Response to George Fish

Against the Current, No. 133, March/April 2008

Malik Miah

GEORGE FISH RAISES an important point about the “taking personal responsibility” debate taking place within the Black community, especially at the academic and leadership level. But his criticism of my argument that it is a “secondary factor” to prevalent institutional racism is way off.

Fish argues that “Black victimization” is also a result of not taking personal responsibility for one’s own actions. He agrees that some rappers may have shown solidarity with the Jena 6 in Louisiana but others promote “get rich or die trying.” The class division within the community, he adds, strengthens those seeking integration into the white mainstream while large numbers of Black youth, through despair, are joking a “new class of lumpenproletarians.”

(His reference to Chinese history and the “comprador” class actually undermines his argument, since a mass nationalist movement did grow because of its clear objectives. While Sun Yat-sen did criticize those who took the Booker T. Washington “pull of your own bootstrap” approach, the independence movement advanced because of its anti-imperialist goal. The disillusioned peasants and workers joined the mass campaigns for independence.)

The fundamental problem with Fish’s argument, and those he says are leading the “take personal responsibility” position, is that it takes the eyes of the movement off the government, state and employers who are primarily responsible for many youth and Black men being incarcerated and without jobs and hope.

My point is simple. The institutional racism in the United States, and I would add other developed capitalist states, envelopes advances made against racial discrimination. Racist attitudes still permeating a layer of whites and others (in spite of the success of the cross-over Obama presidential campaign) can’t be overcome simply by existing laws against discrimination.

The political and activist strategic focus of the Black leadership must remain placing demands on the government and state. The need to challenge anti-social behavior within the Black community and to encourage stepping up to take one’s own responsibility is important. But it can’t ever be presented as the central way to overcome historical or institutional discrimination, as most conservatives (including leading Black conservatives) advocate (see the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal).

The legal and political achievements of the civil rights movement are why a Barack Obama could become the first African- American presidential nominee of a major establishment party. It’s why a majority of whites could vote for a Black person as president — once considered impossible.

The overall decline of racist attitudes in society is a fact. At the same time, there is a hard core racist minority who would never vote for a minority candidate, or, I would add, a woman.

The problems of anti-social behavior within the Black community are real. But as Malcolm X explained, the root of racism is the system itself. There is no contradiction in recognizing the need to deal with “internal problems” of the Black community, so long as the fundamental flaw of the market system is seen as the source of the economic, social and political status of the Black working class.

Fish is wrong too when he asserts there has been a “demise of the Black working class” because of the loss of manufacturing and construction jobs. Yes, there are fewer blue-collar good-paying jobs for all ethnic groups. But the working class is not in decline.

Throughout history when old jobs are destroyed, new ones are created by structural changes in the economy. The working class, including Black workers, is growing. The problem isn’t their class status but the lack of unionization in the new jobs created by the economy.

Nor is so co-called ”Black on Black crime” new. It existed even under Jim Crow segregation.

I don’t agree either that there is a rise of the so-called “Lumpenproletariat” —- that sector of the population that, having been denied a legitimate way to make a living, resorts to the illegitimate: i.e. thieves, fences, drug pushers, numbers men, gamblers, pimps, prostitutes, loan sharks, beggars, thugs, etc.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels described this group as the lowest stratum of the industrial working class, including such undesirables as tramps and criminals. Members of the “Lumpenproletariat” -— this “social scum,” said Marx -— are not inclined to participate in revolutionary activities with their “rightful brethren,” the proletariat, socialists have explained. (The term in truth has little meaning today.)

These elements in the Black community (and other communities) are victims of the “me, myself and I” for-profit system. This includes some of the rappers and hip hop artists Fish refers to. But it is important to note that when there is a social movement rising (the civil rights and Black Nationalist movements of the 1960s, for example) many of the African Americans in prison can become activists and leaders. Malcolm X and many others began or expanded their education while serving time.

The class divisions in the Black community are more pronounced than ever because of the changes won by the civil rights revolution. That’s good. It makes it clearer where the new leaders must come from — the working class.

Fish is also in error to point to those taking on the “internal problems of the Black community” as “right on” and leading the way forward for the Black movement today. He gives them too much credit when  he concludes in his closing paragraph  that the ”taking personal responsibility” arguments of some Black leaders is “positive Black nationalist and working-class consciousness.” It is neither.

At best, some African American leaders are trying to get the community to look in the mirror and stop blaming others for their problems. Unfortunately, this approach has become the calling card of conservative Blacks who support letting the system off the hook for the institutional racism that makes a Jena 6 case possible.

ATC 133, March-April 2008