RACE TRAITOR - treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity

The Abolition of Whiteness and Black Freedom Movement
Robin D.G. Kelley

On May 2nd and 3rd, 1997, a conference was held in New York City called by the editors of RACE TRAITOR: Journal of the New Abolitionism. Historian Robin D.G. Kelley gave this talk during the Friday night session. At the conclusion of the conference, the organizers announced the formation of the New Abolitionist Society, a network of groups and individuals wishing to pursue the goal of abolishing the white race as a social category.

What am I here for? The abolition of whiteness is fundamental to the liberation of humankind, including (and especially ) the liberation of black people.

This point not new: DuBois made it in Black Reconstruction, and, in a way, his famous statement that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line was about white supremacy. As James Baldwin and others put it over and over again, the "Negro problem" is a white problem.

Many of you know this; all know by now DuBois's conception of the "wages of whiteness." And you probably know all too well what Sartre meant when he wrote in the Preface to Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth: "there is nothing more consistent than a racist humanism since the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters." So, in a way, to give you a litany of reasons for abolishing whiteness/white supremacy is like preaching to the choir.

The challenge before you/us is how to accomplish this, to dismantle white supremacy. It's not enough to reject your racial designation. After all, your white skin still works for you no matter what you call yourself: it works in terms of how the police treat most of you, where you can live, access to home loans, the way you're treated at work or in the classroom. The only way to really abolish whiteness is to destroy the structures of racism itself and to commit yourself to anti-racist, anti-sexist struggle.

Of course, there are those who believe that to support Black, Latino, Asian-Pacific, women's, and gay liberation movements is to fall into the identity politics trap. The real issue is class. And in some respects, there are those who read the struggle for the abolition of whiteness as an act of taking off the race blinders to discover class struggle. There is much truth to this; and few progressives will dispute the need to build a truly multiracial class-based movement.

Yet, there is a growing trend among certain segments of the left to call on all movements in the name of people of color and women to "transcend" their identity niches to join "them" in the class struggle. (Rarely do you hear these same people asking movements of women and people of color to LEAD the class struggle!) In most cases, they are asking colored people to transcend their racial identities but don't ask the same of themselves. Most of the people gathered here, however, are way ahead of them, recognizing that so-called WHITE PEOPLE are the ones who ought to do the transcending.

But even here, we must proceed carefully. Part of the reason I'm here tonight is to make a simple point that the abolition of whiteness does not mean the abolition of autonomous black movements for freedom and social justice. Some people mistakenly confuse the eradication of white privilege, hence racism, with color blindness (which is where the neo-Enlightenment Left sits uneasily with the neo-Conservative Negroes and their patrons who invoke Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to argue for dismantling affirmative action, insisting that race and gender preferences betrayed King's dream of seeing people valued for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.)

I want to push a little further and support autonomous movements for social justice - movements in the name of black people, Asian-Americans, Latinos, etc. Just as the abolition of whiteness is fundamental to human liberation, so is black liberation (and other movements of people oppressed by race and sex) fundamental to the liberation of humanity. This is the other side of DuBois's equation.

First, we must establish the fact that many all-black organizations throughout history were not the product of narrow ethnocentrism but white racism, Jim Crow, that kept colored people out.

Second, working inside and in support of multiracial progressive movements has been part of the black radical tradition since we were brought here in chains three centuries ago. That will not change.

At the same time, I do think we have to also re-build a strong, independent autonomous black radical movement that could participate in, criticize, and learn from the organizations that claim to speak for the black community; a movement that would have its own voice and agenda, that could keep its sights on black liberation while helping to shape a broader multiracial challenge to capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy; an independent Black Left that could reconnect with the rest of the world, like Malcolm did, or Walter Rodney, C.L.R. James, Robert Williams, and Vickie Garvin, like delegates to the 7th Pan-African Congress tried to do a few years back. (Indeed, the decline of internationalism left a void that Farrakahn has been quick to fill, to the detriment of democratic struggles in Africa.)

Some might call me essentialist, or claim that we've reached a point in history where black movements are obsolete, old-fashioned identity politics and whatnot. I don't believe that, and as we move into the 21th century it is eerily like the turn of the last century. The Second Reconstruction was never completed and the little gains it has made are being overturned rapidly. At the same time, just as the black freedom movement helped emancipate many others in our century (women, white working class men, other so-called "minorities") I believe it has that capacity in the coming years. I believe C.L.R. James when he wrote in 1948:

[T]his independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement of the Marxist party. We say...that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism. In this way we challenge directly any attempt to subordinate or to push to the rear the social and political significance of the independent Negro struggle for democratic rights.

Third, the notion that antiracist movements led by black people or people of color are inherently narrow, focused only on "minority rights," completely mischaracterizes these movements. The movement, from Reconstruction to the present, was never simply a parochial struggle for black rights. It was always about fundamental human rights and how the U.S. state defines citizenship. Its successes and defeats touched the whole nation. The fact is, the fight for social justice has been at the heart of the black liberation movement. and their efforts to achieve citizenship on their own terms - if successful - could have transformed the very meaning of citizenship for all Americans. In their vision of citizenship growing out of Reconstruction, the state was supposed to provide economic support to those in need, protect its citizens from violence and exploitation, provide good education, housing, public services, etc., and work actively to achieve and defend equality. Despite their universal appeal, these movements failed over and over again largely because of the achilles heel of racism and sexism - the latter also contributing to the internal collapse of black liberation movements.

Indeed, the greatest tragedy in U.S. history was the collapse of Reconstruction. Practically every struggle that followed has some roots in the period of slavery's destruction, and it all points to the fundamental role slavery has played in the rise of capitalism, Western hegemony, and white supremacy.

- As a result of black struggle, we got the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery; 14th Amendment granting black people citizenship and fundamental rights; 15th Amendment, the right to vote (including poor whites who couldn't vote before Civil war); we got Universal Public Education (indeed, a separate and unequal educational system where black labor, black taxes subsidized white education in the South).

- They wanted massive land redistribution; the re-ordering of work; and full democratic participation on the part of the entire community - including women and children!

- Northern capital ultimately reestablished its ties to the old planter class and sent black folks back to a form of slavery. And they did so through violence and trickery.

Had the white working class supported such an interracial class alliance rather than upholding their color, they could have overthrown the planter class permanently, and possibly even the capitalist. More importantly, they would have dealt a huge blow to racism and set an example for interracial working class solidarity that would have resisted colonialism and imperialism abroad.

A century after the failure of the first Reconstruction, America underwent a Second Reconstruction after World War II. While you're familiar with the basic outlines of the story, the main point I want to make this evening is that the Civil Rights movement offered America another opportunity to remake democracy. Activists in SNCC, SCLC, CORE, as well as other groups, made demands whose impact reached far beyond the black community. The Civil Rights movement not only spurred Second Wave feminism and other ethnic liberation movements, but it gave birth to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed (at least on paper) race and gender discrimination in employment, brought in affirmative action policies, War on Poverty programs that helped millions of poor whites, integrated schools at every level, and had a tremendous impact on curricula.

As we face the new millennium and reflect on our country's past, I keep returning to the aftermath of the Civil War, perhaps the world's shining example of what democracy could have become. Imagine what the entire world would look like had the federal government fully empowered ex-slaves, allowed them to keep their guns and the vote, handed over that land on which they worked and allowed them to organize production on their own terms, and dismantled the master class (after all, they were war criminals). Perhaps we would be living in a country that puts working people's needs before corporations. A good-paying, fulfilling job and a strong "safety net" in troubled times might have been a basic right, not a so-called "entitlement."

The death of Reconstruction was a tragedy not only for black people but for American democracy as a whole. While Democracy continues to live in the hearts of black folk and other folk in the U.S. and the world, the problem, of course, was the triumph of capitalism in America meant that the guarantee of good public services, humane housing, safety, security, support during hard times, and power over decision-making was never a right. It always come back to the bottom line: profits before people. And in a system like this, all the personal industriousness in the world won't necessarily result in a decent income if there are no jobs available, no requirements to pay a living wage, or no recognition that raising children is work.

The hope and future of America lay with the very multicolored working class that for so long has been seen as the problem rather that the solution. The new "Wretched of the Earth" are rebuilding the labor movement, reinventing Civil Rights, and reconfiguring scholarship in ways that radically challenge the status quo. While I don't expect many victories in the near future, I do think that the current struggles against class-based racism are laying the basis for new emancipatory social movements that have the potential of transforming the nation. More importantly, will white people - especially white working people - recognize that any kind of emancipatory politics for the class must be built around the desires, experiences, cultures, dreams of all people? In other words, will white workers recognize that the liberation of the ghetto is fundamental to their own freedom?