Class and the African-American
Leadership Crisis

— Malik Miah

Three out of five Blacks say they believe that conditions are worsening for African Americans and a similar number think that the American dream has become impossible to achieve, a new survey says. The poll, conducted by Yankelovich Partners Inc. for The New Yorker, found that 58 percent of those surveyed say conditions for African Americans are getting worse and 59 percent agree that the American dream has become impossible for most to achieve ... A large majority – 78 percent – believe that government programs do not go far enough to relieve the problems of African Americans. However, 48 percent say Blacks’ failure to take advantage of opportunities available to them is a greater problem than white discrimination. —April 22, Associated Press

IN 1984, 1988 and 1992 Jesse Jackson campaigned for President of the United States as a Democrat. While he didn’t run as a “Black candidate,” Jackson understood the broad sentiment in the Black nationality that the “American Dream” was out of its reach.

He also understood the frustration of many whites. The gap between rich and poor, haves and have-nots, was widening so quickly under Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush, he reasoned, only a genuine liberal reformer could reverse the rot. Not surprisingly, Jackson won support in the Black community and among significant groups of white working people. He rejected the charge that his efforts would defeat a “winnable” Democrat.

In 1992 a Democrat, Bill Clinton, did win the White House. Is the state of America, including Black America, better? Wall Street sa as the stock market soars. Workers, on the other hand, are more insecure as downsizing and contracting out of jobs become the norm for business. Black America is definitely feeling the blues.

Clinton has joined the Republican right in weakening social programs from affirmative action to busing to desegregate schools. He endorsed a “tough love” welfare reform program initiated by Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson. This draconian welfare reform law will force thousands of recipients to work in sub-minimum wage jobs. New unlicensed and untrained child care providers will take care of children of women forced into the programs.

Half of all African-American children live in poverty. A third of all Black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are enmeshed in the criminal-justice system. The leading cause of death among young Black men is gunshot wounds. White gangs have burned Black churches in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina over the past year.

Meanwhile, Wall Street cheers. The Federal reserve is concerned the economy is “heating up” too much.

This market economy can’t solve the real problems of African Americans. Worse, the scapegoating of society’s most vulnerable members (immigrants, people of color, women and gays) is on the rise. Clinton, the “winnable” Democrat, has taken the platform of right-wing Republicans and made it his own.

The only challenges to the rightward shift of the major parties are candidates of the Greens and a few other modest third party efforts. Ralph Nader, presidential candidate of the Greens, is expected to get 7–10 percent of the vote in California. Jackson, the longtime voice of the liberal stay- inside-the-two-party-system strategy, is left with lame excuses to convince African Americans and other disgruntled Americans to toe the line behind Clinton.

“I was seriously contemplating running, if for no other reason than to stop the clock from being turned back,” Jackson told a closed-door strategy session organized by the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C., in April. “But, with the Buchanan-Gingrich forces so dominant in the Republican Party this year, it has tended to illuminate Clinton’s better side. He is the option over that group. It’s not murky.” (April 29 & May 6, 1996, The New Yorker)

Clinton and his advisers know he will not be challenged from the left. So what does it matter that his policies over the last three years are to the right of disgraced President Richard Nixon on almost every social issue affecting Blacks, immigrants, women and other working people? Indeed Clinton’s approval ratings among Blacks are higher than Lyndon Johnson’s were in 1965 when he signed the Voting Rights Act.

No wonder the Black community is taken for granted. There is no internal challenge, let alone a third party that can win; Clinton is more concerned about the white racist backlash against the so-called “special privileges” of Blacks than about the real problems in the Black community.

Mortimer B. Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News & World Report, writing in the May 6 issue, points to this milieu that Clinton “feels” for:

As their own job and economic prospects have eroded, [many whites] have become less willing to support affirmative action programs. Today some 51 percent of whites surveyed agree with the statement that equal rights have been pushed too far, the first time a majority of white Americans have said so, compared with only 16 percent who felt that way seven years ago. This trend is even more pronounced among young people: In a recent USA Weekend Magazine poll of 248,000 teenagers, 90 percent said they opposed affirmative action in hiring and college admissions to make up for past discrimination.

Behind the Capitulation

The present-day void of African-American leadership-so great that a majority of Blacks may not even vote, and those who do will vote against the evil Dole-must be understood in a class and historical context.

The Black population has suffered 400 years of degradation and oppression. African Americans can’t be compared to immigrants. They were brought here forcibly and their natural families and languages destroyed. Former slaves don’t know what part of Africa they came from; they don’t know who their ancestors are. It’s been hard to overcome this history and stand up to powerful forces who seek to keep you down.

What is different today is the role being played by the educated middle class-the traditional leaders-who were pushed forward and promoted by less educated workers. A classic example of this unique relationship was the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama. The main leaders of the NAACP were Black workers who searched for a respectable church figure to lead the boycott: Martin Luther King, Jr.

The scenario was repeated many times across the South. Because of this historic relationship, the group of small business owners and professionals who were seen as “leaders” became closely tied to the plight of the working majority of the community. It was a love/hate relationship for most, however.

But a structural change in American capitalist society changed that relationship, permanently. The change was begun with the victory of the Civil Rights Revolution in the 1960s. In addition to gaining increased legal protection, a number of affirmative action programs were integrated into the mainstream market economy. The impact of these structural changes on the Black poor has not been positive overall. They are more isolated and left out from the system.

The widening gap between haves and have-nots in the community has resulted in a growing class polarization. The white owners of capital had no choice but to open the door to Blacks. The brightest took the opportunity. The new middle class sought a better life without worrying about their poorer cousins.

While Black Republicans remain a small group, many of their conservative views on the family and other social issues receive a warm response. Nationalist sentiment is also strong, which is why a majority of Blacks supported Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court even though he expressed reactionary views.

During legal segregation the “Black middle class” – doctors, engineers, lawyers, middle management, small business owners and skilled labor – remained in the ghetto, isolated from the white middle class. That isn’t true anymore.

The new Black professional layers are quantitatively and qualitatively different than earlier generations. It is most evident in Corporate America where “token” Blacks are not only in dead-end administrative positions but now include individuals in real positions of power. (The Boards of Directors, however, in the main are white and male.)

In the fight for legal equality, educated African Americans in general fought side-by-side with their working-class brothers and sisters. They had less stake in the profit system because of legal structures of discrimination. Today the professional layers see the capitalist system as “theirs.” Psychologically, and materially, they identify with other owners of capital.

Black workers, and the few African Americans still working as farmers, don’t have that affinity to capitalism. The growing class polarization in the Black community as a result of these structural changes is destroying the solidarity among Blacks we especially saw after World War II. The material basis for unity had been broken.

The Black middle class (and working class African Americans, too) is just as upset about unwed mothers, crime and drugs as whites. But the Black middle class, who often blame the Black poor, see the white professionals as their class cousins. Yet Black workers and unemployed do not have reliable allies among white workers.

The wider class divisions we see today does not mean Black history between the defeat of the slave holders in the 1860s and the Civil Rights Revolution was one of common struggle by different social classes in the Black population. There were social and class tensions.

The Booker T. Washington layers believed that Jim Crow segregation could not be overthrown. They argued for a conservative philosophy of self-help and promotion of Black businesses. The more radical workers, farmers and intellectuals of that time argued for militant struggle against segregation-by any means necessary even if it challenged the two parties and the profit system itself. What brought about unity was the brutality of racism itself-lynchings, apartheid living conditions, etc.

Some Background to the Change

For 350 years Blacks were legally slave and sub-humans; and for only thirty years have African Americans had full legal equality. From the 1600s through the 1950s, African Americans were denied basic rights as citizens. Even those who won their “freedom” were treated as second-class citizens and segregated. Institutional prejudice (i.e. legal racism) allowed Blacks and other people of color to participate in American capitalism only as junior servants.

In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the gains of the post-Civil War period and formalized the status of the former slaves as second-class citizens. The ruling, “Plessey v. Ferguson,” declared white skin more valuable than dark skin.

Homer Plessey, a 30-year-old shoemaker whose ancestry was seven-eighths white and one-eight Black, was jailed in 1892 for sitting in an all-white section of a New Orleans rail car. On May 17, 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal” stating that the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment provisions on equal protection did not require integration.

One Supreme Court Justice rejected the “separate but equal” doctrine. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote: “Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful.”

This had never been the case. Slaves had been recognized in the Constitution as three-fifths of a vote for the slaveholders. Women were appendages of men. Native Americans were predators to be exterminated. Asians came later as super-exploited labor.

The 1896 ruling was a reflection of the times. Advances in Black rights achieved following the Civil War during Radical Reconstruction had been crushed after only ten years. The court codified the racism that pervaded U.S. society.

Citizenship was for whites; Blacks, Chinese and American Indians were the hyphenated Americans. Special Jim Crow laws were adopted to deny African Americans the vote and full equality. All politics – North, South, East and West – was affected by that historic codification of white supremacy.

Whenever the robber barons and their politicians wanted to divide social layers and keep control they played the race card. In fighting unions, they appealed to the racism of white workers. Unions opposed Black membership or had two classes of members. In California, trade unions led the fight to deny citizenship to Chinese workers.

In the South, white workers were told that freed Blacks were taking their jobs. White workers supported and carried out lynchings and other atrocities against African Americans. Working-class solidarity could only rarely, and briefly, get a foothold. The legalized second class status of Blacks meant all sections of the Black community had a stake to end those discriminatory laws.

From 1896 to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, African Americans of all social and economic backgrounds had an economic stake in ending Jim Crow. That unity was key to building a mass civil rights movement after World War II that led to the Civil Rights Revolution.

Impact of Structural Changes

The creation of a new Black middle class changed Black politics. The fight was no longer to win legal equality; it became getting a piece of the economic pie. Doors began to open in government, industry and electoral politics.

From a handful of elected officials, thousands of Blacks were elected to public office. The Congressional Black Caucus grew significantly (40 members today) and became a political factor. Mass public pressure by Blacks and sympathetic whites persuaded Presidents Johnson and Nixon to sign laws they had previously opposed.

These changes, despite the rhetoric we hear today, benefitted all sectors of the Black community. Sons and daughters of Black workers for the first time could get into the best schools and get training for skilled jobs their parents had been denied.

Even with the downsizing of major manufacturing companies, the percentage and absolute number of African Americans in skilled and semi-skilled jobs is at the highest levels. The Reagan-Bush years slowed these gains but did not reverse them.

At the same time, new opportunities for advancement in Corporate America had a profoundly conservative effect on a layer of the Black community. Differences between the professional layers and working poor were historically minor because so few Blacks could escape the ghettos. Segregation had kept “the Negroes” in their place-in jobs, housing and schools.

The new Black middle class doesn’t have to live in segregated areas anymore, although they may not feel comfortable in mostly white suburbs. The trend is to re-segregate in Black middle-class communities. The move away from school desegregation is not a big issue for these layers as it was in the 1970s. (An article in Time magazine (April 29) notes that “It’s not only white racists who shun poor Black kids. So do wealthy Blacks.”)

African Americans trying to make it in corporate America don’t feel the need to lead a broader fight for greater opportunities and equality for those not making a better living. At the same time, this layer is upset by the racism they experience.

They don’t like the concrete ceiling in the large corporations. They don’t like being stopped when driving their new Mercedes in their new neighborhoods.

They don’t like crime or drugs in their communities. And they didn’t like the December Federal District Court ruling that reduced the number of majority-Black Congressional districts in Georgia from three to one. They know influence and power is tied to political representation.

Black workers also have these same feelings about drugs and crime. They want more police protection, better schools and housing. The problem is the cops come in swinging and occupy the community; real estate sharks and school boards treat working Blacks as second class citizens. The elected officials, Black and white, do more for the middle class.

Polarization and anger is heightened among workers because of the different treatment. Organizations like the NAACP have become stagnant. Polls showed that young Blacks see the NAACP as irrelevant. Kweisi Mfume, the new head of the organization, recently launched a weekly radio show to try and re-energize the organization.

Civil rights groups had fought white racists around the principle of making the Constitution “color blind.” Once the laws became officially color blind, the task became implementation-to end institutional racism. No easy job: The challenge is nothing less than an overhaul of the profit system itself and how wealth is distributed.

In the 1960s and ’70s there were some in the Black community who advocated a radical anti-capitalist vision. Malcolm X was the most important voice. He and others were assassinated or co-opted into the system. The new Black middle class largely agrees with the propaganda that the market will solve their problems, or at least make life easier. Capitalism, however, is based on using race and other scapegoating to reap higher profits.

The white backlash today was inevitable as long as the competitive system is in place. We in California saw how scapegoating worked in 1994 when Republican Governor Pete Wilson used anti-immigrant hysteria to win re-election. He supports an anti-affirmative action ballot initiative to limit civil rights in the state.

White male workers are some of the strongest supporters of this finger pointing. I have a white co-worker at United Airlines who tells me that it’s the “privileges” of Blacks, women and gays that is taking the country down the tubes. “The U.S. was built by Europeans. Blacks and Chinese were only sources of labor,” he says. (The armed Freemen have the same reactionary view.)

Clinton panders to this backlash by calling for amending affirmative action and welfare programs that are already inadequate. Some among the Black middle class who directly benefitted from affirmative action are supporting the end of these programs today. They piously claim their support for a “color blind” society that’s never existed, thinking their place in American society is secured.

What’s happening in the former Yugoslavia shows what can happen if ultra-chauvinists and bigots take command of society. Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign was an indication of the potential for bigotry to erupt into mainstream U.S. politics.

Million Man March

The Million Man March initiated by Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam (NOI) last year was the only significant counterpoint to the racist trend. It shows that a large number of African Americans are ready to mobilize to defend their dignity and answer the latest wave of racist propaganda. [We refer interested readers to a range of views on the significance of the March, presented in our January–February 1996 issue 60 – ed.]

Unfortunately, Farrakhan is not the answer to the lack of leadership among African Americans. His sectarian religious beliefs, his reactionary views on women, Jews and gays, and his pro-capitalist program are all impediments to a united fight for social justice.

The Million Man March showed that the fact of a nation-within-the-nation in the United States. Within the Black community, support for and interest in the march were widespread, and the march was an anticipated to be large and impressive. On the other hand, the white-owned media, the White House and Wall Street were taken by surprise.

The million Black men (and tens of thousands of women) who marched in the capital were telling the powers that be not to take them for granted. They marched for themselves and against white discrimination. It was not an accident that the NOI organized the march – the largest in the history of Black America.

The NOI is the only national organization that is based on a program of self-help and sharp denunciation of institutional racism. The traditional civil rights groups give lip-service to self help, especially in support of small businesses, but they refuse to tell the truth about how white-owned capital exploits colored labor. These groups cannot and will not organize a successful Million Person March.

Within the context of applauding the march, African-American progressives and the left can also criticize the NOI program. Further, we need to defend Farrakhan from current government attack for taking a trip to Africa and Middle East. While Farrakhan visited and defended reactionary governments who oppress their own people, including the slavetrading regime in Sudan and the gangster rulers of Nigeria, he has a right to meet with anyone he wants to without a U.S. government witchhunt.

What’s at stake here are the rights of all Americans who disagree with the government’s foreign policies and treatment of opponents. The U.S. government itself, which happily does business with every murderous regime around, has no right to attack Farrakhan or anyone else on those grounds.

The progressive movement, of course, has the right and even the responsibility to note who Farrakhan met, and what Farrakhan’s choices say about his politics: his affinities with power-holding elites, no matter how corrupt, and contempt for the most basic elements of democracy and human rights.

The crisis of effective political leadership in the Black nationality can’t be filled by any person. The Congressional Black Caucus and other mainstream civil rights groups support the market system and will not challenge the root cause of racism. The traditional leaders and organizations can not lead the fight to end institutional racism and win full equality.

Black working people will provide the front-line soldiers and actual leadership. Workers with relatively higher paying jobs, with skills and semi-skills in particular – those with stable jobs – will lead the way. Some middle-class elements will come forward too but will never again play the role they did against slavery and Jim Crow.

The new leadership must stand for a radical democratic program that supports restructuring of the market system based on the socialist principle of human needs before profits. Mass pressure is how African Americans ended segregation, and it is how working people will restructure the economy and bring fundamental political change.

Whoever is elected president must face the people’s democratic demands. Otherwise, the Republicrats will use racism and other wedges to keep working people divided.

Malik Miah is a member of SOLIDARITY in the Bay Area, an airline union activist and an advisory editor of ATC.

ATC 63, July–August 1996