Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A bad history lesson

The title pretty much said it all -- "A Speech Worthy of Booker T. Washington."

That was the name of a piece by Jonah Goldberg that was published last week in National Review Online concerning a speech that a Dr. Ben Carson, who is African-American, delivered at a recent National Prayer Breakfast. Goldberg likened the contrast to Carson and President Obama, who of course attended, to Washington, who worked and lived in the South; and W.E.B. Du Bois, who lived North.

"Washington believed that blacks should emphasize education and self-advancement and worry about integration later," Goldberg wrote, while "Du Bois favored a civil-rights-first strategy combined with reliance on technocrats, including what he called the 'talented tenth,' or the best African-Americans."

But if Goldberg were to consult any non-conservative African-Americans, especially in the South, he might understand why Du Bois eventually won out.

Because, at first, they actually did take Washington's advice. Even in the midst of Jim Crow, or perhaps because of it, the black community in the South, especially in urban areas, did indeed build its own infrastructure, with businesses and educational institutions and especially churches that defined the black experience in those days. Most Southern cities actually had their share of black millionaires.

Yet Goldberg and other conservatives consistently fail to note that African-Americans in those days weren't permitted to vote or otherwise participate in public life and that their lives might even be in danger if they found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Let's not forget why we saw the "Great Migration" from the South to Northern cities about 100 years ago. (It's why I live in Pittsburgh and not Virginia or North Carolina, where my ancestors came from.)

This is why Washington barely registers a footnote in contemporary black history -- he was seen as an "accommodationist" or "sellout," someone who maintained his own authority but failed to bring others to the table.

And, indirectly, it was Du Bois that actually helped to break down Southern segregation; he spearheaded the "Niagara Movement," which gave birth to the NAACP -- an organization that is still despised by many on the political right but whose membership generally comprised that day's black bourgeoisie. Although Martin Luther King Jr., who occasionally quoted Washington, provided the moral and spiritual muscle behind the civil-rights movement, the NAACP, driven functionally underground in several Southern states, provided the legal muscle. (Also recall that King received his master's and doctoral degrees from Northern institutions.)

Goldberg also fails to appreciate that African-Americans, even those in the North who didn't experience the political roadblocks of their Southern cousins, also need something to vote for, and Obama eventually became that reason. He may not like Obama's liberalism but doesn't recognize that by its very nature his conservatism is highly offensive to much of that community.

I would be remiss if I didn't challenge Goldberg's comment that Dr. Carson "inveighed against a culture of victimology and dependency," the context likening that to liberalism. Thing is, modern conservatism has from the start complained about being victimized by the likes of "evil liberals" and hostile media, among others, many of its apologists always bellyaching that they don't get respect while simultaneously trashing everyone in sight who doesn't agree with them. And I'd be willing to bet that, as a conservative writer, Goldberg is himself on "welfare" from rich conservatives who pay him a mint to serve as their propagandist. Did you know that, in its nearly-60-year existence, National Review has never made a dime of profit? (Indeed, the only conservative medium that to my knowledge is in the black is the Fox News Channel.)

It seems that Goldberg is trying to tell people that African-Americans need to choose between political empowerment and cultural integrity; however, if he understood the history of the civil-rights movement he would see that both were in play. For example, at the time of the Montgomery bus protest Rosa Parks was not the first choice for someone to rally around; the original symbol was a 15-year-old girl who had been abused by a driver -- until the community learned that she had gotten pregnant out of wedlock to a married man. Besides, maintaining "cultural integrity" in the post-Civil-War, pre-civil-rights South didn't mean that folks would eventually give you a chance as a human being.

This is why Dr. Carson's remarks simply didn't resonate in the black community. It's one thing to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps," but try doing that without any boots. And "getting boots" sometimes means political action, the last thing some folks want.


asutton said...

Did you listen to Dr. Carson's speech? Did you hear about his childhood? He had every opportunity to fail, but his young single mother straightened him and hhis brother out. Do you not find that inspiring?

BlueDeacon said...

No, I didn't listen to it and no, it wouldn't have inspired me at all because the context of the speech was ideologically oriented -- after all, that's why Goldberg wrote about it in the first place. Recall that Obama has a similar background which really has inspired people but most conservatives dismiss him, and you could say the same for thousands of African-Americans -- but none of them will do because they're not conservative.