Ferguson: Message from the Grassroots

emory-douglas-police terror 1
Emory Dou­glas, print.

There’s a cer­tain lib­er­al opti­mism about race in the Unit­ed States, and last night’s Fer­gu­son grand jury ver­dict unmasked the com­pla­cen­cy that lies under­neath it. For decades we’ve watched as the lega­cy of anti-racist move­ments has been chan­neled towards the eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal advance­ment of indi­vid­u­als like Barack Oba­ma and Bill Cos­by. And we’ve watched such indi­vid­u­als lead the attack against social move­ments and mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties – today, they are the ones urg­ing restraint.

No seri­ous chal­lenge has yet arisen to this co-opt­ing of the anti-racist lega­cy. With­in the acad­e­my and with­in social move­ments, intel­lec­tu­als and activists have ren­dered our­selves total­ly impo­tent. We’ve reduced pol­i­tics to the polic­ing of our lan­guage, to the ques­tion­able sat­is­fac­tion of pro­vok­ing white guilt. And we have allowed our present to become the age of Oscar Grant, Troy Davis, Trayvon Mar­tin, and Mike Brown.

There is a rebel­lion tak­ing place in Fer­gu­son, which has spread to Chica­go, Philadel­phia, New York, and Oak­land, and this rebel­lion shows that it’s time for us to wake up. Once upon a time, move­ments against racism came to under­stand that it was not enough to make space for black and brown peo­ple in the Amer­i­can dream of social mobil­i­ty; it was nec­es­sary to make a demand for pow­er – Black Pow­er, and all the mil­i­tant move­ments of Chicano/a and Asian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties which emerged along­side it. The action that took place in the streets last night should remind us of the uni­ver­sal and ongo­ing sig­nif­i­cance of this his­tor­i­cal rup­ture.

Mal­colm X’s famous analy­sis of the “House Negro” in “Mes­sage to the Grass­roots” was not mere­ly a rhetor­i­cal response to indi­vid­u­als who tend­ed towards lib­er­al com­pro­mise. It was a com­plex analy­sis of the struc­tur­al role played by black lead­er­ship, and its sup­pres­sion of autonomous mass action. “They con­trolled you,” Mal­colm said. “They con­tained you; they kept you on the plan­ta­tion.”

Malcolm’s analy­sis was cut short by his 1965 assas­si­na­tion by the cul­tur­al nation­al­ists of the Nation of Islam, with whom he had bro­ken after con­nect­ing with rev­o­lu­tion­ary anti-colo­nial move­ments in Africa and Asia, con­stant­ly invoked in his speech­es. He had deep­ened his struc­tur­al analy­sis of white suprema­cy and the eco­nom­ic sys­tem on which it rest­ed. As Fer­ruc­cio Gam­bi­no has demon­strat­ed, this is not sur­pris­ing when we look at Malcolm’s life as a labor­er – as a Pull­man Porter, or as a final assem­bler at the Ford Wayne Assem­bly Plant, where he encoun­tered the ten­sion between the work­ers’ antag­o­nism towards the employ­er and the restraint imposed by the union bureau­cra­cies.

“It’s impos­si­ble for a white per­son to believe in cap­i­tal­ism and not believe in racism,” Mal­colm said in a 1964 dis­cus­sion. “You can’t have cap­i­tal­ism with­out racism. And if you find one and you hap­pen to get that per­son into con­ver­sa­tion and they have a phi­los­o­phy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their out­look, usu­al­ly they’re social­ists or their polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy is social­ism.”

When the Black Pan­ther Par­ty fol­lowed through on Malcolm’s analy­sis, they extend­ed it to cul­tur­al nation­al­ism, which they called “pork chop nation­al­ism” – an ide­ol­o­gy which claimed that redis­cov­er­ing some pur­port­ed­ly uni­tary African cul­ture would spon­ta­neous­ly lead to black lib­er­a­tion. Its ulti­mate tra­jec­to­ry was fig­ures like “Papa Doc” Duva­lier, dic­ta­tor of Haiti – it erased the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic con­tra­dic­tions with­in the black com­mu­ni­ty. The “rev­o­lu­tion­ary nation­al­ism” of the Pan­thers was nec­es­sar­i­ly social­ist – as Huey P. New­ton put it, “if you are a reac­tionary nation­al­ist you are not a social­ist and your end goal is the oppres­sion of the peo­ple.” The Black Pan­ther Par­ty, he said, had to draw a “line of demar­ca­tion” between the “black bour­geoisie” and “the black have-nots.”

As Angela Davis has remarked, “It doesn’t sur­prise me that aspect of the black nation­al­ist move­ment, the cul­tur­al side, has tri­umphed because that is the aspect of the move­ment that was most com­mod­i­fi­able.” She points to its “con­nec­tion with the rise of a black mid­dle class,” and reminds us that the “tra­di­tion of anti-impe­ri­al­ist, anti-cap­i­tal­ist strug­gle… is one that has to be fought for and recraft­ed con­tin­u­ous­ly.”

Iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics has often seemed an innocu­ous, if some­what humor­less, pro­gres­sive phe­nom­e­non. But as black youth con­tin­ue to be sent to prison or mur­dered by police, as black com­mu­ni­ties are kept in states of uncon­scionable pover­ty, as migrant labor­ers con­tin­ue to be exploit­ed in obscene work­ing con­di­tions, and as our first black pres­i­dent con­tin­ues to wage impe­ri­al­ist wars, it becomes clear­er that a pol­i­tics which unites us with Oba­ma and Cos­by is not sim­ply inad­e­quate – it is crim­i­nal. It is part of the reac­tionary lega­cy of cul­tur­al nation­al­ism, and it has been fueled by the grow­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty of cap­i­tal­ism that the Black Pow­er move­ment so pow­er­ful­ly con­demned.

The revolt in response to the Fer­gu­son ver­dict is a sign that a col­lab­o­ra­tionist lead­er­ship can nev­er wipe out the grass­roots. As autonomous action lights up the streets, those of us who care about jus­tice have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to fol­low its lead – it is time for us to pro­claim once again that the strug­gle against racism requires a mass move­ment against cap­i­tal­ism, and when peo­ple who are exploit­ed and dom­i­nat­ed take the ini­tia­tive to act, this pos­si­bil­i­ty is put on the table.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).