Beyoncé, Baraka, and the Battle For Radical Memory

“The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we need to fight without truce to obtain them.” –Fidel Castro, VII Congress of the C.C.P.

“You learn from the past, that’s why you teach history. Our rulers, the oppressors don’t want our young kids to know what came before them so that each time they have to start over from scratch. But there’s this rich history of struggle.” –Brian Becker

For people trying to radically remake society in a more just way, the task ahead is monumental. The task is easier when there is a pre-existing path that can be followed, and it’s more difficult when those seeking greater democracy have to chart an entirely new course. This means that for those seeking to maintain the system as it is, there’s an enormous incentive to sever the connections to past experiences that have proven successful.

This sort of dynamic will play out in any society with serious inequalities and premised on exploitation. It’s what’s under the surface of a recent political meme around the Green Party’s candidate for Vice President, Ajamu Baraka. The idea, articulated most explicitly by Disney/Univision’s joint media venture Fusion, is that Baraka is an obvious deviant because of his criticism of pop superstar Beyoncé Knowles. For those with only a cursory knowledge of the latest trends in both politics and mass culture, the connection might seem tenuous or absurd—why, after all, would love for a particular successful pop musician be a prerequisite for entry into the august ranks of Serious People?

It has to be noted from the outset that it wasn’t Baraka and Beyoncé’s crowd of left-wing critics who elevated the former Destiny’s Child to the ranks of anti-racist symbol, thus worthy of a politicized critique. Like anyone or anything put before a global audience, Knowles enjoys her prominence by the efforts of a multi-billion dollar media machine, the patronage of more powerful individuals, marketing savvy, and then her own talent and her fans—in that order. Along the way, Knowles was elevated to the status of a very important symbol, whose critics are reflexively self-marginalizing by having the sheer audacity to criticize the great individual. Among those who defend Beyoncé from a political standpoint, the pop-star’s symbolic power is that 1) her stature as a successful black female artist, and her output, make her an inspirational symbol for millions, especially black women who are in particular need of inspiration, as well as 2) the fact that more recently, Beyoncé’s use of 1960s-inflected Black Power imagery, and her association with figures in the Black Lives Matter movement, makes her a figure who will advance progressive causes and help weaken white supremacy in America. Those who defend the superstar as a anti-racist icon argue that the presence of Panther-inspired imagery drums up interest in the movement that can be leveraged for progressive end. Invoking righteous black rage, the logic goes, will contribute to the wider anti-racist struggle. In a performance at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé further cemented her association with opposition to white supremacy by enlisting the mothers of black Americans murdered by police in her performance.

In the face of this narrative, and the sheer volume of encomia praising Beyoncé as a transformative progressive figure, certain people have offered a counter-argument grounded in what could be called a more traditionally socialist view of history. Beyoncé’s critics who are not black can be easily derided as racists by her supporters, but Beyoncé’s loudest and most prominent leftist critics include black radicals with unimpeachable credentials like critical theorist bell hooks, activist and Black Agenda Report editor Glen Ford, and the recently controversial Ajamu Baraka. These critics, many of whom participated in the liberation struggles of the 1960s, insist that Beyoncé not be read as a transformational symbol who will push change forward, but as a flesh-and-blood person with cognizable political principles who is beholden to the wealthy interests that have given her her platform. It should hopefully be obvious that the only the latter interpretation is a substantively socialist one, grounded in the material conditions of our actual society; while the latter is a liberal capitalist one, based on a starry-eyed view of how change happens, a neoliberal faith in magic individuals, and a stunningly ahistoric perception of how the cultural industry doles out rewards and sanctions.

Ajamu Baraka’s crime against mainstream decency was to criticize a recent appearance by Knowles at the Super Bowl halftime show, during which Beyoncé and her backup dancers wore the black leather-and-beret attire of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense (BPP), which FBI director J. Edgar Hoover famously described as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.” For Baraka this constituted a cynical instance of appropriation; “the cultural power of neoliberal capitalism to co-opt opposition, monetize it and provide some mindless entertainment” at work. Indeed, a basic knowledge of capitalism would make Baraka’s critique something like common sense—why would the capitalist media, through a multi-millionaire intermediary, celebrate the image of America’s most prominent Marxist-Leninist vanguard party during the most expensive televised spectacle of the year if not for nefarious and patently pro-capitalist purposes? Baraka himself claimed as much in the article linked-to by Fusion as proof of his well-deserved marginality, though they chose not to provide his actual critique: “In an era where the image is dominant and meaning fluid, what is still real, concrete and observable is the operation of power. Situated and controlled by an elite that bell hooks refers to as the White Male, capitalist Patriarchy, it’s a power that exercises with devastating efficiency its ability to shape consciousness through its control of the major means of communication and cultural production. It was those white men and their representatives that placed Beyoncé on that stage at the Super Bowl. It is incredibly naive to think that anything subversive or even remotely oppositional to the interests of the capitalist oligarchy would be allowed expression on a stage that it controlled.”

Baraka’s accusations of appropriation for capitalist ends has a long historical precedent. The phenomenon of wealthy interests exploiting revolutionary heroes and imagery by denaturing them of radical content and using them to repackage the status quo is nothing new. As early as 1917, Lenin opened his text The State and Revolution by warning of a phenomenon in which

“During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the “consolation” of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it.”

Since black Americans have historically been the US settler-colony’s most progressive constituency, tactics like this one have been deployed for years. It has recently been evident in the decision to replace the face of Indian-killer extraordinaire Andrew Jackson with that of Harriet Tubman, at a time when the wealth disparities between black and white Americans have reached levels unprecedented since the Jim Crow era. Going back a few years, it can be seen in what Professor Cornel West has called the “Santa Clausification of Dr. Martin Luther King,” whose image was appropriated in the service of presidential candidate Barack Obama, a lifetime servant of what Dr. King called the three interrelated evils of white supremacy, economic exploitation, and militarism.

Obama is only the latest and most-celebrated of a long legacy. For centuries there has been a black bourgeoisie who has advocated accommodation to white supremacy, in exchange for privileges for a few and the promise of incremental change in the future. Indeed, there is every reason to situate Beyoncé in the highest echelon of this black accommodationist bourgeoisie. If all someone knew was that Beyoncé was a multi-millionaire entrepreneur who is friends with the U.S. President, that would be enough information that to conclude that her politics are liberal, at best, with all the capitalist accommodation that label implies. Based on her entrepreneurship, one could also assume that she will be involved in the exploitation of working people—a fact confirmed by a recent story about her clothing line using sweatshop labor, making her less another compromised celebrity and more of an enemy of workers. However, it is in her association with the Black Lives Matter movement that Beyoncé’s service to her billionaire benefactors is most useful. Rather than being a uniquely powerful progressive symbol, Beyoncé Knowles is a living, breathing person, with actual politics. It is the substance of these politics that Fusion is trying to obscure by smearing Baraka and Beyoncé’s leftist detractors as patently insane figures.

True to form as a bourgeois capitalist, in her association with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Knowles has been most closely linked with prominent figurehead Deray McKesson. McKesson has been noteworthy for the speed with which he was elevated to his status as an avatar of the movement, his prolificacy with social media, his nebulous funding sources, and the degree to which he now acts as both speaker for and gatekeeper of the wider movement. McKesson joined the movement after a career working as a “ruthless administrator” with Teach For America (TFA), the school privatization outfit which has seen a boom during the Obama presidency. Among proponents of public programs, union advocates, and opponents of neoliberal privatization schemes, TFA embodies much of the current push to privatize everything in sight.

By virtue of his platform and association with a movement against police brutality, McKesson enjoys a leftish reputation. It’s important to note, then, what reactionary and power-serving ideas McKesson is remaking as progressive. When pushed, McKesson notes that BLM has nothing to do with “taking away capitalism.” He insists upon a fact-free revisionist view of American history, which oddly positions capitalism as a result of white supremacy, and not the other way around. In addition to his prolific tweeting about his favorite brands and extraordinarily disingenuous defenses of his TFA career, McKesson also frequently posits privatization as an ideal course of action. McKesson has, for instance, publicly mulled privatizing the U.S. Postal Service, both the largest public employer in the country and an organization that disproportionately employs non-white workers. Most germane to the current subject, McKesson has positively compared the spread of charter schools to the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program. The Black Panther’s free breakfast program provided not only nutritious meals to people badly in need of sustenance, but an embryonic framework standing against the AmeriKKKAn state. By providing for the needs of the community as well as giving recipients a valuable radical political education, the BPP’s breakfast program was a cornerstone of a viable insurgency—for that reason, FBI Director Hoover called the program “the best and most influential activity going for the BPP.”

However, the free breakfast program was dangerous only because it was part of a larger cohesive socialist political agenda. Of late, there has been a campaign to “Santa Clausify” the BPP by praising their breakfast program while omitting the radical political context. While right-wing anti-communism presents the Panthers as violent anti-white terrorists, liberal anti-communism depicts them as nonthreatening community organizers, whose paramount concern was an anodyne interest in child welfare. It’s the latter image that Knowles and McKesson are exploiting, in order to push a concrete economic agenda. That agenda, when enumerated publicly, is quite clear: to roll back what welfare and social programs remain, in order to privatize that which is still part of the public good. The solution to racism, according to these progressive-branded figures elevated by moneyed interests, is more capitalism.

Capitalism, which invented contemporary white supremacy in the 17th century, exploits racial categories in order to maintain the status quo. For that reason, accommodation to capitalism as tacitly put forth by Knowles is objectively white supremacist. What Knowles offers her corporate patrons is a vector for inverting reality, to remake capitalism into something anti-racist. The alchemical formula is simple: take symbols of black resistance, remove the radical political content political, drape oneself in them and then sell privatization (while getting rich in the process). McKesson offers the most overt and concise version with his comparison of the BPP’s social programs to school privatization. This is particularly necessary because as capitalism’s current crisis continues, the increasing use of naked force will require more subtle ideological coercion in order to augment the police state.

Again, the phenomenon of using elite-friendly progressives against more threatening radicals, while remaking compliance as resistance, is nothing new. The same tactics were employed during the last period of great radical political turmoil. To use just one example from that period, though there are countless others that followed the same course, James Forman of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) wrote: “After the call for Black Power had become popular in the United States and other countries, McGeorge Bundy, former National Security Advisor under the late President John F. Kennedy, called a meeting at the Ford Foundation in New York City of twenty or more Black leaders. Bundy announced to the assembled Black leaders that a decision had been made to destroy the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and to save the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). This decision was based on an assessment that it was possible to wean CORE away from the concept of Black Power through massive infusion of money for its operation. In the case of the SNCC, however, the assessment was that it was too late to save it; it had to be destroyed.” In Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Robert Allen explains why: “CORE’s militant rhetoric but ambiguous and reformist definition of black power as simply black control of black communities appealed to Foundation officials who were seeking just those qualities in a black organization which hopefully could tame the ghettos. From the Foundation’s point of view, old-style moderate leaders no longer exercised any real control, while genuine black radicals were too dangerous. CORE [fit] the bill because its talk about black revolution was believed to appeal to discontented blacks, while its program of achieving black power through massive injections of governmental, business, and Foundation aid seemingly opened the way for continued corporate domination of black communities by means of a new black elite.”

Today, activists trying to undo forms of exploitation including white supremacy and the police brutality that sustains it might look to the past for guidance. In recent memory, the most prominent sustained challenge to this bourgeois power was a proletarian movement, often called the Black Freedom struggle, elements of which saw their struggle as interlinked with anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist struggles throughout the globe. These working class movements, many like the Black Panthers explicitly Communist, rejected the promise of more purely symbolic changes offered by the bourgeoisie: as Malcolm X said, “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.” Instead, these movements advocated nothing less than total liberation, which would necessarily mean a radical restructuring of society and a transfer of its productive forces from a privileged few to the exploited many. People today have the benefit of sharing the earth with people who actually participated in these movements—though the latter’s numbers are decreasing. Panthers like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, and Bruce Dixon; or activists like Glen Ford and Ajamu Baraka remain relatively uncompromised—and uncompromising—public figures.

Of course, a population with the least to lose animated by radical socialist politics is the ruling class’s worst nightmare. Thus, one of the tasks faced by those who seek the status quo is severing the connection between activists today and radicals who cut their teeth in the liberation struggles of the 1960s and ’70s. To that end, the line taken up by Beyoncé’s defenders is one of elder-bashing. Beyoncé’s left-wing critics who can’t be smeared as white supremacists thus become the victims of derangement. In this vein, Fusion treats Ajamu Baraka as self-evidently abnormal, while even people who claim anti-capitalist politics deride bell hooks as a hypocrite out-of-touch with contemporary times and insufficiently appreciative of a certain celebrity’s powerful symbolism. Cornel West faced the same criticisms when he responded to an attack on his reputation by MSNBC celebrity Melissa Harris-Perry. As with Baraka and hooks, what separated Professor West from his corporate-backed, Democratic Party-linked critics like Harris-Perry and Michael Eric Dyson was that West insisted on a traditionally socialist, class-based vision of justice.

Their real crime is insisting that radicalism should be genuinely radical, and more importantly, for knowing the difference between real radical change and mere gestures. Their crime is demanding that justice involve actual substantive change for the many—not merely more consent, remade as something transgressive by a lot of slick marketing and smoke-and-mirrors. In order to fight this change, the forces of the status quo present history as a narrative of relatively straightforward progress. Obama himself offered such a vision in his January 2009 Presidential Inaugural Youth Ball, when he shared the liberal arc-bending-towards-justice narrative as one in which “a new generation inspired previous generations, and that’s how change happens in America.” Since some people know better, and they know from firsthand experience, past generations of activists get derided as unfortunate relics. This derision can be seen in everything from the current spate of celebrities appropriating black radicalism to the narrative around the Brexit. Twitter user “Crypto Cuttlefish” points out that in the 1960, contemporary radicals could have spoken to workers who had engaged in actual shooting wars with Federal troops and hired company thugs in the 1930s; likely CIA asset Timothy Leary summarized this decade to his audience as “the boring ‘30s.”

Baraka opens his critique of Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance by introducing himself as “a culturally alienated, old, disconnected 1960s and ‘70s radical trying to live and struggle for revolutionary change in a world that might have passed me by.” Baraka understands the fault lines, the actors on either side, and what is at stake. Fusion closes their hatchet-job on Baraka with a smug “Now this is the type of candidate the people can get behind.” Fusion is trying to erect a cordon sanitaire around people like Baraka because the corporate interests Fusion represents know the danger that uncompromised radicals represent. That is why the smear campaign against Baraka exist: to sever the connection between black resistance and Communism, which offers humankind’s only hope. In an interview with Jared Ball of iMixWhatiLike!, Black Panther Dhoruba Bin-Wahad points out that today’s movements “are disconnected from the radical tradition, from radical history. So because they’re disconnected from it, they are condemned to repeating the same mistakes that were made, first of all, and second of all, they’re not availing themselves of radical tools of resistance. They’re being hamstrung by their own limited politics” (Part 2, 26:55.0). Bin-Wahad points out that the quickest track to building an effective resistance is to reconnect to the writings of black radicals like Assata Shakur and Franz Fanon, who provide alternatives to what Bruce Dixon calls the black misleadership class. According to Bin-Wahad, the movement is hobbled because future leaders “haven’t been empowered yet, because they’re separated from the radicals traditions” of black Communists like Assata Shakur, Robert Williams of the Revolutionary Action Movement, or the Black Panther Party. “And once they lock into that, and they connect it to their lives [and] their own living experiences, then you got to look out.

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Why Privilege Discourse Predominates

Last week, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (briefly, the DPRK or North Korea) earned some unexpected praise from liberals for its racial politics. This is an odd development coming from this crowd, whom are more likely to discuss the DPRK in US State Department terms as a racist, “Stalinist” dystopia. For those who advocate dismantling white supremacy by any means necessary, the DPRK has decades of praise-worthy experience. Based on the principle that “the great anti-imperialist cause of the Asian, African, and Latin-American people is invincible,” Kim Il sung hosted numerous freedom fighters in Pyongyang during the headiest days of decolonization, including Che Guevara and Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers. Like socialist Cuba, the people of the DPRK have spilled sweat and blood defending national liberation movements throughout the African continent. However, North Korea’s years of revolutionary internationalism have gone unmentioned in widely praised and shared pieces like one written by Kinfolk Collective. Instead, the DPRK is being praised at arms-length for the incarceration of Otto Warmbier, a 21 year-old University of Virginia undergrad. According to the narrative shaped around Warmbier’s arrest and sentencing, the DPRK has momentarily rendered a valuable service by revoking Warmbier’s white privilege. This event and the narrative around it are just the latest in a larger trend, which reduces and obscures wider forms of exploitation by explaining them solely through the relatively narrow discourse of white privilege. The result is a minimizing, distracting, and ultimate whitewashing of both imperialism and the capitalist system it serves.

White privilege as an academic concept dates back to at least the 1930s, when W.E.B. DuBois described the “invisible wage” that being white conferred on the white working class. This “public and psychological wage,” according to DuBois, created an incentive for the white working class to perpetuate white supremacy—it was an integral cog that kept the larger machine running. The concept made its way to popular use through university humanities departments, particularly the work of professor Peggy McIntosh, beginning in the late-1980s, and it’s used to refer to the fact that people who are perceived as “white” aren’t subjected to racism. Today, privilege discourse is the dominant framework for discussing racism. It’s a multi-million dollar industry, as universities, corporations, and the US military institute privilege courses. The dominant position this discourse occupies—especially its patronage by white supremacist institutions like the military and big business—indicates that large segments of the ruling class find the overwhelming focus on privilege discourse to not only be non-threatening, but valuable.

Privilege-focused discussions of the Warmbier case leave out nearly all the information someone would need to understand North Korea’s place in the international system, and why the state functions the way it does. They don’t mention the decades of Japanese occupation, which was fought largely by anti-colonial communists. They don’t discuss the US–imposed partition which split the peninsula in half, the brutal fascist government that was installed in the southern colony, or the almost genocidal war that killed 3 million Koreans and leveled nearly every city. Neither do they mention the relentless existential threats that America levels against the DPRK every day, or the blockade and penetration of the north by spies. As it has for centuries, racism plays a central role in undergirding imperialism. This is especially the case with the DPRK, which the American media constantly portrays through racist caricatures. Think of the case of North Korea vs. Iran: Islam render Iran’s objectively non-existent nuclear weapons program terrifying, while anti-Asian stereotypes make the DPRK’s A-bomb something to be laughed at. However, the focus on a white college student’s privilege doesn’t engage even latter this point—instead, it obscures these facts in favor of an Orientalist portrayal of the DPRK as another despotic Asian tyranny like capitalist Singapore (a comparison the Kinfolk piece makes explicit), noteworthy only when it puts white Bros in their place.

Erasing myriad facts and historical context in favor of the singular discourse of white privilege seems to be getting increasingly popular. Lately, it’s been applied to everything from the US’s atomic bombing of Hiroshima to the murders of black Americans. As far as the latter, the most famous recent example is that of neo-Nazi Dylann Roof. The Kinfolk piece even speculates that his treatment at the hands of police likely emboldened Warmbier. Unlike the black Americans who are murdered by the police and state-sanctioned vigilantes at a rate of one every 28 hours, Roof was safely arrested the day after he murdered 9 African-Americans at a black church in South Carolina in June 2015. Following his apprehension, hundreds of outlets reported that not only did police provide Roof with the customary protective body armor, but a free meal from Burger King on his trip to jail. This last point, for many, catalyzed the idea that the issue of white privilege was the paramount concern in the wake of the Emanuel church murders. “The Charleston shooting is a textbook example of White Privilege,” according to one writer. “Dylann Roof’s treatment proves White Privilege is very real,” wrote another. One headline summarized the tenor of mainstream coverage: “Dylann Roof indicted, white people discuss Privilege.”

Almost immediately after Roof’s arrest, the dominant narrative became about the need to confront White Privilege in order to prevent racist murders like the one in Charleston. For White Privilege, rather than White Supremacy, to so dominate the conversation is already a limited focus on symptoms rather than causes. Beyond the minimizing effect inherent to fixating so thoroughly on Privilege to the exclusion of larger systems, though, there are deeper problems with privilege-heavy narrative. Privilege-centric discussions, like the White Privilege framework itself, deal exclusively with individual identities. If, as the mainstream liberal accounting had it, Roof received kid-glove treatment on account of his White Privilege, then the police response was based primarily on who he was rather than what he did. To the hundreds of paid commenters pushing the Privilege narrative in the aftermath of the Charleston murders, this likely doesn’t raise any red flags. Many of these writers and talking heads compared Roof to George Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman who profiled, stalked, and murdered black teenager Trayvon Martin in a Florida suburb. Hours after the Martin killing, Zimmerman was free after a quick chat with his local Police Department. However, commenters on both the liberal-left and the right accurately observed that Zimmerman was half-Peruvian, rather than lily-white complected—and it’s not impossible to imagine that under different circumstances, Zimmerman would be looked at askance by Minutemen-types.

Conversely, following Roof’s arrest, there was extensive commentary blasting the Justice Department’s decision to not label the Charleston murders an act of terrorism. Many pundits argued that this was a clear expression of Roof’s White Privilege in action, since “terrorism” has long been a racialized category of political violence. However, many non-white people—including actual al Qaeda members—enjoy special privileges when their goals align with those of the US State Department. Only 3 years after 9/11, the US government was secretly supporting the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (literally al Qaeda), who would become NATO’s shock troops in the war against Qadhafi’s government. Only this week, it came out that the Brussels airport bombers were yet another group of violent extremist criminals who were long known to Western intelligence agencies yet somehow managed to perpetrate a terrorist crime that will further empower the NATO regimes. Neither is it true that whites are never categorized as terrorists. The state shows absolutely zero compunction about branding Caucasians terrorists and handing down decades-long sentences, based on the flimsiest evidence, as long as the politics motivating the action are anti-capitalist, rather than white supremacist. As Tarzie noted in an essential piece on the subject, while the FBI observes that “white supremacy extremism” has been on the rise since the ‘90s, a top domestic terrorism official claimed in 2005 that “The No. 1 domestic terrorism threat is the eco-terrorism, animal-rights movement.” While eco-terrorists and militant animal right activists have yet to kill a single person, the destruction of nature and exploitation of animals are the cornerstone of the capitalist system. When considering the state’s actual relationships to various types of “terror,” alongside the fact that the melanin content of the accused afforded them no special dispensation, it’s clear that the state’s response is being driven by something more than a simple skin-tone analysis.

The relationship between white skin and immunity from state repression is nowhere near as clear-cut as the Privilege-only narrative. Neither, though, is America’s white supremacist system and its anti-black racism in particular. In his book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, historian Gerald Horne lists numerous examples of black Americans speaking foreign dialects and languages or otherwise affecting some alien identity in order to enjoy some respite from Jim Crow. In a lecture on the book, Horne describes a dilemma the US government faced posed by African diplomats, and what it reveals about America’s white supremacist system:

“The US State Department, when Kenya was rising to independence, it was felt that it would complicate relations with Nairobi if Kenyan diplomats came to Washington, which was then a Jim Crow town, and they would then be subjected to Jim Crow. So it was suggested that the Africans wear badges, so that they would not be mistaken for black Americans. So the point that I’m trying to make is that if racism is a necessary explanatory factor in explaining what has befallen people of African descent in North America…it’s not a sufficient explanation, because if it was wholly sufficient then being able to speak French in Birmingham, Alabama during the Jim Crow era would not have been able to help you at all.”

What Horne is insisting on here is a conception of America’s white supremacist system that incorporates the political dimensions of racism—and that means its economic causes. “[M]y deployment of the terms ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ is intended to invoke the political more than the biological or even the anthropological,” Horne explains. “If the latter were mostly at issue, there would be little need for these Africans to adopt other ‘black’ identities.”[i] Anyone who’s spent time in an American university humanities department or read a lefty website in the last couple decades is likely familiar with the fact that race, and the categories of white and black, is constructed socially. What’s less likely to enjoy mainstream purchase is a traditional radical or Marxist perspective. This view, advocated by critical theorists and historians like Horne, J. Sakai, and Frank B. Wilderson among countless others, holds that ethnic groups became “white” according to the service they rendered to settling America. According to this view; groups like the Irish, Italians, white Hispanics, Slavs, et cetera; became white when they could be relied upon to maintain the settler-colonial Empire and the interests of its ruling class. In practice, this meant the mass-murder of the continent’s indigenous people and the brutal oppression of African-Americans. Reflecting the fact that it’s primarily political and economic in nature, ethnic groups can have their whiteness revoked. This has been the case for Middle Easterners after 9/11, and for various Balkan ethnicities depending on economic or military necessity.

It’s necessary to lay this out because there’s an increasingly popular idea that white supremacy lacks a class component or economic causes. One of the most prominent contemporary advocates for this view is heavily retweeted Black Lives Matter figurehead and former “ruthless” Teach For America administrator DeRay McKesson, who argues that “White supremacy is rooted in the devaluing of blackness, [and] economic oppression is a byproduct.” Anti-black racism, by his lights, is rooted in a pathological aversion to dark skin—thus, McKesson claims, the enslavement of Africans would’ve existed even if it weren’t profitable. The concomitant economic benefits of slavery to the ruling class must’ve just been a happy accident to the slave-owners known as the Founding Fathers.

deray tweet

A centuries-long system of trans-Atlantic slavery carried out mostly to “devalue blackness” is the corollary of a policing system that buys white murderers a free lunch based solely on the shared racial affinity known as Privilege. The singular focus on viewing racism through what Horne called “anthropological” rather than political terms effectively erases the class component that motivates American white supremacy, making it an issue of white derangement. This is the argument made by R.L. Stephens in an obituary for Dr. Frances Cross Welsing, an academic who in 1969 formulated a theory of racial struggle motivated by biology rather than politics. Stephens points out that 1969 was the same year that America’s secret police, in a domestic dirty war against radicals called the Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), decided that the Black Panther Party would be crushed, murdering revolutionaries including Fred Hampton and Bunchy Carter. At the same time that socialist resistance groups like the Black Panthers were forging an international struggle against capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy; Welsing’s scholarship enjoyed the patronage of capital by pushing a world-historical view that blamed those evils on something like collective white antipathy, with racism and capitalism following an irrational desire to protect Caucasian genes. According to Stephens, “Her work, in effect, helped gut Black political resistance by delegitimizing anti-capitalist Black radical politics.”

In 1968, J. Edgar Hoover described the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” citing their activism, appeal, and explicitly Marxist politics. During COINTELPRO, dozens if not hundreds of left-wing revolutionaries were murdered, and thousands more imprisoned. An integral component of COINTELPRO was the use of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan as paramilitaries. During this period of state repression, one-quarter of all active Klan members were FBI agents or informants. The 20th Special Forces Group, based in Alabama, deputized a local Klan chapter as its intelligence-gathering wing, allegedly exchanging weapons for information on local black radical groups. The KKK’s actions during COINTELPRO were in many ways a repeat of supremacist violence during the First Red Scare, which reached its peak in 1919 and 1920. According to historian Albert Szymanski, “government complicity with organized violence and intimidation of radicals” was “an important repressive force in this period.”[ii] Groups like the KKK and the American Legion, a paramilitary gang made up of veterans, targeted socialists, communists, anarchists, trade unionists, and labor activists with thuggish repression. Szymanski adds “like the Legion’s early vigilante activities, the authorities turned a blind eye to most Klan activity directed against the left.” Though groups like American neo-Nazis and the Klan are often at odds with the Federal government, as white supremacists they can be relied upon to fight the ruling class’s real enemies. Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report explains

“The FBI’s war has always been against Blacks, radicals, and now Muslims – ideally, Black Muslims. The national security state’s legitimacy is based on (white) mass fear and loathing of the Other, in whose pursuit all civil liberties are extraneous. Such dark energies are not conjured out of thin air, but mined from the deep reservoirs of America’s racial history. Hate sits like a thermal resource to be tapped and redirected at the whim of those in power. The U.S. national security state needs the ferocious hatreds of the [Cliven] Bundys and [Jerad and Amanda] Millers – and the [Tim] McVeighs – to sustain a planetary War-Against-All, a war that, on its own premises, must end with annihilation of the Other.”

All this is to show that the US ruling class’s relationship to supremacist violence is a lot deeper than free Whoppers. So given this history and the material interests at play, when a Dixie-loving admirer of Africa’s apartheid settler-colonies murders 9 black people as part of a “race war,” it seems ahistoric and reductive in the extreme to label his treatment the result of anything so narrow and minimizing as mere “Privilege.”

Many well-meaning progressives might concede that the privilege lens has problems, but maintain that it’s mostly a useful framework for structuring anti-racist politics. However, a series of encounters between protestors affiliated with Black Lives Matter reveals just how bankrupt privilege discourse is as a primary motivating concern. The first was an August 2015 encounter in which protestors confronted Hillary Clinton, during which the protestors performed what Glen Ford called a “self-humiliation.” Providing an object lesson in what happens when the vague, feelings-driven language of liberal anti-racism meets the actual power structure, the future president delivered what could be charitably called a shellacking. Ford writes

After about two minutes of rambling by [BLM activist Julius] Jones on how ‘mass incarceration just doesn’t work’ and ‘you [Clinton] have been in a certain way partially responsible, more than most,’ punctuated by ‘uh hums’ and nods from Clinton, Jones gets to the point: ‘Now that you understand the consequences, what in your heart has changed that’s gonna change the direction of this country?’

Clinton [interrupted]: “Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate….”

In the absence of real demands by #BLM (or any evidence of a developed worldview), Clinton assumes the role of methodical agent of change…. The strategy – if one could dignify it as such – is inherently impotentwhich is why corporate lawyer and war criminal Hillary Clinton found it so easy to reduce Jones and his colleagues to school children at an elementary civics class.

When confronted with questions of personal progress and emotional intent, Clinton was able to easily evade any meaningful accountability in realm of what activist Doug Williams calls “Intro to Sociology-style ephemera.” As a lifelong political operative, Clinton was able to brush off insubstantive and largely apolitical appeals to delve into her heart. Given time to properly stage-manage an event, though, Clinton was more than happy to meet “protestors” on these terms. In October 2015, Clinton met with Black Lives Matter activists under the Campaign Zero banner to ostensibly answer questions about American policing. Just how much the Campaign Zero crew represents the Black Lives Matter grassroots is up for debate. Campaign Zero is headed by BLM members – including DeRay McKesson, Brittany Packnett, and Johnetta Elzie – who are on exceedingly cordial terms with the Democratic Party establishment and have been anointed the movement’s spokespeople and signal-boosted by many in high places. One writer labels Campaign Zero’s platform “a reactionary political formation built on a mixture of liberal compromise, neoliberal opportunism and reactionary conservatism.” It’s abundantly clear, though, that for the Clinton campaign an ideal “opposition” is made up of sympathetic, ideologically aligned careerists speaking primarily in the language of privilege discourse. Add cameras and, voilà, the party has been “pushed to the left.” Ford again says

“They appear to believe their mission was to ‘educate’ Clinton (although they would have done far better to have educated themselves on political movement history, practice and theory).

Actually, the #BLM crew’s primary mission was to force Clinton to mentally grapple with white privilege, and to grasp how Black people ‘feel.’ #BLM’s aim is to assure that the next president has a deeper understanding of the workings of racism – presumably, deeper than the current, Black one. In the course of the conversation, Elzie said Clinton ‘…would listen and acknowledge that her experience was totally different than any of the black people at this table. It took her awhile to get there, but she got there. So I’m hopeful that she will continue to have this educational conversation with herself to acknowledge her privilege.’

The #BLM philosophy is that therapeutic dialogue with members of the power elite is politically more effective than the presentation of core demands. (Certainly, it is better for the future careers of the #BLM interlocutors.)”

Again, for Clinton, there’s likely nothing better than a discussion about how she feels about her skin: it has almost nothing to do with her actual policies, and provides ample opportunity for her to adduce her good intentions going forward. These encounters reveal the myriad shortcomings with privilege discourse: its focus on the symbolic and performative over the material, the erasure of history in favor of feel-good personal progress narratives, the non-existence of class concerns, and the funneling of liberal activists into proven dead-ends. These, though, are the logical outcomes of an overwhelming focus on privilege discourse because they are built into it. In a New Yorker interview, Peggy McIntosh, the progenitor of contemporary white privilege theory, explained “The key thing [about the white privilege framework] is to let people testify to their own experience. Then they’ll stop fighting with each other.” When her interviewer understandably asks if it’s meant to be a form of therapy, McIntosh clarifies “I wouldn’t say [it’s] therapy, because psychology isn’t very good at taking in the sociological view. But it has to do with working on your inner history to understand that you were in systems, and that they are in you.” Understanding and checking one’s privilege is meant to be a tool for perceiving one’s place in a larger structure and making space for members of historically disadvantaged groups. It can’t explain the structure, provide historical context, or prescribe a solution. Privilege is, by design, a tool for self-analysis and confession. Making it the paramount theory leads to several outcomes. One is the advent of rituals where activists publicly own and disavow their privileges, as described by Andrea Smith’s “the Problem with Privilege.” Since privilege deals primarily with the internal realm, “These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building.” While Smith explains that there is a value to the process, “for this process to work, individual transformation must occur concurrently with social and political transformation…through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.” Liberal privilege discourse doesn’t provide insight on changing anything other than one’s mind, because it’s not supposed to. For a candidate like Clinton, who is marketed as a progressive while upholding the worst aspects of this evil system, a discussion about her internal racial monologue is a perfect place to shunt well-deserved scrutiny.

Smith’s point dovetails with the second, less commented-on development: the minimizing of things like white supremacist violence, or capital’s assault on states that chart an independent course, as expressions of white privilege. Today, as Black Lives Matter protestors work for a way to end police brutality, they may look to previous examples that moved towards this goal. In the 1960s, explicitly socialist movements like the Black Panther Party formulated an answer, which involved primarily material forces. These activists achieved what they did because they understood that a white supremacist state won’t change its fundamental nature due to appeals to a non-existent conscience. As Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale summarized in a 1968 speech, the question is how to make the police “behave in a desired manner.” When directly confronting this state, and the ruling class it serves, privilege discourse is largely useless because the professed feelings of its functionaries are irrelevant to how it behaves. The dominant class must be made to behave in a desired manner. If enough people are going to band together to make it, a necessary first step is seeing beyond minimizing, liberal narratives. It’s worth noting that Peggy McIntosh wasn’t the first academic to update DuBois’ critique of privilege for the modern age. In his 1975 book The Invention of the White Race, Theodore W. Allen explained white privilege as a wage paid by the ruling class. McIntosh’s innovation was to remove the Marxist content from Allen’s work, turning a systemic critique into something personal. The liberal privilege framework is so prominent precisely because it usefully misdirects from the capitalist system’s causes and functions, absolving the ruling class of its role. Like anything we’re bombarded with, it’s useful for perpetuating the system rather than dismantling it.

Given this, of course the Clinton presidential campaign would embrace messaging about privilege. In January 2016, Clinton was asked about how “white privilege affected her life” at an Iowa forum. “For the duration of January 2016,” according to one culture writer, “it was the foremost topic of conversation. Seemingly each day meant another story about white privilege in the news,” naturally failing to investigate why this is. The writer then praises the “raw Hillary Clinton” for “[avoiding] the three most common pitfalls in discussing one’s own white privilege.” In a speech the following month, Clinton called on the Caucasian constituency to check their privilege. After the Charleston murders, Clinton was one of the most high-profile voices blaming white privilege.

For Clinton to discuss her personal history and cognizance of her privilege is undeniably a win for her, since Clinton has decades of black peoples’ blood on her hands. Dylann Roof became an extremist after reading from a cesspool of white supremacist websites; there’s scarcely a shade of difference between the most deranged racist filth online and Clinton’s 1993 comments about “superpredators.” Burnishing her law-and-order credentials, Clinton dog-whistled a warning about savage (black) youths roaming the streets committing wanton violence, outside the boundaries of humanity, who could only be controlled through state violence. One needn’t go back to the early ‘90s, either—Clinton was instrumental in engineering the blockade of Haiti that killed thousands after the 2010 earthquake, to say nothing of the Clintons’ much longer ugly history on the island. As Secretary of State, Clinton is the single individual most responsible for inflaming an ethnic cleansing campaign that killed as many as 50,000 black Africans during NATO’s destruction of Libya (it was Clinton’s office that pumped out the propaganda about Qadhafi’s government using African mercenaries).

The erasure of this history is a useful and expected outcome of the dominance of privilege discourse to the exclusion of all else. If racist terrorism and imperialism are caused largely by unexamined white male privilege, then the solution is to elect non-whites and non-males. And if privilege is largely denatured of substantive political meaning, then it doesn’t matter what their politics are (as long as they’re Democrats, obviously). Given the economic interests that dominate the Empire’s liberal wing, this means voting for non-white and female neoliberals—in a huge coincidence, privilege discourse’s focus on the individual and symbolic is the essence of neoliberalism. Ultimately, that means electing people like Barack Obama, whom Adolph Reed accurately described in 1996 as

“foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program—the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.”[iii]

If white privilege is the fulcrum of anti-racist politics, then an exploiter who lacks certain privileges will naturally be more progressive than a white capitalist. The Kinfolk piece on Otto Warmbier discusses Warmbier’s Economics major and involvement as a Managing Director of an “alternative investment fund.” However, this isn’t used an opening to discuss ways in which economic institutions are a tool of softer imperialism; rather, it’s coupled with Warmbier’s fraternity status as proof that he’s a white guy who’s not One of the Good Ones. When a “foundation-hatched black communitarian voice” like Corey Booker, who claims that criticism of hedge funds are “ridiculous” and “nauseating,” is deeply implicated in the worst expressions of finance capital, the class-free liberal response is literally “don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

America’s beleaguered voters got a heavy dose of this in 2012, when one of the dominant narratives around the Obama campaign was that principled leftist abstention was an expression of white privilege. Opposition to the president’s mass-murdering or fealty to Wall Street was turned into the sole domain of white brogressives, manarchists, brocialists, and various privilege-unchecked bogeymen. Following Obama’s re-election, and not letting a good thing go to waste, opposition to US-fomented proxy wars throughout MENA was re-written as yet another example of white privilege. Its full-blown resurgence on the 2016 campaign trail is a sign of things to come. Today, there’s little challenge to privilege discourse’s dominance. Like anything liberal, it can appear stridently progressive given enough attacks from the most vulgar parts of the right. This is particularly true with discussions about White Privilege online: read any of the comments on a given article, and one finds up to hundreds of reactionary comments arguing that racism is a thing of the past, with “white privilege” being a fantasy ginned up by race-hustlers as part of white genocide. This launders privilege discourse, a useful tool for neoliberal misdirection, as a product of the left, with any criticism being rolled-up into the category of “white tears.”

However, anything that is so enthusiastically picked up by race-baiting war criminals, Wall Street shills, school privatizers, and various neoliberal vultures—who are objectively making the lives of marginalized communities worse—needs to be looked at with the most extreme skepticism. These are the sorts of people who want you to see everything solely through the realm of feelings and professions of intent. That tool kit is woefully inadequate to unmaking their world, and it is so by design.




[i] Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. NYU Press. 2014 p. 262

[ii] Albert Szymanski, Human Rights in the Soviet Union. Zed Books. 1984. p. 172

[iii] Adolph Reed, “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice, January 16, 1996—reprinted in Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene, New Press, 2000.

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