For the moment, while the racial grievances of 2014 have chilled on the polar vortex, and no unarmed black teens have been shot by cops for a couple of weeks, it might be a good time to continue that honest discussion about race that the media nabobs — such as Charles Blow and Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times and Don Lemon of CNN — demand when some incendiary event goes down and tensions across the country become unbearable. That demand, of course, is a political booby-trap because any discussion not founded on the presumption of white malice is instantly deemed inadmissible and “racist” — which is just cheap demagogic despotism designed to shut down the very discussion they asked for. So that is exactly what I expect in response to this essay.
I bring these matters up because it seems to me that the long, arduous, costly battle for “civil rights” which began in my childhood a half century ago is beginning to look like a lost cause. The movies and TV are full of black / white buddy stories, and commercial images of a shared American experience as if there really was a common culture that blacks and whites felt an equal investment in. These stories and images are largely wishful, though I believe the dream of a common culture that would nurture all types of people in America stood at the heart of civil rights idealism of the sort represented by Martin Luther King and the white public figures who marched in solidarity with him.
Something went terribly wrong in the early going, and I don’t think there has ever been an honest discussion about it by American social thought leaders of any race, though I have raised the point more than once in passing. It was the paradoxical rise of black separatist politics at the exact historical moment of civil rights triumph when the two landmark civil rights bills were passed: the Public Accommodations Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Black separatism had been around since the late 19th century as a counterpoint to the earlier post-slavery idea represented by Booker T. Washington, which proposed that black earnestness would eventually be recognized by white America and rewarded, at least with economic participation. That idea was opposed by less patient, younger figures such as W.E.B Du Bois and Marcus Garvey who promoted what was then called “Pan-Africanism.” But the debate was superseded by the crises of the Great Depression and Second World War. By the early 1960s, black separatism had revived, personified first by Malcolm X (assassinated by rival Black Muslims, 1965), and the disillusioned former Freedom Rider Stokely Carmichael, who coined the slogan “black power,” and then by scores of public players and followers.
What I think happened is that the sudden prospect of true legal equality produced deep anxiety across black America, so that opting out provided a comfortable alternative. I saw it play out at my college in 1970 when the “militant” black students organization demanded a separate black student union. In the face of the civil rights acts passed only a few years earlier, this should have been regarded as a sort of outrage, but pusillanimous college administrators caved in and bought a house for that purpose. And of course the same thing happened all over the country, so that a new form of separate-but-equal was reestablished by popular demand.
That blunder by academic leaders set a tragic tone for the forty years that followed. To rationalize the new separate-but-equal ethos, these people of liberal good intentions constructed an elaborate ideology of “multiculturalism” and “diversity” that had the tragic unintended consequence of obliterating the foundational idea of a common culture that had animated the struggle Dr. King gave his life to, as well the basic notion of what it meant to be an American.
A common culture did exist in America before the 1960s, at least in terms of manners, standards of decent behavior, and even language. It was what allowed people of good will in the 20th century to believe in “one nation indivisible.” Hence, the question America needs to ask itself: do we have enough moral focus to revive the idea that a common culture actually matters? If not, expect unending strife.
Note: JHK’s 2015 Forecast is available now at this link: Forecast 2015 — Life in the Breakdown Lane
The new World Made By Hand novel
!! Is now available !!
“Kunstler skewers everything from kitsch to greed, prejudice, bloodshed, and brainwashing in this wily, funny, rip-roaring, and profoundly provocative page- turner, leaving no doubt that the prescriptive yet devilishly satiric A World Made by Hand series will continue.” — Booklist
Also: Published as an E-book for the first time!
The 20th Anniversary edition
With an entertaining new introduction by the author
Bargain Price $3.99