Race Huckstering in America

Herman Melville’s great and greatly perplexing novel The Confidence-Man, His Masquerade presents among many dubious characters one who calls himself Black Guinea. He is a cripple with a tambourine who shuffles around the forward deck of the steamboat Fidèle begging for coins. Passengers on the ship have been warned that a mysterious impostor may be aboard, and suspicion momentarily falls on Black Guinea. A man with a wooden leg declares that Guinea’s deformity is a sham and that Guinea is really “some white operator, betwisted and painted up for a decoy.” 

We never learn for sure whether Black Guinea is the confidence-man, that master of disguises. If so, why would he go to so much trouble to hustle for pennies? Possibly he is only one of a gang of swindlers and his job is to survey the crowd and pick out likely marks. Guinea defends himself by mentioning other passengers “what knows me and will speak for me.” They too turn out to be doubtful characters. Guinea is exclaiming, “Good ge’mmen, have you no confidence in dis poor ole darkie?” 

The rhetoric has changed a bit since Melville’s day. The self-abasing wails of Black Guinea are not in fashion among today’s race hustlers, though in fact if you spend any significant time in midtown Manhattan, you have a good chance of hearing a similar patter. One of the hustlers who works the tourists near my Madison Avenue office harangues reluctant donors by loudly declaiming. “Is it because I’m black? Is it because I’m black?” A fellow loafer with a more cheerful mien and a gentler line (“One dollar for the homeless. Just one dollar.”) rolls his eyes. Playing the white guilt card so clumsily embarrasses the better class of hustlers. 

These fellows, of course, are the smallest of small-time operators in the race industry. The career ladder extends upward to diversity trainers, corporate equity officers, supernumerary staff hired to fill BIPOC quotas, small-time politicians, big-city mayors, and, perched atop the highest pinnacle of Mount Hustle, Patrisse Cullors. She is one of the founders of Black Lives Matter who converted the charitable dollars given to her organization into a lavish lifestyle involving mansions, jets, and family members whose “services” gained them astonishing paydays. 

Damon Turner, the father of Cullors’ child, reportedly was paid $970,000 for “creative services.” These included “producing live events.” I am not sure what creative services Mr. Turner provided apart from procreative services. But that is a very high price for that kind of donation. The Daily Mail, among other publications, has been keeping track of Cullors’ generous treatment of her assistants. Her brother Paul was paid $840,000 for “security services.” For comparison, the average salary of an FBI executive is currently $235,143. 

The details of how Cullors and her cohort enriched themselves are head-turning, but it is best not to lose sight of all the good things that Cullors and Black Lives Matter have accomplished in a few short years. It was only nine years ago—July 13, 2013—that Cullors and Alicia Garza tweeted their way into history. Garza: “black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” Cullors: “declaration: black bodies will no longer be sacrificed for the rest of the world’s enlightenment. i am done. i am so done. trayvon, you are loved infinitely #blacklivesmatter” 

After which we had exciting festivities in many American cities, and a growing spirit of philanthropy, which culminated in 2020 when Americans (mostly) donated some $90 million to BLM. The organization has used those funds to spread the message of “love” in many directions (see above) and has become a force to reckon with in American politics and social life. 

In my neighborhood alone, the Episcopal Church is festooned with an all-weather banner declaring “Black Lives Matter,” as was the nearby synagogue—which unfortunately lost its banner in a recent storm. The outpouring of goodwill and interracial amity is manifest everywhere. A life-size wooden carving of a bear on its hind legs adorns the gas station-grocery entrance in the Vermont hamlet where I spend some of my time. The ursine likewise holds between its paws a sign painted—what else?—Black Lives Matter. 

Truly, until Garza and Cullors devised this neat slogan, the rest of us had no idea. We blandly assumed that all human life “mattered” in some fashion. Thomas Jefferson said something like that, or maybe it was Immanuel Kant. We intuited that only really bad people—Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Sid Vicious—held life to be unimportant or incidental. None of them were Americans. It was Freddy Mercury and Queen after all who sang, “Nothing really matters to me.” Over here, we generally assumed lives do matter, though we were not often specific about how or why.

Then BLM came along and properly fixed things. It taught us to hate law enforcement, defund the police, deincarcerate prisoners, and forgo prosecutions. Quoth BLM on April 15: 

one of the greatest systemic factors affecting the livelihood of Black communities is the continued over-policing, brutalization, and incarceration of our people. Violence by police tears our families apart; leaves emotional, logistical, and financial gaps in our communities; and steals the lives of so many of our loved ones before they get the chance to achieve their dreams.

Black Lives Matter is active on many fronts besides promoting peaceful lawlessness, but I just wanted to provide one concrete example of the good things that the movement has promoted. And it should be plain that it has done enormous work in reversing the humiliating mendicancy of figures such as Black Guinea. I do, however, want to be fair to Melville’s character. The Confidence-Man was a pre-Civil War novel (1857) set on the border of Missouri, a slave state, and published in the same years as the Dred Scott decision, which raised the possibility of making slavery a national, not just a Southern, institution. But Black Guinea declares himself a free man, “I am der dog without massa.” Freedom without the means of self-support is a hard fate. Perhaps Guinea’s dignity lay in his ability to fool other people. Historically, that has been one avenue towards self-respect among marginalized people. 

Race huckstering in America is nothing new but it is not generally a subject for polite conversation. The conventions of our day require that as we address race we attend exclusively to racism, injustice, oppression, and unearned privileges of whites, who benefited one way or another from slavery and Jim Crow. The whole of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “1619 Project” is a suspension bridge anchored on one side by the history of racial victimization and on the other side by white guilt. That puts certain facts off-limits or nearly so. 

In early April, an American academic, David Azerrad, gave a lecture at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. He titled his talk “Black Privilege,” and commenced with the example of Kamala Harris, who, Azerrad said, would not be vice president of the United States were it not for her black Jamaican father. She is a beneficiary of said “black privilege.” 

Azerrad’s deviation did not go unnoticed. In less than 24 hours, the college where he spoke issued a campus-wide repudiation of his remarks, and within a few days, the college put the institute that had arranged the conference into receivership and announced a new policy that no outside speaker would be permitted to lecture without prior approval of the campus authorities.

We have gone in short order from supposedly undervaluing black lives to overvaluing black sentiments to the point where even to name the hustle is an unforgivable offense. It wasn’t always so. In 1993, a movie titled “Six Degrees of Separation,” starring Will Smith, was released. Smith plays a young black man named Paul Poitier who passes himself off (falsely) as the son of Sidney Poitier in an elaborate race hustle in which he uses the guilt of white liberals to gain access to their money and property. The story is played mostly for laughs, but today, if told at all, it would be a social justice melodrama.  

Whole academic careers are built on this kind of hustle. Cornel West has spent decades packaging racial resentment as a cry for justice. Spike Lee has mastered the art of making movies about the travails of black characters in a manner that appeals to guilty white audiences. The post-Civil Rights era gave birth to a class of affluent Americans desperate for black approval, and canny black operators moved in to reap what advantages they could from this new vulnerability among those who could not distinguish between legitimate aspiration and play-acting. Demagogues such as Al Sharpton emerged by the 1970s. Sharpton himself gained credibility by leading provocative street protests in New York neighborhoods, including Howard Beach, Bensonhurst, and Crown Heights. He generally aimed to inflame tensions rather than resolve them, and he can be considered one of the grandfathers of BLM tactics. 

None of this would have worked without the susceptibility of elite white Americans who were ready to endorse the conceit that black rage was an appropriate response to racism, and that racism indeed explained all the hardships experienced by black Americans. The race hustle also requires that more complicated explanations of black social and economic difficulties be ignored or dismissed as racist. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s warnings about the breakdown of the black family and the rise of dependency (1965), for example, were buried under an avalanche of accusation and scorn. “Blaming the victim” became the all-purpose phrase to evade hard facts. Something similar has happened with the writings of Shelby Steele, whose books such as White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era (2006) and Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (2015) offer a nuanced psychological discussion of the America’s contemporary racial dilemmas.

Those contemporary dilemmas do have a much older history. Early in the 20th century, the self-help “uplift movement” championed by Booker T. Washington dominated the aspirations of black Americans. W. E. B. Dubois challenged Washington by demanding equal treatment immediately. After Washington died in 1915, Dubois became the single most powerful intellectual voice in the black community. Neither man could be categorized as a race hustler, though both succeeded in winning substantial white support. The difference was that Washington and Dubois had to win their way with argument and persuasion, rather than weaponized guilt and the threat of riot. 

There is perhaps a book to write about the roots of race hustling. Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s Race Experts (2001) offers a vivid account of the industry in the 1990s, but there is a story waiting to be told that goes back at least to Reconstruction about black leaders who capitalized on white fears in a manner that served themselves far more than the black community, or the nation as a whole. Not all of them were small operators like Melville’s Black Guinea, though perhaps Black Guinea wasn’t such a small operator. He may have been the chief of the confederacy of con men, and they may in turn have hastened that war that was about to tear America apart. 

Patrisse Cullors and her associates seem bent on a second Civil War. Her personal corruption and the malign organization she helps to run are surely better understood as a symptom of a diseased republic than as a revolutionary vanguard. But the corruption they foster is so flamboyant that it can only deepen the skepticism about the rule of law in America and even our common sense. 

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