Sunday, June 7, 2020

Sunday Long Read: The Cool Revolution

More than ever, Esquire Magazine's 1968 interview with James Baldwin on race relations is prescient, relevant, and distressingly frustrating in what little has changed in the last fifty years.

Can we still cool it? 
That depends on a great many factors. It's a very serious question in my mind whether or not the people of this country, the bulk of population of this country, have enough sense of what is really happening to their black co-citizens to understand why they're in the streets. I know of this moment they maybe don't know it, and this is proved by the reaction to the civil disorders. It came as no revelation to me or to any other black cat that white racism is at the bottom of the civil disorders. It came as a great shock apparently to a great many other people, including the President of the United States. And now you ask me if we can cool it. I think the President goofed by not telling the nation what the civil-disorders report was all about. And I accuse him and the entire administration, in fact, of being largely responsible for this tremendous waste and damage. It was up to him and the Vice-President to interpret that report and tell the American people what it meant and what the American people should now begin to think of it. Now!It is already, very very late even to begin to think of it. What causes the eruptions, the riots, the revolts- whatever you want to call them- is the despair of being in a static position, absolutely static, of watching your father, your brother, your uncle, or your cousin- no matter how old the black cat is or how young- who has no future. And when the summer comes, both fathers and sons are in the streets- they can't stay in the houses. I was born in those houses and I know. And it's not their fault. 
From a very short-range approach, what should the federal government do, right now, to cool it off? 
What do you mean by the federal government? The federal government has come to be, in the eyes of all Negroes anyway, a myth. When you say the federal government, you're referring to Washington, and that means you're referring to a great many people. You're referring to Senator Eastland and many people in Washington who out of apathy, ignorance or fear have no intention of making a move at all. You're talking about the people who have the power, who intend to keep the power. And all they can think of are things like swimming pools, you know, in the summertime, and sort of made up jobs to simply protect peace and the public property. But they show no sign whatsoever of understanding what the root of the problem really is, what the dangers really are. They have made no attempt, whatever, any of them, as far as I know, really to explain to the American people that the black cat in the streets wants to protect his house, his wife and children. And if he is going to be able to do this he has to be given his autonomy, his own schools, a revision of the police force in a very radical way. It means, in short, that if the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don't give it up, it will be taken from them. 
You say that existing jobs are just make-work jobs. What kind of job program should be adopted? 
It's very difficult to answer that question since the American Republic has created a surplus population. You know it's created not only people who are unemployable but who no longer wish to be employed in this system. A job program involves, first of all, I would think, a real attack on all American industries and on all American labor unions. For example, you're sitting in Hollywood. And there are not any Negroes, as far as I know, in any of the Hollywood craft unions: there is no Negro grip, no Negro crew member, no Negro works in Hollywood on that level or in any higher level either. There are some famous Negroes who work out here for a structure which keeps Negroes out of a union. Now it's not an Act of God that there aren't any Negroes in the unions. It's not something that is handed down from some mountain; it's a deliberate act on the part of the American people. They don't want the unions broken, because they are afraid of the Negro as a source of competition in the economic market. Of course what they've made him is something much worse than that. You can't talk about job programs unless you're willing to talk about what is really holding the structure together. Eastman Kodak, General Motors, General Electric- all the people who really have the power in this country. It's up to them to open up their factories, their unions, to let us begin to work.

They would have to begin, say, on-the-job training programs for those... 
Yes, and by the way, I know a whole lot of Negroes on the streets, baby, that are much brighter that a lot of cats dictating the policies of Pan American. You know what this country really means when it says on-the-job training programs is not what they are teaching Negroes skills, though there's that, too; what they're afraid of is that when the Negro comes into the factory, into the union, when he comes, in fact, into the American institution, he will change these institutions because no Negro in this country really lives by American middle-class standards. That's why they pick up half-dozen Negroes here and there, and polish them up, polish them off, and put them in some ass-hole college someplace, and expect those cats to be able to go back to the streets and cool the other cats. They can't. The price in this country to survive at all still is to become a white man. More and more people are refusing to become a white man. That's the bottom of what they mean by on-the-job training. They mean they want to fit you in. And furthermore, let's tell it like it is. The American white man does not really want to have autonomous Negro male anywhere near him. 
In on-the-job training programs, the white American structure wants a worker who is trained, who shows up regularly at eight-thirty in the morning and works till five in the afternoon. 
Yeah, well I know an awful lot of cats that did that for a long, long time. We haven't got to be trained to do that. We don't even have to be given an incentive to do that. 
Would you say, then, that many black people have been able to go nowhere, so they've lost any feeling that it's worth working regularly? 
That is part of what we're talking about. Though it goes deeper than that, I think. It's not only that. What is happening in this country among the young, and not only the black young, is an overwhelming suspicion that it's not worth it. You know if you watched your father's life like I watched my father's life, as a kid much younger than I watches his father's life; his father does work from eight to five every day and ends up with nothing. He can't protect anything. He has nothing. As he goes to the grave, having worked his fingers to the bone for years and years and years, he still has nothing and the kid doesn't either. But what's worse than that is that one has begun to conclude from the fact that maybe in this Republic- judging now on the evidence of its own performance- maybe there isn't anything. It's easy to see on the other hand what happens to the white people who make it. And that's not a very attractive spectacle either. I mean I'm questioning the values on which this country thinks of itself as being based. 
What you are calling for, then, is a radical change in thinking by government and industry. 
And given the inertia plus... 
…and fear and whatever else there may be, any such changes seem… 
…seem improbable. 
Certainly they will come slow. A union will not throw open its doors and bring on several hundred people from the black community right away. Now my question is… 
You've answered your question.

There are some differences between 1968 and now, but for the life of me the same basic problem that existed then is why we're in the streets again now, finally.

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