From the Perception of Symbolic Domination to the Symbolic Struggle - The Nation of Islam´s efforts to raise consciousness in 1950s and 1960s America
Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy The University of Jyväskylä Jyväskylä, Finland
This paper explores the perception of symbolic imposition of cultural arbitrariness and symbolic violence of the oppressed group the Nation of Islam in the late 1950s and early 1960s. During the period, the Nation of Islam was the biggest and most influential of the radical and separatist organizations of African Americans. In the black ghettoes of the North, poverty, unemployment and other social defects were rife and social problems were escalating. The radical message of the Nation of Islam was most readily adopted by young males with criminal backgrounds living in ghetto environments.
Referring to Pierre Bourdieu's idea of symbolic imposition of cultural arbitrariness and symbolic violence, I analyze how symbolic domination was understood in the writings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the organization, and Malcolm X, the most well-known member. According to Bourdieu, symbolic violence is imperceptible and invisible to its victims, as they are socialized into the existing social order. The most intolerable conditions can be perceived as acceptable and natural. It is important to study how those who are economically, socially and culturally excluded can be conscious and resist symbolic violence.
I argue that there are also possibilities for reflexivity. Reflexivity here contains recognition (the ability to perceive), rejection (the ability to question) and replacement (the ability to construct new symbolic meanings). More precisely, reflexivity concerns i) religion, ii) the educational system and iii) the dominant cultural values. I suggest that the Nation of Islam can be understood in terms of symbolic resistance and symbolic struggle in order to enhance self-determination and self-definition.