CHAPTER 31. A CALL FOR A NEW CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT INSPIRED BY
DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND THE REV. VERNON JOHNS
The major reason why sociology has not had and probably will not have much of an impact on staving off the triumph of white supremacy at the turn of the century is that, like American liberalism itself, sociologists fail to see the primacy of race and racism in explaining the character and behavior of the United States is the factor of race and racism. The failure to see that the American system is a combination of racism and capitalism, rather than race or capitalism separately, has contributed to the American left's inability to understand the nature of the United States. American liberalism and American sociology have never been radical forces. Instead, they have accepted the overall system and worked within that system for gradual and cyclical changes in the structures of inequality. This allows American liberals and sociologists in particular to "feel good" about themselves (after all, they are fighting social evils), but not enough for the overall populace to become alarmed. For instance, sociologists feel great empathy for the white working class and the suffering black population at the same time. This lets them avoid confronting the racism of the white working class, a class they have always let off lightly, and white racism in general, preferring to focus on the evil influence of corporate money on America. Liberals have always been able to have their cake and eat it too. They have been able to appear radical, while not really being radical; to oppose racism, while not really confronting white racism.
American radicalism has also never really been a radical force because, like American liberalism, it has refused to understand the role of racism. It has instead traditionally focused on class and other economic inequalities. The end result of the failure of the American left is that America is still a solidly racist and comparatively unregulated capitalist system.
We (Cooney and Santana Cooney, 1994) have reviewed all the competing theories in our book explaining the American system and find that all of them underplay the role of racism in American life. Even those theories that acknowledge that America is clearly a racist country, do not see that even America's culture and values with their emphasis on a mean-spirited moralism are the result of racism.
The American left has never been able to accept the way the United States works in actuality. The United States still maintains a modified caste system based primarily on black skin color and other African features. This caste system has always weakened the white working and middle classes' interest in fighting the excesses of capitalism, as many whites are fearful of, and ever watchful of, the blacks on the bottom. Compared to other advanced industrial societies, this split in the American white working and middle classes has allowed only slight modifications of the abuses of the American capitalist system. Non-black ethnic groups have been able to advance economically, stepping on or over blacks at the bottom, by accepting and working within the overall racist-capitalist system. This acceptance of the system means also accepting American racism. The American left has contributed to this situation by refusing to admit how the system works. Instead, the left periodically adopts a kind of populism wherein they maintain the absolute fiction that the abused minorities can bind together to combat the system. (They cannot and will not as long as whites hold the power.) Current non-black ethnic groups can give lip-service to their solidarity with the plight of blacks, all the while gradually stepping over them. The minorities may form temporary alliances with blacks that are in their self-interests, but even the Hispanics will eventually step over the blacks and become honorary whites.
Currently, sociologists and other liberals have adopted a new populism known as multi-culturalism. Sociologists, as a part of the general liberal trend, have traded the traditional emphasis in liberalism on inequality in the economic structure of America for an emphasis on dividing scarce resources among the various racial/ethnic groups. This new racial/ethnic liberalism has split, and therefore, weakened the American left. Opting out of the multi-cultural left have been the neo-conservatives, the traditional economic liberals, and "radicals" who focus on inequalities in the capitalist system. Multi-culturalism has also split the black intellectual community with the rise of many black neo-conservative writers. Moreover, multi-cultural sociologists and other multi-cultural liberals have strengthened the forces of white racism as many Americans see multi-culturalism as a complete rejection of the traditional American way.
One of the major themes of our 1994 book is that the United States has become like the South. This piece of very bad news, however, actually provides us with a great opportunity. For if the United States is like the south, then we can apply the philosophy and strategy of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the entire US instead of to just one region as Dr. King did.
IN ORDER TO APPLY DR. KING'S APPROACH, WE NEED A NEW VERNON JOHNS
We need a new Vernon Johns to open the way for a new Martin Luther King, Jr. As you know, Vernon Johns was a forerunner of Dr. King who called on blacks to fight against the apartheid system. As a forerunner, he faced resistance from both the white and black communities of the South. In Montgomery, Alabama, as elsewhere in the South, there was an intimate relationship between the more progressive whites and the black leadership. They cooperated so the apartheid system ran smoothly. This insured that fewer people were hurt in any needed forceful reinforcement of the system. But it also meant that progressive whites and blacks had become disarmed intellectually because they had worked out a mutual accommodation to apartheid.
Vernon Johns opposed that accommodation, and this was what made him appear so radical in his time. He kept getting fired from his preaching and teaching positions, the most notorious firing being that from the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, a firing which made way for his successor, the Rev. Dr. King.
I. FIRST MAJOR OBSTACLE
The situation we face today is much worse than that faced by Vernon Johns in two major ways. The first major obstacle is the disappearance of the historical north and, among whites, an emphasis on neoconservative separatism and, among blacks and white radical-liberals, an emphasis on multicultural separatism. Historically, most blacks lived in the rural south. This physical segregation allowed the creation of a more racist society in the south and a less racist society in the north. And also historically, progressive forces made great progress by pitting the less racist north against the more racist south. By appealing to the north, progressive forces won two major victories in the field of race relations: the victory over slavery and the defeat of the legal apartheid system.
But the demographic situation has now changed. Blacks have moved out of the rural south to all the major metropolitan areas of our nation. The result has been that the attitudes and behaviors that were once characteristic of the south only, are now characteristic of the entire United States. And we can now truly say that the United States is uniformly and solidly a racist nation.
The New Racial System
We would like to comment on the new racist system in America before proceeding to the second major obstacle facing us. The new racist system is not based on legal discrimination, but rather on constant, pervasive, and surreptitious discrimination. And it is clear that the white community has no political desire to change this situation.
The new racial system is backed by a new racist ideology known as neo-conservatism. While the old racist belief system was based on a belief in the biological inferiority of blacks, the new belief system insists on the sociological inferiority of blacks. Blacks are sociologically inferior because their communities are falling apart. Thus the new racism has dropped biology, and taken up the terminology of sociology.
The new litany of neo-conservative racism goes something like this. In the United States, we have cleared the legal hurdles to success, thereby making the society open to equality of opportunity. If blacks have not been successful, they have only themselves to blame. And the primary factor explaining the failure of blacks is to be found in the deterioration of the black community and other black institutions.
According to the litany, instead of taking any responsibility for their own failures, blacks simply blame whites for all their problems. The key racist phrase of neo-conservatism is "individual responsibility". Of course, white neo-conservatives never take any "individual responsibility" for their role in the continuing system of discrimination against blacks.
Neo-conservatism has been very successful. It has intellectually devastated the progressive community. For the neo-conservatives have successfully asserted that we progressives cannot even use the label of "racist," except against those who believe in the old-time biological racism. We say to hell with that! Neo-conservatives are racists, sophisticated racists, but nevertheless racists. If we cannot use the label of "racist," then what do we really have as an intellectual weapon in the fight against racism?
The End of the Second Reconstruction
Politically speaking, we find ourselves in a period of the second reconstruction and on the verge of switching completely to a "plural but equal" system of segregation.
The first reconstruction that followed the end of the civil war was a period in which (under the cover of supposedly being reconstructed) southern whites started to take back all the power for themselves, imposing an economic slavery on blacks. In our second reconstruction, following the destruction of the apartheid system, whites (under the cover of equality-of- opportunity) are again taking back the power they feel they lost. And their main instrument of revenge was been the presidency of Ronald Reagan who was successful in turning back the clock on many previous gains in economic equality.
The United States has not had a liberal president since 1968. Indeed, one can mark the political death of liberalism in America with the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are clearly in the spirit of neo-conservatism. They are both southern governors who ran on an anti-government platform (which is just the opposite of the liberal's faith in the power of government to reform the nation in a positive direction).
II. SECOND MAJOR OBSTACLE
Of the two Democratic presidents, Clinton is quite clearly the more neo-conservative. In his first election campaign he went out of his way to impress white voters that he would not cow-tow to blacks. And he did this by engineering a deliberate insult of Jesse Jackson over the Sister Souljah affair. In his re-election campaign, Clinton committed himself to seriously weakening the American system of welfare.
The second major obstacle facing us that Vernon Johns did not face: the existence of a competing paradigm in the black community. Vernon Johns did not have to compete against a full-fledged existing paradigm. While the black leadership in the South publicly condoned apartheid, privately they condemned it. Their accommodation to apartheid was built up over years of trial and error, and did not constitute a full-fledged theory or paradigm. This made it easier for Vernon Johns and Martin Luther King, Jr. to have their voices heard.
The situation today, however, is quite different. While whites have stressed separatism through their neo-conservatism, blacks have responded with their own separatism. The whole thrust of what has become known as political correctness emphasizes black separatism. Think of some of the key phrases of the multi-cultural movement: a separate African-American culture; the call for a multi-cultural approach; an African-American history of the United States; and the very insistence on being called African-American. On this last point, the danger of insisting on being called African-American is that it encourages whites to compare blacks to the various white immigrant groups. This then reinforces white neo-conservatism, as whites feel confirmed in their belief that blacks have failed to assimilate because of their own internal problems. Multi-cultural separatism is backed by other forms of separatism such as the philosophy of the black muslims and their chief spokesperson, Louis Farrakhan.
Multi-culturalism has been backed and protected by what has become known as the desire to be politically correct. Alternative ways of viewing our current problems are usually condemned as "racist" by the righteously indignant multi-culturalists, thereby preventing any real discussion of alternatives. The dominance of multi-culturalism in American liberalism leads one to think that the situation has to get worse before it gets better. American political paradigms are only discredited and then discarded when the political situation becomes so bad that the paradigm holders and the paradigm itself are discredited.
The United States government has also backed multi-cultural separatism. After all, when the government offers monetary and other support for separate ethnic groups, it automatically creates a constituency interested in continuing separatism. Indeed, we have many academic and professional service industries devoted to politically correct multi-cultural separatism. Instead of studying a separate black culture, this industry ought to change its emphasis to studying white people and mainly to studying why white people cling so intensely to their racism.
We want to stress that the emphasis on multi-cultural positions does not threaten neo-conservatism, but rather compliments it and is, therefore, an accommodation to white racism. Furthermore, the stress on politically-correct separatism makes it difficult for new voices to be heard and almost guarantees that no new Vernon Johns will appear.
My advice to those on the multi-cultural left is that they should realize that no real progress towards a decent society can be made in America without overcoming racism. Hispanics may have more success than blacks in integrating into American society, but they will integrate into a second-rate, ineffective, and racist society.
HOW THE PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS OF DR. KING ADDRESS THESE TWO MAJOR OBSTACLES
The King philosophy can overcome the problem of the absence of an historical north, for seeing the United States as the South means that the world community can now be seen as the north. We can appeal to the world community as Dr. King once appealed to the north against the south. We should follow the King approach and appeal to the world community for help in forcing the United States to change. Because of its solid racism, one cannot expect the United States to change without this "outside intervention."
An old criticism of Dr. King that still circulates today is that he was, in a sense, too white, that he wanted blacks to assimilate completely into white culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dr. King never wanted to assimilate into white southern racist culture. (He may have been guilty of naivete about the non-racist nature of the North, but that is a minor fault compared to his many virtues.) Similarly, a renewed demand for full acceptance of blacks into America does not call for assimilation into white culture. Seeing the United States as the South means that the present United States culture is too racist for any decent person to accept. Present American culture has to change.
As regards the second problem, the philosophy of Dr. King can overcome black separatism and black accommodation to neo-conservative racism. Dr. King demanded full acceptance of blacks into American society. We should demand no less. We should not settle for a new "separate but equal," under the guise of "plural but equal," set of black institutions in the name of a so-called progressive multi-cultural philosophy.
The problem with black separatism is that it has no higher goals and it does not think in the long run. It does not think in larger terms. Dr. King was a man beyond black and white. He had larger goals than those limited to present-day American racist politics.
The real tragedy we face today is that there is no real civil rights movement. No one is really challenging today's multi-cultural accommodation to so-called subtle or "new" racism. Progressive whites and blacks seem to have been totally paralyzed by this "subtle racism." They almost use this phrase as an excuse for not making progress on the civil rights front. (As if there was anything subtle or new about discrimination! The problem is that we lack the political will to root it out.)
SPEAKING TO THE WHITE COMMUNITY
So those are the two major problems that Dr. King's philosophy can overcome. But there's much more; Dr. King's approach can overcome the real problem facing both white and black progressives, and that is the lack of an approach that speaks to the white community, and from there to the world community.
The obvious question to multi-cultural black separatists is how are blacks going to be successful in their attempts to strengthen the African-American community when whites basically control all the political and economic power in the country? And given that whites control virtually everything, we have to have an approach that speaks to them.
So what should be the message to the white community? We have to appeal to the self-interests of whites. We have to stress that whites themselves have paid a terrible price for their racism. They have created a society and government that doesn't really work. You don't have to take our word for this. Just listen to any doom-saying conservative spokesperson, like Rush Limbaugh. Everyone seems to agree that the United States is falling apart, but of course they blame different sources, the blacks being the most popular source of blame. Whites pay a terrible price for their racism in an ineffective government that cannot insure job security, that cannot insure an effective economic net, that cannot insure health insurance.
The realization that the United States is the South creates the possibility of a positive message to whites. Just as the South paid a terrible economic and moral price for its systems of slavery and apartheid, the current US will pay a terrible price for its continuing racial separatism. This separatism will only lead to the US falling farther and farther behind the rest of the world economies. This will mean in the long run that the US will become the most impoverished of the advanced industrial societies.
The failure to talk rationally with whites, instead of confronting them with hostility, has brought us to the verge of a new era of long-term segregation. Bill Clinton signed the welfare bill that overturned the nation's commitment to provide an assured safety net for the least fortunate in our nation. This is the precursor to the serious weakening of affirmative action, which means there will not be much to distribute to the disadvantaged multi-cultures..
Turning to the global stage, we can make both a moral and an economic appeal. First of all, the entire world is interested in fighting the scourge of racism. We can tap into this concern. Secondly, we should stress that in the long-run the world community cannot permit its largest economy to continue with an inefficient and immoral racist system. The US has to be forced into the modern world, just as the South had to be forced twice into modernity.
If you accept the idea that the entire United States has become like the South, then
WHAT SHOULD WE BE DOING?
We make five suggestions.
I. ADOPT AN APPROACH INSPIRED BY MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND NOT BY AFRICAN-AMERICAN SEPARATISTS
Apparently, there is no market for an approach to today's problems inspired by Dr. King. We used to rail against the racism of publishers, but we now see that their political censorship really reflects the larger racism of both blacks and whites in our racist society. And we would say that most blacks today are racist in the sense that rather than challenging the racist system, they have accommodated to it.
Blacks in a sense have their own American dilemma. For although every January they celebrate Dr. King and his message, few appear to believe that Dr. King's philosophy has any relevance to present reality. Instead, they increasingly revise history and turn Dr. King into a multi-cultural separatist. We would like to remind everyone that Dr. King was not a multi-culturalist. If he had lived he may have drifted with liberalism into a new multi-cultural liberalism, but that would primarily be the result of a man living past his times.
The similarity of the Booker T. Washington and the present period illustrates the ineffectiveness of the American left, including liberalism and Marxism. And the reason for this ineffectiveness is that the American left, like the conservatives, work within a racist framework. Sociology has no effective political theory precisely because it does not see race as integral to the American political system and overall culture. And because liberalism in general and sociology in particular underestimates the role of race it always does too little/too late as far as its beliefs and actions on racial matters. Since the American left has no theories that really address American racism, and therefore do not address American society, they have no realistic way to change the United States.
What we need is a new group of liberals (this time non-racist ones) that will break with the current "plural but equal" multiculturalists, as W.E.B. Du Bois did, and a spokesperson like the Rev. Vernon Johns to push the idea of a new civil rights movement. That's what we need, but the left in American currently refuses to see the need for such changes. The so-called leftists are too busy pretending they are radicals and enjoying the money and positions doled out by the federal government to the various "multi-cultures".
II. FOLLOW AN EDUCATION STRATEGY INSPIRED BY DR. KING
Instead of a black history month and multi-culturalism, we should ask for a non-racist history month and a non-racist culture. There should be one history, not one hundred plus histories for each ethnic group in America. (We don't want black history, we want non-racist history. And we think that our book goes a long way to satisfying the demand for a fair and just history. The book also satisfies the black demand for attention to influential black personalities for there were many blacks who presented radical alternatives to racist policies.)
In this educational strategy, we can get young people involved in pushing for non-racist books, such as the one we wrote, getting such books accepted by colleges and then by high schools.
III. START THE SEARCH FOR A NEW MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
There are many people with charisma, but few with the right message. If we push a new Dr. King-inspired message, a spokesperson, someone with the right mix of charisma and message, will appear.
IV. LEGAL AND ACTIVIST STRATEGY
After a reasonable delay to give whites a chance to respond to the new integrationism, the new movement will have to take its case to the various world organizations, such as the United Nations and the world court. The United States cannot and will not change by itself. It is too solidly racist. Our political demands have to be backed by the clout of world opinion and possible world economic sanctions and boycotts.
The progressive forces in the US should follow a strategy similar to the one that brought success over apartheid in South Africa. So while we are looking for a new Dr. King, we should also be looking for an American Nelson Mandela.
V. DEMAND STRUCTURAL CHANGES IN THE UNITED STATES
We want real governmental and economic change in America to insure that this time nothing stops us from attaining full integration of blacks into American society. Just one of the changes we want is a change in the mandate of the Supreme Court so that the court has the goal, the will, and the staff to fight racism on a massive scale. Heavy fines against those who discriminate could pay for the education of every black child who wants to go to college.
WHAT ARE OUR CHANCES OF SUCCESS?
If American society and others of the left continue their multi-cultural separatism, the chances are not good. But if we confront neo-conservative racism, abandon multi-cultural separatism, and promote full integration, our chances of success are very good. After all, the world is heading in the direction of increased equality, and in the long run the United States cannot be permitted to lag behind. Just as the South could not in the long run lag behind, but was forced to change, so too will the United States be forced to change.
RACISM IS NOT PERMANENT. IT IS TOO IMMORAL. IT IS TOO DESTRUCTIVE. IT IS TOO INEFFICIENT. IT CANNOT ENDURE.
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