White Guys Can’t Emancipate? Understanding Racism and Revolution

“Sometimes when you win, you really lose. And sometimes when you lose, you really win. And sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic globule, from which one extracts what one needs.” Gloria Clemente (Rosie Perez), White Men Can’t Jump, Screenplay by Ron Shelton,1992.

The modern idea of social revolution is typically attributed to the European middle classes who rose up across most of the continent’s nations to depose kings and institute representative democracies. This revolutionary history is bound up with the abolition of feudal economics and the creation of modern capitalism. Women in the new middle-classes gained access to education & social influence, science advanced with industrialization, and church-state entanglements were weakened or abolished.

However, there is a negative side to this history. Among the most egregious was the Atlantic Slave Trade which stole millions of living beings from Africa for forced labor in the Americas and Europe. Not only were millions enslaved, but the raids to capture slaves resulted in millions of additional deaths. Some historians refer to this catastrophe as the “Maafa,” a Swahili word for “disaster.”

In a persistent quest for world domination, Europeans and their American siblings plundered and colonized Africa, exported slaves, and crippled the future of an entire continent’s inhabitants and millions throughout the African diaspora. Not only Africans, but native peoples across the globe have felt the boots of white supremacy. Abolishing slavery in the 1800s was a long overdue reform (some say revolution), but white supremacy’s dead hand still persists across the globe.

The most pronounced attempt to abolish white supremacy in the US began with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Long before Dr. King’s boycotts and marches, tireless opponents of segregation and racism organized for a new day for all people under oppression. Legal segregation was ended through these efforts, but for most involved there seemed to be much more work to do, and thus was born a new era of social analysis and critique from the point of view of people of color.

The most vivid exponent of revolutionary opposition to white supremacy in the U.S. was the Black Power movement. This movement was both a repudiation of Dr. King’s still-evolving vision of nonviolent revolution and a reaching back to older currents of black resistance such as Marcus Garvey and Frantz Fanon. In brief, Black Power advocated a militant mobilization of African peoples against white domination as the key struggle able to overthrow a central systemic obstacle to world emancipation.

Dr. King’s vision wasn’t static, merely bound to the recent gains of the Civil Rights movement. His commentary on Black Power and his offering of an alternative road to nonviolent revolution was profoundly multi-racial in its reach, yet it also advocated a militant overthrow of systemic racism, capitalism, and militarism. King had realized in his years of struggle that every system of oppression, repression, exploitation, and domination was at bottom a system of unbridled violence, forever making him a genuine master visionary of anti-racist pacifist-socialism.

Black Power’s laser focus on racism is crucial to any revolutionary politics. The human race is divided against itself along racial and cultural lines that quite predictably mirror economic and political lines. The death drive of white civilization expels its toxic excrement most directly at those it has viscerally, if sometimes unconsciously (or in denial), classed as dirty, lazy, ignorant, and dangerous.

Radical Black Power and King’s Pacifist-Socialism were not the only revolutionary analyses to emerge in the late 60s and early 70s. Although the Black Panther Party sold Mao’s “Little Red Book” as a ploy to gain the support of student radicals, revolutionary communist ideology offered a somewhat different spin on systemic racism. The world wasn’t just divided into Black and White, but also into workers and capitalists. According to Marxism (and some strains of Anarchism), the workers held a strategic position within capitalism that anointed them as capitalism’s gravediggers.

Class analysis warned opponents of racism to be wary of middle-class and wealthy blacks, whose vested interests in the rewards of capitalism would turn them against any true overthrow of the economic power of racism. This analysis was broad enough to take in even Dr. King’s Civil Rights movement, with its connections to liberal white Christian seminaries and the creeping professionalization of Black church ministry.

An important outgrowth of this new militant combination of anti-racism and class struggle was the short-lived League of Revolutionary Black Workers who organized effective actions inside the Detroit auto industry. Many white Marxists to this day maintain that the real revolutionary leaders in the U.S. must emerge from the black working-class. A more international take on Black Power arose in the “Third Worldist” camp, who held that nations outside the White Supremacist core had to unite for the revolutionary overthrow of Euro-American world domination.

Enter Black Feminism. While white feminists were resisting their marginalization in social movements, Black women were facing parallel struggles in both the Civil Rights and Black Power camps. Unlike white feminists, black feminists could not dis-identify with their male counterparts as easily as some radical feminists did. They experienced the double-bind of being women and black. A significant number also came to embrace class struggle, thus birthing a tri-systems analysis of anti-racist socialist-feminism.

As readers of this blog will know, integrative revolutionary social ecology is conceived as an outgrowth of these attempts at grand analyses of social struggle. This social ecology seeks to integrate radical critiques of the dynamics of racism, politics, religion, sexuality, class, gender, and militarism within a global ecological understanding. Since this author is a caucasian male, the question of whether white men can make a real contribution to world emancipation has personal relevance.

Sandra Harding’s work on “feminist standpoint” epistemology (theory of knowledge) asserts, “Men, too must learn to take historic responsibility for the social position from which they speak.” As a white working-class male survivor of child abuse, I have predispositions to both domination and emancipation within myself. Overcoming visceral biases requires intense re-education.

Harding again, “…this approach challenges members of dominant groups to make themselves “fit” to engage in collaborative, democratic, community enterprises with marginal peoples. Such a project requires learning to listen attentively to marginalized people; it requires educating oneself about their histories, achievements, preferred social relations, and hopes for the future; it requires putting one’s body on the line for “their” causes until they feel like “our” causes; it requires critical examination of the dominant institutional beliefs and practices that systematically disadvantage them; it requires critical self-examination to discover how one unwittingly participates in generating disadvantage to them…and more.”

5 thoughts on “White Guys Can’t Emancipate? Understanding Racism and Revolution

  1. RP, this is great. Thank you.

    I particularly appreciate your both/and perspective, your willingness to own your own shit, your understanding of the nature of the work allies need to do to become allies, and the quotes from Harding, who rocks.

  2. What do you think of DeTouqueville’s idea of rising expectations meeting diminishing returns applying to the civil rights battles of the 60s? Such an analysis might conclude that the Black Panthers and the race riots were not cause for increases in equality, but the result of the equality not coming as fast as the dispossessed had come to expect.

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