4 Analysis— Barriers to Revolutionary Consciousness

The idea of experiences with marginalization and education informing one another applies to not only marginalized communities, but the oppressive structures themselves as well. This section of the paper uses a deeper examination of this relationship to better understand the development of a revolutionary consciousness. Primarily, racism doesn’t just traumatize and dehumanize, it also guides the mainstream processes of how marginalized groups cope and respond to it. On a very obvious, surface level, we see this play out within institutions that marginalized people might gain access to the sociological imagination. But there is a larger conclusion here than simply ‘racism happens at college too’. It’s that intellectualism and education themselves aren’t inherently anti-racist or revolutionary tools. To this end, two specific facets through which racism, or more specifically, the color line, dominates and disrupts solutions and coalitions to oppose its marginalization are identified— internalization, and moderation.

Internalization, in this case, refers to the acceptance of socially-constructed and reinforced notions of essentialistic inferiority. Its longevity continues far after the initial, traumatizing event, which can lead to long-term psychological impacts that might even be more damaging than harassment. (Speight 126) This is demonstrated in Chapter 3 of Revolutionary Suicide, where Newton describes the story of James Crawford, one of his best friends from junior high school. Despite being a talented singer and good cook, his “psychological scars” from the education system held him back. (58) His own frustrations and fear of humiliation prevented him from learning to read, even as an adult, which led to his expulsion from school. The chapter ends with the heartbreaking future he endured, one of mental institutionalization, alcoholism, and physical scars brought about by beatings from the police. As Newton says: “[t]hat is the story of my friend James Crawford; another dream blown to hell.” (59)

This is a tragic example of not only how damaging internalization can be, but also how long-lasting its impacts are. Crawford’s fear of failure was instilled from the mistreatment he endured as a child, and even if much of this was rooted in frustration and defiance at the system that disenfranchised him, its impacts were still severely damaging on a personal level. (59) In other words, a marginalized person doesn’t necessarily need to support or believe in the oppressive system to still internalize the rhetoric— resentment, traumatization, and resignation are also other forms of internalization. The scope and relevance of this issue is demonstrated by the American Academy of Pediatrics study referenced in the Case Study— the expectations teachers hold for their students have been shown to be linked to the performance of those same students in school. (Ginsburg and McClain 318) This, when combined with the story of James Crawford, leaves us with two main takeaways. First, that these expectations tend to occur along racialized lines, something also highlighted by Ginsburg and McClain. And second, that these expectations can even reach beyond the classroom, because of the detrimental effects of internalization. As seen in interviewed studies conducted with low-income Black women receiving mental health treatment in underserved health institutions, internalization was not only identified as a convergence point of where misogyny, racism, misogynoir, and depression intersected, but also highlighted as a coping mechanism. (Carr et al. 233-245) This tendency to attribute or claim responsibility of traumatizing, discriminatory events oftentimes led to mental health issues and damaging perceptions of self-worth. (233) This was clearly seen in the story of James Crawford, and the effects of this traumatization continued long after his expulsion from school. We can understand internalization, then, as something that presents the structurally-reinforced notions of essential inferiority as some sort of personal failure or shortcoming, before repeatedly and severely punishing individuals for factors beyond their control.

The color line is central to this phenomenon, through the idea of othering. Internalization only works through essentialistic notions of superiority and inferiority, because it is the acceptance—consciously or unconsciously—of a “racial hierarchy” in which white people are placed above people of color. (Johnson 2) If we understand the color line as a disruptor of communication and social interaction, (Itzigsohn and Brown 19; Du Bois 13-39) we can see how it allows this essentialism to take place, by reducing individual people and interactions to racialized categories. Only racial categories and broad definitions exist on either side of the line, because by creating ‘othered’ categories, people become only what they are classified as.

The second way racism disrupts the foundation of genuine coalitions and solutions against it is through moderation. This is the compromise, the half-measure, the representational activism. In other words, it pushes for change from within the very systems of oppression in the first place. If internalization traumatizes and teaches people to accept myths of failure and inferiority, then moderation presents false promises and guides in ultimately fruitless endeavors. This, too, is seen in Revolutionary Suicide, in Chapter 9, when Huey P. Newton started organizing with Donald Warden and the Afro-American Association. When it was revealed in the Oakland Tribune that the City Council had been making derogatory remarks about the Association, Warden, Newton, and another 20 or so members came before the City Council to speak. In it, Warden spoke only of how the Afro-American Association did not “want trouble”, and instead wanted to end the “lethargy of Black people, to get them off welfare, make them clean themselves up, and sweep their streets in a big self-help effort…[and for] Black people to stop lying around collecting unemployment checks.” (104-105) Warden argued that capitalism was still the best system for Black people to achieve liberation, and never spoke of the links between exploitation and racism. Newton described him as someone who looked for white people to support him out of their fear of organized Black people. Perhaps what is the most important part of this chapter, however, is the note that he was the only Black man Newton knew with two weekly radio programs, and one television program as well. (103) Warden received such high exposure and praise from white officials and media because his solutions did little to help the actual community. They sought for change within the system, and argued that there was some issue with the Black community itself. This is a perfect example of Du Bois’ color line acting as a disruptor in communications. It works as an agent for white fear against Black people, but also as a filter on discourse. It polices the flow of ideas along racialized lines, and as a result, conversation is restricted, not just in contexts of interracial exchange, but within the Black community as well. Furthermore, by reinforcing the ideas of ‘othering’, it inflames and sustains white fear, and stratifies these categories all the more.

In recent decades, the advent of neoliberalism has refined this moderation. Starting from the 1990s, a wave of representational victories emerged with Black politicians being elected into government at many levels. This most famously culminated with the election of Barack Obama as the United State’s first Black president. And yet, the onset of neoliberalization, starting in the 1970s, induced devastating effects on Black communities across the nation, by destabilizing markets, gutting welfare, increasing class stratification, and chiefly of all, weaponizing incarceration on an unprecedented level. (Lang 27) This happened not only under Democratic presidencies like Bill Clinton, but with the votes of Black congress members, who saw legislation like the Crime Bill pass with proportionately high majorities— only 12 of the 40 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted against the bill. (63) From Donald Warden to the Crime Bill, the lesson of entrusting systems of oppression to reform themselves is taught time and time again. Arguably, moderation could be seen as internalization on a societal scale— it argues that the myriad of traumas and injustices brought about by structural racism are not the result of the systems of power themselves, but by Black communities’ lack of participation in it. It disrupts and misguides efforts of organization and resistance, by pushing people to vote instead of protest, to accept incremental change, to gratefully receive meaningless awards and surface-level victories while entire communities suffer.

However, just as these methods of manipulation traumatize and lead astray, they also provide seeds for radicalization and the development of a revolutionary consciousness. As said by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, political consciousness is something that “changes with every change in the conditions of [someone’s] material existence, in [their] social relations and in [their] social life”. (25) Du Bois and Newton alike started from much more moderate approaches to activism before they developed into their more famously revolutionary selves. (Itzigsohn and Brown 7) The point of this section, then, is not to deem certain people as “not revolutionary enough” from some moral high ground, but to instead emphasize the role of moderation and internalization as damaging but ultimately widespread phenomena that nearly all people of color unfortunately go through in response to marginalization. As seen with the stories of both Crawford and Warden, Huey Newton did the same things they did while they were together— he was just as defiant and hurt as Crawford was, and faced academic discipline just as frequently; and he spent a great deal of time with Warden and the Afro-American Association, organizing and learning within the organization. (58-105) His path to revolutionary consciousness was linked to a fierce sense of pride and rebelliousness in response to the mistreatment he faced in school, and driven by the feeling of dissatisfaction that came with the half-measures taken by Warden. In other words, though oppressive structures guide how people of color respond to marginalization, for many, it’s full of unsatisfying and directionless answers— the development of a revolutionary consciousness is fueled by that same oppression in the first place.


Power: Origins, Instances, and Protest Copyright © by Candy Lucero-Sanchez; Leah Rivera; Leslie Paz; and Liam Madigan. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book