Web Exclusives: PawPlus

March 22, 2006:

Black Power and the American University

By W. Arthur Lewis

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the March 18, 1969 edition of PAW.

(Lewis is the subject of a new biography by history professor Robert L. Tignor; click here to read the article about it in the March 22 issue of PAW.)

When a friend suggested that since I had spent all my adult life in black power movements and in universities, I might make some comments on the highly topical subject of black power in the American university, it did not at first seem to be a good idea. Now that I have come to grips with it, I am even more conscious of my folly in tackling so difficult and controversial a subject.

I am also very conscious that my credentials are inadequate, since the black power movements in the countries with which I am familiar differ fundamentally from black power in the United States. My stamping grounds are the West Indies, where I was born, and Africa, where I have worked, and which I shall be visiting for the fourteenth time next month. But in both those places blacks are the great majority of people — 97 percent in Jamaica, 99 percent in Nigeria. The objective of the political movements was therefore to capture the central legislature, and the executive and judicial powers. In the United States, blacks are only 11 percent of the population, and have neither claim to nor prospect of capturing the Congress, the executive branch, or the Supreme Court for themselves alone. The objectives have to be different. Comparison between the colonial situation and the position of blacks in America is bound to mislead if it is suggested as a basis for deciding political strategy.

The fact of the matter is that the struggle of the blacks in America is a unique experience, with no parallel in Africa. And since it is unique, the appropriate strategies are likely to be forged only by trial and error. We are all finding the process a great trial, and since our leaders are going off in all directions at once, a great deal of error is also inevitable. I myself, in venturing onto this ground, claim the protection of the First Amendment, but do not aspire to wear the cloak of Papal infallibility.

The goals and tactics of black power in America have to be adjusted to the reality of America. Take the issue of segregation. Everywhere in the black world, except among a small minority of American blacks, the fight against segregation has been in the foreground of black power movements. This goes without saying in countries where blacks are the great majority; yet there are situations where a minority may strengthen itself by temporary self-segregation of a limited kind. 

All American minorities have passed through a stage of temporary self-segregation: not just the Afro-Americans. Foreigners speak of the United States as a “melting pot” and it may one day be that; but for the present America is really not a melting pot but a welding shop. It is a country in which many different groups of people live and work together side by side, without coalescing. There are Poles, and Irish, and Chinese, and Jews, and Germans, and many other ethnic groups. And their way of living together is set by the clock; there is integration between 7 o’clock in the morning and 5 o’clock at night, when all mingle and work together in the center of the city, in the banks and factories, department stores and universities. But after 5 o’clock each ethnic group returns to its own neighborhood. There it has its own separate social life. The Poles do not marry Italians, even though they are both white Catholics. The neighborhood has its own schools, its own little shops, its own doctors, and its own celebrations. Integration by day is accompanied by segregation by night.

It is important to note that this self-segregation is voluntary and not imposed by law. An Italian can buy a house in an Irish neighborhood if he wishes to do so, can marry an Irish girl, and can go to an Irish Catholic Church. Many people also insist that this voluntary segregation is only a temporary phase in the acculturation of ethnic groups. They live together until they have found their feet on the American way of life, after which they disperse. The immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia have for the most part already moved out of segregated neighborhoods. The Irish and the Jews are just in the process, and sooner or later the Poles, the Chinese, and even the Afro-Americans may have dispersed. But in the meantime this voluntary self-segregation shelters those who are not yet ready to lose themselves completely in the American mainstream. Other people believe that there will always be cultural pluralism in America, and that this may even be a source of strength. Whether or not they are right about the long run, there is no disputing that voluntary self-segregation is the current norm.

The black power movement is therefore fully in the American tradition in recognizing that certain neighborhoods are essentially black neighborhoods, where the black politician, the black doctor, the black teacher, the black grocer, and the black clergyman are going to be able to play roles which are not open to them, de facto, in other neighborhoods. Many Southern Negroes claim vigorously that blacks are better off in the South than in the North precisely because the Southern white philosophy has reserved a place for a black middle class in the black neighborhoods — for the black preacher or doctor or grocer.

Essentially, what black power is now saying in the North is that the North too should recognize that the middle-class occupations in the black neighborhoods belong to blacks, who are not permitted to hold such jobs in Italian, Polish, or other ethnic neighborhoods. The issue is phrased in terms of community power — that is to say, of giving to each neighborhood control over its own institutions — but this is tied inextricably to the distribution of middle-class jobs inside the neighborhood. It is unquestionably part of the American tradition that members of each ethnic group should be trained for the middle-class occupations in their neighborhoods, and that, given the training, they should have preference in employment in their own neighborhoods.

This voluntary self-segregation has nothing in common with the compulsory segregation of other countries. An American neighborhood is not a ghetto. A ghetto is an area where members of an ethnic group are forced by law to live, and from which it is a criminal offense to emerge without the license of the oppressing power. This is what apartheid means in the Union of South Africa. An American neighborhood is not a place where members of an ethnic group are required by law to live; they may in the first instance have been forced to live there by circumstance, but it is soon transmuted, ideally, into a place where members of the group choose to live, and from which, ideally, anybody can emerge at any time that he wished to do so. To confuse this neighborhood concept with apartheid is an egregious error.

The fundamental difference between apartheid and the American neighborhood comes out most clearly when one turns from what happens after 5 p.m. to what happens during the daytime. A neighborhood is a work place for less than half the community. The teachers, the doctors, the police, the grocers — these work where they live. But these people are supported by the labors of those who work in the factories and in other basic occupations outside the neighborhood.  Some 50 to 60 percent of the labor force moves out of the neighborhood every morning to work in the country’s basic industries. So a black strategy which concentrated exclusively on building up the black neighborhoods would be dealing with less than half the black man’s economic problems. The neighborhood itself will not flourish unless the man who goes out of it in the morning brings back into it from the outside world an income adequate to support its institutions.

I said earlier that the American pattern is segregation in social life after 5 p.m. but integration in the economic life of the country during the day. American economic life is dominated by a few large corporations which do the greater part of the country’s business; indeed, in manufacturing, half the assets of the entire country are owned by just 100 corporations. The world of these big corporations is an integrated world. There will be black grocery shops in black neighborhoods, but in your lifetime and mine there isn’t going to be a black General Motors, a black Union Carbide, a black Penn-Central Railway, or a black Standard Oil Company. These great corporations serve all ethnic groups and employ all ethnic groups. American economic life is inconceivable except on an integrated basis.

The majority of Afro-Americans work not in their neighborhoods but for one of the non-neighborhood corporations or employers, and so it shall be for as far ahead as we can see. The black problem is that while we are 11 percent of the population, we have only 2 percent of the jobs at the top, 4 percent of the jobs in the middle, and are forced into 16 percent of the jobs at the bottom — indeed into as much as 40 percent of some of the jobs at the very bottom. Clearly our minimum objective must be to capture 11 percent of the jobs in the middle and 11 percent of the jobs at the top. OR, for those of us who have a pride in ourselves, it could even be an objective to have 15 percent of the jobs at the top and in the middle, and only 8 percent of those at the bottom, leaving the very bottom to less ambitious ethnic groups.

Not all our leaders understand that our central economic problem is not in the neighborhoods, but is in the fact that outside the neighborhoods, where most of us have to work, we are concentrated in the bottom jobs. For if they understood this they could not be as hostile as they are towards the black middle and upper classes. The measure of whether we are winning our battle is in how many of us rise to the middle and the top. When a so-called militant abuses a successful Afro-American for having, by virtue of extreme hard work and immense self-discipline, managed to get to the top in the outside world, instead of devoting his energies to being — in the neighborhood — a social worker, or a night school teacher, or a semi-politician, such a critic is merely being absurd. Rising from the bottom to the middle or the top, in the face of stiff white competition, prejudice, and arbitrary barriers, takes everything that a man can give to it. It is our militants who should month-by-month chalk up the score of those who have broken through the barriers, should glory in their achievement, and should hold it up before our young to show them what black men can achieve.

Now at last I reach my central topic, which is the black man and the university. The road to the top in the great American corporations and other institutions is through higher education. Scientists, research workers, engineers, accountants, lawyers, financial administrators, presidential advisers—all these people are recruited from the university. And indeed nearly all of the top people are taken from a very small number of colleges — from not more than some 50 or 60 of the 2,000 degree-granting institutions in the United States. The Afro-American could not make it to the top so long as he was effectively excluded from this small number of select institutions. The breakthrough of the Afro-American into these colleges is therefore absolutely fundamental to the larger economic strategy of black power.

I do not mean to suggest that the most important black strategy is to get more blacks into the best colleges. Probably the greatest contribution to black advancement would be to break the trade union barriers which keep our people out of apprenticeships in the building and printing trades, and prevent our upgrading or promotion in other industries. The trade unions are the black man’s greatest enemy in the United States. The number of people who would be at the top, if we had our numerical share of the top, would be small. Our greatest task, in terms of numbers, is to conquer the middle — getting into skilled posts, foremen’s posts, supervisory and white collar jobs—through better use of apprenticeships, of the high schools and of technical colleges. I am going to talk about the universities not because this is numerically important, but partly because it has become so controversial, and partly because if we did conquer the top it would make much easier the conquering of the middle — both in our own minds, and in other people’s minds, by altering our young people’s images of themselves and what they can achieve.

What can the good white college do for its black students that Howard or Lincoln or Fisk cannot do? It can open the road into the top jobs. It can do this only by giving our people the kinds of skills and the kind of polish which are looked for by people filling top jobs. To put it into unpopular language, it can train them to become top members of the establishment.

If it is wrong for young blacks to be trained for the top jobs in the big corporations, for top jobs in the government service, for ambassadorships, for the editorial staff of The New York Times and so on — then there is little point in sending them to the best white colleges. On the contrary, if what one wants is people trained to live and work in black neighborhoods, they will do much better to go to the black colleges, of which there are, after all, over 100, which know better than Yale or Princeton or Dartmouth what the problems of black neighborhoods are, and how people should be trained to handle them. The point about the best white colleges is that they are a part not of the neighborhood side of American life, but of the integrated side of American life, training people to run the economy and the administration in the integrated part of the day before 5 p.m.

But how can it be wrong for young Afro-Americans to be trained to hold superior positions in the integrated working world outside the neighborhood when in fact the neighborhood cannot provide work for even a half of its people? Whether we like it or not, most Afro-Americans have to work in the integrated world, and if we do not train for superior positions there, all that will happen is what happens now — that we shall be crowded into the worst-paid jobs.

If one grasps this point, that these 50 colleges are the gateway to superior jobs, then the current attitudes of some of our black leaders to these colleges is not a little bewildering. In its most extreme form what is asked is that the college should set aside a special part of itself which is to be the black part. There will be a separate building for black studies, and separate dormitories and living accommodations for blacks. There will be separate teachers, all black, teaching classes open only to blacks. The teachers are to be chosen by the students, and will for the most part be men whom no African or Indian or Chinese university would recognize as scholars or be willing to hire as teachers.

Doubtless some college under militant pressure will give into this, but I do not see what Afro-Americans will gain thereby. Employers will not hire the students who emerge from this process, and their usefulness even in black neighborhoods will be minimal.

I yield to none in thinking that every respectable university should give courses on African life and on Afro-American life, which are of course two entirely different subjects, and I am very anxious to see such courses developed in Princeton University. It is, however, my hope that they will be attended mostly by white students, and that the majority of black students in Princeton will find more important uses for their time; that they may attend one or two such courses, but will reject any suggestion that black studies must be the major focus of their programs.

The principal argument for forcing black students to spend a great deal of their time in college studying African and Afro-American anthropology, history, languages and literature is that they need such studies to overcome their racial inferiority complex. I am not impressed by this argument. The youngster discovers that he is black around the age of six or seven; from then on the whites he meets, the books he reads, and the situation of the Negro in America all combine to persuade him that he is an inferior species of homo sapiens. By the time he is 14 or 15 he has made up his mind on this one way or the other. Nothing that the college can do, after he reaches 18 or 19, is going to have much effect on his basic personality. To expect the colleges to eradicate the inferiority complexes of young black adults is to ask the impossible. And to expect this to come about by segregating black students in black studies under inferior teachers suggests some deficiency of thought.

Perhaps I am wrong about this. The proposition is essentially that the young black has been brainwashed into thinking himself inferior, so now he must spend four years in some place where he will be re-brainwashed into thinking himself equal. But the prospect that the 50 best colleges in the United States can be forced to take on this re-brainwashing operation is an idle dream. Those who are now putting all their energies into working for this are doomed to disappointment.

We are knocking our heads against the wrong wall. Every black student should learn some Afro-American history, and study various aspects of his people’s culture, but the place for him to do this compulsorily is in the high school, and the best age to start this seriously is even earlier, perhaps around the age of ten. By the time the student gets to a first-rate college he should be ready for business — for the business of acquiring the skills which he is going to be able to use, whether in his neighborhood, or in the integrated economy. Let the clever young black go to a university to study engineering, medicine, chemistry, economics, law, agriculture, and other subjects which are going to be of value to him and his people. And let the clever whites go to college to read black novels, to learn Swahili, and to record the exploits of Negro heroes of the past: They are the ones to whom this will come as an eye-opener.

This incidentally is very much what happens in African universities. Most of these will have well-equipped departments of African studies, which are popular with visiting whites, but very few African students waste their time (as they see it) on such studies, when there is so much to be learned for the jobs they will have to do. The attitude of Africans to their past conforms to the historian’s observation that only decadent people, on the way down, feel an urgent need to mythologize and live in their past. A vigorous people, on the way up, has visions of its future and cares next to nothing about its past. 

It will be obvious to some of you that my attitude to the role of black studies in the education of college blacks derives not only from an unconventional view of what is to be gained therefrom, but also from an unconventional view of the purpose of going to college. The United States is the only country in the world which thinks that the purpose of going to college is to be educated. Everywhere else one goes to high school to be educated, but goes to college to be trained for one’s life work. In the United States serious training does not begin until one reaches graduate school as the age of 22. Before that one spends four years in college being educated — that is to say spending 12 weeks getting some tidbits on religion, 12 weeks learning French, 12 weeks seeing whether the History professor is stimulating, 12 weeks seeking entertainment from the Economics professor, 12 weeks confirming that one is not going to be able to master calculus, and so on.

If the purpose of going to college is to be educated, and serious study will not begin until one is 22, one might just as well perhaps spend the four years reading black novels, studying black history, and learning to speak Fanti. But I do not think that American blacks can afford this luxury. I think our young people ought to get down to the business of serious preparation for their lifework as soon after 18 as they can.

And I also note, incidentally, that many of the more intelligent white students are now in revolt against the way so many colleges fritter away their precious years in meaningless peregrination from subject to subject between the ages of 18 and 22.

Let me make my position clear. Any Afro-American who wishes to become a specialist in black studies, or to spend some of his time on such work, should be absolutely free to do so. But I hope that, of those students who get the opportunity to attend the 50 best colleges, the proportion who want to specialize in black studies may, in their interest and that of the black community, turn out to be rather small, in comparison with our scientists, or engineers, accountants, economists, or doctors.

Another attitude which puzzles me is that which requires black students in the better white colleges to mix only with each other; to have a dormitory to themselves; to eat at separate tables in the refectory, and so on. I have pointed out that these colleges are the gateway to leadership positions in the integrated part of the economy, and that what they can best do for young blacks is to prepare them to capture our 11 per cent of the best jobs at the top — one of every nine ambassadorships, one of every nine vice-presidencies of General Motors, one of every nine senior directors of engineering laboratories, and so on. Now I am told that the reason black students stay together is that they are uncomfortable in white company. But how is one to be Ambassador to Finland or Luxembourg—jobs which American Negroes have already held with distinction — if one is uncomfortable in white company? Anybody who occupies a supervisory post, from foreman upwards, is going to have white people under him, who will expect him to be friendly and fair; is this going to be possible, after four years spent in boycotting white company?

Nowadays in business and in government most decisions are made in committees. Top Afro-Americans cannot hope to be more than one in nine; they will always be greatly outnumbered by white people at their level. But how can one survive as the only black vice-president sitting on the executive committee of a large corporation if one is not so familiar with the ways and thoughts of other vice-presidents that one can even anticipate how they are going to think? Blacks in America are inevitably and perpetually a minority. This means that in all administrative and leadership positions we are going to be outnumbered by white folks, and will have to compete with them not on our terms but on theirs. The only way to win this game is to know them so thoroughly that we can outpace them. Being in one of the best white colleges, where they are molded, gives us this opportunity. For us to turn our backs on this opportunity, by insisting on mingling only with other black students in college, is folly of the highest order. 

This kind of social self-segregation is encouraged by two myths about the possibilities for black economic progress in the United States which need to be nailed. One is the Nixon myth, and the other, its opposite, is the revolutionary myth.

The first postulates that the solution is black capitalism — to help as many blacks as possible to become big businessmen. To be sure, it is feasible to have more successful small businesses operating inside the protection of the neighborhood — more grocers and drug stores and lunch counters; but I have emphasized that the members of every ethnic group mostly work outside their neighborhood in the integrated economy, buying and selling to all ethnic groups. In this part of the economy the prospects for small business are bleak.

No doubt a few Negroes, born with the special talents which success in a highly competitive business world demands, will succeed in establishing sizeable and highly competitive concerns. But the great majority who start on this road, whether white or black, go bankrupt in a short time. Indeed, about half of the new white businesses go bankrupt within the first 12 months. To tell the blacks that this is the direction in which they must move is almost a form of cruelty. To pretend that black America is going to be saved by the emergence of black capitalism, competing in the integrated economy with white capitalism, is little more than a hoax.

Neither is black America going to be saved by a Marxist revolution. Revolution takes power from one set of persons and gives it to another, but it does not change the hierarchical structure of the economy. Any kind of America that you can visualize, whether capitalist, communist, fascist, or any other kind of ist, is going to consist of large institutions like General Motors under one name or another. It will have people at the top, people in the middle, and people at the bottom. Its leading engineers, doctors, scientists,  and administrators — leaving out a few top professional politicians — are going to be recruited from a small number of highly select colleges. The problem of the black will essentially be the same — that problem being whether he is going to be mostly in the bottom jobs, or whether he will also get his 11 percent share of the top and the middle. And his chance at the top is going to depend on his getting into those select schools and getting the same kind of technical training that the whites are getting — not some segregated schooling specially adapted for him, but the same kind that the whites get as their gateway to the top. Those black leaders who wish us to concentrate our efforts on working for revolution in America are living on a myth, for our problems and needed strategies are going to be exactly the same whether there is a revolution or not. In the integrated part of the American economy our essential strategy has to be to use all the normal channels of advancement — the high schools, the colleges, the apprenticeships, night schools: It is only by climbing this ladder that the black man is going to escape from his concentration in the bottom jobs of the economy.

This is not, of course, simply a matter of schooling. The barriers of prejudice which keep us off the ladder still have to be broken down: the task of the civil rights movement is still not completed, and we need all the liberal help, black and white, that we can get to help to keep the ladder clear. We need also to raise our own sights; to recognize that there are now more opportunities than there were, and to take every opportunity that offers. Here our record is good. For as the barriers came down in sports and entertainment our young people moved swiftly to the top in baseball, football, the theatre, or wherever else the road was cleared. We will do exactly the same in other spheres, given the opportunity.

The secret is to inspire our young people with confidence in their potential achievement. And psychologists tell us that the background to this is a warm and secure family life. The most successful minorities in America, the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Jews, are distinguished by their close and highly disciplined family, which is the exact opposite of what has now become the stereotype of the white American family, with its undisciplined and uncontrollable children reared on what are alleged to be the principles of Dr. Spock. African families are warm, highly disciplined structures just like Jewish or Chinese families. If black Americans are looking to Africa for aspects of culture which will distinguish them from white Americans, let them turn their backs on Spockism, and rear their children on African principles, for this is the way to the middle and the top. Given a disciplined family life and open doors to opportunity, I have no doubt that American blacks will capture one field after another, as fast as barriers come down.

The point which I have been trying to make is that the choice some of our leaders offer us between segregation and integration is false in the American context. America is integrated in the day and segregates itself at night. Some of our leaders who have just discovered the potential strength of neighborhood self-segregation have got drunk on it to the point of advocating segregation for all spheres of Afro-American life. But the struggle for community power in the neighborhood is not an alternative to the struggle for a better share of the integrated world outside the neighborhood, in which inevitably most of our people must earn their living. The way to a better share of this integrated economy is through the integrated colleges; but they can help us only if we take from them the same things they give to our white competitors.

If we enter them merely to segregate ourselves in blackness, we shall lose the opportunity of our lives. Render homage unto segregated community power in the neighborhoods where it belongs, but do not let it mess up our chance of capturing our share of the economic world outside the neighborhood, where segregation weakens our power to compete. This is what I wanted to say.