As the 2020 election season has officially commenced, the pundits, analysts, and political consultant class continue their cycle of rumination and pontification about the best way to secure victory for their preferred candidates. The key, we are told, is the same as that which determined the outcome of the national mid-term elections. It seems that it’s perpetually argued why this or that candidate won or lost—or will win or lose—is based almost entirely on their appeal to the platinum prize of electoral politics: the mythological “white working-class voter.”
The argument is being waged within the ranks of those who claim to be the “Left”—between so-called “progressives” and the rest of the Democrats—those comfortable with a capitalist status quo rooted in a false sense of meritocracy and a platform of hyper-neoliberalism.
The noise of this argument almost silences the cacophony of racism and white supremacy, which the so-called Left has been complicit in manifesting and exercising since there has been a “Left” in the U.S.
In his latest book, Blacks In and Out of the Left, Professor Michael C. Dawson suggests that the prevalent racism practiced by Leftist organizations of the early 20th Century, including the Socialist Party and Communist Party of the U.S., is in part responsible for successful right wing movements.
He states, “Arguably, the Socialist Party was the key organization promoting social democracy during the period in the early twentieth century that was critical in shaping the future development of the left in the United States. The toleration and to some degree promotion of racism within the Socialist Party was critical to the future development of the social democratic left.”
Dawson continues by revealing the words of some of the most prominent Socialists of the 20th Century, “The first view, advocating white supremacy, was all too prevalent within the [Socialist Party]. In 1902, Victor Berger, who 8 years later would be the first Socialist Party member elected to Congress, said, ‘Negroes and mulattoes constitute a lower race.’ Socialist theoretician Ernest Untermann stated, ‘I am determined that my race shall be supreme in this country and the world.”
If not, it would become “a black and yellow country in a few generations.” Even presidential candidate Eugene Debs, a racial liberal by Socialist Party standards, stated there was “no negro problem apart from the general labor problem,” and he believed that even to bring up the question of black equality would divide the working class.” Deb’s fear of alienating the oppressed white working class may explain how, even today, a so-called “Left” can propose programs like Medicare for All, massive infrastructure packages and jobs guarantees (all laudable platforms) but with a straight face regard the concept of reparations as “divisive” or “impossible to pay for.”
As melanin-blessed people, we know all too well that there’s not much difference between the contemporary Left, largely Anglo-centric and white-dominated, and its 20th Century precursor as analyzed by Dawson. The Socialist Party’s “outward hostility” toward Black leftists for their focus on dismantling white supremacy through Black liberation led to a Black flight from the party. As a result, many ended up in the clutches of bourgeois Black organizations that too often, writ large, act as neutered tentacles of the Democratic party. They’re tasked with registering voters who will vote for Democrats rather than registering voters who will demand Black liberation as a condition for their votes.
The specter of Berger, Untermann, and Debs continues to haunt the Left that treats racial justice as tertiary or as an outright anathema. As a result, far too many melanin-blessed people don’t feel safe in “progressive” spaces, understanding that an uncompromising push to directly address racial injustice may easily lead to job insecurity, demonization, ostracization, and even enmity by their white “comrades” and the non-profit and political institutions they largely control. This lack of safety further vindicates Dawson’s analysis of the 20th Century Left as he adds, “Consequently, within the predominantly white sector of the left, the concerns of blacks and other people of color about racial justice were often either viewed as a distraction, a minor issue to be settled after socialist victory, or with outright hostility.”
And it does so in a way that’s disguised as an idea of collective justice. see also: the white Left’s decry of so-called “Identity Politics.”
Scholar Michael Eric Dyson reminds us in his work, What Truth Sounds Like, “It is more than a little curious that, in the name of a mythical universalism stripped of race, gender or sexuality, advocates across the political spectrum now advance a nation of populist anti-identity politics driven by a vigorous defense of identity as they laud the white working class.”
This idea that securing economic elasticity for working-class white folk, many who voted for candidates expressing profound white supremacy in 2016, will somehow allow racial justice to trickle down to melanin-blessed folk is actually rooted in white supremacy. It is a dangerous and insouciant approach to Black liberation.
Dyson goes on to explain that while the hyper-focus on the white working class is not without some merit, it too often impedes the specific necessity to address and dismantle white supremacy because, “…their fortunes are cast over and against the masses of folk of color, many of whom are also working class or poor, but whose interests hardly factor into considerations of class consciousness, class rebellion, or class solidarity.” This impediment is rooted in an all too prevalent belief of many on the white-Left that we must address class before or, even, instead of race.
This myopic idea is further challenged by David Roediger who explains the idea is not to draw lines separating race and class, but rather to draw ones that connect the two. In fact, Roediger holds that neo-Marxists, like Paul Gilroy and Adolph Reed Jr., who view addressing racial justice as secondary to class inequity, navigate the Left to a perniciously similar paradigm held by centrists and the Right. Roediger admonishes the Left in his stellar work, Wages of Whiteness, stating, “It is worth noting that both neoliberalism and neoconservatism argue that race is not (or ought not to be) ‘the issue’ but that economic growth—neatly separable from race—will solve conflicts that only seem to revolve around race.”
This admonishment parallels statements from his later work, Class, Race and Marxism, as he explains, “But while retreats from race are understandable in view of the difficult and changing political tasks that we face, they are no more an answer to how we pursue those tasks when they come from the left than when they come from the right and center.”
And, in asking ourselves this question, we must take the necessary steps to be the providers of our own destiny giving us the choice to collaborate with the white-led “Left,” without relying on it for financial security, as well as our collective liberation.
The radical Black thinker Hubert Harrison, regarded by A. Phillip Randolph as, “the father of Harlem radicalism,” once argued that supporting African Americans was, “the crucial test of Socialism’s sincerity.” Dawson, based on this idea, concludes at the beginning of the 20th Century, Socialism failed emphatically. It could be argued that the Left is continuing a culture of failure in the 21st Century as it pertains to actually supporting Black liberation.
It was due to his experiences in white-dominated spaces that Harrison came to this conclusion. Further, as Dawson explains, “…whether we are talking about pressuring the state or the organizations of the left, Black progress has been greatest when there was an organized, independent black political movement.” Our own institutions as prescribed by Harrison will be the only way to achieve this (though it should be noted that Harrison himself was a known patriarchal misogynist).
An integral part of Black Liberation organizing must also include educating our people of our history, our stories and our lessons without relying on majority white institutions who have a proclivity for deciding which Black leaders and movements are worthy of study and accolades. As Dawson reminds us, “…not only has the white left historically been complicit in the erasure of black radicals and their contributions from the historical record, but it has also often been openly hostile toward black radicals and their aspirations, ideas, and programs.” To this end, Black folk must reclaim their history and defy any attempt at erasure. We must be the holders of our own prophetic flame or risk allowing neo-Marxists, white-Leftists and their instructions, who refuse to center dismantling racism/white supremacy, to blow it out… again.
The brilliant co-founder of Black Youth Project (BYP) 100, Charlene Carruthers, in her latest work, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements compounds the idea of reclaiming our narrative as Black folk, while also challenging us to include and showcase queer and transgender Black folk as part of the process.
She is spot-on. It’s up to us to ensure that our stories, our knowledge, and our process are told, shared. and exercised by us first and foremost. We must not longer rely on an education apparatus that’s rooted in white supremacy and obfuscation of the Black liberation narrative. Carruthers continues the wisdom of Ella Baker, perhaps the greatest pure organizer in history, who was an ardent proponent of the right of ordinary people to be the sovereign decision makers for issues that impact their lives, while also developing leaders among themselves.
As Carruthers reminds us, the white-led Left continues to transmit incomplete narratives, “Activist communities claiming to be progressive and radical recycle incomplete stories about movement history, including lionizing Martin Luther King Jr.’s most well-known views while ignoring his stance for reproductive rights and radicalization in his later years.” Ask yourself how many times you’ve received emails from white-led non-profits and white “progressive” candidates/lawmakers with nice, obligatory Dr. King quotes versus the times that these people and organizations have quoted Assata Shakur, Ida B. Wells, Audre Lorde, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, or El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. This omission of transmission of our more radical Black leaders is more evidence of the need for melanin-blessed folk to control our narrative from the onset.
For all of Democratic Socialists of America’s lauding of neo-Marxist thinkers and writers, there’s never been focus on the prescriptions of Claudia Jones. In fact, when I’ve asked white DSA members if they know who she was, most of them are unfamiliar. This is downright execrable, as Jones—described as “Left of Marx” by renowned Africana professor Carole Boyce-Davies—“had to transform traditional male and Eurocentric Marxism, both theoretically and in practice, to eliminate its historical limitations and incorporate patriarchal and racial oppression within its analytical framework.”
The Left, at this moment in history, should certainly take more cues from intersectional leaders like Jones and, more recently, Kimberle’ Crenshaw, if it indeed desires to develop a platform that is welcoming and inclusive of melanin-blessed folk. But those who are most oppressed cannot simply wait for this to happen. We must seize the entire concept and idea of the “Left” such that it serves us in a way that we don’t spend more precious time working to dismantle the Left’s white supremacy as we do the entirety of white supremacy.
If the Left continues to demonstrate an inertia to operating as truly anti-racist, then it will not serve the intersectional needs, nor produce the variables necessary for a Black liberation equation. And, as such, it must be jettisoned and otherwise dispatched of by us so that it can actually be for us.
After all, from Hubert Harrison, Claudia Jones, to the Cohambee River Collective, Lorde, Du Bois, Angela Davis, and more recently Carruthers, there has always been the understanding that Black liberation must include the dismantling of Capitalism and its offspring neoliberalism. But the Left has not demonstrated a comprehension that dismantling Capitalism/neoliberalism must include addressing and dismantling racism/white supremacy head on and directly.
In Black In and Out of the Left, Dawson concludes, “There is still a need for a militant wing of Black politics to address [Black] disadvantages, as it has become clear over the past three decades that those engaged in “mainstream” politics have proven insufficient to bring about the fundamental change needed to address these problems, and perhaps are uninterested in doing so.” This further vindicates the need for Black-led institutions, organizations, and collectives that stress the importance of a Black agenda—a platform that includes, but is not limited to:
In their epochal 1966 manifesto, “The Basis of Black Power,” (Basis) the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) offers a blueprint that melanin-blessed folk should consider building from. The manifesto begins with a profound declaration refuting an idea held by the Left, Right, and Center:
“The myth that the Negro is somehow incapable of liberating [themselves], is lazy, etc… came out of the American experience.”
Basis goes onto discuss the pathology of white-Leftist thinking as it pertains to impressions of Black folk, “Any white person who comes into the movement has the concept in [his/her] mind about black people. [He/she] cannot escape them because the whole society has geared [their] subconscious in that direction.” We see the manifestation of this idea to this very day, elucidating the need for Black-led and Black-financed organizations and institutions who will work to dismantle feckless stereotypes as part of a Black Liberation equation.
But I also understand that we have to build and sustain Black power to assure that multiracial organizing is bereft of white supremacy, patriarchy, transphobia and a hierarchical praxis that places more emphasis on arbitrarily selected leaders and “success” metrics than the people in struggle. For as we are reminded in Basis, “Negroes in this country have never been allowed to organize themselves because of white interference. As a result of this, the stereotype has been reinforced that Blacks cannot organize themselves.” This frivolous notion must be dispatched of if we are ever to realize mutual justice and liberation as melanin-blessed folk.
But there’s good news as we are beginning to see the emergence of newer Black-led organizations like BYP 100, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, the Marsha P Johnson Institute, and other groups who are not just resisting the status quo, they are defying it through their rejection of it.
These groups all embrace the SNCC legacy which called for, “black-staffed, black-controlled and black-financed” collectives that learn from the mishaps of Civil Rights organizations who relied too heavily on white financial support. SNCC admonishes such mishaps in Basis declaring, “If we continue to rely on white financial support, we will find ourselves entwined in the tentacles of the white power complex that controls this country.” This was as true in 1966 as it is in 2018 – and this white power complex is upheld by the Left as much as it is by Centrists.
Carruthers offers and excellent prescription and call for Black folk to be unapologetic as we reclaim the Black radical tradition, directing that it must include, “writing and rewriting the history of our people.” She calls on all Black folk to accept this responsibility by recording our stories and protecting our history bestowing a charge in which, “…each of us has the duty to honor our present and past, while encouraging future generations to take up the work when it’s their turn.” This, I believe, is how to best demonstrate our refusal to be left out of the process, left out of the decision making, left out of consideration, and left out of determining our own destiny while paving the way for our young people to continue distributing the Black heat of our undeniable prophetic fire.