In the Winter 2011/12 issue of the Claremont Review of Books Professor Diana Schaub contributed an essay on Malcolm X, which considered Manning Marable’s recently published biography, as well as the 1965 autobiography. In addition to raising important and provocative questions, Schaub’s essay included an extensive discussion of Frederick Douglass and John Locke. It seemed logical, as a result, to invite Professor Peter C. Myers, the author of books on both Douglass and Locke, to participate in this website discussion of Malcolm X.
CRB: Diana and Peter, thank you for helping us better understand Malcolm X’s politics. Readers old enough to remember Malcolm X, and the fearsome reputation he had during his lifetime, may be surprised by your assessment of him, Diana. You write that between breaking with the Nation of Islam in 1964 and his assassination in 1965, Malcolm’s “spiritual quest was leading him toward…a new conviction of human brotherhood,” while his “ambition and political maturation were leading him to repudiate racial separatism (though not radicalism).” That sounds pretty hopeful. Is it also plausible that a man who had spent years denouncing “blue-eyed devils” would have ended up, had he lived, with the politics of Stokely Carmichael or even the Black Panthers?
Schaub: Yes, it’s possible. It’s even possible that had he lived into the 21st century, he might have become an octogenarian supporter of al-Qaeda-given his temperament, it’s hard to know whether his embrace of a more orthodox version of Islam would have carried him into a new extremism. On the other hand, his pilgrimage to Mecca yielded an undeniably transformational experience of human unity. From that point forward, he declared, “I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of one race.” Just two days before his assassination, in an interview with Gordon Parks, he expressed sincere regret for the harm he had caused:
He stopped and remained silent for a few moments. “Brother,” he said finally, “remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant-the one who wanted to help the Muslims and the whites get together-and I told her there wasn’t a ghost of a chance and she went away crying?”
“Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping Black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I’m sorry for now. I was a zombie then-like all [Black] Muslims-I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.
“That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days-I’m glad to be free of them. It’s a time for martyrs now. And if I’m to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood. That’s the only thing that can save this country. I’ve learned it the hard way-but I’ve learned it. And that’s the significant thing.”
Now, it’s true that a belief in human brotherhood is compatible with “black power” politics, at least as that approach was initially described by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in their 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. Insisting on the need for blacks to break free of dependency and paternalism, the authors argued for black control of their own organizations as the first step toward coalition with others in a pluralistic America. They granted the existence of “white people of good will” and made sensible suggestions about how such individuals might contribute toward racial accord. As originally conceived, Black Power was neither separatist in its aims nor violent in its means.
The later divergent careers of Carmichael and Hamilton reveal some of the tensions and ambiguities present in the notion of black power. It’s possible that Malcolm X would have joined Kwame Ture (née Stokely Carmichael) in marching lemming-like off another cliff (like W.E.B. Du Bois before him): Carmichael descended from SNCC to the Panthers, then emigrated to Guinea where he became ideologist-in-chief for revolutionary tyranny in Africa. An unregenerate Marxist-Leninist, Ture begins his afterword to the reissue of Black Power in 1992 by citing “the great Fidel Castro.” By contrast, Hamilton, professor of government and political science at Columbia, in his afterword, undertakes a sober reexamination of the black power movement, highlighting both its strengths and errors, the abuses and distortions to which it lent itself, as well as its enduring value.
Had Malcolm X remained committed to the domestic struggle (and resisted the siren song of pan-Africanism), he might well have been a valuable critic of the direction taken by the civil rights establishment. Always attentive to the psychological need for dignity, Malcolm X would not have had any truck with cheap tokenism under whatever name, be it “integration,” “affirmative action,” or “diversity.” Listen to this Malcolm-influenced critique from Carmichael/Hamilton in 1967:
“Integration” as a goal today speaks to the problem of blackness not only in an unrealistic way but also in a despicable way. It is based on complete acceptance of the fact that in order to have a decent house or education, black people must move into a white neighborhood or send their children to a white school. This reinforces, among both black and white, the idea that “white” is automatically superior and “black” is by definition inferior. For this reason, “integration” is a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy. It allows the nation to focus on a handful of Southern black children who get into white schools at a great price, and to ignore the ninety-four percent who are left in unimproved all-black schools.”
In her 1995 book, Killing Rage, bell hooks-the contemporary heir of the militancy of Malcolm X-denounces the rhetoric of victimhood (which blacks copied from whiny feminists who began “the competition for favors and reparations from the white male power structure”) and argues instead for a new framework of black self-determination and collective accountability. This radical critique resonates with the conservative critique. Much in Malcolm X sounds like Booker T. Washington, just as much in bell hooks sounds like Shelby Steele. Indeed, she itemizes her points of agreement with Steele (particularly the focus on “black agency”-what used to be called self-help), as well, of course, as her profound disagreement with him regarding the nature and persistence of racism (where she sees structural racism and white supremacy, he perceives no more than vestiges of prejudice). I find this a more bracing and honest debate, more likely to yield constructive effort, than the usual sterile pieties that mark our discourse on race.
Myers: Yes, it’s possible Malcolm X would have aligned with the most extreme black nationalists. For my taste, Manning Marable’s choice to make self-reinvention the salient theme of Malcolm’s life conforms too comfortably with today’s academic fashions, but the evidence supports it to a degree. I agree with Marable and Diana that in some sense, Malcolm remains at last X, undefined and in motion. On this point, Diana does well to remind us that young admirers of Malcolm in the 1960s followed utterly divergent paths, from Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers on the Left to Clarence Thomas and Shelby Steele on the Right.
To acknowledge this, though, is not to concede either that Malcolm is all flux or that he was likely to move in a direction pleasing to conservatives. Those of us to the right of center may well be attracted to Malcolm’s rhetoric of self-help and may well be repelled by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s enthusiasm for a swelling welfare state. Nonetheless, we would do well to resist the temptation to claim Malcolm, or any of the available Malcolms, as one of our own. Malcolm’s capacity and propensity to reinvent himself are evident only in the trajectory of his actual development, and on that evidence, they seem to me not so profound as to license any such claim.
Diana’s review essay adds kindling to this temptation, but she herself wisely resists it. In fact she makes the decisive point against it. Malcolm near the end repudiated racial separatism, she writes, “but not radicalism.” Here we come as close as we can, I think, to the essence of Malcolm’s character. The larger issue reminds me of political philosopher Bernard Yack’s book, The Longing for Total Revolution, published some 20 years ago. Yack described a malady prevalent among some of the great minds of 18th- and 19th-century Western philosophy. But some localized strains of this malady are present here and there in American political thought, and they are particularly powerful in 20th-century Afro-American political thought. Malcolm X seems to me the most severe and chronic case among that century’s greatest black activists, including also W.E.B Du Bois and King, all of whom in one period or another fell prey to this revolutionary longing.
Remaining mindful of this unwavering radical animus helps us think clearly and soberly about Malcolm’s celebrated “evolution.” Viewed in one light, Malcolm evolved very significantly as he broke with the Nation of Islam in 1964. Viewed in another light, he evolved hardly at all. His evolution from nationalism-from the NOI’s markedly insular, bigoted form of nationalism-to a profession of moral humanitarianism is certainly significant and perhaps, in itself, cause for a flicker of hopefulness. But it is no less accurate to view Malcolm’s evolution as a movement from one form of radicalism to another, equivalently illiberal form of radicalism, and taking this latter view, one can doubt that he was in the course of any truly significant, hope-inspiring change in outlook. In 19th and 20th-century black-American political thought as in 19th- and 20th-century western political philosophy, the two most powerful variants of radicalism were nationalist and socialist, and both were animated by a disdain, rising at the extremes to a hatred, of liberalism.
Relinquishing his nationalism, Malcolm seems to have overcome his generalized hatred of whites; but relinquishing that only to espouse the fraudulently humanitarian, revolutionary socialism then spreading throughout the Third World, he never overcame his loathing of liberalism or of the America that remained committed to liberalism in its classical or modern form. Artful self-reinventor that he was, Malcolm nonetheless remained characteristically, predictably radical to the end-a man who charged his late rhetoric with paeans to guerrilla warfare and execrations of capitalism, who extolled Mao and Castro as socialist liberators, who considered Ché Guevara a close revolutionary comrade, who indeed invited Guevara to speak at an OAAU (Organization of Afro-American Unity) rally only two months before he (Malcolm) was murdered.
It is reasonable to suppose that some of Malcolm’s revolutionary fervor would have calmed had he survived, just as the radical fevers that seized much of the nation’s youth in the mid- to late 1960s subsided in subsequent decades. But the radical enthusiasms of youth often die hard, and the matter of race relations has remained an especially fertile ground for their renewal. Malcolm’s occasional praise for self-help is all to the good, so far as it goes, but to my mind Malcolm was mainly, and would most likely have remained, a purveyor of black alienation and thus an obstruction to black progress. Amid a broad field of possibilities, it is easier for me to imagine an aging Malcolm finding common cause with the likes of Angela Davis, or perhaps Derrick Bell or Manning Marable himself, than with Thomas or Steele.
CRB: Diana, you write that the Nation of Islam urged upon its members a life of “internal exile,” in but not of American society. That idea appears to be central to black nationalism in general. For example, in the 1964 speech by Malcolm X on “the ballot or the bullet,” which you discuss, he said, “If we own the stores, if we operate the businesses, if we try and establish some industry in our own community, then we’re developing to the position where we are creating employment for our own kind. Once you gain control of the economy of your own community, then you don’t have to picket and boycott and beg some cracker downtown for a job in his business.” Assume, for the sake of the argument, that a parallel, race-based economy really could function within and beside the larger national one. Such an outcome presupposes that “our community” will remain permanently set off, geographically and socially, from the rest of America. It’s hard to believe such an arrangement could ever work, or would be a good thing if it did. Is there, or could there be, a version of black nationalism that grappled with this problem in a more promising way?
Schaub: The dogmatically separatist Nation of Islam strategy is undesirable, I agree. However, I don’t think the version of black capitalism in “The Ballot or the Bullet” is undesirable or unrealistic. Malcolm X basically echoes what many black leaders before him have said: the answer to segregation and discrimination imposed from without is development from within. Along with founding Tuskegee Institute, Booker T. Washington founded the National Negro Business League, with the goal of promoting “the commercial and financial development of the Negro.” During the civil rights struggle, Joseph H. Jackson, president of the National Baptist Convention, a “conservative” critic of Martin Luther King’s brand of protest politics, called for something more constructive than boycotts:
Today, I call for another type of direct action; that is, direct action in the positive which is orientated towards the Negro’s ability, talent, genius, and capacity. Let us take our economic resources, however insignificant and small, and organize and harness them, not to stop the economic growth of others, but to develop our own and to help our own community. If our patronage withdrawn from any store or business enterprise will weaken said enterprise, why not organize these resources and channel them into producing enterprises that we ourselves can direct and control. . . . We can be better now. We can acquire a better education now, we can organize our capital now and receive our share in this economy of free enterprise now.
This encouragement of black enterprise is present in African-American thought all the way back to Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany. Delany in particular called upon blacks to move from being consumers to being producers.
This advice is still timely. Although state-enforced segregation disappeared decades ago, residential segregation is pervasive. Large swaths of my city, Baltimore, are almost exclusively black, but the businesses there are not black-owned, and in many cases, not even black-staffed. Recently, an upscale black couple tried to live for a year in Chicago frequenting only black businesses. Maggie Anderson recounted their experiment in Our Black Year. Anderson recently told an interviewer:
We assumed, just like other little ethnic enclaves like Little Italy or Greek Town or Chinatown, that for predominantly black neighborhoods all the black businesses there would be owned by the local people. But easily over 90 percent of the businesses on the West Side-and it’s the same way all over the country-are owned by people who are not black and do not live in that community.
I see nothing suspect or separatist about a summons to black entrepreneurship. What is anomalous is the situation today where blacks don’t participate in the small businesses that fuel neighborhood prosperity. Anderson notes that “there used to be 6,400 black-owned grocery stores, representing that melting pot or patchwork that is America, and now there are only three.”
The entrepreneurial skill is there in the kids manning the drug corners. It needs to be channeled back into legal enterprises and productive competition.
Myers: If the black-nationalist alternative means a community permanently set off from the rest of America, then no. Afro-American equivalents of, say, Amish communities do seem far-fetched. But American black nationalism has a long and varied history, with the term comprehending stark geographic separation along with milder visions of domestic confederation and still milder visions of domestic autonomy as a transitional arrangement, functioning to prepare a more fully dignified process of future integration.
If we consider black nationalism in a milder, more transitional form, then it seems to me a plausible possibility. I’m thinking of something like the immigrant communities that first form relatively insular enclaves, sustain themselves and advance first by largely internal, intragroup commerce, then in subsequent generations integrate into the larger society. Black nationalism as a kind of domestic, economic and cultural mercantilism, with a longer-term “sunset” provision: this was in essence the vision of Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton in Black Power, and something close to it seems to be what Malcolm was getting at in his “Ballot or Bullet” discussion.
Whether that path is a desirable or even truly realistic possibility at this late date in black American history is another question. I do think, though, that much of the impetus for it derives from a healthy aversion to a condition of dependence. To the extent that it is linked to an emphasis on developing the virtues of enterprise and entrepreneurship in black communities, and also free of the spirit of racial resentment and chauvinism that at times has characterized black nationalism, then it seems to me a positive thing. Commerce tends to soften mores and to integrate peoples, as we learn from Diana’s mentor Montesquieu, and on that premise it’s reasonable to hope that nationalism might work as a kind of scaffolding in the larger process whereby blacks achieve their full integration into the nation’s economic, social, and political life.
CRB: One reason Malcolm X gave for why ballots might be preferable to bullets is that black voters could hold the balance of power in a nation whose white voters were closely divided between the two major political parties. Since 1964, however, Republicans have struggled to get more than 10% of blacks’ votes. The result seems like the outcome of a political science thought-experiment on how to minimize blacks’ political influence: Republicans see no prospect of making inroads, so barely go through the motions of appealing for black votes, while Democrats can take those votes for granted, having no realistic fear of losing them. Is it possible to envision the GOP becoming significantly more attractive to, and successful with, black voters than it has been in the past 48 years?
Schaub: Well, one can always hope. Back in 1884, at a time when all blacks voted Republican, despite the fact that the party had ceased to look to their interests, T. Thomas Fortune, co-founder of the National Negro Business League, issued a call for the “Political Independence of the Negro”:
They must make for themselves a place to stand. In the politics of the country the colored vote must be made as uncertain a quantity as the German and Irish vote. The color of their skin must cease to be an index to their political creed. They must think less of “the party” and more of themselves; give less heed to a name and more heed to principles.
A realignment eventually occurred, but instead of becoming independent, blacks shifted from the Republican column to the Democratic. I suspect it’s time for another call to political independence. Republicans need to persist in making the case that education and entrepreneurship can do more for all Americans than entitlements can; and then they need to follow through to insure that equality of opportunity is more than a slogan.
Myers: The country as a whole and black America in particular need a Republican Party devoted, earnestly and explicitly, to the well-being of blacks. The party needs this, too, for both its electoral strength and its moral health.
There is much for mainstream black America to like about the Republican Party. Certainly far more than 10% of black Americans are in fundamental sympathy with the principles of economic and moral conservatism that define Republicans as a party-with the causes of fiscal discipline, economic growth, free enterprise, private initiative or self-help, the rebuilding of civil society, even the properly conceived decentralizing of power, and so forth. Here is an obvious growth opportunity. It seems to me clearly possible for Republicans to multiply their levels of support among black voters without losing support among whites.
Broad agreement on principles is one thing, though, and actual electoral support quite another. Their partisan adversaries will persist in tarring Republicans as the party of racial backlash, defenders of white privilege. That injustice calls for a spirited response, but that response won’t suffice as a strategy for regaining blacks’ votes. “We are not racist” isn’t much of an ice-breaker, and it certainly can’t be more than that, in a renewed conversation with black voters. More important, Republicans cannot allow their justified resentment of stereotyping by their opponents to divert them from a self-examination with respect to race relations. The party on the whole is, and long has been, much better on race than it has been depicted, but it needs to be much better still. Here are five suggestions, building from one to the next, as to how it can be.
1. Understand: To emulate Lincoln is almost always good advice. The general point here is that Republicans should perform their re-examination of the nation’s and their own history on race in a spirit of Lincolnian charity for all. Broadly, this means to view this history through the eyes of those whose particular experience moves them to view it differently. Lincoln told his fellow antislavery northerners they would benefit by trying to see how things appeared through the eyes of southerners who defended slavery (“they are just what we would be in their situation”). Those who would carry forward his legacy today might benefit even more by striving to view America’s history on race through the eyes of those who have suffered most from it, directly or indirectly.
2. Differentiate: In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wryly inferred an unasked question that lurked behind the actual, everyday questions whites unthinkingly put to him: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Differentiation requires learning from such diverse writers as Thomas Sowell, Orlando Patterson, and even Eugene Robinson (whose useful recent book I reviewed in the Summer 2011 CRB). This means, first and foremost, not to treat black Americans as though they or their condition were simply a problem for America. Let’s put away the imputation that black America is little more than an outsized underclass-a huge undifferentiated mass of dependent victims, whether of white racism, as the Left has it, or of misconceived governmental policies, as some on the Right suggest.
Black Americans are a very diverse group, as one would expect when considering 42 million people, a number 30% larger than the entire population of Canada. The black American story, in recent decades especially, is largely a success story-a story of a broad, growing middle class, an increasingly prominent upper class, and a gigantic contribution to American culture and American self-understanding. As a prerequisite for attending to the negative in black America, let’s accentuate the positive-and let’s understand its sources, that we might better understand how it can be replicated.
3. Avoid moralizing: In attending to the persisting, even deepening ills afflicting many impoverished blacks, conservatives and some Republicans have labored for decades to change the prevailing social-science narrative from its predominant emphasis on external or structural factors-on “accumulated” or “institutionalized” racism-to a combination of other external factors (public policies) and internal, cultural factors. This is the way of progress, but conservatives and Republicans need to take care in persuading others to follow it.
To draw attention to internal, cultural sources of persisting impoverishment is often to elicit the charge that one is “blaming the victim.” The charge is unjust, but it has been effective in delaying and marginalizing much-needed public discussion of the relations between various behavioral factors-such as family malformations, poor parenting, a tenuous attachment to the educational process and then the workforce-and socioeconomic underachievement.
Those dysfunctional behaviors are surely to some degree traceable to slavery. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out, blacks whose ancestors were free prior to the Emancipation Proclamation are faring, in general, significantly better than those whose ancestors were liberated by the war. At present, however, the more powerful force perpetuating dysfunction is the spirit of alienation that pervades many poor black neighborhoods, and it’s possible for conservatives to emphasize this without veering into self-righteousness. Alienation is an understandable, even natural response to the black American experience. But it is not the only possible response, and it is a profoundly self-destructive one.
A closely related piece of advice is to keep in mind Shelby Steele’s insight that race relations in America have been characterized generally by a struggle for innocence between blacks and whites. If the arguments identifying the true proximate causes of chronic, continuing disadvantage among impoverished blacks are to persuade, the corollary suggestion of the declining significance of racism must not be confused with a self-serving protestation of white innocence. Worse still is the suggestion that whites have no moral responsibility to assist, so far as it lies in their power, their black fellow citizens in improving their condition. Arguments calling for black self-help, dignifying and respectful as they are, must always be made with an eye to the fact that such arguments excite many blacks’ not unreasonable suspicions that they serve the ulterior purpose of “letting whites off the hook.”
4. Reassure: When Republicans (of whatever color) speak to black audiences, they must remember that they are speaking to people for whose elders a regime of brutal white supremacy, in some cases a condition closely resembling slavery, remains within living memory. Invoking states’ rights reminds this audience of the traditional shield for majority tyranny. For blacks public professions of color-blindness or race neutrality have functioned in decades past as instruments of fraud, and celebrations of progress toward justice have often proved sadly premature.
I don’t say that Republicans should embark on an apology tour, nor that they should pepper their speeches with pious blather about racism in America being “alive and well.” But if they seek a hearing from significant numbers of black voters, they must begin by demonstrating insight into blacks’ historical experiences and the fears, angers, suspicions, and insecurities those experiences engender.
Sensible people are wary of assurances that “this time is different,” even when it’s true. To persuade sensibly wary blacks that this time really is different, that the freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and respect that they have lately gained will not be taken away, Republicans must demonstrate a continuing commitment to the anti-discrimination cause. This means particularly that when they attempt, as principle and sound policy require, to undo the regime of racial and ethnic preferences that liberal Democrats have contrived as anti-discrimination measures, they must not only patiently demonstrate how such policies do more harm than good but must also be ready with credible alternatives. Demonstrating such a commitment is a precondition for refocusing attention on the real ills and the real remedies.
5. Focus: Speaking over a century ago on the subject of reparations for slavery, Frederick Douglass reasoned:
“To find an adequate measure of compensation for any wrong, we must first ascertain the nature and extent of the wrong itself. The mere act of enslaving the Negro was not the only wrong done him, nor were the labors and stripes imposed upon him, though heavy and, grievous to bear, the sum of his wrongs. These were indeed terrible enough; but deeper down, and more terrible still, were the mental and moral wrongs which enter into his claim for a slight measure of compensation. For two hundred and forty years the light of letters was denied him, and the gates of knowledge were closed against him.”
In Douglass’s day, the pre-eminent, overpowering source of racial inequality was a governmentally enforced regime of white supremacy, and its worst effect, at least among its generalized effects on the class of its victims, was destined to outlast the regime itself. Today that regime has been demolished but the deficit in human capital that it produced persists. Erasing that deficit marks the one true path to lasting progress in race relations. Douglass himself and Booker T. Washington may have been premature, but they were not wrong in their insistence that racial bigotry could not, over time, withstand clear demonstrations of merit by blacks. Now, one may hope, their argument is finally in season.
If that argument is to come to full fruition, blacks along with other friends of racial equality must invest their energies into rebuilding civil society among impoverished blacks, centering on the institutions of families and schools, upon which the cultivation of talent and character depends. That means they must buy into the moral sociology that conservatives and neo-conservatives have been developing over the past few decades. For conservatives and Republicans to succeed in refocusing the discussion they must, therefore, raise their moral and political standing among blacks.
CRB: Barack Obama once told an interviewer, “That affirmation that I am a man, I am worth something, I think was important [to the black community]. And I think Malcolm X probably captured that better than anybody.” In the 1960s race seemed like America’s worst problem, in the sense of being both the most urgent and most intractable. Is the election of America’s first black president a sign that we’re muddling through that problem reasonably well, even if we’re not solving it?
Schaub: Not necessarily. It’s worth remembering that in an address entitled “The Present and Future of the Colored Race in America,” Frederick Douglass indicated that a black president is not the proper litmus test for race relations in America: “The question is not whether colored men will be likely to reach the Presidential chair. I have no trouble here: for a man may live quite a tolerable life without ever breathing the air of Washington.” The real question, he said, is “Can the white and colored people of this country be blended into a common nationality, and enjoy together, in the same country, under the same flag, the inestimable blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as neighborly citizens of a common country?” So, according to Douglass, we could achieve a common nationality without ever electing a black president. Presumably, we could also elect a black president before having fully achieved a common nationality. Rather than muddling through, which I suppose we are doing, we ought to give some serious thought to defining the elements of common nationality and neighborliness and then acting so as to better realize those ideals.
Myers: In the aftermath of Obama’s election, race scholars and commentators produced a flood of literature meant to do away with the notion that Americans had now, at long last, arrived at the post-racial promised land. But the notion of a post-racial America is a straw man. Qualify Obama’s election as we might (he benefited from a public in panic over the economy, a discredited predecessor and opposing party, a weak opponent, and his own skill in presenting himself as a projection-screen for idealistic young voters), his victory does signify something momentous for America. It marks a milestone in the country’s enormous and unprecedented progress in reforming race relations, which was indeed America’s worst domestic problem for a very long time. As Orlando Patterson, an astute student of race relations and no apologist for conservatism or America, wrote in The Ordeal of Integration (1998): “The achievements of the American people over the past half century in reducing racial prejudice and discrimination and in improving the socioeconomic and political condition of Afro-Americans are nothing short of astonishing…. unparalleled in the [world’s] history of majority-minority relations.”
As I suggested above, however, when many people think of black America, they think of the part of black America that isn’t doing well, the underclass, and here we still do confront an urgent and seemingly intractable problem. And beyond that set of problems, there remains a broader problem with education and a skills gap. It isn’t clear to me whether these problems remain at their core about race. When I consider Charles Murray’s new book on class divisions among white Americans, I think it might be best to say that the social maladies afflicting poor blacks are actually ills from which Americans of all colors and ethnicities suffer, though some groups more severely than others. If we think that the remedy begins with the rebuilding of the institutions of civil society, and we concede that no one seems to know just how to do this, then the problem may well appear intractable.
One last word, if I might, on Obama’s admiration for Malcolm X. One can hardly argue with anyone’s personal experience of self-affirmation via Malcolm, but I think that those who admire Malcolm in this way might benefit by considering just what is being affirmed in his posture of heroic opposition. Granted, the notion that standing up to injustice is an essential element of human dignity has a deservedly honored place in American (as in human) history. Its exemplars include the Revolutionaries and Founders as well as such Afro-American greats as Douglass, Du Bois, and King along with Malcolm.
Perhaps I’m hard on Malcolm, but it seems to me that he, unlike those others, understood manhood or dignity solely in terms of standing against injustice, rendering it unclear just what he was standing for. And if that’s what human dignity or worth means to you, then you’ll be inclined to spend your life in a perpetual search for injustices to oppose-ever larger ones, perhaps, in ever more heroic and glorious opposition. This is the longing for total revolution, and it’s a quixotic, essentially negative understanding of dignity.
This is what I mean in calling Malcolm a purveyor of alienation. I think this sense that dignity lies only in opposition to, or alienation from, America has been profoundly damaging to many black Americans in our time, in particular the young, urban poor whom Malcolm claimed as his primary constituency.
CRB: Diana, as the author of the essay that got this discussion started, you’re entitled to conclude it.
Schaub: Peter has limned a comprehensive plan for Republicans to reach out to African Americans. I hope the campaigns and the RNC are listening.
While it seems that Peter and I are largely in agreement, let me try to generate some controversy by dissenting from his concluding characterization of Malcolm X as “a purveyor of alienation,” possessed of an “essentially negative understanding of dignity.” I agree with Peter that alienation afflicts the black urban underclass-and not only the underclass. There is a certain kind of alienation widespread among middle-class blacks as well. You can hear it on black radio; see it registered in opinion polls where a startling proportion of blacks subscribe to conspiracy theories (AIDS as a genocidal government plot and such); perceive it in the cynical assessments of the Founders, Lincoln, and even great black leaders like Booker T. Washington; and feel its effects in the fall-off in military recruitment among African Americans after 9/11.
Malcolm X would seem to aggravate this tendency inasmuch as he stressed the black man’s essential alienation from American life, telling his audiences: “No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism.” Granting this, it still seems to me that Malcolm X spoke in this way not to confirm and cultivate a grievance, but to provoke a searing self-evaluation in the souls of black Americans. He recognized the psychological damage to the race: the ingrained self-hatred. So, for example, when he gives a speech asking blacks “who is it who taught you to hate yourselves?” I suppose whites hear the attack on themselves. For blacks, however, I suspect the attribution of blame is in fact quite secondary. The deeper purpose is to acknowledge and exorcize self-hatred. Thus, in the end, I don’t think Malcolm X was primarily oppositional. Peter characterizes him as standing against rather than standing for. However, the phrase Malcolm X himself used was standing up, “like a man on your own feet.” He called on his fellows to “wake up, clean up, and stand up.”
In the attention he pays to manhood and its prerequisites, Malcolm X is most like Frederick Douglass. One thinks of what the adult Douglass says he learned as an adolescent on the dramatic occasion that “revived a sense of my own manhood.” Having stood up (an act that involved both a for and an against-standing up for himself against the slave driver), Douglass asserts: “A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity him; and even this it cannot do long, if the signs of power do not arise.”
Peter refers to Malcolm X’s “occasional praise for self-help.” I don’t think that captures the full significance of this component of his thought. Not only was it more than occasional, it was more than self-help. Although Malcolm X certainly advocated economic and social advancement through one’s own initiative, his message reached deeper into the self than that. He made his followers aware of the internal-the mental and spiritual-conditions for freedom. He talked of self-knowledge as a means to self-government, displayed so convincingly in his own stern self-discipline and his cool command of every situation. I think this explains why it is that so many prominent blacks today (including the president), who have a much stronger sense of belonging to America than Malcolm X did, nonetheless speak so favorably of what Malcolm X meant to them. They took from him not alienation from whites, but simply affirmation of themselves as human beings worthy of respect.
Traditionally, the black church was a tremendous source of black dignity. bell hooks argues that it was a place where African Americans “learned oppositional ways of thinking.” It shouldn’t be surprising that Martin Luther King was able to muster these well-formed legions, in love. By contrast, Malcolm X’s audience was more broken down (so too today’s hip-hop-influenced youth). He had to address their alienation from themselves first and foremost. For someone in the grip of hopelessness, even rage might be an energizing, detoxifying step-but only a step, not to be mistaken for a goal.
No one perceived more clearly the dangers inherent in pursuing black power as an ideology than Frederick Douglass. In one of his last great speeches, “The Nation’s Problem” (1889), he warned blacks against the false philosophy of “race pride.” Color is a gift of God, for which one can be grateful, but not proud. Pride should be reserved for achievements. Moreover, when the “mountain devil, the lion in the way of our progress” is white race pride, appeals to black race pride do nothing to dislodge that threat.
Accordingly, Douglass was careful to find occasions for the exercise of force that generated a sense of dignity among blacks while at the same time strengthening their American identity. Witness his diligent work to enlist black troops in service to the Union, his insistence on enfranchising the freedmen, and his interest in displays of black gratitude toward benefactors (especially the Freedmen’s Monument to Abraham Lincoln).
The distance between Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X looks to be distressingly wide. But we should never forget that Douglass spent more than a decade on the lecture platform repudiating the U.S. Constitution in the most uncompromising language. He was in his mid-thirties before he revised his views. Had he been dead at 39 (as Malcolm X was) rather than living for another four decades, his legacy would have been very different. I imagine we would now be struck mainly by his triumph over adversity, the sheer force of character that shown through his oratory, and his manful grappling to find his place in America. We would not have seen the full growth of his practical wisdom and patriotic statesmanship.
So I guess I’ve resolved to take from the incomplete life of Malcolm X what was most admirable and most promising. Perhaps I am too sanguine in thinking that the political portion of his message (whether the black nationalist separatism of his early career or the revolutionary socialism of his last months) has, like Douglass’s own misguided dis-unionism, lost whatever appeal it once had, and that the example of his remarkable rise, his moral reformation, and his ongoing self-education can be salvaged. Certainly, a better appropriation of Malcolm X could be made than the gimmicky one that began in the 1990s with the X-bearing baseball caps. Malcolm X was too much a gentleman ever to have worn a baseball cap-unless on a baseball diamond.
CRB: Diana and Peter, thank you very much.