Sunday, September 7, 2008

From This, Too, a Philosophy of Umoja

Umoja is a Swahili word meaning “unity”, and it was this that African-American scholar and political activist Ron Karenga had in mind forty-two years ago when he fashioned the holiday of Kwanzaa in honor of black America’s African heritage. It is the value that figures so prominently in the columns published in the venerable pages of Montreal’s Community Contact by the redoubtable Yvonne Sam. And it is the issue that has crisscrossed my mind all summer, thanks to countless news items, group discussions and one-on-one conversations pertaining to the economic advancement and social solidarity of the peoples of the African Diaspora.

One valuable thing I have learned in recent months is that philosophical and empirical support for umoja can be found in the unlikeliest places—if only one takes the time and trouble to look.

In my readings for a course in Conservative Political Thought that I took last spring, I stumbled upon a series of articles written on the issue of American race relations in the late 1960s by a number of regular contributors to the conservative National Review. Penned at the height of the sturm und drang of the Black Power movement and the racial strife then rending America’s cities, these missives roundly condemned the urban ghetto riots and radical agitation of that era. They insisted that the “profound wrongs” African-Americans had suffered for centuries “cannot be righted by destroying the foundations of a free constitutional society”—the most crucial such foundation being the preservation of law and order. They chided well-meaning white liberals for their “cherubic innocence” in claiming that white racism was to blame for all of black America’s problems—and firmly rejected welfare-state policies as solutions to those problems.

I found plenty to criticize in this, from the writers’ rather cavalier dismissal of racial discrimination and police brutality as a cause of the riots to their apparent disinclination to condemn open racism when they did encounter it directly. Yet I was struck by the prevalence among these authors of proposals that were startlingly compatible with principles of black self-consciousness, unity, and grassroots independence from white-dominated institutions. These stodgy white men unabashedly propounded ideas that are virtually unheard of among the mainstream conservatives of today.

To begin with, these conservatives argued that white racism was at worst one of many factors that contributed to the socioeconomic underdevelopment of the black community. In March 1968, sociologist Ernest Van den Haag argued that even if white America did deserve the racial unrest due to the historical subjugation of their black counterparts, this did not necessarily mean that this oppression was the cause of the riots. “For,” he wrote, “if all the grievances of the rioters were justified (and I think most are) [italics mine] they would not ‘explain’ the riots.” Van den Haag pointed out that African-Americans had made great economic and professional strides toward full equality even before the legal dismantlement of Jim Crow racial segregation in the mid-1960s, beginning after World War II. He noted that many other countries had even larger gaps in wealth between racial and ethnic groups, yet had experienced no race riots. And he tellingly observed that the riots themselves did not occur in those parts of the United States in which blacks had been worst treated—that is, in the former Jim Crow South. Indeed, many of the most destructive riots ravaged cities in decidedly liberal regions of the country that had been showered with social-welfare spending from several levels of government for more than a decade.

In June of that year, Dartmouth College English professor Jeffrey Hart published his article “The Negro in the City” in National Review. I could not help but feel mounting awe as I read the wise and powerful words of this conservative curmudgeon—a mid-twentieth-century white man, the product of a cultural background so vastly different from my own—in this remarkable piece of prose.

He emphasized that blacks in general were advancing rapidly in the professional realm as legal bastions of racial discrimination crumbled. He also argued that there was more to African-Americans’ enduring woes than the tyranny of the majority race. Specifically, demographic groups who start out as ill-educated peasants and migrate into industrial cities always take decades to rise to collectively realize the American Dream. “The problem does not look like one of racism,” Hart wrote, “but rather like the lag to be expected when a group with a predominantly agricultural background attempts to adjust to urban conditions and new goals. […] We need to remind ourselves that previous groups took at least three generations to make the advance from manual labor to proportional representation in the white collar jobs and in the professions.” Hart went on to point out that “At every level…whether high or low, education proves to be the key. Job equality depends upon qualifications, and they, in turn, depend upon education. Yet the improvement of Negro education faces a number of obstacles, some of which are formidable.”

Hart next took aim at the popular American myth of the “melting pot”: the narrative of the gradual but complete assimilation of immigrant groups into the American mainstream, becoming barely distinguishable, in a cultural sense, from the WASPs who founded the country. This, he argued, was in fact nonsense: newcomers to America had so much in common with their fellows from their respective countries of origin, and encountered so much prejudice upon their arrival on America’s shores, that they could not help but coalesce into readily identifiable, geographically and culturally cohesive groups that largely stuck together on their American journey. This ethnic solidarity ended up forming a linchpin of these immigrant groups’ eventual rise from the ghettos which greenhorns populated immediately on arrival to the suburbs in which their descendants would eventually dwell.

As a result, stressed Hart, the emphasis placed on racial integration by the civil rights movement and its allies in the Democratic Party was wrongheaded. “Indeed,” he wrote, “the whole stress on integration as a primary goal is based on the myth that America is a completely homogeneous country, whereas to a significant extent America is a nation of distinctive groups.” In making this point, Hart cited Beyond the Melting Pot, the final report on the study conducted by liberal sociologists Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan which established the continuing distinctness of American ethnic groups for generations after the arrival of their immigrant forbears. “The groups,” Hart wrote,

are given structure and solidarity through interest, family, and fellow-feeling; they produce distinctive institutions and associations; they vote differently; many have their own neighborhoods; they have different attitudes toward education, sex, religion; they are “in many ways as different from one another as their grandfathers had been.” The weakness of the program aimed at total Negro integration is that it attempts to impose on the whole area of Negro-white relations a novel and abstract pattern which has not been followed by the other historic American groups. It is for this reason that laws designed to achieve integration have been so largely ineffective…
“No one really believes that Negroes will cease to be a distinctive group,” Hart continued. “Integration therefore should be redefined to mean ‘integration into the pattern of American group experience,’ that larger pattern which involves work-save-study-earn-rise.” It was with this argument in mind that Hart began to delve into the issue of black social solidarity—and its ramifications for the trajectory of economic development in the black community.

The following sentence in Hart’s essay was the one I found most captivating, and the one that perhaps best summarized the most valuable insight that can be drawn from it. “The real problems of the Negroes,” Hart wrote, “have less to do with Negro-white relations than with the relationship of Negroes to one another, and it is to these real problems that the Negroes, together with other Americans, can most valuably direct attention.” He went on to unpack and examine the internal social factors that distinguished African-Americans from other ethnic groups—and inhibited them from coalescing in the kind of day-to-day manner that would enable them to hoist themselves up the socioeconomic pole as other minorities had. “Social scientists,” he noted, “have pointed out that Negroes have not developed a comparable degree of group solidarity, and that this failure is an important factor in retarding advancement.”

He focused on how this lack of cohesion manifested itself in the realm of enterprise, pointing out how, due in part to “the relative weakness of clan and extended family feeling among the Negroes,” American blacks were less likely to hire one another in certain industries, to form business partnerships with one another, to lend money to or invest in each other’s businesses, to refer one another to potential employers, etc. Pointing out that “business, historically, has proved the effective road to advancement for the various ethnic groups,” Hart referred repeatedly to the commonplaceness of these practices among other ethnic Americans—and not only the white ethnic groups, either. “The Chinese restaurant buys its food supplies from a Chinese distributor, uses a Chinese laundry, [and] hires Chinese help. The Italian who owns a grocery store gives a break to a friend or a relative who is working his way up as a salesman….Chinese income from Chinese-owned businesses is, in proportion to their numbers, 45 times as great as the income of Negroes from Negro-owned businesses.”


On the whole, wrote Hart, compared with other minority groups, “Negroes have been much more atomistic, less aware of the need to advance as a group, less aware that the fortunes of one are connected with the fortunes of all.” Sound familiar?

Hart next trained his sights on the much-maligned (yet to this day still untackled) problem of the breakdown in the structure of the black family. He noted the dismaying fact that at the time, approximately one quarter of black households lacked a male authority figure, while African-American children were born out of wedlock at fourteen to fifteen times the rate of whites. (In the forty years since the writing of “The Negro in the City”, of course, these social ills have been grotesquely exacerbated, to the point where, for example, a large majority of African-American children are born to single mothers today.) “We do not know with assurance the effects of these circumstances on the children,” Hart lamented, “but we cannot doubt that they adversely affect the performance of the Negro child in school, and, therefore, later on in the society at large.”

How, Hart asked, were black children to have the encouragement and reinforcement they needed to succeed in school without positive role models of both genders, without being grounded in a stable home environment, without both parents working together to instill in them the habits and values that are necessary for academic and professional advancement? And furthermore, how much good could well-motivated government policies designed to combat racial inequalities, such as school busing and affirmative action, be expected to accomplish when the fundamental building blocks of upward social mobility were so conspicuously lacking? Even if all vestiges of white racism could be eliminated overnight, argued Hart, African-Americans would not be well-positioned to take advantage of the resulting opportunities that would open up to them without substantial improvement in their family life. Uplifting the race, it would seem, begins in the home.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hart and his conservative brethren generally neglected to examine the possible historical origins of these social pathologies. It seems not to have occurred to them that these social problems in the black community may be rooted in the trauma of slavery, with its separation of blacks from their original cultures and traditions, and in the practice of trading slaves—men, women and children—between plantations and its devastating effects on the black nuclear family unit. I thought this the most glaring omission from the authors’ otherwise highly compelling critique of modish liberal attitudes toward the race question. Nonetheless, Hart and the others demonstrated some understanding—however understated—that whatever the root causes of the social deficiencies among African-Americans, they could be and were passed down from generation to generation in a vicious socio-historical cycle. “Poverty, high fertility, high rates of illegitimacy, widespread family disorganization, and similar conditions that hold lower-class Negroes down could continue for decades after the influences originally responsible for them were virtually eliminated,” observed sociologists Leonard Broom and Norval Glenn as quoted in Hart’s essay.

Furthermore, it should be noted that many of these problems not only were worse in the 1960s than they had been earlier in the 20th century, when white racism was a vastly greater obstacle to black advancement—and, indeed, a greater threat to their very lives—but moreover, these problems have gotten even worse since the 1960s. If problems of illegitimacy, family dysfunction and social division were strictly the result of slavery, the opposite should have been the case, as many prominent black conservatives like reputable economist Thomas Sowell have pointed out. If these social ills could really be laid entirely at slavery’s door, then they should have been at their low point in the decades immediately following slavery’s abolition, and at worst they should not have deteriorated over time. That they did logically suggests that factors other than slavery—in addition to it, mind you, not in its stead—must also be at fault. What those factors are, however, is still a matter of widespread conjecture.

Hart’s next step was to zero in on the very question of what historical development had taken place among African-Americans. He identified three general phases of this development since emancipation. The first, between the Civil War and the turn of the century, encompassed both Reconstruction and the “period of submission and accommodation” that followed its demise, with the eventual withdrawal of Northern troops from the defeated Southern states and the erection of the apparatus of Jim Crow segregation thereafter. The second included the “Great Migration” of southern blacks to Northern cities, beginning during the First World War and accelerating during the Great Depression. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the third and final phase began: that of increasingly forceful protest against institutionalized racial oppression. “This last phase,” Hart wrote, “…reflected an advance in overall condition, an advance in white-collar work, skilled and semi-skilled employment, and purchasing power. The initiative in the demonstrations did not arise out of hopelessness, but from ambitions that had been stimulated by advances already made.”

Thus Hart reiterated the conservative argument mentioned earlier in this article: that the increasing restiveness of the African-American population pointed as much to the strides that had already been made towards their advancement as it did to the injustices they continued to face. This was based on the sociological finding that historically oppressed groups generally begin to rise up in disruptive and sometimes even violent protest only after their condition has actually begun to see substantial improvement. Legendary black abolitionist Frederick Douglas once noted that the slaves who were most likely to rise up in revolt against their masters or flee their plantations were actually the ones who were generally less severely treated, while those who were most brutally suppressed and abused by their masters were least likely to entertain such thoughts. Much the same dynamic was at play in the case of blacks in the postwar period, explained one Detroit sociologist quoted by Hart: “The closer the distance becomes between the lower and the middle class, the more militant and aggressive and assertive the lower class becomes.”

In the next section of his essay, entitled “Turning Inward,” Hart argued that by 1968, almost all legal barriers to racial equality had been broken down, and the obstacles that had yet to be confronted could not be overcome by petitions, speeches, demonstrations or riots, however emotionally gratifying such forms of protest might be to their participants. It is here that Hart began to examine the kinds of action that could be taken to solve these problems. Wrote he: “Negro energies, it seems clear, should be turned inward to the problems of the Negro community, rather than directed outward toward confrontations with the rest of society. Negro energies should be invested in improving the Negro condition rather than wasted in self-defeating expressions of resentment.” Earlier, in Beyond the Melting Pot, Glazer and Moynihan had written that “If anything can be done, it is likely that Negro agencies will be far more effective than public agencies and those of white Protestants.”

This, however, did not mean that the rest of society should sit idly by while the black community handled its own business all by its lonesome. Hart urged that the quality of education made available to African-Americans be drastically improved, calling for pre-school nursery programs that would focus on teaching black children “standard English and personal discipline” and instilling in these children “attitudes conducive to a good performance in the classroom later on.” Whatever expense—whether public or private—such programs entailed, Hart argued, might be more than compensated for by the eventual decrease in the amount of taxpayers’ dollars that would need to be spent on welfare and other public assistance programs such as food stamps in the future.

The white, male, conservative Professor Hart even had some kind words for programs aimed at building a sense of pride, solidarity and cultural consciousness in the black community. Hart seems to have been keenly aware of the crucial role that a certain reasonable degree of ethnocentric sentiment has always played in the socioeconomic ascension of all demographic groups who originally started out poor and destitute. As he wrote:

We have seen that the Negro community has largely failed to develop the kind of solidarity and group pride possessed by other ethnic groups. It may be that school and community programs in Negro history, culture and literature, in America and, particularly, in Africa, can strengthen the Negro’s self-image and make for greater solidarity with the community to which he belongs. There is no treason why such programs should not be encouraged.
Unlike many of his conservative heirs today, it seems, Professor Hart was wholly unafraid of the ideals of black unity and black pride. He had nothing against black consciousness per se and even saw reason to encourage it, understanding that a black community that stuck together more had to begin to prosper sooner or later. He was not alone among his conservative colleagues of that era, however. The editors of National Review, writing collectively, wrote in August 1967 that the more responsibility African-Americans took for their own destiny as a community, the better. If blacks were to take charge in ways that might be anathema to conservatives forty years later, so be it:

“Black Power”, besides its savage connotation in the mouths of the Carmichaels and the Rap Browns…can suggest also “black responsibility”, and why should there be objection to that, once we step outside the assumption of “integration”? Do Negroes want to run the towns where they are a majority? Very well. They have the vote. Let them use it, take over, lawfully, and seen how they can do. Even if it’s not very well, they may prefer their own mistakes to Whitey’s skills; and their white neighbors, if they dislike inordinately the way things go, can pack up and get out. In New York and several other cities last year, there were demands that Negroes should administer schools in Negro neighborhoods. If this exercise of Black Power really is, in a given case, the wish of a large majority of the parents, it might be worth the experiment. The quality of education might suffer, true enough; and then the parents could decide which they preferred for their children, the power or the schooling.
Professor Hart, for his part, also clearly perceived the need for the emergence of a black business class, and the importance of black solidarity in bringing about this emergence. Hart had the good sense to appraise those American businesses that were already owned by blacks—and the flaws that negatively impacted their self-sustainability. He observed that they had a higher failure rate and tended to be smaller (and thus unable to take advantage of economies of scale) and less efficient than their white counterparts. This particularly made it harder for them to borrow money or attract the investment they needed to be able to expand—yet another self-perpetuating deficiency that held blacks back. In addition, he noted, black businesspeople had too few entrepreneurial role models among their own people to teach them the tricks of the trade, so to speak.

How, then, could this problem be effectively tackled? Hart’s answer:

Yet it is important that Negroes come to own…businesses, especially those operating in Negro neighborhoods. Property, after all, tends to produce responsibility and dignity. Assistance to this end could well take the form of state insurance for loans extended to qualified Negro businessmen, or potential businessmen, for capital investment. The private sector could also do much here. Perhaps civic-minded businessmen in the various fields could set up committees for the purpose of advising Negroes who are initiating enterprises.
Here, Hart underscored the indispensability of private enterprise to improving the condition of the black man, in America or anywhere else. To be sure, pushing pro-business policies would be old-time religion to a conservative like Hart; but that should not obscure the essential fact that no community—whether it be an ethnic group, a city, state, province, region or country—can hope to claw its way to the top of the economic heap without nourishing a strong entrepreneurial drive among its people. Before wealth can be redistributed, it must first be created; and the reality that it is almost exclusively created by the capitalists of the world—not by politicians, bureaucrats or administrators of social programs—is inescapable. The sons and daughters of Italy, Russia, Hungary, Greece, India, China etc. who came to America to build a better life did so in large part by learning how to beat the native-born Yankees at their game of free enterprise. There is no reason not to think that the offspring of the Motherland—brought to America in chains, freed from bondage by civil war and savagely subjugated for a century thereafter—will ever reach the proverbial Promised Land without learning and applying that same lesson.

Hart spent the rest of his article enumerating other obstructions to black advancement, such as predominantly white labor unions that sought to exclude black workers from membership, minimum-wage laws that inadvertently decrease the number of available jobs, and the lack of black representation on urban police forces, particularly in the work they do in black neighborhoods. He closed his piece by noting that the scourges of violence and lawlessness in the late 1960s were not confined to the black community: “The white family is often no rock of Gibraltar…We hear much of Negro violence. But at every level of the society an increasing number of people are empty and violent, depraved and irresponsible. Those all too modern murderers in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood were not Negroes.”

Perhaps most importantly, Hart emphasized that all the measures that could be taken to improve the black man’s condition in America, however effective they were, would take time to kick in, and could not be expected to meet with success in an immediate, short-term, emotionally gratifying manner. Hence, aside from solidarity, ethnic pride and independence from the society’s charity, patience would be perhaps the most important virtue that African-Americans and their sympathizers could bring to the effort to uplift the race. “We cannot expect spectacular results in the short run,” Hart wisely warned. “The advance of the Negroes, like the advance of other groups, will come mainly, if at all, through the efforts of the group itself.”

This is a lesson that not only African-Americans, but African descendants the world over would do so well to take to heart. The challenges faced by the American branch of the African Diaspora have never been and never will be perfectly identical to those faced by West Indians, African-Canadians, or Afro-Latin Americans, to say nothing of our cousins in the Motherland itself. Furthermore, much has changed in the forty-odd years since Hart and his conservative comrades pronounced on the race question in America. Most, if not all, of the official legal bastions of racism have been leveled, while more and more descendants of the slaves brought to the New World in chains join their countries’ middle classes each year.

Yet the sad commentary is that fundamentally the same social ills identified by Professor Hart et. al. continue to plague black people today, and in all branches of the Diaspora. Our family structure still totters, as we suffer higher rates of out-of-wedlock births and absentee fatherhood than ever; we still fail to coalesce as a community in the most crucial ways, especially in the economic realm; and we still rely far too heavily on the guilt-driven charity of white folks for our subsistence. This is as true in Montreal's Little Burgundy and Toronto's Rexdale as it is in Harlem or Bedford-Stuyvesant; no less accurate in Kingston, Jamaica, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago or Rio de Janeiro’s City of God than it is in South Central Los Angeles. Even if all these scourges could be blamed on racial oppression in general and slavery in particular, that would not change the fact that they are our problems, and only we can ultimately solve them. The sooner we as a people come to that realization, and begin to act accordingly, the better. If it takes the stern admonitions of the conservative white males of yesteryear to open our eyes to these truths, then so be it.

1 comment:

P.H-J.Jr. said...

Have you ever read Jim Kalb's work? He has some interesting and challenging things to say about ethnicity. Like Pat Buchanan, he doesn't think that there is anything inherently wrong with racial discrimination.I think he basically agrees with the destruction of the jim crow system, but he's basically a libertarian about people choosing criteria on which they associate with or hire people.