Perusing Youtube this evening, I came across this debate from 1965 between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about either of them, though Buckley’s name sounded familiar. I decided to watch the entire video, since I do enjoy a good debate and was interested to see what the subject matter would be.
The question posed: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” The setting is Cambridge University, so the debate took place in a different cultural climate from the United States of 1965. Certainly Cambridge allowed for more honest discussion of the issue.
I was gratified to hear not only Baldwin’s insightful thoughts about race in America and his thoughts on the history of its African American population, but his personal experiences as well. Those two aspects of his argument informed one another and helped to shape his understanding. What more can I say, except that he had a lot of wisdom to share. God obviously gifted him with an insightful mind that sought to understand people and what makes them tick. If you watch nothing else in this video, I would suggest that you at least listen to his argument.
On to the second debater…
Buckley’s statement put me on edge right away when he made a comment that seemed to disparage Baldwin for bringing his own race into the argument, almost saying that it was unimportant. This seemed to completely derail the conversation from its original course. I suppose this is a common tactic among people who want to steer the conversation in their own direction, trying to avoid the more uncomfortable and difficult to answer initial topic.
I was also disturbed with how Buckley seemed not to have listened to Baldwin’s arguments to get a better understanding of his feelings and position, but simply as a way to gain ammunition that could be used against him. It was remarkable the way he twisted Baldwin’s words and arguments to make them seem unpalatable and extreme.
In portions of Buckley’s argument, he makes it seem as if Baldwin and others who argue for change are actually asking for an outright abolition of American values and its systems. This argument is very juvenile, in my opinion. A person who cannot listen to criticism (whether merited or not) and see what he can gain by listening to it, is not a very wise person. Baldwin was not arguing for American values to be rejected and overthrown, and Buckley seems to be either purposely misunderstanding, or trying to create fear and doubt in the hearts of the listeners.
Buckley then goes on to argue that part of the “negro problem” in America is that they simply have not exerted themselves to the same extent that other minority groups in America have in the past. Firstly, this argument simply nods to and feeds into the historically racist idea that blacks are lazy. Though he tries to dress it up in fancy words, this is the bare essence of what he is saying. Another thing that Buckley forgets is that Irish, Italian, and many other immigrant groups are able to blend into the larger Caucasian melting pot of America with very little effort. An African American, on the other hand, stands out simply because of the color of his skin. Because of this fact, discrimination is much more easily applied to him and no doubt experienced, as well. A person who is discriminated against in such a systematic and perpetual way (and not only them, but their family who might want to help them), simply is not given the same opportunities at advancement as someone who fits in with the rest of the dominant society. It doesn’t take a lot of logic to figure that out.
Buckley then argues that it seems blacks might be less focused on “the progression of the negro” than on “the regression of the white people.” Where does this argument even come from? Why does the advancement and equal footing of one people necessarily imply a lessening of another? Why does he think that by helping other human beings we are lessening ourselves? Mr. Baldwin was not calling for the downfall of white society or saying that it should be replaced by black supremacy. Again, Buckley is twisting Baldwin’s words and ideas to trick people.
At the end of Buckley’s speech I just have to shake my head and think this guy is nutty. He seriously says that we shouldn’t overthrow the American civilization in trying to deal with this problem. Well, duh! Who ever proposed that idea, except himself? I am amazed at this man’s ability to delude himself.