McWhorter: Today’s Woke Excesses Were Born in the ’60s

McWhorter’s reflections always of interest, including these on the “performative” aspects of activism:

Various books I’ve been reading lately have me thinking about 1966. I have often said that the history of Black America could be divided between what happened before and after that year.

It was a year when the fight for Black equality shifted sharply in mood, ushering in an era in which rhetoric overtook actual game plans for action. It planted the seed for the excesses of today’s wokeness. I wouldn’t have been on board, and I’m glad I was only a baby that year and didn’t have to face it as a mature person.

The difference between Black America in 1960 and in 1970 appears vaster to me than it was between the start and end of any other decade since the 1860s, after Emancipation. And in 1966 specifically, Stokely Carmichael made his iconic speech about a separatist Black Power, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee he led expelled its white members (though Carmichael himself did not advocate this), the Black Panther Party was born, “Black” replaced “Negro” as the preferred term, the Afro went mainstream, and Malcolm X’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (written with Alex Haley) became a standard text for Black readers.

I doubt most people living through that year thought of it as a particularly unique 365 days, but Mark Whitaker, a former editor of Newsweek, has justified my sense of that year as seminal with his new book, “Saying It Loud: 1966 — the Year Black Power Challenged the Civil Rights Movement.” Whitaker has a journalist’s understanding of the difference between merely documenting the facts and using them to tell a story, and his sober yet crisp prose pulls the reader along with nary a lull.

But one question keeps nagging at me: Why did the mood shift at that particular point? The conditions of Black America at the time would not have led one to imagine that a revolution in thought was imminent. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had just happened. The economy was relatively strong, and Black men in particular were now earning twice or more what they earned before World War II. As the political scientist and historian duo Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom noted in their book “America in Black and White,” “Before World War II, Black bank tellers, bookkeepers, cashiers, secretaries, stenographers, telephone operators or mail carriers were rare. By 1970 they were very common, though far more in the north than in the south.”

And as to claims one might hear that Black America was uniquely fed up in 1966, were Black people not plenty fed up in 1876, or after World War I or World War II?

What Whitaker so deftly chronicles strikes me less as a natural development from on-the-ground circumstances than as something more elusive for the historian: the emergence and influence of that mood shift I referred to. Carmichael memorably said: “The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nothin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!”

The dramatic impact was obvious. But what did Black Power mean, and how much change on the ground did this kind of rhetoric ever actually result in? What were Carmichael’s concrete plans for action in the first place?

There was always a certain performative element in the man: not for nothing was he referred to as Starmichael. Whitaker recounts Carmichael’s proposing having Harlem “send one million Black men up to invade Scarsdale” — but really?

The N.A.A.C.P. head Roy Wilkins was infuriated at a crucial summit meeting between leading Black groups where Carmichael referred to Lyndon Johnson as “that cat, the president” and recommended publicly denouncing his work. This was a key conflict between an older style seeking to work within the only reality available and a new style favoring a kind of utopian agitprop.

Figures like Carmichael and Black Panthers Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and H. Rap Brown fascinate from a distance, with their implacable fierceness and true Black pride shocking a complacent “Leave It To Beaver” America. Plus their fashion sense — the berets, the leather jackets — was hard not to like. It all made for great photos and good television. But at the time, affirmative action and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, supported by those white “cats” responding to the suasion of people like Wilkins and Martin Luther King Jr., were making a real difference in Black lives, central to encouraging the growth of the Black middle class.

This difference between mood and action is relevant to the historian Beverly Gage’s magnificent new biography, “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century.” The book’s 800-plus pages are so Caro-esque in detail, context and narrative energy that I have dragged the hardback across the Atlantic and back; Gage somehow makes a page turner out of the life of a man with the stage presence of a toad.

Where Hoover comes in on the 1966 issue is a common observation of his, which was that the Black-led urban riots of the Long, Hot Summer, and the general change in mood from integrationist to separatist, was not solely a response to the frustrations of poverty. Of course, Hoover couldn’t get much further than seeing Black people as having simply given in to a general anti-establishment degeneracy, egged on by Communist influence. That was one part nonsense (the Communist one) and one part racism.

Hoover was bred in a Southern city (D.C.) at the turn of the 20th century, post Plessy v. Ferguson. He came of age embraced by a fraternity steeped in post-Reconstruction “lost cause” ideology about Black people. His late-career persecution of the Panthers with F.B.I. technology and tactics was nastier — and more reckless with people’s lives — than his earlier witch hunt against white Communists had been.

Yet, his sense that the new developments were not caused by socioeconomics was not entirely mistaken. Rather, I suspect that much of why leading Black political ideology took such a menacing, and even impractical, turn in the late 1960s was that white America was by that time poised to hear it out. Not all of white America. But a critical mass had become aware, through television and the passage of bills like the Civil Rights Act, that there was a “race issue” requiring attention.

It’s a safe bet that if Black leaders had taken the tone of Carmichael and the Panthers in 1900 or even 1950, the response from whites would have been openly violent and even murderous. The theatricality of the new message was in part a response to enough whites now being interested in listening.

The problem was that so much of the message, at that point, was a kind of Kabuki, as the Black essayist Debra Dickerson memorably put it a while ago. Savory, dramatic poses were often more important than plans. This was perhaps a natural result of the fact that the remaining problems were challenging to address. With legalized segregation, disenfranchisement and residential Balkanization now illegal, the question was what to do next and how. “Black Power” did not turn out to be the real answer: It all burned out early — Whitaker identifies signs that this would happen as soon as the end of 1966.

Daniel Akst’s lucid group biography, “War By Other Means: The Pacifists of the Greatest Generation Who Revolutionized Resistance,” demonstrates people of the era engaging in action that brings about actual change. Following the lives and careers of the activists Dorothy Day, Dwight Macdonald, David Dellinger and Bayard Rustin, one senses almost none of the detour into showmanship that so infused 1966. While Carmichael made speeches that, to many, were suggestive of violence, and later moved to Africa, Rustin, for example, essentially birthed the March on Washington.

I hardly intend that Carmichael’s brand of progressivism has only been known among Black people. Today it has attained cross-racial influence, serving as a model for today’s extremes of wokeness, confusing acting out for action. One might suppose that the acting out is at least a demonstration of leftist philosophy, perhaps valuable as a teaching tool of sorts. But is it? The flinty, readable “Left is Not Woke” by Susan Neiman, the director of the Einstein Forum think tank, explores that question usefully.

Neiman limns the new wokeness as an anti-Enlightenment program, despite its humanistic Latinate vocabulary. She associates true leftism with a philosophy that asserts “a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power and a belief in the possibility of progress” and sees little of those elements in the essentializing, punitive and pessimistic tenets too common in modern wokeness. Woke “begins with concern for marginalized persons, and ends by reducing each to the prism of her marginalization,” she writes. “In the focus on inequalities of power, the concept of justice is often left by the wayside. Woke demands that nations and peoples face up to their criminal histories. In the process it often concludes that all history is criminal.”

Neiman critiques pioneering texts of this kind of view, such as Michel Foucault’s widely assigned book, “Discipline and Punish,” and his essay “What is Enlightenment?,” in which he scorns “introducing ‘dialectical’ nuances while seeking to determine what good and bad elements there may have been in the Enlightenment.” In this cynical and extremist kind of rhetoric, Neiman notes that “you may look for an argument; what you’ll find is contempt.” And the problem, she adds, is that “those who have learned in college to distrust every claim to truth will hesitate to acknowledge falsehood.”

All of these books relate to a general sense I have always had, that in 1966 something went seriously awry with what used to be called “The Struggle.” There is a natural human tendency in which action devolves into gesture, the concrete drifts into abstraction, the outline morphs into shorthand. It’s true in language, in the arts, and in politics, and I think its effects distracted much Black American thought — as today’s wokeness as performance also leads us astray — at a time when there was finally the opportunity to do so much more. I will explore what that more was in another column, but in the meantime, Whitaker, Neiman, Akst and — albeit more obliquely — Gage are useful in showing why 1966 was such an important turning point in the story.

Source: Today’s Woke Excesses Were Born in the ’60s

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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