Malcolm X is very aware of the plight of many African Americans in America’s lower class, and a large part of his mission focuses on uplifting these people from poverty. Unfortunately, his efforts are often impeded by varying attitudes towards race relations within the African American community, largely due to class differences.
In Lansing, Michigan, where Malcolm grew up, most “Negroes” are unemployed and dependent on welfare; in his words, “The bulk of the Negroes were either on Welfare, or W.P.A., or they starved.” Theispoverty extends and is most rampant, however, in the urban ghettos. When Malcolm gets a job with the railroad and travels the East Coast, he is astonished at the poverty in D.C., “just a few blocks from the White House.” The proximity to the White House emphasizes the extent to which society has forgotten about (or never cared about) poor black people and their struggles.
Since Malcolm spent much of his early life in Lansing and then in Boston and New York around the poor, he has a special relationship with them that allows him to communicate in a way that other Civil Rights leaders cannot. It is said that Malcolm is the only black man in America who “could stop a race riot - or start one.” This is largely because his message is most easily accepted by the poor, who are used to banding together to protect each other. For example, Malcolm and the other hustlers, who generally are thought of as competitors, “were huddled in there, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other, and we didn't know it.”
In contrast, Malcolm holds what he calls “middle class” blacks in disdain. He believes that their class is not defined by actually having achieved a better life, but by being allowed into white society through menial labor, such as working as janitors at banks. He argues that this fake sense of status makes it even harder for these African Americans to see their inferior status in white America. Therefore, they tend to be hostile towards efforts by lower class African Americans to change the system. For instance, Malcolm describes how in Roxbury, a neighborhood in Boston, the black middle class segregate themselves from the lower class, yet in practical terms hardly have any more wealth than the poor.
Once he joins the Nation of Islam and begins his speaking tours of universities, Malcolm encounters people he describes as the black “intelligentsia.” These are often lawyers, professors, and doctors. Malcolm acknowledges their education and intelligence, but constantly has to battle to win their support, and rarely gets it. Like the middle-class African Americans, the black intelligentsia take their success as proof of the progress being made in society, and thus refuse to critique that society’s racial hierarchy. As Malcolm puts it: “This twentieth-century Uncle Thomas is a professional Negro . . . by that I mean his profession is being a Negro for the white man.” Despite the fact that Malcolm is sometimes able to connect with all black audiences on his college tour (“All Negroes, among themselves, admit the white man's criminal record”), he believes that the intelligentsia has lost connection with the African American poor who enjoy none of the privileges that the “intelligentsia” do, and in so doing are betraying those poor.
Malcolm paints class as a stark divider within the African American community, and he frequently uses class-based terms to criticize those who disagree with him. However, the Autobiography makes clear that Malcolm does not feel outright animosity toward black members of more privileged groups, but is rather exasperated that such class differences should drive the black population apart. For Malcolm, racial justice should be the true and unified struggle for all African Americans, not class warfare.
Class Quotes in The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Back when I was growing up, the "successful" Lansing Negroes were such as waiters and bootblacks. To be a janitor at some downtown store was to be highly respected. The real "elite," the "big shots," the "voices of the race," were the waiters at the Lansing Country Club and the shoeshine boys at the state capitol. The only Negroes who really had any money were the ones in the numbers racket, or who ran the gambling houses, or who in some other way lived parasitically off the poorest ones, who were the masses. No Negroes were hired then by Lansing's big Oldsmobile plant, or the Reo plant… The bulk of the Negroes were either on Welfare, or W.P.A., or they starved.
Eventually my mother suffered a complete breakdown, and the court orders were finally signed. They took her to the State Mental Hospital at Kalamazoo.
It was seventy-some miles from Lansing, about an hour and a half on the bus. A Judge McClellan in Lansing had authority over me and all of my brothers and sisters. We were "state children," court wards; he had the full say-so over us. A white man in charge of a black man's children! Nothing but legal, modern slavery—however kindly intentioned.
I looked like Li'l Abner. Mason, Michigan, was written all over me. My kinky, reddish hair was cut hick style, and I didn't even use grease in it. My green suit's coat sleeves stopped above my wrists, the pants legs showed three inches of socks. Just a shade lighter green than the suit was my narrow-collared, three-quarter length Lansing department store topcoat. My appearance was too much for even Ella. But she told me later she had seen countrified members of the Little family come up from Georgia in even worse shape than I was.
I spent the first month in town with my mouth hanging open. The sharp dressed young "cats" who hung on the corners and in the poolrooms, bars and restaurants, and who obviously didn't work anywhere, completely entranced me. I couldn't get over marveling at how their hair was straight and shiny like white men's hair; Ella told me this was called a "conk.”
Shorty would take me to groovy, frantic scenes in different chicks' and cats' pads, where with the lights and juke down mellow, everybody blew gage and juiced back and jumped. I met chicks who were fine as May wine, and cats who were hip to all happenings.
That paragraph is deliberate, of course; it's just to display a bit more of the slang that was used by everyone I respected as "hip" in those days. And in no time at all, I was talking the slang like a lifelong hipster.
We were in that world of Negroes who are both servants and psychologists, aware that white people are so obsessed with their own importance that they will pay liberally, even dearly, for the impression of being catered to and entertained.
There I was back in Harlem's streets among all the rest of the hustlers. I couldn't sell reefers; the dope squad detectives were too familiar with me. I was a true hustler—uneducated, unskilled at anything honorable, and I considered myself nervy and cunning enough to live by my wits, exploiting any prey that presented itself. I would risk just about anything.
It was in this way that for one period, one of our best periods, I remember, we specialized in Oriental rugs. I have always suspected that the fence himself sold the rugs to the people we stole them from. But, anyway, you wouldn't imagine the value of those things. I remember one small one that brought us a thousand dollars. There's no telling what the fence got for it. Every burglar knew that fences robbed the burglars worse than the burglars had robbed the victims.
“Today's Uncle Tom doesn't wear a handkerchief on his head. This modern, twentieth-century Uncle Thomas now often wears a top hat. He's usually well-dressed and well-educated. He's often the personification of culture and refinement. The twentieth-century Uncle Thomas sometimes speaks with a Yale or Harvard accent. Sometimes he is known as Professor, Doctor, Judge, and Reverend, even Right Reverend Doctor. This twentieth-century Uncle Thomas is a professional Negro . . . by that I mean his profession is being a Negro for the white man.”
But this was the kind of evidence which caused many close observers of the Malcolm X phenomenon to declare in absolute seriousness that he was the only Negro in America who could either start a race riot—or stop one. When I once quoted this to him, tacitly inviting his comment, he told me tartly, "I don't know if I could start one. I don't know if I'd want to stop one." It was the kind of statement he relished making.