Fager devotes the first three-quarters of the book to deconstructing “liberal” criticisms of the contemporary Black Power movement championed by Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture). (I would guess that the type of white person called “liberal” at the time Fager was writing would be considered “progressive” or even “radical” today.) After briskly disposing of the common shallow critiques, including charges of racism, exclusion and hatred, he devotes more time to serious critics, notably Bayard Rustin. In the course of this deeper analysis, Fager unpicks the coalition of “labor, liberals and churches” which ostensibly supports Black liberation. He shows that the labor movement is riddled with racism; that “academic-corporate liberals” are beholden to the institutions that employ them; and that clerical leaders are largely constrained by institutional structures as well.
All this interested me intellectually. But it was when I got to the section titled “Black Power and White Power” that I really started to pay attention. Here Fager addresses his own people—white activists—with jolting honesty. He tells the story of a retreat at the Highlander Research and Education Center with “half a dozen white ex-SNCC staff members”:
None resented the “new” policy of black organizers, and they did not feel “purged” as the press described it. But they were at a loss for something to do, and they had come to Highlander to think and confer with Myles Horton, the Center’s veteran director.
All but one were from Northern cities, all had varying amounts of college, and all were determined to “do something” about the mess they felt their world was in. Yet, after several days of conferences, all they could think of doing was to move into Appalachia and begin organizing among the white mountain folk.
Superficially this was a plausible idea. . . . [But] if the white ex-SNCCers were “outsiders” in the Black Belt, lacking ties of culture and background with Southern Negroes, they would probably be greater “outsiders” among the mountain people. . . . The logic of the “blacks best organize blacks, whites best organize whites” thesis seemed to lead unmistakably to the more specific conclusion that middle-class, Northern, college-educated whites could best organize back home, among middle-class, Northern, college-educated whites. I asked one of the ex-SNCCers if he did not see this implication. He nodded. “We know that’s right,” he said a bit ruefully, “but frankly we’re just not ready to face it yet.”
As someone with little to no experience living in some of the communities that interest me the most, this rang remarkably true. I’ve come to see that my antiracist work, such as it is, can’t get me inside Black communities. It has to begin and probably stay inside the community I belong to: exactly that middle-class white, Northern, and college-educated group that Fager discusses and to which he also belongs. I was still thinking about this when I got here:
We went South, then, because we could see no way of making our own lives meaningful by working for change in the white world. Many of us still can’t.
The reason for that, Fager says, is that as white liberals/progressives we have little “real power” over our lives because of the very capitalist system we’ve been complicit in building: “in their economic existence as consumers, savers, and investors, liberals pass most of their wealth back into the hands of businesses that are solidly embedded in the status quo.” “By creating a credible alternative within the white world to the middle-class organizational treadmill,” he concludes, “it would be possible for whites to ‘come alive’ without fleeing into a futile identification with the Negro community.” Fager’s naming of the white desire to “come alive” really struck me. When I attended a People’s Institute training in 2011, I left with the injuction to “stay awake.” Coming alive and staying awake are similar goals in a world where many of us struggle to find and hold onto meaning while surrounded by luxury, technology, overstimulation and distraction. Fager identifies the catch: “How many of us white radicals . . . can really believe that the death of racism requires a new America? And how many of us who believe it can actually forsake our color-guaranteed access to these fruits and begin to act meaningfully on such a belief?”
Please check out this slender, passionate and beautifully written work.