Here are two statements:
1. The Negro must love the white man, because the white man needs his love to remove his tensions, insecurities and fears.
2. You do too much singing. Today it is time to stop singing, and start swinging.
Which of the above is emblematic of black radicalism? The answer is not as clear-cut as many of us might think.
The first statement was made by Martin Luther King Jr. in support of his much lauded and widely known strategy of nonviolent resistance.
[quote_right]It is a mistake to think that radicalism is necessarily bound up with violence. [/quote_right]
King’s call comes from his 1958 account of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, “Stride Toward Freedom.” In it, he articulated what he saw as an essential form of communal love that had it’s roots in New Testatment Christianity but one that King felt was best described by the ancient Greek word agape, a redeeming love that “springs from the need of the other person.” Certainly, the families of the murdered congregationists of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, S.C., were practicing that sort of love last week when they publicly forgave Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist who committed those murders.
The second statement was made in a characteristically biting tone by Malcolm X some six years after King’s, in a 1964 speech in Detroit, known as “The Ballot or the Bullet,” urging a more active resistance in the face of the government’s repeated failure to protect black people’s rights and lives. It was clearly directed at those who still affirmed King’s program of nonviolent resistance, and raised the possibility that the continuation of that government failure might require blacks to take up arms.
Today, as we face a seemingly endless number of black lives being unjustifiably threatened, damaged and lost, and the resulting emotional cycle among black Americans of rage-despair-hope, it seems urgent that we ask again whether now is the time to make black radicalism central to black politics and activism. And if so, what should it demand of American citizens?
By radicalism I mean the explicit intention to use strong, nonconventional and unsanctioned means to effect systemic change by either disrupting the status quo or reinstating a preferred previous status quo. If the convention in a capitalist society is for the tech industry to charge for all services and you offer yours for free on the principle that “knowledge wants to be free,” you are a radical; if you’re a state legislator who cuts against the separation of church and state by lobbying to make the Bible the official book of the state, you are a radical.
It would be a disservice to the diverse tradition of black thought and activism to present the black radicalism monolithically, but we can identify a central motivation across its various iterations: to secure for blacks, against the history of white supremacy and the persistent racial oppression it has spawned, a degree of respect and dignity by means that directly confront and reconfigure both the discourse of and policies around racial justice. This is typically done with an eye toward not merely rationally persuading white Americans, but to intentionally unsettle and dislodge them from the comforts of white privilege.
[quote_right]It is time that blacks not be expected nor expect of themselves to set the standard for goodness and upstanding character in a society that regularly treats them cruelly.[/quote_right]
We don’t typically assign the term “radical” to people like the computer programmer or the legislator described above, for a number of reasons. First, radicalism, especially in the political sphere, is thought to necessarily entail violence. Second, radicalism is often used as a substitute for “fundamentalism.” Lastly, radicalism is thought to represent (some form of) insurgency as a way of life or lifestyle. This last reason when combined with the first is what makes the idea of radicalism, especially black radicalism, alarming to many Americans. Yet it turns out that all of these reasons for treating radicalism as a dangerous doctrine are wrong.
It is important to begin by challenging the claim that radicalism and fundamentalism are interchangeable. Fundamentalism is an ideology and all ideologies share one critical flaw. They begin with a basic proposition (for example, the lives of all nonbelievers in religion X are expendable) and assert that proposition as a true statement about the world and then proceed to interpret all evidence in the light of that purported truth; thus ideology short-circuits effective means of assessing the reality of social, economic and political situations. Radicalism, in contrast, is significantly (but not entirely) post hoc — it is inherently pragmatic and arises in response to real threats, actual slights, suffered deprivations and obvious oppression.
When we take radicalism to be the same kind of thing as fundamentalism, it is a short step to the third charge — that radicalism is a way of life. This is clearly mistaken. Radicalism responds to real conditions of oppression that bring it into being, thus, seeks to eliminate the very conditions that make its existence necessary.
If one accepts these two clarifications, it also becomes clear that it is a mistake to think that radicalism is necessarily bound up with violence. Yes, it can be. America’s founding fathers brought two nations into open warfare in the name of freedom — to disrupt the status quo imposed from without by Britain. This is a form of radicalism represented by Malcolm X. When he exhorted black Americans to stop singing and start swinging, he openly affirmed the legitimacy of violent self-defense against white supremacy and its murderous practitioners. Malcolm certainly sought to disrupt the status quo of white supremacy by unsanctioned means. But what of King teaching that blacks must love whites in order to ease their insecurities and fears? You should accept this as black radicalism as well.
The more obvious radical aspect of King’s teaching has to do with the use of nonviolence as a doctrine of insurgent political action. While today political marches in the name of racial justice are common, in the middle of the 20th century large scale protests cut directly against the prevailing sentiment that blacks had no right to express themselves politically and publicly. King’s challenge to various police forces to exact violence on a passive gathering sought to effectively and strongly disrupt a white supremacist status quo.
But here is another aspect: King’s teachings also sought to disrupt the status quo within the black community, where despair risked deactivating the will to political action and rage compelled increasing numbers of black youth to begin considering taking up arms. King always held that passive resistance was the strategy of the truly strong person at a time when the black status quo had reason to view white Americans only as enemies, as undeserving of blacks’ love.
In a manner unsettlingly resonant with the heart of the civil rights era, blacks today continue to find themselves moving between rage and despair. Rage at the abuses that should have ended when the slaves were freed, despair because the claim that black lives matter was dismissed up to and beyond the signing of the Civil Rights Act. This leaves hope, a disposition taken up when one thinks the expression of rage and despair might have compelled one’s oppressors to finally act with a sense of justice. Have the many decades of expressing rage and despair done its work making space for hope?
As things stand, there is no rational space for mere hope — recent events in the light of the facts of history discourage naïveté. A truly intelligent hope leaves little to chance and encourages conviction and action to better secure a preferred future — in our case, a racially just America. It seems to me the way to hope today lies in the promise of a resurgent black radical politics.
Systemic racial inequality is a daily fact of American life. There is no shortage of news of vigilantes and police literally getting away with murdering blacks; white supremacist ideologies still thrive, and at times produce awful consequences, as we saw in the Charleston massacre. And that is just the overtly grim news. When we add to that the persistent racial inequalities in income, housing, education, medical care and employment, there is no denying that the withholding from black Americans of resources, opportunity and basic sympathy is the status quo in America. It is an unjust status quo, thus it must be disturbed, disrupted. The hope here, then, would focus on a future wherein blacks’ needs, aspirations, and basic humanity are not only beyond question, but recognized as having equal important and worth as whites’.
However, maybe you are more concerned with this question: Which flavor of black radicalism should be embraced — Malcolm’s or Martin’s? In a society in which blacks must insist and remind their fellow citizens that black lives matter, that really is the question, isn’t it? Maybe we should turn to history as our guide.
Blacks have tried for more than 150 years, since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, to reasonably engage American institutions and whites with a very uneven, and in important respects, failed record of adequate responsiveness. It can be difficult to imagine what else one can say to get what one is owed after so long. But we should accept at least two propositions. First, that any resurgent black radical politics must also be a unified politics, one that values central leadership coupled with an explicit program of action. The protests and movements in response to the past year’s abuse of black citizens have shown that local and spontaneous protests can be effective, but also limited in scope — they have not led to adequate action at the level of national politics. Even when local protests have persisted in places like Ferguson, Mo., they tend to quickly fall from the American public’s view, and thus their conscience.
Second, some 50 years after King, maybe blacks should not desire his second coming. Though he is consistently invoked by leaders at every political level, it seems to me that the days of sitting at the lunch counter and enduring inhumane abuses must be left to history. Rather, black Americans have tragically earned the right to ask a question more appropriately radical for our present moment: Where is the love for us?
It is time that blacks not be expected nor expect of themselves to set the standard for goodness and upstanding character in a society that regularly treats them cruelly. When I ask, where is the love, I am really asking you to tell me in return, to speak by your actions and take responsibility for the kind of radicalism it is now appropriate for blacks to take up: Should we heed Martin’s counsel and open our arms in embrace or should we be wary of yet another painful and bloody era of speaking and acting in bad faith, and as Malcolm advised, close our fists?
Chris Lebron is an assistant professor of African-American studies and philosophy at Yale University and the author of “The Color Of Our Shame: Race and Justice in our Time.”