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Race Publics: Civic Illiberalism, or Race After Reagan

 Originally Appeared in: Transition: 66 | Published: 1995

The last two decades have born witness to a profound transformation of American politics, a transformation emblematized by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. One need look no further than the Republican takeover of both houses of the Congress to observe that the spectrum of American political opinion has shifted dramatically to the right since the Reagan-Bush era. What has been insufficiently observed and what is perhaps crucial to understanding the dynamics of this moment in American political history is how Reaganism succeeded in dislocating a value painstakingly established in the years following the Second World War. Reaganism excised racial justice from public discourse, transforming this powerful, tenuously shared expression of a common good into a tabooed slogan.

A chasm seems to separate us from the time when racial justice was becoming part of the national purpose. A sign of this chasm is the intensity with which “Malcolm-and-Martin” have recently emerged within the black public sphere as powerful icons, beckoning from a distant past: twins and rivals, martyrs and ideals, whose very return seems to diminish, even chastise, the leaders who have come since. From Eugene Rivers’ attempt to synthesize Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., into a single, unified emblem of black political experience and thought, to Spike Lee’s juxtaposition of their irreconcilable words at the end of Do the Right Thing-“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I’m not against violence in self-defense.”-black intellectuals and artists are still powerfully and deeply summoned by their conflicting images.

At the heart of the continuing relevance, even urgency, of their contrary messages is the fact that both King and Malcolm articulated a moral vision of racial injustice in America, and sought to define a politics that, in being sustained by that moral vision, would overcome the injustices themselves. But racial injustice was experienced differently by these two leaders, giving rise to very different symbols of evil, very different images of justice. 

Malcolm X’s prison conversion to the Nation of Islam was an experience of purification, as he overcame his addictions to tobacco, drugs, and alcohol and felt cleansed by fasting and giving up pork. He associated his former addictions and habits with the influence, the weight, the burden, of the white world upon him. His renunciations of those influences provided, in turn, an emphatic experience of coming into freedom. Freedom thus took the form for Malcolm X of a separation from everything associated with the white world, and his rigorous moral discipline and religious submission took on the meaning of liberation. 

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s moral vision developed out of an altogether different experience. The discipline he and his followers practiced was that of non-violence as a political strategy of confrontation with police, courts, and violent whites. As a political discipline, civil disobedience denounced unjust laws in the name of higher laws, and at the same time prefigured a new civil order based on equal rights and mutual obligations. As a moral stance, non-violence also required the arduous task of imagining that the humanity of your oppressor or antagonist outweighed and would outlive the violence and harm he perpetrated against you. The experience of this non-violence, including the violence it brought down on the protesters themselves, projected liberation as reconciliation-a reconciliation between races, a reconciliation within a single, shared polity. 

For Malcolm the evil of racial injustice was symbolized in impurity and dependence. For King it was symbolized in hatred and violence. Both visions arose from the fabric of everyday experience, and they both fused out-of-the-ordinary self-mastery or self-discipline with a forceful articulation of injustice and justice. Moreover, both King and Malcolm looked to a process of persuasion and learning that had to encompass whites as well as blacks. Even in the midst of his most ferocious chauvinism and separatism, Malcolm believed his purpose was “to devote … my life to telling the white man about him self-or die.” The imperative of persuasion and learning permeated every aspect of the civil rights movement under King’s direction. Civil disobedience was designed to inaugurate a learning process within communities-and within the nation-by precipitating confrontations that forced people to reassess, often agonizingly, their values, perceptions, habits. 

While the Nation of Islam worked to organize a separatist black community and fostered millennial expectations of the fall of white people, it also always taught strict obedience to civil authorities. King, by contrast, organized confrontations with civil authority and gave his movement a political dynamic that was without corollary in the Nation of Islam. By the time of his break with Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm was acutely aware of this political absence; his own mastery of mass media as a vehicle of political expression and organization had carried him beyond the Nation’s boundaries. He had, in short, created a new kind of engagement in, and with, the public sphere. It is clear from the closing chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X that in 1965, on the eve of his death, Malcolm was still seeking an apt political vision to synthesize Black Nationalism and his new universalist perspective. In the film Malcolm X, Spike Lee captures that moment of quandary in the brief scene where Malcolm has taken refuge alone in the New York Hilton. Be leaguered, pursued, he is shown thought fully, perhaps enviously, watching TV news footage of civil rights confrontations in the South as he puzzles over the direction of his Organization of Afro American Unity. 

The discourses of Malcolm and King belonged to the protest tradition of African American publicness. Protest does not merely seek to make an opinion known within the established political or der; it aims to alter the very structure of participation and the very horizon of discussion and debate. King found and Malcolm sought a grammar of political action that could give form-that is, lend reality-to what were fundamentally moral visions. Too often theorists and critics neglect the moral dimension of the public sphere. But the transformation of the public sphere in the wake of the Reagan Revolution has, to a significant degree, hinged on the massive alteration of the moral-political values that organize national political debate. The terms of policy and of protest, the prevailing consensus and the language of political criticism, the meaning of publicness itself, have all been affected by this transvaluation of values….

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