Tony Greenstein | 28 September 2020 | Post Views:

Brighton & Hove Labour Left Alliance Zoom Meeting on White Privilege and the Fight Against Racism – Tuesday September 29, 7.00 pm

White Privilege? Is this the Cause of the Racism that led to George Floyd’s Murder or is it Another Example of Identity Politics?

I have to confess that after years being involved in the anti-fascist and anti-racist movement that it was only recently that I became aware of the concept of White privilege in conversation with a supporter of the Black Separatist group, the Nation of Islam, led by Louis Farrakhan. However it seems to have taken off amongst a wider layer of Black activists. I want to explain why I am opposed to what I consider a reactionary and bankrupt slogan.

Apart from being well known for a series of anti-Semitic statements such as

‘The Jews, a small handful, control the movement of this great nation, like a radar controls the movement of a great ship in the waters. … The Jews got a stranglehold on the Congress.”

Farrakhan’s views are comprehensively reactionary. I’m not interested in what is the reflective racism of a section of Black people, Farrakhan’s comments were not a threat to Jews. They merely represent the backward consciousness of a section of the most oppressed group in American society.

Farrakhan’s ire is not directed against US capitalism and imperialism. On the contrary what he has always campaigned for is a space for Black capitalism, hence his ‘buy Black’ slogan.

The NOI has repeatedly been found to have links with White supremacist groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre, in 1962 American Nazi Party boss George Lincoln Rockwell appeared at NOI’s 1962 Saviours’ Day Convention, christening Elijah Muhammad, NOI’s leader as the Hitler of blacks. In another, Malcolm X, on departing from NOI in 1964, spoke of an Atlanta meeting between NOI and the KKK in an attempt to establish mutual working conditions. Other contacts included the ‘Third Positionists’ in Britain’s National Front.

Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam is very similar to Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement which also preached the need to build Black businesses and in fact set about creating some such as the Black Star Line and the Negro Factories Corporation. It also advocated the colonisation of Africa (which had already happened when freed slaves colonised Liberia and Sierra Leone).

In June 1922, Garvey met with Edward Young Clarke, the Imperial Wizard of the KKK. Garvey made a number of speeches in the months leading up to that meeting in some of which he thanked the whites for Jim Crow. Garvey once stated:

I regard the Klan, the Anglo-Saxon clubs and White American societies, as far as the Negro is concerned, as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together. I like honesty and fair play. You may call me a Klansman if you will, but, potentially, every white man is a Klansman as far as the Negro in competition with whites socially, economically and politically is concerned, and there is no use lying

Unsurprisingly this embrace of the Klan produced a fierce and hostile reaction amongst Black people. The “Garvey Must Go” Campaign gained momentum after Garvey held a secret meeting with Edward Young Clarke, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan, in June 1922. Immediately afterward, Randolph and Owen’s Messenger magazine published an article entitled “Marcus Garvey! The Black Imperial Wizard Becomes Messenger Boy of the White Klu Klux Kleagle.”

Marcus Garvey

Garvey doubted whether whites in the United States would ever agree to African Americans being treated as equals and argued for segregation rather than integration. Garvey suggested that African Americans should go and live in Africa. He believedin the principle of Europe for the Europeans, and Asia for the Asiatics” and “Africa for the Africans at home and abroad”.

Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and Farrakhan’s NOI are Black Separatist organisations which see no connection with capitalism or an alternative to a system based on exploitation. On the contrary they seek to create a Black bourgeoisie with which to combat the White bourgeoisie. It is a movement of the Black petit-bourgeoisie which is unable to see beyond skin colour. It had no social or political analysis.

In this the NOI and UNIA were not unique. Garvey’s movement was known as Black Zionism.

Garvey’s UNIA and Farrakhan’s NOI are examples of a certain tendency in a section of oppressed peoples. When racists say you are different from us and we cannot live together, instead of fighting the principle of racism they adopt it as their own. This was equally true of Zionism. It never quarreled with anti-Semitism on principle, it simply wanted to adopt the same principles in respect of non-Jews.

The difference was that whereas powerful forces in the West gave their support to Zionism, all except the White supremacist fringe has given no support to Black Separatism. What made Zionism become more than a fringe Jewish Messianic movement was the fact that it was a colonial project from the start and its alliance with British colonialism. As Trotsky wrote of the Back to Africa movement:

“The American Negroes gathered under the banner of the ‘Back to Africa’ movement because it seemed a possible fulfilment of their wish for their own home. They did not want actually to go to Africa. It was the expression of a mystic desire for a home in which they would be free of the domination of the whites, in which they themselves could control their own fate” (On Black Nationalism, Leon Trotsky, International Socialism 43, April/May 1970)

This was equally true of Zionism. It traded on the idea of a Jewish ‘longing’ to return ‘home’ to Palestine. After all it is repeated every day in their prayers ‘next year in Jerusalem.’ But this too was nothing more than a pious longing to be free of oppression. When faced with the choice of going to Palestine or the United States just 1% of the 2.5 million Jews who fled the Russian pogroms between the mid-19th century and 1914 chose Palestine. There was nothing to stop them going to Palestine. The Ottoman Empire, of which Palestine was a part, had no internal borders. 99% of Jews chose Britain or the United States as their promised land.


By way of contrast Malcolm X started off his political life in the NOI and moved to the left as he saw the futility of Black Separatism. On March 24th Malcolm X announced that he was leaving the NOI. From this point onwards he moved towards a position whereby he saw capitalism not skin colour as lying at the heart of Black oppression.

“You can’t have capitalism without racism”, he said once in a rally in Harlem. On another occasion, when he was talking about the liberation struggles in Africa, he stated that:

“You can’t operate a capitalistic system unless you are vulturistic (…) You show me a capitalist, I’ll show you a bloodsucker.”

He went even further showing that he was moving towards a class position:

“We are living in an era of revolution, and the revolt of the American Negro is part of the rebellion against oppression and colonialism which has characterized this era….It is incorrect to classify the revolt of the Negro as simply a racial conflict of Black against white, or as a purely American problem. Rather, we are today seeing a global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter.”

On February 21 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York City. However the Police were not interested in the identity of his assassins. Instead two of the three people convicted were innocent but framed by the New York Police. It is now known, thanks to the film Who Killed Malcolm X that new evidence points the finger at four members of a Nation of Islam mosque in Newark, N.J., depicting their involvement as an open secret in their city. One of those convicted, Talmadge Hayer, was also a NOI supporter. He was caught by Malcolm X’s bodyguard and rescued by the Police with a handgun.

As Joel Whitney argues in The Murder of Malcolm X

There was nothing J. Edgar Hoover feared more than a charismatic black radical who could inspire the oppressed to fight back. And that’s why, according to a compelling new series, the FBI had its fingerprints all over Malcolm X’s murder.

The NOI hated Malcolm X because his ideas were proving attractive in the America of the 1960’s with the riots and Black Panthers. He also upset their cosy relationship with the White Establishment. He was subject to close surveillance by the FBI and the counter-insurgency Cointelpro program.

Why White Privilege?

The slogan White Privilege is the product of Separatist not Socialist politics and should be rejected as such. It offers no solution. What it does do is locate racism in skin colour. It offers no class perspective or path ahead. Like all forms of identity politics it locates oppression in the individual not the state.

Identity Politics are a backward and reactionary attempt to explain oppression in terms of fixed identities rather than the class nature of society. The ideas of White Privilege are as simplistic as they are superficially attractive. However they must be rejected.

At a time when millions of White people in the United States and Britain have marched and demonstrated against White racism, all White Privilege does is to take the focus off the structures of a racist society and the state and turn them on Whites as individuals. It is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Conceptually White Privilege is bankrupt on the most basic intellectual level. It is unable to explain the racism that Irish people experienced. It has nothing to say about the persecution of Roma and Gypsy people or indeed about racism directed against East European people, an integral part of the Brexit campaign.

It also has nothing to say about colonialism and imperialism, which are the direct causes of racism. I don’t know what the views of the 2 main speakers, Jackie Walker and Kerry Ann-Mendoza are. I am sure it will be an interesting discussion. For the meeting I have prepared a discussion document which you can link to here.

If you want to attend the meeting please register in advance here.

Tony Greenstein

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Tony Greenstein

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