Commentary Magazine


The Meaning of Negro Strategy

In May of 1963, the world was abruptly made aware that a new minority community had emerged as a significant and self-conscious force in American society. The evidence was clear, eloquent, and disturbing. In Birmingham, Alabama during the week of May 13, the formerly dispersed and demoralized masses of Negroes suddenly became a well-organized, resolute body of citizens, marching forward to their daily encounter with the city’s police force and fire department. The following week in Nashville, Tennessee, students of Fisk University led a protest march of their fellow Negroes through the main avenues of the city as part of a new campaign for complete desegregation. In Raleigh, North Carolina, five hundred college students broke three years of relative racial peace that had followed the desegregation of lunch counters, and launched a similar drive for total equality by a demonstration at the Governor’s mansion. In Greensboro, North Carolina, a thousand Negroes attempted lo sit in at two movie houses and a public cafeteria. In Cambridge, Maryland, as in Albany, Georgia, the long, desperate struggle was joined again, while in Selma, Alabama, the first stage of a new one was initiated by Negro leaders in a campaign to register voters. But it was not only in the South that the presence and pressure of a coherent movement were unmistakably apparent. Immediately following “Birmingham,” the groundwave of protest began to swell in the Negro ghettos of New York, Chicago, and Detroit, as well as in pleasant suburbs like Orange and Englewood in New Jersey. Following these two weeks in May the tide of Negro group action continued to grow through the late spring and summer, rolling across the Eastern half of the nation and culminating in the great demonstration in Washington on August 28.

The most immediate and dramatic reaction of the white community was that of resentment and resistance. Nothing was quite to match that long Saturday night of May 18 in Birmingham when the motel where Martin Luther King had set up headquarters and the home of King’s brother were both bombed, and when for some hours Negroes and police struggled amid the havoc and terror of an incipient race war. But almost everywhere that Negroes protested there was violence or the threat of it. The demonstrations in Nashville ended in knife-fighting between Negroes and whites; in Greensboro 241 marchers were arrested while a mob of whites swirled about them under the banners of “Blacks, Go Home,” and “Go Back to Africa.” And the mood of white resistance was to continue making itself felt in the infamous church bombing in Birmingham, and in the chain of assaults and police harassment that eventually extended from Jackson, Mississippi, to New York.

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This outcropping of violence and intransigence, bombings and imprisonment, however, tended to obscure the less dramatic but more significant development of a new stage in Negro-white relations. For example, even as the Birmingham police were packing the marchers off to jail, an unprecedented series of negotiations was taking place between the leading businessmen of the city—six white and six Negro—which culminated in an agreement providing for a phased integration of lunch counters and the opening of job opportunities to Negroes. So, too, the Negro demonstrations in Nashville, Raleigh, and Greensboro were promptly followed by the establishment of new bi-racial committees to plan further desegregation, backed by statements from the white business leaders of both cities calling for the removal of all public and business policies that denied rights and services on racial grounds. And similarly, in Orange, New Jersey, the efforts of the Negro community resulted in an order from the State Commissioner of Education to present a plan for integrating a segregated elementary school in that town.

In other words, what underlay the specific conflicts both in the South and in the North during this two-week period in May was the emergence of an organized Negro community in each town representing the interests of its members and able to negotiate for them. Even the agreement reached in Birmingham—though it was soon to be repudiated by the business community of the city, not to mention the city government, the state police, and the fanatical terrorists—is an illustration of this development. Written in the spirit of civic pragmatism that has been displacing the rabid intransigence of the racists, the Birmingham agreement reads like what it essentially is: a pact between two distinct political bodies:

Responsible leaders of both Negro and white communities of Birmingham, being desirous of promoting conditions which will ensure sound moral, economic and political growth of their city, in the interest of all citizens of Birmingham, after mutual consideration and discussion of the issues relating to the recent demonstrations in the city, have agreed to . . .

What we have here, in effect, is a radical departure from the traditional conception of civil rights as the rights of individuals. This departure lies at the heart of the “Negro Revolution,” and may, indeed, almost be said to be that revolution. Today, in America as elsewhere, the Negro has made us forcefully aware that the rights and privileges of an individual rest upon the status attained by the group to which he belongs—that is to say, by the power it controls and can use. That this fact determined race relations in the 19th century is clear enough: Hillaire Belloc, disdaining to rationalize colonialism as “the white man’s burden,” put the matter very simply: “When all is said and done, we have the Gatling gun and they have none.” To the extent that power is available to him, the Negro is now responding in kind. And in the American pluralistic pattern, where social power is distributed by group, the Negro has perforce come to recognize that he can achieve equal opportunities only through the concerted action of the Negro community. No longer addressing himself exclusively to the white man’s attitudes of prejudice, to effecting changes in “the hearts and minds of men”—an approach that dooms him to gradualism—the Negro now confronts the white society on the issue of his rights with all the political and economic strength that his group is able to wield.

The Negro bloc of yesterday, in short, has become the mass movement of today. The speed with which this change has occurred, as well as its tendency to become identified with specific personalities like Martin Luther King and with specific incidents like those in Birmingham or Jackson or Albany, have deflected attention from the more general meaning of what has been happening. First of all, it is clear that the upsurge of Negro action is not merely a matter of temporary fervor; it is rather a profound response to a number of pressures which have been generated by the Negro’s changing relation to American society and which, taken together, constitute a social upheaval of major significance. Among the more salient of these pressures is the accelerated migration of Negroes from the South to the North and from rural areas to the cities. While the state of Mississippi has been losing over thirty per cent of its Negro population in each of the past two decades, cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles have been experiencing an equally phenomenal rise in their Negro populations. Within the deprived and impacted Negro ghettos, the demands steadily grow for improved housing, education, and other public services. At the same time, the mounting population and its concentration in big cities provide Negro leaders with an increasingly strong base of political power. For example, in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago’s Black Belt, whose Negro population has increased by 80 per cent since the war, a grass-roots political movement has sprung up recently which has been agitating effectively for better police protection, school facilities, and housing, and which has forged a new spirit of group solidarity and communal responsibility that has enabled its leaders to oppose the acquisition of the best sections of the neighborhood by the powerful University of Chicago.

In the economic sphere, similarly, the advent of automation and other technological advances has produced a growing unemployment rate among Negroes and a widening split between Negro and white incomes. As the pressures of Negro poverty and frustration mount, the barriers of job discrimination become that much more unendurable; the result has been a concerted effort to breach them through mass demonstrations against labor and management alike, as well as through boycotts, selective buying, and other pressure tactics.

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Given all these tensions within the Negro population, it is not surprising that they should be pressing for action. What is surprising, however, is the solidarity and skill which have characterized Negro action during the past year. The March on Washington presented an especially conclusive example of Negro unity. Such unity—indeed, unity of any kind—is new in Negro life; one of the important effects of the strategy of mass demonstrations has been to create a sense of community among a people whose group ties were deliberately and persistently shattered during the period of slavery and whose subsequent social history has produced, for the most part, no larger unit of community than the church congregation. The spectacle of 200,000 people marching last summer through Washington, along with the other group demonstrations in the North and South and the innumerable acts of individual heroism, have produced a new feeling of collective self-awareness, of peoplehood. The March on Washington, moreover, was a testimony to the rapid progress that the Negro has been making in wielding power. The organizational feat involved in planning and carrying through the huge demonstration, and the discipline of the marchers themselves, most of them Negro, marked an impressive stage in the maturing of the community. And it showed that a new Negro bureaucracy had come to the fore whose political sophistication and organizational talent were comparable to those of the best leadership found among the other ethnic and religious groups.

Thus, within a very short time, the Negro has developed the rudimentary group coherence and indigenous leadership that enables him to speak for his own rights and interests. Lacking these strengths, the Negro has in the past necessarily been dependent upon whites to represent him in American society. Both the Urban League, his main social agency, and the NAACP, his main political action group, were founded by whites and until recently have functioned within the ambience of the white community. Similarly with the Negro’s political power, which has been mortgaged to the liberal coalition of the big-city political machines and the CIO that was created a generation ago under the New Deal. While the Negro has not as yet withdrawn from this coalition, he is no longer willing to accept the theory that what is good for the Democratic party is necessarily good for him. Nor is he any more patient with the “trickle-down” concept of prosperity when it is advanced to him by Big Labor than was the union man himself when he heard it expressed by Big Business during the Hoover years. Having taken into his own hands the reins of his destiny in American society, the Negro has found that the gradualism to which so many Northern liberals are committed can be as pressing an obstacle as the intransigence of the Southern conservatives, and consequently he has been forced to assert specific Negro demands in the North through his attacks upon the unions, upon de facto school and housing segregation, and through his drive for greater political patronage and a more independent use of the vote. What is now perceived as the “revolt of the Negro” amounts to this: the solitary Negro seeking admission into the white world through unusual achievement has been replaced by the organized Negro insisting upon a legitimate share for his group of the goods of American society. The white liberal, in turn, who—whether or not he has been fully conscious of it—has generally conceived of progress in race relations as the one-by-one assimilation of deserving Negroes into the larger society, finds himself confused and threatened by suddenly having to come to terms with an aggressive Negro community that wishes to enter it en masse.

Accordingly, in the arena of civil rights the Negro Revolution has tended to take the struggle out of the courts and bring it to the streets and the negotiating tables. Granting the potential for unprecedented violence that exists here, it must also be borne in mind that what the Negro people are now beginning to do, other ethnic minorities—who brought to America their strong traditions of communal solidarity—did before them. With this powerful asset the Irish rapidly acquired political strength, and the Jews succeeded in raising virtually an entire immigrant population into the middle class within the span of two generations. Viewed in this perspective, the Negroes are merely the last of America’s significant ethnic minorities to achieve communal solidarity and to grasp the role of the informal group power structure in protecting the rights and advancing the opportunities of the individual members of the community.

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Indeed, ethnic groups (including of course the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant group) have played a much more significant role in American society than is commonly recognized or at least admitted. Except in the realm of politics, where the backing of a given ethnic group is often the primary qualification for office, we tend to maintain the fiction that American society is made up of isolated individuals who depend mainly upon their own talents for the position they achieve in it. The truth is, however, that the economic structure of the nation has been no less strongly influenced by ethnic factors than political ones. Wherever we look—whether at heavy industry or dairy farming, public utilities or banking, the building or the garment trades, organized crime or law enforcement—we find clearly marked ethnic patterns of occupation opportunities. Though these patterns have been breaking down in recent decades, in many of the older industries and vocations it still makes a difference whether one’s forebears came from Ireland or Italy or whether one’s first name or last name is Milton.

The converse of the fiction of social individualism has been the idea that minority organization hinders assimilation and perpetuates the disabilities of minority status. In the light of this idea, the immigrants pouring into America at the turn of the century were repeatedly advised that naturalization was an individual—and not a group—process and were admonished to shed their group identities and organizations as rapidly as possible. Today, Negro solidarity and its forms of collective self-assertion are provoking a similar anxiety and counsel from the dominant group. Disapproval by the majority, however, is unlikely to have much influence on the new Negro movement. The traditional approach to civil rights and equal opportunities as the slow but continuous expansion of democracy on an individual basis means little to a group which is demanding the immediate rectification of a severe and continuous injustice to it. Moreover, when the authority of state governments and the power of most social and economic institutions have been used to deny the individual Negro his rights and opportunities merely because of his membership in the Negro group, it seems only fitting that he should muster the power he possesses to establish his rights and opportunities on a group basis.

But Negro action has not only turned the civil rights program into a conflict between groups, it has also extended this conflict to employment, housing, and education. Looking beyond the demand for civil rights, Negro leaders see that the “open society” of 1964 is in many areas even more closed to their community than was the ethnocentric WASP society of 1900 to the waves of new immigrants, and that the inequities suffered by Negroes are more extreme. Even in jobs, residential neighborhoods, and schools where Negroes are not excluded by explicit policy, their absence in significant numbers is rightly seen as proof of discrimination. The sad and brutal truth is that de facto segregation permeates our institutions and exerts a cumulative force: like a tropism beyond the reach of law, it impels the white man to identify with his race and to turn his back on the Negro.

The real issue, then, is not that of giving special consideration to Negroes to compensate for past injustices, but that of adopting realistic measures which will begin to correct a profound tendency in our society to exclude and penalize the Negro. So profound is this tendency that even where the formula “regardless of race, creed, or color” has been taken seriously, the Negro has found himself excluded on the ground of inadequate qualifications. The present anxiety about “maintaining standards” is far from new: it is a traditional ethnocentric reaction to any serious threat from outsiders, and it is as often a rationalization for prejudice as a concern for quality. Certainly the recently expressed determination of the building trades unions to maintain the “standards” of their craft must seem unconvincing to any occupant of a modern New York apartment. Where there is good will, the problem of equipping Negroes would seem to be no more difficult than that faced by American industry during World War II when it created virtually a whole new skilled work force through on-the-job training. After all, no one is suggesting that Negro laborers should immediately be sent to medical school, though no doubt a good many more Negro college students with good grades in biology should be.

To deal with this form of institutional prejudice the Negro activists have adopted the new strategy of attempting to fix responsibility on the management level—housing authorities, trade-union officials, corporation executives, boards of education, and so forth. Such an approach to the objective of increasing vocational, housing, and educational opportunities must sooner or later involve a discussion of numbers. However, insistence that the number of Negroes in some industries, housing projects, and schools be increased to a proportion reasonably related to Negro incidence in the population has been misrepresented, sometimes intentionally, as a demand for a rigid quota that would be imposed for the benefit of Negroes and at the expense of whites. Both Governor Rockefeller and President Kennedy received strong support from the white community when they condemned quotas. The President did so on practical grounds: “We are too mixed, this society of ours, to begin to divide ourselves on the basis of race or color.” The governor made his opposition a matter of doctrine, arguing that such quotas were both unlawful and counter to American principles. The New York Times, having acknowledged that Negroes are justified in being impatient about the rate of unemployment in their community, went on to observe that “this impatience often finds expression in suggestions for a conscious system of reverse discrimination in favor of Negroes.” Trade unions have also found reasons for strongly condemning quotas. So has President Eisenhower who fears that we may be in danger of “over-compensating” the Negro.

In general, white opposition to the Negro movement has crystallized around the issues of “quotas” and “preferential treatment.” But to the Negro seeking a radical improvement in his situation, the issues are jobs and decent living conditions, not quotas; improved education, not school-busing privileges. Due to the lack of white support of any large-scale measures to aid the Negro, progress in these basic areas has been pitifully small. After being subjected to immense pressure, for example, the building trades agreed to add Negro apprentices; three thousand applicants were screened and 14 accepted! And in the other areas of the Negro plight, the advances have been no less meager.

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Liberal opinion, in the North and in the South, thus continues to stand upon its traditions of gradualism—the one-by-one admission of deserving Negroes into the larger society—and to reject the idea that to help the Negro it must help the Negro community. Yet the fact is that the Negro belongs to an economic as well as a racial group. Certainly a child born in East Harlem is as much bound by economic limitations as a coal miner’s child in eastern Kentucky. Given the conditions in a region like eastern Kentucky, we recognize that opportunity is in good part socially determined: if unemployment goes over 7 per cent, the town qualifies as a “depressed area” and the community as a whole receives federal aid. But the Negro, who by virtue of his color belongs to an economic community which suffers almost constantly from an unemployment rate of more than 12 per cent, is expected to find resources and opportunities by himself and on his own.

Secretary of Labor Wirtz recently remarked that machines can now do more cheaply and effectively most work done by the high-school graduate. Obviously the resources needed for earning an acceptable place in our society are far different from what they were a century ago when a grant of three acres and the ability to farm it provided a sufficient start. However, we still tend to accept the American frontier ideology of resourceful individualism in positing the requirements for success in our society, just as we still accept the classical liberal ideology of laissez-faire as the backbone of our economic system. The truth is that this frontier ideology has as little relation to the actual routes to advancement in our highly developed technocracy as the laissez-faire ideology has to the actual operation of our federally subsidized and highly integrated economy. The individual who is adequately equipped to meet its demands usually has the backing of community and family achievement, which motivates him to seek a college education and orients him in making use of it.

Why then should we still insist upon holding the Negro to an extreme and outmoded doctrine of individual merit? More than half of all Negro men have not even graduated from primary school, and the continuing process of discrimination makes a bad situation increasingly worse. Between 1952 and 1962, the average Negro income dropped from 57 per cent to 53 per cent of the average white income, and the future looks even darker than the present. Negroes are heavily over-represented in unskilled labor, where jobs are decreasing daily, and heavily under-represented in the white-collar fields, which accounts for nearly all new jobs nowadays and where the rate of Negro unemployment is already about twice as high as the white rate.

The number of Americans living on a minimal subsistence level has been variously estimated as ranging between 36 and 50 million. Let us accept the mid-point figure of 44 million. It has been pointed out that 11 million of these people—that is, only one out of four—are Negroes. But looked at from another point of view, nearly two-thirds of all Negroes are impoverished. As Michael Harrington has demonstrated, poverty, like wealth, is inherited. Within the larger perspective of American society as a whole, the inherited poverty of whites, though far from negligible, is still a minority phenomenon; from the Negro’s perspective, inherited poverty is a majority phenomenon, indeed an endemic one. In the generally accepted notion that America is an affluent society, we merely confirm our exclusion of the Negro from it.

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This prolonged, virtually systematic exclusion of the Negro group from American life and the growing desperation of his position explain why the Negro is making such radical demands for freedom and opportunity—“now.” But along with objecting to the Negro’s impatient and militantly self-interested demands as “racism in reverse,” white liberals have also questioned the efficacy of his strategy. The position expressed by Professor Eli Ginzberg is typical:

In the past the Negro has made significant gains when he has been included in important national efforts—the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the New Deal, the C.I.O., World War II, the expansion of public programs for health, education, and welfare. There is little prospect that white America will do much for the handicapped Negro group. But we can expect our democracy to attend to its less fortunate citizens, Negroes included. All America needs a higher level of employment, more and better education, a closer approximation to true equality. To the extent that we move energetically towards these national goals, to that extent will the status of the Negro be improved.

One need hardly argue the superior value, to say nothing of the political advantage, of a national program supported by a wide variety of groups for the benefit of all deprived members of the society. But what allows us to “expect our democracy to attend to its less fortunate citizens, Negroes included” when doing so to any real effect would require major structural changes in the economy as well as in our institutional patterns? What political force will generate such a program? For there is very little political action today that does not have its source in one or another organized and powerful group—and (as was amply demonstrated during the battle for medicare) our forty to fifty million citizens who live in poverty are far too heterogeneous to constitute themselves into an effective political bloc. In general, Professor Ginzberg’s analysis reduces to the moral rhetoric that contemporary liberals tend to substitute for political insight. Professor Andrew Hacker has described the situation of the underprivileged in far more realistic and relevant terms:

It may well be that two Americas are emerging, one a society protected by the corporate umbrella and the other a society whose members have failed to affiliate themselves with the dominant institutions . . . . more importantly, it [the “second America”] will be comprised of the unemployed, the ill-educated and the entire residue of human beings who are not needed by the corporate machine.

One might expect organized labor to begin to concern itself with the economic needs of this second America. But for the most part the unions in practice act as a conservative establishment that is mainly worried about maintaining its prerogatives against the sweeping changes of automation. During the Depression, the AFL denied its support to the unemployed and to those in the mass-production industries. Today, with one-fourth of the nation still ill-housed, ill-fed, and ill-clothed (about the same absolute number of individuals as in the Depression), the AFL-CIO is hardly more interested in speaking for the unorganized worker than the AFL was then. And just as the failure of the AFL in the 30′s necessitated the organization of the CIO, so the inadequacy of the trade-union movement today forces the Negro group into acting to mitigate its own economic plight. Thus the sectarian character of the Negro’s economic and political demands can be understood as a consequence of the absence of any political movement in the United States that speaks for the new American proletariat in general.

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In the postwar period, the emergence of a highly integrated mass society has forced the politics of sectionalism to give way to the politics of groups. More than ever before, the key to political power is group interest. And as often as not, the group interest in question is ethnic, religious, or racial. Such special interests are not necessarily antagonistic to the general good; indeed, they have often helped to advance the general interest by strengthening our democracy and by promoting programs of social welfare. Today the special interest of the Negro involves the burdens of poverty, inadequate training, and other social disabilities that afflict the entire “under-class” of the society, though they fall most heavily upon him. And it is already becoming evident that the Negro’s militancy on behalf of his own cause may well serve the cause of the new American proletariat as a whole. The March on Washington, though primarily concerned with civil rights, also included among its ten points a request for a massive federal program to train unemployed workers—Negro and white; a national Minimum Wage Act that would give to all a decent living; and a broad Federal Labor Standards Act covering all areas of employment which are presently excluded. More generally, the Negro movement today provides the only likely center around which a new coalition might be created to fill the current political vacuum.

A. Philip Randolph, the Negroes’ leading spokesman in the councils of labor, is keenly aware of the strategic role of the Negro movement at this juncture of history. Addressing the AFL-CIO Convention in November, he argued for an alliance between labor and the Negro:

Let our alliance be strengthened. It is in labor’s own interest. For the Negro’s protest today is but the first rumbling of the “under-class.” As the Negro has taken to the streets, so will the unemployed of all races take to the streets. . . . To discuss the civil rights revolution is therefore to write the agenda of labor’s unfinished revolution. The labor movement cannot ignore this under-class. It cannot degenerate into a mere protective association, insulating the “haves” from the “have-nots” in the working class . . .

The implications of such an alliance were graphically spelled out in a subsequent speech at the same convention by Hank Brown, President of the Texas AFL-CIO:

There are a half-million Negroes in our state working for less than fifty cents an hour. There are nearly a million unorganized Latin Americans in our state working for less than fifty cents an hour. . . . Civil rights means more than just doing something for the Negro . . . we can’t win in Texas against the money changers that run the temple, called the state government, with just organized labor. We formed, Brother Randolph, the alliance you speak of a year ago then known as the coalition . . . and we would like for other states to take the hand of the Negro, the Latin American, the Indian, whatever he is, if he is a worker, and he is not making at least $2.00 an hour. Then that is the brother that we need to get with and win the kind of progress we are talking about.

It is still too early to say whether local coalitions like the one in Texas are the grass-roots beginnings of a new national coalition. Certainly any such coalition would have to be formed in the teeth of the apathy toward the unorganized poor that currently prevails among many of labor’s statesmen as well as much of the rank-and-file. Be that as it may, it is becoming evident that only the new proletariat speaking for itself can join the issues of the day. The social planners who have analyzed the problems, the liberals who have moralized them, and the politicians who have articulated them can help in a new progressive coalition, but they lack the energy to initiate it. Group self-interest provides the very core of real politics, and Negro solidarity will have a large role to play if our democracy is once again to find its way to those humane values which were so important in shaping the original conception of America.

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