Some friends recently invited me to the movies; they were going to see a documentary about James Baldwin, i.e. “I Am Not Your Negro“. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to join them, but their invitation got me interested in James Baldwin, the American writer and activist whose works were very much a part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (and who lived in France for much of his life). Not being familiar with his works, I looked Baldwin up on the web and watched some You Tube videos about him from the 60’s.
James Baldwin was certainly an interesting figure; one article said that he straddled the uncharted territory between MLK Jr and Malcolm X. He was a little too radical for MLK’s movement, given that some of his writings hinted at black violence against white society. And yet he never embraced separationism as with Malcolm or Bobby Seale or Stokely Carmichael (who coined the term “Black Power”). Baldwin most definitely rejected the “moral authority” of Euro-Western Civilization, saying that the white man has nothing the black man should want except power. And yet, Baldwin talked about the need for compassion and a broader perspective regarding collective truths, both on the part of whites and blacks. Baldwin did not totally write off the ability of white society to acknowledge its wrongs and change, even if he wasn’t terribly optimistic about it. In a nutshell, James Baldwin was a complex and compelling figure, well spoken and well written.
The video that most intrigued me was a 1965 debate at the Cambridge Univ Student Union (in England) between Baldwin and conservative writer William F. Buckley. The debate was very formal and proper, very British. The proposition being debated was “Has the American Dream Been Achieved At the Expense of the American Negro”. Spoiler alert, a ballot of the students who attended the debate was taken, and Baldwin was the clear winner.
Starting point: They don’t debate like this anymore, this was something from a different time. No one had heard of Donald Trump yet. Baldwin and Buckley are extremely erudite and eloquent; there are no interruptions (actually there was one against Buckley), and there are no ad hominem attacks. Baldwin does not say much about Buckley, mostly addressing himself to “the white man” or to white society in general. By contrast, Buckley does talk directly about Baldwin, but mostly about his writings and ideas, not about his character.
Most of the recent comments on YouTube about Buckley are very negative, and it’s fashionable today to condemn him as implicitly racist. Here is Ta-Nehisi Coate’s little put-down. But given that I have some regard for intelligent conservatives (while admitting that intellectual conservatism does not translate very well into real-world politics, just as academic Marxism never seemed to work right despite its intellectual appeal), I will offer some apologies and an attempted apologia for what Buckley says.
First, regarding apologies — Buckley’s white-privilege “social presumptions” are very clearly on display when he says that he needs to address Baldwin “as if he were a white man”. He then clarifies his point, saying that the debate should proceed as if Baldwin’s skin color did not matter. The second proposition is defensible, while the first proposition shows that white skin is automatically assumed to be “colorless” by Buckley. Obviously, black skin requires some intellectual bleaching to make it so. Sure, Buckley is steeped in white privilege, in assuming that white traditions set the standard. But please remember that this is 1965.
Another apology for Buckley — he totally misses the point about giving blacks voting rights in Mississippi (as Mr. Coates points out). Buckley tries to deflect the matter with a strange comment that “the problem isn’t that too few blacks vote are allowed to vote in Mississippi, the problem is that too many whites are allowed to vote”. Buckley is trying to hide behind an academic red herring — i.e., that whites sometimes use their voting power to elect terrible candidates. But my goodness, at least give Bill Buckley some points for prophecy relative to November 2016!!!!!
Buckley does points out that some of the political leaders selected in places where the black vote is predominant, did not always turn out to be admirable public leaders and servants, e.g. Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell. This is defensible from an ACADEMIC perspective, but it totally ignores the main point, which regards the denial of basic human dignity in curbing black voting rights. Buckley is even more guilty of this given that at other places in his talk, he acknowledges Baldwin’s point that racism and segregation have robbed “the Negro” of basic human dignity.
Buckley recognizes (on an intellectual level, but obviously not on an emotional / empathetic level) that denying a person’s humanity because of his skin color is a very bad and harmful thing. And yet, he doesn’t have the decency to just stipulate the point about denial of voting rights; he tries to offer the bogus defense that “it’s more complicated than just granting blanket rights”. My apology for Mr. Buckley here, he loses points on this.
BUT . . . . in general, Buckley is NOT trying to defend overt racism. He implicitly acknowledges the need for legal equality, for equal rights before the law. And given that this is 1965, Buckley is doing just about as well as most other progressive whites at the time. In a sense, Buckley is trying to defend a different definition of “The American Dream” than the one that Baldwin indicts. If you think of “The American Dream” in terms of materialist progress, then surely the notion that American prosperity was built upon the heinous exploitation of African slaves brought to America along with their future generations cannot be denied. That’s the fact.
Buckley seems to be focusing instead on societal and civilization values in his definition. He is saying that ‘The American Dream’ is more than prosperity, although prosperity clearly contributes to the higher ideals that America allegedly stands behind (and vice versa, perhaps). He is talking about western civilization and the Enlightenment and the Anglo principals of constitutional government and rule of law. Buckley admits that the system has its flaws, the exploitation of blacks (and Native Americans) for hundreds of years being one of the most obvious examples. But he then takes the conservative tactic of looking at the bigger picture — i.e., who has had a better idea through the course of history? What nation right now has a better system?
America is certainly very imperfect, but over time it has become more enlightened. It has (too slowly) recognized its faults, but eventually has acted to correct them. Yes, those corrections are too slow, but what other sustainable and realistic system for governance is faster? Socialist communism in Russia and China was certainly not a beacon of rights for all races and creeds and beliefs.
Buckley is in effect admitting to Baldwin that white American society has raped and beat your people . . . but more and more we are seeing the wrong in that, and we are doing it less often, and maybe we are even trying to get you to a better place. Are the Russians gonna give you a better deal? The Chinese? Would you and your kids live better by going back to Africa? Or do you stick it out with the USA and all its wealth, point out its hypocrisy regarding how you’ve been treated, and call “the American Dream” to a higher realization of its core values and beliefs — by allowing blacks and people of all colors and backgrounds to share more equitably in our big pot of wealth and privilege?
(Oh, another apology for Buckley — at one point he tries to minimize the truth that American prosperity benefited greatly from black exploitation, by saying in effect that “it wasn’t all black sweat that made the nation prosperous, there was a lot of white sweat in it too”. A true point, and perhaps valuable in putting things into perspective — but still, for the most part, black sweat was obtained through violence and exploitation, whereas most of the white sweat came through normal economic free-market interactions.)
Buckley obviously contends that even if all of the options aren’t fair or desirable, “the Negro” will still do better by remaining within the American system and continuing to agitate for more rights and economic fairness. Buckley says that he has faith that the system will ultimately respond and change, even if it doesn’t seem to be doing so fast enough.
Conservatism has a somewhat dark view of humanity, it presumes imperfection and difficulty in large-scale human cooperation. The older I get, the more I agree (although I try to hold out hope). But conservatism, although realistic, is not fatalistic; it says that even with all these human limitations, there are some things that eventually will help the causes of human freedom and equality. But just don’t get your hopes up that progress will be quick. The faster and more radical that you try to make it, the more bollixed up things often become on the political level. I.e., what Bernie Sanders says today sounds great, but in the end it will just make things worse.
One more interesting point — notice that Buckley wanders off into the “culture” versus “structure” argument (as Mr. Coates notes, with modern disdain). Obviously, no card-carrying progressive today would DARE mention the culture issue in discussing racial questions. But, as Dr. William J. Wilson points out in his works, the culture factor cannot be ignored when addressing the disadvantaged low-income minority communities, even though culture cannot be used as a way to blame the victim. Wilson says that the liberal tendency to ignore negative cultural adaptions in low-income communities (so as to appear to be respectful of minorities and focus on radical solutions) ultimately impedes the effort to understand and find effective ways to better these communities. Dr. John McWhorter, another modern black academician, seems to support an even more robust view on the importance of culture to African-American poverty than Wilson does.
Nonetheless, I would concur with Wilson that most if not all of the cultural hindrances to progress within low-income African-American communities are in fact long-term rational adaptations to the racism and segregation that their people have experienced in the past (and the present, e.g. on-going although sporadic police brutality incidents, and more frequent policing indignities e.g. what Dr. Henry Louis Gates suffered on his front porch). Their origins stem from the racial oppression and lack of opportunity that blacks have suffered in the past. But despite their connection to structural oppression, these cultural practices (e.g. limited adult support for childrens’ school achievement, high pregnancy rates amidst teens and unmarried women, criminal violence, peer pressure against students who strive for advancement, substance abuse, family instability, shortage of male role-models, disfavor of regular service-economy jobs versus ‘getting by’ thru undocumented work and criminal activity), are real, self-perpetuating, and ultimately counter-productive. Ta-Nehisi Coates notwithstanding, they must be addressed.
And Buckley does address them, but admittedly, not in an adequately sensitive manner. He could get away with what he said back in 1965, but could not do so today unless safely in the company of other conservatives, say on Breitbart. (But again, that in itself is part of the problem, per Dr. Wilson — not talking about low-income culture is almost as bad as talking too perfunctorily about it, as conservatives do on Breitbart). Buckley’s most interesting point is that in 1900, there were about 3,500 negro physicians, whereas in 1960, the number had only grown to 3,900. That’s about an 11% increase, whereas the black population grew by about 125% (more than doubled) between 1900 and 1960.
Cultural impediments to achievement are certainly a part of that huge achievement gap; it does not reasonably seem attributable solely ongoing racist structural barriers. Perhaps the number of black doctors would not have kept up with population increases simply because of racial structural impediments. But you might have expected better than 11%, given the large number of blacks who served in WW2, who gained experience as medics, and who had the GI Bill available for educational advancement. (“Though blacks encountered many obstacles in their pursuit of G.I. benefits, the bill greatly expanded the population of African Americans attending college and graduate school”, per Wikipedia).
Buckley compares this with the experience of immigrant Jewish communities, who in those decades saw an enormous increase in the number of doctors, despite the social impediments that Jews faced. OF COURSE, blacks faced far worse impediments. But Buckley points out that by the time of this debate, many universities had been trying for some time to recruit more blacks and provide financial assistance. Progress clearly had been made because of that, but it was not filtering through at the highest levels of educational achievement, as with the Jewish community.
In sum, Buckley makes a prima facie case that not every injustice suffered by the black community was a DIRECT result of white oppression, that certain amounts of Black suffering relates to self-inflicted wounds stemming from on-going cultural patterns which impede achievement. BUT, Buckley’s point is ultimately facile, as Wilson would point out, given that many of these cultural patterns stem from earlier oppression; they are normal human adaptations and not signs of moral inferiority.
So, I give Buckley credit for bringing up culture, but he ultimately must lose points for implying that blacks have to take some of the blame for what they have suffered at the expense of the American Dream. He should have instead tried to pivot his discussion about culture to how the American Dream, in its better sense, can help to un-do these cultural hindrances through increasing incentives for economic betterment via a growing market-based economy and “a mobile society”, as Buckley calls it.
Then there are Buckley’s “fighting words”, his threat to stand up for western civilization and the American constitutional government should it be attacked by black groups seeking violent means to achieve justice. He argues that he would fight a black insurrection for the same reason he would fight the Nazi’s, i.e. for the sake of white Anglo civilization AND for the sake of the attackers in their errors. He obviously believes strongly in this “greater American Dream” and is idealistic about its ultimate power to bring justice to all, even to those it has previously oppressed, given the “long arc of history” toward betterment.
OK, this is a tough sell; but then again, his back-up question is still cogent — i.e., has history shown there to be any system that has been proven to work better amidst the real world of humans, such as they truly are?
And a final point from today’s perspective — in a way, Buckley’s legitimate concern about black-white warfare shows that we have made racial progress in America in the past 50 years. As I said, Baldwin did flirt a bit with the notion of black nationalism through violent revolution, although he never really embraced it. Back in 1965, that idea was real, and many radical activists were espousing both separatism and violence. Today, the most radical thing that the black community is espousing is reparations from whites, e.g. Ta-Nehisi Coates once again.
There probably are still some violent militants out there, but they aren’t very prominent. I believe that this is a good thing, very hopeful. In a way, it says that blacks have pretty much accepted that they are going to remain a part of the American system, they aren’t going to start a revolution for a new system, they are stuck with whites. Most of the radicals still want to change America; Black Lives Matters has a whole manifesto envisioning a more socialist America, not that far from what Bernie Sanders might envision, but with reparations to blacks.
If that is the worst that they can do, if that is Black America at its angriest, then something has changed since 1965. The militants may want a different America, and a whole lot of whites may not accept what they envision (those people have become the Trump reactionary force, beware the backlash). But even the more radical blacks like Coates still ultimately envision a united America with racial integration. And even a moderate like myself who respects some aspects of conservative thinking believes that reparation is a legitimate need, albeit a very complex issue that will take a long time to reach a fair and acceptable political solution.
I do agree that white American should accept the invitation to “enter into a conversation” over reparations, so long as white interests are allowed to bring legitimate counter-points into the discussion, and so long as the ultimate solution would not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs through economic disruption. The reparation process must assume that both whites and blacks are open to dialectic and learning. Unfortunately, Trump’s election shows that a lot of whites today (probably a small majority, unfortunately) would NOT accept the invitation to start the process, even if that process were to be a careful dialectic open to all supported arguments. But I honestly believe that a William F. Buckley might have come around eventually to taking that invitation.
PS, I hardly said anything about Baldwin’s talk. That’s because there is no need to. Mr. Baldwin doesn’t need this blog writer defend him or what he said. His words stand in their stark truth and eloquence. The standing ovation at Cambridge was clearly deserved. The much more complex task is to address the question, “where do we go from here” following the raw truths that Baldwin presents. Buckley made some halting starts in that direction, but with some dead-end wrong turns. I know that a lot of modern progressives are more sympathetic to what a Bernie Sanders or Keith Ellison (or both) might propose in this regard, but I myself would like to consider a variety of pathways, that integrate some of the better things that a William F. Buckley might have proposed.