Is Reverend Wright a Black Liberationist?
Recently, in the aftermath of the Pastor Wright controversy, historian Ralph Luker, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and HNN, linked Martin Luther King Jr. to black liberation theology. In his first address to the Montgomery Improvement Association in 1955 King had said, Luker noted:
The Almighty God himself is not the only, not the God just standing out saying through Hosea, 'I love you, Israel.' He's also the God that stands up before the nations and said: 'Be still and know that I'm God, that if you don't obey me I will break the backbone of your power, and slap you out of the orbits of your international and national relationships.
And that, wrote Luker, sounds a lot like something that might come out of the mouth of Pastor Wright: "Both African-American preachers have understood prophetic biblical preaching far better than those who feign shock at and condemn Wright's words. … ‘G-d damn, America,’ indeed. It should have more men like him.”
It is puzzling to me that Ralph Luker can partially excerpt a speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. to connect King's prophetic voice to the pastor of black liberation theology who shouted "God damn America," for it was the separatist and militant black power movement (derived from black supremacist Pan-Africanism and Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, and later Christianized by James H. Cone) that saw “white supremacist” America as irrevocably damned, whereas the integrationist King, speaking at the inception of the Montgomery bus boycott movement, protested the failure of American democracy to live up to its stated ideals, and proposed legal, non-violent means to rectify a shameful lapse:
Standing beside love is always justice, and we are only using the tools of justice. Not only are we using the tools of persuasion, but we've come to see that we've got to use the tools of coercion. Not only is this thing a process of education, but it is also a process of legislation.
King did not present a damned America, but one with promise if, as a Christian and democratic nation, its professed universal brotherhood, signified by equality before the law, was to be called to account:
And certainly, certainly, this is the glory of America, with all of its faults. This is the glory of our democracy. If we were incarcerated behind the iron curtains of a Communistic nation, we couldn't do this. If we were dropped in the dungeon of a totalitarian regime, we couldn't do this. But the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.
One of my areas of research is black history, particularly the ideas of Ralph Bunche, both before he collaborated with Gunnar Myrdal in the research for An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944) and during the years he worked for the United Nations. Bunche, who was always an integrationist with a strong commitment to the welfare of “my people,” and who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, distanced himself from separatist movements until the end of his life, despite efforts of Malcolm X and others to enlist his participation in an “umbrella movement,” or, in the case of UC Berkeley professor Charles P. Henry, to claim Bunche for “black power” in a late-life conversion. Bunche's biographer Sir Brian Urquhart put a special emphasis on Bunche's as “an American life," not the life of a hyphenated American, and that was Bunche's position as well. It was most probably he who gave Myrdal the idea of “an American Creed” of rationalism, democracy, and egalitarianism, to which even Southern whites gave at least lip service. In a 1941 speech urging black participation in the resistance to Nazism, he reiterated the American Creed, and, referring to Southern white laggards, memorably concluded, “Democracy, to be realized, must be lived broadly.”
I can also say that the cultural nationalists who are now the primary black voices on Pacifica Radio are frequently just as paranoid as Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Bunche, in his memoranda to Myrdal, observed that ghettoes produce parochialism: the self-destructive suspicion of outsiders that cannot distinguish friends from enemies. Bunche’s analysis has been vindicated. Listening to Wright’s claim that government programs originated the AIDS virus to destroy blacks reminded me of “Afrikan Mental Liberation Weekend,” a notorious series of radio broadcasts first heard in the early 1990s on Los Angeles Pacifica station KPFK, that virtually damned “the ice people.” The financial support emanating from black listeners was intense. Such irrationalism was not part of the American Creed as formulated by Bunche, who died in 1971; on the contrary he was ever wary of incendiary language and populist revolts that released pent-up hatred and resentment along with fantastic longings for an idealized past or utopian future. Unfortunately several trends in American life in the last several decades have marginalized Bunche’s vision of an imperfect America that was yet capable of equal treatment for minorities, especially the right of equal opportunity to “get ahead,” universally applied to all its citizens.
Some months ago, a prominent libertarian commentator predicted that the 2008 presidential campaign could profitably facilitate a national discussion on the appropriate role of the state in the economy, a prediction based on the assumption that Republicans and libertarians generally favor free markets and limited government, while Democrats and leftists look to statist remedies conferring “social justice” in order to correct a bogus and skewed “free market.”
For some “progressives” Adam Smith was dead wrong: free trade and market economies do not promote peace or create wealth and an ever rising standard of living for ordinary people, but rather imperialist war, accelerating inequality, and the destruction of nature. This could be a productive conversation for all Americans, and would engage such books as Jonah Goldberg’s popular polemic Liberal Fascism (2008) and the more nuanced, historically grounded examination of the role of the state in a market economy, Jerry Z. Muller’s The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought (2002).
Sadly, that debate is not the one we are having, although it may underlie the current controversy regarding Obama’s true beliefs with respect to “black liberation theology.” On the surface the political class wonders, does Barack Obama silently agree while he publicly disagrees with his ex-pastor and mentor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Moreover, there are questions about Wright’s place within American black history: is he a separatist in the tradition of Malcolm X and other cultural nationalists, or are his Afro-centric “jeremiads” and his “African Christianity” a legitimate offspring of the postwar civil rights movement, peacefully opposing “segregation, separatism, sectarianism and superiority” as Martin Marty has argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education (4-11-08)?
What I find shocking is the erasure of historical memory. The vague and undefined buzz words—not just “change” or “hope” but “the black community,” “diversity,” “social justice”-- that pervade media commentary were partly produced or ratified by leading universities as their administrations incorporated and co-opted 1960s social movements. Writing in the late 1930s, Bunche and his colleagues had demanded an integrated political, social, and economic history of blacks in America with investigators approaching the problem from diverse antiracist perspectives, but cooperatively developing a scientifically collected knowledge base of use to all reformers. By contrast, in response to the urban riots of the middle and late 1960s, college administrators shoved the often class-based grievances of blacks and other protestors, for instance, women and Latinos, into separate departments defined by gender or race/ethnicity, and eventually taught by members of their racial or gender group. Simultaneously, fields of study bloomed in departments of English and cultural studies that disavowed [WASP-Jewish] Euro-centric white male supremacy and racism, while, oddly, perpetuating a racial and communitarian discourse of “diversity.” Educational” (tax-exempt) public media, supported by the federal government, the liberal foundations, and listener-sponsors quickly followed suit.
Disappeared was the concept of American society as a collection of free-standing individuals whose civil rights were (or should be) guaranteed by the liberal state; taking its place were autonomous racial or ethnic communities whose distinctive “cultures” (each with its own particular Zeitgeist and heroes, unrecognized or indecipherable to other races or ethnicities) would be celebrated as the antidote to debilitating “negative images” supposedly dispensed by rich white males and their white supremacist lackeys. Also deseparecido was the Jeffersonian concept of the melting pot, which was now seen as a conspiracy against the regnant “cultural pluralism.”
Israel Zangwill had explicated “The Melting Pot” in his popular play of 1908; his was a syncretic view of the unprecedented enriched and enriching American culture-in-formation that would leave European blood feuds behind, but such clarifications were soon viewed as apologetics for a manipulative pseudo-objective “science” that dissolved precious ancestral ties, leaving deracinated immigrants and ex-slaves victims of either [Jewishly-inspired] proletarian internationalism, or of urban anomie, hence newly susceptible to a debasing jewified mass culture, and consigned to slugging it out in the war of all against all that was the legacy of Locke, Hobbes, and their atomizing doctrines of “possessive individualism.” That “identity politics” retains its salience is demonstrated by the New York Times in its report of Obama’s speech on race (3-19-08): “Mr. Obama stayed up well into the night writing much of the speech himself, aides said. His words carried familiar strains of the biography he wrote more than a decade ago about his search for racial identity.”
There were other casualties in the post-60s process of co-opting the movements of women and minorities as they had existed since the entwined Protestant-led reform movements of the antebellum period, including abolitionism and feminism. I have mentioned above the denigration of the Enlightenment concept of individuality and universal civil rights as the individual, dissenting or otherwise, was melted into “community” (das Volk or “integral nationalism” as understood by German Romantics). The postmodern revolt against science (science as just another “story”) jettisoned the notion of free speech also central to the Enlightenment: Free speech was not an excuse for slander and libel or loose talk in general, but that which enabled the no-holds-barred search for truth, that is, a search that would ultimately yield a working consensus on social policy and reform, arrived at through collective deliberation based on universally observable facts, not site-specific group facts. But there are no universally observable facts, nor are there objective histories of conflict, according to those literary theorists who have annexed history and anthropology to their projects of advancing moral and cultural relativism, God or Goddess damning the bigoted imperialist, patriarchal, and ecocidal “Amerika”/“the hypocritical West,” and justifying “terror” as a legitimate weapon against predatory Eurocentric scientific method as wielded by mad scientists and Romantic Wandering Jews. Hence, James Cone, originator of “black liberation theology” could state in 1971 with conviction (and future support): “If the oppressed are to attain their freedom, they must begin to create a new style of communication which is consistent with their struggle for liberation. In part they must deny the accepted canons of logic, allowing the liberation struggle alone to be the logical test for meaningful discourse. Logical consistency, as defined by the oppressors, is irrelevant.”
Without understanding the recent submergence of the rational argumentation that sustains productive democratic participation in our “progressive” institutions, it is difficult to see the scandal of the Obama-Wright controversy and the shallow analysis in some quarters that has accompanied the dissemination of Wright’s sermons and Obama’s speech on race. Think of the learned political debates of the 1930s or the pre-60s postwar civil rights movement that, in retrospect, were oases of scholarship and empiricism. The very concept of “racial diversity” as currently deployed was dissected by anti-Nazis, for example Julian Huxley in We Europeans (1936), or by such proponents of an educated and unified industrial union movement as political scientist Bunche and his mentor and colleague at Howard University, the economist Abram L. Harris. Throw in their friend, the anthropologist Melville Herskovits who challenged “the myth of the Negro past” by arguing for cultural syncretism. These materialists were keenly aware of clashing interests and strategies among blacks, and Bunche, for one, not only challenged the concept of “race” tout court in his well-known pamphlet A World View of Race (1936) but lamented the fiasco of the 1935 National Negro Congress that he had helped to organize, for he understood that no agreement over tactics could be achieved where black integrationists and Garvey-ite black nationalists, or capitalists and labor union bureaucrats oblivious to the needs of rank and file workers, sat at the same table. As he bitterly noted in his memoranda, “There is no such thing as “the Negro.” For Bunche at that time, there could be no institutional change without independent organization by participants in the labor market, educated through the experience of unified (black-white) class action how best to defend their individual and group interests. Integration signified equal rights; i.e., equal opportunity to pursue the American dream, a goal that was unlikely to be realized without the elimination of ghettoes.
Whether or not Marxist postulations of irreconcilable structural antagonisms between capital and labor are still relevant and helpful, the Bunche cohort’s disdain for the toothless strategies of upper-class white foundations who were then advocating interracial understanding and enhanced communication, i.e., [Christian] love not [Jewish] hate, as the primary solution to black poverty and political powerlessness, remains apposite. So much for “the black community” as posited by today’s pundits, dutifully echoing the histrionic cultural nationalists who dominate the public square, claiming to speak for all members of their “race,” while hoping to mobilize mass (and liberal upper-class) support for the advancement of their own very particular careers.
As long as we allow color and an antiquated discourse of the organic [black] community to define the political divisions that matter, we ignore the urgent question that begs to be addressed: In an era of globalization, what role should government intervention and regulation play in an advanced market economy, and how well have prior interventions and regulations served their purported objectives? The “civil rights movements” (feminism, gay rights, etc.) that piggy-backed on the black movement (one that was always internally divided between integrationist and separatist strategies) may have exacerbated already existing divisions in the democratic polity, diverting attention from the bigger picture, which is the long-standing polarization over the role of the state in regulating a free market economy. Questions of remedies for exclusion—of women, minorities, and gays-- are properly subsumed under this larger problem of government, especially since we are federalists in an enormous nation with diverse and often conflicting belief systems. Barack Obama, former president of the Harvard Law Review, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., could and should have made that the focus of “the ferocious urgency of now.”
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