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A Special Supplement: The Trouble with Black Power

By separatism Powledge means “the construction of parallel societies, black and white.” This is “impossible,” he thinks, because “black institutions, built alongside existing white ones, would be poverty-stricken by comparison.” Moreover, separatist “demagogues” would have to use violence “as an organizing tool” in order to keep the black community in line; and if that happened, “the white majority would respond with near-genocide.” Integration, on the other hand, does not necessarily mean assimilation. In fact Powledge thinks that it is “essential” for the civil rights movement to “stamp out the idea, held so long by so many white liberals who did not even know that they held it, that integration consists of turning ‘them’ white.”

Powledge’s position resembles Nathan Wright’s. Both writers advocate integration or desegregation—that is, equal rights and equal opportunities—while opposing assimilation on the one hand and black separatism on the other. If Black Power means that Negroes should not straighten their hair in order to win illusory acceptance by whites, then both Powledge and Wright support it. Nor does Powledge deny that, within the civil rights movement, Negroes should “run the show.” When he urges whites to restrict themselves to contributing their special skills to a movement led largely by Negroes, he agrees not only with Wright, but with Carmichael and Hamilton, who believe that white people are most effective in “supportive” roles. Since neither Wright nor Carmichael and Hamilton advocate the conception of black separatism which Powledge attacks, one begins to wonder whether the whole controversy about Black Power doesn’t boil down to a dispute about certain words. Everybody, it seems, supports Black Power and, at the same time, favors “integration.”

But as Stokely Carmichael pointed out in an interview in The Militant (May 23, 1966), “You can integrate communities, but you assimilate individuals.” Until black people become a community, in Carmichael’s view, efforts to integrate them necessarily imply assimilation. Here is the irreducible difference between the integrationist and Black Power positions. Fager’s book helps to clarify the debate. Without indulging in the liberal-baiting that so often accompanies discussions of Black Power, he challenges integrationists to demonstrate why “integration” does not work out in practice to mean assimilation, whereby a few middle-class Negroes are provisionally admitted to white society, leaving the others behind in the ghetto as unassimilable. According to Fager, this is certainly the way things have worked out so far. If more money were spent on education and welfare programs, he argues, the rate of mobility could be speeded up, but it is unlikely that the ghettos could be completely eradicated—not for a long time, anyway, and in the meantime more assimilation at the top will merely add to the hatreds and frustrations at the bottom of Negro society.

Whereas Bayard Rustin and others argue that Negroes cannot hope to win equality except in coalition with other groups, Fager believes, as do other advocates of Black Power, that at the present time the black community is not cohesive enough to enter into coalitions without being swallowed up. As a white radical who until recently worked in the civil rights coalition, he is left with the question of where next to turn his energies. He tries to show that Black Power demands of white liberals a parallel strategy, based on the premise that the “liberal community,” like the Negro community, “does not control the institutions around and through which its life is organized and controlled.” Each of these communities must therefore develop “an economic base which it can control, which can support the community substantially, and which can confront other power groups as equals.” Young radicals should “go back to school” and acquire the skills necessary to run parallel and competing institutions which will free the “liberal community” from its dependence on established structures; while the older radicals should “figure out how to withdraw their money and abilities as much as possible from status quo institutions and rechannel the bulk of them into the development and support of independent-base institutions.”

UNFORTUNATELY THESE SUGGESTIONS are exceedingly vague, although they are not much more vague than the strategy of Black Power itself. Fager’s effort to translate Black Power into its white equivalent unintentionally reveals the poverty of Black Power as a political strategy. For while a program of collective self-help seems closer than civil rights solutions to the psychological and even to the economic needs of the ghetto, the advocates of Black Power have not been able to explain what such a program means in practice or what kind of strategy would be necessary to achieve it. This is probably why they spend so much time talking not about politics but about therapy. By detaching Black Power from its context—the psychic and spiritual malaise of the ghetto, which Black Power, like other versions of black nationalism, is designed to cure—Fager makes clear what we had already begun to suspect, that Black Power not only contains no political ideas that are applicable elsewhere, it contains very few political ideas at all. As a program of spiritual regeneration, it offers hope to people whom the civil rights movement ignores or does not touch; though, even here, Black Power may prove to be less successful than the religious versions of black nationalism, since it can appeal neither to the mystic brotherhood nor to the authoritarian discipline of the Black Muslims. As a political program, Black Power does not explain how Negro cooperatives are to come into being or what they will use for money, how the ghettos are to control and pay for their own schools, or why, even if these programs were successful, they would lead to sweeping changes in American society as a whole.

Are the proponents of Black Power capable of formulating a workable strategy? Are they even interested in formulating a strategy? Although Black Power does address itself to certain problems of the ghetto which other approaches ignore, one cannot even say with confidence that the emergence of Black Power is a hopeful sign, which, if nothing else, will teach black people to stop hating their own blackness. If it merely teaches them to hate whiteness instead, it will contribute to the nihilistic emotions building up in the ghetto, and thus help to bring about the race war which spokesmen for Black Power, until recently at least, claimed they were trying to prevent. In so far as Black Power represents an effort to discipline the anger of the ghettos and to direct this anger toward radical action, it works against the resentment and despair of the ghetto, which may nevertheless overwhelm it. But Black Power is not only an attack on this despair, it is also, in part, its product, and reflects forces which it cannot control.

In the last few months, we have seen more and more vivid examples of the way in which Black Power has come to be associated with mindless violence—as in the recent disturbances at San Francisco State College—and with a “revolutionary” rhetoric that conceals a growing uncertainty of purpose. It becomes increasingly clear that many of the intellectuals who talk of Black Power do not understand the difference between riots and revolution, and that they have no program capable of controlling the growing violence of the ghetto. It is also becoming clear that in fact they have not only given up the effort to control violence or even to understand it, but are themselves making a cult of violence, and by doing so are abdicating leadership of their own movement. Meanwhile white radicals, who supposedly know better but are just as foolish and patronizing about Black Power as they were about civil rights, applaud from the sidelines or, as at San Francisco State, join the destruction, without perceiving that it is radicalism itself that is being destroyed.

THE NIHILISTIC TENDENCIES latent in Black Power have been identified and analyzed not only by the advocates of “liberal” coalitions. The most penetrating study of these tendencies is to be found in Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, which is also an analysis of integration and a defense of black nationalism. Cruse is a radical, but his book gives no comfort to the “radicalism” currently fashionable. It deals with real issues, not leftist fantasies. Cruse understands that radicals need clarity more than they need revolutionary purity, and he refuses to be taken in by loud exclamations of militancy which conceal an essential flabbiness of purpose. At a time when Negro intellectuals are expected to show their devotion to the cause by acting out a ritual and expatiatory return to the dress and manners of their “people”—when intellectuals of all nationalities are held to be the very symbol of futility, and when even a respected journalist like Andrew Kopkind can write that “the responsibility of the intellectual is the same as that of the street organizer, the draft resister, the Digger: to talk to people, not about them”—Cruse feels no need to apologize for the intellectual’s work, which is to clarify issues. It is because Negro intellectuals have almost uniformly failed in this work that he judges them, at his angriest and most impatient, a “colossal fraud”—a judgment that applies without much modification to white intellectuals, now as in the recent past.

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is a history of the Negro Left since the First World War. When all the manifestoes and polemics of the Sixties are forgotten, this book will survive as a monument of historical analysis—a notable contribution to the understanding of the American past, but more than that, a vindication of historical analysis as the best way, maybe the only way, of gaining a clear understanding of social issues.

As a historian, an intellectual, a Negro, and, above all perhaps, as a man who came of political age in the 1940s, Cruse sees more clearly than the young black nationalists of the Sixties how easily Negro radicals—integrationists and nationalists alike—become “disoriented prisoners of white leftists, no matter how militant they sound.” Instead of devising strategies appropriate to the special situation of American Negroes, they import ideologies which have no relevance to that situation and which subordinate the needs of American Negroes to an abstract model of revolutionary change. Marxism is such a model, and a considerable portion of Cruse’s book elaborates and documents the thesis that American Marxism has disastrously misled Negro intellectuals over a period of fifty years.

But the ideology of guerrilla warfare, which in some Black Power circles has replaced Marxism as the current mode, equally ignores American realities. According to Cruse,

The black ghettoes are in dire need of new organizations or parties of a political nature, yet it is a fact that most of the leading young nationalist spokesmen are apolitical. …The black ghettoes are in even more dire need of every possible kind of economic and self-help organization, and a buyers and consumers council, but the most militant young nationalists openly ridicule such efforts as reformist and a waste of time. For them politics and economics are most unrevolutionary. What they do consider revolutionary are Watts-type uprisings—which lead nowhere.

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