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Introduction to Rustin’s Down the Line (1971)

The critical acumen and insight that Rustin brings to bear upon proliferating separatist and nationalist dogmas derive from a life experience with mass movements and political maneuvers. His unerring ability to identify class interests and reactionary impulses hiding behind masks of racial unity or progressive coloration probably owes much to his socialist training. Those who single out race as the dominant principle of organization for any economic, social, political, or educational enterprise have his formidable realism to reckon with. He knows perfectly well that whites who stereotype Negroes and discriminate against them especially because of color impose a certain degree of unity upon the race. But this indiscriminate blindness of white prejudice and ignorance, he observes, “should hardly serve as a model of belief for those blacks who wish to abolish racism in America.” Nor should it prevent Negroes from seeing through the “myth of black unity” and its reactionary consequences.

Not only is black unity obstructed by generational conflict as great as that among whites, but it is also divided by Northern and Southern traditions, rural and urban backgrounds, native and West Indian origins. Philosophical cleavages are indicated by the differences that separate NAACP, CORE, Muslims, and Black Panthers. But more profound, and of special significance to Rustin’s analysis, are differences of class. “It is utterly unrealistic,” he writes, “to expect the Negro middle class to behave on the basis of color alone. They will behave, first of all, as middle-class people.” They may do this unconsciously and in perfect good faith, but this does not make their interests identical with those of the mass of working-class blacks. “A good deal of the talk about separatism,” he observes, “reflects a class problem within the Negro community.” He does not stress the nature of the awkward problem, but he is quite aware that historically the Negro middle class of entrepreneurs, teachers, and professional people, the educated and privileged class, was rooted in a segregated society that guaranteed a monopoly. The sociologist E. Franklin Frazier called it “a privileged status within the isolated Negro community.” With the removal of the legal foundations of that system, the ironically “deprived” class sought compensation in benefits derived from racial unity, separatism, and black nationalism.

“The irony of the revolutionary rhetoric uttered on behalf of the Negroes,” says Rustin, “is that it has helped in fact to promote conservatism.” Black capitalism is endorsed not only by Roy Innis of CORE but by President Nixon and various corporate interests. It does not cost much, and it leaves ghettos intact. The vast majority of black people, of course, are not capitalists and never will be, and they stand to lose from “buying black.” For black workers to define their problem primarily in terms of race is to ally themselves with white capitalists against white workers. It is the old strategy of Booker Washington in new guise. As Marcus Garvey put it, “The only convenient friend the Negro worker or laborer has in America at the present time is the white capitalist.”

Virtually all the components and programs of black nationalism, many of them contradictory, have in common the ironic element of class interest and reactionary social implications. “Black power” is by now an old slogan that has served many uses and interests without as yet producing any program addressed to the needs of the mass of black people. “The advocates of ‘black power,’” in the opinion of Rustin, “have no such program in mind; what they are in fact arguing for (perhaps unconsciously) is the creation of a new black establishment.” Once Roy Innis’ “black colonies” have been “liberated,” all conflicts with the outside world can be resolved by negotiations between the black ruling class and its white counterpart, while internal difficulties would become the responsibility of the new black elite.

Advocates of “black community control” are not black workers but educated Negroes with an eye on administrative posts in public offices, schools, and social service. The movement is “an adjustment to inequality rather than a protest against it,” in Rustin’s opinion. Its success would leave the ghetto “faced with the same poverty, deteriorated housing, unemployment, terrible health services, and inferior schools,” but leave it also something of an asset to those in control. As Booker Washington put it, “Cast down your buckets where you are.” James Foreman cast down his bucket in the white churches for “black reparations.” He drew in a few pails of silver, but in doing so he deflected pressure away from the federal government, the only source capable of the aid required, further isolated blacks from political allies, and built on the shifting sands of moral suasion and white guilt. The effect was as politically reactionary as that of black power and community control. Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale could ride the wave of black rage to fame and notoriety, but could propose no solution to the injustices that produced the rage. Pseudo-revolutionaries of the New Left romanticized the black violence Cleaver and Seale preached, but only enhanced the repression the blacks had to bear and the rage it inspired.

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