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 Dorothy E. Roberts, 
excerpted from
Welfare and the Problem of Black Citizenship , 
105 Yale Law Journal 1563 -1602, 1597-1602 (April, 1996)
(216 Footnotes Omitted)
Book Reviews: Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare. by Linda Gordon. New York: the Free Press, 1994. Pp. viii, 419. $22.95; The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty. By Jill Quadagno. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp. viii, 240. $24.00.

The separatist approach has the distinct advantage of confronting the problem that Black citizenship poses for the American welfare state. It is based on a realization that white Americans are unlikely to relinquish their racial privilege to create a welfare system that incorporates Blacks as citizens. It affirms as well ordinary Black folks' ability to determine their own destiny. But, like the universalist approach, a completely separatist program evades racist institutions rather than dismantling them. Are there nevertheless reasons to struggle for radical, systemic change in America? Is it worthwhile to sustain a vision of a strong welfare state that regards Black people as citizens? I argue in this part that, despite racism's intransigence, these are necessary goals for both moral and strategic reasons.

Those who rely on community development alone must think hard about its real potential for achieving the drastic changes needed to improve the material conditions of Black people. While Black economic self-sufficiency is an understandable goal, the community's ravaged resources are unlikely to provide an adequate means of raising the masses of Black people out of poverty. The very evidence of Blacks' economic and political marginalization upon which Bell relies to prove the permanence of racism demonstrates the imperative of radical change. While we should recognize and defend ordinary people's everyday resistance to racism, we must also acknowledge that collective action for structural change is more effective than solitary acts of harassment. Surely we do not expect that Blacks must forever hustle to survive.

Thus, Black Americans face a dilemma of their own: America's deeply ingrained racial injustice makes Black nationalism a necessity, yet this injustice seems too profound to be fixed by isolationist self-help measures. Harold Cruse's piercing analysis of the Negro's dilemma in the 1960s, Rebellion or Revolution?, sheds helpful light on this quandary. After acknowledging compelling support for the view of white America as a sinking ship, Cruse nevertheless wondered whether Blacks can safely jump off:

The flaw for us in the sinking ship forecast is that we are more or less doomed to sink with it. The American Negro, caught in a social situation from which he cannot readily depart, retreat, or easily advance, resembles Jean Paul Sartre's existential man who is "condemned to be free."

Neither an integrationism that relies on white people's accommodation of Blacks nor a separatism that ignores America's overall condition can provide Black people with a path out of this predicament. Cruse concluded that the American Negro had no choice but to "stand up and fight his way out of the social trap in which Western civilization has ensnared him." Despite the intractability of racism, Blacks resign from the struggle to transform America at their peril.

The commitment to building independent Black institutions need not entail extrication from the pursuit of radical economic and social change in America. On the contrary, Black political, economic, and cultural self- determination is a necessary condition for social change. First, Black nationalist organizing is essential to acquiring the clout required for effective agitation, political bargaining, and coalition building. Whites' unwillingness to cede their racial privilege means that Blacks must support their demands with increased political unity and economic strength. This position of strength opens the possibility of Blacks' effective alliances with other people of color and progressive whites -- alliances that, although difficult to forge, are necessary for systemic change. Strengthening Black community institutions provides bases of power needed to advance Black people's distinct interests. Racial solidarity must be nourished by a vital cultural life shared in community associations.

Second, a strong Black political apparatus is critical to ensure that government welfare actually benefits Black communities. As I argued above, centuries of racial oppression and marginalization have diminished the Black community's potential to improve the lot of its most deprived members entirely on its own. Yet the white-dominated welfare system has always administered its charity in a way that reinforces Black subordination. As a result, Robert Allen contended, "if neocolonialism is to be avoided, it is essential that control over the use of any outside aid must rest completely in the hands of the black community." Separatist political organizations provide the means to channel state monies and programs in the interests of Black people.

In The Color of Welfare, for example, Jill Quadagno explores the impact of grants issued by the newly created Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) directly to neighborhood Community Action Agencies during the 1960s. In a number of cities, OEO circumvented local politicians and welfare authorities to place federal resources in the hands of community civil rights organizations. Quadagno notes that Newark's community action program was particularly successful at wresting control of antipoverty funds from the local Democratic machine: "As civil rights activists seized the community action program, social policy became a weapon in the battle for racial equality." Quadagno attributes Newark's achievement to the "numerical dominance of the African American community plus the presence of civil rights activists organized for radical action." By contrast, Mayor Daley's entrenched political power in Chicago prevented community action there from fostering Black political empowerment.

Finally, Black nationalism can make a theoretical contribution to the citizenship vision of welfare. Racism has stunted the creative imagination of progressive thinkers in America, limiting their conception of the possibilities of a welfare state. Gordon's history of white feminist reformers discloses that their vision of welfare was spoiled by their inability to embrace Black women either as equal participants in their movement or as objects of their concern. While affirming Black people's authority to shape their own identities, we should not neglect Blacks' role in creating a revolutionary theory that redefines the American identity. Thus, Cruse condemned Western philosophers' theories of social revolution as "bankrupt, passe, and irrelevant" in light of the American racial deadlock, proposing that Blacks take up the question of transforming their rebellion into "a movement with revolutionary approaches, ideas, and appeals." Black creativity fostered in separatist cultural forums may provide a radical vision for all of America.

In short, neither the simple reliance on community development nor the promise of Blacks' integration into white-dominated structures provides a realistic avenue for Black liberation. What is needed is a complex approach that fosters nationalist institutions as part of a program for systemic change, including the realization of a citizenship vision of welfare.

It is the embrace or rejection of this revolutionary aim that distinguishes various strains of Black separatism. "Self-help" is currently the slogan of Black conservatives who eschew structural explanations for Black poverty and seek to take advantage of the U.S. capitalist system. Hence Clarence Thomas, one of the most conservative Justices on the Supreme Court, recently espoused separatist leanings in voting to overturn a district court's school desegregation plan: "It never ceases to amaze me," Thomas declared, "that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior." Thomas's primary quarrel with the district court's remedy, however, was that it held Missouri liable for the continuing effects of an official segregation policy that had ended thirty years earlier. Although Thomas exalted the value of Black schools, he had no desire to confront the white power structure responsible for giving Black children a manifestly inferior education.

Because a Black separatist approach need not upset the current arrangements of power, some versions may be quite acceptable to whites. With the exception of the 1960s militants, Black nationalist movements in America have historically advocated policies that were just as, if not more, accommodationist than the integrationist agenda. At the inception of the War on Poverty, for example, whites found the concept of "community development" reassuring because "they understood it to mean that the assault would be on the 'pathology of the ghetto,' not on white stakes in neighborhoods, schools, jobs, or public services." It is when Black institutions confront white domination and seek, in coalition with other progressive groups, to abolish America's systemic injustices that they achieve their revolutionary potential.

Building independent Black political, economic, and cultural institutions, then, is an essential component of a movement for widespread social change in the United States. In Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Robert Allen outlined a program that embraced the revolutionary aim of Black nationalism. Allensaw community development as the center of a transitional program designed to achieve interim reforms until "full liberation through social revolution" becomes possible. This program included building an independent Black political party whose rank and file and leadership would come from ordinary Black working people. Allen also endorsed the concept of a "co- operative commonwealth" in Black America proposed by W.E.B. Du Bois in his autobiographical essay Dusk to Dawn. Du Bois advocated a planned, communal social system that would reject capitalism and apply instead democratic principles to Black economic and social relations. As Allen elaborated:

Planned, in the sense that all important aspects of this system were to be thought out and analyzed in advance and then carefully guided in order to facilitate community development. Communal, in the sense that property relations would become social rather than private, thereby avoiding economically inspired class division, and making economic exploitation more difficult. Communal, in the sense also of strengthening family and group ties and building a stronger sense of community among black people so that all become dedicated to the welfare of the group rather than personal advancement. Allen doubted the feasibility of Du Bois's vision of this system as separate and self-sufficient; he acknowledged, however, that implementing this system on a national scale could secure concrete reforms and increase the capital resources within Black control, thereby helping to break Black dependency on white society. The success of this program, Allen argued further, would require close working relationships with Third World revolutionary forces and with domestic allies who supported the Black liberation movement and social change in white America.

Yet for Allen, as for Cruse, separation from white society was not an option. His ultimate goal was systemic change in white America, without which, he predicted, "the racism and exploitative social relations which characterize that society will defeat even the best efforts of black freedom fighters." Despite the accurate assessment of racial realists like Derrick Bell, Blacks must continue to struggle for citizenship -- not in America as we know it, but in a nation radically transformed by Blacks' very efforts to achieve social justice.

* * *

On what terms can Blacks in America become full citizens in the next century? Is the hope for a welfare state that treats Blacks as equal citizens a delusion in light of America's deep and abiding racial crisis? Or is the citizenship vision of welfare America's only way out of catastrophe? I find it hard to choose between these two prospects. While I share the nationalist hope in Black self-determination and Derrick Bell's pessimism about the chances of white metamorphosis, I nevertheless subscribe to a vision of a strong, inclusive, and dignified welfare state. It is unlikely that the masses of poor urban Blacks will enjoy the good life without drastic, systemic change that includes aggressive government assistance, and it is unjust for them to be denied this right of citizenship. Gordon and Quadagno make a compelling case for pursuing this citizenship vision of welfare while recognizing the formidable obstacle posed by America's persistent hostility to full Black citizenship. Only a theory that combines the nationalist development of Black institutions and social thought with the pursuit of systemic change can guide us out of America's racial impasse.



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