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IN A 2005 COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS, Howard Zinn urged the graduates of Spelman College to look beyond conventional success and follow the tradition set by courageous rebels: “W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker.” At first, Zinn’s lineage feels like an omnium-gatherum. Compare Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” militarism to Marian Edelman’s milquetoast non-profit advocacy—“by any grant-writing or lobbying necessary”—and the incoherence stands out. But there is logic to Zinn’s cherry picking: namely, the flattening out of history to instill pride in one’s own identity. Du Bois and King may have belonged to radically divergent political tendencies, but what matters is their usefulness as role models, heroes in a continuous tradition of black resistance.
Ben Blumberg For the American Left in the first half the 20th century—commonly referred to as the “Old Left”— the task of advancing freedom entailed a thoroughgoing critique of the racist institutions in American society, a socioeconomic and historical analysis of their origins and contemporary function, as well as practical efforts to eradicate these structures. In other words, racism was the challenge faced by the American Old Left. However, to a large extent it evaded the very challenge it set for itself by accepting the characterization of the black population’s political situation as “the Negro problem.” Only the best of the Old Left pushed against this characterization. The New Left, seeking to overcome the Old Left’s shortcomings and receiving a great impulse from the demands of the Civil Rights movement to do so, would nevertheless come to reenact the previous generation’s failings. This brings forth an uncomfortable question: if Marxists in the United States were unable to meet the challenge of raising racism to the level of a transformable reality, then to what extent can we speak of an American tradition of Marxism—a Marxism adequate to the situation of American capitalism—at all?
IF THE COLOR LINE WAS THE PROBLEM of the American 20th century, then the 20th century did not manage to solve it. De jure segregation ended some forty years ago, and American social norms mostly bar the public expression of racist sentiment or stereotype. Yet by any measure—access to quality healthcare and education, rate of incarceration, etc.—black Americans remain proportionally worse off than their white peers.