“...the Black struggle for status and recognition on capitalist terms will produce more absurdity, brutality, and deformities...”
In 1957, E. Franlin Frazier could not have anticipated the opportunity for a Black man to be the chief executive of the American empire. But H. Rap Brown (later Imam Jamil Al-Amin) in 1968 did. Following the unfolding trajectory of Frazier’s and Malcolm’s philosophies he boldly rejected this future proposition that should a person of color be elected president it would fulfill the revolutionary content of Black Power criticism. For Brown/Al-Amin, a black face in this high place augmented and sustained the military industrial complex. Obama’s election proved his analysis prophetic.
Black consciousness is frequently offered as a type of password for credibility today. During the Age of Obama, a consensus emerged, despite the rebellion of individuals and small groups, that almost any type of “Black power” that collaborated with police murder and conquered oppressed nations abroad was acceptable. President Obama was widely heralded as “bringing black manhood back” by those who internalized the assassination of the Black male image as bestial and beyond responsibility. This disposition saw the Ferguson and Baltimore rebellions as embarrassing. Some were inoculated against Obama by the genealogy stemming from Frazier’s thoughts; many who had read Frazier, once appreciating his insights, found a way to give critical support to Obama. Perhaps psychoanalysis is not the best means for exposing the most contemporary manifestation of the Black political class.
Still, we can be sure that the Black struggle for status and recognition on capitalist terms will produce more absurdity, brutality, and deformities. We must advance beyond Frazier, the native of Baltimore, so we do not pose terms for reconstituting some “progressive” Black political class, and pave the way for everyday Black toilers to hold the reins of community formation. The Black unemployed and street force are not merely human. They are central to building and governing the new society. This is what is missing in the contemporary critique of respectability politics that discards the Black professionals, and by sleight of hand, brings them back in.
This renewal of the critique of the Black misleadership class was what was missing in most analyzes of the Ferguson and Baltimore rebellions. In fact Ferguson, a rebellion against a local white power structure in Missouri, with insufficient diversity in high places, was used by Black Lives Matter activists to obscure Baltimore’s rebellion against a local Black power structure that had found equal opportunity to enter the rules of hierarchy.
The origins of “Black Lives Matter” was a creation of the Democratic Party, its loyal trade union hierarchy, non-profit foundation apparatus, and a couple of professors with social criticism. Black Lives Matter misled Black rebellion and minimized insurgency in an election year. It was inserted into, and did not cultivate, the mass rebellion against police brutality.
The very slogan “Black Lives Matter” – quiet as it is kept -- includes the lives of the Black mis-leadership class. This raises a conflicting tendency: the white racial state may shoot the Black misleaders as well; the more ethnically plural multi-cultural state uses the Black political class to suppress Black popular uprisings against the police. The Movement for Black Lives platform, projections of a broader coalition, proposed legislation at the local, state, or federal levels and suggested that somehow the racial capitalist state could divest from policing and mass incarceration through lobbying certain politicians. A cut in military expenditures was proposed – apparently the imperial military has some certifiable use. Some deemed this a “socialist” platform. Apparently, there is a sector of the racial capitalist class and institutional racism that can be persuaded to invest in Black people’s health and well-being. The Rockefellers and Fords have always been for “social justice,” when not exploiting Black labor, and they always manage to find activists time and again who don’t mind being compensated for fighting for Black community control.
The response to Ferguson and Baltimore by many peculiar activists was as if Bayard Rustin rose from the dead in response to the Black Panthers of the past, to call for a shift “from protest to politics,” drawing closer to the state and making it our friend just when it appeared to be discredited y the initiative of insurgent Black masses. Still proposals for, and even the achievement of reforms, expose contradictions in the system, can advance discussion, and if won can make lives better.
In Baltimore of April-May 2015, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, a Black woman mayor with a Black police chief, three Black killer cops (working with three white ones), a Black woman attorney general at both the state and federal level, and a Black president teamed up to keep the Black working class, unemployed and street force down after the Baltimore rebellion in response to the killing of Freddie Gray. Even the National Guard charged with putting down the rebellion against police impunity fielded a black female spokesperson.
“...Today, certain people of color (and women) are actually indispensable to the maintenance of white supremacy and capitalist empire. Not simply a middle class phenomenon, they are constituent elements of the ruling class...”
All of these figures were part of the Democratic Party structure that appeared to uphold some things called civil rights and diversity. They were not marginal tokens but part of years of opportunist networking for personal advancement. Some may have begun with, and still maintain, a retrograde conception of Black Power. The foundation paid anti-police brutality activists were only enemies of the white racial state, not of the Black political class. The much-heralded gender and queer identities of some Black Lives Matter activists, were not subversive enough to question the Rawlings-Blake regime, led by a woman of color.
Rawlings-Blake, who of course was “sorry” as all statesmen are when their regimes are discredited, did not have to be socially rehabilitated before deployment as an “ethical” person to cover up the undemocratic practices led by Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The Hillary Clinton machine that Black Lives Matter lobbied, and who chanted their slogan at their convention dedicated to hierarchical politics, repressed Senator Bernie Sanders, a socialist for American empire. Now the Democrats will be deploying the Black Lives Matter brand with foundation paid activists for an “electoral justice” campaign. Earlier this year a manifestation of Black Lives Matter collaborated with One United Bank to pitch a credit card with black power fists and an image of a young brother with a hoodie and a peace sign.
Today, certain people of color (and women) are actually indispensable to the maintenance of white supremacy and capitalist empire. Not simply a middle class phenomenon, they are constituent elements of the ruling class. These members of the Black bourgeoisie don’t beling to the ruling class because of their superior wealth. Few are Bill Cosby, Oprah, Magic Johnson, or Michael Jordan. Still, Black capitalists have more wealth than ever before through collaboration with multi-national capital. When we see the Black bourgeoisie narrowly as a middle class, looking at data suggesting Black working families’ wealth has been declining in recent years, our analysis is missing something. The radical tradition that Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie began was not about chronicling the obstacles to sustainable development of poor Black families under racial capitalism but critiquing those that justified the search for personal prosperity under racial capitalism as communal advancement.
Nevertheless, most contemporary manifestations of Black cultural capital (being “black,” Black identity) place the heritage of the oppressed in the service of redeeming institutional racism and the soul of the American empire. While it is true that recently a FBI report suggested “Black identity activists” are a danger to the system, it cannot be dismissed that many such activists also work with the government, its electoral politics, and half the ruling class.
The “Black identity activists” that shot the police in Dallas and Baton Rouge in July 2016, in defense of the Black community, were not the foundation paid ones that get out the vote. They didn’t oppose Black politicians and Black police who collaborate with capitalists responsible for keeping down the Black masses. Black financial capital is miniscule. It’s Black cultural capital which has enabled certain Blacks to become not mere tokens but indispensable members of the American ruling class.
Black bodies will always be placed under surveillance by the white racial state. When will Black “activists” stop working for the multi-cultural state or the affirmative action empire that also scars, mutilates, and kills at home and abroad with the sedatives of Black humanism and culture?
Some readers of E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie (1957) may think this goes too far. But re-reading this classic of the Black radical tradition in 2017 requires some bold leaps as we are mindful that we must establish our own legacy, not Black capitalist politics and development, as we engage with E. Franklin Frazier’s archive of notions that were far ahead of their time, and try to develop our own ideas anticipating new victories.
Dr. Matthew Quest is a scholar of the legacies of C.L.R. James. See his most recent publication, “New Beginning Movement: Coordinating Council of Revolutionary Alternatives for Trinidad and the Caribbean,” In Ideology, Regionalism, and Society in Caribbean History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)