Fiddling While Rome Burns

Fiddling While Rome Burns
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, Aug 9, 2009

“Obama, Gates and the American Black Man” by Glenn.C. Loury should be discussed wherever people meet and talk: Congress, the White House, churches, factories. offices; on street corners, talk shows and in prison yards. It appeared on the July 26 New York Times Op-Ed page.

Until I read the brief bio identifying the author, I hadn’t heard of Loury’s latest book, Race, Incarceration and American Values. Having long viewed him as a very conservative black economist and unaware of his public change of heart in 2002, I might have skipped his article had my eye not been caught by the lively graphic “Change will not come from the Posturing of Politicians,”

Lowry begins by recalling Attorney General Eric Holder’s Black History Month assertion that “in things racial we have always been essentially … a nation of cowards.” What Holder meant by this he doesn’t say. But he doesn’t mince words in saying what he means.

“It is as if all our talk about race,” he writes, “must be forced into a comfortable and familiar, if false, narrative where villains (‘racists’) and heroes (‘victims of racism’) are clear-cut, and where all one needs to stand on the right side of history is to engage in a bit of moral sanctimony.”

This sanctimonious story is the one that black intellectuals, politicians, journalists and activists have been telling for the last 30 years. It is, like Professor Gates’ arrest, a “made-for-cable-TV tempest in a teapot….It sheds no relevant light on the plight of the millions of black men on society’s margins who bear the brunt of police scrutiny and government-sanctioned coercion.”

“I find laughable and sad,” Loury continues, “Professor Gates’ declaration that he now plans to make a documentary film about racial profiling… Where hast this eminent scholar of African American affairs been these last 30 years, during which a historically unprecedented, politically popular, extraordinarily punitive and hugely racially disparate mobilization of resources for the policing, imprisonment and post-release supervision of those caught up in the criminal justice system has unfolded?”

This criminal justice system has unfolded because our post-industrial society –although it can use talking heads like Skip Gates, Michael Dyson and Tavis Smiley– no longer has any use for Malcolm X’s “Field Negroes” and increasingly needs “Field Whites” only as prison guards and police officers.

It is because most Americans are too cowardly to face this new reality that we talk so endlessly about the Gates-Obama soap opera. It’s the post-modern equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

46 years ago, in The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workers Notebook, James Boggs, observing the shrinking numbers of workers on the factory floor, warned that the antagonism between those without jobs who have to be supported and those with jobs who have to support them was giving rise to a counter-revolutionary movement.

As a black man, Jimmy was often the victim of racial profiling, but as a movement activist and theoretician, he was conscious of his responsibility for identifying the potential for chaos and conflict emerging from constantly changing realities.

So in 1981. in From Racism to Counter-Revolution, he again warned that today’s growing hostility to blacks should not be confused with racism as it was practiced prior to the civil rights movement. It must be recognized instead as part of an increasingly dangerous counter-revolutionary movement because “millions of whites as well as black workers are out of work and unlikely to have steady work again.”

That is why sharing a beer after work is no longer enough to be on the right side of history. Our challenge is to discover new roles for human beings and to redefine Work and Education for our post-industrial age when the labor of both “Field Negroes” and “Field Whites” has become redundant.

If you have the courage and imagination to accept this challenge, Monthly Review will soon re-issue The American Revolution with new introductions by seven very diverse Detroiters. Meanwhile you can read the original 1963 manuscript here.



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