“Has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” The debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr

A riveting exchange between two intellectual giants on the most pressing social issue of that or perhaps any time in American history.

The debate on the question occurred at the Cambridge Union, Cambridge University, England in 1965.

I am requesting that you reserve comments until you've seen and heard the entire video.

It's an hour long, so I don't expect or anticipate immediate response or reaction:

Views: 194

Comment by koshersalaami on July 15, 2017 at 1:44pm

I watched the whole thing. I don't think the question was directly addressed, except insofar as no one thought that Whites in America did well because Blacks did poorly. If that was the case, everyone agreed the premise was false. 

There's a lot to say here. Baldwin makes the point that he is as a Black citizen treated as though he weren't one specifically because he was Black. 100% true. His point about Robert Kennedy was seriously interesting given what we know now. I think he misread Kennedy, mistaking a diagnosis for acceptance. That is the only place I parted ways with him. He didn't say much that I don't know 52 years later, he just said it better.

Regarding Buckley, There's a ton to say here.

Firstly, it is necessary to understand when he was writing. At that point in history, the recent improvements in civil rights were frequent and steady. We hadn't yet reached the point where gains for Blacks relative to Whites stalled. The middle class at this point had both economic and political clout we don't today, so today's cynicism wasn't appropriate for the same reasons. 

His primary point was that while the civil rights issues were a result of the United States, progress in correcting these wrongs was also a result of the United States, a product of our system. He was very concerned that the baby wasn't thrown out in condemnation with the bath water. Remember that he was talking to a foreign audience, so he was protective of the American system. 

He made a common mistake I once posted about. He assumed that the Black community had the same ability to raise itself as other minorities. He had no idea why that wouldn't be so. Even though Farrakhan kind of agrees with him.

Back to the American system: At that point there was steady progress, if violent. As far as he was concerned, the system was adjusting. He was right: it was.

He makes another point that I'd call kind of prescient, though he didn't make it like I would. He talks about American values contributing to this progress, and I think (I can't look it up) appealing to those values working. That's why civil rights was such a huge topic on college campuses at the time. Keep in mind that campus radicalism was still a couple of years in the future. 

Sometimes I write posts that I decide not to publish. One was about a related topic. It has to do with PC. I won't publish it because there are aspects of it I'm not currently ok with, but I'll make one of my points from it here. 

PC starts for the right reasons: consideration for minorities treated unequally. Here's the problem:

PC replaces the values discussion, or should I say Displaces the values discussion. It changes the focus. In doing so, it loses the population that values the values but doesn't see the PC vocabulary as an extension of those values but rather as an excuse to berate the majority. Buckley valued the values highly, probably more highly than any prominent Republican politician does today. If you wanted to reach thinking conservatives, you were best off hitting them where their values were. They wouldn't want to be internally inconsistent. 

Now the right wing doesn't worry about consistency any more - its intellectual integrity is gone. But the center's isn't to anything like the same extent. The center may not pay much attention to it, but they still believe they have egalitarian values. The strategic question becomes how to lead them to their own value-consistent conclusions. 

What I wrote about was maybe we needed an independent values-based movement that could support the causes while ignoring most of the vocabulary. A lot of these people - mostly White males (I'm not including myself here because I am more comfortable with PC than a lot of guys I know - also because it applies less to Jewish guys because we have a better feel for minority feelings from experience than most other White guys do) - don't feel comfortable with a lot of the Progressive movement even though they share a lot of the movement's values. We lost some of them in the last election because they hated Hillary. Maybe we need them to work parallel to standard Progressives rather than with them. I don't remember what name I had in mind, but I think I have a better one now:

Pigs For Justice

For people who care about what's fair but not about who they offend

if you had known about this a couple of weeks ago and asked me who I'd want to bounce a concept like this off of to tell me if I was on the right track or full of shit, and whose answer I'd trust, one name would have come to mind:

Tr ig

 

 

Comment by Ron Powell on July 15, 2017 at 11:02pm

@Kosh; "For people who care about what's fair but not about who they offend..."

If it is at all possible to be simultaneously fair and offensive, the only people offended are the people who are inherently unfair in their thinking and behavior.

Baldwin "won" the debate because the question can only be answered in the affirmative.

Buckley should have acknowledged that and then chosen to addres the question of "why"...

He didn't instead he chose to defend a system that was/is inherently unfair and attempted a gauche, not so subtle, mocking and insult of Baldwin's accent...

Baldwin seemed to have failed to directly address the question but for his recitation about being black and the common black heritage/experience.

The commentary about cheap or free labor was pretty much on the mark particularly as it related to the creation of the southern oligarchy as a manifestation of the wealth generated as a result of slavery and the effect/impact of American wealth on the world stage.

Re the American Dream, he chose to discuss the negative abstraction of what the dream is to those who are excluded from sharing or participatitng in it.

Using his personal anecdotes to this end and explaining how the American Dream may consist of no more than the American white man being able to correctly and accurately declare himself to be 'better' than the black man because of this exclusion...

In other words Baldwin asserts that white privilege is the manifestation and measure of the American Dream, and to the extent that black people cannot share or participate in the exercise of said privilege, the American Dream comes to white people at the expense of black people as a consequence of the American system of exclusions and denials.

Comment by koshersalaami on July 16, 2017 at 10:45am

Cheap or free labor is a point barely addressed in the debate and that point is central. When talking about slavery, White prosperity was literally at the expense of Black people, the system functioning in this case as a zero sum game: White prosperity at direct Black expense precluded Black prosperity. 

In 1965? Baldwin didn't make the case that White wealth was dependent on a lack of Black wealth; in fact, he made the opposite point: that an increase in Black wealth would increase White prosperity, a point I've been making since I started blogging seven years ago. Maybe I don't understand the concept of "at Black expense," but it seems to me that in 1965 Whites as a community didn't profit on Black poverty as much as they'd have profited on Black prosperity. Overall, though not in specific cases, oppression of Blacks came at White expense. I can come up with plenty of cases where Whites did profit on Black poverty, and that would be the best way to approach this argument, but it's a net minus - increased demand and an increase in the supply of skilled labor would have done more to help the economy than Blacks being forced to pay high prices and high interest rates and accept low pay. That's half the rationale of the Marshall Plan as applied to Europeans and Japanese. But that's where argument of the Resolved point should have taken place. 

Buckley's accent remark was despicable. 

Buckley lost the argument because a different point was being argued: Did the American Dream as it existed in 1965 inherently exclude Blacks? 

Obviously. No hope Buckley was winning that one. He tried, saying that Black exclusion did not delegitimize the American Dream, that the American system was repairing itself, that the plight of American Blacks was exaggerated in international terms, and that Blacks avoided responsibility for self-advancement that would largely fix the problem. You know why I think the last point is bullshit, as is the penultimate point - equal income between Blacks and Europeans did not equate to equal living standards and certainly not to equal power or status. His case for the first point was that alternatives to the American Dream would have been worse for Blacks. In 1965 I wouldn't have bet on that. 

 

 

 

Comment by Ron Powell on July 16, 2017 at 11:42am

Saying  that the Civil Rights Movement was an integral component of the spread of Communism was a red herring floated by racist reactionary conservatives in an effort to delegtimize the push for equalityand discredit proponents of egalitarian principles re social and economic justice viz, viz the role of government in securing and ensuring  "equal justice under law".

Comment by Ron Powell on July 16, 2017 at 12:23pm

@Kosh; "Maybe I don't understand the concept of "at Black expense,"...."

Re the American Dream, he (Baldwin) chose to discuss the negative abstraction of what the dream is to those who are excluded from sharing or participatitng in it.


Using his personal anecdotes to this end and explaining how the American Dream may consist of no more than the American white man being able to correctly and accurately declare himself to be 'better' than the black man because of this exclusion...

In other words Baldwin asserts that white privilege is the manifestation and measure of the American Dream, (not material wealth or prosperity) and to the extent that black people cannot share or participate in the exercise of said privilege, the American Dream comes to white people at the expense of black people as a consequence of the American system of exclusions and denials.

The 1954 Brown v  Board of Education decision addressed the notion that  the psychological and emotional "harm"  done to black children as a result of segregation was sufficient to establish that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment was being violated thus rendering segregation unconstitutional.

The power of the color line and how it influences almost every dimension of American (and global) social and political life is not an “unknown unknown.” The fact that historically, white supremacy and white privilege over determine the positive life outcomes and life chances of white folks relative to black and brown people is one of the most consistent and repeated findings in all of the social sciences.


Baldwin was arguing that the "American Dream" had as much to do with being free of the stigma and consequences  of the history of slavery and subjugation predicated on the color of one's skin as it  had to do with the acqusition and accumulation of wealth... Possibly even more so.

He was saying that "white privilege"  as a deterninant of black life chances and  outcomes was/is the manifestation of the "American Dream" that is enjoyed and exercised  "at the expense of the American Negro".

To put it another way Baldwin may well have introduced an aspect of the discourse or argument that had not been anticipated by the organizers and hosts of the debate...

Comment by MV Neland on July 16, 2017 at 12:52pm

You all are putting forth simply brilliant exchanges on a controversial, hard to grasp subject - American racism and white privilege. Wow! Reminds me of Firing Line and why it was so watched.

@koshersalaami - great point about conservatives no longer having internal consistency with their values.  Nor do i think many people have the skills, courage, or practice to have the discussions of the 60's in a public forum.  What these public intellectual debates gave us back then was both the invitation and the expectation to think - to know and explain our positions, to listen to and understand the other perspectives, and then to demonstrate and justify our thinking WITH "internal consistency."  I often wish there was a modern day Firing Line equivalent.  Would it even be possible?

Comment by Ron Powell on July 16, 2017 at 1:01pm

@MVN; Contemporary TV lacks precisely that which the current producers want viewers to believe they are providing:: depth and dimension.

Comment by Ron Powell on July 16, 2017 at 1:17pm

@TM; Nobody  is suggesting that you are saying anything of the kind...

You might do well to look at the pronouncements of J. Edgar Hoover re the Civil Rights Movement and Communism.

Comment by koshersalaami on July 16, 2017 at 3:34pm

MV, Thanks

Ron and I have a lot of practice

We and two others wrote a self-published book on the subject

Ron,

if we leave finances out of "expense," this is a good question. It might depend where. From where I sat, the American dream wasn't internally competitive; in fact, what made it a national dream was that it wasn't. Chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage, But if you'd asked my neighbors when I was a child if Black families should have equivalent cars in equivalent garages, I think most would have said No, proving Baldwin's point. I don't think Buckley would have acknowledged this. 

Comment by Ron Powell on July 16, 2017 at 3:54pm

@Kosh; "Chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage, But if you'd asked my neighbors when I was a child if Black families should have equivalent cars in equivalent garages, I think most would have said No, proving Baldwin's point. I don't think Buckley would have acknowledged this."

Baldwin's point is, and has been, my point as well.

How could Buckley acknowledge this and have any hope  of mounting a valid counter argument?

Too many white people continue to bekieve that black people don't merit equal access to the indicia of political, economic, and social equality.

As the chairman of the department I taught in while an Assistant Professor at the University of Hartford said as he denied me the full increase that I had earned for the coming year:

"Black people can live on less than white people, so you don't need as much..."

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