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A Special Supplement: The Trouble with Black Power

Carmichael and Hamilton mention the parallel with other ethnic groups, but only in passing, and without noticing that this analogy undermines the analogy with colonial people which they draw at the beginning of the book and wherever else their militant rhetoric appears to demand it. They observe, correctly, that on the evidence of ethnic voting “the American pot has not melted,” politically at least, and they recognize that “traditionally, each new ethnic group in this society has found the route to social and political viability through the organization of its own institutions.” But they do not explain how this analysis of the Negro’s situation squares with the argument that “black people in this country form a colony and it is not in the interest of the colonial power to liberate them.”

Quite apart from this inconsistency, the ethnic parallel, whether or not it finally proves useful, needs to be systematically explored. Did the struggles of other minorities contribute to a “major reorientation of the society”? Not if a “major reorientation” is equivalent to the “complete revision” of American institutions, which is the precondition, according to Carmichael and Hamilton, of black liberation. Perhaps the analogy is therefore misleading and should be abandoned. On the other hand, it may be that the special institutions created by other nationalities in America—like Tammany and the Mafia—do in fact represent “major reorientations,” even though they fall somewhat short of a “total revamping” or “complete revision” of society. Perhaps it is confusing to think of “major reorientations” as synonomous with “complete revisions,” particularly when the nature of the changes proposed remains so indeterminate. In that case it is the colonial analogy that should be dropped, as contributing to the confusion.

Black Power contains many other examples of sloppy analysis and the failure to pursue any line of reasoning through to its consequences. Basic questions are left in doubt. Is the Negro issue a class issue, a race issue, or a “national” (ethnic) issue? Treating it as a class issue—as the authors appear to do when they write that the “only coalition which seems acceptable to us,” in the long run, is “a coalition of poor blacks and poor whites”—further weakens the ethnic analogy and blurs the concept of black people as a “nation”—the essential premise, one would think, of “Black Power.”

PAUL FELDMAN seems to me on the wrong track when he accuses SNCC of resorting to “what is primarily a racial rather than an economic approach.” On the contrary, the advocates of Black Power tend, if anything, toward a class analysis, derived from popularized Marxism or from Castroism, which considers the American Negro as an exploited proletarian. Thus Carmichael and Hamilton try to sustain their analogy of the Negroes as a “colonial” people by arguing that the Negro communities “export” cheap labor. This may be true of the South, where Negroes do represent cheap labor (although mechanization is changing the situation even in the South) and where racism, accordingly, is functionally necessary as a way of maintaining class exploitation. Here the Negroes might be mobilized behind a program of class action designed to change society in fundamental ways.* In the North, however, the essential feature of the Negro’s situation is precisely his dispensability, which is increasingly evident in the growing unemployment of Negro men, particularly young men. As Bayard Rustin has pointed out, ghetto Negroes do not constitute an exploited proletariat. They should be regarded not as a working class but as a lower class or lumpenproletariat.

The distinction [he writes] is important. The working class is employed. It has a relation to the production of goods and services; much of it is organized in unions. It enjoys a measure of cohesion, discipline and stability lacking in the lower class. The latter is unemployed or marginally employed. It is relatively unorganized, incohesive, unstable. It contains the petty criminal and antisocial elements. Above all, unlike the working class, it lacks the sense of a stake in society. When the slum proletariat is black, its alienation is even greater.

It is precisely these conditions, however, that make Black Power more relevant to the ghetto than “civil rights,” if Black Power is understood as a form of ethnic solidarity which addresses itself to the instability and to the “antisocial” elements of ghetto life, and tries to organize and “socialize” those elements around a program of collective self-help. The potential usefulness of black nationalism, in other words, lies in its ability to organize groups which neither the church, the unions, the political parties, nor the social workers have been able to organize. Rustin’s analysis, while it effectively refutes the idea that the Negro lower class can become a revolutionary political force in any conventional sense, does not necessarily lead one to reject Black Power altogether, as he does, or to endorse “coalitions.” Actually it can be used as an argument against coalitions, on the grounds that a marginal lower class has no interests in common with, say, the labor movement. If the Negroes are a lower class as opposed to a working class, it is hard to see, theoretically, why the labor movement is “foremost among [the Negroes’] political allies,” as Paul Feldman believes. Theory aside, experience does not bear out this contention.

Concerning the revolutionary potential of Black Power, however, Rustin seems to me absolutely right. “From the revolutionist point of view,” he says, “the question is not whether steps could be taken to strengthen organization among the lumpenproletariat but whether that group could be a central agent of social transformation. Generally, the answer has been no.” But these observations, again, do not necessarily lead to the conclusion that Black Power has no validity. Rather they suggest the need to divorce Black Power as a program of collective self-advancement from the revolutionary rhetoric of the New Left, while at the same time they remind us that other ethnic minorities, faced with somewhat similar conditions, created new institutions that had important (though not revolutionary) social consequences. Negro-Americans cannot be considered a “nation” and a revolutionary class at the same time.

NATHAN WRIGHT’S Black Power and Urban Unrest shares with the Carmichael-Hamilton book a tendency to ignore important theoretical questions or to discuss them without sufficient awareness of their implications. Nevertheless, the two books seem to have quite different conceptions of Black Power. As chairman of the Newark conference on Black Power last July, Dr. Wright, an Episcopal clergyman, appeared in the public eye as a militant. But Black Power seems to mean to him little more than the control by Negroes of civil rights organizations like SNCC and CORE (of which he is a long-time member). He does not appear to quarrel with the previous aims of those organizations. That is, he does not advocate black separatism, but “desegregation,” which he insists should be distinguished from integration. Integration, Wright argues, has come to imply assimilation, which undermines Negro self-respect, thwarts the black man’s struggle for “responsible selfhood,” and perpetuates his dependence on whites. “Desegregation,” on the other hand—“the universal goal,” according to Wright, of “all other rising ethnic groups” in America—means that Negroes should have access to the same facilities and the same opportunities as everyone else, without forfeiting their identity as Negroes.

As an abstract proposition, this distinction is reasonably clear, but it is hard to see how it applies to concrete issues like housing and schools. How can “desegregation” in housing be distinguished from “integration”? If “desegregated” housing means anything, it means the disappearance of ethnic neighborhoods (something, incidentally, which has not yet happened in the case of other minorities) and the assimilation of Negroes into white neighborhoods. Similarly, the schools are in any case already “desegregated,” in the sense that they try to inculcate black children with white norms and judge them by white standards of achievement.

Some people, Dr. Wright among them, propose to solve this problem by getting more Negroes on school boards. At one point Wright urges Negroes to band together “to seek executive positions in corporations, bishoprics, deanships of cathedrals, superintendencies of schools, and high-management positions in banks, stores, investment houses, legal firms, civic and government agencies, and factories.” This is, of course, exactly what many Negroes are doing already, but there is little reason to think that the trickle of middle-class Negroes into executive positions, where they are used as window-dressing, will lead to “a radically new power balance,” as Dr. Wright insists. Like Carmichael and Hamilton, he occasionally makes a parallel between Negroes and other ethnic groups, but he does not draw the proper conclusion from their history. Other ethnic groups achieved a larger share of power not by penetrating established institutions but by improvising their own institutions, which gave them political, economic, and cultural leverage as groups. They could not have achieved this leverage as upwardly mobile individuals. Irish Catholics did not win power by getting to be heads of corporations, infiltrating the Republican party, or becoming respectable leaders of municipal reform; they won power by creating the urban political machine.

Dr. Wright further confuses matters by criticizing Negro leaders for not advocating “social equality.” He remarks that

…no major civil rights leader, even today, espouses as a major plank in his platform social equality, at the very heart of which is the matter of intermarriage. Yet economic survival and advancement, as well as a sense of pride, depend in no small degree upon relationships of a blood and legal variety.

These observations seem to me to reveal a misunderstanding of the way in which intermarriage, historically, always tends to erode a sense of ethnic allegiance—which is why it has always been opposed by those wishing to preserve a sense of nationally, including most advocates of Black Power. Nor is the rate of intermarriage a reliable indication of a group’s attainment of power, as Dr. Wright’s remarks seem to imply. Intermarriage represents the intellectual’s longed-for emancipation from what he regards as narrow ethnic prejudices, but the cultural emancipation of intellectuals, which often turns out to be illusory anyway, has nothing to do with the distribution of power in society. As an important social goal, intermarriage is utterly irrelevant.

BY REPUDIATING their white supporters, the advocates of Black Power have sent a moral shock through the liberal community, which two white veterans of the civil rights movement in different ways record. Charles E. Fager, a Northern radical and the younger of the two, has adjusted to the trauma of Black Power, and now defends it not only as an appropriate strategy for black people but as a strategy which makes clearer than before the kind of measures white radicals should take toward reorganizing their own communities. Fred Powledge, a Southerner and free-lance journalist who was formerly a reporter for The New York Times, sympathetically observed the civil rights movement in the South at first hand. He deplores the rise of black separatism, which he is convinced “will not work.”

  1. *

    This does not mean, however, that Southern Negroes will be receptive to the rhetoric of alienation, which depicts Negroes as a revolutionary vanguard. On the contrary, the Northern radicals at the Conference for New Politics failed to stir the delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with their “easy talk about violence and guerrilla warfare,” as Feldman notes in an unpublished report on the conference. The rhetoric of alienation addresses itself not to the actual class situation of the Southern Negro sharecropper or tenant but to the rootlessness and despair of the Northern Negro.

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