The Pioneering Critique of the Black Misleadership Class: E. Franklin Frazier’s The Black Bourgeoisie
Published 60 years ago, Frazier’s The Black Bourgeoisie (1957) analyzed the social and political behavior of the African American middle class social strata that aspired to purportedly benevolently rule their own community while pursuing their own personal advancement. Frazier saw the Black bourgeoisie as both an evolving middle class in historical materialist terms – that is, in the context of unfolding economic history creating modes of production and social classes within the Black community before the emergence of the modern Civil Rights movement. Frazier also explored this bourgeoisie as an evolving ruling class of the Black community that was subordinated by racism and fascism but wished to be independent and govern themselves.
Frazier tried to reveal how the mass democratic objectives of ordinary Black people could be obscured by the distorted ambitions of an emerging Black elite, especially where working people of color (or the unemployed) identified uncritically with their politics. What Black toilers should want, believe, do, and how this should have been pursued, was never clarified by Frazier. However, for generations now this book has been a touchstone of speculation for the struggle of social classes within the Black community.
E. Franklin Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie has been the subject of a complex fate. It can be read as a critique of three historical and cultural developments that can relate to each other but must be disentangled.
First, Frazier analyzes how racial capitalism underdeveloped Black America. The terms of the proper and ethical development of African Americans were not expressed transparently by the author. For Frazier, clearly this should include socialized medicine and more militant Black trade union activity not compromised by professional staffers.
Second, he offered a psychological critique of the delusions, self-hatred, and respectability politics of the Black middle class. Frazier particularly highlighted the “gaudy carnival” or the invention of a high society of Blacks who appear to embody social eminence. But it was very difficult to maintain a social status in white society and fight its racism. This battle was often compromised and coopted in the Black misleadership class’s hands.
Third, and perhaps most important, Frazier informally and subtly, for he was working under the premises of historical sociology, offered an outline of political education, agitation and propaganda to destroy the potential of this social class for misleadership.
Still, here we have a dilemma. Why should the reader of Frazier be concerned about the psychological health or missed economic opportunities by Blacks for whom he doesn’t wish to rule above the community? These nuances can and have spawned different readings of Frazier despite the fact that he was a dedicated independent socialist thinker.
When Frazier died in 1962, the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, lauded this great scholar for exposing the self-hatred and misleadership of the aspiring Black middle classes who wished to be tokens in white mainstream society. This reading by the Nation of Islam reminds us that criticism of the Black middle, professional, or capitalist classes anticipated the blooming of the Black Power movement. But that such appraisals could sustain, if indirectly, Black capitalist plans and pose an alternative Black elite rule, not necessarily a desire to discard all aspiring Black rulers above society.
Wilson Moses, a scholar of Black Nationalism, reminds that Frazier criticized “Black bourgeois separatism” for he recognized that this often served a small class of Blacks who romance Jim Crow and have segregation nostalgia. They seek to preserve segregated institutions which they can organize as their own “private satrapies.” A satrap is a subordinate fiefdom of someone else’s empire. We also have to keep in mind a thoughtful reception of Black Bourgeoisie is required in a white supremacist society that degrades many Black thinkers and leadership as buffoons. Moses reminds Frazier’s creative conflict was he was militantly integrationist, for first class citizenship rights for people of color, while hostile to the Black imitation of white bourgeois values.
The desire to control the politics and economics of one’s community can in fact be framed as a goal with vague content. It can substitute policy proposals for institutions deemed inherently racist after the Black masses have taken insurgent actions to tear them down. The terms for accomplishing genuine community control requires more study.
Frazier was among the first Black university-based scholars to recognize the insurgent potential of Malcolm X, though Frazier passed away before Malcolm’s most radical public activities and speeches of his last years in 1963-1965. The Black Bourgeoisie was the origins of Malcolm X’s “House Negro, Field Negro” discourse. This could suggest that some Blacks betrayed, while others were militant, as a result of their relationship to labor and formal education. Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie was among the first considerations in short-form of how racial capitalism affected African American economic development. This included the evolution of the formerly enslaved and sharecropper toward the artisan, industrial worker, cooperative farmer, entrepreneur, banker, and insurance salesman.
Most sharecroppers, of course, didn’t become bankers and insurance salesmen. The strength of such an outline was one could begin to see the struggle of social classes within the Black community as an oppressed ethnic group or national community. The weakness was it could suggest an analysis of political economy of what different social classes owed each other (without abolishing this hierarchy) as part of a community economic unit under capitalism instead of class struggle within it. These issues must be resolved by the perceptive reader.
Frazier did pioneer the radical critique of Black aspiring leaders who may mislead the community as a social class. Frazier was particularly brilliant in how he illustrated the Black bourgeoisie lived in “a world of make believe” promoting myths of Black business and the idea of a high society of people of color whom felt they had the right to rule. Anticipating their more transparent corporate sponsorship, Frazier revealed why civil rights and advocacy organizations against racism tended to fail in mobilizing the community toward more radical democratic visions.
Written in 1957, Frazier’s Black bourgeoisie, its economic and political base, is not now as restricted as it was before the modern Black freedom movement (1955-1972). Previously trapped, but also with different opportunities such as captive markets of Black consumers under Jim Crow, the Black political class now has multi-national capital as sponsors who wish them to succeed in containing the potential of revolt and self-government among everyday Black people.
Why was it important to critique the Black political class as like the house slave archetype “identifying with their slave masters?” With Malcolm and Frazier popularizing the rebellious field slave as perhaps a more contemporary metaphor for the Black worker or the unemployed street force, narrow economic analysis could minimize the oppression and potential for revolt of the house slave not just their class collaborative tendencies. While house slaves could be comparably privileged, and we might see in them the contemporary tendency that desires supervisor positions, the Black woman servant in the slave masters’ house (and not only there) were often sexually abused.
The Haitian Revolution’s Toussaint L’Ouverture was a house slave, and while leading that French colony to independence, having learned some of the tasks of managing the plantation economy, also later abused Black labor at the onset of Haitian independence. Toussaint’s political economy of self-determination saw independent Black labor as a threat to the accumulation of national or black capital by state planning above society. Resisting Napoleon, and other European imperialists’ desire to restore slavery was on Toussaint’s mind. Yet Toussaint could not see that freedom was not subordinate jobs and wage earning to insurgent ordinary Black people. Instead, they wished to be independent self-governing producers.
What does the organization of Black self-reliance mean exactly? It cannot mean, in the contemporary parlance: “do me,” building our own “empire,” getting “a piece of the action,” or “it’s our turn now.” For then behind the beauty in valuing Black culture is in fact a sharing of political and economic values with white racists and imperialists.
Even though Frazier was later a co-founder of the African Studies Association, shortcomings of the book include a contribution to minimizing the African heritage for African American self-government, even as he recognized it was Black labor, enslaved and subordinated, that produced the wealth of capitalist America. This can contribute to a reading that produces an ambiguous reparations discourse where a peace treaty can be made between aspiring rulers of the community in the name of being compensated for historical injustices. A peace treaty, where money or capital is exchanged, implies (for some) the war for Black freedom has come to an end. And with this exchange, the regime that offers it has legitimacy. It has validity not because it stops oppressing ordinary Black people but it recognizes its purported leaders who are elevated by white patronage. Another outlook may also be valid. In wars for liberation, reparations can be taken in any form (it is how the resources are used to provide that counts), aware the Black masses discard one leader after another in search of their own self-emancipation.
Stokley Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), a student of Frazier’s at Howard University, who with Willie Ricks (later Mukasa Dada) was the great popularizer of the idea of Black Power in the Southern Civil Rights movement, reminded one drawback of this framework. Black Power could be co-opted by white elites, who with those Black leaders they patronize, could project plans for the Black community undermining its self-directed liberation.
Where people of color, following the scholarship of Frazier and others, and importantly, their own lived experiences, recognize Black labor produced the wealth of the U.S. under arduous conditions, this doesn’t mean this leads – though it should -- to a vision of Black labor’s self-emancipation. It doesn’t mean when we critique the Black political class that it follows, for all readers of Frazier, that Black workers (including Black mothers and caregivers) should directly govern the community making all decisions in economic planning, judicial and military affairs, foreign relations, and on all education and cultural matters.
While not wishing for an integration or assimilation that culturally subordinated Blacks to white liberal authority, and clearly desiring socialism, Frazier could articulate the failure of the Black bourgeoisie was not contributing to a more rational technocratic industrial society. This could confuse socialist politics with promoting a certain type of capitalist development. I hope this sounds contemporary.
Efficiency and professionalism, where we complain the Black political class shows a lack of it, can serve both capitalist and socialist goals. This is no small matter in an era where critiques of neoliberalism decry the irrationality of finance capital, and the inauthentic counting and taxing of fictitious capital, but where self-determination, national-capitalist development, and socialism are spoken about, in blurred lines, as if they are one and the same.
Where capitalism is racial, and unfair trade and lending practices are present, it is difficult to democratize it by wishing for capitalists of color to find their independence. Very often their only capital is marginal disorganized cheap labor of color. Self-determination means for most this class will administer the lives of toilers of color. Better to link up the Black workers of Detroit and China’s workers instead of identifying with sectors of their rulers and planners as more humane than the barbaric rulers of the United States.
Though workers don’t yet control their workplaces, capitalist development on one hand is highly socialized and cooperative. This cooperation provides the world with the ability to meet its necessities such as food and shelter. The problem is the private appropriation, distribution, and circulation of capital through wage relations (a fraction of what toilers actually produce – some are given no wages). Those with a welfare state of mind (New Dealers, Fabians) confuse this by suggesting what is needed is more taxes on the rich, public and nationalized property, and increased wages while capitalists continue to privately accumulate. What is needed is popular self-management of the workplaces and politics in the wider society – this should be the essence of Black community control.
If Frazier showed the failure of the Black bourgeoisie to establish a political and economic base in American society, instead relying on white patronage, and that they never developed a proper association with the Black working class, it is unclear why this greater association of social classes should be desirable. If white supremacy can degrade all people of color, regardless of social class, this is not a recommendation for sustaining hierarchy in radical Black politics and community formation.
Frazier, a critic of W.E.B Du Bois’s “talented tenth” theory (really a condemnation of Black working people and the Black unemployed as the untalented ninetieth), like Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral, really expressed a lot of vitriol against the Black or aspiring African national bourgeoisie only to decry their ultimate lack of accountability. This posed subtly how this social class could become authentic in our eyes. We have to be careful in our critique not to propose terms for their legitimacy. When we consider that Du Bois, late in life, rescinded his talented tenth theory because he recognized it was the Black working classes, not the middle classes, who defended him during the McCarthy era, this only begins to get at the heart of the problem.
It made sense, as Frazier explained, that the Black middle class did not control the markets in their communities (especially as Jim Crow segregation was declining), and since it relied on income from integrated occupational or professional advantages instead, it could not develop true nationalistic sentiments. Is nationalism a prelude to socialist or capitalist development in Black communities?
Consciousness of racism can be a prelude to a greater cooperation than a desire for civil rights and equal opportunity under institutional racism and capitalism alone. However an anti-racist, anti-colonial nationalism implies a revolution in values if it does not consistently discard white supremacy and the empire of capital. Still must there be national-capitalist development before there is a socialist transition? Orthodox and vulgar conceptions of historical materialism undermine the self-mobilization of ordinary Black people time and again. Will Black socialist visions be hampered by the welfare state of mind when the creative capacity for the direct self-government of ordinary Black people has been historically present and again grows near? This is essential, for this gets to the heart of by what socialist measure the Black misleadership class is analyzed and critiqued.
Despite conflicts between cultural nationalists and class struggle advocates in African American history, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, these need not be in conflict. A cultural nationalism that challenges white supremacy by asking on what terms we know ourselves, asking us to clarify our terms of being and ways of knowing, is indispensable. Such inquiry need not be owned by Black capitalists or serve as a diversion for the Black political class. Suggesting all Black suffering are from lack of economic control of their community sometimes implied Black wage labor and capital relations under Black property owners would produce well behaved and successful “people.” This clashed with Frazier’s insight that there really are no economic achievements of the race as a whole, as capital is owned by individuals, not communities or nations.
One of the conceptual problems in Frazier’s Black Bourgeoisie was, since the author assumed there was no meaningful identification with African history and culture among Blacks (that largely cultural roots and survivals had been lost), economic and political opportunity was mediated in America as an ethnic minority with no aspirations other than to prove themselves equal in merit and character to whites. Frazier, I think, was being descriptive here, and did not wish things to be the way he perceived. He was happy to support scholarship on African cultural retentions and condemned uncritical assimilation. We have much greater knowledge of African cultural survivals today.
The revolutionary mentality, as embodied by Malcolm X and mirrored in Aimé Césaire’s poetry, was that whites did not have the monopoly of beauty, intelligence, and force. In their more heinous behaviors whites could be ugly and stupid. Social equality did not require people of color proving they were worthy of full citizenship rights by modeling themselves on white standards of culture and politics. But this was yet to emerge as a mass sentiment. Frazier, in his own way, was a forerunner of this challenge.
When one reads Black Agenda Report, and especially the writings of Bruce Dixon, there is a clear genealogy to the blueprint that Frazier left us for political education, agitation, and propaganda. Propaganda is not always lies. More accurately it means simply conscious politically directed media that suggests a new society within the shell of the old.
Frazier analyzed Black churches, fraternities and sororities, business associations, Booker T Washington and Marcus Garvey, the NAACP and Urban League, Democrats, Republicans, Communists. He concluded civil rights and race leaders, often under the premise of community development, conflate a humanism with professional advancement and the search for the personal accumulation of wealth. Under the premise of serving the race, and lifting as we climb, an invented aristocracy of talent is gathered or great fraternity of men or sorority of women that will lead Blacks by example. In fact, in the time of Black labor strikes or uprisings against police and Klan, most often these groups function as a fifth column, a group that undermines the community from within, usually while collaborating with the enemy.
Frazier was among the first to attack the myth of Black Business, that individuals’ personal advancement and wealth accumulation was synonymous with a collective community development. Frazier showed how this myth was tied up in another – the drive toward a separate Black political economy within the confines of the American empire. He was also a devastating critic of Black media. Was Frazier attacking autonomous Black institutions? Instead, Frazier was saying the deeper content of Black autonomy was not who owned an institution alone, but its self-reliant and independent values it held, and the creative and bold philosophy it projected.
Black media, Frazier reminded, when it was not an organ of protest, tended to romance urban life, its consumption and fashion, elevating primarily and absurdly the Black musician and athlete as a type of political leader, but especially “the achievements of the race.” Highlighting the first Black person to ascend to a corporate coveted position or live in an exclusive neighborhood, bragging on the wealth and achievements of the Black business and professional classes, while defining Black self-reliance as the goal of “stop begging from white authorities,” the hypocrisy was often hiding in plain sight.
Black media reported on esteemed balls and banquets and recognized the giving out of image awards (that of course accepted in fact, if in a backhanded way, the degraded stereotypes that white racism had made of Black life). Black newspapers and radio could equally display and promote fantastic accounts of the esteem certain Black leaders were held by elite and influential whites. In short, Black media most often, according to Frazier, shaped the consciousness of the community in a manner that inevitably selected conservative and collaborationist leaders for Black people. Though they could also appear, and most often do today, as liberal and progressive.
Frazier’s analysis of Black community formation, and the aims of the Black political class, needs to be stretched today. In the aftermath of the Black Power and Black Studies movements (1966-1975), “Black consciousness” in some form is gratuitous for African American public life and discourse. By "gratuitous" I don’t mean excessive, as in “gratuitous violence.” I mean it is cheap and offered “free of charge” (like a free t-shirt at a concert, or bobblehead doll at a sports event). It is formulated by most in such a way that it is of no radical consequence and very little risk.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ contention that “we were in power for eight years” under President Obama, and pessimism that things are getting worse, is advanced while maintaining it is not wise to oppose the system. “Black consciousness” and critiques of white privilege are reconcilable with hierarchical power and genius awards.
Many public figures, such as Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Russell Simmons, express themselves with the purpose of undermining and confusing insurgent potential. Black consciousness can advance careers and brands (even when entering a whirlwind of social debate with diminished political expectations). It is now, most often, reconcilable with a renewed American Exceptionalism (despite the Trump antagonism).
Black culture’s contribution to American Exceptionalism has been developing for generations. Communist and Black Nationalist historical insistence that African American culture (not merely sports, music, dance, and religion) was a main current of American national and popular culture can no longer avoid the problematic implications of this accurate contention. If this is true, by now the major currents of criticism of white racism must be constituent elements of ruling class discourse.
Dr. Matthew Quest is a scholar of the legacies of C.L.R. James. See his most recent publication, “New Beginning Movement: Coordinating Council of Revolutionary Alternatives for Trinidad and the Caribbean,” In Ideology, Regionalism, and Society in Caribbean History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)