Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: The need for class struggle in black community

Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk: The need for class struggle in black community

We in the Breakfast Club adhere to the biblical saying, "steel sharpens steel." Popularized by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, this phrase means rigorous — but principled — debate. C.L.R. James contends that leaders are important for what they represent, not for who they are.

Recently, questions about debate and leadership among African-Americans exploded across the media. Black pubic intellectuals are still agitated over Cornel West's critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent essay collection, "We Were Eight Years in Power."

The issues that should emerge from West's personalized critique of Coates are precisely questions about the value of debate and the quality of leadership. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, most commentators treated West's criticisms as the most recent episode of his "feuds" with other black public intellectuals.

Thus, in Salon, D. Watkins deems West's critique, a "beef." In a series of tweets, Jelani Cobb, Coates' friend, accuses West of "hate." Michael Eric Dyson mirrors Cobb's comments. Cynically, he alleges West's critical observations are designed to promote the 25th-anniversary release of "Race Matters," West's most popular work. Others see a stereotypical male ego contest. And in an exceptionally unknowing observation, the Wall Street Journal's Jason L. Riley views Coates v. West as a difference without a distinction or two liberals bickering over nonsense.

On the other hand, a few analysts acknowledge the significance of the issues raised. Brittney Cooper declares, the "urgency" of Trumpism necessitates this conversation. Naomi Klein and Opal Tometi address the opportunities opened up by the debate for multiracial internationalism.

Regardless of motives or the merits of his critique, West raises vital issues. In his response, Cobb identifies serious inconsistencies in West's practice. Yet, pinpointing West's personal and political flaws is not the same as exposing problems with his argument. West's alleged flaws are irrelevant, and raising them skirts the edge of principled debate, with one critical exception. West has demonstrated a tendency to personalize political differences, which he does in this instance.

Nonetheless, to dismiss West's critique is a mistake, not because he's correct, but because the issues he raises transcend Coates and speak to the weaknesses in the struggle. West's critique should spark a re-evaluation of the seminal debates in the modern black liberation movement.

The most famous of which involved Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois; Du Bois and Marcus Garvey; and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. While all degenerated into personal attacks, at the core of each debate were differences in ideology and politics. Characterizing these debates as contests between ego-centered men masks the deeper truth that the principal of each debate represented an organization and the strategic vision of a different class strata, if not a different class.

Washington and Du Bois represented the conflict between two strata in the emerging black middle class, the entrepreneurs and the intelligentsia. They expressed their perspectives through Tuskegee Institute and the National Negro Business League, and Atlanta University and the Niagara Movement. However, neither Washington nor Du Bois were members of the largest black political organization, the reparationist and working class, National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty and Pension Association, led by Callie House, with a membership of 600,000.

Second, while West may miscast Coates, his critique captures the truth of increasing black immiseration and the increasing class-based internal divide among African-Americans.

West's challenge should inspire a more critical analysis of the intertwining of race, class and power in the U.S., across the world, and especially in the U.S. black community. After adjusting for inflation, in 1992, the U.S.'s "most affluent" 400 households averaged $46.2 million in income; by 2015, their average income had leapt to $5.8 billion.

Afro-America has mirrored the U.S.'s acceleration in income equality. In 1969, the lowest fifth of black families received 4 percent of African-American households' median income while the highest fifth acquired nearly 16 percent. By 2010, the lowest fifth's portion had fallen to 2.7 percent, while the top fifth's rose to 21 percent.

While the black elite tremendously increased its share of the aggregate African-American household income, black folks overall fell further behind whites. In 1974, median black household income was 63 percent of whites'; in 2014, it was less than 59 percent, or 4 percent less than 40 years prior!

In 2007, PEW revealed that 61 percent of black people believed the cultural values of middle class and poor black folks had sharply diverged. Thirty-one percent thought the differences were such that blacks no longer constituted a single race.

West's bungled point is that escalating income and wealth inequality within the black community has profoundly impacted African-American politics. He wants to elevate questions of class and imperialism, thereby forcing liberals to take a position on capitalism. The differences between leftists and liberals are not trivial.

In a moment in which the predations of racial oppression, fueled by an increasingly exploitative global capitalism has escalated income and wealth inequality and plunged the majority of black folk into a new nadir, it's past time that black radicals challenge black liberals for power in the black community.

Steel sharpens steel.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is

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CommonSenseless wrote on January 02, 2018 at 10:01 am

The black/white income gap is growing because the Democrat party's assault has been unwavering... Destruction of the nuclear family, systematic disenfranchisement and generational welfare dependence has made upward mobility all but an impossibility reserved for the lucky few.