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Afro - Americans

On the Other Hand

By Herbert H. Denton jr.

Some time ago, one of the founders of the newly-organized African and Afro-American Association invited me to join his group. He argued that existing groups working for Negro rights cannot effectively cope with Negro problems because of the influence of white members. His central point was that whites, however good their intentions, can never fully understand the situation and aspirations of Negroes because, by virtue of their being white, they cannot share fully and directly, in the experience of Negroes in a white-dominated society. They can only feel vicariously what Negroes feel directly, and, consequently, their approach must contain distortions which severely limit their ability to contribute to Negro endeavors.

He carried his argument a step further: not only are whites qua whites inherently excluded from an understanding of Negro problems, but Negroes qua Negroes--whether of American or African origin--have in common an indefinable "experience of oppression" which in some essential sense binds them together as a racial group. They stand apart from other groups which have been oppressed, and yet remain somehow together despite their disparate national origins and the differences between colonial rule and American bigotry as styles of oppression.

While one might agree that American Negroes have some things in common to justify their associating in an exclusive group, the idea of an international unity with African Negroes seems for more dubious, particularly when it is argued that the unifying "experience of oppression" somehow does not apply to non-Negro groups which have been persecuted. Apart from the color of their skins, what arguments can be adduced for a unity which implies that the experience of being oppressed as a Negro (whatever the actual character of the oppression) is essentially different from the experience of being oppressed because one belongs to some other minority group?

While this notion seems to be gaining fairly wide acceptance in some quarters, there seems to be strong and unanswered objections to it. Unless the adheres to some notion of a racial unconscious, would seem that the experience of each individual consists of what happens to him within his own concrete social and cultural situation. The tribulations of his ancestors three hundred years ago become relevant only insofar as they are reflected in his personal situation, or insofar as he is taught to believe them emotionally important regardless his own position. Hence it would seem that what matters for the Afro-American "unity of oppression" is not a common "Negritude," but rather the agree to which the environmental situations of African and American Negroes are parallel.

Considered objectively, and without recourse to a somewhat obscurantist idea that whites and Negroes are intrinsically incapable of understanding in another an idea which is always assumed, (never demonstrated), the notion of an Afro-American Negro unity which trancends all other ties extremely questionable, to say the least. African Negroes have come from a social environment which is still by and large tribal and industrially undeveloped, and a political situation in which absolute colonial rule and rigid racial paternalism were until recently completely predominant. Their sympathies often tend to lie with Marxist notions of forced economic development, and with the conception of racially founded nationalist hegemony. The situation of American Negroes is quite different. Centuries removed from tribal roots, they live in an industrialized society in which the idea of equality, while hardly realized in concrete terms, has been almost universally accepted as an ethical norm towards which society must, will and can move. The personal experiences of African and American Negroes--and, in particular, the ways in which oppression has been experienced--cannot but reflect these striking differences in their social, economic, and political circumstances. It is difficult to see what overriding bond of experience American Negroes have with Africans which ties them closer to Africa than to their native land, or should cause them to reject equally close collaboration with other groups which have been oppressed.

In the final analysis, the argument for American and African unity rests on the undemonstrable--and perhaps slightly paranoid--act of pure faith which asserts a priori that whites and Negroes per se cannot understand one another nor collaborate in an atmosphere of equality and mutual respect. One thing is certain: the surest way to prevent equality is to convince everyone of such a thesis. Paranoid presuppositions rapidly become self-fulfilling prophecies. The ideal of equality is not refuted, it is merely rendered historically impossible by ideologies which generate racial distrust.

One must question the desirability of encouraging such ideas--which may be understandable in the context of African experience--in a country where ethical norms and historical progress point in the opposite direction. The question becomes even sharper when one notes that a principal strategy of conversion to these ideas is to allege that those Negroes whose experience has led them to different conclusions have "sold out" to the offay "enemy": to call them "Uncle Toms" and arouse, through emotional ideologizing, a sense of guilt designed to lead them to positions which, in an atmosphere less charged emotionally, might be wholly inconsistent with their personal experience and ethical norms.

One must further question the desirability of fostering such a psychological pattern within the Harvard environment. Negro students coming to the University are likely to be overwhelmed with the idea, promoted by the only "official" Negro organization on campus, that even the most liberal and interesting white students they may meet cannot possibly understand them, and may even be hypocrites--that the only place they are truly among friends is in an all-Negro organization strongly influenced by Black Nationalism. Such an outcome drastically curtails their ability to benefit from the central Harvard experience of association with and exposure to the broadest possible spectrum of people, ideas and movements. One may seriously ask whether an organization which so functions is in anyway compatible with the educational ideals of this University.

Whether or not the College should recognize the African and Afro-American Association, despite its explicit racial discrimination, remains an open question. The moral objection to discrimination is not that it involves making distinctions between people, but that the racial distinctions involved are rationally indefensible and lead to social evil. The most relevant criterion in evaluating the AAAA would thus seem to be, not the legalistic implications of its membership clause, but the effect the group will have upon the concrete educational experience of an important number of undergraduates--whether it will, in fact, lead to social evil within the Harvard community. The Association's representatives have not, so far, presented any cogent, rationally outlined arguments to this point. Barring the explicit adoption of an across-the-board laissez-faire policy of University recognition, perhaps the College authorities should hold the AAAA charter in abeyance until the club's representatives have clarified their position on this question.

(The above represents the opinion of a minority of the Editorial Board).

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