Toward a New Black Paradigm

In the eyes of Dr. Manning Marable, professor of history at Columbia University and director of Columbia’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies, the emergence of Louis Farrakhan upon the national scene was largely the result of a “leadership vacuum” in the African-American community. Marable dismissed such diverse figures as General Colin Powell; the Hon. Clarence Thomas, associate justice of the US Supreme Court; and the late Ron Brown, former US Secretary of Commerce, as symbols of the “drift toward conservatism and more accommodation within the actual leadership of the black community.” The trend among black politicians to “overemphasize electoralism at the expense of activism,” he argued, has undermined a “black, liberal, united front.”

Marable was on campus last semester to deliver the eighth annual A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. Lecture. The lecture series, which honors Higginbotham, Hon’75 — the retired Federal judge and emeritus trustee at Penn who now teaches at Harvard University — “focuses on an issue, event, or personality in the African-American community of either historical or contemporary importance.”

Although Marable praised Farrakhan’s “vigorous opposition to black-on-black violence and to drugs,” he said that the Nation of Islam’s leader had “alienated many potential allies” with his “homophobic, anti-Semitic, and sexist rhetoric.” Marable did not have much use for the “overall economic strategy” of the Nation of Islam, either. While “entrepreneurship and black small businesses may indeed create thousands of jobs,” at a time when “millions of African Americans and millions of Latinos and poor people are desperately seeking work and living wages, black capitalism is a false solution,” he argued. “Petty capitalist enterprises will not generate the jobs we need to effectively reduce mass unemployment.”

In Marable’s view, the success of the Million Man March had less to do with Farrakhan’s “reactionary ideology” than with the “deep desire among the masses of African Americans to move their communities forward to reclaim their own spirit and their own history.” Describing the current political landscape as a “decisive moment in black history where a new paradigm must be developed to advance the boundaries of our politics,” he advocated a spirit of activism, but cautioned that “we cannot simply duplicate the strategies and tactics of the Civil Rights movement because the issues that confront us today are fundamentally different: The internal class competition of the black community has been radically altered.”

A key aspect of his activism for the 1990s involved what he called the “empowerment of African-American women.” Encouraging women to continue taking on the roles of “leaders and theoreticians” and thereby speaking to the “real issues” that they themselves would define, Marable criticized the African-American myth in which “manhood” is privileged for its alignment with conservative, patriarchal views. Not only does that mindset “deny women voices and insights”; it fragments a collective resistance to social oppression.

Marable, the author of Beyond Black and White, argued that “neighborhood” activism and “class-centered” activism should coalesce around certain common goals to form a collective, multi-racial constituency. Those goals would be “access to affordable housing, public-health services, pride and personal safety, the quality of the environment, public transportation, [and] the education of our children.” As it looks to the future, the movement should also recognize a historical context — which, he said, “shows us that the way things are produced and distributed within any society, the patterns of ownership, the divisions of property, prefigure consequences that, in turn, impact everything else.”

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