Before the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, civil rights organizations had proposed the protection of the political, civil, social, and economic rights of all citizens; and they had defended the rights of the African colonies for independence and had formulated anti-imperialist critiques of U.S. foreign policy. The gains of the 1960s included significant reforms with respect to the protection of civil and political rights, but they involved limited and insufficient protection of social and economic rights, such as an adequate standard of living, education, health care, and housing. With respect to foreign policy, the USA settled into an imperialist, neocolonial world order, setting aside the anti-imperialist critiques of Dr. King and the black power and student anti-war movements.
In response to these developments, the mainstream civil rights organizations turned to a focus on the still unprotected social and economic rights of blacks, leaving the international issues aside, except for selected issues like apartheid in South Africa. Robert Woodson, who during the 1970s directed the Urban League’s Administration of Justice Division, became a critic of the principal strategy of the post-1960s civil rights movement. He maintains that the strategy seeks funds from the white establishment, ostensibly for the purpose of improving black social and economic conditions; but the strategy functions above all to promote the expansion of a professional class of race specialists. Woodson writes that a “modern race-grievance industry” became institutionalized, as funding flowed from foundations and government to “unaccountable organizations claiming to represent the poor,” but from which few low-income people benefitted. These race-grievance specialists have an interest in exaggerating social problems, in order to justify funds. And they have an interest in the perpetuation of the social problems, because overcoming them would imply the end of their brand of race specialists. Therefore, the race specialists, being indifferent to the uplift of the poor, have paid insufficient attention to the education of poor black people with respect to the practical skills, attitudes, and discipline that they need to improve their conditions. As a result, for the past half century, higher rates of poverty among blacks, a legacy of nearly a century of Jim Crow discrimination and segregation, persists to this day.
Woodson’s critique is consistent with various post-1960s dynamics that I have observed, without my being aware of what was going on inside civil rights organizations. Such dynamics include: The outmigration of the black middle class from the traditional black sections of cities, creating black neighborhoods separate from the black poor, implicitly abandoning Malcolm’s proposal for black control of the black community, as a basis for the economic development of the community; the emergence of black politicians with an accommodationist posture toward the Democratic Party establishment; the stress on affirmative action, which benefits the black middle class more than the black poor; the celebration of Martin Luther King Day with a focus on the King of 1963, ignoring his 1967 call for an alliance of the poor of all races and ethnic groups, in order to attain the protection of the social and economic rights of all citizens, and ignoring as well his call for an anti-imperialist foreign policy (see “The black middle class defends its interests,” April 20, 2021). These proposals of the later King were resurrected by the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, but forgotten again in the 1990s, as identity politics gained force.
So when I read Woodson’s critique of the post-1960s civil rights movement, it makes sense to me, for it is consistent with dynamics that I had observed from a different perspective. And Woodson’s focus on what blacks have the potential to do for themselves reminds me of the self-help teachings that can be found in the writings and speeches of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Malcolm X, which seem to me to reflect a strong dose of common-sense intelligence.
In the wake of sixty years of failing to address the issue of black poverty, there now emerges a new anti-racist ideology, which blames systemic racism for the persistence of racial income inequity. This blaming of systemic racism goes against common-sense perceptions of reality, taking into account the legal reforms of 1964 and 1965, affirmative action and preferential treatment programs in university admissions and employment, visible black personalities in various fields and institutions, and decades of society-wide rejection of white supremacist doctrines. In spite of its inconsistency with reality, it has gained wide currency, because it is consistent with the interests of the race specialists and the black middle class in general. And because “race hustlers” (Woodson’s term) have been effective in manipulating the black poor, who of course possess genuine grievances; and in manipulating whites, who have limited consciousness of black society, and some of whom are genuinely ill-at-ease with the racial situation and/or are disposed to rebellion. And another reason for its wide currency is that the anti-racist ideology has been promoted by the corporate elite, which has an interest in dividing the people, who twelve years ago were in the streets shouting about the 99% against the 1%. From Woodson’s perspective, the anti-racism ideology continues the post-1960s civil rights movement tendency to ignore the necessity of educating poor blacks toward that potential liberation that they possess within themselves.
Coinciding with the anti-racist ideology, the 1619 Project of The New York Times emerged to reformulate the American narrative from a black perspective, without taking into account the perspectives that emerge from the experiences of other peoples that form the nation, a reformulation that offended Woodson’s patriotism. In reaction, the Woodson Center, founded in 1981 to help residents of low-income neighborhoods to address their problems, has formed 1776 United. Its mission statement declares: “We dissent from contemporary groupthink and rhetoric about race, class, and American history that defames our national heritage, divides our people, and instills helplessness among those who already hold within themselves the grit and resilience to better their lot in life.” The program of 1776 United rejects the use of racism as a catch-all explanation for black problems; it advocates alliances between blacks and whites and others in resolving American social problems.
In accordance with the commitment of 1776 United, Woodson has edited Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History from Revisionists and Race Hustlers. It is a collection of essays by black academics, journalists, and activists who reject the assumptions and declarations of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project.
One of the articles is by Wilfred Reilly, Associate Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University, which maintains that the United States today is not systemically racist. He notes that Affirmative Action, which dates from 1967, gives non-Asian people of color a massive advantage in applying to a Fortune 500 job or a selective university. With respect to income inequity and the unequal probabilities of being shot by the police, he observes that charges of institutional racism cannot be shown, when nonracial variables are taken into account. Many of today’s social problems, he maintains, have little to do with the nation’s historical racial conflict. He proposes an emphasis on basic skills training, not grievance training.
John McWhorter, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, has an essay title that gets to the point: “We cannot allow ‘1619’ to dumb down America in the name of a crusade.” He writes that condemning the attitudes toward slavery of people in 1776 overlooks human complexity. Even though slavery existed in 1776, it was gradually abolished, in a movement in which “white people vigorously and crucially participated,” thereby demonstrating the progressive character of the Revolution of 1776. Indeed so.
McWhorter maintains that the complex history of the United States cannot be reduced to the fate of one group of people within it. Pretending so is lazy, for it avoids engaging the multifaceted dimensions of the human story, and ignores long established methods of inquiry. He writes that the people of the 1619 project are not engaging in history, but in something more personal. He maintains that the 1619 Project is the result of the self-doubt and insecurity of the black intelligentsia; it makes them feel self-important. The project is “a kind of performance art,” in which facts are less important than attitude. The project is “all about personality, a certain persona that all are encouraged to adopt as a modern version of being a civil rights warrior. For this 2.0 version of a civil rights warrior, authentic blackness, significant blackness, requires eternal opposition, bitter indignation, and claims of being owed.” Whether or not this posture can change reality is of secondary concern. The important thing is that all of this be expressed. It is sad that there has emerged “a caste among the oppressed who, in all sincerity, mistake performance for activism.”
McWhorter asks, “To precisely what end must white people master a nuanced social history of black people?” In cases in which whites have such contempt for blacks that it leads to violence, this is of course a problem. But quiet dismissive attitudes and misimpressions are unimportant to the capacity of blacks to confront the challenges that the black community confronts. He maintains that the anti-racist ideologues are shamelessly “proclaiming their own people as uniquely incapable of coping with a challenging reality.”
A number of the articles propose focusing on the history of black achievement, setting aside the paradigm of black victimization and the racialization of black problems today. Clarence Page, a nationally syndicated columnist, writes that the emphasis of black victimization overlooks “black overcoming.” He maintains that the colorization of poverty overlooks the role of the disappearance of low-skill industrial jobs, and it obscures the fact that poverty is a problem of culture, morality, character, and personal responsibility. John Sibley Butler writes of the importance of self-employment and entrepreneurship in black history, which is a success model that ought to provide ideas for what can be done today. Similarly, Coleman Cruz Hughes writes that we should focus on the black historic legacy of the pursuit of education and a willingness to relocate to other regions of the country in search of economic opportunity.
In the concluding essay, Woodson and Ian Rowe lament that the rich history of black achievement is being glossed over in exchange for a permanent sense of grievance. They maintain that black achievement in the past was based on values like family, faith, education, entrepreneurship, hard work, patience, and perseverance. For decades after emancipation, the strong social fabric of black institutions like families, churches, schools, and other social institutions provided the support that individuals needed to achieve. What undermines black achievement today is not systemic racism but the erosion of black mediating institutions and the assault on the values that are the key to success. “Where the race-grievance mongers and their context free, ahistorical fixation on America’s sins seem to seek demoralization, 1776 Unites advocates remoralization by elevating the achievements of black Americans who came before us.” With the political correctness of the 1990s having evolved into “wokeness” since 2012, “it’s no wonder that serious conversation about virtues, moral character, and civic responsibility has all but evaporated.”
Woodson and Rowe write of the importance of the principles of the founding of the American Republic. Woodson and Rowe declare that “a peaceful and prosperous America must be built on a shared understanding of our past and the possibilities for our future that is accurate and truthful, but also celebratory and aspirational.” Or as Dr. Lucas E. Morel, professor of political science at Washington and Lee University, expressed in the preface to the collection, the American Revolution expressed a “universal, transcendent foundation for legitimate self-government.”
I would like to reaffirm that the founding principles of the American Republic constitute the best possibility for founding a political consensus in our nation today, for it is the connecting bond of our diverse experiences. Furthermore, we ought to be aware that the founding principles of the American Republic are widely admired throughout the world, and they have been incorporated into many popular revolutions, including the Third World socialist revolutions. As just one example, on September 2, 1945, before a crowd of one-half million people, continually shouting “independence,” in Ba Dinh square in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which began by citing the “undeniable truths” of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
Follow me on Twitter: Charles McKelvey@CharlesMcKelv10