From the abolition of slavery to the Black Power movement, African-American unity has been considered a powerful method to achieve freedom and equality.
February is Black History Month. So we thought it might be a good time to do an episode on Black Solidarity. Now I admit that this topic may seem to be a bit, shall we say, 20th century. When this country still suffered from rampant racism, it made perfect sense for black people to band together on the basis of their shared history and experience to fight it. But now, in the 21st century? in the age of Obama? Why should we bother with matters racial anymore?
If you have such a reaction, you may hold the view – a view which I don’t really share – that that racism is more or less a thing of the past. Maybe you think that Obama really has helped to usher us into a post-racial age! Like I said, I don’t believe that myself. But I do think it is true that race doesn’t matter in the way it used to in this country. In the bad old days, racism confronted and thwarted black people at every turn. Thankfully, we don’t live in that country anymore.
To say this is not, of course, to deny that there are still lots of things that impact the lives of black people disproportionately and negatively – - our lousy schools, the flight of jobs from the urban core, an out of control prison system. Those are 21st century racial ills that give black people plenty of reasons to band together, to band together as black people, in solidarity with one another.
But before we get too far down the track of defending the enduring relevance of black solidarity, we should say something about the very idea of “blackness.” What is this thing that solidarity demands that black people unite around? Now that turns out to be a complicated thing. Black people are a pretty diverse lot. In fact, there’s no one thing that black people all share that makes us all black people – not skin color, not genetic make up, not cultural heritage, not political outlook. “Black” is what Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance term -- like the term ‘game’. Just as games come in all shapes and sizes, with no common essence, so do we black people.
If you’re one of those that think black solidarity is passé and no longer called for, you could see what a just said as fuel for your own argumentative fire. That’s because give what I said it seems perfectly possible that two arbitrary black people may have less in common with each other than either has with some random non-black person. Take two upper-middle-class professionals -- one black, one white -- who went to the same elite school and live in the same bucolic suburb. They're likely to have more in common with each other, than either has in common with an undereducated, underemployed, poor person -- black or white. And now you might ask, what exactly is black solidarity, solidarity to? And the worry is that there is really no there, there.
I think it’s pretty hard to deny the point just made about what we might call the thin nature of blackness – that there is really nothing very substantive that all black people share in virtue of which they one and all count as black. But that race is thin gruel, doesn’t mean that race doesn’t matter. However thin the gruel of race, it still substantially affects your chance of ending up at that elite school we referred to above in the first place. So though race is thin gruel and is not the monomaniacal be all and end all of our social and political lives anymore, it still matters. And because race still matters, racial solidarity is still important and valid.
But let’s see where this thought really leads for a bit. Suppose that our two upper-middle-class professionals each wants to help ameliorate the plight of the poor. Would it be alright for each of them to have a special concern for the members of their own race, rather than for the poor in general?
My own gut instinct is to say that it’s perfectly fine for the privileged black guy to have a special concern for disadvantaged black people out of a sense of black solidarity. Actually, I have to admit that I’d actually be bothered if he didn’t feel a sense of racial solidarity. As for the white guy and his racial solidarity for his poor white brethren, I have to admit that I find the very idea of white solidarity quite disturbing.
So what’s the difference? First it seems to me that the well-to-do black guy’s solidarity with his disadvantaged brethren is a morally legitimate response to race-based oppression. By contrast, the privileged white guy’s solidarity with his less well-off brethren feels like an attempt to sort of propagate white privilege downward.
Of course, the distinction I’ve just made seems to presume that a disadvantaged white person is less disadvantaged than a disadvantaged black person. And in one way that seems right. That’s because whatever other economic or social disadvantage the white person may have, he’s at least not racially disadvantaged.
Now I suppose that one could say that it’s quite a stretch to say that some sort of racial privilege is associated with being poor, white and undereducated in America in the 21st century. That might have been true in the bad old Jim Crow days of “colored” restrooms in gas stations and the like. In those days, racism offered every white person a chance to feel racially superior to every black person, no matter how educated or well off the black person was in comparison with the white person. But those days seem to be gone. And they seem to be gone at least partly because the global economy is grinding down our working class, black and white, without regard to racial differences. When it comes to that, we’re all in that struggle together. At any rate, no left-over sense of racial privilege is likely to provide the battered white working class very much comfort in the face of the stiff downdraft of globalism.
Perhaps if you start thinking this way, racial solidarity – in particular, black solidarity -- can seem a far less urgent thing than it once was. Why shouldn’t we care more about achieving economic equality and justice for all, without regard to race? Why don’t we just leave racial solidarity aside as an irrelevant relic of a by gone racialized past.
I wish it were that easy. I really do. But I don’t think it is. This is not to deny the importance, even the overriding importance, of the ideal of economic equality and justice for all. I definitely feel a deep sense of national solidarity with my fellow Americans who have been sucked into the downdraft of globalism. But why can’t I have it both ways. Why can’t, for example, national solidarity with my fellow countrymen exist along side black solidarity? Racial solidarity surely isn’t the only form of solidarity worth caring about. But it is one form of solidarity worth caring about.
Of course, this makes things immensely more complicated, doesn’t it? What happens when different forms of solidarity pull you in different directions? Which form of solidarity is more important and why? These are hard and important questions. And I hope we can make some progress toward answering them during the episode. Give a listen and see if we do!