The following discussion is an excerpt from “Black and Red: Socialism and Black Liberation,” a panel sponsored by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Find part one, “Repression and Black Radical History,” here.
Jeanne Theoharis: As many of you know, one of the questions that my own work centers on are the myths and fables around the Black freedom struggle and white supremacy, the stories we tell and the stories we need. So I wanted to ask each of you to debunk one myth, either about some aspect of the Black freedom struggle, or about how white supremacy functions and what work do you think that myth, that fable is doing in the present.
Barbara Smith: White supremacy has become an obsession with me like it wasn’t before [laughs]. About white supremacy, the major myth for me is that it is primarily based on how people feel about each other and how they treat each other. And that’s why I wrote an article last year, “The Problem is White Supremacy,” because white supremacy is a system of power. Of course it is based in racial capitalism. White supremacy is an ideology that serves to perpetuate racial capitalism, and it is a system of power. It is not just a matter of people’s negative attitudes and behaviors and feelings.
I get so tired of seeing the people who get to be in mainstream media and share their ideas. I get so tired of them talking about “well we really need to learn to forgive each other, Americans don’t know how to forgive each other anymore.” I’m thinking, on what planet are you dwelling? [laughs] I mean, forgiveness? I remember when Emmett Till was lynched. That’s how long my personal memory goes back, of these atrocities and what life under US Jim Crow is like. And it’s not about forgiving people. It’s about are we going to topple this system that makes the whole thing go? And the whole thing is racial capitalism. White supremacy plays an incredibly incisive role in that.
Of course, the establishment does not want to look at white supremacy as a system of power. And they also reduce white supremacy to white supremacist hate groups. I’ve got news for you. These people who are jumping out here and doing mass killings, racially motivated mass killings, the Kyle Rittenhouses of the world—the guy who went from Illinois to Wisconsin after Jacob Blake was shot seven times by the police and paralyzed, and felt the need to kill two people who were protesting against racism—these people are growing up somewhere and the place they’re growing up is the United States of America. So you can close down every single hate group in the United States, and you’ll still have the Kyles and the Dylann [Roof]s, you’ll still have those people sprouting up because it’s in the soil.
And then, on the Civil Rights Movement, I think that there’s a lot to be gained from looking at what SNCC was doing, particularly in relationship to the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter. I always recommend Howard Zinn’s book, SNCC: The New Abolitionists. In fact, I buy multiple copies of it and I send it to people [laughs]. There are so many myths. You wrote as far as I’m concerned the Bible about the myths in relation to the Civil Rights Movement, Jeanne, which is your book A More Beautiful and Terrible History. But people think that the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t about much now because they just do the broad strokes. I mean, they think it’s about water fountains and seats on buses back or front—they have no clue. They have no idea what that struggle was like and what it was about.
Now, the police and the criminal injustice system is the nexus of where we see the greatest threat, which is really quite accurate. Those are our lynch mobs now, except that they’re in uniform and their actions are supported by the state. But one of the things about the civil rights era and even before the civil rights era—maybe we should start with 1619 going on up until the civil rights era—is that in those days and in those centuries, virtually every white person one encountered was a potential threat to your life and wellbeing.
What the Civil Rights Movement brought to us was desegregation—not integration, but desegregation—so that some white people are able to be basically cool and calm around people who are not white. So it’s not the same level of threat. But when you go back to those backwoods and through those urban streets in the North in that pre-civil rights era, what you find is that virtually every white person you encounter was a source of potential bodily harm and threat. It was no joke. It was no joke. And you only find that out by reading the history.
Charisse Burden-Stelly: So I’m thinking about two things, one about anti-communism as a Cold War phenomenon or a post-World War II phenomenon. Part of what I do in my work is I’m looking at the post-Bolshevik Revolution moment, and not only with the Palmer Raids, but also the formation of a bunch of committees that led to the House Committee on Un-American activities, and the ways that even then there was a confluence of what I call anti-foreignness, anti-Blackness, and anticommunism. For example, one of the questions that the Fish Committee, which is an early 1930s committee, asks to determine whether or not people were communists was “what do you believe about racial equality or do you believe in racial equality?” and “have you ever had a Negro in your home?” There’s this anxiety about the radicalization of Black people through communism and socialism.
One of the myths about Black liberation and socialism is that Black communists or socialists or Marxists are derivative, and are sort of dupes of Moscow or are simply parroting some party line. When you get into the papers, you see the deep debates that are happening and the ways in which Black communists are actually contributing to developments in the party line, and the way that they even disagree amongst themselves. For example, there’s this deep debate between Harry Haywood and Otto Huiswoud about the Black Belt Nation Thesis. Later on, there’s a struggle between Doxey Wilkerson and Harry Haywood—Harry Haywood would struggle with everybody!—about how to actually codify or define race. This was in the context of the Jefferson School of Social Sciences and Doxey Wilkerson actually ended up walking back his position on race.
All of that to say, I really think that Black and so-called Third World or Global South Marxists, are really important in order to understand where it is that we’re going to go. Especially perhaps after the Sino-Soviet split, but certainly by the 1960s and 1970s the locus of enunciation of socialism moved to the Global South. Through formations like Third Worldism and Tricontinentalism, through struggles in Vietnam and in Cuba, Angola, Guinea Bissau. People like Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah and Maurice Bishop, Thomas Sankara, these are people who are really engaging with Marxism, but also articulating it to their own historical, structural, and material conditions and applying it to Black people. So Marxism is not merely Eurocentric. It’s not that racialized people are just parroting some foreign line. It’s not that Marxism is foreign-inspired, so to speak, but that Black people are actually taking what’s useful and also centralizing the Negro question or centralizing the colonial question and the issues that are germane to freedom and liberation in their own localities.
So it would behoove us to read Walter Rodney, it would behoove us to read Claudia Jones and Louise Thompson Patterson, Esther Cooper Jackson, and Thelma Dale, Maude White Katz, I could go on and on. Because they’re not simply recapitulating classical Marxism-Leninism, for example. They’re actually contributing to the development of that thought, making it relevant to the twentieth century and making it relevant to other types of struggles that are developing.
Robin D. G Kelley: Just to follow up on what Barbara was saying—it’s amazing how liberals and self-proclaimed Marxists could see the kind of radical identity politics coming out of the Combahee River Collective as “race reductionism,” or “gender reductionism,” when, in fact, what they proposed was a liberatory vision for the whole. One of the big problems that we have now in terms of myths is the way in which antiracism, even antiracism that attends to class exploitation, is still too often dismissed as race reductionism. The entire race vs. class reductionism is a false debate. To insist that capitalism has always operated within a system and ideology that assigns differential value to human life and labor does not mean that race governs or explains all forms of exploitation and oppression.
This false dichotomy plays itself out in the myth that the Civil Rights Movement had no real economic justice agenda and reflected the interests of a Black elite, and the radical class critique of, say, the 1930s was suppressed by the Cold War. This is simply not true.
To take one example, SNCC and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party embraced an economic justice agenda. The 1963 freedom vote campaign in Mississippi promoted a platform that included:
- the right of labor to organize
- the right of labor to engage in collective bargaining (this is 1963)
- a $1.25 minimum wage
- support for farm cooperatives in place of sharecropping and dispossession
- the provision low interest loans for small farmers
- a progressive land tax on tracts of land over 500 acres.
SNCC also organized the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union (MFLU) which we don’t talk about. We continually return to the moment when Fannie Lou Hamer and the MFDP delegation took a stand against Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party in 1964, but they came back home to build a labor-based, rural-based movement for economic justice. The MFLU occupied the Greenville Air Force base in 1966, fighting again for relief. Tent city was known as strike city. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the MFLU arguably have much in common with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit, for example, and similar kinds of movements. In short, the struggle for economic justice never disappeared, but we have to be able to recognize that and bring that into our histories, otherwise, we’re going to think we have to keep reinventing the wheel.
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