About half way through last week's column "Race nationalism serves no purpose," Michael Clarkson makes the very astute claim that racial "nationalism" creates racial "unity." This is probably accurate. However, I would like to help people make a distinction between two kinds of unity, so that they better understand why Black Nationalism is still very much necessary and a positive force in American politics.
Black Nationalism is not separatism and the two should not be confused. Separatism makes the claim that "black people" are a distinct group from white people and should have their own place in the world. Nationalism, on the other hand, states that people who are "black" have been treated a certain way--and thus share a common story. Because all of these people can share the common story of oppression and dehumanization, they should band together to demand equal rights within the system. Separatists don't care if blacks can tell the same story--they argue that just because your skin is a certain color, you have more in common with people with your skin color than another skin color. Thus a separatist sees a bond between the black women in Memphis, the black child in France, and the mulatto in Calcutta.
Separatism argues that blacks have something in common more than their common tales of dehumanization--something substantial in their skin pigment, which inherently unites them on a fundamental level. Nationalism argues that skin pigment is a weak and random way of defining a group of people, but because it has meant so much in our society, people with this darker pigment must band together to demand a change in the governing structures of our society.
Separatists see racial unity as a fundamental truth of being black. Nationalists see racial unity as something that must be built in order for blacks to be treated as full American citizens. I mention this, because Clarkson's article never distinguishes between these significantly different forms of unity. Thus he turn out critiquing the positive Nationalist sentiment for being separatist--even though the two share very little with each other. In all truth, Black Separatists are not that popular in today's political landscape. Although Farrakhan constantly blows his horn for separatism--most American Blacks are not interested in getting their own land, but in being treated like America is their land.
Clarkson's article treats racial unity as nothing more than a self-empowerment, a sort of collective ego boost for downtrodden people. Since he sees Black Nationalism as such, he believes it has outgrown its usefulness. And I would agree with him, if Black Nationalism were nothing more than rallying the black troops against the white oppressor. Then obviously once all white people were no longer oppressing--the method would be outgrown. However, that is not the purpose of Black Nationalism. Black Nationalism is a way for black people to understand their position within a system oppressing them. It is not a collective ego boost--it is a collective focus.
Black Nationalism does not try to evoke strength in blacks by drawing a thick line between those who are authentically black and those who are not. Instead, it tries to build a bond between black people so that they realize that their experiences are not isolated or loan, but a part of a system that continues to think less of, and mistreat, people with black skin. This is not a bond of hate, nor one that creates an "us-versus-them" mentality--that would be separatism. Nationalism argues that the "black bond" is simply created by the fact that a whole bunch of people with black skin can tell the same story. They all have experienced the same kind of glances in fancy restaurants, the same kind of jokes in school yard conversations, and the same kind of mistreatment by the media. Thus, they have come together to say that they don't deserve this mistreatment and that they should not have to endure any burdens because of their skin color.
Black Nationalism brings unity to the disparate claims of black people so that they can begin to see that many of the race problems in their life (not all, but many) are not caused by individual instances of cruelty, nor by their own incompetence, but by a system that persistently mistreats people who were born with the wrong skin pigmentation. Black Nationalism continues to be important today, because the legacy of institutionalized racism (now only 25 years gone) is still with us. Quite simply, black people still share common stories, and can all still agree on many of the common barriers they face. If Black Nationalism had truly outgrown its usefulness, then it would disappear on its own. Black people would no longer feel the bond of being black because each individual black person's story would be so different than any other's, that there would be no way to focus their efforts or energies. At that point nationalism would slip away into the history books. However, blacks continue to feel that their situations are similar and must continue to bond around their common ailments, or face the consequences of acting alone against an oppressive system.
In conclusion, blaming today's "white power" backlash on Black Nationalism is truly misguided. First, there is no reason that black unity should evoke a pro-white sentiment. After all, the only story that white people can all share is the common story of being treated better than black people. This would be an example of "White Nationalism," and to be honest, is a rather shallow reason to bond together. "White Separatists" are, of course, like the KKK--they have been with us for a while, and are not going to disappear soon. But to blame the gross acts of violence which are occurring against black people today on the collective focus occurring in black communities is an unjustified statement which blames the victim instead of the perpetrator. Perhaps our focus should be more on remedying those factors in American society that make the black experience common to so many people, and so commonly negative.
(Daniel Warner graduated from the University in 1999.)