Revisiting E. Franklin Frazier’s classic sociological study Black Bourgeoisie should help us understand the misleaders of today’s Black superelite.
Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier’s polemical study Black Bourgeoisie is said to have induced “the shock of self-revelation to middle-class Blacks in America.” This statement is only partly true. While there was certainly shock, there was little self-awareness. The publication of Black Bourgeoisie in 1957 was shocking for its polemical, at times vicious, portrait of the Black middle classes, with their inbred and elitist culture, their slavish fealty to white organizations, and their cold disdain for, if not disgust of, the Black masses. Frazier tore the veil off the closely-guarded social secrets of the hincty world of the Negro gentry. For some, the book was embarrassing and Frazier became the subject of whispered epithets and a sotto voce anger at soirees and cotillions. But did exposure prompt “self-awareness” amongst a caste defined by its self-importance and narcissistic self-regard? Not if that awareness of self was meant to spur the modification of beliefs or behaviors.
Sixty year after Black Bourgeoisie was first published, the fundamental class registers of the Black elite have changed somewhat; Frazier did not anticipate the birth of a Black superelite in politics, sports, and entertainment. Yet the essential ideological leanings of this class – their positioning as the paternal minders of the Black poor and working class, their role as intermediaries for white political and economic power, their reformist, anti-radical politics – has not. As such, it’s worth revisiting and remembering Frazier’s claims. They should offer shocks and revelations about the Black bourgeoisie of our present age. Excerpts from “Power and Political Orientation,” chapter 5 of Black Bourgeoisie, are reprinted below.
From Black Bourgeoisie
E. Franklin Frazier
Since the black bourgeoisie is composed chiefly of whitecollar workers and since its small business enterprises are insignificant in the American economy, the black bourgeoisie wields no political power as a class in American society. Nor does the black bourgeoisie exercise any significant power within the Negro community as an employer of labor. Its power within the Negro community stems from the fact that middle-class Negroes hold strategic positions in segregated institutions and create and propagate the ideologies current in the Negro community. In the political life of the American society the Negro political leaders, who have always had a middle-class outlook, follow an opportunistic policy. They attempt to accommodate the demands of Negroes for better economic and social conditions to their personal interests which are tied up with the political machines, which in turn are geared to the interests of the white propertied classes.
"Service" and the Intelligentsia
The activities of the Greek letter societies represent only a small part of the activities of the Negro intelligentsia influencing the thought and aspirations of the Negro. In their roles of teachers, social workers, doctors, and leaders of organizations concerned with the advancement of Negroes, the intelligentsia exercise a powerful influence on the ideologies and values of Negroes. Already we have seen something of the outlook of the present generation of teachers in Negro schools. Here we shall consider in more detail their influence as well as that of other representatives of the Negro intelligentsia in the Negro community.
Negro educational institutions, unlike the Negro church, did not grow out of the traditional culture of the Negro folk. The schools maintained by the free Negroes before the Civil War were the result of the assimilation of European culture, while the schools built by the Negro religious organizations were imitations of culture patterns alien to the Negro's way of life. The Negro colleges and schools that were established by northern white missionaries represented an entirely alien conception of life and culture from the standpoint of the social heritage of the Negro masses. While the first generation of Negro teachers who gradually replaced the early white teachers enjoyed considerable prestige among the Negro masses, they too were in a sense representatives of the white man's way of life-and what is important for our discussion at this point is the fact that they were dependent upon the whites who had provided their education. Thus from the beginning, the Negro intelligentsia, or what DuBois called the "Talented Tenth," was created by philanthropic foundations supported by northern industrialists.
Scarcely two years after the close of the Civil War, the Peabody Fund was established to aid in the education of Negro teachers. The trustees of this Fund opposed the mixed schools for whites and Negroes and opposed the Civil Rights Bill before the United States Congress which was designed to guarantee equal educational facilities and other civil rights for Negroes. Negro teachers who were beneficiaries of the Fund were expected to conform to the racial policy of this foundation. From the time when this philanthropic foundation was created until the present, the Negro intellectual has been forced to shape not only his philosophy of racial adjustment but his general social philosophy according to the social philosophy of the northern philanthropic foundations. It has not been necessary, of course, for the foundations to make explicit demands upon the Negro teacher or intellectual. The Negro teacher or intellectual realized that if he were to secure employment, he must indicate that his ideas of racial adjustment conformed to the social philosophy of the foundations. This was especially true in the case of the beneficiaries of the Rosenwald Fund, which was set up as the result of the influence of Booker T. Washington. This foundation undertook to subsidize aspiring Negroes in the fields of art, literature, and science as well as in the teaching profession. It was hostile to any Negro who showed independence in his thinking in regard to racial and economic problems. When leaders like DuBois and a few others had gained sufficient prestige and security in their profession as not to be crushed by its power, the Fund was willing to grant them aid and claim them as allies.
The segregated schools in which Negro teachers had to find employment were generally under the autocratic control of Negroes chosen by the whites who gave financial support to the schools, or the white educational authorities in charge of the schools in the South. The relation of the Negro heads of schools and of other segregated institutions depending upon white support to the Negro educated class amounted to what is known in the field of colonial administration as a system of "indirect rule." Often when Negro teachers became restive under this system of control, they were warned that they could not find employment outside of Negro schools. In fact, some Negro teachers were placed upon a "blacklist," indicating that they were not fit to teach in Negro schools because they did not have the "right" philosophy of racial adjustment. A teacher could be placed upon the "blacklist" by merely refusing to submit to insults by southern whites. Under such a system of tutelage the Negro teacher has been able to teach students only an opportunistic philosophy with reference to the race probblem or the economic problems facing the country.
A relatively large proportion of educated Negroes have found employment in the field of social work. In this field of employment, as in the teaching field, the Negro intellectual has not been able to engage in independent thinking. Social welfare among Negroes has been supported by white philanthropy, and Negro workers in social welfare agencies have supported, on the whole, the ideas of their white benefactors concerning racial and economic questions. The leading organization in the field of social work devoted to the Negro has been the National Urban League. This organization, which grew out of several committees of philanthropic whites interested in the welfare of the Negro in northern cities, came into existence in 1911.17 From its beginning the Urban League emphasized the interracial character of its program. The staff of the Urban League was composed of Negroes with a sociologist as its executive secretary, while wealthy whites including John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Julius Rosenwald, and Mrs. William H. Baldwin were among its main financial supporters. Soon after its organization, the League established branches in the industrial centers of the North. Consequently, during the first World War, the League became the most important agency in screening the raw southern Negro recruits to northern industry and assisted in finding them homes and in making available to them the resources of the social welfare agencies.
However, the National Urban League has also followed an opportunistic policy in regard to the labor movement. It was slow in giving its endorsement of the organization of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Its support of movements to unionize Negro workers has advanced only as its white supporters have allowed it to advance. The National Urban League does not have the support of the Negro masses. It is an organization composed of Negro professional and white-collar workers depending upon white philanthropy. The leaders in the National Urban League regard themselves as essentially social welfare workers. Even when the League organized the so-called "Workers Councils" during the 1930's, when Negro workers were making increasing demands for organization, they selected for membership in the Councils middle-class Negroes who had little knowledge of Negro workers or sympathy with their aspirations.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was also a form of interracial cooperation for the improvement of the Negro, was organized two years before the National Urban League. It differed from the League in that it represented a cooperative effort on the part of the so-called "militant" Negroes, who were opposed to the program of Booker T. Washington, and distinguished white leaders of publicopinion who were opposed to the segregation and disfranchisement of the Negro. W. E. B. DuBois, who became the editor of the Crisis, the official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was the leader of the "militant" Negroes, and Oswald Garrison Villard, the grandson of the great abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, wrote the call for the conference at which the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was organized. When the association was organized in 1909, its program included the following goals:
Abolition of Enforced Segregation;
Equal Educational Advantages for Colored and White;
Enfranchisement for the Negro;
Enforcement of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of
the United States Constitution.
The program "was denounced by nearly every white man who gave to Negro institutions." Moreover, many Negroes, especially those who were associated with institutions supported by white philanthropists, "thought" that this program was too radical, and there was pressure from both whites and Negroes to modify the program.
Negroes who became identified with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People were known as "radical" and thus radicalism came to be associated with "racial radicalism" or the belief in the equality of Negroes and whites in American society. "Racial radicalism" had nothing to do with "radicalism" in the broader meaning of the term. It is true, however, that in the fight for equality in American society, the Association insisted upon the equality of Negroes in labor unions. As the result of the mass migrations of Negroes to northern cities during and following the first World War, membership in the Association grew rapidly. Among its middle-class leaders there were many who realized that the traditional attitude of Negro leaders toward labor was opposed to the interest of the Negro masses. Consequently, they were active in having the NAACP send to the American Federation of Labor a demand that it remove its racial bars in order that Negro workers might not be used as "scabs" and that white and black workers unite in the common struggle against the exploitation of labor. Although the NAACP presented concrete proposals to bring about an end to racial discrimination in the unions, this effort on the part of middle-class leaders did not affect the position of Negro workers in the labor movement. When the Congress of Industrial Organizations began to organize Negro workers, the NAACP was divided in its attitude toward the CIO. The liberal members were favorable to the participation of Negro workers in the organization, while the conservative members were opposed on the ground that the organization was radical.
Although the Association was willing to fight for equal employment opportunities for the Negro, it refused to change the general orientation of its program. It continued to hold to its middle-class outlook as the defender of the rights of Negroes as American citizens. It carefully avoided any association of its program with purely working-class or "leftist" movements. In recent years the Association has attempted to prevent any Communist "infiltration" by refusing to associate itself with unions or groups in which Communists might possibly be members. The Association, which began as the result of the militancy of middle-class intellectuals, has retained its middle-class outlook and supports middle class values.
From this analysis of the various intellectual elements in the black bourgeoisie, it is clear that they are dependent primarily upon the white propertied classes. Even the NAACP, which has stood for "racial radicalism" and has received a large part of its support from Negroes, has been influenced by the middle-class outlook of its white supporters and has sought support primarily from Negroes with a middle-class outlook. While during recent years a few Negro intellectuals have escaped from the tutelage of white philanthropy, most of these have been compelled to find a living in Negro organizations with a middle-class outlook, such as the various Negro business undertakings. The "integration" of Negro intellectuals into both public and private schools and colleges has generally confirmed the faith of these intellectuals in the soundness of the middle-class way of life. "Integration" has thus tended to increase the size and influence of the black bourgeoisie, since their social life continues to be centered in the Negro community.
Serving Two Masters
Since the wealth of the black bourgeoisie is too inconsequential for this class to wield any political power, the role of Negro politicians has been restricted to attempting to satisfy the demands of Negro voters while acting as the servants of the political machines supported by the propertied classes in the white community. When the Negro enjoyed the right of suffrage in the South during the Reconstruction period, the Negro political leaders were a part of the Republican Party machine supported by northern industrial capitalism. The state constitutions which the Negro leaders helped to draw up embodiedmiddle-class interests and ideals. With the exception of a few political leaders who were concerned with making land available for the freedmen, the Negroes' political leaders, many of whom belonged to the class of Negroes who were free before the Civil War, were interested primarily in securing civil and political rights for the freedmen.
After the disfranchisement of the Negro in the South, the Republican Party continued to maintain a mere skeleton of an organization in most of the southern States. In these organizations, which played no real role in local political struggles, Negro politicians continued to have influence. Although the Republican Party organizations did not have much influence locally except in the matter of federal appointments, they were important in the Republican National Conventions where candidates were nominated for the presidency and vice-presidency of the United States. A candidate who could be sure of the support of the southern delegates to the Republican National Convention would have a good chance of securing the nomination. The only rewards that Negroes received for their support of the Republican Party were a few federal appointments that went to middle-class Negroes. The most important rewards included the appointment of Negroes as minister to Liberia, as recorder of deeds in the District of Columbia, and as registrar of the United States Treasury. A few Negroes were also appointed as consular agents, postmasters in small towns, and as a collector of a port until President Taft inaugurated the policy of not appointing Negroes to posts in the South because of the opposition of the southern whites. These appointments did not affect the economic or social welfare of the Negro in American life, though Negro leaders
made the appointments appear to be of great importance to the Negro. Southern Negro politicians continued to be the most important political leaders among Negroes until the mass migrations to northern cities where the masses gained once more the right to vote.
When the Negro masses acquired the right to vote in northern cities, they continued for a while to give their support to the Republican Party, chiefly on sentimental grounds, though there were some good reasons for their sentimental attachment to the Republican Party. The Republican Party was the party of Lincoln; it was the party which had given them their freedom. The Democratic Party was the party of the southern white men who had been responsible for lynching, disfranchisement, and segregation. Negroes had respect for the words of the great Negro abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass, who once said, "The Republican Party is the ship. All else is the open sea." But gradually the Negro masses began to demand more than the appointment of middleclass Negroes to honorific posts. A part of their re-education was due to the activities of the Communist Party. The Communists began to attack the religiosity and otherworldly outlook of the Negro masses. They organized Negroes in demonstrations against racial discrimination; they nominated Negroes for political office; they gave special attention to Negro workers in their attempt to capture organized labor. However, the Communists succeeded only in enlisting the support of relatively small numbers of Negroes. The small gains which the Communists were able to make resulted in an anti-Communist campaign on the part of the municipal authorities and middle-class Negro leaders, especially the Negro preachers. Negroes who were active in Communist activities were subjected to special brutality on the part of the police. Because of their traditional religious background, the Negro masses were easily persuaded by Negro preachers that the irreligious Communists were using Negroes as tools.
The Communists had less influence in directing the political development of the Negroes than did the inauguration of the New Deal program during the Depression years. The situation in Chicago provides an excellent study of the change in the Negro's political outlook. At the time of the presidential election in 1932, less than a fourth of the Negro vote as compared with three-fifths of the white vote in Chicago went to Roosevelt. But in 1933, when more than 80,000 Negroes or 34.4 of the entire Negro population were on relief, Negroes began to shift their support to the Democratic Party which utilized its strategic position to capture Negro votes. In the 1935 election of the Democratic mayor, four-fifths of the Negro vote went to the Democratic candidate; and in 1936 half of the Negroes voted for Roosevelt. From then on the Negro voters supported the Democratic candidates. Oscar DePriest, a leading Negro Republican, had been elected to the United States Congress in 1928; but in 1934 Arthur Mitchell was elected to Congress on the Democratic ticket and thus became the first Negro Democratic congressman in the history of the United States.
The political leaders who have emerged as a consequence of the new role of Negroes in the political life of America are men and women with a purely middleclass outlook. In the rough and tumble politics of American cities, it has often been Negroes associated with the underworld who have been able to organize the Negro voters and wring concessions from white society. These Negro leaders often operate behind the facade of a legitimate business, very frequently the undertaking business. The undertaking business brings them into intimate contact with the Negro masses. Among the Negro masses they gain a reputation for generosity and humanity by giving money to the poor and to churches and by enabling criminals to escape punishment. Behind the facade of their legitimate business, they carry on illegitimate businesses such as gambling, vice, and the lottery known as the "numbers." Therefore, their interest in the political machines is mainly to secure protection for their business enterprises. They often make financial contributions to both the Democratic and Republican Party machines in order to insure protection for their businesses. Their political affiliation or leadership has no relation to the needs of the Negro masses.
Except in the case of a crisis such as that created by the Depression when the Negro masses changed their political affiliation, the Negro politician may even mobilize the masses to vote against their economic interests. In his role as leader, the Negro politician attempts to accommodate the demands of the Negro masses to his personal interests which are tied up with the political machines. He may secure the appointment of a few middle-class Negroes to positions in the municipal government. But when it comes to the fundamental interests of the Negro masses as regards employment, housing, and health, his position is determined by the political machine which represents the propertied classes of the white community…..
….On the national scene, the white political leader plays the role of a friend of Negroes. He is influential in securing a contribution from the large corporation to a fund-raising campaign for Negro education, of which he is a director. Moreover, he consented to become a trustee of a Negro college in the South which receives money from the fund-raising campaign. In the eyes of the black bourgeoisie of this city, some of whom send their children to the Negro college, he is a friend of the Negro. The few Negro intellectuals who have dared to express disapproval of the existing system of control over race relations have been labeled Communists.
Excerpted from E. Franklin Frazier, Black Bourgeoisie (New York: The Free Press, 1957). First published in French as Bourgeoisie Noire. (Paris: Librairie Pion, 1955)