Where's a Black
Panther When You Need One?
Are human beings as worthless as
Bill Cosby thinks they are? I have always regarded dear old "Cos" as one
of the great naked emperors of our time (I recommend Mark Crispin Miller's
essay "Cosby Knows Best" in Miller's collection Boxed In: The Culture
of TV), and his unbelievably inappropriate words on the night of the
recent California rioting just confirmed me in my suspicions.
On another channel a black scholar
on the staff of a public policy center noted that upwardly mobile African
Americans ought to let themselves become more conspicuous, letting white
America see that what we have here is really a class problem, not a race
problem, since there are black folks who identify with the same mores and
values as middle class white folks.
But then you turn the channel and
behold the venerable, beloved, and certainly much richer than middle-class
Dr. Cosby Ed.D. defending the L.A. looters, pointing
out that even a mink-draped white lady would scarcely be up to resisting
the temptation of lifting an extra diamond ring
should she be walking down the street and happen to notice a broken
jeweler's window and goodies free for the stealing. So rich or poor, black
or white, we're all looters at heart! I could just hear the strains of "We
Are the World" wafting up on the soundtrack.
I suspect that what touched off the
rioting was a class problem. Furthermore, if I can play the game of
more anti-racist than thou, I wonder if it is not racist to suggest that
it is a race problem! It would be very interesting to get a demographic
profile of the looters, both as to race and as to class. We know it was
multicultural looting, not just black, so to say looting reveals the depth
of the race problem in America is to perpetuate the stereotype of
blacks as criminals.
But I wonder what percentage of the
looters were not even poor. It is not revolutionary rage that I
see expressed in a carnival atmosphere of looting. It is obvious that a
lot of people took the Rodney King verdict simply as the starting gun for
an extended round of Supermarket Sweep.
But here I will agree with Dr.
Huxtable: the rioting did reveal something quintessentially American: it
was a night of unbridled consumerism. Not only that. Why did some black
and His panic looters torch the thriving stores of their more successful
rival immigrants, the Koreans? Simple envy? Or rather negative capitalism:
reduce the successful competitor by burning him out of the market.
Hands-on industrial espionage. As American as apple pie.
But why were black-owned businesses
torched, too? It is as if unsuccessful blacks sought to punish successful
blacks in their own neighborhoods for succeeding too well. During the war
against Iraq, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and others denied that General
Powell should be held aloft as a model for African American youth. Why?
Because he had succeeded? Where would be the logic in this? There is
indeed a kind of logic to it. It is the logic of "limited good."
Historically in peasant societies
where there is chronic shortage, either because of natural environment or
due to exorbitant taxation by a colonial government,
people operate on the assumption that the amount of goods is finite and
can only be redistributed and exchanged, not increased. Many behaviors
stem from this. One strives to maintain whatever goods one has inherited,
but not to increase them. Or if one does decide to increase them, one is
trading the intangible good of honor for the tangible
material goods one covets. This is because your assumption and that of
your neighbors will be that you can have enriched yourself only at the
expense of someone else. Your gain implies someone else's loss. Thus the
assumption in Luke 6: 24-25 that the wealthy are automatically wicked.
They must have impoverished others to get where they are.
In a society of limited goods one
carefully avoids succeeding too conspicuously or too well, lest one invite
the resentment of others who will hasten to help Dame Fortune even the
I imagine that our urban ghettos
are "limited good" societies existing as insular pockets within the larger
American society in which different assumptions prevail, where capitalism
is affirmed (as it is everywhere today, even in the People's Republic of
China, though they insist on using orthodox euphemisms for the C word).
More affluent Americans believe that goods are unlimited, that capitalism
can expand the pie, create new wealth.
Indeed the current downturn,
apparently slowly starting to upturn, is a cause of popular resentment
precisely because we believe that it is a failure of the system that some
new economic plan by techno-wizard Clinton or Bush might fix. The rest of
us are distressed to see motion toward a limited good society because we
firmly believe it need not be that way. It is not our creed. It is not
what we believe to be the normal state of things. So we still rejoice at
the success of others. We just wish it would happen to us, too.
But what is for us the exception is
the rule in the ghetto. Why does the limited good model prevail there, as
it does usually only in peasant colonial societies? Because as Stokely
Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton argued in their 1967 book Black
Power, The Politics of Liberation in America, the ghetto is an
intra-American system of colonies, an economic Gulag Archipelago, like the
South African Bantustans and Bidonvilles.
In them we see Third World peoples,
"the wretched of the earth" (Franz Fanon), stuck in patterns of economic
exploitation. Prices are higher in their stores which are usually not
owned by them. Maybe prices have to be higher because of pilfering and
higher security costs in the neighborhood, but that's a different point.
This is not a question of blame, but rather one of structure.
Law is enforced by people from
outside the ghetto, outside the colony. Within the colony-ghetto prevails
a climate of anomie, a state of cultural-social disorientation
because of the cutting off of the inhabitants from their accustomed way of
In many cases black and Mexican
immigrants to the cities have left poverty at home (Alabama, Mexico City)
for poverty in an alien culture in the ghetto. Since advancement is not a
live option, they turn to self-destructive pursuits. Like the Native
Americans (or as they prefer to be called, American Indians -- to call
them Native Americans because we think it sounds more politically
correct is like well-meaning white liberals insisting you call Africans
"Negroes") their culture goes pathological because they are isolated on
"reservations," wrenched from anything like their cultural heritage.
Welfare fosters patterns of
dependency on the government and ought to be seen as the equivalent of the
old Roman bread and circuses, or better yet, the opiate of the people, to
use the words of one no longer popular theoretician. The "missing male"
syndrome in ghetto families comes about because the male is given two
options economically: he can either go to work in a menial job and not
make as much as welfare would pay his family if he weren't there (think of
the choice facing the title character in the film Accatone: be a
pimp or prostitute himself in a "respect able" job that pays him pennies
for breaking his back). Or he can sell drugs.
Both options are fatal in a culture
where one of the most important "limited goods" is honor. Not to be able
to support your family as well as a hand-out from the Man is the ultimate
shame, a choice often fled. But to sell drugs (unwittingly sanitized
by white euphemists as "substances") to kids is scarcely less shameful, so
shameful in fact that the only way to live with oneself is to
nihilistically convert shame into honor. Gang war and drug traffic become,
horribly (can't you just see me wringing my lily-white hands?) the marks
of a new demonic macho. King of the hill = king of the hell.
So anomie, drifting lawlessness,
prevails. As in Nietzsche's madman parable, the earth has become unchained
from the sun and drifts freely and dangerously. And thus what the
astonishing Rodney King verdict issues in is not revolutionary violence,
at least not exactly, but rather short-sighted, self-serving chaos.
"Don't these people know they're destroying their own neighborhoods?" Sure
they know it, but what have they got to lose? And since goods are limited
the store owners must have prospered at their
expense, so the goods on the shelves rightly belong to the looters anyway.
If the Los Angeles riots are just
over as I write, the birthday of Malcolm X is coming up (May 19, if you
want to make arrangements with the caterer). And that puts me in mind of
some steps toward a solution. Malcolm was not charmed by the
will-o'-the-wisp of segregation. As a member of Prophet Elijah Muhammad's
Nation of Islam, he had seen genuine results when black people had taken
responsibility for their own neighborhoods by setting up an autonomous
economic structure, for instance fish mongers who sold a product ritually
clean by the Nation's standards. He saw what the
power of revolutionary doctrine could do to make a man kick drugs. And he
knew it had to be done for black people by black people. I think this was
the heart of his doctrine of separatism.
Let me suggest a couple of ideas
that I have not heard from Cosby or the pundits yet. I would like to see
ghetto churches (long the guardians of ghetto conscience anyway -- see E.
Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America
/ C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Church Since Frazier) be invited by
the government, with money to back it up, to set up a system of
kibbutz-like day care communities in concert with job training and
parenting classes for single mothers.
I would like the see the great
inertia machine in Washing ton finally take some time off from
check-kiting and speech-making before the camera in an empty Senate
chamber, and actually pass whatever needs to be passed to get some
inner-city enterprise zones set up (last time I heard, it was a bipartisan
initiative, so how hard should passage be?).
I would like to see the sort of
business-training peace corps initiative now being considered for Eastern
Europe directed also to ghetto America. We want to send loans to Russia to
jump start private enterprise there? I hope we do. But I also want to see
loans made to start businesses by ghetto people. Wouldn't it be in the
interests of American corporations to expand the market by creating more
viable (= affluent) consumers? Why don't they make the loans?
And now for my most radical
proposal. Ever notice there's not a Black Panther around when you need
one? Remember the Panther Party? They were organized
to prevent police brutality to ghetto blacks. They were not, despite white
media screaming, just a black urban gang, such as we have in profusion
today. It was an attempt to take responsibility for their own community
against the perceived threat against their people by the colonial forces,
white police. Where are they now?
If the urban ghetto is
something like an occupied colonial territory, and I think this is a
viable interpretation, then the outbreak of chaos we have seen in South
Central Los Angeles may be viewed as the beginning of an Intifada
here on American soil, like the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli
occupied zones. And if so, perhaps the answer is akin to that once
suggested by Malcolm X. Not separation of the races.
After all, they're already separated! At least the classes are. But
I do not believe that simply having
more black police officers will do the trick. Black
police officers will be perceived as turncoats, "good niggers," more
despicable than their white masters, pretty much like the publicans of
Jesus' day, who collaborated with the Romans against their own people.
At the risk of mau-mauing the
flack-catchers (or is it getting mau-maued myself? I forget which.) I am
suggesting that the Black Panther Party be reorganized and be recognized
as the official police force in certain areas. I
have a strong suspicion that the war against drugs would immediately
change character. I believe that the problem of black-on-black crime would
be dealt with quite differently with an indigenous ghetto police force,
fighting to protect their own turf and the future of their own youth. And
the very existence of such an autonomous authority in the ghetto would
immediately elevate the position of males in that society. Their honor
would be restored.
I am dead set against the notion of
racial quotas, but here I make an exception. I suggest that, in order to
avoid tragedies such as we have just seen in the aftermath of the Rodney
King case, there should be a jury quota system. In cases of white on white
or black on black crimes, let there be any mix of jurors. But in cases of
black on white or white on black crimes, let there be a mandated 50% black
jury. Only those more cynical than I will expect that in such cases there
would always be a jury deadlock, half and half. But if there were, we
would at least have learned something crucial about race in America that
we would need to know, and which there would be no other way of finding
out for sure.
One passage from James H. Cone's
Black Theology and Black Power has always stayed with me. Cone laments
certain theologians who "insist that theology as such is necessarily
unrelated to social upheaval. These men will continue as in a vacuum,
writing footnotes on the Aramaic substratum of Mark's Gospel or on the
authorship of the Theologia Germanica."
Well, I'm going back to my Markan
footnotes now, and after what I've said, you may wish I'd stayed there.
But I felt the recent chaos required a bit more than the usual "let's pray
for a brighter future" platitudes. It's always risky for us clergy to
speak out on matters where we have no particular training or expertise
(probably as much as Bill Cosby, though). But sometimes the hour demands
it of us. And as with every word from me, you can take it or leave it
Robert M. Price