Revisiting Black Power

Malcolm X was assassinated exactly 50 years ago today. Ilyasah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times today in which she laid out, in her opinion, what he would think after surveying the current state of race relations in the United States:

“In a sense,” Shabazz writes, “his ability to boil down hard truths into strong statements and catchy phrases” — e.g. by any means necessary, the bullet or the ballot — “presaged our era of hashtag activism.” She “imagine[s] he would applaud the ‘Hands Up’ gesture for its sheer dramatic effect, but also critique it as rank capitulation that ironically accommodates the very goal of police brutality — to intimidate and immobilize black citizens, forcing them into a defenseless posture if they hope to survive.”

Shabazz continues, “As it is, today’s protesters often act like they are starting from square one. This disconnect cannot be dismissed as the hubris of youth; it is a symptom of our failure to teach this generation about black history and the way our economic and social systems actually function.” Emphasis is mine. She concludes that activists would be counseled by her father, were he alive today (he would be 89 years old), to not “take the path of least resistance”: “Grass-roots work is not flashy, and rarely celebrated on the national media level, but that is where change begins.”

Two years after the death of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton published a book titled Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America (Random House, Vintage paperback). The book is all about how the socio-political system functions and, aside from obvious racial progress, holds up very well. Carmichael and Hamilton call out the existence of “institutional racism,” still under-acknowledged to this day. Those who have perpetrated the canard that theirs is an anti-white tract are under a delusion which would have been easily dispelled had they only read this book. They are crystal-clear: American “society does nothing meaningful about institutional racism … because the black community has been the creation of, and dominated by, a combination of oppressive forces and special interests in the white community. … This is not to say that every single white American consciously oppresses black people.” They add, “He does not need to.”

Institutional racism has been maintained deliberately by the power structure and through indifference, inertia and lack [of] concern on the part of white masses as well as petty officials. Whenever black demands for change become loud and strong, indifference is replaced by active opposition based on fear and self-interest. (p. 22)

Note that they are talking about group interest, not condemning white people qua white people. Answering the “deliberate and absurd lie” that black power is reverse racism, they say: “Racism is not merely exclusion on the basis of race but exclusion for the purpose of subjugating or maintaining subjugation.” (p. 47, my italics) Indeed, “It is a commentary on the fundamentally racist nature of this society that the concept of group strength for black people must be articulated—not to mention defended. No other group would submit to being led by others. Italians do not run the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. Irish do not chair Christopher Columbus Societies.” (p. 49) What follows, two pages later, is critical to make this point.

The black community was told time and again how other immigrants finally won acceptance: that is, by following the Protestant Ethic of Work and Achievement. They worked hard; therefore, they achieved. We were not told that it was by building Irish Power, Italian Power, Polish Power or Jewish Power that these groups got themselves together and operated from positions of strength. We were not told that ‘the American dream’ wasn’t designed for black people. (Emphases in the original.)

“Politics results from a conflict of interests,” Carmichael and Hamilton wrote, “not of consciences.” (p. 75) In a pluralistic society like the United States, change happens when groups coalesce around their shared group interest to fight for policies that affect them as a group. It may not sound nice, but given American history it is not at all racist. Some things have not really changed in the near half-century that has elapsed since Black Power was first published. For example, “The core problem within the ghetto is the vicious circle created by the lack of decent housing, decent jobs and adequate education,” they write later on. “The failure of these three institutions to work has led to alienation of the ghetto from the rest of the urban area as well as to deep political rifts between the two communities.” (p. 155) Both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King referred to the urban ghettoes as America’s “internal colonies.” It is worth remembering that.

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