Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Via Arts and Letters Daily is a remarkable article by economist Glenn C. Loury in which he recounts a failure from an earlier episode of his life that has caused him much anguish over the decades since. In the midst of fighting for civil rights, he betrayed a friend at a meeting of the Black Panther Party.
So there we were, at this boisterous, angry political rally. A critical moment came when Woody, seized by some idea, enthusiastically raised his voice above the murmur to be heard. He was cut short in mid-sentence by one of the dashiki-clad brothers-in-charge, who demanded to know how a white boy got the authority to have an opinion on what black people should be doing. A silence then fell over the room. "Who can vouch for this white boy?" asked the brother indignantly. More excruciating silence ensued. Now was my time to act. Woody turned plaintively toward me, but I would not meet his eyes. To my eternal shame, I failed to speak up for my friend, and he was forced to leave the meeting without a word having been uttered in his defense.Loury's friend had grown up with him in his neighborhood, and was of fractional black African descent, but did not have dark skin or African features. He had, however, like many such people at the time, decided to openly declare himself as black.
As with many other attempts to break free from tyranny, the struggle by American blacks to achieve equality under the law has been a mixed bag, as I have discussed at some length here before. Many things blurred the essential nature of this struggle, but I think a major factor was the fact that it was a war fought on two fronts:
At the beginning of the Civil Rights Era, blacks in America faced two major problems. One problem was moral in scope, and that was racism on the part of most whites, particularly in the South. The other problem was legal: Poor treatment of blacks was legally codified into what are known as Jim Crow Laws.And, on top of that, American society at large has always been massively confused if not wrong outright about what constitutes a proper morality, and increasingly confused about the proper role of government. It is one thing to fight for the legal protection of the individual rights of blacks. It is quite another to impose a sort of retaliatory Jim Crow on everyone else to "make up for" past injustice.
This article gives a snapshot of how rife with ethical confusion the civil rights movement has been and remains. Are we individuals or parts of racial collectives? I have long thought that an underappreciated hangover of white racism has been that blacks never got to become accustomed to being treated as, or thinking of themselves as individuals at all times.
This lingering effect, along with common misconceptions about ethics and politics was already making this just rebellion a blind one. Loury now sees the irony of that moment, when, in the name of civil rights, his friend was being subjected to a race test:
The indignant brother who challenged Woody's right to speak was not merely imposing a racial test (only blacks are welcome here), he was mainly applying a loyalty test (you are either with us or against us), and this was a test that anyone present could fail through a lack of conformity with the collectively enforced political norm. I now know that denying one's genuine convictions for the sake of social acceptance is a price society often demands of the individual, and all too often we willingly pay it.Given Loury's context then, he should have vouched for his friend, but the proper response would have been for both to leave. There were many legitimate reasons the for people like Woody to openly identify as black then, but promoting supremacy of a different color was not one of them.
I don't agree with everything Loury says as he grapples with his past failure, but he makes some very good points that desperately need to become common in any discussion of civil rights today:
Growing into intellectual maturity has been, for me, largely a process of becoming free of the need to have my choices validated by the brothers. After many years I have come to understand that, until I became willing to risk the derision of the crowd, I had no chance to discover the most important truths about myself or about life -- to know my calling, to perceive my deepest value commitments, and to recognize the goals most worth striving toward.Or, as Ayn Rand once put it so perfectly: "The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights, cannot claim to be defenders of minorities."
The most important challenges and opportunities that confront any of us derive not from our cultural or sexual identities, not from our ethnic or racial conditions, but from our common human condition. I am a husband, a father, a son, a teacher, an intellectual, a citizen. In none of these roles is my race irrelevant, but neither can identity alone provide much guidance for my quest to adequately discharge these responsibilities. The particular features of one’s social condition, the external givens, merely set the stage of one's life. They do not provide a script. That script must be internally generated; it must be a product of a reflective deliberation about the meaning of this existence for which no political program or ethnic category could ever substitute. [bold added]
In writing this article, which I am sure will draw him some flak, Dr. Loury is finally doing what I submit he really should have done at the time. He has left that meeting of bigots and joined America as an individual man. As a fellow individual, I thank him and welcome him.