Most white people are unaware of the internal social history of blacks and what it means in the struggle for black leadership today. Throughout the Western Hemisphere, those blacks whose ancestors somehow became free during the era of slavery had a head start in economic and social development. So too did those who worked as house servants or in a few other special roles among slaves, for they absorbed more of the dominant culture than did field hands. The descendants of both special groups have historically been overrepresented among black leaders and among more prosperous blacks generally. Their descendants have also typically been lighter in complexion than other blacks, for their ancestors' closer association with whites took many forms.
Why is this history important today? Because the traditional light-skinned elite have found themselves increasingly challenged by rising members of the black masses. Generations of snobbishness by the lighter-skinned elite have left a legacy of hostility within the black community, which makes current issues difficult to resolve -- or even discuss rationally -- on their merits. Moveover, some members of the old elite have in recent times become converts to blackness -- and, like other converts, are often the most extreme. Just as religious converts sometimes become holier-than-thou, so these converts become blacker-than-thou.
Many of the giants of the black civil rights movement have been of this sort. W. E. B. DuBois, who helped found the NAACP, epitomized the militant black leader who was not only distant from but snobbish toward the people in whose name he spoke. DuBois grew up among educated whites in Massachusetts, and he and his white friends looked down on Irish working-class people. As a young man, DuBois had his first experience living among blacks, and he did not condescend to speak to the people in the barbershop where he had his hair cut. In his heyday as a civil rights leader, DuBois lived at 409 Edgecombe Avenue in New York -- then a stately apartment building with uniformed doormen and a separate (and by no means equal) entrance for the servants and delivery people through the basement.
No small part of the historic clash between the followers of DuBois and those of Booker T. Washington was that DuBois' followers were elite descendants of "free persons of color" and Booker T. Washington was "up from slavery." Despite much caricaturing of their political positions in recent years, their substantive differences on the issues of their times were small and almost trivial. Their agendas were the same, even when their priorities were different. Many other leaders in other groups have cooperated despite much larger political differences.
In our own time, Andrew Young has thundered from the left on all sorts of issues, and always from a militant stance of being blacker-than-thou. He is a descendant of the privileged elite of New Orleans -- historically, the most snobbish of the black elites. (Light-skinned jazz great Jelly Roll Morton was disowned by his Creole grandmother for associating with common Negroes.) Andrew Young's family has gone to college for generations, which is more than most white people can say. Young's primary concern has been to defend the image of blacks -- which is to say, to defend his own image in the white elite circles in which he moves. What happens to actual flesh-and-blood blacks seems never to have aroused the same fervor in Andrew Young. Though not a reticent man, he had relatively little to say when thousands of Africans were tortured and slaughtered by Idi Amin and other tyrants. He saved his outbursts for those who sullied the image of blacks.
Historically, the black elite has been preoccupied with symbolism rather than pragmatism. Like other human beings, they have been able to rationalize their special perspective and self-interest as the general good. Much of their demand for removing racial barriers was a demand that they be allowed to join the white elite and escape the black masses. It would be hard to understand the zeal and resources that went into the battle against restrictive covenants (at a period of history when most blacks were too poor to buy a house anywhere) without understanding that this was a way for the black elite to escape the black masses.
Whatever the crosscurrents of motivations that moved the civil rights establishment, there were areas of crying injustices -- Jim Crow laws and lynchings -- where they made historic contributions that should never be forgotten. The point here is that there is no reason to expect their agendas and priorities to permanently coincide with those of the black masses in whose name they speak. Public opinion polls make it painfully clear that the two sets of black opinions are often diametrically opposed.
Public opinion polls show that most blacks favor tougher treatment of criminals. The NAACP has gone in the opposite direction, following the lead of white middle-class liberals. Most blacks favor education vouchers that would give them a choice of where to send their children to school and some leverage in dealing with public school bureaucrats. The black "leadership" is totally opposed, for they have their own grand designs that could not be carried out if every black were free to make up his own mind. Central to the civil rights crusade is school busing -- which has never had majority support among blacks and which has even been opposed by local NAACP chapters. Job quotas are another civil rights organization crusade, but rejected by most blacks.
Black "leadership" in general does not depend on expressing the opinions of blacks but on having access to whites -- in the media, in politics and in philanthropy. Whites who have a limited time to give to the problems of blacks need a few familiar blacks they can turn to. The civil rights organizations provide that convenience. Confronted with the anomaly that black "spokesmen" regularly appear on television saying things directly opposite to black public opinion, a well-known newsman replied: "We can put Ben Hooks and Jesse Jackson on television, but we can't put the Gallup Poll on television."
For the moment, the conventional black leadership has a virtual monopoly on expressing what blacks are supposed to believe. But it is an insecure monopoly. It is vulnerable to exposure to the truth. And after years of being able to get by with a few cliches and charges of "racism" against its critics, the old conventional leadership is in no condition to conduct an intellectual battle over issues of substance. Smears and innuendoes are about all it has left. Some of those will be explored in a subsequent piece.