Bill Fletcher Jr. is one of the Left’s intellectual elders. A long time union activist and former president of TransAfrica forum, Fletcher is a fixture at Leftist gatherings and his articles fill pages of internet. I first saw him at the Left Forum hand on chin, busily making notes for his presentation. We talked and kept in touch. Over the years, with each conversation I saw how his words make a clear line to the core of the question. As the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination and the now mythic year of “68” approached, I interviewed him on the state of black radicalism.
Q: You recently participated in the Left Forum at Cooper Union. What did you make of it?
A: Mostly it was a success. One could see large numbers of young people but still the Left Forum has not tapped into large numbers of people of color. It’s not “racism” as such; there is a tendency for groups to reproduce themselves and their cultures unless dramatic actions are introduced. I believe that Left Forum has more work to do and I say that as a board member of the Forum. Secondly there is a tendency to self-isolation by some black radical activists. When in a white setting, we can hold high the red-black-green as a way to carve out a space to be heard. We don’t always challenge for the right to talk about other things, which connects to the last reason for the absence of people of color. This must change. There are many of us who do not wish to be pigeon-holed and we resist such efforts. Black radical activists have a lot to say about a variety of issues.
Q: Your answer brings up the question of post-racial politics, which the mainstream media has used to describe Newark Mayor Cory Booker and of course Sen. Barack Obama. Is there meaning in that phrase?
A: First there is no post race politics in the U.S. politics because racism was and is the primary means of social control. A useful distinction is that we are in a post Civil Rights politics not a post race politics. So the new crop of black politicians like Booker and Obama say they are taking the Black Freedom Movement to the next level but it becomes a politics of the elite not the black working class majority. Previous Civil Rights and Black Power activists had to at minimum pay lip service to the people.
Q: Why is there less of a need for the post Civil Rights black politicians to reflect the masses of working class people?
A: Several reasons, first during the Cold War the anti-Communist McCarthyism destroyed the Black Left so discussion of class was cut from black political discourse. Second, the Counter Intelligence Program–COINTELPRO–of the FBI of the 60’s and 70’s sowed rivalry and violence in the freedom movement. Third our own mistakes caught up to us. We were ideologically unfocused and many of us saw race only. In the 80’s and 90’s segments of the Black Freedom Movement were influenced by Neo-Conservatives. Finally, the freedom movement was in part a victim of its own victories, which created a black middle class whose interests were often detached from the black working class.
Q: It seems the narrative that radicals offer the working poor demands they recognize the system’s rigged which competes against the narrative of “making it” as seen in popular imagery and celebrities like Russell Simmons, 50 Cent, BET’s Bob Johnson or NBA’s Michael Jordan.
A: Individuals can and do triumph. What is misleading is that when the masses identify with them it doesn’t offer them any explanation for why they didn’t “make it” and why their lives are getting harder. It leads to people blaming themselves. People can be ‘screwed up’ but the problem is not in them; the problem rests with the way that the system operates. What you’re going through, millions of others are going through. It’s not that you don’t have a work ethic, it’s that there’s no work. The consequence of our focus on individual achievement is that the enemy becomes less clear and the enemy is a social system led by a sector of transnational capitalists. We have to re-focus people to see who the enemy is because at the most basic level the role of organizers is to gather people together to identify a problem and solve it.
Q: Do you see these contradictions reflected in the recent speech on race that Sen. Obama gave?
A: The irony of Obama’s speech is he ran a campaign where racial justice was not involved but he was forced to confront it after his pastor’s sermon became a media controversy. I thought it was a brilliant speech. He did not “diss” his pastor but the one problem in his speech is he framed the sermon as a relic of the past that did not reflect today’s America .
Q: Why was that a problem?
A: The rage expressed in the sermon is not a relic of the past; it is with us today. Hip Hop is full of anger. Black on black crime is anger unfocused and turned against our selves. It’s why the Nation of Islam could organize the Million Man March because it is linked to and articulates this rage.
For more information see Martin and Malcolm Alive in Today’s Black Radicalism by Bill Fletcher Jr. in this issue of The Indypendent