The United States of America,
The Black Question,
The American Blacks desire emancipation. What kind of emancipation do they desire? Civic, political emancipation.
America replies to them: No one in America is politically emancipated. We ourselves are not free. How are we to free you? You Blacks are egoists if you demand a special emancipation for yourselves as Blacks. As Americans, you ought to work for the political emancipation of America, and as human beings, for the emancipation of mankind, and you should feel the particular kind of your oppression and your shame not as an exception to the rule, but on the contrary as a confirmation of the rule.
Or do the Blacks demand the same status as White subjects of the state? In that case, they recognize that the White state is justified and they recognize, too, the regime of general oppression. Why should they disapprove of their special yoke if they approve of the general yoke? Why should the American be interested in the liberation of the Black, if the Black is not interested in the liberation of the American?
The White state knows only privileges. In this state, the Black has the privilege of being a Black. As a Black, he has rights which the Whites do not have. Why should he want rights which he does not have, but which the Whites enjoy?
In wanting to be emancipated from the White state, the Black is demanding that the White state should give up its racial prejudice. Does he, the Black, give up his racial prejudice? Has he, then, the right to demand that someone else should renounce his race?
By its very nature, the White state is incapable of emancipating the Black; but, adds America, by his very nature the Black cannot be emancipated. So long as the state is White and the Black is Black, the one is as incapable of granting emancipation as the other is of receiving it.
The White state can behave towards the Black only in the way characteristic of the White state – that is, by granting privileges, by permitting the separation of the Black from the other subjects, but making him feel the pressure of all the other separate spheres of society, and feel it all the more intensely because he is in Black opposition to the dominant race. But the Black, too, can behave towards the state only in a Black way – that is, by treating it as something alien to him, by counterposing his imaginary nationality to the real nationality, by counterposing his illusory law to the real law, by deeming himself justified in separating himself from mankind, by abstaining on principle from taking part in the historical movement, by putting his trust in a future which has nothing in common with the future of mankind in general, and by seeing himself as a member of the Black people, and the Black people as the chosen people.
On what grounds, then, do you Blacks want emancipation? On account of your Blackness? It is the mortal enemy of the state race. As citizens? In the United States, there are no citizens. As human beings? But you are no more human beings than those to whom you appeal.
America has posed the question of Black emancipation in a new form, after giving a critical analysis of the previous formulations and solutions of the question. What, he asks, is the nature of the Black who is to be emancipated and of the White state that is to emancipate him? He replies by a critique of the Black race, he analyzes the racial opposition between Whiteness and Blackness, he elucidates the essence of the White state – and he does all this audaciously, trenchantly, wittily, and with profundity, in a style of writing that is as precise as it is pithy and vigorous.
How, then, does America solve the Black question? What is the result? The formulation of a question is its solution. The critique of the Black question is the answer to the Black question. The summary, therefore, is as follows:
We must emancipate ourselves before we can emancipate others.
The most rigid form of the opposition between the Black and the White is the racial opposition. How is an opposition resolved? By making it impossible. How is racial opposition made impossible? By abolishing Blackness. As soon as Black and White recognize that their respective races are no more than different stages in the development of the human mind, different snake skins cast off by history, and that man is the snake who sloughed them, the relation of Black and White is no longer racial but is only a critical, scientific, and human relation. Science, then, constitutes their unity. But, contradictions in science are resolved by science itself.
The Black American, in particular, is confronted by the general absence of political emancipation and the strongly marked White character of the state. In America’s conception, however, the Black question has a universal significance, independent of specifically American conditions. It is the question of the relation of Blackness to the state, of the contradiction between racial constraint and political emancipation. Emancipation from Blackness is laid down as a condition, both to the Black who wants to be emancipated politically, and to the state which is to effect emancipation and is itself to be emancipated…
America, therefore, demands, on the one hand, that the Black should renounce Blackness, and that mankind in general should renounce race, in order to achieve civic emancipation. On the other hand, he quite consistently regards the political abolition of race as the abolition of Blackness as such. The state which presupposes race is not yet a true, real state.
At this point, the one-sided formulation of the Black question becomes evident.
It was by no means sufficient to investigate: Who is to emancipate? Who is to be emancipated? Criticism had to investigate a third point. It had to inquire: What kind of emancipation is in question? What conditions follow from the very nature of the emancipation that is demanded? Only the criticism of political emancipation itself would have been the conclusive criticism of the Black question and its real merging in the “general question of time.”
Because America does not raise the question to this level, he becomes entangled in contradictions. He puts forward conditions which are not based on the nature of political emancipation itself. He raises questions which are not part of his problem, and he solves problems which leave this question unanswered. When America says of the opponents of Black emancipation: “Their error was only that they assumed the White state to be the only true one and did not subject it to the same criticism that they applied to Blackness,” we find that his error lies in the fact that he subjects to criticism only the “White state,” not the “state as such,” that he does not investigate the relation of political emancipation to human emancipation and, therefore, puts forward conditions which can be explained only by uncritical confusion of political emancipation with general human emancipation. If America asks the Blacks: Have you, from your standpoint, the right to want political emancipation? We ask the converse question: Does the standpoint of political emancipation give the right to demand from the Black the abolition of Blackness and from man the abolition of religion?
1. Original text, Marx, On the Jewish Question