Social justice workers– particularly “white allies”– often focus on the impoverishment of exploited Black people in the U.S. settler colony, pointing to statistical comparisons between whites and Black people regarding wages, and access to food, healthcare, housing, and good schools. These are only a few categories that show “the wealth gap” in American society between whites and Black people. We also could point to the prison-industrial complex, the school-to-prison pipeline, and (of course) police brutality. In any case, the same narrative is used over and over: whites in the U.S. are wealthier than Black people and all other “people of color.” Then it becomes a question of “why?” and then “what ought to be done about this ‘problem’?”
It seems to me that the key thing for us to remember when we’re talking about impoverished Black people in the U.S. is that the word “impoverished” indicates a process, not a state. That is, to be “impoverished” means the subject was caused to be poor, not that the subject’s permanent, static being is poor. By remembering that colonized Africans were impoverished, and are not simply poor, we may recognize that society changes through struggle. That is, society evolves (or makes progress) through a dialectical process within material conditions, and not just through our subjective ideas about people.
European thought has been shaped by the view that society can achieve a permanent state of perfection. We see this idealism in the United States today (particularly during the election of the next president). The “United States of America” itself is a kind of ideal conceived as a perfect social arrangement, where freedom, justice, equality and peace are the rule, and the opposites are the exception to this ideal. This idealistic view causes politicians, activists and scholars to ask: “How do we make this society work better for everyone?” or “How do we include everyone in the ‘American Dream’?” If our society is a dream, then (in a certain sense) it’s perfect, and therefore requires no further evolution, other than (in Abraham Lincoln’s words) to make it “more perfect.” America is Plato’s Republic, updated and revised to fit our times.
This European view of society as static, and capable of perfection, was influenced by Plato and Aristotle. Kwame Nkrumah writes, “Plato and Aristotle both conceived society in static terms. Their conception was of a society which permitted of no revision.” Kwame Nkrumah tells us that “what is perfect cannot change for the better” and so we have “the idea of the finite social evolution.” Plato’s static view of society influenced the shape of Europe’s political system, and, in addition, the shape of Europe’s religious image. Kwame Nkrumah teaches, “Plato’s reactionary philosophy received development at the hands of Christian intellectuals.” Christianity has been used by Europeans to “civilize” the rest of the world; that is, to take their resources, labor, and land, while teaching them that they are inferior, but are still capable of a permanent status of “salvation”– if they only will change their religious beliefs (as opposed to their control of material wealth and power).
The development of European imperialist capitalism, which started with Europe’s invasion of Africa and the Americas, has meant the establishment of a society that white people want to make permanent: liberal or libertarian capitalist democracy. Libertarian and liberal movements mainly attempt to include oppressed groups in their philosophically idealist, static vision of society, which is “the American Dream.” But Malcolm X held a different view when he said, “I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.” When white people are the subjects of history, America represents great progress– a leap forward from monarchy and feudalism, and the disease, poverty, and religious superstition of the “Dark Ages.” Yet the development of this system, particularly in the U.S. settler colony, and its movement toward a perfect society, has come about only through the destruction of societies in Africa, the Americas, Australia, and most of the planet– as well as the planet itself. If we view history in dialectical terms, as an ongoing struggle for the control of material benefits, perhaps we will recognize that the wealth and power of white people have come about only through the impoverishment of Africans and other colonized peoples.
Prior to the Maafa (African Holocaust), which began in the 15th century and is still going on today, Africa was wealthy and Europe was poor. The richest man in history may have been Mansa Musa, who became ruler of the Mali Empire in 1312. Mansa Musa was famous not only for his great wealth but also for his great generosity. When Mansa Musa converted to Islam, and made the journey to Mecca, he gave out so much gold to the people along the way during this pilgrimage that he caused a global decline in the value of gold that lasted more than a decade. And, prior to the invasion of Europe, the Songhai Empire also prospered. Its university in Timbuktu educated the world. The Gao Empire experienced a significant period of prosperity as well. And Ghana became famous for its wealth in gold (at least among European invaders who named Ghana the “Gold Coast”). While slavery was a global phenomenon at the time of Europe’s invasion, the structure of African societies differed greatly from those in Europe and the rest of the world. Africans did not have the concept of private property, and (perhaps for this reason) feudalism did not exist in many if not all areas of west Africa. Feudalism was a white problem.
During the Dark Ages, Europe was torn apart by war, disease, poverty and violent religious differences. While the Christian Church in Rome consolidated its wealth and power, along with the nobility of Europe, most Europeans were serfs and peasants– in other words, slaves. Yet the plundering expeditions known as the “Crusades” unified Europeans, who had been in danger of destroying each other, by giving them a common enemy: people who weren’t white, and weren’t Christian, but were rich. During the so-called Age of Discovery (which, from another perspective, might be called “The Age of Terrorism”), Europeans became aware of vast, wealthy civilizations, gold, jewels, great artistic beauty, and tasty spices for our bland food.
And then Europeans grew jealous. Africans were rich, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were rich, and this material and cultural wealth– this advanced humanity– called the very identity of Europeans into question, leading us to feel inferior. This was another white problem. And its solution (from 1492 until the present) has been: rob and murder Africans, and build this static, perfect society on the pedestal of impoverished Africans. The United States itself is a solution– through genocide, slavery, and capitalist exploitation– to the problems of Europe, as this settler colony has provided jobs, resources, and a middle-class lifestyle to millions of Europeans flooding the land of indigenous peoples, and climbing over the destroyed lives of African people. The Dark Ages ended for Europe when white people jealously saw the wealth of Africa, and started our murder and theft of Africans which has continued until the present day.
In 1921, the colonized Africans of Tulsa, Oklahoma had survived systemic oppression so successfully that they had created what is called “Black Wall Street.” Quite fittingly, another name for this Black section of Tulsa was “Little Africa.” Segregated from white society, Africans in northern Tulsa had built a successful community of thriving businesses, with doctors, lawyers, and good schools, where Africans collectively helped each other and lived in an environment of trust and security. This trust, security and prosperity occurred within Little Africa, but outside of it there was a very different story taking place among envious white people. Whites had returned from World War I impoverished and desperate, similar to the whites in the Dark Ages of Europe, and they were jealous of Black Wall Street. Impoverished whites couldn’t bear to see Black people with so much wealth, and in their envy the whites of Tulsa turned to the Ku Klux Klan. Then the KKK attacked.
But members of the KKK weren’t the only whites who attacked Black Wall Street on June 1, 1921. Jealous of African success, “truckloads” of European colonizers set fire to the Africans’ homes and businesses in Black Wall Street. White people even dropped bombs from airplanes on Black Wall Street. When the attack was over, 3,000 Africans had been murdered. An estimated 600 African-owned businesses had been burned down (“[a]mong these were 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores and two movie theaters, plus a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half dozen private airplanes and even a bus system”) and 1,500 homes of African people had been burned down by angry, envious, impoverished whites. The attack on Black Wall Street by jealous whites was “the largest massacre of nonmilitary Americans [sic] in the history of this country.”
A subjectively idealist view of history may lead us to believe that the attack on Black Wall Street by jealous whites was a rare departure from the true principles of American democracy, and a tragic situation in which an otherwise just and humane system malfunctioned. This view assumes that America is good— because America must be good. This is the only explanation that fits the subjectively idealist conception of American society: it is good. The fact that must be ignored by people who hold this view is that the founding documents of the United States, which were created by white, slave-holding men who owned property, reflected the social position of white, slave-holding men who owned property within the material conditions of that era. This materialist view of history demonstrates that society is in a process of constant change and evolution, and is not eternally fixed in one place like the God-given words of a universal ideal carved in marble (and even this must crumble eventually).
The attack on Black Wall Street in 1921 by envious, impoverished whites, like the attack on Africa that started in the 15th century, is based on an ongoing, dialectical struggle between opposing national interests for control of material benefits. The attack on Black Wall Street by jealous whites is a concrete example that demonstrates the colonial system is working, not breaking down, just as the ongoing attack on Oregon, which has elevated white prosperity at the expense of indigenous peoples (and Africans and Asians), shows that colonialism is working, and the gentrification of Portland by whites, which prices out Black and brown people from their neighborhoods, shows– yet again– that the system of European colonial power is working.
The white liberal and libertarian view that subjectively assumes America is good (and ignores the dialectical struggle between opposing national interests over control of resources) would lead us to believe that social justice work means including (or integrating) more and more “people of color” into the existing system. This idealist view of society assumes that the material conditions, which are the basis for a system of power (and for its founding documents), and the basis for life itself, are static. The question of how to improve a society becomes: how do we include more oppressed groups into this system that we assume to be good? Progress is measured according to an ideal of inclusion and “diversity” within the system, and is made under the illusion that a perfect society is possible, ignoring the dialectic within matter that societies (as part of nature) are forever evolving.
Dialectical materialism demonstrates that white people in the United States are wealthier than Black people and other colonized nations (according to statistical measures) because the latter have been impoverished. The cause of white wealth is Black impoverishment. This part of the historical process started for Europe when it invaded Africa and the Americas in the 15th century, stealing the wealth of Africans and indigenous peoples through genocide. Africa was wealthy; Europe was poor. Europeans had experienced our own causes of impoverishment, but they were not on account of an imperialist invasion by Africans. Europe faced a severe economic crisis during the Dark Ages (as well as political, social, and spiritual crisis) and our solution to this crisis (as it has been from the 15th century in Haiti and Ghana, to 1921 in Black Wall Street, and up until the present time) was and is imperialist genocide committed against Africans and indigenous peoples. The impoverishment of Africans in the U.S. settler colony today is part of an ongoing struggle between white power and Black resistance, as the former uses colonial violence to maintain its control over material benefits at the expense of the latter.
There are two historical lessons we can learn from the bombing of Black Wall Street, if we wish to study it in these objectively materialist terms.
The first lesson we might want to learn from the bombing of Black Wall Street deals with white jealousy of African wealth and success:
I sometimes think that the best way to make a white supremacist’s head explode (or at least we can hope) is to show them a picture of a happy Black couple standing in the beautiful Californian vineyard that they own. Setting aside (for the moment) any concerns about promoting the politics of respectability, and patriarchy, capitalism, and the white gaze, this image of two happy, loving, wealthy “African-Americans” standing together out in the gorgeous countryside on land that is theirs, should be enough to make a white supremacist’s head explode. White people often grow angry at the sight of “Black Girl Magic” and celebrations of Black beauty (in all its forms, not just the “respectable” ones), Black people winning, Black people being carefree, Black people not conforming to white stereotypes, Black people living– period.
Even the most blatant white supremacist man expects to see images of Black “gangstas” with guns, and these images comfort this type of racist even as they anger him. Supposedly negative images of Black people– poor, oppressed, living in gang-infested and drug-infested ghettos– reinforce the subjectively idealist view of America that white people have created, which is: the system is good (democracy, freedom, security), and can be perfected through reform, and the only question is how to fix that problem over there (“the ghetto”) and integrate more of “those poor blacks” into this system. White people are comforted by a static view of society which judges history to be a linear progression toward some ultimate good, wherein we are the subjects, rather than a constantly evolving struggle between opposing national interests (each a subject of their own struggle) for control of material benefits. The blatant white supremacist and the white liberal racist (as well as the conservative) are united by their reactionary view that Black people are a problem to be solved within the existing framework of American democracy, and not that they are colonized Africans struggling against this very system to survive and, eventually, get free.
Steve Biko wrote: “The liberals view the oppression of blacks as a problem that has to be solved, an eyesore spoiling an otherwise beautiful view. From time to time the liberals make themselves forget about the problem or take their eyes off the eyesore. On the other hand, in oppression the blacks are experiencing a situation from which they are unable to escape at any given moment. Theirs is a struggle to get out of the situation and not merely to solve a peripheral problem as in the case of the liberals. This is why blacks speak with a greater sense of urgency than whites.”
As long as colonized Africans are “a peripheral problem” in “an otherwise beautiful view” of America, both white liberals and blatant white supremacists can be comforted by a permanent position of Africans in white society which is inferior. This static view of American society gives comfort to whites, and allows us to justify the pursuit our own subjective interests in the name of some universal good (such as “spreading democracy,” “developing Third World economies,” and telling Hijabi Muslim women that they wear a hijab because they are oppressed).
Images of colonized Africans that are judged by the white gaze to be negative reinforce what European colonizers believe to be our inherent superiority in a society where only ideas can change, not the balance of power among struggling interests for the control of material benefits. Perhaps it is for this reason that a Safeway store in Salem, Oregon has a big display for the video release of the film “Straight Outta Compton” about the “gangsta rap” group N.W.A. I supposed there’s the possibility that middle-age, middle-class white people in Salem really are interested in N.W.A, and hip-hop culture and the struggles of colonized Africans to survive in the so-called ghettos of the United States. Yet there’s also the possibility that the system of European imperialist capitalism uses films like “Straight Outta Compton” to promote the supposedly negative images of Black people that whites want to see, for these images lead us to forget that Black people aren’t gun-toting, bitch-killing “gangstas” whose every other word is “muthafucka,” and that they built great, wealthy societies in Africa (and Little Africa), and these societies were wiped out in the material interests of white power. By attempting to dehumanize the image of Africans, and show Black people as the dangerous “Other,” white power can continue to elevate itself above the rest of the world, both materially and idealistically– and leave behind any feelings of inferiority that prevailed in the Dark Ages of Europe.
In her book Let the Circle Be Unbroken, Marimba Ani writes of Europeans who have invaded Africa:
“If they could not make themselves feel superior they were nothing … pleasure was derived only from power and control.”
The danger of social justice work by “white allies” today is that it capitalizes on the same self-serving inferior image of colonized Africans that blatant white supremacists use to dehumanize Africans. By helping the “poor blacks” and doing our good deed for the day, then going back to our safer and wealthier neighborhood, feeling much better about ourselves, perhaps “white allies” forget that Africa was once rich and relatively secure, and Europe was a mess. Africans, against all odds, once built up a successful community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, only to be bombed by envious, impoverished whites. Black people aren’t simply poor– they have been robbed. Yet the belief that American democracy is good requires the judgment that Black people are “an eyesore spoiling an otherwise beautiful view,” rather than the objective recognition that this “beautiful view” (from atop a pedestal of colonial oppression) comes as a direct result of the exploitation, murder and theft of Africans and indigenous peoples. While “white allies” are struggling to change the ideas in people’s heads about Black people who are being gunned down in the street by the police, we miss the materialist reality that the struggle is not over ideas, but resources– the necessities of life.
Amílcar Cabral, the revolutionary leader from Guinea-Bissau who was murdered on January 20, 1973, wrote:
“Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”
If we recognize that society is not static, but, instead, is constantly evolving through a struggle over control of material benefits, then our alignment with the interests of colonized Africans (in the U.S. and everywhere) will align us against the system of European imperialist capitalism. Our “anti-racist” fight will become an “anti-colonialist” fight. And the involvement of European colonizers in this struggle against white power will not be based on the subjective view that Black people are simply poor, or down on their luck, but are being attacked and robbed and (to paraphrase Dr. King) “are owed a lot of money.” Reparations then become central in the struggle against colonialism and against the five hundred years (or more) of the Maafa.
The second lesson we may want to learn from the bombing of Black Wall Street by jealous whites is how colonized Africans are further endangered by their success– on account of European envy. The (not entirely hypothetical) image of the successful Black couple who own a vineyard in California might cause the white supremacist’s head to explode with jealousy– or it might cause him to grab a gun and attack this successful Black couple.
The argument that, because there are rich Black people and poor whites, we shouldn’t pay reparations fails when we consider the concrete examples of the destruction of Black Wall Street and, on a far larger scale, the ongoing genocide against Africa and Africans. Part of the problem– which is a white problem– is that (according to one study) we feel like we are the victims of anti-white racism by Black people. Europe, the upstart culture, having clawed its way out of the poverty and misery of the Dark Ages, continues to play the self-defined role of the “underdog” in this story, of which we are the star (of course), and in which Black people who get full-ride scholarships, or are hired for the job when we should have been hired, or are given handouts and special treatment by the government, are the oppressive villains while we are the oppressed victims.
European imperialist capitalism, through its institutions of media, schools, governments and businesses, lies to white people and tells us that Black “thugs” and “illegal aliens” are the great threat to us. This lie is necessary for capitalism to perpetuate and expand its control of material benefits, and whites rush to believe it because we are dependent upon the system of colonialism for our survival, which we feel is threatened by Black and brown people who have not been fully assimilated into this system. Rather than recognizing that Black people built the American empire without the compensation of wages or ownership, and since 1865 have been largely excluded from the material benefits of this empire, while this very same system of white power has been wiping out 98% of the indigenous population (forcing survivors onto reservations), struggling whites in the lower middle-class and impoverished whites idealistically believe Black and brown people are the problem. The solution to this problem among disgruntled, struggling whites in the “99%” is either to deport and imprison “them” or to make “massive investments in rebuilding our cities”— presumably by taxing at a higher rate the white capitalist class that robbed the cities (and country) in the first place (and we know that from every investment in this system there is the expectation of a profitable return).
Chairman Omali Yeshitela of the African People’s Socialist Party has stated:
“Capitalism was born in disrepute, born of the rapes, massacres, occupations, genocides, colonialism and every despicable act humans are capable of inflicting. Capitalism was not responsible for some great, otherwise unimaginable leap in production, which—despite its contradictions—resulted in human progress and enlightenment. What capitalism did was to rip the vast majority of humanity out of the productive process—in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Australia and what has come to be known as the Americas. The hundreds of millions dead due to the slave trade and slavery itself; the millions exterminated everywhere Europeans ventured—these are people whose hands were forever removed from a relationship with nature that would result in ‘production.’
“Europeans achieved their national identity by way of this bloody process. This is not something that only happened a long time ago. The world’s peoples are suffering the consequences of capitalism’s emergence right now. Locked in colonies and the indirect rule of neocolonialism, restricted to lives characterized by brutality, ignorance and violence in the barrios of the Americas, in other internal colonies characterized as Indian reservations and black ghettos, kept under the paranoiac, nuclear-backed, armed-to-the-teeth watch of military forces born of a state power that has its origins in protecting the relationship between capitalism and its imperial pedestal, capitalism has been the absolute factor in restricting production and development. It has concentrated productive capacity in the hands of the world’s minority European population that sits atop the pedestal of our oppressive reality. Capitalism was not the good, ‘progressive’ force that is the precursor to something better for ‘humanity.’ Capitalism was a disaster that rescued Europe from a diseased feudal existence at the expense of the world.”
If European colonizers (whites) can begin to examine history according to the dialectical relationships within the evolution of society, recognizing that Africa was once wealthy while Europe was poor, and that nothing about the social arrangement that disrupted Africa’s progress is static, then perhaps we can align our material interests with those of African revolutionaries who are struggling for control of their own lives, labor and resources. We don’t have to feel sorry for Black people, like they are the perpetual losers of history, because their survival, from vineyards in northern California to so-called ghettos in Los Angeles, is success. Colonized Africans are currently engaged in a successful struggle against a system working for their complete destruction, from California, to Oklahoma, to Guinea-Bissau, to Ghana and Azania (South Africa). Africans have shown again and again that, when they have control of their own material benefits (on Black Wall Street or in the Songhai Empire), they are able to succeed, not only by surviving, but by prospering as an advanced civilization (that gave civilization to the world).
If European colonizers can find a way to resolve our contradictions of envy and impoverishment, of our feelings of inferiority with our feelings of superiority, and our endangerment of communities because we fear they are endangering us, then perhaps we can begin to evolve out of this American Dream/American Nightmare and change toward the realistic view of a shared humanity on a shared planet.