The Black Freedom Struggle began in America when the first Africans were brought to Florida in 1581. It continued onward through emancipation and reconstruction as black Americans “built a nation under their feet”, resisting chattel slavery, self-manumitting, taking up arms, and then building political and social institutions across the South and the rest of the United States. The Black Freedom Struggle would reach its peak with the Civil Rights Movement and be seared into American public memory with the Great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and iconic speeches by Dr. King and others.
The Civil Rights Movement continues today with Black Lives Matter and the centuries-long fight by black and brown folks against police thuggery, for a more equitable society, dignity, and full human rights for all peoples on both sides of the color line. The Black Freedom Struggle inspired other groups—women, gays and lesbians, the differently-abled—in the United States to resist and fight Power. It has also been a source of inspiration for people’s movements around the world.
Of course, the individuals who led (and lead) the Black Freedom Struggle are not perfect. They, like all of us, are flawed. Black resistance to white supremacy occasionally (both necessarily and understandably) involved moments of fleeting flirtation with racial chauvinism.
And one cannot overlook how political stagecraft and cruel realpolitik tried to erase the leadership role played by gays and lesbians in the Civil Rights Movement--this is a shameful blemish on the radically humanistic and transformative vision of American life offered by that glorious struggle.
But in all, the Black Freedom Struggle has been a source of inspiration; black Americans are the moral conscience of a nation. Black America has earned that title even as much as it has been unfairly forced upon it. In that idealized role, black Americans are called to defend the weak against the strong, speak truth to power, and force America to live up to the promise of its democratic creed and vision.
This obligation can give strength, clarity of purpose and energy to Black Americans and others who honor that legacy. Being part of a community that is “the miner’s canary” and “moral conscience of a nation” can exact a heavy burden. As such, some black folks have decided that the burden and obligation are too great to carry. Their shoulders are too narrow and weak.
Ben Carson, black conservative and 2016 Republican presidential primary candidate, is one such person. Last week, Ben Carson surrendered to xenophobia, nativism, and intolerance when he suggested that Muslims are inherently incapable of being President of the United States because their faith is incompatible with the Constitution.
As reported by CNN, in a conversation on Wednesday of this week Carson then suggested:
"I find black Republicans are treated extremely well in the Republican Party. In fact, I don't hear much about being a black Republican," he said Wednesday at an event in Michigan. "I think the Republicans have done a far superior job of getting over racism."
Carson was a Democrat for years, but said he's found the Republican Party to be more welcoming. "When you look at the philosophies of the two parties now, what I have noticed as a black Republican is that Republicans tend to look more at the character of people. And Democrats tend to look more at the color of their skin," he said Wednesday.
Ben Carson’s comments are delusional, hypocritical, and vexing. Carson, like many movement conservatives, is a Christian theocrat who wants to weaken the boundaries between church and state in the United States. Carson, like other contemporary American conservatives, fetishizes the Constitution except when he wants to radically alter it: His suggestion that there should be a religious litmus test for office actually violates Article VI.
Black Americans are not lockstep or uniform in their political beliefs. Spirited disagreement is central to black American political life. But for Carson to suggest that the Republican Party, with its Birtherism, Southern Strategy of overt and covert racism, and clear examples of “old fashioned” anti-black animus in the Age of Obama, is somehow a force for racial “progress” is an analysis that can only be offered by a person who is possessed of some sort of Stockholm Syndrome or willfully blind to empirical reality.
Ben Carson’s pandering to Islamophobia is a violation of the Black Freedom Struggle’s spirit that black folks as unique victims of Power in America have a moral obligation to stand with the weak against the strong. Ultimately, he has rejected the legacy and burden of the Black Freedom Struggle. These are not meritorious acts of radical autonomy or individuality. Rather, they are acts of cowardice and betrayal.
But if one rejects the Black Freedom Struggle, what do they replace it with?
Black conservatives such as Ben Carson receive head-patting approval from white conservatives. The primary role of black conservatives in the post civil rights era is, as I have suggested many times both here at Salon and elsewhere, is to serve as human chaff and a defense shield against claims that white racism exists—and that today’s Republican Party is an organization whose “name brand” is based on mining white racial resentment, rage, and animus.
Ben Carson, like Herman Cain before him, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and the panoply of black conservatives trotted out on Fox News and elsewhere to excuse-make for white racism, are professional “black best friends” for the Republican Party.
Ben Carson’s rejection of the Black Freedom Struggle and public embrace of Islamophobia is also very lucrative.
Black conservatives, like women who reject feminism, gays and lesbians who oppose marriage equality, and Hispanics and Latinos who publicly bloviate against “illegal immigrants,” occupy a very lucrative niche in the right-wing media and entertainment apparatus. In the mid- to long-term, Carson’s black conservative hustle will earn him money on the lecture circuit. In the short-term, Carson’s Islamophobia has garnered at least $1 million in donations to his campaign.
Betraying the Black Freedom Struggle is both ego gratifying for black conservatives—they are deemed by the White Right as the “special” or “good” black who is not the like the “other ones”—and financially lucrative.
How do Black conservatives such as Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas, among others, reconcile their rejection of the Black Freedom Struggle with the fact that they, as members of the black elite and professional classes, are direct beneficiaries and products of it?
They can imagine themselves as the true holders of the flame who are defending Black America’s “real interests” from trickery and deception by Democrats who want to keep black folks on a “plantation”. This is specious and insulting, of course, as such claims assume that black Americans are stupid, dumb, and unlike white folks, have no ability to make rational political calculi about their own collective self-interest.
Contemporary black conservatives could also choose to rewrite the last 70 years or so of history--Republicans are the saviors of black Americans for time immemorial; Democrats are permanent enslavers and Klansman. In this imagined world, the Civil Rights Movement, and its won-in-blood-and-death victories -- such as the Voting Rights Act -- is somehow no longer needed. Moreover, protections for Black Americans which acknowledge the unique and continuing threat to their right to vote and full citizenship are somehow condescending and infantilizing. This is the logic of Clarence Thomas in his neutering the Voting and Civil Rights Acts.
This betrayal of one of the core tenets of the Black Freedom Struggle is also tacitly and actively endorsed by black conservatives who are members of the Republican Party, because the latter’s strategy and goal for maintaining electoral power in the present and future is to limit the ability of non-whites to vote.
My claims here are not at all based on some type of inexorable race essentialism or related fictions of “biological race.” The mantle of the Black Freedom Struggle, the miner’s canary, and the calling to be the moral conscience of a nation, are a function of history, values, political socialization, linked fate, the “blues sensibility”, and “love principle” that have driven black American freedom and resistance in the United States and elsewhere.
Black conservatives in the post-civil-rights era are of that legacy while still having chosen to turn their backs on it. And others like Ben Carson, men and women influenced by radical Christian fundamentalism and cultivated ignorance on the historical and contemporary realities of the color line and American politics, are black conservative Don Quixotes, stuck in a fantasy world, fighting windmills, chimeras, and other enemies that do not exist. In their made up world, lies and fantasies are more comforting than hard realities and truths.
Ben Carson and other black conservatives may have turned their backs to the Black Freedom Struggle — but it still claims them nonetheless.