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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 score somehow.

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 life.

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 autonomy.

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 anyway.

Robert M. Price


Copyright©2004 by Robert M Price
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