A paper that I wrote for a graduate conference in 2012. It was written hastily and only for presentation, but I like some of the ideas in it. This is a paper and research topic that I hope to revisit one day in the future.
The Possibility of Black Solidarity In Today’s Society
In his book “We Who Are Dark”, Tommie Shelby discusses (among other things) the nature of black solidarity as a pressing issue for members of the black community. Discussing various approaches to, and goals for, achieving such a racial solidarity, Shelby opts to ascribe to an ideal of black solidarity in its broadest sense. Essentially, the type of black solidarity with which Shelby identifies is one based on the shared history of, or potential for, racial discrimination and oppression. I believe this definition of black solidarity too broad to be plausibly considered black solidarity. While this type of solidarity will no doubt include most, if not all, members of the black community, it will also include a large number of members of other visible minority groups. A notion of black solidarity that is based only on the shared history of racial discrimination and oppression is one that is far too inclusive to be labelled strictly as black solidarity, and instead would have to be called something such as minority solidarity, for there is nothing inherent in Shelby’s account of black solidarity that makes it exclusively applicable to blacks.
While it may have been true, at some point in history, that the vast majority of blacks in America could be seen as a large cohesive group (in that many were brought to America under the same circumstances and grew up under very similar conditions), the same cannot be said for the black community today. Over the past several hundred years, blacks in America have come to expand from the once “common” ground. Some have gone on to enjoy economic success while others have fallen (or remained) in poverty, some have endorsed a conservative political stance while others endorse liberal politics while others still abstain from politics altogether, some feel reparations and affirmative action are required and justified in today’s society while others stand up against them and see them both only as government-sanctioned handouts or charity. None of these issues have even touched the bigger picture of whether or not black solidarity is even something that is desirable, attainable or worthwhile. There is no doubt debate surrounding these questions. Even for those who agree that black solidarity is desirable, attainable and worthwhile, there is potential debate about what kind of black solidarity ought to be pursued, as Tommie Shelby notes two competing views of black solidarity:
…according to classical nationalism, black solidarity and voluntary separation under conditions of equality and self-determination is a worthwhile end in itself. On this account, blacks should unite and work together because they are a people with their own distinctive ethnoracial identity; and as a cohesive national group, blacks have interests that are best pursued by their seeking group autonomy within some relatively independent institutional framework. However, according to pragmatic nationalism, blacks should unite and work together because they suffer a common oppression; and given the current political climate that can make progress in overcoming or ameliorating their shared condition only if they embrace black solidarity. Here, black unity is merely a contingent strategy for creating greater freedom and equality for blacks. (Shelby 202)
This simply goes to show that even for those members of the black community who agree that there ought to be some sort of racial solidarity within the group, deciding on what specific type of solidarity ought to be endorsed, what the particular goals of that solidarity ought to be, and what the best way of going about achieving those goals is, is not as simple as one may think. This problem is noted by Shelby in saying that…
The ideals of racial equality, antipoverty, and tolerance are open to a variety of interpretations, and reasonable people can disagree over the appropriate strategies for overcoming racism and its legacy. Some of these disagreements may run deep, say, between radical democrats and conservatives or between liberals and cultural nationalists(Shelby 247).
In light of some of the difficulties associated with black solidarity discussed above, Shelby opts for a brand of black solidarity not based on any particular political stance, economic categorization or clearly defined method of operation. Shelby’s black solidarity calls on blacks to unite based on a shared history of racial oppression and subjugation, and work towards the general goal of ending anti-black racism and of working towards the amelioration of the general position of blacks in America. Shelby summarizes his notion of black solidarity as follows:
The mutual identification among blacks – that familiar sense of “we-ness” – can be rooted, in part, in the shared experience of anti-black racism. This experience enables blacks to empathize with one another and sometimes move them to provide mutual support in a world that is often hostile to their presence. The common experiences of racial injustice, made possible by their common racial ascription, include such things as carrying the stigma attached to “looking” and “acting” black; having one’s life prospects diminished by institutional racism; suffering discrimination on the basis of presumed incompetence; enduring arbitrary exclusion from certain neighbourhoods, schools and social circles; being pre-emptively regarded as unsuitable for intimate social interaction; navigating the social world with the knowledge that one is often the object of unjustified hatred, contempt, suspicion, or fear; seeking to avoid “confirming” an array of degrading racial stereotypes; serving as the perennial scapegoat for social problems and economic crises; and living with the knowledge that one is vulnerable, at almost any time, to antiblack attitude, action, social practice, or institutional policy. The common experience of racial oppression can be a valuable source of motivation that blacks should continue to harness in the interest of social justice. (Shelby, 245)
While Shelby’s account of what black solidarity in today’s society ought to be based on accounts for the overwhelming differences within the black community with regard to political views, economic situations, and other varying ideals, in doing so, he has managed to outline a theory of black solidarity that is far too inclusive, and one that is open and applicable (on many of the criteria) to members of other racial groups.
If we look at the root criteria on which Shelby’s account of black solidarity ought to be based, we see that the key component is the shared experience of anti-black racism. That said, Shelby says very little about what exactly it is that entails anti-black racism as distinct from any other kind of racism, or even any other kind of discrimination for that matter. Among the list of things that victims of anti-black racism would have faced are things such as “having one’s life prospects diminished by institutional racism”, seeking to avoid confirming stereotypes, and serving as scapegoats for various social problems, but none of these things seem inherently exclusive to members of the black community (Shelby 245). These very same things could be said to apply to First-Nations groups, Hispanics, Asians, or almost any member of a non-dominant racial group.
Because of the lack of specificity with regard to what exactly it is that differentiates anti-black racism from racism in a more general sense, it seems that not only can there not be a strong case that specifically anti-black racism has taken place in certain situations, but it also seems that black solidarity cannot be based upon the exposure to that anti-black racism. Shelby goes on to say, about black solidarity that…
Group loyalty and mutual trust can be cultivated and reinforced through individual and collective efforts to end racial discrimination, racial inequality, poverty, and intolerance. Those with whom blacks should seek solidarity, then, are not necessarily those who most exhibit a thick black identity, but those who stand firm in resistance to black oppression. Rather than being rooted in race, ethnicity, nationality, or culture, the group’s self conception should be grounded in its antiracist politics and its commitment to racial justice(Shelby 247).
This only seems to explicitly open the door even wider for the inclusion of non-blacks within black solidarity. There is nothing that precludes non-black individuals from standing in resistance to black oppression, nor is there anything that obligates blacks to actively resisting black oppression, so we could easily imagine a case in which non-blacks work harder, and in greater numbers, for the end of black oppression than do members of the black community, making the kind of black solidarity that Shelby argues for one which is open to the possibility of including more non-blacks than blacks. It seems that in this case, the group solidarity would be based more so on a commitment to ending anti-black racism, and again would have to be labelled as something other than black solidarity, perhaps something such as anti-racist solidarity.
What Shelby has tried to do is create a brand of black solidarity that is broad enough to cover the enormous variety of individuals that make up the black community in America. In basing this brand of black solidarity on the shared history or potential of facing anti-black racism, and failing to clearly identify what differentiates anti-black racism from any other kind of racism, it seems that Shelby’s brand of black solidarity is one that is far too inclusive to be strictly labelled as black solidarity. It simply seems counterintuitive, at least to me, that any brand of black solidarity can be wholly based upon something that can easily apply to members of another racial community. Furthermore, Shelby’s account allows for the possibility (though perhaps not very probable) that black solidarity is best maintained by non-blacks rather than black, as can be seen through the example discussed earlier of non-blacks who fight harder for the equality of blacks than do members of the black community itself.
In this paper I have not argued that what Tommie Shelby argues for is wrong, or that the common history of shared oppression and racial subjugation is something that ought not to be a key component of what black solidarity is based upon, rather I have tried to show that basing black solidarity solely on that shared history results in a kind of black solidarity that is too inclusive, and that if a working account of black solidarity is to be formulated, while the shared common history cannot and should not be eliminated from the theory, it should merely serve as a component of the basis for the theory, and not the entire foundation on which the theory is based. With that said, I am unsure of whether or not an adequate present-day account of what exactly black solidarity could be based upon is even possible. Given the difficulties related to the intragroup differences seen within the black community discussed earlier, it would be very difficult to come up with a theory on which a brand of black solidarity could be based, that will include any and all members of the black community while still maintaining a distinction from other types of minority group solidarity.