Despite predjudice against Hispanics, the World War II concentration camps for Japanese, the appalling treatment of other Asians earlier and continuing discrimination against American Indians, problems of race in the United States throughout our history have been primarily those involved in the determination of the role and status of persons who acknowledge descent from black African ancestors. One of the peculiarities of our continuing racial problem has been that assignment to the racial category of "black" (earlier "Negro") describes a sociological designation as well as a genetic condition.
A second peculiarity is the recurring designation of certain blacks as "black leaders" as the result of their advocacy of equality for black persons. A Roger Baldwin or a Hubert Humphrey who espouses similar goals for society is not designated as a "white leader" but as a "civil libertarian" and "political leader."
The celebrity resulting from being accepted as a black leader has led to sometimes ludicrous, always sad battles among blacks for the dubious distinction of being acknowledged as the "valid" leader or spokesman for black concerns.
The latest manifestation of this struggle over who can and should speak for black people, and who ought to be listened to in the articulation of issues of black concern, resurrects claims of serious antagonisms resulting from differences of color and class within the black community. These differences presumably disqualify persons at some undisclosed point on a racial spectrum from expressing valid opinions on racial issues. The first reaction to such use of South African apartheid concepts of racial gradations, combined with an exotic infusion of Marxist class warfare notions, is to dismiss them as silly. A pragmatic black community will do so, because its members understand that those who have been called "black leaders" are in fact trying to lead white people to end their discrimination against black persons, and that their success as leaders depends on their ability to devise strategies to change the behavior of the white majority.
Allegations that black persons who are not ebony-hued and who are part of the middle class cannot speak authoritatively on the needs of black people is intended as a signal to white people that they can ignore those who exercise their First Amendment rights of expression and protest if that expression comes from the grandchild of a college graduate or from a person who is caramel- or vanilla-colored. It is again open season on the black middle class.
Interestingly, in an American society founded on the notion of economic and social upward mobility, only descendants of black slaves are castigated by whites and blacks when they achieve middle- or upper-class status. Black persons who are middle class are likely to be sneered at if they express their concern for the achievement of equality for other blacks as well as for themselves, and if they do not. Imposition of a double standard of judgment of the middle-class black is especially apparent at this time, when the celebration of successful upward mobility is almost a tenet of the new administration.
The presence of second-, third-, fourth- and even fifth-generation middle-class blacks in leadership positions today is the result of the success of a conscious strategy of the black community. That strategy was to develop and nurture an educated group of black men and women who could give broadly based leadership as teachers, doctor, lawyers and artisans throughout this country. That some of this group as descended from blacks freed before the Civil War simply proves that those who start a head start. The vast majority of the white leaders of this country are second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-generation members of the middle class. Significant numbers of the members of the black middle class, at least in this century, have been brought up to believe that they have a duty of service to the black community that is an integral part of their lives as professionals. In addition, part of that responsibility has always been to increase the ranks of the black middle class by the nurture and support of blacks not yet part of it.
The late Dr. W.E.B. DuBois expressed this goal in a speech at Fisk in 1933 in which he said: "We want . . . to seek out the talented and gifted among our constituency, quite regardless of their wealth or position, and to fill this university and similar institutions with persons who have got brains enough to take fullest advantage of what the university offers."
DuBois' own words uttered two years later constitute the best response to deliberately false assertions that he orothers like him believe they could or should join white elites and ignore the needs of exploited working-class members of the black community. He said:
"Not by the development of upper classes anxious to exploit the workers nor by the escape of individual genius into the white world, can we effect the salvation of our group in America . . . We repudiate an enervating philosophy of Negro escape into an artifically privileged white race."
Today's black middle class is in large part of a consequence of the kind of strategy suggested by DuBois, and almost every educated black man over 40 in this country worked part or all of his way through school (usually by waiting tables and washing dishes at night after a hard day in school). Black women worked, too, in the cafeterias, the dean's office or wherever there was a respectable job.
Members of the black middle class, from the Vernon Jordans to the Walter Whites, have used their intellects as professionals and as advocates for their black brothers and sisters. That one looks black and another looked white has not added to or detracted from the effectiveness of their advocacy.
Ben Hooks and Jesse Jackson represent the organizations that they head, and they speak for the members of those organizations, who appear to be satisfied by their representation, since they continue to pay them.
What is important about Andrew Young is not the education of his grandparent, but that he stood beside Martin Luther King Jr. as that descendant of the black middle class led the majority white community to move forward again in removing the legal vestiges of black slavery.
Argument ad hominem may make for overlong cute articles that have the gossipy element of attacking people well known in their communities. Such argument does not deal in any way with issues of race and poverty that are not yet resolved.
It is obscene to suggest that opposition to covenants against selling property to blacks and all of the currently existing devices to achieve the same racial exclusion from housing is a way for the black elite to escape the working-class blacks. Today, as in the past, the working-class black is disadvantaged by exclusion from neighborhoods he or she can afford.
I acknowledge that I am middle class. Although I now speak only for myself, I will continue to speak and work for the elimination of segregated schools and of priviledged white sanctuaries from which black families are excluded, even if this means that white and black children must ride buses to public schools as well as private schools (where they are fully acceptable if there is no available private limousine).
I will continue to demand an answer to the question of who will meet the needs of the untrained mother to two children under six (a typical welfare recipient), whose food stamp allocation is reduced, whose public housing rent contribution is increased, whose day care center closes, whose promised CETA job disappears and whose child's sore throat occurs when the state's cap on Medicaid is reached. While the administration waits for the hoped-for psychological anti-inflation results from balancing the budget, I will ask who buys milk and pays the doctor of the poor black and Hispanic mothers on welfare.
I know that neither the states nor the cities have the resources to meet these real needs, and public relations efforts will not take care of poor black people whose support programs are being reduced from the shockingly inadequate levels that now exist to new low levels of cruel deprivation. I will continue to urge and argue that affirmative action, integration of housing, access to job training and equality of educational opportunity are a continuing responsibility of the federal government because the Constitution assigns those responsibilities to the federal government and because these goals are right for the country and its black citizens.
It is because I will not retreat from these positions and that other black persons who agree with me will not remain silent that I expect the attacks on our skin color, social class designations, ancestry and motivation to continue. If there are no rational answers to serious questions about what will happen to poor black people in the next few years, the only alternative is to throw up a smoke screen of irrelevant, silly and irrational discussion of alleged 19-year-old "social leaders," creole grandmothers and discredited stories of prejudice of black against black.
The record of the black middle class speaks for itself, no amount of Orwellian doublespeak or South African-type racism can obscure the continuing validity of the leadership of that middle class from the time of Frederick Douglass to the present. The black middle class is as close to a true meritocracy as exists in this country, and that it isn't any larger is the result of white exlusionary practices, not those of black people.
The hurt and bitterness of newer members of that middle class is misdirected to their fellow blacks and should be redirected to the conditions that pull us all together, whatever our ideology, because the majority society believes that our racial ancestry is more important than our ideas or our social class.
It is the majority white community that allows our status and roles to be determined and modified by our racial ancestry. Until racial ancestry is no more significant that naturally red hair in this society, there is only one shade of black, even though it may be found in different places and may not be readily apparent. There may be poor blacks and middle-class blacks, but there will be not truly free blacks until every black person is free or racial discrimination. Middle-class blacks understand this better than anyone else in this society, which may explain why so many have maintained their sense of responsibility for the black cause, no matter how privileged or white they may appear to the ignorant or to the outsider.