Black Liberation and the American Dream

Against the Current, No. 109, March/April 2004

Chris Clement

Black Liberation and the American Dream
edited by Paul Le Blanc
(Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2003) 311 pages, $25 paperback.

RACE HAS ALWAYS been the most visible source of division in the United States. Slavery, segregation, and the current ethnic profiling of the “Arab-looking” are just a few of examples of racism in American history.

But the history of race and racism has also been one of resistance, rebellion and transformation by people of all colors. The various contributors to Black Liberation and the American Dream want us to understand the importance of these movements and their relevance today.

Drawing from Abraham Lincoln, editor Paul Le Blanc’s introductory essay defines the American dream as pursuant to the idea that the United States is a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to equality among all — but a dream frequently vitiated by the racist exclusion of African Americans and other groups from attaining the full rights of citizens.

Exclusionary and discriminatory practices cannot be merely understood as segregation or disenfranchisement. Le Blanc explains that inequalities in education, housing and job opportunities are primarily a function of racism, and illustrate that African Americans continue to be denied the American dream.

To combat racism, however, we need to do more than show its practices. Le Blanc’s definition of racism serves as a good starting place to understand why and how it exists. His essay and others in the anthology emphasize that racism means more than simply negative attitudes towards other groups.

Racism is the power one group possesses to dominate and control other races. Historically, since whites have been the group with the greatest amount of power in American society and elsewhere, a critique of racism necessarily entails a discussion of “whiteness.”

The relationship between white privilege and racism comes clearly into focus when Le Blanc quotes Reverend Joseph Barndt: “Whether or not we are intentional bigots, we are all locked inside a system of structured racism. As American citizens, every white person supports, benefits from, and is unable to be separated from white racism.” (21)

Barndt’s candor prefaces much of what follows in the rest of the anthology. A powerful essay by Alice Walker indicts the white man for centuries of crimes against Black women and other people of color. David Roediger argues that the very construction of “whiteness” is an oppressive category that presumes superiority over other races.

Potential for Struggle

But in stressing the relative (and privileged) location of whites in a racist society, we may also want to explore the possible role they may play in antiracist struggles. What can we learn by exploring the intersection of racial and class domination, and how might this focus help develop antiracist struggles?

Roediger suggests that whites must not only confront the privileges they have, but also come to terms with the false claims of superiority that are the foundations of the white identity. Furthermore, Manning Marable notes that the white working class has material interests in seeing working people of color as allies.

Whereas Le Blanc highlights the economic plight of the African-American working class, Marable reminds us that:

“. . . 60 percent of all welfare recipients are white. 62 percent of all people on food stamps are white; that more than two-thirds of Americans without medical insurance are white. Racial and national oppression are very real, but beneath this is an elitist dynamic of capitalist exploitation linked to hegemony, power, and privileges of corporate capitalism over labor.” (301)

The anthology also offers a fair passage to a discussion on the intersections of gender, race and class. Audre Lorde’s potent essay brings to our attention the subordinate position of African-American women in all three categories.

This is followed by June Jordan’s reminder that white men run America, but most Black Americans are women who work in the lowest paid jobs and occupy the ranks of the unemployed.

Underdeveloped Gender Focus

But unlike the contributions focusing on race and class, the focus on gender is somewhat underdeveloped, short on style and substance.

The three articles on gender (Lorde, Jordan, and Walker) convince us to pay attention to the gendered dimensions of racism, but don’t draw the implications for mobilizing and organizing antiracist struggles. A selection from bell hook’s Where We Stand: Class Matters or a longer excerpt from Lorde might fill this gap.

Additional sections — the dedication to the pioneering thoughts of antiracist activists, and the discussion of the U.S. left and antiracist movements — do little to advance a focus on gender. An excerpt from Ella Baker, the too little known giant of civil rights organizing, stands out as the sole exception.

This weakness may not necessarily be a function of the anthology as such, but may actually reflect the inattention and marginalization African-American women have faced within movements that still have not thoroughly appreciated their indispensable involvement and contributions.

Deep Radical Tradition

There is nonetheless much value in the section introducing us to the pioneering thoughts of antiracists such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and W.E.B. Dubois.

For almost two decades, critics of antiracist movements have insisted that the intellectual currents of antiracism cling to a short-lived radicalism that emerged during the 1960s and presumably went out of style after the Civil Rights Movement. (One of the most notorious examples of this antiradical polemic is Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education [Free Press, 1998].)

It cannot be denied (nor should we feel ashamed) that the anti-racist activists of the 1960s inspire much of our thinking on racism. But Black Liberation and the American Dream documents a deeper intellectual tradition that has its origins in the founding of the United States.

Perhaps what really upsets the current detractors of anti-racist movements is the frank and incendiary language of those who dedicated their lives to fighting racism. This brashness cannot be readily attributed to 1960s faddishness. In 1852, Martin Delaney bluntly declared:

“The colored people are not yet known, even to their most professed friends among the white Americans; for the reason, that politicians, religionists, colonizationists, and abolitionists, have each and all, at different times, presumed to think for, dictate to, and know better what suited colored people, than they knew for themselves . . . (116)

The words of the pioneers also show that antiracist movements have always rejected the idea that we should defer our decision-making to “good, well-intentioned whites” and be grateful that American “democracy” freed African Americans from slavery.

In 1857, Frederick Douglass stated:

“The abolitionists) talk of the proud Anglo-Saxon blood, as flippantly as those who profess to believe in the natural inferiority of races. Your humble speaker has been branded an ingrate, because he has ventured to stand up on his own right, and to plead our common cause as a colored man, rather than as a Garrisonian (abolitionists). I hold it to be no part of gratitude to allow our white friends to do all the work, while we merely hold their coats. (112)

Le Blanc has assembled an important anthology for anyone interested in fighting racism. Limitations notwithstanding, the breadth and depth of the collection stands out among others of its kind. The introductory essay should have an appeal outside of intellectual circles; at the same time its articulate prose and deeply analytical content should stimulate broad discussion and de<->bate.

At a time when an unelected president presumes to teach democracy to the people of Iraq, detains Arab-Americans at a whim, and supports the attack on affirmative action, Black Liberation and the American Dream is a timely weapon in the fight against racism.

ATC 109, March-April 2004