Blacks shun dream of harmony

Martin Luther King's vision of an end to the US's great racial divide has faded, writes John Carlin in Washington
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A court in Washington heard last week that Mary Anigbo, a black school principal, punched and screamed racial abuse at a white woman reporter who had ventured into her school in the hope of persuading her to do an interview. Three members of Ms Anigbo's staff, all of them also black, allegedly joined in the fray and hurled the reporter out of the building. All four are facing charges of assault.

The reporter, who works for the conservative Washington Times, testified that Ms Anigbo snatched away her notebook and called her a white bitch. "The principal told me to get my white ass out of the school," she told the court.

The accused deny the charges. But, whatever the verdict may turn out to be, the case has served to dramatise the racial mood in the United States at a time when a growing number of black people are re-examining their commitment to the generous, colour-blind ideals of Martin Luther King.

In his "I have a dream" speech of 1963, King called on Americans "to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation", and "transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood". Translated into plain prose, he was declaring racial integration to be the civil-rights movement's paramount political, social and even religious goal.

But now there are those in the black community who are beginning to wonder whether it was Malcolm X, King's militant Muslim rival, who got it right when he declared: "No sane black man really believes that the white man ever will give the black man anything more than token integration!"

Malcolm X argued that the solution for the black man lay in "separation", in exchanging the corruption of white American society for "a land of our own, where we can reform ourselves, lift up our moral standards and try to be godly".

Nothing could be farther removed from the thinking of the US's largest and most venerable black political organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). Traditionally abhorring radical black leaders who harbour visions of a home-grown American apartheid, the NAACP has seen the principle of inter-racial harmony as its raison d'etre ever since its foundation in 1908. But doubts are now emerging from within.

The annual conference of the NAACP, held this month, was dominated by the struggle of the national leadership to fend off a fundamental philosophical challenge by state leaders and members of the rank and file. The dissenters went so far as to question the abiding value of the single greatest victory in the history of the American civil-rights movement, the Supreme Court ruling of 1954 which declared racial segregation in schools to be unlawful.

"The genie is out of the bottle," said Joe Hicks, a former executive director of Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "There is a growing sentiment in black communities that racial integration may not be a worthy or desirable goal."

Ted Shaw, an NAACP office-holder, captured that sentiment when he told Time magazine: "You're beating your head up against the wall until it is bloody. At some point you have to ask: Should I continue to beat up against this wall?"

Black despondency has grown in the past two years as political pressure has built in Washington and at state government level to eliminate affirmative- action programmes and cut welfare for the inner-city poor. Yet an argument might be also made - as it frequently is, by the right-wing black minority - that, in the light of the undeniable political and economic progress that black Americans have made in the past 30 years, the best course of action would be stop bleating and start living.

In addition to the spectacular successes that blacks have achieved in sport and entertainment, the number of black lawyers and engineers and mayors of large cities (often cities with white majorities) has increased dramatically, as has the average income of black families.

Black people are not as well off as white people but the hope that historical inequalities might be redressed with time is provided by research showing that black immigrants from the West Indies are outdoing both black and white Americans in economic achievement.

But to dwell on the statistical evidence is, apparently, to miss a point. Surveys show that the most anti-white sector of black society is the most affluent. Such findings are supported by examination of the readership of a glossy, black-run monthly magazine called Emerge whose huge commercial success is built on consistently expressing derogatory views about white people that no mainstream white-run magazine could possibly express about blacks without incurring a chorus of national outrage. The magazine's buyers earn on average $20,000 more than the US's median household income and almost nine in 10 have university degrees.

"It doesn't matter how much money you have, you will always be discriminated against," explained George Curry, the editor of Emerge, in a recent interview. "So while you may look at the indicators - the affluence, the housing, the income and education - there's still this burden of being black, and that is what white Americans don't understand."

President Clinton, who recently appointed an advisory board to initiate a "national dialogue" on race, clings to the notion that the chasm of understanding may yet be bridged. President Eisenhower gave as his reason for not supporting the civil-rights movement 40 years ago his belief that government action would never be able to change the human heart.

History may yet vindicate Mr Clinton and Martin Luther King. But as things stand now, the true prophets seem to be Dwight D Eisenhower and Malcolm X.