The commodification of black bodies, once big business during the slave trade, and the cruelty and brutality associated with that condition lingers on today in a modified but obvious form. No longer is it the white mob eager to seize a black body, string it up, mutilate it, and drag in through the streets as a token of white supremacy; that job now rests with law enforcement who maintain the prescribed racial boundaries and can shoot, mutilate, and abuse black bodies under the protection of white policemen, white prosecutors, and white juries in spite of the presence of black public officials. The history of law enforcement in the United States has denied African Americans due process and equal protection, and so the agents of law enforcement have little legitimacy among African Americans in general. In fact, there has been a long history, extending back to World War I, of police precipitating riotous incidents and conspiring with white mobs to do violence against blacks. The “bad nigger” who formerly was punished and made an example for resisting his or her place is now “any nigger” who rouses white suspicion. This is the way white power is maintained.
There still remains among some whites, particularly but not exclusively Southern whites and especially white Republicans, the view expressed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney in the infamous Dred Scott case in 1857. Writing for the majority, Taney wrote that persons of African descent, whether slave or free, were not citizens and so not members of the sovereign people who founded the United States and “were at that time considered a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.” Hence, it is no aberration that Confederate memorabilia are flaunted in the face of blacks, or that some states are aggressively attempting to implement voter suppression laws aimed at restraining black voter participation, or that affirmative action programs are under attack and eliminated, or that police continue to assault black people with violent force all as a warning of who’s in charge and a threat not to forget their subordination and place under white dominance.
The Ferguson, Missouri incident involving a white policeman fatally shooting Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager and then avoiding prosecution, is just the most recent racially-tinged fatality that is played out too often, and without media attention, in many black communities across the nation. This issue not only showcased, once again, police mistreatment of an African American male and the disrespect and humiliation of an entire community, but it also highlighted the lack of racial diversity within the police department and governmental institutions, not only in Ferguson but in general. And so, this infers a correlation between a lack of racial diversity and African American social injustice which implies that if there were more “black faces in high places” these kinds of incidents would be few and far between.
The Misnomer of Black Faces in High Places
Now, there has been for some time a vibrant impulse among African Americans for what has been described as “a black face in high places.” And this type of thinking, especially as it regards black elected and public officials, is interpreted as a measure of racial progress and so assumes a reciprocal relationship between the number of “black faces in high places” and the empowerment of African Americans as a group. This assumption is predicated on the idea that racial integration or racial diversity will result in power sharing and a breakdown of racial stereotypes, racial prejudice, and racial discrimination—the supposed major barriers to black progress.
Therefore, with the election of Barack Obama as the first African American to serve as President of the United States, the highest and most powerful elected office, and the appointment of Eric Holder as the first African American to serve as Attorney General, the nation’s top lawyer and law enforcer, it was understandable that a significant portion of African Americans thought, and sincerely believed, that things were going to change, because the election of a black President and the appointment of a black Attorney General would be a game changer, that African American interests would take priority on the national political agenda. After all, the major barriers to black progress had been overcome—Obama and Holder were not the ‘stereotypical blacks’, and the election and appointment was proof of the decline in racial prejudice and discrimination or at least, as some thought, the beginning of a post-racial America.
However, now into his second term it is glaringly obvious that the election of Barack Obama as the first black President has brought little, if any, significant social, political, or economic progress as far as black communities and African Americans in general are concerned—and the Ferguson, Missouri incident epitomizes that. Far too many African Americans continue to experience high unemployment and incarceration rates, an expanding racial wealth gap, toxic land and shoddy housing, institutionalized segregation and racism, failing schools, minimal social services, over-policing and excessive police violence. Consequently, Obama has not panned out to be the black political hero many African Americans thought he would be. In fact, Obama has been relatively silent on racial issues and at times racially condescending choosing to shift the focus from group based issues to individual transformation. In this post-modern era many successful black people have adopted the cultural habits of the dominant society and are radically departing from a heritage of solidarity to community. Rather than change society the emphasis is placed on transforming the individual.
But, the fault lies, if we can attribute blame, precisely in this idea that “a black face in high places” makes a significant difference and that integration or racial diversity can solve the problems created by racial oppression. Now this does not mean that we should not have racial diversity or that the quality of life for African Americans, in general, has not profoundly improved from what it was pre-Civil Rights era. But the achievement of civil rights (although the gains have not been consistent and at times have shown erosion and reversal) did not introduce new social principles, or reorganize social life, or mean equality. The gains of the Civil Rights Movement proved to be quite compatible with the whiteness of the social order which remained intact while expanding black participation. Consequently, the Civil Rights Movement proved to be rebellious but not liberatory or revolutionary in the fundamental way that necessitates eradicating the social structures and institutions that reproduce white privilege, white hegemony, and white supremacy.
African American Infatuation with Integration
This can partly be explained by the general tendency among many African American leaders to uncritically accept the political ideologies, doctrines, and institutional forms of the Anglo-American political system—a system which cannot be expected to serve black interests without substantial readjustment. In general, the intentions of African American leadership have never been revolutionary towards the American social, economic, and political system; there is no evidence of a uniquely African American revolutionary ideology. African Americans have generally been socially driven toward full and equal participation in American society. Their desire has been acceptance by whites and unconditional recognition as Americans; they have striven toward integration and assimilation into mainstream American society. And, it is toward white opposition to this aspiration, not the fundamental structure of the socio-economic and political system, that many African Americans have continually addressed themselves. In general, African American leadership has opted for electioneering and lobbying as a means of integration with the larger American society but with a modicum of aggression and militancy that would incur white resentment.
Therefore, issues and incidents over race continue to reoccur because the social order and its institutions are designed to serve white interests. At the very birth of the American nation, the much romanticized American Revolution left bigotry and racism intact. The American political system is not open to fundamental change by legal means; although we no longer say the law is white, the law is the instrument of the white ruling-class. The law fortifies the existing order; it is not some abstraction that can be separated from the political foundation on which it is based or from the political interests that it serves. The U.S. Constitution was never conceived, written, amended, or interpreted to resolve America’s race problem. The Founding Fathers, framers of the U. S. Constitution, really conceived of an all-white nation; Africans in America as well as Native Americans were simply an adjunct casually written into the body politic as non-persons without civil and political rights. Consequently, the Constitutions’ various interpretations and judicial reinforcements have proven insufficient guarantees for economic, political, and social equality of African Americans.
The Black Administration of White Interests
White hegemony and supremacy depends on the clever manipulation of race; race is the critical link in white ruling-class domination; race has been the most potent ingredient in white ruling-class hegemony and has served as a buttress for the social, economic, and political status quo. Hence, the current social order cannot be expected to serve black interests. Simply putting a black face in these institutions will not fundamentally change the outcomes produced by these institutions. For example, the number of black elected and appointed officials have shown steady and substantial growth, and although still significantly underrepresented they have achieved an impressive share of high public office. However, this achievement has not significantly impacted African Americans in general, because as a group blacks still disproportionately lag behind whites on nearly every socio-economic indicator and continue to suffer the handicaps inflicted pre-Civil Rights era. Because the political system is designed to serve white interests, black political leadership cannot logically regard the office as an institution primarily in the service of black interests, and cannot reveal themselves as hostile to the major economic interests of the city, state, or nation. Although black elected officials can speak out, sometimes quite forcefully, on issues affecting African Americans, these officials do not control the policy agenda and are more accountable to the political party than to their black constituents. To survive, black elected and appointed officials must serve the interests of the white power structure. Therefore, they are unable to implement deep changes to the social structure or enact policies exclusively beneficial to the black masses and so become black administrators of white interests.
The rationale for this kind of behavior, which is counteractive to black interests, and explains why “black faces in high places” have little, if any, affect (other than psychological), rest with the fact that those African Americans who have achieved positions of importance, prestige, and power in American society have acquired the requisite cultural capital, which is Anglo-conformity or the acculturation of whiteness, that is essential to attaining such positions. The assimilated, acculturated African American has acquired cultural capital that provides a key to entering certain schools, universities, occupations, and social circles and the advantages and benefits that come with it. This cultural capital, which is sanctioned by whiteness, is the means for acquiring legitimate authority, but an authority which reproduces and maintains the standards and values of whiteness and so reconstitutes the structure of society and its system of white privilege, white hegemony, and white supremacy. African American success and social mobility requires accommodation to white hegemony—not necessarily “acting white” but performing white cultural norms in order to achieve conventionally defined success. To successfully negotiate white institutions, African Americans must have the kind of cultural capital whites agree is valuable. African Americans who have attained membership among the power elite therefore share the perspectives and interests reflective of their position among privileged elements and so are not threats to the power structure of America.
The Illusion of Individual Achievement
Therefore, those African Americans who have accepted the values and styles of white society and the white American ideal of individualism are in a dilemma. Individualism stands in the way of the common interests; it atomizes and segregates the black collective which nullifies their political influence and economic power. The illusion and futility of seeking escape and salvation through individual achievement and assimilation into the dominant white culture does not necessarily insulate African Americans from the contempt and harsh lot reserved for the so-called black race. No amount of wealth, skill, intellectual achievement, or athleticism will help any African American exorcise the disdain and racist arrogance of whites; and, no amount of moral, humanitarian pleading or protest will give them voice in the government that governs them. As observed by Harold Cruse nearly fifty years ago in his controversial Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, individual rights are predicated on the political, economic, and social power of the group, and blacks have few rights because they have very little political, economic, and social power. Because African Americans lack the economic independence and political clout to develop and sustain institutions entirely on their own, they do not control the quality or the character of socio-political institutions and the culture these institutions keep in existence. For this reason, these institutions produce racialized outcomes which place blacks at a disadvantage, which is institutional racism. Consequently, black life is defined by and serves the interests of the dominating influences of white, Anglo-American culture.
Race as an Issue of Power
Therefore, when we say incidents like that in Ferguson, Missouri are racially motivated, we are using race as an explanation. But race is not an explanation—neither is it the fundamental issue—and distracts from the actual causes of what we describe as racial incidents. Race is part of the white ideology for rationalizing white privilege and white supremacy. Race is not what subjugates black people; it is power. The currency for dignity and respect is power. White power facilitates white racism which then serves white power.
So, the race problem is not an issue about cultural deficiency, racial bias, or structural dislocation. The race problem is an issue of power. American society is organized into social classes, and race is a manifestation of social class, that is, social status—the individual’s position in the society; and, status determines one’s relationship to power, so problems of race are really problems that revolve around power. A person’s status is a direct reflection of his or her power in the world. How a person lives, where and in what condition he or she lives, how he or she will be reared and socialized, the extent of psychological suffering, the magnitude of political repression, the kind and severity of social adversity, the degree of social crisis, and the likelihood of social demoralization are issues that are concerned with power, or the lack thereof. Therefore, the kind of justice African Americans have sought through integration and racial diversity are only possible between genuine equals, and only power can accomplish this.
All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.
Ronald A. Kuykendall currently teaches Political Science at Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina. His research interests are in the areas of race and radical African American social and political thought. He is the author of Social Crisis and Social Demoralization: The Dynamics of Status in American Race Relations (2005); he has also contributed to the Journal of Black Studies, The Western Journal of Black Studies, Greenwood Encyclopedia of the Great Black Migration (2006), and a chapter in This Country Must Change: Essays on the Necessity of Revolution in the U.S.A. (2009).
- The Blueprint of Structural Inequality (mediadiversified.org)
- Michelle Obama: Black Woman in a White House (mediadiversified.org)