the same thing, which may be the greatest irony among many -- that those assumed to be monolithically and diametrically opposed to him are not. They agree with Hicks that endemic poverty plays a big part in America’s social divisions. They get his concerns with class. They get his disaffection with black leadership that‘s been stagnant and inarticulate for too many years. But joining forces with David Horowitz strikes them, quite reasonably, as a response all out of proportion to Hicks’ discontent. They read it less as a defection from the left and more as a defection from black advocacy: It was not that Hicks converted; it was that, as he became more taken with the notion of racelessness, he grew increasingly dismissive of black people. This seemed somehow to be a requirement of the deal. During the 10-year riot-anniversary season last month, Hicks sat on various race-relations panels with old colleagues audibly grumbling about the fact he was there at all; he muttered to me during one such panel that he thought the whole affair ”stupid.“ When I parenthetically mentioned reparations later on during the panel, he groaned loudly from his end of the table. Vocal as he‘s been with opinions of the whole race gig, he said virtually nothing to black folks when he made his move to Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Maybe he feared the backlash -- but, really, why? If race doesn‘t matter and he believes blacks in general are on the wrong tack, why would he care what we think? The answers wouldn’t change the depth of Joe Hicks‘ convictions, but they would introduce some complications that would have made for a rougher-textured and better story. Not Hollywood material anymore, but a good story.

And an even better story might have explained just what happened to all the passion and conviction for issues of race, class and poverty Hicks allegedly brought to community organizations where he did time, like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Multi-cultural Collaborative. Maybe Hicks is right that approaches to those issues weren’t working at these places, but the Center for the Study of Popular Culture is hardly picking up where the SCLC left off -- it‘s in the business of refuting social problems, not solving them. Yet this appears to bother Hicks not at all. No, the move out of the hood was not merely ideological, as the Weekly story maintains, but racial -- Hicks didn’t run to Horowitz so much as retreat from the black monde.

That‘s a much touchier and more insider take on conversion, which is always ignored in profiles of blacks gone conservative because it simply doesn’t play well in Peoria; it disturbs the master narrative on the subject that‘s been running in a loop for the last 20 years. For ultimately this is a story not about a courageous new-age political conversion, but about an age-old search for identity. It’s the search black people have been on for eons, wandering the American desert of place that has always paralleled the universe of American plenty. Joe Hicks has tried out several places and wants out of that desert for good, and in some ways I don‘t blame him. But if leaving the desert means leaving everybody in it, I’ll stay put and take my chances on a change of scenery in the near, or even the distant, future. Identity is a word that seems to get thoroughly under Hicks‘ skin -- identity politics to be exact, a phrase he often uses interchangeably with race-based politics. The inference is that only black people have identity, and to invoke it is always to abuse it for political gain. This is not only untrue, it’s unfair -- what would you call Latinos who battled Prop. 187? Jews who fight anti-Semitism? The Joe Hicks story dismisses Maulana Karenga and his pan-African organization as practitioners of the reviled race-based identity politics. Whatever one thinks of Karenga or his tactics, it‘s patently wrong to dismiss him, or anyone, solely on the grounds that he supports other black people. It never ceases to amaze me how blacks are held to the highest standards of fairness and objectivity in matters of race, as if we created racism ourselves. We are viewed as nationalists, nomads until proven otherwise. Joe Hicks was once a nationalist and has given ample proof he is no longer, though I truly wonder what nation he’s living in now. As I sometimes wonder exactly who, and what, I‘m writing for now.

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