America preaches integration and practices segregation. – Malcolm X
I’ve always been fascinated by how the 70’s were such an important time in terms of Black consciousness-raising, most of which has long been forgotten or ignored. On today’s occasion of Malcolm X’s birthday, it is imperative to reflect upon the history of Black America and its present and see it through the lens of his struggle and his legacy.
Today we have a Black president who has, in part, fulfilled the ambitions of many civil rights leaders and has become an heir to a shared racial goal of being “just as good” as their White counterparts. And yet, the lives of many Black Americans remain fraught with oppression. Looking back upon the radical history of civil rights, their legacies are often reduced to a few choice quotes, like above, but their actual significance and socio-historical context is seldom fully-understood.
On the occasion of today’s anniversary, I look to the past and wonder what led us astray and made us lose sight of the power that was being built up and its accompanying promise of real change—divorced from the political slogan of “change”. Why haven’t we had any leaders of caliber to replace them? Where are our modern Malcom X’s, MLK’s, Bayard Rustin’s, or A. Philip Randolph’s?
I am increasingly convinced that the answer as to why the movement was eviscerated and never led to real change lies with an obsession with capitalism and the racist, classist hierarchies its extremes bring. The message of Black consciousness-raising was co-opted by it and transformed into something superficial and ultimately powerless—though even that theory feels a bit lacking and too easy of a scapegoat.
Perhaps the hegemonic forces were stronger than originally believed, or maybe people on both sides of the issue were truly scared of real, destabilizing change. Regardless, ignorance on the matter is not an option. Self-aggrandizing platitudes can no longer be the currency of modern political language. We must strive higher, and in doing so, attempt to fulfill the legacies of Malcolm X et al.
The rise of “New Conservatism”, suburban white flight, the criminalization of the ghetto, and the War on Drugs all coincide with the era of Black Civil Rights gains. The new society has become a pathology upon the mind of Black Americans, which has engendered a self-hatred of black skin and blackness, to a degree comparable to the Jim Crow era.
Even Kanye West has recently come to a head with the imperial and racist notions inherent in our society—“And it’s rich nigga racism/ that’s that ‘Come in, please buy more’”. (Full lyrics here.) Even reaching the zenith of capitalist success means nothing for West, as he remains trapped within the cell of his own skin color. Racism and the neoliberalism so-often praised by the U.S. are inextricably linked and it can be logically concluded that the lack of a more fervent, anti-neoliberalist Left has been responsible for the lack of Black leaders advocating real change.
History may have been whitewashed, but remember that MLK marched for economic freedom, Malcolm X advocated emancipation from the existing modes of oppression, and many other prominent Black leaders came out of the quintessential radical leftism of May ’68 in France. The true enemy of Black America has been neoliberalism and its assault on the radical elements that had achieved so much in the 70’s.
Not only did neoliberalism roll back Keynesian economics and quell anti-capitalist leftism, but it has subsumed feminism and black power movements into itself and compromised their original, radical message. What you get is Barack Obama as the fulfillment of Black consciousness and a feminist movement critical of only sexism within certain circles in lieu of acknowledging the inherent structural inequity that most notably, has black men earning less than white women.
Maybe Malcolm X was right – self-determination and independence were the only way to end Black oppression, rather than buying into the system and pretending America is any more post-racial than it was decades ago.
Harold Alexander Mesa (Staff Writer, Rutgers University) Harold Mesa is a Rutgers University alumnus who received his B.A. in 2013 in History. He was born in Medellín, Colombia and lived the second half of his childhood in New Jersey. His interests include post-colonialism, linguistics, Marxian political thought, feminism, and Buddhism—amongst other things. He enjoys playing and discussing soccer.