• Print

Black Power

In response to:

What We Want from the September 22, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

In his essay defending “black power,” Stokely Carmichael writes [Sept. 22]: “It was for example the exploitation of Jewish landlords and merchants which first created black resentment toward Jews—not Judaism.” I suppose the sentence is meant to be reassuring; actually, it is appalling.

Exploitative landlords who happen to be Jewish should be condemned, but condemned as landlords, not Jews. They exploit in their social—not religious—capacity, and the same holds true for Christian or Buddhist or Black Muslim landlords. No fair-minded person objects, for example, to demonstrations against such landlords. What is at stake—and what Mr. Carmichael himself indulges in—is the identification of social oppressors by their religious origin. What is troubling is that the justifiable resentment against slumlords should be diverted, as it sometimes seems to have been, into Jew-baiting.

That a depressed and ill-educated Negro should indulge in this may be understandable. But that Mr. Carmichael, who sets himself up as an authority on the nature of freedom, should write so unnerving a sentence is unforgivable.

Let me suggest to him a simple comparison. Negroes have long objected to newspaper reporting which identifies the color of criminals, so that a drug-addict becomes a “Negro drug-addict.” They rightly feel that this is a way of smearing Negroes. Does not Mr. Carmichael see that to speak of “Jewish landlords” is also a way of smearing Jews—even though there are no doubt rotten landlords who happen to be Jews just as there are dope-addicts who happen to be Negroes?

The point is elementary. But Mr. Carmichael’s indulgence in the painful rhetoric I have quoted makes it necessary to repeat. And these days, when white intellectuals indulge themselves in a vicarious verbal extremism which replaces effective action and is in reality the opposite of any serious radical politics, there is a special need to keep repeating.

Irving Howe
New York City

To the Editors:

I want to respond to Stokely Carmichael’s article.

First of all, I think that Mr. Carmichael’s article is to be much welcomed by all those who were wondering just what “black power” meant and what Mr. Carmichael, SNCC and CORE “wanted.” This article is most clear and explicit. Secondly, let me say that I agree generally with Mr. Carmichael’s analysis and program as expressed, so that my following comments won’t be construed as fundamental criticisms of his article.

What I would like to say is this: as a Southerner, I am aware that much of our racial problem has lain in the fact that there has been simply no, or very little, contact between the races, native as this may sound. No contact leads to the state that a member of neither race really knows one of the other as a person. He rather knows the other as a White (or Negro, or White Conservative, or Uncle Tom, or White Liberal or Negro Radical, etc.). Mr. Carmichael urged Whites to organize and work in White Communities if they wish to “do something.” And rightly so. But I feel that it is vitally important that all meaningful contacts between races be maintained. I think it is also important (and it will become more so in the future) that Negroes meet Whites who aren’t racists or grudging moderates. It is just as important that Negroes see Whites as human beings as it is that Whites see Negroes as human beings. Surely Mr. Carmichael and SNCC have nothing to fear from that.

Just as SNCC and others feel that it is vital for the Negro self-image, his personal and collective psychology, to be able to respond to Negro leaders and politicians (not just White liberal-leaders), I feel that it is just as vital for the collective mental health of Negroes and Whites to know and trust each others as individuals, as teachers, as organizers, or even as political leaders. Otherwise we’ll have more of the same old thing.

Don’t cut off the contacts completely.

Richard King
Charlottesville, Virginia

To the Editors:

How strange it is, and yet how revealing, that Stokely Carmichael, perceptive about the motivations of whites, should be so unperceptive about one of his own goals. He proposes (NYR, September 22) an eventual coalition of poor whites and poor blacks. It is a commonplace that the poor whites of the South must oppose and hate Negroes, because in their own insecurity they desperately need someone to be better than. Let anyone who questions the truth of this commonplace ponder the reactions to Negro advance of socially insecure grandsons of immigrants in northern cities. There will be no coalition until poor whites are no longer poor whites and a coalition is unnecessary.

Carmichael writes about the need for psychological equality with whites. Reading of his boyhood identification with Tarzan beating the blacks, and of his unrealistic adult desire to identify with poor whites, one suspects that a deep fear of his own inferiority may lie within him, as it does within members of so many oppressed groups, and that it is this fear which gives virulence to the demand for “black power.” Perhaps the judgment of inferiority Negroes fear most is their own.

But not only their own. When even in I.F. Stone’s eloquent statement of the effect of Negro lack of a territorial base, I read condescension (NYR, Aug. 18), then I appreciate Negro scorn for white liberals. The American Negro “far more advanced” than other darker peoples, and possessing a larger elite (i.e., a larger number who behave as elite whites do) and more experience with politics (the politics of white democracy which Stone often so vehemently denounces)? The parentheses of course are mine. If these concepts do not contain overtones of the concept of the primitive who must be taught not only literacy but also civilization by his superiors, what do they mean?

If even the Negroes’ “best friends” among whites unconsciously reflect an assumption of Negro inferiority, it is not surprising that the circumstances of their childhood (when such attitudes are formed) have raised the same question in the minds of Negroes.

Everett E. Hagen
Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
Cambridge

To the Editors:

The problems of poverty, inferior education, unemployment, slum area dwelling, do not fall to the black man’s lot alone. SNCC has recognized the fact that there are poor whites desperately in need of help and that we are fighting an unjust war in Vietnam.

The phenomenon of the Black Panther Party is an outgrowth of the American youth’s awareness of his own self-determination. We, therefore, need this third party desperately to become a vehicle for all the progressive, antibourgeois liberal, desires of our awakening social consciousness.

If the Black Panther Party remains a party solely for “Black Power,” then we will not achieve our goal. Why must we run anti-war delegates in Berkeley, Freedom Party candidates in Mississippi, and allow Dennis Mora to go to jail alone when our cause is the same. It is up to us to consolidate our support under a popular leadership in order to achieve the strength necessary to fight for our common goals.

If the progressive elements of the Negro community do not align themselves with the progressive elements of the white community (who abhor the Negro middle-class liberal as well as his white counterpart), then the Black Panther Party can only be viewed in the same curious light as the Jewish Socialist Bund was seen in pre-Communist Russia. We do not need narrow vision. The outcome of our struggle in this country may well depend upon the vision of the new Negro leaders.

N. N. Staletro
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis

Stokely Carmichael replies:

As my article indicates, SNCC is fully aware of the difficulties of organizing poor whites and advocates that whites attempt it (rather than Negroes) precisely because of that hostility which Professor Hagen mentions. However, it does not seem necessarily true that poor whites must always oppose and hate Negroes. If they can come to realize that their true enemy is the same racist system, the same exploitative forces which oppress poor blacks, then coalition might become possible.

Irving Howe has totally missed the point. It seems to me clear that I meant “landlords and merchants who happen to be Jewish.” However, if there is anything disturbing about the statement, I can only say that I was describing a phenomenon which exists—an attitude which is, not what should be.

As for the letter of Richard King, there has always been extensive friendly contact between SNCC people and whites; this will continue. But as the article made clear, it is the racist system and its black victims to whom we must address ourselves primarily.

Mr. Staletro raises the question of coalition. But coalition, in turn, raises such important questions as with whom, when, where, and for what. In the past, for civil rights organizations it has usually meant a joint effort to get federal legislation passed or rejected. We do not consider such efforts very relevant at present. We also feel that there are few forces in the country today with which poor blacks can coalesce successfully. In many cases, coalition would mean absorption. The Black Panther Party, which Mr. Staletro mentions, is only a few months old and exists in only a few northern cities. Furthermore, it is independent of SNCC and must make its own decisions about coalition. Our function is to help stimulate the emergence of such groups—not to make or reject coalitions for them.

We have working relationships on specific issues with many groups and organizations. In the case of Mr. Moore, for example, SNCC workers have spoken at meetings, circulated literature, etc. Again, the mobilization of antidraft forces in the black community has barely begun; for them to coalesce with a long-standing, much-experienced white peace movement at this point would very probably mean absorption.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Staletro speaks of the Black Panther Party in terms of “our” achieving “our goals.” The language has a tone of white paternalism and at the same time suggests a white hope of national salvation through the Negro. SNCC’s goal is not to save America but to end the oppression of black men. While the ending of that oppression may prove corollary to the salvation of this country, the latter is not our starting-point.