by Yvette Carnell
One of the gravest mistakes having been made by the Black working poor over the past century has been to equate Black identity with Black politics, a case which is made clear by Dr. Adolph Reed in his book “Class Notes.” Not all Black people share the same circumstance and in fact, members of the Black bourgeoisie have actively sought and successfully engaged in practices which served to intentionally upend movements of the Black working poor.
1.) Labor activists often deride former Republican President Ronald Reagan for firing 11,000 airline workers for failing to return to work, but it was Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor, who fired 2,000 striking Black sanitation workers. The sanitation workers, who earned an annual salary of $7,500 a year, hadn’t received pay increases in three years. Even though their union, AFSCME, had supported Jackson, the mayor wasted no time firing them.
2.) At the start of the National Urban League, wealthy whites such as John D. Rockefeller and Julius Rosenwald were among its founders. Although the League talked a good game and supported collective bargaining for black workers nationally, the local Leagues acted in ways that benefited their white benefactors, even going so far as to break strikes and discourage Blacks from becoming too involved in the Labor movement. (Black Bourgeoisie, E. Franklin Frazier)
3.) In Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington promised that Blacks would find their freedom only by giving in to white supremacy. In Washington’s mind, we were sure to persevere if only we worked hard and put our buckets down, and Booker’s route to liberation offered no significant remedies to curb white supremacy. And like many Black leaders, Washington was not a product of the Black community, but a designee of the white elite.
4.) In the book Ella Baker & The Black Freedom Movement, it is revealed that Baker, a civil and human rights activist, noted the limits in Dr. King’s leadership because of his membership in the Black Elite and noted the limits of Black charisma as opposed to a grassroots movement which empowered poor people:
“Baker described [Dr. King] as a pampered member of Atlanta’s black elite who had the mantle of leadership handed to him rather than having had to earn it, a member of a coddled ‘silver spoon brigade.’ He wore silk suits and spoke with a silver tongue.
“…In Baker’s eyes King did not identify enough with the people he sought to lead. He did not situate himself among them but remained above them.
“…Baker felt the focus on King drained the masses of confidence in themselves. People often marveled at the things King could do that they could not; his eloquent speeches overwhelmed as well as inspired.”
5,) Although Minister Louis Farrakhan has taken an empowering stance in recent speeches, some of his earlier words have sounded much more like something coming from the far right than from a globally known Black leader. During an interview with now defunct Emerge magazine, Farrakhan said that black people were sick, a diagnosis that would’ve been met with outrage had it been made by a Republican. And during an episode of “Donahue” in the 1990s, he said that Blacks suffered from a “dependent, welfare” mentality. This served to pathologize black behavior and paint us as somehow inferior in comparison to our white counterparts. (Class Notes, p.52)