“We can’t seem to work together...Blacks are always putting each other down.” These kinds of self-effacing aphorisms underscore the continuing significance of the Willie Lynch syndrome. (Subjected to severe psychological and physical pain, slaves were conditioned to keep other slaves from getting ahead.)
A century and a half since emancipation, remnants of slavery’s wounds still preclude some Blacks from even contemplating their full potential. Self-effacing mindsets impede efforts to come together; acknowledging disunity and its causes is key to supplanting narrow, individual-oriented strategies to attain social and political capital. Realization that race matters and should be a source of pride rather than derision is also important.
General disunity among Blacks correlates with ineffective leadership. Both are plagued with a multiplicity of illusion (and delusion) that tends to obscure, even demean Black self-interests. Blacks themselves, even in their discontent, tolerate weak leadership. Negative conditioning renders many complicit in their own oppression and a huge challenge is turning pessimism on its head by embracing history, culture and humane values -prelude to a new beginning toward unity and strength commensurate with our numbers.
Adolph Reed raises provocative questions on the need for greater unity, especially because of the devolving state of the “Black community.” He argues that a cohesive Black collective is a myth, necessary after the Civil War to present a semblance of unity. However, the leadership class-defined specific Black interests, named themselves leaders and were assumed to be so by Whites, a phenomenon that is still with us.
Reed is convinced that “artificial negativity” by groups that are critical but fail to challenge the system, e.g., ethnic studies, cultural centers, etc., serve to perpetuate current conditions. And he believes the mass culture industry turned the Black movement into a media event, with systemic opposition becoming a commodity. Reed maintains that emphasis on self-help is conservative and bourgeois because self-help ideologies do not challenge the existing social system and place the burden for change on the victims, not the system. He suggests that what is needed is “interest group liberalism,” not a mythical “unified Black community.”
According to Reed, egalitarianism appealed to both the civil rights movement and capitalism because it raised no questions about capitalism. Rather, it stressed the immorality of segregation and how segregation was an obstacle to economic progress. But Black opposition was integrated into the system in a way that strengthened, not challenged it.
Reed does not think opposition is impossible, but says more and more “status groups”—-women, handicapped, gays and lesbians, etc.-are competing for shrinking opportunities available in the administrative/government coffers. His suggestions for remedying the situation include: breaking the Black elites’ control over ideas in the Black community, critiquing Black elite programs in order to transcend Black leaders’ initiatives that serve their interests exclusively; and recognizing the diverse interests in the Black community.
Derrick Bell, an insightful, powerful writer, argues that racism is so ingrained in American life that no matter what Blacks do to better their lot they will not succeed as long as the majority of Whites do not see their own well-being threatened by the status quo. He reminds us that our forebears-though betrayed in bondage-managed to retain their humanity as well as their faith that evil and suffering was not the extent of their destiny and urges that we do no less than they did: Fashion a philosophy that matches the unique dangers we face today and enables us to recognize in those dangers opportunities for committed living and humane service.
Bell believes that American dogma of automatic progress fails those who have been marginalized. Blacks, poor and others whom the myth ignores must call for a national history that incorporates their experience. Such a narrative finds inspiration, not in the sacrosanct, but utterly defunct ideals that for centuries have proven both unattainable and poisonous. Rather, they must find it in the lives of our oppressed people who defied social death as slaves and freed men insisting on their humanity despite a social consensus that they were an inferior people. He insists that we can only de-legitimate racism by accurately pinpointing it as the center, not the periphery, in the real lives of Black and White people. What we really want is meaning and meaningfulness.
For Bell, both engagement and commitment connote service, and genuine service requires humility. He says wee must first recognize and acknowledge (at least to ourselves) that our actions are not likely to lead to transcendent change. Then, and only then, can that realization lead to policy positions that are less likely to worsen conditions for us and, more likely, to remind the powers that be that we are determined to stand in their way. It is a question of recognizing the futility of action where action is more civil rights strategies destined to fail and the unalterable conviction that something must be done, that action must be taken.
The need for unity is at the heart of all efforts to sever historic chains and internalize the values and strength of our forebears. Transposing rhetoric to a reality that benefits Blacks is famously difficult. Yet, explicit commitment and agreement among the leadership (in all sectors) on major issues coupled with broad community support—and much organizing—are the needed ingredients for change. We must shed the twin burden of victimization and futile dependence on others, secure in the knowledge that renewed resolve and commitment can accrue to our collective benefit.
Larry Aubry n can be contacted at e-mail