A Dialogue Between Generations
Several weeks ago I attended and spoke at a conference on race which was organized at Stanford University. After delivering my lecture, I walked down the steps from the stage. Clustered around the steps were several male and female graduate students. One young black man, about 25 years old, handsome and confident, began to raise a series of questions. I quickly apologized, and explained that I had to leave immediately to be transported by car to the San Jose airport, to catch the red-eye evening flight back to New York.
The students expressed the desire to continue our conversation on foot, and would even help carry my suitcase. I agreed. We walked across the large campus at a quick pace, as I was peppered with queries. The young black man wanted to know if I still considered myself a democratic socialist, and if so, why?
I started to talk about the rich tradition of black American leaders and scholars who publicly identified themselves as "socialists," including W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Angela Y. Davis, Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, June Jordan and Cornel West. At the end of their lives, both Malcolm and Martin had increasingly come to believe that capitalism as a social and economic system could never empower the overwhelming majority of black people inside this country as well as worldwide.
"But what makes you think socialism can be relevant or even make sense to black people, when everywhere its been tried it has failed?" the young black man asked sincerely. "What socialist societies can serve as realistic models for us today?"
Well yes, I replied, the concept of socialism has been discredited largely due to the collapse of Soviet Communism, as well as the retreat of European Social Democratic Parties into neoliberalism. But despite their problems, socialist economies did deliver many real benefits, such as free education, universal health care, low cost housing and pensions, far better than market societies.
Markets are engines of inequality, I asserted. When a group of people sits down to play poker, at the end of the game everyone doesn't go home with more money than they came with. It's a zero-sum game, with winners and losers. And in a racist society, the economy is designed to insure that African Americans, Latinos, working class and poor people are almost always permanent "losers".
"Maybe you're wrong about history," the young black man countered, as we walked to the parking lot, looking around for the car to take me to the airport. "Look at the economic prosperity of the 1990s. Even poor people in the U.S. have a much higher standard of living than anyone in the Third World."
That fact is of little comfort to the 44 million Americans who don't have medical insurance, I replied. In 1999, more than 500,000 Americans will go to hospital emergency rooms and will be turned away because they have no health insurance. A black man born and raised in Central Harlem has life expectancy of 49 years of age, lower than many Third World countries. How can any of this be justified?
"I'm not justifying it," the young man replied. "But there's no alternative to what is already out there, and the prospects for fundamental change in the near future are almost nonexistent."
As the car finally pulled up to take me to the airport, I thought for a moment and then said to the young man: "You're very intelligent, and clearly committed to progressive ideas. But don't be intimidated by the power of the system. People united in struggle can make new history."
We all shook hands, and then I stepped into the car. Slowly, through heavy freeway traffic, we made it to the airport just in time. All along the way, I thought about the generational divide that now cuts across black America. Middle-aged African Americans who lived through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements witnessed fundamental changes in politics and society. Jim Crow segregation was destroyed; African and Caribbean countries became independent. Black college enrollments in the U.S. soared from 200,000 to 1.1 million in only twenty years. The number of black elected officials rose from only 100 in 1964 to over 10,000 today. We were convinced that history was on our side.
For the Hip Hop generation, recent black history has been largely a series of reversals and defeats: the dismantling of affirmative action, the rapid expansion of prisons and the incarceration of one-third of all young black men behind bars, prominent cases of police brutality, and economic marginalization. Even the decade's most significant public event involving African-American young people, the Million Man March, did not consolidate the mass outpouring of emotional energy into a strong grassroots network and a coherent public policy agenda for black empowerment. Louis Farrakhan's blend of Republican economics, patriarchy and conservative black nationalism came to represent "black militancy" to many younger African Americans, who were desperately searching for effective leadership. Some could not discern the differences between the voices of black progressivism vs. black reaction. Although many young African Americans are active in political organizations and movements, others have become disengaged from struggles within the black community.
Leaders aren't born, they are made. Those of us who may claim the mantle of experience in the black freedom movement, must listen and learn from the perspectives of the rising generation of African Americans. Through dialogues and exchanges, we may find better ways to communicate our knowledge and cumulative insights to younger people, without imposing our own assumptions and dogma about social reality.
Only a leadership that learns from the past is capable of articulating a vision for the future. But each successive generation must find its own voice, its way of interpreting and understanding the world, in its effort to change it.
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia University. "Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge to over 325 publications throughout the U.S. and internationally. Dr. Marable's column is also available on the internet at www.manningmarable.net.