The degradation and dehumanization Malcolm X, or Malcolm Little as he was known then, was forced to endure throughout his schooling experience is a testament both to the dominant ideology’s derogatory, overt racism and the interrelated political and economic subjugation which was a reality for blacks during the 1930’s. The barriers Malcolm faced, such as being denied the opportunity to pursue a career of his choice despite his outstanding grades, were the result of an oppressive hierarchy of racial oppression, determined in large part by a nearly impenetrable class structure. This class society, which inevitably fueled racism, was essential in perpetuating the dominant ideology and political economy which so prodigiously influenced Malcolm’s schooling experience. One will find that racism and other forms of prejudice are not only direct results, but integral functions of a capitalist society. As such, the element of racism within the dominant ideology, as well as its material manifestation in the political economy, cannot be removed without the dismantling of a class-based society; the abolition of class society, however, is not a guarantee for the abolition of racism, but rather a prerequisite. Viewed within a dialectical framework, it becomes obvious that Malcolm’s experience was not simply the result of prejudiced or misguided authority figures. Instead, it was heavily dependant upon how various social, political, and economic factors interacted in a specific historical and material period. His experience provides illuminating details that are applicable today.
The most brazen ideological component stemming from the dominant culture is the overt racism, both personal and institutionalized, so common during the 1930’s. This consisted of the belief in the natural superiority of the white race and, conversely, the natural inferiority of the black race. This racism of the dominant culture manifested itself in the action taken upon this belief; blacks were less human than whites and, accordingly, were less capable of performing at the level of whites. This was true in most areas such as intelligence, professions and occupations, sports, and a variety of other social categories. Tied into this idea was the concept that blacks were naturally lazy, more prone to crime, and less likely to be able to function in society than their white counterpart. Despite the skill shown or intelligence displayed, blacks were largely unable to achieve any social status and economic position in society that challenged this idea of racial supremacy. In other words, while blacks may compete amongst themselves and other poor whites for vocations deemed lowly by middle and upper class whites, they were generally denied the already extremely limited chance to move up the social ladder.
What one may label the white power structure held immense sway over the daily lives of ordinary people and societal institutions in which they worked and lived. Indeed, nearly all societal institutions were in some way affected by the ideological hegemony stemming from the predominately white, capitalist power structure. In the South, legal segregation remained an important aspect of society. In the North, discrimination was usually more discreet. Instead of legislation promoting segregation in housing, banks and government agencies simply redlined districts or selectively gave loans along racial lines. Confined to poor, urban neighborhoods, this translated into the schools where blacks were generally confined to low quality schools with fewer resources. The ingenious scheme to unequally fund schools through property taxes is an important continuation of this trend today. By under funding certain schools, rulings whites could easily push propaganda about the inferiority of the black child’s mind when they scored worse on tests or dropped out to pursue a life of hustling, robbing, drug dealing, or other self destructive behaviors as Malcolm outlines in his autobiography. Indeed, Northern racism, hidden behind a cloak of modern liberalism, was as prevalent as in the South.
One cannot question the link between the dominant ideology of the 1930’s and Malcolm’s experience in school. The inferiority of blacks was a built in component of society, reinforced by legislative and corporate maneuvers which further marginalized the black community. Despite the fact that Malcolm’s teacher was friendly and even liked Malcolm, he still doubted his potential because of his skin color and covered his racist ideas with a façade of pragmatism. His comment, that Malcolm should consider some sort of manual labor such as construction instead of pursuing law, was not meant to malign Malcolm as an individual, but instead reflected how profoundly racism impinged upon all aspects of society. However, Mr. O, with his personal prejudice betrayed by this display of benevolent racism, should not be analyzed separately from the society in which he lives; the institutions and establishment he was part of were prodigious factors in transmuting the dominant ideology onto him and, from him, onto Malcolm.
Malcolm’s understanding of the limits society would impose on him became much more lucid after this incident. As he reflects, “It was then that I began to change – inside… Where nigger had slipped off my back before, wherever I heard it now, I stopped and looked at whoever said it” (Haley, 1964, p.37). It is important to note that Malcolm was conscious of the effect these artificially imposed limitations were having upon him. He began to see that society was not based upon individual merit but instead upon a set of societal norms enforced by the dominant ideology. This sort of ideological hegemony would undoubtedly shape his lens through which he analyzed society in various phases of his life. It must have played an immense role when, during his involvement with the Nation of Islam, when he viewed racism and racist ideology as an integral and natural aspect of white society and an inherit quality in white people more broadly. It must also have played a decisive and much more profound role when he dismissed his earlier notions of white supremacy as a natural instinct of white people and instead embraced the idea that racism was a historic phenomenon arising from a particular form of society. Because of this recognition, which he developed after traveling to Mecca and splitting with Elijah Muhammad, he also understand that racism was perpetuated by the current economic system and, born from and galvanized by certain material roots, it could also be dismantled with the abolition of the dominant economic system. Thus, at each period in Malcolm’s life, Mr. O’s comment appears to take significance in a different and unique way, dependant upon the framework Malcolm employs.
Another aspect of the dominant ideology apparent in this scenario is the implicit acceptance of an extremely hierarchal, class-based society. Malcolm’s teacher, whether or not he meant to, sent a dualistically degrading message to Malcolm. On one hand, he implied that because blacks were inferior, they should be confined to jobs consisting of manual labor. By this implication, he not only degraded Malcolm and blacks in general, but also anyone, white or black, involved in jobs where you must be “good with your hands” (Haley, p. 36). Not only was Mr. O’s comment an invective towards the very conception of black humanity, it was also an insult to a significant portion of the working class; being a manual laborer, according to Mr. O, was something that inferior humans pursued because they were mentality less capable. More importantly, the dominant ideology once again plays an immense role in this situation. Without this passive acceptance of the wage system and a capitalist economy, the ruling class could not maintain its power and privilege; this was a system Malcolm would eventually come to reject. In fact, Mr. O’s comment towards Malcolm provides an extremely important look into the political economy of the time period.
The 1930’s were a tumultuous time in American society; a depression was sweeping the nation, unemployment figures were staggering, unionization rates were surging and labor battles were being waged fiercely between exploited workers and bosses. The ruling class was shook by immense strike waves and increasing worker militancy. At times such as these it is essential that those who run society are able to use creative means to divide the working class. Racism is a vital weapon in the ruling class arsenal. In fact, it was extremely beneficial that up until this point labor unions had more or less remained segregated or at best ambivalent on the race question. By utilizing black workers (or any marginalized group) as scabs during strikes carried out by a mostly white working class, workers were able to skillfully manipulate each group so that instead of viewing their natural interests as workers in alignment they would view their own fellow workers as competition. Hostility and animosity would replace solidarity. This rancor would be further fueled by elite propaganda and the pseudo-scientific theories postulated claiming the inferiority of blacks and other marginalized groups.
This divide and conquer tactic has been, and continues to be, utilized regularly to defend corporate interests. Many white labor organizers failed to realize that racism or ambiguity concerning the rights of blacks was extremely detrimental to the working class cause. The only benefit whites gained, as W.E.B. DuBois so brilliantly explained in his work concerning Black Reconstruction, was a “psychological wage” (Taylor, 2008, 64). By maintaining a permanent underclass, bosses are able to keep wages and benefits low for all workers. Unorganized, divided workers are much less of a threat than an organized, collective force. The function of racism in a capitalist framework, then, is to destabilize the workers’ movement and paralyze it through with virulent ideological poison. So when Communist Party members, despite their many flaws, began organizing black and white sharecroppers together in the South, this provided a radical challenge to both the ruling class (North and South) and the conservative labor organizations (Pope, 2001, p. 232-266). Critically literate, radical blacks who began organizing the unorganized were threats to the economic and social stability of the capitalist political economy and the dominant ideology stemming from it.
Thus, one can begin to understand why Malcolm’s teacher pushed him to pursue something which engaged his hands and not his mind. The hegemony of the dominant ideology demanded that blacks maintain positions of inferiority in order to avoid the threat of militant black radicals and to undermine white laborers struggling for economic gains. Keeping blacks and white separated, based upon what today seems arbitrary, was a logical and rational maneuver for those who ran society. Had Malcolm followed the advice given him, he could have become an obedient black worker, marginalized and underpaid for his labor. Likewise, he may have even been used as a scab worker to help foster artificial hostility between blacks and whites, provide ideological ammunition to racist labor leaders, and undermine working class unity. It is quite interesting to consider that the radical, militant Malcolm X could have simply remained a passive, submissive construction worker named Malcolm Little. Mr. O’s gentle reminder to Malcolm of his place in society should not be viewed as an isolated instance of personal prejudice but instead an integral aspect of the dominant ideology being transmitted through an institution where the primary goal was the maintenance of the capitalist political economy. While Mr. O may not have been consciously plotting to subdue the black community, he was unconsciously helping to fulfill the desires of the dominant class, of which he was not even a part.
One cannot question the fact that societal institutions are reflections of the economic system under which they are created. Schools and the ideas transmitted by these institutions are designed to perpetuate the existing society. As reflections of the dominant class, these ideas are necessarily reflections of the interests of that class. The example Malcolm explicates upon provides a paragon for analyzing both racial and class relations in the 1930’s and how they affected schooling. The threat of militant, black radicals (especially when involved in labor organizing) to the political and economic establishment was a fear many ruling elites dared not take lightly. Similarly, marginalizing blacks and maintaining an obvious disparity allowed elites to maintain low wages for all workers and utilize them as scab workers. This helped to suppress the disruptions caused by the laboring masses who were challenging the profit-driven, free market system. These two important aspects of the political economy were backed up by an ideological hegemony which promoted the ideas that blacks were intellectually inferior and that a class society was fundamental to human existence. The artificial wedges used to divide black and white workers would be impossible to preserve without the dominant ideological components which accompanied them. Malcolm’s experience at school in Mason, Michigan was intricately bound upon in the existing order and the class structure of society. Without educational institutions which inculcated youth with the dominant ideology, the political economy would be hard pressed to maintain itself. Thus, Mr. O’s personal, singular instance of racial prejudice cannot be understood outside the context of American capitalism in the 1930’s.
Works CitedHaley, A. (1964) The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group.
Pope, D., (2001) American Radicalism. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.
Taylor, K. (2008) Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. International Socialist Review, 57, January-February. Also available from http://www.isreview.org/issues/57/feat-reconstruction.shtml.