There is no such thing as the black community-
the myth of an organic, black solidarity and the need for a universal, diverse movement of the poor
I just completed my daily quota of ‘blocks’ on twitter. Most of them were black, male, cis-heterosexual, and all of them were wildly problematic. I blocked them not only because their views are repugnant, but because I find that starting a flame war in the comments of some would-be Hotep who doesn’t know the difference between power and freedom is actually therapeutic. There are a lot of problems with my approach, not least the fact that I go out to find fights only to drop them halfway, if only to frustrate my opponents. The other problem, the one that I most frequently have presented to me is that my approach and those like it, by being combative, by engaging in ‘cancel culture’ (who even knows what the term means anymore) is divisive to the black community and thus the black political movement. While I am amenable to correction (read therapy) what I cannot brook is the idea that the black movement can be divided. After all, one cannot divide that which does not exist.
We live in a particularly hot moment for racial politics. The year 2020 has marked the rise and rise of the Black lives matter movement which, thanks to the dominance of American politics in the global space, has contextualised and even lent its name to movements against police violence and racial injustice world-wide. The movement has spurred a rise in engagement with the genuinely radical idea of abolishing the carceral state and recognising the disproportionate amounts of police violence meted out against black people everywhere. South Africa, a country where police and the military were responsible for no fewer than 11 deaths in the early days of lockdown, has its own police violence crisis. All 11 dead were black men, and so the crisis has a racial edge. However, I cannot see BLM as being truly radical, nor as truly addressing the issues it deems important. The 11 dead south africans were men, were black and, perhaps most importantly, were poor. This last point is what makes them most vulnerable, and yet it is the one least addressed. The focus on race, although important, seems somewhat parochial. It must asked then, why is race still the chief identity of political organisation?
Why we believe in the existence of a black community.
The 60s were the last great democratic moment in world history. From the United States to the United Kingdom and even in the heart of Apartheid South Africa, leftist and democratic movements posed genuine threats to power. The feminist movement, the black movement and the LGBT movement all seemed be under the umbrella of left politics. In those days, there was not very much difference between the black elite and the black poor. They lived, however unwillingly, in the same communities. Make no mistake, the difference between a doctor and a pauper is great, but there was a great feeling that all black people, because they were in such great proximity to one another, because they all faced the same threat of extinction at the hands of racist regimes from the United states to South Africa, were natural allies. Of course, there was no necessary alliance between all black people, regardless of class, but the fact of poor, white racism made that alliance happen. And so, in the spirit of black unity, the black managerial class, the university graduates, the priests and lawyers became the leaders of the black community. In his book Class notes, Professor Adolph Reed Jr notes the old quip that any black person with five dollars and a clean suit could imagine himself as a negro leader. This quip is thoroughly situated in the American context, but when one looks at the South African black political class of the 60s, one finds the quip applicable. These black leaders were politically diverse, united only in their blackness and their respectability. Their politics involved everything from pandering to the white establishment to planning for the revolution, but despite their disagreements, they were united in the belief in a black community, a community that was organic and awaited the arrival of a black messiah, a single political leader under whom all black people could unite. The message was clear, to be black is to share the same experience and therefore the same goals, despite ideological differences.
Of course, the notion of a monolithic community was not true then, and it is not true now, but it is what we have inherited. That is why Barack Obama, despite the fact that his politics lacked politics and survived on a stellar marketing campaign, was seen as representing the black community. It is why the ANC, despite its internal division, united only in their disdain for the black poor, can claim to be the organisation for those black poor. Naturally, the divisions within the so-called black community are not only class based, they are also along the lines of gender, sexuality, and disability. South African femicide is evidence of the failure of the ‘black community’ to protect the rights of black women, the high rate of hate crimes against black queer people in this and other countries, often perpetrated by other black people, is evidence of the homo- and trans-negativity of many black people. With all of these divisions in mind, between rich and poor, homo-sexual and homo-negative, misogynist and woman, it is difficult to argue that there is a community which genuinely exists. However, black, cis-het men, the managerial class who have led the corporate black community since the dawn of the black movement, have figured out a neat trick to silence internal discord and opposition: the meaningless slogan ‘black first.’ This slogan and its attendant ideology is the politics behind Jay Z’s ‘The story of O.J’, it is the soul of critiques levelled equally against women who divest from black men and ‘Uncle Tom’s’. It is a notion which subsumes the individuality of black people, their unique positions in relation to each other under the banner of blackness whose threat is this: ‘if you do not unite with the race, the white man will win.’ This is how the ‘black community’ is created and maintained, by erasing every other mode of identity and invoking the ‘original sin’ of the west, the thing that lead to the Apartheid regime’s demise.
any ‘community’ which arrives at shared goals and interests by assumption is not a community at all, but a monolith which is the tool of its leaders.
While the above characterisation of the ‘black community’ may paint is as fractured and divided, it doesn’t disprove its existence. What it does do, it show us that the so-called community, which is presumed to be international, gender, class, and sexuality-blind, was a necessary creation of the 60s born not so much of a solidarity which had ‘worked-out’ differences among black people, but out of a belief that race was the chief axis of oppression. This necessary creation, this myth of community, can never be the basis for true radical change not only because of who it silences, but because of who leads it, whose concerns are at the forefront. Community presumes shared interests; community is a notion which necessarily requires common goals. I argue that any ‘community’ which arrives at shared goals and interests by assumption is not a community at all, but a monolith which is the tool of its leaders. The black lives matter movement has drawn, in equal parts, support and denigration from the black upper class. The former is illustrative of the persisting ideal of the black community, the latter is illustrative of a colour-blind class consciousness. Those black elites who support the movement do not support its more radically left organising principles, they support its public face, whose intention is not to stop the police from killing people, but to stop killing those people because they are black. They propose, silently, almost unnoticed, an alternative: people should die only if they are poor or do not possess class signifiers to protect themselves. This is not the interest of most black people, who are poor, it is an interest of the black elite which they impute upon the ‘community’ because they have always been the community’s leaders. If you doubt this claim, then look to the respectability politics of the Obamas, who expect that their wearing of suits, their attainment of education (both of which are class markers) should be a shield that protects them from white derision. Further, look at the discussions around Ahmud Arbery in the United states, how his wearing an Ivy league university sweatshirt did not protect him. Talking about this implies that it should have protected him, that his education should have told everyone that he was deserving of dignity. Those black elites, whose continued leadership is a relic of the 60s, assume that there is a black community, united in its intentions, waiting only for leadership, which they must provide, whose agenda they must shape. The black community is a myth, a burden which prevents true organising by uniting by subsuming disparate groups under the interests of the elite.
Is a black community necessary?
Having argued that the notion of ‘black community’ is, at best a myth geared at militating for the interests of the black elite, I must now ask the question: is a black community necessary? In order for a black movement to be necessary, it must speak to a pertinent social issue. The social issues which the black movement, which is the movement of the black community, claims to address is the issue of inequality because of racism. The movement uses the facts of disparity to advance its claims. It operates on the premise that were society equal, black people would not be more likely to be poor, incarcerated, or subjected to police violence. The statistics which support this claim differ in different nations. This essay has focused largely on the American and South African scenes, and so those disparities are the ones dealt with here. The fact that the face of poverty in South Africa and the United states is that of a black woman and the face of wealth is that of a white man is offensive to those anti-racists who operate in activist spaces. It is on the basis of this kind of disparity that the activism of the black movement is conducted. However, if the movement succeeds, if wealth and power are shared in a racially inclusive way, if there are black billionaires, what does that do for the black poor and working class? How can a black movement whose only promise is to introduce more black faces in powerful spaces and have fewer black people die at the hands of police violence possibly be a good movement? For the majority of black people, what is necessary is not a black movement, but a poor movement, built from a community of the poor whose interests are genuine and shared, as opposed to imputed upon them by an elite of whatever race. There is no possibility of change in the black movement and no possibility of unity in the black community so long as class divides the community. what the black poor need is not a black community, they need a left movement.
How can a black movement whose only promise is to introduce more black faces in powerful spaces and have fewer black people die at the hands of police violence possibly be a good movement?
Those who read this essay may object to my desire to end the notion of the black community. they may argue that organising on the basis of class is not a worth-while form of organisation, they may argue that left-organising would not solve racism, and they might point at Cuba as an example, where black people are still behind the rest of the population and where interpersonal racism is still rife. They might even say that there is no value, in the South African context, in distinguishing between black and poor, because the categories almost completely overlap. To those I say this, any well-organised left movement cannot be racist. Any leftist worth their salt realises that race is class, that capitalism requires an underclass to supply labour and racism supplies that underclass. Further, the South African context has shown us that black elites, once they have tasted power, will proceed to accumulate wealth rapidly and wantonly, just like the capitalists they’ve always wanted to be. However, this does not mean that we should shelve discussions of racism, or sexism, or homophobia on the left and skip together in a merry race-blind, gender-blind, sexuality-blind left community. It does not mean that we should stop viewing race as a pertinent axis of oppression. It means that we should understand that as the black poor, we have no business unifying with Jay Z, who is a black capitalist. It also means that as the black poor, we have no business embracing homophobes and sexists, because sexuality is another form of oppression which is situated in class (there are grounds to argue that homophobia and sexism are either a distraction from or a function of capitalist primitive accumulation.) The true community of the black poor cannot include Julius Malema or Jesse Jackson or Cyril Ramaphosa, nor need it embrace white racist leftists. It must be a community which understands the insidious nature of kyriarchy and capitalism within that Kyriarchy and seeks to tear down both. It means that the white left must realise that anti-racism based on a shared, egalitarian vision, is not a nice side-item, it is an absolute necessity. That is how we move forward, in true unity.