The Autobiography of Malcolm X Book Club, Part 2
By Bryan Caplan
Malcolm’s Life of Crime (Chapters 6-10)
Waiting tables at Small’s Paradise Bar is Malcolm’s school of crime:
Some of the ablest of New York’s black hustlers took a liking to me, and knowing that I was still green by their terms, soon began in a paternal way to “straighten Red out.”
They give him gifts of stolen clothes, point out undercover cops, and sift the players from the wannabes. He moves into a den of thieves and prostitutes:
You could walk into one or another room in this house and get a hot fur coat, a good camera, fine perfume, a gun, anything from hot women to hot cars, even hot ice. I was one of the very few males in this rooming house.
Malcolm gets fired for pimping after offering to help an undercover agent find a prostitute. He soon starts selling marijuana with his friend Sammy:
Both Sammy and I knew some merchant seamen and others who could supply me with loose marijuana. And musicians, among whom I had so many good contacts, were the heaviest consistent market for reefers. And then, musicians also used the heavier narcotics, if I wanted to graduate to them. That would be more risky, but also more money. Handling heroin and cocaine could earn one hundred dollars a day, but it required a lot of experience with the narcotics squad for one to be able to last long enough to make anything.
Malcolm makes money hand over fist, but soon must curtail his operation due to police scrutiny. He manages to avoid the World War II draft by acting crazy for his draft board. Soon he graduates to robberies and stick-ups. He also gets into running numbers and “steering” white customers for a Harlem madame.
Later Malcolm gets a good job transporting bootleg liquor for Hymie the Jew. He eventually moves back to Boston due to bad blood with gangster West Indian Archie. Malcolm talks his friend Shorty into a new hustle: burglarizing Boston homes:
But I wasn’t rushing off half-cocked. I had learned from some of the pros, and from my own experience, how important it was to be careful and plan… If you did your job so you never met any of your victims, it first lessened your chances of having to attack or perhaps kill someone. And if through some slip-up you were caught, later, by the police, there was never a positive eyewitness.
The burglars persuade their white girlfriends to help them find good targets. Everything goes swimmingly until the police catch the whole crew with the help of an honest Jewish jeweler. Malcolm blames his ten-year sentence on racial outrage:
Before the judge entered, I said to one lawyer, “We seem to be getting sentenced because of those girls.” He got red from the neck up and shuffled his papers: “You had no business with white girls!”
In prison, Malcolm earns the nickname “Satan.” His family members join the Nation of Islam and start trying to convert him. They persuade him to give up pork and cigarettes, then share their big revelation: “The white man is the devil.” His brother Reginald visits him in prison:
I will never forget: my mind was involuntarily flashing across the entire spectrum of white people I had ever known; and for some reason it stopped upon Hymie, the Jew, who had been so good to me…
I said, “Without any exception?”
“Without any exception.”
“What about Hymie?”
“What is it if I let you make five hundred dollars to let me make ten thousand?”
Malcolm never distinguishes between victimless crime (drugs, bootlegging, prostitution, gambling) and regular crime (burglary, robbery). For him, it’s all “hustling” – one person preying on another. Indeed, Malcolm appears to regard all for-profit business as “hustling.” While he’s clearly aware that mutually beneficial trade exists, the fact that trade is mutually beneficial isn’t morally significant for Malcolm. Purely charitable motives are the only ones he sees as admirable.
Still, Malcolm is well-aware of the importance of self-destructive behavior among the poor. Indeed, he’s a perfect example of the syndrome:
[A]ll the thousands of dollars I’d handled and I
had nothing. Just satisfying my cocaine habit alone cost me about
twenty dollars a day. I guess another five dollars a day could have
been added for reefers and plain tobacco cigarettes…
Once he starts experimenting with Islam, Malcolm becomes puritanical – and predictably turns his life around. But he somehow manages to avoid the lesson that he was a major – if not the main – source of his own problems.
Imagine if Malcolm had stayed sober, stuck to victimless crime, and conservatively invested his money. He would quickly have surpassed the typical standard of living for contemporary whites. Yet the devil’s to blame for everything wrong in his life – and the devil is the white man:
The white people I had known marched before my mind’s eye. From the start of my life. The state white people always in our house after the other whites I didn’t know had killed my father… the white people who kept calling my mother “crazy” to her face and before me and my brothers and sisters, until she finally was taken off by white people to the Kalamazoo asylum… the white judge and others who had split up the children… the Swerlins, the other whites around Mason… white youngsters I was in school there with, and the teachers – the one who told me in the eighth grade to “be a carpenter” because thinking of being a lawyer was foolish for a Negro…
My head swam with the parading faces of white people. The ones in Boston, in the white-only dances at the Roseland Ballroom where I shined their shoes… at the Parker House where I took their dirty plates back to the kitchen… the railroad crewmen and passengers… Sophia…
The whites in New York City – the cops, the white criminals I’d dealt with… the whites who piled into the Negro speakeasies for a taste of Negro soul… the white women who wanted Negro men… the men I’d steered to the black “specialty sex” they wanted….
The fence back in Boston, and his ex-con representative… Boston cops… Sophia’s husband’s friend, and her husband, whom I’d never seen, but knew so much about… Sophia’s sister… the Jew jeweler who’d helped trap me… the social workers… the Middlesex County Court people… the judge who gave me ten years… the prisoners I’d known, the guards and the officials… [ellipses in the original]
Notice how Malcolm conflates a bizarrely disparate range of behavior. Whites interested in black music are on the same list as his father’s murderers. Women who like black men are on the same list as the man Malcolm cuckolded. The jeweler who helps the police catch Malcolm is on the same list as “white criminals.”
What about his own years as a thief and violent criminal? In Malcolm’s mind, it’s all the white man’s fault. But why? He can hardly claim that poverty drove him to savagery. By his own admission, he made lots of money in his legal jobs – not to mention in victimless crime. His well-off sister Ella was eager to help him succeed in any legitimate line of work. So what’s his excuse for being a violent parasite? I have trouble imagining Malcolm actually saying, “A few whites murdered my father, so I was entitled to collect restitution from any white I wanted.” But it’s hard to see that he has a better response.
Last point: In Malcolm’s autobiography, virtually no one other than his sister Ella and his wife Betty look good. He strongly sympathizes with his many black friends and associates. When he actually describes blacks’ behavior, though, they seem at least as callous, predatory, and treacherous as whites. Given Malcolm’s own experience, “The white man is the devil” is far less accurate than “Humanity is the devil.”
Of course “Humanity is the devil” isn’t a promising rallying cry if you’re trying to build a cult. Stay tuned for the next installment, coming in the first week of October.