• U.S.

Essay: The powers of Racial Example

6 minute read
Lance Morrow

The ghost of Tiresias told Ulysses to carry an oar upon his shoulder and walk inland until he met a traveler who did not know what an oar was. Thus Ulysses, exhausted by the sea, would recognize that he was safely home.

Some day, possibly, the American racial odyssey will end, and racial hatred, like the oar, will be an item of bafflement and curiosity: What was the point of all that, anyway? Why was it so fierce, so enduring?

In recent months, the nation has taken a few steps on the inland march. Some of them were merely tokens of motion, but considered together, they amount at least to an interesting procession of symbols. The first black American astronaut went into space. For the first time a black was crowned Miss America. Blacks now are the mayors of four of the largest American cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit. Congress proclaimed a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr., and a conservative Republican President endorsed the idea.

And, in the most significant display, the first black presidential candidate (or the first with a serious following), King’s disciple, Jesse Jackson, sits side by side in debate with the two white Senators running for the Democratic nomination. Whatever errors he has made elsewhere in the campaign (stupid, private references to Jews as “Hymie,” his close relationship to a poisonous character who heads the Nation of Islam), Jackson has sometimes sounded in the debates like the only grownup in the race. In any case, the spectacle of a young black man treated equally with two whites in a fight for the most powerful office on earth would have been unthinkable in the U.S. a generation ago.

During the ’70s, a powerful white politician in New York was discussing the realities of his trade. He shook his head in disgust. “Forget the black vote,” he said. “Blacks don’t vote.” They do now, as New York discovered last week. George Wallace learned the lesson sometime earlier and later found himself out courting the blacks whom he had once symbolically blocked at the schoolhouse door.

It is fitting that Jackson should be the man to inspirit the black electorate. For years he has been the one black leader whose attention was focused clearly on the dramatic stage on which the last act of the American racial melodrama will eventually be enacted. That stage is located in the black mind.

The journey of American blacks has been a series of epic passages: the “Middle Passage” from Africa . . . the long passage through slavery to the Emancipation Proclamation . . . the false dawn of Reconstruction. . . the terrorist Klan era with its night-riding death squads . . . the passage north to South Side Chicago and Detroit and Harlem. . . then Brown vs. Topeka and desegregation and the Martin Luther King era and the Great Society. What is unfolding now may be thought of in years to come as the Jesse Jackson era for black America. Whatever Jackson’s role in the journey, the ultimate passage to be accomplished is the internal passage, the psychological passage.

To say that the last battle must be fought in the minds of blacks themselves strikes some as a perverse exercise of white man’s jujitsu, a way of blaming the victim. If psychology is involved, surely it is the white mind that must change, not the black. Anyway, the problems of blacks are not psychological but harsh and external, and if anything, getting worse. There are many black Americans, of course, and it is difficult to make large generalizations, psychological or otherwise. But statistics can take the overall readings. The median income of blacks is only 55% that of whites. Black unemployment is, as usual, twice that for whites. Many black families are stable, but more than half of black babies are born to unwed mothers. The lives of American blacks are sicklier and shorter than those of whites. And so on.

Yes. But as Jackson knows, the ultimate victory over the problems begins in the will and morale and imagination of blacks. The residue of the slave mentality still eats at that morale, still drips acids on the selfesteem. The external arrangements of things (Jim Crow and all the rest) seeped many generations ago into the heart and left there an annihilating anger and, sometimes, a self-loathing. Blackness has found it difficult to esteem itself in the imperiously white contexts of things. Besides, some of the arrangements designed to help poor blacks have simply replicated the patterns of the plantation. It is the same old configuration of subservience and noblesse oblige, of dependence and resentment and contempt, the part of the (benevolent) master played by the Federal Government, and the blacks still living in the slave quarters (ghettos) on the white man’s dole.

In the service of black morale, symbols are — immensely important. “Tokenism” has a bad name, but tokens have their uses. People become only what they can imagine themselves to be. If they can only imagine themselves working as menials, then they will probably subside Sinto that fate, following that peasant logic by which son follows father into a genetic destiny.

If they see other blacks become mayors of the largest cities, become astronauts, become presidential candidates, become Miss Americas and, more to the point, become doctors and scientists and lawyers and pilots and corporate presidents—become successes—then young blacks will begin to comprehend their own possibilities and honor them with work.

For years Jesse Jackson has stood in front of high school audiences and led them in psychological cheers: “I am . . . somebody!” The theme is not original with Jackson. Marcus Garvey, for example, thundered the idea: “Up, you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will!” That is a perfectly American thought, although usually addressed to individuals, not races. The U.S. has always been an immense struggle of the wills of the people who came here, a struggle of cultural and moral energy and discipline. The American Indians’ story represents an immense tragedy, a catastrophic demoralization, almost a cultural extinction. Then one sees certain Korean Americans, with their sharp commercial energy, their Confucian family discipline and, often, very rapid rise (in one generation) from vegetable stand to Harvard Medical School. American blacks still struggle between the two states of mind, the one leading toward disintegration, the other toward success and acceptance.

It may be many years before the U.S. elects a black President—or, for that matter, a Mexican-American President or a Korean-American President. But it now becomes thinkable for a black child to entertain a fantasy that used to be advertised as every white boy’s dream: that he might grow up to be President.

Hunger and joblessness are not psychological, but the beginning of the solution is. Symbols can bring change. They have real power in the world. “Firsts” proceed and become seconds and thirds, until they are no longer phenomenal but routine. As that happens, more American blacks will become, in a sense for the first time, citizens of the United States. —By Lance Morrow

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