Racial Progress and Degradation

In the autobiography of Malcolm X, what stood out to me the most was his perspective on his first conk. Analyzing this passage, and this component of the novel prompted me to think more thoroughly on race, along with studying conventional wisdom surrounding progress and equality.

“This was my first big step towards self-degradation; when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to to have it look like a white man’s hair. I had joined the multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that Black People are “inferior” — and white people “superior” — that they will even violate and mutilate their god-given bodies to try and look “pretty” by white standards.” (56–57)
The Autobiography of Malcolm X: Alex Haley

Conking represents a significant component of racial integration: the black man’s internalization of white preferences of beauty, and the simultaneous belief that his acceptance of such preferences is progress or equality. By outlining this personal experience, X is tapping into his personal run ins with the illusory progress that cultural integration presents. Integration, by the standards of many, is a means to an end: a successful compensation for past racial injustices; while Malcolm X sees cultural integration as further racial degradation: illusory equality and progress.

A young Malcolm X sporting a conk.

But most everyone would conclude that in the past fifty years, “progress” has been made for black Americans in society. We’ve had eight years of a black president, and there is a definite representation of blacks in media — whether television, music or film. In today’s world, it is easy to see the mass of black celebrities, whether they be athletes or musicians, as a representation of progress.

If Malcolm X is right — in his belief that the integration of a powerless and powerful group inherently necessitates the further degradation of the powerless — has progress been made at all? Representation is one thing, but what about the marginalization within that representation? After all, the mass of black celebrities are generally entertainers or athletes, invested in for their ability to produce more for team owners or media executives. And simultaneously, with almost no positive correlation, is the rising representation of blacks proportionate to higher standards of living for those in inner cities? As mandatory minimums rise, prison populations inflate, and cases of police shootings popping up on the monthly, it seems as though little to no progress is being made where it really counts. In the words of X:

“They used that to make us think we were making progress. Imagine, marching to Washington and getting nothing for it whatsoever. In ’63, it was the march on Washington. In ’64, what was it? The civil-rights bill. Right after they passed the civil-rights bill, they murdered a Negro in Georgia and did nothing about it; murdered two whites and a Negro in Mississippi and did nothing about it. So that the civil-rights bill has produced nothing where we’re concerned. It was only a valve, a vent, that was designed to enable us to let off our frustrations. What will they give us in 1965? I just read where they planned to make a black cabinet member. Yes, they have a new gimmick every year. They’re going to take one of their boys, black boys, and put him in the cabinet, so he can walk around Washington with a cigar — fire on one end and fool on the other.”
Malcolm X: Prospects for Freedom

After forty years in solitary confinement, Albert Woodfox, a Black Panther, was released from Angola Prison. After being out in the world for the first time in almost half a century, he began to familiarize himself with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Albert Woodfox—Photograph by Mark Hartman for The New Yorker
Conversations drifted toward police shootings. “The more things remain the same, the more things remain the same,” Woodfox said after someone described a shooting. When a young reporter from a black-news website asked him for a five-minute interview, Woodfox quickly got to his point. “We have to protect Black Lives Matter like we didn’t protect the Black Panther Party,” he said. Later, he told me, “I can’t tell you how proud I am of them.” The greatest disappointment of freedom, he said, was realizing how little had changed. “It’s the same old America.” — NYTIMES

Progress is extremely subjective. But regardless of one’s personal opinion on the progress since the 1960’s, it is utterly naive to assume that one is “color blind,” seeing past race when judging others. But what is the path forward? Should we conclude, as Malcolm X has, that we must counteract the African Diaspora? After four to five generations removed from Africa, is it reasonable to concede that blacks have maintained a strong enough sense of origin, after two centuries of cultural degradation? Regardless, it is imperative that we acknowledge the degrading implications of cultural integration. It is important to look at race as a multifaceted issue — and to dig beyond the soundbites and headlines. We must acknowledge differing ideas of progress, and strongly reminisce upon wrongs of the past in our view of the future.