05/20/2014 12:16 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

America's Racial Carnival: Where Have You Gone Jimmy? (and Malcolm Too!)

It's been a bizarre spring in America's longest running drama of race. From Congressman Paul Ryan's observations on "inner city" life, to the most recent battle over affirmative action on the Supreme Court; to the slimy racial politics of sometime GOP darling, rancher Cliven "Let me tell you something else I know about the Negro" Bundy, to the most recent fiasco of NBA owner Donald Sterling's truly other-worldly racially-driven implosion. At a minimum, it has been a bad stretch, shall we say, for the perhaps dwindling group of post-racialists who insist that race and racism are things of the past. It should also be apparent by now, that what Justice Sonia Sotomayor described as Chief Justice John Roberts' "wishful thinking" on race, needs to be expunged in favor of a dose of clear-eyed reality.

Thankfully, we have reasons this season to sort out America's racial troubles in a more meaningful way. For starters, May 19th is Malcolm X's 89th birthday. Likewise, we are already in the midst of a year-long celebration of the great James Baldwin's 90th birthday. Thinking about and celebrating these two giants of the black freedom struggle in tandem offers a welcome departure from the cartoonish race-gurus who've stolen the media spotlight in the last few months. Indeed, Malcolm and Baldwin open a far wider window into assessing how far removed we are from the America of the early and mid-twentieth century, and as the aforementioned episodes suggest, how far we have to go.

"When Malcolm X talks he articulates black suffering; that's his great authority over any of his audiences - he corroborates their reality." So said Baldwin about Malcolm X during a heady and high-brow, smoke-filled interview in 1963 with the influential black psychologist Kenneth Clark. While Baldwin was a frequent critic of his friend, he and Malcolm X nevertheless shared a familiar story of America's wanton assault upon their blackness, and in a sense, their very being. As Baldwin eulogized at the Oxford Union Society in England where Malcolm had spoken just two months before his assassination, "Malcolm and I were produced by the same circumstances. We are in revolt against the same conditions."

It has proven all too easy to forget the conditions Baldwin was alluding to. They included two faces of American racism. The first was an open and unmasked face, marked by the de jure segregation of Jim Crow, and a host of laws and customs that upheld the legitimacy of white supremacy across the country. The second face was more felt than seen - the assortment of racially contingent realities that characterized black life in America that were largely unattached to specific laws. In short, Baldwin and Malcolm were in revolt against black poverty, powerlessness, and the psychic contagion of internalized racial inferiority among African Americans. While the civil rights movement successfully shattered the face of overt discrimination and legal apartheid, we continue to wrestle with racism's more masked visage. Ryan, Bundy, and Sterling's recent race-capades were the result of their failure to learn the more cheerfully coded language of Justice Roberts. It was one of the great talents of Baldwin and Malcolm to see the tom-foolery of color-blind language for what it is, some 50 years ago.

For Baldwin, ever the somber visionary, a color-blind America was to be, if was to be at all, the by-product of actual social upheaval, of a radical re-imagining of the country's dark founding. It wasn't something that could be bought on the cheap, and certainly not with a mere rhetorical flourish. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," is how Roberts has put it. Brevity, in this instance, is the soul of privilege. As Baldwin noted in a 1979 interview with the black journalist Hollie West, "A great deal has changed on the surface. But nothing has changed in the depths." As for Malcolm, even his experience with "color-blind" Islam during his Hajj in April of 1964 did not offer a way out of the difficult task of creating real, rather than imagined, racial equality. Citing the killings of the ill-fated trio of civil rights workers Goodman, Schewrner, and Chaney, during his Oxford debate speech 50 years ago, Malcolm described the then recently passed Civil Rights bill as "down the drain" - not for its lack of legislative bite - but for the government and broader society's unwillingness to enforce it. Like Baldwin, he was counting collective wills, not bills.

Which brings us to today and the fun-house mirror period we are in with respect to race. It has been a sobering reminder of the persistence of not only racism, but of those in power who massage its ailing limbs. In this season of glorified ignorance and dime-store philosophy masquerading as wisdom, let us take time to return to James Baldwin and Malcolm X at their best. Which is to say, when however at odds over tactics and conclusions, these two Harlemites got the fundamental diagnosis of American racism and our related self-congratulatory tendencies, right.

The embers of our time.

Saladin Ambar is the author of the newly released book, Malcolm X at Oxford Union: Racial Politics in a Global Era (Oxford University Press) and How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press). He is an assistant professor of political science at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. He is currently working on a book on the political career and thought of former New York Governor, Mario M. Cuomo.