Beginning in the 19th and 20th centuries, during the era of the reconstruction of the United States that followed the American Civil War, an important debate emerged in this country. It was the time after the official abolition of slavery – after Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 – what we now commemorate as Juneteenth. – to spread the word. The debate, which in many ways is still alive and well, looked like this: what is the best way to end class and racial injustice in the United States and what is the role of black leadership in this regard?
Two leaders of the black community of this period, WEB Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, can be considered the two main voices in this debate representing each camp.
Booker T. Washington believed that black people should focus on upliftment through hard work and material prosperity. His beliefs were very much rooted in a belief of individualism and hard work in the capitalist system to build black wealth.
On the other hand, WEB Du Bois rejected Washington’s strategy. Instead, he argued for political action and a civil rights agenda — a much more systemic and collective vision of a way forward.
This debate is still very much alive in this country and has been taken up by many thinkers and organizations. The bifurcation can be seen largely as a disagreement over whether or not racial justice is achievable in a capitalist system – whether Black capitalism can lead to black liberation in the United States.
Du Bois’s legacy was echoed by many more radical thinkers in the mid-20th century, such as the Black Panther Fred Hampton, who argued that: “We don’t think fire is best fought with fire; we think you fight fire better with water. We will fight racism not with racism, but we will fight with solidarity. We say we are not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we are going to fight it with socialism.
Another thinker who carries the legacy of Du Bois and Hampton is Francisco Pérez, executive director of the Center for Popular Economics, who recently wrote an article that advances the case against black capitalism and for a more socialist, supportive and collectivist approach. blacks. release.
In his article, Pérez argues that there is a broad conflation within our current capitalist society between the success of individual members of certain oppressed and marginalized groups and their collective success and liberation. This is especially true when it comes to black people and their struggles for liberation. Too often, the successes of individuals – Oprah or LeBron James, for example – or their rise to certain leadership positions, such as Barack Obama – are seen as collective successes, whereas when it comes to the material conditions of everything Blacks, these individual successes have no significant impact.
What are the dangers of this confusion between individual success and collective success? Can black liberation be achieved through individual successes in capitalism – through black capitalism – as Booker T. Washington suggested? Or can true black liberation in the United States emerge only through a collective struggle against racial capitalism?
Francisco Pérez is the executive director of the People’s Economy Center and author of the recent article in Nonprofit Quarterly, “How do we build black wealth? Understand the limits of black capitalism.”
You can listen to the full Upstream conversation below to dive deeper into this topic and find out what building real black wealth could look like.