14 January 2006

Martin and Malcolm

The winners write history. The long weekend that government employees, bank employees and school children are enjoying at the moment is a testament to that fact. Martin Luther King Jr.'s agenda for race relations in the United States won the debate, as did his strategy of using non-violence and court action to achieve it. We may not yet have reached the promised land that he foresaw in the speech he gave to a crowd full of striking workers shortly before he was assassinated (King died on April 4, 1968 in Memphis), but his vision of that promised land, where a man is judged based upon the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, is now a very widely held ideal. In some respects he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Who would have guessed then that even segregationists like Jesse Helms would, a generation after that speech, be proclaiming the legitimacy of interracial marriage, "the social issue" that King had deliberately not emphasized because it was more controversial than his higher priority objectives like equality in public accommodations, governmental services and the work place.

No discussion of the Ying and Yang of race relations in the United States, however, would be complete without a mention of King's contemporary (assassinated in Harlem on February 21, 1965), Malcolm X. Where Martin spoke as a Christian minister, Malcolm advocated Islam and established many American mosques. Where Martin advocated racial equality and integration, Malcolm called for black separatism, black pride and black self-dependence. Where Martin insisted upon non-violence, Malcolm advocated the use of violence for self-protection, stating "Concerning non-violence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks."

Just as Nixon was condemned at the time he was in office for his corruption, despite the fact that in hindsight, his actions have been more positive than just about any other Republican President (appointing Justices who turned out to be moderates to the U.S. Supreme Court, establishing Medicaid, and taking an internationalist, detente oriented approach in foreign policy, particularly with China), Malcolm X has also faired rather better in retrospect than he did among the people who were choosing the winners and losers at the time.

Malcolm X's agenda really isn't so different from approaches advocated by both Zionists and American conservatives today.

Gun advocates routinely echo Malcolm X's arguments about the importance of a right to gun ownership to protect blacks who live in neighborhoods where police indifference leaves them prey to criminals, both disorganized and of the organized kind of KKK vigilantes who killed his father (although it bears noting that advocacy of violent self-defense notwithstanding, Malcolm X himself still died from gunfire in his prime). Now, as then, large majorities of urban blacks would prefer gun control to security through self-help, but, there is little doubt that Malcolm X's argument about violent self-defense is more widely held in black and white communities alike, than it was at the time. Police brutality may not be as bad now as it was then, but you have to ignore symptoms like riots in response to police killings of young black men in Cincinnati's Over The Rhine neighborhood, which are as tragic and common place as stampedes in Mecca during the Hajj to believe that this still isn't a problem.

Of course, the non-violence meme hasn't done very well in Israel either, where almost every able bodied man and woman serves in the military and owns an automatic weapon, and their approach to terrorism has long had retaliation as a center piece (in fairness, without a terribly notable record of success).

The self-dependence meme that Malcolm X proclaimed with tenacity later dominanted the "welfare reform" debate and won support as close to the center as Bill Clinton. And, one need look no further than the L.A. riots to observe the caustic consequences of communities where few merchants establish businesses at all and almost every shop that is in the neighborhood is owned by members of another ethnic group (no matter how little at fault they may be), to recognize that the problems Malcolm X sought to address didn't go away when society chose to focus on carrying out Martin's agenda instead of Malcolm's. Those problems have either been ignored, or declared insoluble.

Black pride is now called self-esteem building. Detractors would argue that a focus on racial identity has hurt young black school kids more than anyone, making the Uncle Tom taunt a powerful detriment to academic success, and with academic success, economic success. On the other hand, one can again point to Israel as an example of a nation built upon ethnic pride.

Islam has grown dramatically in the United States, but more through immigration than conversion (although a large share of conversions have been in the black community, notwithstanding the greater attention that has been received by high profile white converts like Cat Stevens). Islam, whether home grown or carried here from "the old country" as it used to be called when immigrants were low skilled Catholics from Southern Europe instead of well educated computer professionals and businessmen from the Middle East, still scares many Americans shitless at the gut level, although only the crass and politicians seeking a lowest common denominator admit it openly. But, while many fear Islam in the abstract, at the day to day level, you also hear non-members express a lot of respect for its emphasis on discipline in an age when many (not me) attribute civilization's failings to excessive permissiveness and lax self-control.

In short, while Martin's vision won the day in history and has largely run its course as far as public policy can take it, Malcolm's vision and the very different set of problems which he prioritized have not gone away. Instead, both the problems and the proposed solutions have quietly percolated and could emerge again, with different proponents, when circumstances seem favorable. Are they good ideas? It is hard to know, until we see them put into action. They have the potential to poison American life and harm everyone, but this doesn't mean that there isn't truth in his message which caught so much attention from so many, and which, pushed by a less angry proponent with a different spin and some nuanced distinctions, might have something to offer us now.

1 comment:

Villager said...

Malcolm X was born on May 19, 1925. This weekend we celebrate what would have been his 82nd birthday. Please join us on the Electronic Village and share your thoughts on this African American hero. Let your voice be heard. peace, Villager