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An Exchange on “Racism”

In response to:

They'd Rather Be Left from the September 28, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

Having also observed the “New Politics” convention in Chicago, we have a few questions for Andrew Kopkind [NYR, Sept. 28]:

  1. Mr. Kopkind says, “If the blacks were the ‘vanguard’ of the new radicalism, as almost everyone acknowledges, they ought to be calling the political tune, too.” a. In what sense did the blacks in the “Black Caucus” represent the blacks who may be the “vanguard”—however that is defined? Some of them were from small elitist groups; others were freelance Chicago militants; very few identified themselves to the convention at large. b. Is a movement seeking to achieve “participatory democracy” properly run by a dictatorial vanguard? c. If the Black Caucus wished to run the movement, why did they propose no political platform? d. If the object of the convention was to have a black-run movement, why then did most of its spokesmen conclude that black and white movements must be conducted separately?

  2. Mr. Kopkind states that when the demand was made to let the hundred-odd Black Caucus delegates vote half the convention’s votes as a bloc, “Rich board members spoke against the demand.” We remember only one rich board member speaking, and another not so rich. Could Mr. Kopkind name the others he has in mind?—and tell why their wealth impugns their political arguments? Most of the speakers were young people, perhaps ten years younger than the SDS leadership, who were disturbed at the loss of their participatory franchise. Practically all the speakers in favor of the motion were from the DuBois Clubs or the Young Communist League; they denounced “formal democracy” as a “tool of fascism”—and apparently the convention agreed.

  3. Mr. Kopkind describes James Forman’s speech as “extraordinarily blunt and effective.” Why does he not report that Forman was escorted by a flying wedge of bodyguards who pushed whites from the platform and stood glaring at the audience as Forman spoke? Why not report that Forman appointed himself chairman and passed resolutions without letting others speak? An in-joke? Telling how one delegate discovered that “the hostility he felt for the blacks was in great measure projected by himself,” Mr. Kopkind omits mention of the physical intimidation against both blacks and whites practiced by members of the Black Caucus and by black teen-agers present at the hotel. Mr. James Bevel, for example, was physically threatened when he tried to express his differences with others in the Black Caucus.

  4. Mr. Kopkind admires Mr. Forman’s statement, “We’re going to liberate you whether you want to be liberated or not.” Could Mr. Kopkind tell us what kind of “liberation” Mr. Forman has in mind and how he proposes to go about it? Was the convention an example?

  5. Although he says that “the rhetoric was ragged,” Mr. Kopkind omits the text of the statement on Israel phrased by the Black Caucus and endorsed 3 to 1 by the convention: “Condemn the imperialistic Zionist war: this condemnation does not imply anti-semitism.” Can Mr. Kopkind tell us the political origins of such a resolution? Why it was important to the Black Caucus? What effects is it likely to have on future “organizing” and other political activity in America?

  6. Point 4 of the Black Caucus statement called for “total and unquestionable support to all national peoples liberation wars in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, particularly Vietnam, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa and Venezuela.” One of the most popular and frequent assertions on the convention floor was that all guerrilla actions in the world are morally and politically equivalent, and perfectly analogous to the riots in American cities. Is this analysis not important enough for Mr. Kopkind to mention? Where does he think it comes from? Does he himself believe that guerrilla warfare is equally justified against the governments of, say, Angola and Venezuela? Does he personally support the Viet Cong, believe that most American Negroes do, or that they should?

  7. Mr. Kopkind states that Vietnam Summer involved “26,000 volunteers, 700 local projects, 500 paid staffers, $400,000 raised.” Can he give a source for these figures? Checking with members of the Vietnam Summer Steering Committee, we received estimates ranging from one third to one half of Kopkind’s statistics.

  8. Mr. Kopkind is high in his praise of “getting people, together in multiissue organizations.” He says “the organizers, not the suburban peace-marchers and reform Democrats, have to lead the movement.” But he also says that “at this point there is no coherent strategy for community organizing, especially among the middle class.” Why then is it self-evident that the self-styled organizers can create radical institutional change?

Also Mr. Kopkind does not tell us what success the community organizers have had so far. How many groups currently exist, with what actual membership, what programs, what achievements? On what basis of success do they want their programs duplicated?

Curious that Andrew Kopkind, usually such a caustic critic of American politics, should have donned for this occasion a pair of rose-colored glasses!

Jeremy Larner
Henry Schwarzschild

New York City

Andrew Kopkind replies:

I wish, for the sake of all those increasingly disturbed by developments in black and white radicalism, that the “Movement” conformed to a more wholesome model, one that would combine revolutionary effect, non-violent strategy, Social-Democratic rhetoric, integrationist sentiment, middle-class reasonableness, and Upper West Side intellectualism, in one nice pink package. There was a time when the Movement had such qualities, but alas, it now has a different shape, color, and content. It is not the movement of those who saw the Chicago convention as the last best hope for social change, and are now hopeless. They have been outstripped by the rush of events.

Through the perception of wish-fulfillment, they invested the Convention with a significance it never had. NCNP was not the New Left, nor its Central Committee. It could not be made responsible for effecting the programs or realizing the rhetoric associated with some New Leftists. It is easy, but not very helpful, to set up NCNP as the personification of New Left ideals, and then knock it down when it fails in implementation. To attack the Convention for not achieving “participatory democracy” (whatever that is, and whatever its achievement entails) seems to me particularly disingenuous.

The problem with the Convention was NCNP itself—its structure, leadership, and program. It was the creature of its few “lib-rad” creators and their financial angels—most of whom, to their credit, consistently disclaim their membership in the New Left. NCNP’s style and language were contemporary enough to attract the “Old New Left” radicals from time to time, in various supporting roles, but it could not and did not direct the Movement. There is no organization or directorate for the New Left, nor is there likely to be, in the next few years. That may be a shame, but the fact of “unstructure” is at the heart of the Movement mentality, and the fact of fragmentation is what America does to its radical movements.

Many critics of the Convention were traumatized by the “chaos,” which they attributed to the bloody-mindedness of the blacks, the guilt-complexes of the whites, and a general affinity for totalitarianism throughout. My own diagnosis is different. NCNP’s was not the “democratic” organization it appeared to be. Whatever “democracy” it had was largely abstracted from political reality. The self-appointed leadership selected certain “activist” groups for membership, weighted their participation according to the prevailing values of the Board, and called it New Politics. Thus, a suburban peace committee with twenty members had participating strength equal to that of a ghetto organizing project with twenty activists. The assumptions underlying such a system seem to be awry. The effect of the suburbanites in their community is entirely different from the organizers in theirs. Middle-class whites perceive political organizations in ways entirely different from poor blacks. It is at least arguable that most poor urban blacks are so alienated as to be in opposition to the government and the status quo, and that their opposition is as strong a radical force as any mounted by middleclass white committees. If that is the case, numerical membership in conventional “organizations” is irrelevant.

In a post-Convention memorandum, Arthur Waskow observed that “there is not one movement, but two: one black and one white.” Perhaps that is an overstatement—but there are surely two quite distinct branches to the Movement, and their separate interests and needs are increasingly divergent. The white branch is obsessed with Vietnam and US imperialism on the one hand, and with student affairs on the other. Literally and metaphorically, that is where white radicals are “at.” They have middle-class needs which must be fulfilled, values which must be upheld, and a style which must be maintained. The black branch is primarily concerned with destroying a culture of oppression and creating a new kind of identity for black Americans. As most people now realize, that has to be done by blacks, with methods which blacks must decide, according to values which blacks must define.

It was naïve to think that representatives of each branch of the Movement could come together in one Hilton hotel and become a functioning, democratic body. The structure of NCNP and its convention made it appear to the blacks that the whites were defining the Movement as a whole, and orchestrating the various elements. That may be a kind of democracy, but it did not strike me as being realistic. “Formal democracy” as a slogan obviously raises all kinds of shades for critics on the Left, and I hesitate to offend historical sensibilities. But it is always a good idea to look at the relationship of the form of an institution to its function; my own impression was that NCNP had little reason to claim the rights of a democratic organization.

The history of radical action in the past year and a half, at least, should make it clear that blacks as a group in the Movement have to be treated as equals to whites as another Movement group. Surely within the democratic tradition there are ample precedents for treating blocs as equals despite their numerical composition (the US Senate is one of the more formalistic precedents). The mutuality of assumptions, the bonds of trust, and the community of interests which make democracy possible among different publics does not exist now between the black and white branches of the Movement. It would be easier for us all if the Movement, and the nation, were integrated; but they are not, and it is both foolish and unproductive to pretend that they are. NCNP needed a different set of constitutional arrangements from the one presented by the leadership. It was extremely difficult to see what had to be changed; the blacks intuited, rather than articulated, their subservient role, and the whites were confused by their own good intentions. After much conflict and bitterness, the Convention—pushed harshly by the blacks—produced just such necessary rearrangements. What was worst for the Left, old and new, was that the pushing and shoving was all done on network television, before scores of journalists, and under the gaze of both hostile and friendly observers. If NCNP had materialized with a structure equating blacks and whites, there would have been few squawks. As it was, the blacks had the devil’s own time—first of all seeing the dimensions of the box they were in, and secondly, fighting their way out of it.

The object of the Convention was not to have a black-run movement. It had been quite the opposite: to have a white-run movement supplied with energy and activism by the blacks. The result of the Convention was to ratify the existence of the two separate branches of the Movement and to indicate the few possible bases for coalition and coordination at this time. The Black Caucus did not want to “run the Movement,” but to be recognized for what it was: the most powerful and most radical motive force in the US. The blacks proposed no political platform, I suppose, because they do not now think in those terms. The degree of “authenticity” of the blacks at the Convention cannot easily be judged, precisely because of the political structure of the black branch of the Movement. Anyway, it is always extremely difficult to tell how closely a radical vanguard represents the mass of people it calls its constituency. (I recall walking with Mr. Schwarzschild through the streets of Montgomery, at the end of the Selma March, and wondering whether we, the marchers, represented the thousands of blacks who stood impassively on the sidewalks, and the many thousands more who stayed inside that day.) The blacks I spoke with at the Convention said that the Black Caucus was “real”—that it reflected, and to a reasonable extent represented, the politics of much of the black part of the Movement. There were certainly serious disagreements and divisions within the Black Caucus; as I reported, the most militant faction left the Convention entirely, but there was considerable toing and froing after that. I’m sorry that the Rev. Mr. Bevel was threatened, but I trust that he can take care of himself.

No one who has written or spoken about the Convention, to my knowledge, has denied that there was a great deal of foolishness, some bullying, and endemic mindlessness during those days. The controversy seems to be about what all that is relevant to. My own feeling is that it was an inevitable response to a bad situation—NCNP and the Convention. I do not think it signals the “death of the Movement,” because NCNP was not the Movement. Surely the “13 Points” presented the Black Caucus were, in themselves, either divisive, unnecessary, or mischievous. The best that can be said for the resolutions on the Middle East and the “wars of liberation” is that they approximated a valid position taken by those blacks and whites who, recently, have been most concerned with movements against US imperialism. Many support the National Liberation Front. They strongly identify with “Third World” revolutions. Among the young radical whites this summer, Régis Debray was the undoubted culture hero; among the blacks, the influence of Malcolm is still commanding.

Still, many of the whites voted for the points not as an expression of agreement, but of sympathy. They felt (accurately) that they were being tested by the blacks. Unseen by the hostile critics, many whites who voted for acceptance of the points were troubled by their own decision. They believed, however, that some good could still come from the Convention, that it was possible for black and white radicals to find ways of working together. They knew that if the Black Caucus withdrew after such goings-on, that basis for cooperation would disappear. If NCNP had been different and the Convention had, from the start, an equitable distribution of power between black and white, there would have been no need for the resolutions. In the context of the Convention a “yes” vote for the 13 Points was a metaphor for an expression of trust, not an endorsement of a political program. Not the Black Caucus, but NCNP had trapped the white delegates in a classic political dilemma, from which there was no completely noble escape. But it is unfair, I think, to accuse the white delegates of voting for resolutions contrary to their values. The resolutions did symbolize notions of revolution, Black Power, and anti-imperialism which most white radicals would support. I don’t think they would have voted for anything contrary to those values. But there were parts of the resolutions to which most of the delegates, in a different political context, would have objected, and their acceptance of the whole package at NCNP was a disagreeable task. If there were any moral virgins before, there are none after that Convention.

The basis for cooperation of the black and white radicals is mutual respect for each other’s needs, and understanding of the distant goals of institutional change. Coalition implies a rough equality of power; otherwise the relationship of one branch to the other would be as master to servant. But cooperation does not mean that whites must approve of each strategy the blacks devise, or support every policy or statement, nor, of course, that the blacks do the same. It does mean, however, that each branch has to let the other define the limits of its movement, to suffer the consequences, and get the rewards. That is possible within the committees of organizers which emerged from NCNP, because they are concerned with local projects and not a huge national front.

There is good reason to question the “success” of the organizing mode of the radical movement, as I did at some length. From what I have seen of the Movement in the past three years, local organizing offers the best opportunity to bring more people into radical activity, and to stimulate them to the greatest effort. I do not confine that judgment to the few SDS-style slum-organizing projects that still exist. I would include all the local student and adult local anti-war movements, the peace vigils, ballot referenda, pickets and marches in hundreds of communities; the scores of “student power” projects on campuses; the faculty and student protests against university involvement with military contracts; the anti-draft unions; organization in the Southern mountains, the Black Belt, the Spanish-speaking Southwest, the Indian and Puerto Rican minorities, and poor white areas; middle-class organizing projects around education, health, inflation, electoral politics, and environmental problems; radical unionizing in the teaching, health, and social work professions; the few anti-war projects in the big unions; community-control campaigns, such as the fight of East Harlem parents for bureaucratic decentralization and control of I.S. 201; new styles of labor organizing among the unorganized, such as the grape pickers’ strike in Delano, Calif., or the Las Casitas strike in Texas; new forms of radical journalism.

There are thousands of such projects; they have not changed America nor brought the power structure to its knees, but they have built a movement with a broad constituency. Experience indicates that the Third Party or “national organization” idea, counterposed to the organizing idea at Chicago, would be unproductive, if not positively destructive at this point. The organizers claim that there is no basis yet for a “united front” which a Third Party needs, that the base is too thin and factionalized for effective competition on the stage of national politics, and that the effort would drain energies and money from the “nitty gritty” work at the local level. There are elaborate arguments on both sides (and in the middle), but the most important reason to support the organizers is that in them lies the locus of the Movement. They are the most energetic, imaginative, and committed force, black and white, separately and together. If they will not devote themselves to a single national program, there is little purpose in pursuing it. There are hypothetical strategies which would bring change more quickly than local organizing; but a realistic assessment of the Movement now suggests to me that the organizing mode is at least possible, and the others are not. I really cannot see how that is a rose-colored vision.

Vietnam Summer was within the organizing perspective, and many of its workers were in the Radical Caucus. I spent three days at the project’s evaluation conference in late August, and two days at the national headquarters in Cambridge. I also visited about a half-dozen local projects. The figures I quoted were “presented” (my word) by the Vietnam Summer directors (see Vietnam Summer News, and “Vietnam Summer 1967,” the final report of the project staff). I did not count the workers or the dollars. I did say, however, that the raw figures had no clear meaning in themselves. The success of the project, in movement-building or shorter-term political effect, is still ambiguous.

I can’t produce the bank statements from the accounts of Board members who spoke against the Black Caucus’s demands, although I believe that some were affluent, others comfortably middleclass. Others may have been as poor as churchmice. Wealth impugns nothing, but the use of it to influence politics seems to me at least worth reporting.

FINALLY, a word about Forman’s promise (threat?) of liberation. Racism pervades American culture and society. Radicals and liberals partake of it as well as conservatives and reactionaries, because they all share in the culture. I reported that many of the white radicals were afraid to make contact with the blacks, and they responded too strongly to the idea of “separate” movements. Other whites could not understand why the blacks were behaving so stubbornly, or so high-handedly. Although most of the whites were sincerely tolerant—more so than the blacks, by far—they reacted politically in ways which showed that essentially they considered themselves wiser, more articulate, more sophisticated, and more mature than the blacks. But there is an important difference between racialist feeling and structural racism. Awareness of racial identity is a universal phenomenon, and in its most extreme and irrational forms (from Afrikaners to the organized US Black Nationalist fringe) it is destructive. But structural racism is a political, not a personal phenomenon. It involves the systematic exploitation of one race by another, which considers itself superior—as the Jews by the Nazis or the Negroes by the white Americans. Whites who have Negro maids, or who have their shoes shined by Negro bootblacks, or who vote for the one Negro in their school to be class president, are all participating in American racism. They would be hard put to do otherwise, for it is not in themselves but in the constellation of forces—the economy, politics, status—that the fault of racist exploitation lies. Paternalism, fear, segregation, and separatism flow from that constellation. Breaking the pattern is dreadfully disturbing, if it is possible at all. It involves redistribution of power on a broad scale and, incidentally, the crushing of a few egos (some of them radical) along the way. That is what Black Power is all about, and what Forman meant by “liberation.” We had all better get used to it.

When political change is most difficult, it is natural for those who care the most to criticize the political actors for their failure. It is distressing, but understandable, to hear the hostility of many sincere liberals and radicals when they speak of the Movement and its activists. But it is America, not the Movement, which is sick. The logic of this society makes painless change impossible. The system—that constellation of forces and institutions—fragments oppositions, isolates resisters, co-opts dissent, monopolizes the media. The best work of the most dedicated radicals turns to ashes. Mississippi racism is not the fault of the SNCC workers who failed in 1964 to overturn the power structure; escalation of the war is not the fault of the marchers who peacefully marched in opposition to it; the emptiness of middle-class life cannot be blamed on the beats and bohemians who condemn it. The sheer invulnerability of the society has made radical action imperative, and has made it impossible. But people go on because it is better to do that then to do nothing, and to go on means becoming increasingly militant and radical. The Movement may often seem pathetic, and worthy of pity; but it is not worthy of contempt.

Some years ago, a Communist mayor of San Gimignano tore down a rather fascistic statue of an idealized Italian soldier, and had inscribed on the pavement below: “Blessed is the country that has no need of heroes.” I modestly offer the suggestion to Dissent (for its masthead) and the Lawyers’ Constitutional Defense Committee (for its letterhead) that they both adopt a paraphrase: “Blessed is the country that has no need of radicals.” But that will be another country.

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