Fifty years ago– on October 29, 1966– Kwame Ture (then known as Stokely Carmichael) gave his famous “Black Power Speech” to a mostly white audience in “the white intellectual ghetto of the West”— that is, at UC Berkeley in California.
Kwame Ture had recently been elected the Chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC had told its white members to leave and to organize other whites in order to make us stop our violence against Black people. So this was the context for Kwame Ture’s speech at UC Berkeley, and for his question to white people in the audience:
“Can the white activist not try to be a Pepsi generation who comes alive in the black community, but can he be a man [sic] who’s willing to move into the white community and start organizing where the organization is needed?”
Kwame Ture continued:
“Can white people move inside their own community and start tearing down racism where in fact it does exist?”
Fifty years later, African revolutionaries are still directing Europeans (white people) to organize other Europeans in the struggle against racism, capitalism and colonialism (which, of course, are very much connected). For instance, the African People’s Socialist Party, under the leadership of former SNCC organizer Omali Yeshitela, is directing Europeans to pay reparations by joining the Uhuru Solidarity Movement. These payments (not charity) support the programs of the larger Uhuru– or “Freedom”– Movement.
What’s true, beyond any debate, is that Europeans (whites) who support African/Black liberation should not interfere in the organizing efforts of colonized and oppressed peoples (specifically, the Black community in the U.S. settler colony, and African people everywhere in the world).
To go one step further, Europeans can take on the task of educating other Europeans and stopping our own violence against Africans. This task not only helps us to avoid interfering in Black-only organizations, it may also benefit Black-only organizations in other ways. By doing this part of the work, Africans don’t have to, and this frees up Africans to do more organizing in their community– something they can and should do themselves. By joining white-only organizations for “white allies” or “white accomplices” who are struggling for “racial justice,” Europeans are not only avoiding any sort of bossy meddling in the organizing work of oppressed peoples, but we are also talking to other Europeans who are racist like us, so Africans won’t have to– and we know these racists are more likely to listen to a white person anyway.
What does seem to be debatable (to me) is the existence of a “white community.” It seems that whites don’t have a community— we have a system. Whites have capitalism– a system built by whites for whites. We don’t need a community because we have a system. Actually, white people do not have a community because we do have the dehumanizing system of capitalism.
We might ask if poor whites, who are harmed by capitalist oppression, are the exception. There have always been poor (or impoverished) whites under the capitalist system of power, because that’s how this system is supposed to work– the wealthy few enjoy the material advantages (or profits) of capitalism through their exploitation of the many. Yet capitalism has always sought to resolve these class antagonisms through the further oppression of people outside Europe. The European serf in feudal society was elevated to the status of the worker (in the proletariat) of the new bourgeois society. And this qualitative change– this great leap forward within white society that created capitalism– came about only through Europe’s attack on Africans, indigenous peoples and the majority of humanity. (What has just been described is called “African Internationalism,” which is the political theory of the African People’s Socialist Party.)
White people have already been getting together on this continent for centuries to share (albeit unequally) the stolen land, labor and resources of indigenous peoples and Africans (generally speaking, people of color, who are not “minorities,” but rather the majority population on the planet). That’s why there are so many white people in Oregon. The material basis for the existence of so many European colonizers (whites) in Oregon is our genocidal colonization of indigenous peoples, and the brutal exclusion of Black people from the benefits of the imperialist expansion of the United States– an empire built on the unpaid, forced labor of enslaved Africans (which is just another form of colonial genocide).
In material conditions such as these, based on murder and theft, it seems that it’s impossible for whites to create a true community. Instead of a community, whites have the American flag, patriotism, and the class status that comes from grabbing the biggest share of the loot taken from colonized peoples.
“Whiteness” is a reactionary political identity created by European imperialist capitalism as both a justification for its genocidal oppression of the world, and a means for dividing up the stolen resources of those who are not identified (by whites) as “white.” So one might argue that “whiteness” cannot be the basis for a true community, much less for organizing.
Capitalism has already provided for the basic needs of white people. When it hasn’t, we have organized to reform the system so it will work better– that is, better for us, by making things worse for everyone else. The current bourgeois election is one example of this type of organizing.
White people haven’t struggled to survive in spite of capitalism, or to have our humanity recognized in spite of capitalism. The struggle of the European serf or the white worker in the United States has been to grab a larger share of the power and wealth stolen by the white ruling class, upon whom we depend for our material necessities. And since the power and wealth of the white ruling class exist only through its ongoing attack on Africa– and the Americas and the rest of the world– the very existence of white people is based on our parasitic dependence on the stolen land, labor, resources and lives of Africans and people of color. White people have no system to resist, no system to organize against, because we have always been seeking to improve capitalism (sometimes through our love for “America”)– at the expense of colonized peoples (specifically, Africans or Black people).
Since white people lack a material basis for our struggles against capitalism, our organizing as a “white ally” or a “white accomplice” runs the risk of becoming the work of the “do-gooder.” We aren’t fighting for ourselves. We’re fighting for someone else. This becomes a philosophical idealist fight, a struggle based on ideas in our head: the values, and beliefs we hold in our mind as– materially– we live off the stolen resources of capitalist oppression.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about a philosophical idealist struggle against systemic oppression. Muslims are commanded to fight against oppression wherever it exists. So the basis for this struggle is religion. And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about a “revolution of values.”
It’s not a question of abandoning any type of struggle against capitalism just because we are white. But it seems we ought to recognize the dangers of making this the fight of the “do-gooder”: the white person who gives (or pays) $10 to a “worthy cause” but whose monthly salary of $4,000 is based on the imperialist looting of Africans, indigenous peoples and the majority of humanity; the white person who smugly believes they are “woke” because they’ve read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, but who hasn’t lived the New Jim Crow (except on the side that benefits from this caste system); the white person who talks tough about a bloody revolution, and then walks safely past a cop, while the Black person (no matter what they’ve been talking about) is stopped, beaten, and murdered.
Whiteness is a shield to the white revolutionary, no matter how we talk, or what thoughts are in our head. We may say all the right things, even think most of the right things, but we’re still taking up space, and we’re still benefiting from whiteness– we still exist on account of the unequal and inhumane power of colonial capitalism.
A philosophical idealist fight against racism, capitalism and colonialism runs the danger of ignoring this material reality: it will require a severe loss of wealth and power by white people in order to change the ideas in our heads and how we view the world.
An individual’s ideas are based on where this individual is situated within society– that is, their class. As long as white people are materially elevated through the systemic oppression of Africans and most of humanity, our ideas and perspectives will be shaped by this position within the class hierarchy of a society that is simultaneously racist, transphobic, sexist, homophobic, ableist and capitalist.
White people bring these reactionary attitudes to organizing spaces that are anti-racist whether we are aware of them or not. This is because whiteness is inseparable from racism, transphobia, sexism, homophobia, ableism and capitalism. So we run the risk of displaying arrogance by believing we are somehow above these attitudes. Since whiteness is a reactionary political identity created by capitalism, white-only organizing spaces that are anti-racist will tend to reinforce the hierarchy of transphobia, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and capitalist elitism– as well as racism. And such behavior can often go unchecked in these white-only organizing spaces because our class status prevents us from recognizing its existence.
In a revolutionary struggle, either the vanguard party or the mass movement which is organizing for this revolution is typically the blueprint and nucleus for the entire government once independence has been won. The organizing principles of this party (or collective) are reflected in the ruling principles of the socialist government once it has taken power.
So we might ask ourselves: how can white people organize for revolution in white-only spaces when the future society– if it has truly eliminated systemic oppression– cannot, by definition, be white-only? This seems to be a contradiction of white-only revolutionary spaces that cannot be resolved within the current structure of power– colonial capitalism– which was created only by whites, only to benefit whites.
Clearly, there should be African-only or Black-only organizing spaces– because Africans/Black people, who are oppressed by white-controlled capitalism, want these spaces. And the oppressor cannot tell the oppressed how they ought to go about organizing to gain power. But if there are Africans/Black people and people of color who want to organize with whites, it seems this type of organization would be beneficial for the future communist society.
Of course, these types of “multi-racial” organizations have existed all along– for example, the NAACP. But their politics have tended to be bourgeois. It’s also true that All-African and all-Black revolutionary organizations often welcome Europeans to their events or work alongside Europeans. So this approach isn’t new. What may be new, in this era and in a revolutionary context, is whites learning how to organize with people of color in ways that are mutually beneficial. Angela Davis has said, “Solidarity always implies a kind of mutuality.” And such an arrangement of mutuality between whites and people of color could become a reflection of the egalitarian principles of the future communist society.
So the argument here is that whites– who are directed to go into this mythical “white community”– should not organize only around the reactionary white identity, but, instead, around other shared identities and interests that are potentially revolutionary.
It seems that whites must learn to love each other and to create a community for ourselves, rather than trying to find our humanity through proximity to the lives of the people whom we oppress. In order to be part of the future society that will be free from systemic oppression, whites must learn to live in harmony with each other and with the rest of humanity. But my argument is that we will never achieve this goal if our context for getting together is whiteness itself. Somehow white people must learn how to contribute to the erasure of whiteness as a political identity. By highlighting our whiteness in organizing spaces — as “white allies,” “white accomplices,” “rednecks,” or whatever– we are simply reinforcing the genocidal and colonial context that was the original basis for our getting together.
The white identity won’t be transformed into something else until whites have suffered a severe loss of wealth and power. This wealth and power must be taken from us by the true proletariat of the world– without our permission. Until then, whites in white-only anti-racist or “racial justice” organizing spaces will tend to reflect and promote the reactionary ideologies of the dominant class, which is racist, transphobic, homophobic, sexist, ableist, and (of course) capitalist, all at the same time.
Whites in these “racial justice” or socialist organizing spaces will tend to express the same competitive behavior as the larger bourgeois society. We will try to outdo each other with how “militant” we sound or how knowledgeable we are about the Black liberation movement (which isn’t even our own fight).
This excessive competitive behavior doesn’t have some mystical basis– whites don’t behave this way just because we’re “bad people.” Whites do this because we’re not fighting for our survival. We’re not organizing so we can be recognized as human beings (Black Lives Matter). And even if the most impoverished among us are fighting for survival, we can be sure that capitalism will attempt to resolve these contradictions on terms that benefit whites, at the expense of everyone else, the way it always has– whether we like it or not. That’s how the white supremacist system of capitalist power works.
By organizing with people of color who want to organize with us, Europeans (whites) perhaps may learn how to challenge the reactionary white identity, and then function in mutually beneficial ways with marginalized communities who learned (out of necessity) to revolutionize their identities a long time ago.
In these settings, whites may learn to be quiet and to sit down when asked (or before we’re asked). We can take on the tasks of organizing that we may have thought were beneath us– duties such as setting up chairs before the event and washing dishes after the event. We can leave the room, or not attend an event at all, when organizers of color need that space just for themselves.
Whites may be required to learn how to grapple with hurt feelings, jealousy, personal ambition, and physical exhaustion, and to do this in a setting that reflects the shared principles of the future communist society. By attempting to resolve our contradictions in white-only groups (even groups that are dedicated to fighting racism, capitalism and colonialism), whites will only resolve these contradictions (if at all) on white terms.
In a world that is free from systemic oppression, the European– individually and collectively– will be required to resolve our internal contradictions through interactions with communities of color. And, ultimately, no “white” or “European” identity will exist at all, because this future revolutionary society will have qualitatively changed our collective identity into something entirely new.
The task today for the European organizer seems to be that we work with anyone who wants us to work with them, with anyone who shares some of the same intersecting identities and interests that we have, and– together when necessary, or apart when necessary– struggle side by side, as true comrades, to dismantle a system that is racist, transphobic, sexist, homophobic, ableist, colonialist and capitalist.
Imam Jamil Al-Amin (formerly known as H. Rap Brown), a leader in SNCC during the 1960s and for many decades a political prisoner of the United States, has said:
“If you can get ten dudes who down, it don’t make no difference what the cause is. Then you got more people than most people got.”
And this powerful quotation seems to sum up, and, in fact, express– better than the 2,500+ words before it– the entire argument here.