THE GREAT WELLS OF DEMOCRACY

The Meaning of Race in American Life

By Manning Marable

Basic. 365 pp. $27.50 Manning Marable's latest collection of essays represents his attempt "to provoke a new conversation about the meaning of race in American life and history." If I had a dead president for every book I've run across with the same ambition, I'd be as rich as P. Diddy. But those extra bucks still might not be as rewarding as this collection. Marable, a professor at Columbia University, continues to demonstrate a mastery of polemical writing. He is, as usual, straightforward, concise and adept at cutting straight to the chase.

Marable introduces many of his essays with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., and he has taken his title from a speech King gave the night before he was assassinated in 1968. Despite the nods to King, W.E.B. Du Bois's influence looms just as large behind many of these offerings. Marable seems to be following the model that the great scholar established in "The Souls of Black Folk," combining the depth and methodology of a trained academic with accessible language and a smidgen of autobiography.

An unabashed progressive, Marable places his activism firmly in the American patriotic tradition. His contrarian style also brings to mind James Baldwin, who famously declared, "I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." Like Baldwin, Marable contends that his nation's history of inequality must be confronted head-on, if only to help the country realize its full potential. "To be 'color blind' in a virulently racist society is to be blind to the history and reality of oppression," he writes. "To forget the past and to refuse to acknowledge the color-coded hierarchies that constitute our parallel racial universes is to evade any responsibility for racial peace in the future."

Echoing Frederick Douglass's observation that "power concedes nothing without a demand," Marable implies that the prosperous black middle class has been too busy consuming to do much demanding. According to him, "the absolute size of the African-American middle class . . . increased more than 400 percent" between 1968 and 1995. He argues that landmark victories such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have lulled many of their beneficiaries into harmful complacency. One-fourth of the black population continues to subsist below the poverty line but, Marable suggests, better-off blacks have been too preoccupied with material pursuits to devote much passion or energy to helping the truly disadvantaged.

Desegregated housing allowed the black middle class to separate itself from its poorer brethren, creating a gap that was geographical as well as economic. This made the idea of a black "community" much harder to define. Marable takes a stab at it, suggesting a "social geography of blackness," an imagined community shaped by "a set of political, social, and economic experiences and relations with whites as a dominant group that to a large extent define and construct our collective understandings of daily life."

Marable is brave to tackle this riddle, but I found his explanation wanting. While I appreciate his call for a more fluid concept of community, I wonder if he places too much emphasis on forces that attempt to victimize blacks and not enough on our diverse reactions to such forces. Wouldn't a more proactive definition also consider the divergent ways in which we respond to outside stimuli? For example, some black conservatives claim that white racism is now too insubstantial to merit much attention; do they regard themselves as belonging to the same community as poorer blacks? Uncharacteristically, Marable gives short shrift to their assertions, quickly dismissing them as "race traitors." Elsewhere he has engaged their arguments and acquitted himself well; I wish he'd done more of it in these pages.

In Marable's view, while black political efforts foundered in the wake of geographic dispersal and the rise of class-based divisions, the federal government advanced an agenda that proved largely damaging to blacks. He believes Republican policies "have all had a disproportionately negative impact on racialized minorities" and contends that Clinton's centrist Democratic agenda wasn't much better. As he sees it, blacks' failure to mount effective political resistance has enabled a host of maladies to spread, including poverty and a corrupt criminal justice system.

To combat such ailments, Marable prescribes "a multiracial, multiclass political movement" that focuses on grass-roots organizing and promotes "group-centered leaders" rather than "leader-centered groups." His long-range goal seems to be a reconciliation of various black political philosophies, among them radical leftism, cultural nationalism and old-school integrationism. It's a Herculean task over which black thinkers have struggled for years. If that knotty problem is ever unraveled, Marable's sharp, challenging and refreshing body of work will quite likely be part of the solution.