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Prof: Intellectuals failing poor blacks

Houston Baker was at the first one-day Celebration of Black Writing party 25 years ago, when he was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Houston Baker was at the first one-day Celebration of Black Writing party 25 years ago, when he was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Today, Baker, 66, is a distinguished professor at Vanderbilt University, whose latest book, "Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era" advances his reputation as a no-holds-barred cultural critic.

In his book, Baker contends that many of the black public intellectuals who appear on network and cable television talk shows have essentially turned their backs on poor African-Americans.

"They are saying if people are in a bad place - if they are impoverished and disproportionately imprisoned and racially-profiled and killed in drive-by shootings - it's a result of bad behavior," Baker said in a telephone interview last week.

"It has nothing to do with municipal or state or federal laws and policies such as those that put some drug users in rehab and others in prison."

Among the black intellectuals that Baker is most sharply critical of are well-known conservative writers and thinkers such as Hoover Institute senior fellow Shelby Steele, Manhattan Institute fellow John McWhorter and comedian Bill Cosby, who has criticized poor black parents, Baker said, "for the way they talk and dress when they probably don't have two quarters to put together."

But Baker also takes to task more liberal-minded academic stars such as Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson and Henry Louis Gates Jr. He said those professors and writers show empathy for poor African-Americans, but haven't taken up the more radical legacy of W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr. and others who fought for civil rights.

He says there is no doubt that many of these intellectuals are extremely smart and credentialed.

"But the common sense is to see yourself rise, you have to take your people with you," Baker said.

The introduction to "Betrayal" says in part: "Select black individuals may achieve fame - and a growing black middle class may work profitably at race-oriented and affirmative action-induced jobs. Elite blacks may even find themselves subjects for glossy high-end magazines . . . But . . . the race reaps virtually no benefit from the bling of a black celebrity 'elite' that is often more damning in its condemnation of the black American majority than white America at large."

Further, Baker says some of these black "superstars" who don't fight for the masses of people still living in poverty are holding university positions that were created after ordinary people marched and protested in the streets.

At 6:30 p.m. Friday, the Celebration of Black Writing Festival will present Baker with one of its four 2009 Lifetime Achievement Awards at the Church of the Advocate, 18th and Diamond streets. The other recipients this year are novelist Terry McMillan, children's book illustrator Jerry Pinkney, and young-adult author Walter Dean Myers. *

- Valerie Russ