Institutional and Systemic Racism 1.

            Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998) was born in Trinidad.  His parents migrated to New York in 1943; Carmichael joined them in 1952.  A stellar student, he graduated from the Bronx High School of Science (1960), then Howard University (Philosophy,1964).  He decided against grad school at Harvard because these were the early days of the “Civil Rights Era.”  Already “engage” during high school, Carmichael he became a “Freedom Rider” during his freshman year at Howard.  After graduation he became an organizer in Mississippi for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating committee (SNCC); then went to the Democratic Convention as part of the alternative slate of delegates prepared by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.  The Convention seated the “official” whites-only delegation.  That rebuff vexed Carmichael. 

In 1965, Carmichael went to Alabama and started work that took him in a different direction from that of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  His divergence from the mainstream continued in 1966 during work in Mississippi.  Along the way, Carmichael became chairman of SNCC.  He began to expound on the idea of “Black Power.”  By this he meant “a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.”  Carmichael supported the expulsion of whites from SNCC.  At the same time, he encouraged white organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to oppose the draft and the Vietnam War.  In May 1967, Carmichael resigned as SNCC chairman, seemingly half jumping and half being pushed by restive members. 

Carmichael then joined with Charles V. Hamilton to write Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (1967).  Hamilton (1929–) was born in Muskogeee, OK, moved to Chicago in 1935 as part of the “Great Migration,” got a BA from Roosevelt University, then an MA and PhD from the University of Chicago.  Wanting to be an activist professor, not an academic professor, he got fired from a series of jobs, he was at Roosevelt University when they co-wrote the book. 

Part memoir and part theoretical piece (seemingly much influenced by Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1961 )), Black Power is also an artifact of its times.  Reviewing the fight for Black political rights in the South, the book finds that gaining such rights in a majoritarian democracy didn’t get much for a minority.  Carmichael and Hamilton began to see Blacks as suffering from many forms of oppression, rather than only disfranchisement.  Hamilton told Studs Terkel that “The point we are trying to make in this book is that one’s individual stance in relationship to the black man is irrelevant. It’s what the system does and that’s why we use the term ‘institutional racism’.”[1]  In short, “white supremacy” was/is a many-headed Hydra.  Worse still, many “allies”—labor unions, white liberals, etc.—have their own and different primary concerns.[2]  So Blacks have an even bigger fight than they imagined and they’re on their own. 

The book is often cited as the source of the terms “institutional racism” and “systemic racism.”  Like many other current ideas, it springs from an earlier time than our own. 

[1] See: Studs Terkel interviews Professor Charles V. Hamilton on his book written with Stokely Carmichael entitled “Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America” ; part 1 | The WFMT Studs Terkel Radio Archive | A Living Celebration 

[2] Thus the successive (not accumulating) progressive yard-signs in my neighborhood went from “Hate Has No Home Here” to “Black Lives Matter” to Shapiro/Wild/Fetterman. 


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