Friday, November 28, 2008

What Would Malcolm Say?

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” -- Antonio Gramschi

Back in the early 1960’s, when nobody was doubting whether or not the socially-constructed, political notion of “race” “mattered,” a young African-American sociologist named Calvin Hernton, who had not yet written Sex and Racism in America, the landmark polemic that put him on the international map, took a job as a social worker in New York City to pay his rent. Entering the apartment of a woman whose 12-year-old son had been arrested, he found on the wall a painting by the boy. Using heavy oils – bright reds, greens, and blues, with large splotches of black – the youth had obviously been communicating his frustration and his rage in no uncertain terms.

The painting depicted fat grinning White men with money sticking out of their pockets, and even White police officers in blue uniforms with huge distorted silver badges, beating African-American men who lay on the ground, bleeding, with what looked like blood on the tips of stick-like plaited hair.

Circles with arrows pointed at the White men’s mouths read, “You niggers love us, don’ you?”

Turning to the boy’s mother, Hernton asked about the blood on the tips of the Black men’s plaits.

“That’s not hair with blood on it,” the woman replied without emotion. “That’s dynamite growing out of their skulls.”

Hernton went home, gave this some thought, and cranked out an essay about how, if we did not change the way things were being done in this country, we were ultimately going to produce an entire generation of young African-Americans suffering from a condition he called “the psychology of the damned”:

“As the collective mind, supraorganic, pitting itself against the mythologized odds of an unsurmountable monster, this demon will rise, for only demons can destroy demons and thereby become human again. The sense of fear will be wiped from their consciousness, reason will disappear, emotions will evaporate, fear of death will be meaningless, for they have been dead all their lives. Nor will they care about winning, not in any understandable sense of the word, for in and through the act of destroying and killing and dying, they shall be winning, a sense of life will be born anew within them…Their madness will no longer be attached to any identifiable norm, value or nonvalue – neither money, hate, freedom, or revenge. For, having been purged of faith in all human values, in all normal behavior, their madness will be the only god in whom they can put their fidelity without being deceived and betrayed. No doubt, according to the way America will look at them, they will appear as raving Blacks on a rampage of ruin and riot – nothing new, for America has always looked at them this way…[E]verything you might offer them will be irrelevent, for how do you give a people back their manhood, their souls?”*

Forty years after Hernton issued his warning, we stand uncorrected, having done as a society almost nothing to address the real issues at hand for people of color in the United States, let alone take responsibility for the damage done every U.S. citizen as a result of having our culture formed by, under, and within a 400-year system of unapologetic White supremacy. African-American men are nearly four times more likely to be unemployed than European-American men – at every educational level – with unemployment for young Black males pushing 50%. One out of every two African-American children is still growing up in abject poverty (while the Federal Poverty Guideline is considerably lower than what it really costs to live in this country). And at current rates, one of every three Black boys born in 2001 is headed for prison (thanks to a criminal “justice” system that marks them early and slams them ever so much more quickly and for substantially lesser “crimes” than their White counterparts).

In the meantime, the European-American middle class is disappearing more rapidly by the month as workers struggle to hold onto jobs that don’t pay enough any more to support even an individual, let alone a family. And with inflation going straight through the dwindling ozone layer, average White folks aren’t likely to be in the mood to share with or even be empathetic toward their Black fellow citizens – at least any time soon.

Highly respected European-Americans belly up to the psycho-social bar in the attempt to describe in painful detail the fixated brutality of their own and others’ infection with the virus of White supremacy, not to be confused with White superiority, which doesn’t exist. Yet even as Joe Feagin releases Racist America, Tim Wise pens White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, and Paula Rothenberg authors Invisible Privilege: A Memoir About Race, Class, and Gender, we still manage to find scholarly people of color such as Orlando Patterson appearing in The New York Times, holding forth that Black people’s problems are ultimately just caused by themselves. And, according to Columbia University professor Ronald Mincey’s “Black Males Left Behind” study that came out last year, even young Black men “admit” that they simply don’t “try hard enough,” ignoring (thanks to the Pattersons and the Minceys of this world) how they have been systematically turned into people who won't try hard enough. And indeed, even when they do try hard enough, damn few are allowed to succeed or to succeed at the level they would were “race” not in the equation.

What is to be made of this schizoid U.S. culture? Is Feagin just selling books? Is Patterson’s perspective just a function of going straight from the Caribbean to Harvard? They can’t both be right. Can they? People with lesser credentials decide routinely to hold the perspective with which they have been socialized and to embrace whichever “expert” espouses their particular and sometimes peculiar belief. So a White youth sitting in a university classroom next to a Black youth wearing the same type of clothing, getting the same grades, even participating in class projects together, will nevertheless describe Black people in general as "lazy, violent, welfare frauds who want something for nothing," in spite of all the immediately visible evidence to the contrary.

This mindset has been demonstrated most recently and in a most graphic manner both before and even after the latest Presidential election. There’s no confusion among those who bother to review such matters at all that, despite a new President-elect of color, the political system in this country is still made up almost entirely of European-American men and that those women and people of color who finesse their way into legislative halls seldom get anywhere near the inner circle without selling their souls, at the very least. There is most assuredly a racial “party line” dictated by those who have always had the power to define in this nation. And even the most perfunctory review of the political arena demonstrates who those folks are.

Further, if one listens to politicians who are either women or people of color (or both), one will have no problem identifying which ones have any real power at all (the ones pushing the “party line” even against people who look like themselves) and those who are hard put to accomplish much when the rubber meets the road (those who truly attempt to represent or at least include the ranks of the politically powerless – of any skin tone). The political career of Cynthia McKinney serves as a classic example.

Even Barack Obama’s campaign was marked, many have noted, by almost no addressal of the blatant fact of racial privilege in the U.S. And with a national commitment to denial about the reality of what the Kerner Commission called “two Americas – one Black and one White” forty years ago, Obama’s choice to backburner such a crucial reality was seen as expedient rather than short-sighted or odd. The public kept waiting - and even expecting - to hear Obama declare how he was going to even the racial playing field because he is Black, yet considered it "smart politics" when he did not. The fact that it seemingly doesn't occur to us that the well-documented racial divide in this country belongs on any politician's list of issues to address is further proof of White Supremacy's insidious hold on our culture.

In this political context, unequal access to the market place is a no-brainer. Even college-educated African-American men who are allowed to be employed full-time still make only about 76% of a White man’s income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In fact, a full-time Black male worker in 2003 made less in real dollar terms than a similar White man earned in 1967. And Black homebuyers with incomes above $100,000 per year are charged high interest rates on their mortgage loans more often than Whites with incomes below $40,000, regardless of credit history. The result? White families’ average net worth stands currently at eleven times that of Black families, with the gap remaining substantial even when comparing families of like size, composition, education, and income status. No wonder African-Americans can so often be heard to intone, “It’s always been this way and it’s always gonna be this way,” even though we didn't construct racial categories until a few hundred years ago.

Another masterminded aspect of the system of racial disparity in this country has been the development of an almost direct connection between one’s economic well-being and one’s level of academic achievement. Because of this, Jonathan Kozol has made a life's work out of producing book after book examining how the educational system in this country has utterly failed children of color to the point that while 80% of African-Americans over fourteen could read in 1930, one study estimated that this figure was reduced to 56% by 1990. Another source suggested that the latter figure was closer to 63%, but even that would substantially lower the much earlier figure. Are we to assume then, that African-Americans became less intelligent, less capable, and less motivated all by themselves over that sixty year period? Or would we want to consider the possibility that once Brown vs the Board of Education demanded that all children in the U.S. be equally prepared in this country to fulfill their potential as economically and socially successful citizens, a new sidestep was put in place?

Could it be that African-American teachers in front of their charges during segregation were actually teaching their students to value and respect themselves in ways that later lighter teachers might not always attempt or be able to do in the face of generalized anti-Black socialization? And reading levels aside, this might also help to explain the disparity between White high school graduation rates (at 78%) and Black high school graduation rates (at 56%), as reported by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute. Further, this same dynamic would also ensure the lack of resources committed to reduce the level of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and depression that has been identified as rife among poverty-stricken inner city youth, as demonstrated by the fact that suicide is now the number three cause of death among young Black American men.

As if all this wasn't enough, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that nearly 900 organized hate groups, most of them anti-Black, are currently operating in the United States, representing a substantial and continual rise over the past five years. Nevertheless, federal prosecutors declined to pursue federal civil rights charges in 98.7% of race-related matters referred to them from 1986 to 2003, while pursuing charges in about 40% of tax evasion cases and 51% of those related to sexual exploitation of minors. So it would appear that the government, charged with the responsibility to protect U.S. citizens from each other is simply abdicating that responsibility when it comes to people of color, even though a study in 2002 found that 75% of U.S. citizens polled did not believe everyone in the U.S. is treated equally.

James Baldwin once said, “You can learn everything you need to know about race in this country by asking a White person would they like to be Black.” This was true in 1960 and it’s true now. The question is: will it still be true in 2060? We seem to be counting on Calvin Hernton’s prediction to be wrong. But what if it isn’t? Would it matter? We act as if locking up vast numbers of young - and not so young - Black males for ridiculous periods of time is going to save this society from itself. But no people ever allowed themselves to be oppressed forever. And wherever you find oppression in history, you will find social conflict.

African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans want nothing more than what European-Americans want: safety, opportunity, respect. Acting as if they don’t understand this makes White people look stupid, mean-spirited, and even, perhaps, dangerous to an ever increasing percentage of the U.S. population. Some White people – whether they’re willing to admit it or not – fear that “sharing” the basic rights of full citizenship with people of color will result in Whites losing privilege and economic benefits. I would argue that not doing so will ultimately cost us both and maybe much, much more.

Though a cadre of disgruntled racists have reared their ugly heads in response to the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, many in this country – Black and White – have touted the election as a symbol of change, as proof positive that, at least in very important ways, race no longer matters here. I would argue, however, that this perspective is not only badly mistaken, but will be used to further entrench and intensify institutionalized oppression against ordinary people of color in the U.S., and most particularly African-Americans. Wholesale denial of the real problems I have discussed in this post will now be masked by a ready appropriation of this one man’s remarkable achievement to mean that, if a Black man can be elected President, then there are no differences between us. Thus racism will morph into yet another incarnation of neo-racism so that, even with a Black President in the White House, we can continue to face the world as a nation marked by its refusal to honor the Constitutionally-guaranteed rights of millions of its citizens.

Can the European-American power structure maintain its strangle-hold over the entire population of the United States, many of whom it has never appropriately served or even considered? Can we continue to pretend that all is well because those with the power to define keep saying it is? Do we really believe that a nation divided against itself can long endure just because we have somehow survived thus far? And if not, what practical and comprehensive social changes are we prepared to implement immediately in the best interests of our nation, our children, and ourselves? Until we sit down together and draft that list, the socially-constructed, political notion of “race” will continue to matter to all of us in further reaching ways than we can possibly know or dare to risk.
*Quote from "Dynamite Growing Out of Their Skulls," pp. 78-104, Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro American Writing, Leroi Jones and Larry Neal, eds.,1968, NY: William Morrow.


macon d said...

This is great, covers a lot of the ongoing realities of race VERY well, thank you for it. It seems that the white power structure will last a long time yet, and that it won't go down without a fight. But then, maybe in a way it will, because to a large degree it's just a tool for maintaining the real structure behind the curtain, that of social class, that structure that's always been maintained for the sake of a kleptocratic rank of plutocrats. Maybe with non-white Obama and family up on center stage, and with the continuing demographic decline of whites, the elites' weapon of race will fade as other ways to divide and conquer take its place. Hard to imagine, though, isn't it? Especially in the short term, given the way racial others are such a convenient scapegoat during economic downturns.

I'm a little surprised that you didn't mention Obama's plans for an Office of Urban Policy. Do you see any, er, hope in such a thing?

changeseeker said...

"...racial others are such a convenient scapegoat during economic downturns."

I think that this is going to be driving the train for the next little bit, Macon, maybe all the way to the urging of a race war that could then be used as an excuse for an even more wholesale use of prisons (and perhaps even martial law?) It will be interesting, indeed, to see how things unfold.

As for Obama, I'm still holding my breath, as I think many of us are. I'm terrified something bad will happen to the man. And I'm similarly veeeery concerned that even if it doesn't, his will and ability to make the desperately needed changes (both domestically and globally) will either be neutralized or non-existent. An "Office of Urban Policy," for example, could just be one more dance around the old long-winded reformist discussion mulberry tree. And while addressing urban crisis is an obvious place to start for many poverty stricken people, it still doesn't broadside racial disparity as such. And this is the primary thrust of this post, I guess. Not that we as a culture are prepared to take that on, but I as an indidivual would push us to do so.

Do I have high hopes for a logical, rational approach to closing the racial divide at this time? No. Do I think it's possible that good can yet overcome evil? Absolutely. In fact, I'm counting on it.

Maxjulian said...

This does cover a lot of terrain. However, what has been coming up for me is the incarceration of black people that you reference. There is a pathological fear/need within white culture to "control" the movement, freedom of black people, particularly men. This is not a policy question; this is a nature question. What is the nature of white folks' spiritual disquiet that they MUST criminalize from the crib?

The sense of futility that so many black folks feel in terms of reading for example, is a sharp rebuke to this monstrous system and how it degrades and demonizes us. I've felt the same urge to self-immolate in the face of the racist full court press.

changeseeker said...

Hey, Maxjulian. Ever since I spent several years in the 1970's neck-deep in the prison abolition movement in this country, I've been studying this particular manifestation of White Supremacy with great anguish. The statistics alone are nightmarish, but when you know as much as I do about what actually goes on in those places, it takes on an even more garish quality.

The criminal code is the dividing line between the State and the mass public. Additionally, the State gets to decide who gets labeled "criminal" and how they will be treated. I believe that African-Americans are the most long-term and massively oppressed group still strongly represented in the U.S. (Native Americans having been largely killed off or neutralized). Therefore, they are the ones the State fears most as possible leaders against it. When you add those three ideas to the fact that the prisons now play a huge and functional capitalistic role in the prison-industrial complex, as well as being a major goods and services provider for the U.S. military, then the result is exactly what we see.

I don't know how African-Americans bear up under it all and I consider it the second prong of my work. The first, of course, is confronting and educating White people. And the second, then, is catching Black youth as they fly toward the gates of Hell and telling them the truth about what has been and is being done to them. Sometimes, it works to move them in another direction. Sometimes, I'm too late. But "the self-immolation in the face of the racist full court press" that you mention and I've seen so often is what makes me despair at times. When that occurs, I remind myself of Foucault's line (paraphrased): "Inherent within every system of power relations is a strategy of struggle."

The Turks ran Europe for 700 years. And then one day, they didn't. And it was a warrior woman (Laskarina Bouboulina) that was central to bringing them down. I'm not trying to imply anything in particular. I'm just sayin' is all. None of us, however isolated or brutalized, ever stands alone.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. The part that really got to me was,

"those who are hard put to accomplish much when the rubber meets the road (those who truly attempt to represent or at least include the ranks of the politically powerless – of any skin tone). The political career of Cynthia McKinney serves as a classic example."

Right now in Boston, there is another terrible example with the targeting of Chuck Turner, who is as ethical and progressive as they come. And working with youth, I have personal experience of him valiantly trying to tear down "the gates of hell" that are systematically put up by many of our Boston police, media and schools (and especially by white folks "with good intentions" who don't have the consciousness to read deeply into their own actions).

Anyway, folks who are interested in Chuck can find out more at He is our only African American City Councilor in a city where people of color are the majority and I believe he is being targeted for his tireless commitment to living MLK's notion that our work is to rid our world of the triple evils of materialism, racism and militarism.

Thanks for giving me permission to rant a bit, too!

changeseeker said...

Anytime, Susan. Anytime. That's at least partly why I do this.

Anonymous said...

The prison industrial complex really is key.

Rethabile said...

Wherever you find oppression you'll find social conflict. So true. Nobody seems to want to learn this, even though there are examples all around. The one in power wants to hang on to that power and its associated priviledge by any means necessary, until they are pried off it by any means necessary. it's sad, really.

changeseeker said...

Greetings, Rethabile! "No people will ever allow themselves to be oppressed forever" and "wherever you find oppression you will find social conflict" have been the two basic statements of my courses for two decades now. I was literally astounded when DeKlerk stepped down without a full-tilt bloody war in South Africa (though long term violence to maintain the oppression had been, in fact, perpetrated for many years in that country). I now use South Africa as an example to point out that leadership CAN decide not to force the matter all the way to "by any means necessary." Of course, this means that they have to catch the situation before the people have completely lost their minds.

On the other hand, the governmental shift in South Africa has far from settled the struggle, so maybe I speak too soon. I hope not.