Monday, July 22, 2013

The Chicago Defender's 1914 Editorial "The Nigger" and the Perilous Politics of Black Respectability

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Contemporary black conservatives do not come out of the ether. They have a history.

While a strong claim can be made that Black Conservatism, in its current form, is born outside of, and is alien to, the Black Political Tradition, I remain taken aback when I come upon writings and other material from decades (if not a century or more ago) which would be quite at home in the mouth utterances of Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, or Jesse Peterson on Fox News in the present. 

The Chicago Defender was the public voice of the African-American community for many decades. At its height, the Defender was the New York Times of Black America. As such, the newspaper was instrumental in the Black Freedom Struggle and was an integral part of the Black Public Sphere. 

The following column, published on August 1, 1914, voices a deep anxiety about the migration of Southern blacks to the North and Chciago, and how those new arrivals threatened to upset the politics of Black Respectability that "New Negroes" and the black bourgeoisie were desperately trying to fight for in the face of vicious, violent, overt, white supremacy and its regime of lynch law, racial pogroms, and Jim Crow.

The Chicago Defender was firing a broadside against the black lumpen and underclass of their era in a war of survival against white racism. Tragically, when the great Chicago Race Riot and other pogroms came after World War One, those very same "new" and  "respectable" Negroes would discover that their armor of relative class privilege, and of being the vanguard of the race, would mean little if anything to white marauders.

Are black conservatives in the post civil rights era an extension of an old public tradition of black scolding and critique? How do we locate President Obama in this history? 

In reading The Chicago Defender's archives I am left with a sense that while yes, there are most certainly some problematic class politics at work in the following editorial, but that the newspaper's writers and editors had a deep and abiding love for Black America, one that contemporary black conservatives most certainly lack. 

Despite the language here, The Chicago Defender was a beacon of race pride. Contemporary black conservatives are outside of this tradition as they are beacons of self-hate and racial shame:


Michael Varian Daly said...

I would say this speaks to the paradigm that 'racism' in this country has its roots in Classism, driven by the need of The Rulers to maintain control over the lower classes of all ethnicities. Tell the poor Whites they are better because they're White and they'll keep the Blacks, Browns, Reds and Yellows in line.

chauncey devega said...

I don't know. There is lots of classism in the "Asian community". The model minority myth does a hell of a lot of work in excluding and holding down those "Asians" who are a fit for that narrative. You are right though, this is not isolated to the black community. Far from it. I was just taken aback by the language. Folks were hating on Bill Cosby for speaking a self-evident truth about the behavior of some in the ghetto underclass. The same voices would die, literally, if someone with the prominence afforded the voices in the Defender back in the day said anything revealing the above.

The Sanity Inspector said...

I sometimes witness some of this class hostility among black people, & am sorry to see it. I was once at a cafeteria on a school outing with some other parents who were black, of equivalent background & status to me (middle class). The black servers were all smiles to me but all snarls to them, when asked perfectly innocent questions about the food. ("Baked chicken not good enough for you?"). Sad to see, but class divisions are present in any society. They would not go away if Black America could decamp to some island continent, away from what many consider the immediate source of its ills.

chauncey devega said...

This stuff is still very real. Nevermind Jack and Jill clubs and the like. Here in Chicago there is lots of colorism. I have also seen black servers and others bend over backwards to attend to non-blacks and treat other African-Americans horribly.

Internalized racism has gotten all of us sick.