The black middle class defends its interests
The white power structure had supported, albeit inconsistently, the African-American movement’s campaign for the attainment of political and civil rights, which culminated in significant and far-reaching federal legislation, the Civil Rights Law of 1964 and the Voting Rights Law of 1965. From the point of view of the U.S. elite, such reforms were made necessary by global dynamics. The world-system was in transition to neocolonialism, with recognition of the political independence of a host of nation-states in the colonized zones. The emerging neocolonial world order was based on the premise that all persons in the world have political and civil rights, regardless of race or color. In this global context, the United States could not legitimately claim a leadership role, nor could it preserve its political-economic-ideological dominance of the world, if it were to continue with racial customs that reflected the previous colonial era. The U.S. power elite arrived to the consensus that Jim Crow laws and customs constituted obstacles to U.S. foreign policy objectives and its imperialist vision of continued global dominance.
But the U.S. power structure did not have an economic interest in further social transformation beyond civil and political rights, neither in the form of autonomous black communities undertaking projects of economic and social development, nor through a multiracial alliance of various popular sectors seeking the protection of economic and social rights, as were being proposed by the African-American movement in the period 1964 to 1972 (see “The black awakening of 1964 to 1972,” April 16, 2021). In fact, such a transformation would have been out of sync with the neocolonial world-system, in which newly independent nations do not have true sovereignty, and thus have limited capacity to promote their economic development and to protect the social and economic rights of their peoples. The neocolonial world order was taking shape as a global system that recognized formal political and civil rights but suppressed true empowerment, making politically impossible the protection of the social and economic rights of the people. Accordingly, the white power structure, beginning in 1964, did not support proposals for fundamental socio-economic change that sought to eliminate poverty, create equality of educational opportunity, and generate jobs with low educational requirements.
At the same time, urban blacks in the North were expressing discontent with their socio-economic situation. From 1964 to 1967, Northern urban black neighborhoods erupted in rebellion, protesting police brutality, exploitation by white merchants, and the unresponsiveness of local and federal governments. The urban rebellions were characterized by shoplifting and property damage to white-owned stores; black-owned stores and public buildings were not targeted.
The urban rebellions intensified the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to social and economic issues and to the conditions of blacks in the urban North. In 1966, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched a campaign in Chicago, focusing on economic conditions and on real estate practices, but the results were limited. At the same time, the federal government developed a limited “War on Poverty” that King considered inadequate.
Support of the movement among white people waned, in part because of the disengagement of the white power structure. At the same time, many whites believed that the 1964 and 1965 reforms with respect to civil and political rights were sufficient to guarantee equal opportunity for future black gains. In addition, from the vantage point of the European-American experience, the turn to black nationalism and the urban rebellions were difficult to understand. Radical white youth tied to the student anti-war movement continued to support black nationalism and King’s socio-economic agenda. But they lacked the political maturity and the organizational capacity to influence the direction of the nation.
Beginning in 1967, the federal government joined with local authorities in a campaign of harassment directed at the leaders of the African-American movement. By 1968, all the leaders of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) faced criminal charges, and most were in jail. The coordinated campaign or repression also was directed against the Oakland-based Black Panther Party, which had electrified the nation with a strategy of the armed patrolling and observation of police encounters with citizens, wearing black berets and with rifles and guns visible (which was not a crime under California law). As a result of the campaign of repression, by 1969 every prominent Black Panther Party leader was either killed by police, in prison, under close police supervision, or in exile.
With declining white support and with government repression of the movement, many blacks with leadership capacities entered politics during the 1970s, taking advantage of the reforms of 1964-1965. Prior to 1965, there were less than 300 black elected officials in the United States; by 1980, the number of black elected officials rose to 4,912, sixteen times greater.
However, black politicians did not represent an independent black agency. The political gains occurred in the context of the agenda of the power elite and the mainstream of the Democratic Party. The political gains represented black political power in appearance, not in substance. It was, in effect, the abandonment of the call for the development of autonomous institutions by Malcolm X and SNCC in 1964 and 1965 (see “The black awakening of 1964 to 1972,” April 16, 2021); and it meant that the social and economic transformation called for by Dr. King would be politically unlikely.
Affirmative action and set asides emerged as the most prominent policy in defense of African-American rights. Federal government regulations mandated that minority and women candidates in applications for employment be identified; and that, if a white male candidate were to be selected, it had to be shown that he had more appropriate and needed qualifications. With respect to university admissions, minor adjustments were made in admission criteria, in order to ensure diversity in admissions; and special programs of scholarships for minority students were developed. In addition, federal regulations mandated that a percentage of federal funding for contracts be set aside for minority-owned companies.
Affirmation action supported those individuals in minority communities who were least in need of support; namely, persons with higher education credentials. Affirmative action did not address the need for the economic and social development of the black community; nor did it address the need to develop educational structures that ensured equality of educational opportunity, thereby overcoming extreme inequalities in the quality of schools. In addition, with the neoliberal turn of 1980, social programs that responded to the needs of persons of lower-income were reduced.
Meanwhile, the changing nature of laws and racial customs, the corresponding expansion of the black middle class, and increasing opportunities for educated blacks; had a significant impact on urban residential patterns in the North. Due to changing real estate practices, many middle-class blacks moved out of the traditional inner-city area reserved for blacks and into adjacent white communities, which promoted white flight. This led to the formation of urban middle-class black communities separate from white society and separate also from the traditional black community, which had been characterized by class diversity. There emerged by the 1980s what the African-American sociologist William J. Wilson described as socially isolated black lower-class neighborhoods in the historic black sections of cities. According to Wilson, black lower-class neighborhoods were characterized by social isolation and separation from the mainstream of the U.S. occupational system, and they had high levels of poverty, welfare dependency, youth joblessness, male joblessness, street crime, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, and female-headed families. It was not uncommon for black leaders in the 1970s and 1980s, including Jesse Jackson, to address the problem of the social deterioration of many sections of urban black communities, maintaining that it indicated that blacks were not fully taking advantage of the civil rights reforms of the 1960s.
The outmigration of the middle class constituted a de facto abandonment of the proposal of Malcolm X for black control of the institutions of inner-city black communities, including economic, political, cultural, and educational institutions; with the intention of promoting the economic and social development of the black community.
Thus, in the face of the declining interest of white society and the opposition of the white power structure, the black community took a political and social turn that was consistent with the interests of the black middle class. The unannounced project of the black middle class is evident in: (1) the emergence of accommodationist black politicians who adapted their political strategy to the agenda of the Democratic Party establishment; (2) the emphasis on affirmative action combined with limited calls and proposals in defense of low-income blacks; and (3) the outmigration of the black middle class.
In summary, in the period 1964 to 1972, the African-American Movement had put before the nation a comprehensive plan and vision for the future of America, formulated from the African-American perspective (see “The black awakening of 1964 to 1972,” April 16, 2021). But during the 1970s, the black community lost its capacity to put before the nation a program for the social and economic uplift of the black masses, through black community control in urban neighborhoods, complemented by a nationwide program for the protection of social and economic rights of all, regardless of race, forged by a multi-ethnic alliance of popular sectors.
The turn to a political agenda in defense of the interests of the black middle class was accompanied by the failure of white society. In the exceptional period of 1964 to 1972, white society did not come terms with the historic racial sin of the nation. To be sure, white society supported the 1960s reforms with respect to civil and political rights. But it never listened to the voices of the African-American movement; it never arrived to understand the far-reaching African-American critique of American society. It never grasped African-American movement proposals for black control of the black community, the economic and social development of the black community, a multi-ethnic alliance in defense of common needs, and an anti-imperialist foreign policy of cooperation with peoples of color throughout the world. On the other hand, white society acquiesced in the systematic police repression of the black movement in the period 1967 to 1969.
This historic failure of white society was not precisely racism. Rather, it was a matter of looking at things from the vantage point of the lived experiences of one’s own social groups. This is more ethnocentrism than racism, and ethnocentrism is a lamentable but normal human tendency. The dynamics of the historic moment of 1964 to 1972 were offering to whites a way beyond ethnocentrism, but they did not have the wisdom to see it; and there were not leaders with the moral commitment to take them beyond ethnocentrism. In the failure of white society, the upper middle and middle classes were particularly to blame, for it was they who had greater opportunity to study and learn from the unfolding social dynamics.
Racism could not possibly be eliminated by acts of Congress, so it is natural that remnants of racist attitudes would persist following the reforms of the 1960s. Such residual racism, being in contradiction with the neocolonial world order, is an outdated and secondary dynamic that was in decline in the last decades of the twentieth century. However, as a dimension of the post-1980 sustained structural crisis of the world-system, the majority of the people of the United States was increasingly abandoned, thus giving rise to new forms of fascism and a revival of outdated racism. This renewed residual racism will endure to the extent that the world-system remains politically incapable of responding to the sources of its sustained structural crisis, an issue that I will try to address in future commentaries.
More important than outdated residual racism are two malignant dynamics, for which both blacks and whites have responsibility. The first is that there never has been a racial reconciliation in the United States. There did not emerge a new stage of the Civil Rights Movement, addressing integrally and internationally issues of race and class, with the united participation of white and black intellectuals and leaders; which would have provided the foundation for a reformulation of the American narrative, a reformulation based in the historic principles of the American Republic, expanded and revitalized by various stages of the Civil Rights Movement.
The second malignant tendency involves not listening to the voices of the colonized in other lands, the peoples of color who comprise the majority of humanity, who have forged in theory and in practice the principles and guidelines for a more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system. In the context of the structural crisis of the world-system and the relative economic decline of the nation, this persistent mode of deafness has the consequence of creating a debilitating lack of understanding of the sources and the solutions to global and national problems. As a result of not listening to the voices of the colonized, the nation does not have the fundaments for understanding the way out of the current civilizational crisis of humanity.