Friday, February 20, 2015

Reclaiming Malcolm X

This weekend marks the 50th Anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. Malcolm has always had a deep influence on my writing, beliefs, and intellectual life. His unflinching commitment to justice and dignity are the hallmarks of his legacy.

Oh, and scaring the hell out of white people.

But seriously, there’s nothing I’ve ever read or seen attributed to Malcolm that would put him anywhere near the Progressive Left, who tend to embrace him. The late author of his most recent major biography, professor Manning Marable, attempted to rationalize his placement in the Progressive pantheon. But there was no real link in his well-researched and well-written biography. At best, he mentioned some “anti-capitalist” rhetoric  in speeches to colleges (text by Damon Root):

In a 1992 speech at Colorado's Metro State College, Columbia University historian Manning Marable praised the black minister and activist Malcolm X for pushing an "uncompromising program which was both antiracist and anticapitalist." As Marable favorably quoted from the former Nation of Islam leader: "You can't have racism without capitalism. If you find antiracists, usually they're socialists or their political philosophy is that of socialism."

In historical context, Malcolm was living in the Cold War political dichotomy. The Soviet Union and other communist nations were pitted squarely against the United States and the capitalist countries. If United States capitalism permitted Jim Crow, backed assassinations in Africa, and supported South African Apartheid, I’d be against it too. But where politics and economics converged to the detriment of American minorities, the culprits were the American government and its tolerance and furtherance of American racism, not a system of free exchange and entrepreneurship.

Indeed, many of Malcolm’s most famous and impassioned speeches dealt with American hypocrisy and the national inability to respect the laws of the Constitution that supposedly guaranteed equal rights. He wasn’t judging America for its ideals or its promise of freedom, rather than its utter and undeniable failure to secure rights for black people.  

I write this not to claim Malcolm for libertarians or, least of all, the American Right. His legacy belongs to black people and America writ large, if they bother to embrace it.

People should remember Malcolm for what he was and what he stood for, not just as a symbol of scaring white people. He believed in the absolute right to self-defense and personal responsibility. He believed in small business and black empowerment.  He wanted jobs and dignity for black people, and he didn’t believe the government as instituted in the United States could provide it.

Similar to what I wrote in my lengthy response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ remarkable article on reparations, the fundamental divide in civil rights today shouldn’t be about desert or what America should do. Rather, the argument should be about what America could reasonably be expected to do. Just because we elected a black president does not mean the government has gotten remarkably better at delivering on the failed promises of the past two and a half centuries.

We’re still trying to get past the very same phenomenon Malcolm was talking about in this short speech excerpt:

More than 50 years later, so much has not changed.

I don’t know what Malcolm’s macroeconomic prescriptions would be if he were alive today, and I don’t care. But Malcolm was right to be skeptical of government action. Active government aimed at bettering black lives gave us the ’94 Crime Bill,  the 100:1 crack to powder sentencing disparity, Broken Windows, and Stop-and-Frisk. It will take years to repair the damage they caused in black communities, on top of the preexisting problems of poverty, ghettoization, and crumbling infrastructure.

And we simply cannot undo the catastrophe they’ve inflicted on countless black lives. 

Before we ask the government to do anything else, it must recognize the fundamental civil rights of black Americans. Just as Malcolm recognized, whatever the laws say doesn't mean anything if the police can abuse black people and get away with it. And it is undeniable that the police violence against blacks and others continues today through hostile day-to-day interactions, militarization, and wanton brutality.

As Ossie Davis eulogized him, Malcolm was our champion, and we should continue to honor him. We do this by fighting police brutality. We do this by demanding equal rights and human dignity now. And we should do this by any means necessary.

Malcolm X, RIP

bellum medicamenti delenda est

**I don’t know the source for this video, and it has clearly been edited.  But the segments seem to all come from the same speech and thus retain their relevance as individual parts or taken together.

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