In response to:
What We Want from the September 22, 1966 issue
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,
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.