Black Bourgeoisie is a quick, highly uncomfortable read from the 1950s. It’s about black people who have a lot of money for black people, how they’ve come to adopt white, middle-class American values, internalized racism, and tried to distance themselves from poor black people. It’s scathing and its publication apparently caused a lot of butthurt. A very strong case is made that “black elites” are contemptible and self-delusional.
It’s also sad to read. First, because a lot of it could still describe today. Second, because what’s described in the book is pitiful, if you read it with less bitterness. Self-delusional race-traitors aren’t helping, but the alternative is facing the objective awfulness and hopelessness of black people’s situation. Wouldn’t it be nice to just escape the problem? The issue is that they undermine the interests all black people by thinking they’re on the same team as rich whites:
The extent to which these false notions influence the outlook of Negroes cannot better be illustrated than by the case of the Negro Pullman porter who owned his home and four shares of stock, valued at about eighty dollars, in a large American corporation. He declared that he was against the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal because they taxed men of property like himself in order to assist lazy working men. Such delusions are created largely, as we shall see in the next chapter, by the Negro press.
What’s the Matter with Kansas? covers similar ground regarding self-defeating white people.
It’s hard to blame them in some ways:
The entire history of the Negro in the United States has been of a nature to create in the Negro a feeling of racial inferiority. During the more than two centuries of enslavement by the white man, every means was employed to stamp a feeling of natural inferiority in the Negro’s soul. Christianity and the Bible were utilized both to prove and to give divine sanction to his alleged racial inferiority or, as some contended, his exclusion from the races of mankind…A legalized system of racial segregation was established which stigmatized the Negro as unfit for human association, and every type of propaganda was employed to prove that the Negro was morally degenerate and intellectually incapable of being educated. Living constantly under the domination and contempt of the white man, the Negro came to believe in his own inferiority, whether he ignored or accepted the values of the white man’s world. The black bourgeoisie…exhibits most strikingly the inferiority complex of those who would escape their racial identification.
A high point of the book is its history of black education. In some ways my life has been defined by the educational aspirations of black people. My dad grew up sharecropping in the South, and didn’t get a proper education. He had to fight for his GED in the Army. After the Army, he became a social worker, which makes him part of the class of people the book is about. Due to his childhood deprivations, he couldn’t have really finished college without heroic efforts on my mom’s part to make his written work presentable. His inability to keep records at work properly was a professional liability, and it created a lot of job uncertainty at some points. Because of this, it was extremely important that I speak “proper English” and do well in school. We loved The Cosby Show. I went to college all the way through a PhD mostly with “diversity” money. He didn’t live to see me complete it, but it meant a lot symbolically that I was going to be a “doctor.” The deeper I got into academic stuff, with my parents’ encouragement, the more there was a cultural gulf between me and them, for different reasons. By the time you finish a PhD, it doesn’t feel like anything except a mark of endurance and the willingness to do “advanced” things for low pay for years.
Low wages for grad students are one of the reasons there are so few black people in science. Writing and journalism are two more fields where an extended period of low wages keeps out poor people, who can’t afford impractical idealistic things. In grad school, I’d say “I’m like a starving artist, but for science.” Of course, “starving artists” have trust funds a lot of the time. Grad students that aren’t independently wealthy often have “supportive partners” and so on. It’s weird being the token exception that proves the rule, knowing you’re there exactly because most people aren’t. I have a tech industry job, now, which most people also don’t. It takes conscious effort to remember that what’s around me is unrepresentative.
The book also tends to lump all mulattoes together as traitors while praising the NAACP for its more militant stance, ignoring that one of the most important people in the history of the NAACP was so white-looking he infiltrated KKK meetings.
It’s also ironic that the author, from his position as a university professor, wrote a book criticizing the ignorance and cultural backwardness of another group of black people, because they do the same thing to even poorer black people. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
Anyway, reading this made me want to cry. It’s someone named Horace Bond, quoted in Black Bourgeoisie:
At no time or place in America has there been exemplified so pathetic a faith in education as the lever of racial progress. Grown men studied their alphabets in the fields, holding the “blue-back speller” with one hand while they guided the plow with the other. Mothers tramped scores of miles to towns where they could place their children in school. Pine torches illumined the dirt-floored cabins where men, women, and children studied until far into the night. No mass movement has been more in the American tradition than the urge which drove Negroes toward education soon after the Civil War.
Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were both obviously well-educated and thought about how society works on a sophisticated level:
Apparently only 36% of Americans (across races) can name the 3 branches of government. This is why the American public is so helpless. Structural problems of all kinds are easier to set up if the victims of those problems don’t even understand how they work.
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” — Lee Atwater
There’s a gross mismatch between what we’re up against and the way people behave:
The attempt on the part of the Communist Party to assign to the black bourgeoisie the traditional role of this class…only tended to emphasize the unreality of the position of the black bourgeoisie. Moreover, the black bourgeoisie have shown no interest in the “liberation” of Negroes except as it affected their own status or acceptance by the white community. They viewed with scorn the Garvey Movement with its nationalistic aims. They showed practically no interest in the Negro Renaissance. They wanted to forget the Negro’s past, and they have attempted to conform to the behavior and values of the white community in the most minute details. Therefore they have often become, as has been observed, “exaggerated” Americans.
Because of its struggle to gain acceptance by whites, the black bourgeoisie has failed to play the role of a responsible elite in the Negro community. Many individuals among the first generation of educated Negroes, who were the products of missionary education, had a sense of responsibility toward the Negro masses and identified themselves with the struggle of the masses to overcome the handicaps of ignorance and poverty.
It’s commonly understood (one hopes) that black people don’t have any stuff, and paying for schools out of property taxes…doesn’t pay for a lot. It was very interesting to learn about the history of white philanthropy shaping black education. Northern industrialists had an interest in having blacks be able to work for them, so they were a major source of funding at first, along with missionaries. Maybe it’s noteworthy that a major early source of funding was the Rockefeller family.
The consumerism of black people is often noted. There’s a trend toward unaffordable conspicuous consumption (true of Americans, generally). The consumerism is a distraction from serious matters, etc. It was pretty interesting to see this Booker T. Washington quote, in that light:
We might as well settle down to the uncompromising fact that our people will grow in proportion as we teach them that the way to have the most of Jesus and in a permanent form is to mix with their religion some land, cotton, and corn, and a house with two or three rooms, and a little bank account. With these interwoven with our religion, there will be a foundation for growth upon which we can build for all time.
How is that any different than modern “Prosperity Gospel” stuff? The “Religious Right” blends capitalism with Christianity, to the benefit of capitalists. This same thing was encouraged by industrialists among black people, as well. Religion (strongly encouraged in black schools) also prevented the Communists from making inroads among black people. There’s a false consciousness problem of epic proportions.
This is a really depressing post, and that could be seen as a disadvantage of education. The more you know about certain things, the worse they look. I recently came across the amazing finding that higher parental education helps everybody’s mental health, except in black people there’s an adverse effect that overwhelms the positive one:
“High socioeconomic status (SES) — particularly higher parent education — is known to be protective against depressive symptoms in young adults,” says Elizabeth Goodman, MD, of the MGHfC Division of General Academic Pediatrics, senior author on the paper. “But the relationship between higher SES and reduced depression is not consistent for black individuals, and our key finding helps explain this inconsistency. For black youth, we found that higher parental education is a double-edged sword, buffering against the development of depression but also leading to increased discrimination, which in and of itself causes depression. Overall, the protective effects of high parent education are zeroed out by the negative effects of increased discrimination experienced because of that high socioeconomic status.”
Black Bourgeoisie talked about this a long time ago:
But while the Negro folk were exposed to a greater extent to the violence of the whites, the black bourgeoisie was more exposed in a spiritual sense. Except for the economic relations with whites, the Negro folk could retreat within their own world with its peculiar religious life, recreation, and family and sex life. Moreover, since the thinking of the Negro folk was not affected as that of the black bourgeoisie by the books and papers in which the Negro’s inferiority was proclaimed, the black bourgeoisie suffered spiritually not only because they were affected by ideas concerning the Negro’s inferiority, but perhaps even more because they had adopted the white man’s values and patterns of behavior.
Of course all this makes people want to retreat into fantasy land. I’m educated enough to see how deep and how unlikely the necessary changes are. It is and is not the fault of the rest of my team. The objective facts about race are so bad that it’s traumatizing to think about them, for black and white people, at least the empathetic ones.
If black people were emotionally capable of facing these things, there would be more angry demands for a revolution. White people could obviously find it within themselves to stop already and then figure out how they’re going to make it up to the rest of us.
It feels like our whole society is a big game of pretend so we don’t have to face how bad our society is.