I focus on Eugene Rivers’ recommendation of a black nationalist political program. The “integrationist project,” he writes, is “impractical.” Is the black nationalist program of “concentrating the scarce resources of time, money, and political will . . . on reconstructing the institutions of Black civil society” any more practical?
In a world characterized by multinational corporations, one might fairly question the coherence of any nationalist program. Economic, cultural, and social power are located today in supranational institutions. Consider NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, or the media empire of Rupert Murdoch. Even the United States government has been displaced as a center of power.
Under these conditions, what are the prospects for black nationalism? In prior incarnations the black nationalist agenda came close to prescribing autarky. When African Americans were substantially set apart from white society both territorially and to some degree culturally, realizing such an agenda might have been feasible.
To some extent the concentration of African Americans in the heart of our major cities provides a territorial basis for a self-supporting community. But the cultural and, even more, economic isolation of the African-American community seems to me questionable. The nation’s African-American communities are penetrated by the economic and cultural forces of national and supra-national institutions, and the economic resources available within them seem unlikely to be sufficient to support the African-American community as a whole.
Of course, as Rivers recognizes, the strategic question is basically comparative: Is the nationalist project, whatever its problems, more practical than the integrationist project? And, in some ways, Rivers presents the nationalist project as a complement rather than an alternative to the integrationist one. Integrationism, he writes, “assumed the health” of the institutions of civil society in the African-American community.
An integrationist might characterize Rivers’ nationalist program as aiming at restoring the health of those institutions. To the extent that integrationism assumed their health, its proponents could not disagree with Rivers’ program. Both the integrationist project and the nationalist one share the goal of “reconstructing the institutions of Black civil society.” In the integrationist project, that goal is a predicate for achieving a longer range goal. It is unclear whether Rivers believes that the goal is, instead, a final one.
Perhaps the underlying issue here is about the relative power of competing rhetorics. Is the rhetoric of nationalism more likely than the rhetoric of integrationism to bring about the reconstruction of the institutions of African-American civil society?
I doubt that anyone can offer confident answers. It seems to me worth noting, however, that Rivers’ project also has an interim stage. As he acknowledges, his nationalist project is different from what he calls the “nationalism of fools.” He seems to believe as well that the rhetoric of nationalism is today closely associated with the nationalism of fools. If so, proponents of Rivers’ project must devote some effort–“the scarce resources of time, money, and political will”–to ensuring that their particular programs will not become the vehicles for the nationalism of fools.
Whether or not the time for the integrationist project “has passed,” that project certainly has failed to deliver on its promises. A careful nationalist program, like the one Rivers outlines, might be more successful–and need not be inconsistent with the integrationist project. It’s hard to see, then, why even the most devoted integrationist would find Rivers’ program problematic.