The film provides an excellent portrayal of the black power discourse of the late 1960s and the early 1970s. It makes clear the logic and the socio-psychological need of the black power perspective. Responding to the systemic dehumanizing by white America, in which the most basic of human rights were denied, the black power perspective affirmed black identity and the worth of the black community; and on a political plane, it stressed unity in order to attain power, necessary for defense of black rights and interests.
In addition, the film’s accurate portrayal of black power discourse makes evident two limitations of the black power perspective. First, the perspective tends to treat whites in general as an oppressing power. This is a misreading of American society, past and present. It is true that the powerful are white, except for a few blacks that adapt to the white power structure; but it is also true that most whites are not powerful.
Secondly, the black power discourse had a tendency toward violent rhetoric that was inconsistent with the actual political project of black nationalist organizations. Spike Lee has Stokely Carmichael saying that blacks must prepare themselves for a coming race war, in which the brothers and sisters will be killing white racist cops. This is a reasonably accurate portrayal of the black leader. In a Mississippi march in 1966, Carmichael declared, “every courthouse in the state should be burnt down.” In Cleveland, he asserted, “When you talk about black power, you talk about bringing this country to its knees.” His successor as president of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, H. Rap Brown, described an incident in Alabama as a “declaration of war” by “racist white America,” and he called for a “full retaliation of the black community across America.” However, in fact, neither the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee nor the Black Panther Party developed any program of sabotage against government buildings or assassination of white police or other white officials. These brash and ill-advised statements were in no sense promoting a program, and they functioned only to provide a pretext for repression by the government, which was unleased against black organizations and leaders in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The film also has an excellent portrayal of the discourse of white supremacists. The characterization at times appears to be a caricature, but indeed there is a current of thought in white society that believes that blacks are genetically inferior to whites and that race-mixing would destroy the nation. The facts, of course, are otherwise. Scientific research shows that differences in skin color are a consequence of individual humans living in different geographical zones with different levels of exposure to the sun, and that differences in skin color has no relation to intelligence or other human capacities. And the film correctly shows the post-1965 reformulation of the white supremacist views into a more socially acceptable ideology that would attain increasing influence, culminating in the election of Trump.
The film had a balanced portrayal of white cops. One cop was a racist thug, some cops were racists, some were inclined to lend their support to the black cop in his undercover investigation of the Klan, and one was committed to doing the right thing. One suspects that this is truly the case. There was a suggestion at the end that white folks could avoid the racial conflict and stand off to the side, if they were so inclined; whereas blacks could not possibly avoid the American racial conflict, for it continually intruded on their reality. There is some truth to this, especially at the personal level in the short term. But in the final analysis, no citizen of the United States can avoid the contradictions that the nation confronts, which have deep historic roots; the nation itself is in peril.
No film can provide a comprehensive view of a nation for a half a century, and Lee’s film is no exception. The black community is represented in the film by black panthers and a black cop; white society is represented by white racists and white cops. But there are, of course, whole sectors of the black community and of white society that do not pertain to these categories.
The sectors not portrayed in the film, especially their failures, have been central to the unfolding racial dynamics of the United States since 1965. White society in general never listened to or understood the black movement, even as it hesitantly and reluctantly conceded basic civil and political rights in 1964 and 1965. As a result of not listening, white society never understood that the movement demanded and expected more than political and civil rights. Since its origin in 1917, the African-American movement had protested the poverty and social and economic underdevelopment of the black community, which it understood as caused by slavery and decades of segregation and the denial of basic civil rights. The movement thus embraced the principle of the social and economic rights of all citizens, and it called for the economic and social development of the black community. At the same time, by virtue of its interest in its African historical and cultural connection, the African-American movement from the beginning had a global perspective from below. It could discern the colonialist and imperialist character of U.S. foreign policy, which promoted the underdevelopment of the peoples of the world, thereby contradicting the proclaimed democratic values of the nation. Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were eloquent in proclaiming these principles of community development, the protection of social and economic rights, and a democratic foreign policy, historic demands of the movement. But white society was deaf to such proclamations for a more just and democratic nation and world, and it believed that the social debt was paid merely by moving to the protection of political and civil rights. Such deafness with respect to persons of other social positions is ethnocentric, and it is common in human societies; it is different from racism, a belief in the inferiority of other so-called races.
Coinciding with white deafness, the black community since 1965 has failed to promote the unfinished agenda of the African-American movement of 1917 to 1965. It has remained trapped in a white racist frame of reference, discerning subtle forms in which white racism survives in the post-1965 era. This is certainly true, and indeed, the common phenomenon of white ethnocentrism could be interpreted as a subtle form of racism. But it is politically dysfunctional to focus on it. It would be more politically effective if the focus were on the unfinished agenda of the African-American movement, that is, the issues of economic and social development, the protection of social and economic rights of all, and democratic and cooperative relations with other nations. Such a progressive national agenda could attain political efficacy only through a popular coalition of blacks, Latinos, and whites. Such a coalition of folks from different communities with different cultures and histories is not going to be attained by each focusing on the perceived defects of the other, but by focusing on common interests and finding common ground. Jesse Jackson understood this, and he developed the Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s. However, the Rainbow Coalition did not have the resources and/or the commitment to develop itself into a nationwide mass organization, capable of offering a politically viable progressive alternative in the public debate.
Without the development of a progressive coalition that offers a politically viable alternative narrative on the nation to the people, we are left with confusion and polarization. The images at the end of the film, focusing on recent conflicts in the streets, portray well this sad phenomenon.
In her comments to introduce the film, Ms. Rezik asked, what are the sources of white racism? It is a good question. A good answer would focus on the manipulation of whites by white elites. The phenomenon began in slavery times and continued in the age of segregation in the South. Southern elites were always afraid of a united action by blacks and working-class whites in the creation of a different kind of social order. So they disseminated unscientific claims about difference in skin color, confusing and dividing our people, doing so in defense of their particular interests, without concern for the consequences for the development of the society in the long term. In the 1960s, when the age of segregation came to an end and racism became discredited, and with white society having limited understanding of the racial dynamics of the nation, politicians like Wallace, Nixon, and Reagan exploited white anxieties and confusions by turning to a subtle form of racism, talking about welfare and crime as an indirect and more socially acceptable way of talking about race. The film alludes to this phenomenon, and correctly portrays that it culminates in Trump. The film, however, implies that it was David Duke and Trump. But in fact, the leadership of the Republican Party in general has moved in the direction of exploiting white anxieties since the 1960s.
But Mr. Lee, what is the solution? Can persons of your influence in U.S. society find the road toward the forging of that popular coalition that we failed to develop in the 1970s and 1980s? A politically effective popular coalition is the remedy to white racism, even though it attains its political goals by de-emphasizing racism per se.