The progressive plantation by Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin

I first started writing about internal or institutional racism in radical social change movement circles when I wrote the second edition of my book, “Anarchism and the Black Revolution” in 1994. That book reflected my frustrations in dealing with an almost all-white Anarchist social movement that l have been identified with for over 40 years now. I have never accepted this internal racism as the way it has to be, and have always been a critic and thorn in the side of the Anarchist movement. Yet, they have never attempted to bring Peoples of Color into full participation or give them an equal voice in the movement, nor raise the issues affecting them and their peoples, which is drastically different from the white middle class agenda, or of white radicals generally. Since racism has to be overthrown, instead of voluntarily changed by the white leadership, there is no chance to reform these movements in most instances. They are corrupt, as well as racist, but they are stronger than other groups because they have corporate grant money at their disposal.

Even so, it is important for anti-racist/anti-colonial activists to continue trying to dismantle racism inside these movements or organizations, and failing that, to dismantle the groups themselves entirely. If allowed to continue, they do more harm than good. Activists must recognize the damage of internal racism, the politics which support it, and how to deal with it, and then act swiftly and forcefully, sometimes even ruthlessly.

The truth is that most anti-racist white radicals cannot bring themselves to bring the needed cold—blooded efficiency and commitment to the task. They are lured away from their task by friendships with other white people in the group, their fear of being excluded or shunned, lack of commitment to the struggle, lack of consistent support of peoples of color, and compromising or selling out to their own deep-seated racism and political opportunism. Somewhere in the back of their minds are self-doubts: “things can’t be this bad [!]”, “we do try to help some people”, “these are good people I know here, who could not possibly be racist”, or “they just need a little sensitivity training”. I have devoted a chapter to that last thought about “anti-racist sensitivity and consciousness raising”, which I consider a total fraud that never challenges white racism inside these organizations or in society at large.

I cannot honestly say that white radicals will make changes in their organizations or themselves, but I can say that if they do not, peoples of color will soon rise up in a mass rebellion or revolution against the oppressive conditions they live under, and overthrow not only the capitalist state, but all of their collaborators, including the white-led nonprofit organizations and radical reform movements that receive corporate money and uphold the entire system of white wealth.

I give white radicals the tools to work with, a theoretical framework, and some analysis of racial oppression. I cannot, however, make them take the steps to actually use in dismantling racism inside radical movements. I just tell them that their lip service and feeble attempts to this point are unacceptable, and one day it will all be taken out of their hands. So they had better act now, or they will find themselves on the wrong side, when these decisive battles take place.

Anarchism is probably the largest white radical tendency on the Left today, owing to its ties to punk rock music, and other white youth cultural trends, so it serves as a perfect example of internal racism in the radical social change movements generally, but I point out that this variations of this same kind of racism happens inside all white Left tendencies. As I have stated, I have been a member of the Anarchist movement for over 40 years, but even so, there are some doctrinaire groups on the Anarchist scene, who actually refuse to accept myself and other Anarchists of color as being “legitimate.” It is as if there is an Anarchist “membership card” and since we can’t produce such a “card,” we should be barred at the door to the “club.” There are apparently Anarchist groups still doing this type of racial exclusion, demanding prospective members denounce Black, Chicano or Asian nationalism to such an extent that they meet the group ideological litmus test. Now, it’s important to point out they don’t demand incoming women members denounce feminism or gay members denounce the Queer Liberation Movement, nor whites to even denounce racism, but they want to lay that burden on people of color sympathetic to Anarchism. It is as though they feel we are untrustworthy or politically unclean. Why else?

These people want to demand ideological conformity, to make those incoming people of color toe the line. I believe they are threatened by the idea of possibly large numbers of people of color joining the Anarchist movement and especially by the idea they might create autonomous tendencies that would challenge white hegemony of the overall movement. Predictably, there will those among them who will rise up in mock alarm at the very notion… “how dare you say this?” “See there, he’s making trouble again!” But I have seen it happen numerous times over the years and am frankly sick of it. There is no use pretending there is no racism in the Anarchist scene, or trying to discredit me for raising the issue. I have both seen and experienced it myself.

Fortunately, this white reaction is not the totality of the issue. It is not all about backward elements among the Anarchists and their feeble attempts to control People of Color by barring the door with a political literacy test or even barring our right to speak at meetings. People of color will be a part of the Anarchist movement and are in the process of building their own tendency. I do want to state my criticisms though, in this version of the book.

I have been accused of “worker-ism” in some of my writing and this has been projected as “old school”. Well, most folks still do work for a living, in contrast to the bohemian Anarchists, although I acknowledge structural unemployment that has made millions of persons as a surplus labor force. However, this does not mean they do not belong to a working class. Further, even if it is weak numerically and its leadership is corrupt, most folks consider it a good thing to join a union, especially at a bad worksite. I realize that the nature of the poor and working people have changed and capitalism has gone on to new modes of production, some call this a “capitalist transformation.” from industrialism to high-tech and I agree, but this has not obliterated class difference or done away with work itself. Class contradictions between rich and poor, order-givers and order-takers, workers and bosses remain. So, I continue to talk about a labor movement, workers and poor people in the present tense. They are real people, not figments of my imagination.

Clearly, there will not be any future labor or community victories that do not include Black and other non-white workers as a strategic force. Yet, the white Left, including regrettably some groups of Anarcho-Syndicalists and “Platformists,” still think that the white industrial workers are the vanguard for the revolution and that workers of color should just wait on them to move from their privileged positions. Now this is not just a matter of semantics, I have actually had them very distinctly tell me this. Yet, it is clear to me that they do not really understand how capitalism and white supremacy operate in America.

Their theories were made for a time when white male workers dominated industry and the work force. The face of the American working class has changed however. For one thing there are more women working, along with more racial minorities and foreign-born workers than ever before. These workers of color are all subjected to oppression and exploitation on the dual grounds of race and class and thus have to fight the extra battles against racism and discrimination. They are in labor unions, but also constitute the largest number of unemployed, homeless and underemployed and they are the largest number of unorganized workers.

I remember some years ago having a critical discussion with some white South African Anarchists, who put forth a political line of white radical domination of the social change movement and the question crossed my mind whether these people had even taken part in the anti-apartheid struggle there, or just appeared as a tendency after the struggle was over. Clearly they were part of the white settler class, at least ideologically. Now they project themselves as revolutionary “leaders” and lecturers after Black people there have shed blood to overturn a system of racial oppression which benefited a large segment of the white population.

This is similar to the situation in the United States; where on the scale of things, white radicals and progressives played a miniscule role in the Black civil rights movement. Yet these white radical groups have revised history as though they had been a part of everything, were in fact leaders and can now lecture everyone on their political failings.

There is something very wrong here. These white middle-class so-called “radicals,” who have never suffered, been oppressed, or been forced to risk life and limb, need to learn to listen to those who have. They need to recognize that they do not have all the answers and it is only because of their white skin privilege that they can even articulate the political dimensions of these social problems. They have analysis with paralysis.

This structure of concentrated poverty and poverty in communities of color is clearly racism, but the white radicals are mostly silent or missing in action of the campaigns against it. We must demand that they stand up and join with the peoples of color. We say that this class collaborationism with the state and the boss class must be overcome before a successful campaign against capitalism can be made a reality. Accordingly, we must end the system of white skin privilege on the job and in society. We cannot leave it to another day, or see it as a minor thing to be addressed later. History has shown “later” never comes.

The white radicals claim it’s all about a mere division of Black and POC away from them, as if working with white people is the linchpin of ending racism. Yes, the bosses use this racial division to split the working class and maintain control of the workforce, not just between Black and white, but between women and men, foreign born and citizens and so on. But white workers, especially those in the Western world, generally accept this employment/ societal racism and must resist the attempt to use one section of the working class to help them advance, while holding back the gains of another segment based or race or nationality.

This is how the capitalists subject workers of color to super-exploitation; they work under the worst conditions for unequal pay. This kind of class opportunism and capitulationism on the part of white labor has historically prevented development of a united movement — not the demands of workers of color, as many white radicals like to claim. White racism must be directly confronted. There can be no defeat of the capitalist system until the system of super-exploitation and world white supremacy is brought to an end.

Of course, I still believe that the unity of Black/POC and white workers is indispensable to combat and overthrow the system of Capitalism. But where white workers are now privileged and Black workers are penalized in this society, Black and Latino unity and struggle must precede and prepare the ground for any possible unity with white workers on a broad scale. Further, a movement has to be built to fight racism and capitalism now and not be afraid to challenge racism in the working class communities themselves. Not some romantic white-led movement that refuses to deal with these issues.

Many white radicals just foolishly think that Black people are eager to work with whites, even after years of sellouts and racism. Well, some of us believe that these white activists must atone for their misdeeds in such past coalitions and prove that they are a reliable force that won’t sell out when white workers’ interests are threatened. History does not record many instances of white workers fighting to preserve the civil rights or the jobs of workers of color; I don’t know of many strikes by white dominated unions to stop the racist policy of “last hired and first fired.”

Even though “white racism hurts all workers” as they always cry in their placards, the fact is that most white workers believe that they currently have a better deal fighting for “white rights” and their higher quality of life, than they do united with workers of color. So any movement or broad social change, whether labor union, community group, or whatever else, has to be ultimately a movement against racism and internal colonialism, not just blind calls for “class unity”. Unity and autonomy have to be the watchwords.

The very means of class control by the rich is the least understood. White supremacy is more than just a set of ideas or prejudices. It is national oppression. Yet to most white people, the term conjures up images of the Nazis or Ku Klux Klan rather than the system of white skin privileges that really undergird the Capitalist system in the U.S. Most white people, Anarchists and other radicals included, believe, in essence, Black people are “the same” as whites and we should just fight around “common issues” rather than deal with “racial matters,” if they see any urgency in dealing with the matter at all.

Some will not raise it in such a blunt fashion. They will say that “class issues should take precedence,” but it means the same thing. They believe it’s possible to put off the struggle against white supremacy until after the revolution, when in fact there will be no revolution if white supremacy is not attacked and defeated first. They won’t win a revolution in the U.S. until they fight to improve the lot of Blacks and oppressed people who are being deprived of their democratic rights, as well as being super-exploited as workers, and enslaved as a people.

Almost from the very inception of the North American socialist movement, the simple-minded economist position that all Black and white workers have to do to wage a revolution is to engage in a “common (economic) struggle” has been used to avoid struggle against white supremacy. In fact, the white left has always taken the chauvinist position that since the white working class is the revolutionary vanguard anyway, why worry about an issue that will “divide the class”? Historically Anarchists have not even brought up the matter of “race politics,” as one Anarchist referred to it the first time this pamphlet was published. This is a total evasion of the issue.

The Capitalist bourgeoisie creates inequality as a way to divide and rule over the entire working class. White skin privilege is a form of domination by Capital over white labor as well as oppressed nationality labor, not just providing material incentives to “buy off” white workers and set them against Black and other oppressed workers. This explains the obedience of white labor to Capitalism and the State.

The white working class does not see their better off condition as part of the system of exploitation. After centuries of political and social indoctrination, they feel their privileged position is both just and proper and what is more, has been “earned.” They feel threatened by the social gains of non-white workers, which is why they so vehemently opposed affirmative action plans to benefit minorities in jobs and hiring and to redress years of discrimination against them in employment settings. It is also why white workers have opposed most civil rights legislation for democratic rights.

Yet, it is the day-to-day workings of white supremacy that we must fight most vigorously. We cannot remain ignorant or indifferent to the workings of race and class under this system, so that oppressed workers remain victimized. For years, Black people have been “last hired, first fired” by Capitalist industry. Further, seniority systems have engaged in open racial discrimination, and are little more than white job trusts. Blacks have even been driven out of whole industries, such as coal mining. White labor bosses have never objected or intervened for their class brothers, nor will they if not pressed up against the wall by white workers themselves.

As pointed out, there are material incentives to this white worker opportunism: better jobs, higher pay, improved living conditions in white communities, etc., in short what has come to be known as the “white middle class lifestyle.” This is what labor and the left have always fought to maintain, not class solidarity, which would require a struggle against white supremacy. This lifestyle is based on the super-exploitation of the non-white sector of the domestic working class as well as countries exploited by imperialism around the world.

In America, class antagonism had always included racial hatred as an essential component, but it is structural rather than just ideological. The culture and the socioeconomic system of U.S. Capitalism are based on white supremacy; how then is it possible to truly fight the rule of Capital without being forced to defeat white supremacy?

The dual-tier economy of whites on top and Blacks on the bottom (even with all the class differences among whites) has successfully resisted every attempt by radical social movements. These reluctant reformers have danced around the issue however. While winning reforms, in many cases primarily for white workers only, these white radicals have yet to topple the system and open the road to social revolution. They won’t do it now.

The fight against white skin privilege also requires the rejection of the vicious identification of North Americans as “white” people, rather than as Welsh, German, Irish, etc. as their national origin. This “white race” designation is a contrived super-nationality designed to inflate the social importance of European ethnics and to enlist them as tools in the Capitalist system of exploitation. In North America, white skin has always implied freedom and privilege: freedom to gain employment, to travel, to obtain social mobility out of one’s born class standing and a whole world of Eurocentric privileges. Therefore, before a social revolution can take place, there must be an abolition of the social category of the “white race.” (with few exceptions in this essay, I will begin referring to them as “North Americans”)

These “white” people must engage in class suicide and race treachery before they can truly be accepted as allies of Black and nationally oppressed workers; the whole idea behind a “white race” is conformity and making them accomplices to mass murder and exploitation. If white people do not want to be saddled with the historical legacy of colonialism, slavery and genocide themselves, then they must rebel against it. So the “whites” must denounce the white identity and its system of privilege and they must struggle to redefine themselves and their relationship with others. As long as white society, (through the State which says it is acting in the name of white people), continues to oppress and dominate all the institutions of the Black community, racial tension will continue to exist and whites generally will continue to be seen as the enemy.

So what do North Americans start to do to defeat racial opportunism, white skin privileges and other forms of white supremacy? First they must break down the walls separating them from their non-white allies. Then together they must wage a fight against inequality in the workplace, communities and in the social order. Yet it is not just the democratic rights of African people we are referring to when we are talking about “national oppression.” If that were the whole issue, then maybe more reforms could obtain racial and social equality in this society. But no, that is not what we are talking about.

Blacks (or Africans in America) are colonized. America is a mother country with an internal colony, made up of Black people how have been enslaved and oppressed for centuries. For Africans in America, our situation is one of total oppression. No people are truly free until they can determine their own destiny. Ours is a captive, oppressed colonial status that must be overthrown, not just smashing ideological racism or denial of civil rights. In fact, without smashing the internal colony first means the likelihood of a continuance of this oppression in another form. We must destroy the social dynamic of a very real existence of America being made up of an oppressor white nation and an oppressed Black nation, (in fact there are several captive nations).

This requires the Black Liberation movement to liberate themselves from a colonial existence, based on capitalism and this is why it is not just a simple matter of Blacks just joining with white Anarchists to fight the same type of battle against the State. That is also why Anarchists cannot take a rigid position against all forms of Black Nationalism (especially revolutionary groups like the original Black Panther Party, which was both radical and Socialist) even if there are ideological differences about the way some of them are formed and operate.

I am not asking white people to join with certain backward nationalists who think that whites are inherently evil or do not want their support, but North Americans must support the objectives of racially oppressed liberation movements and they must directly challenge and reject white skin privilege in the broader society. There is no other way, and there is no shortcut to support for resistance against racism; white supremacy is a huge obstacle to revolutionary social change in North America.

The Black revolution and other national liberation movements in North America are indispensable parts of the overall social revolution. North American workers must join with Africans, Latinos and others to reject racial injustice, Capitalist exploitation and national oppression. North American workers certainly have an important role in helping those struggles to triumph. Material aid alone, which can be assembled by white workers for the Black revolution, could dictate the victory or defeat of that struggle at a particular stage.

I am taking time to explain all this, because predictably some Anarchist purists or white progressives will try to argue me down that having a white movement is a good thing, “why we’re active among white youth”, “we’re fighting Wall Street capitalists”, or so on. Further they feel Blacks and other oppressed nationalities just need to follow them and this argument is just “Marxist national liberation nonsense.”

Well, we know part of the reason for my calling for an anti-racist movement inside the Left itself is to challenge this chauvinist perspective right in the middle of our own movement. An Anti-Racist Liberation Support Movement would not exist just to fight Nazis. It would directly support the movements of color with material aid, and support the needs the movements of color to challenge and correct racist and doctrinaire positions on race and class within the Anarchist and Left radical movements. The fact is if white radicals cannot do that, then they cannot help to organize any wing of the working class, Black, POC, or white, and are of no use to anyone. In fact, most white radical movements are enemies of the poor, peoples of color, and working peoples.

This is what must be recognized right now, when Occupy Wall Street and its solidarity movements have surfaced, making just these “white rights” arguments and more, and are choking on the worst politics and internal racist dynamics. I will talk more about this later.

For years now, it has been made apparent to me that the idea of white people creating and leading anti-racist movements of other whites is total nonsense. I have had to learn this through bitter experience from dealings with groups like the Anti-Racist Action (ARA), Love and Rage, and others in the Left that white people have no real clue how to fight racism and, if they do, they certainly are refusing to demonstrate it in any real fashion.

The apparent strategies of these groups is to chase after neo—Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, the Church of the Creator and others to upstage them and disrupt their racist events. Although, I fully understand that we must confront fascist paramilitary movements, this alone is a flawed strategy however and no more eliminates racism than dancing in the streets, but it makes white people feel they are accomplishing something and it certainly helps with recruitment. But as a person of color, I do not feel this movement in any way ensures my safety from violence by right-wing paramilitaries or the police, the latter of which kill upwards of 1,000 people each year. Yes, I acknowledge the Klan is dangerous, but this is not the 1920s when they had millions of members.

The truth is these white radical groups deal with racism from a totally white perspective. They generally have no ties or accountability to the Black/POC communities and do not work with activists of color except in a strictly token and manipulative fashion. This leads to serious isolation from the communities of color and dangerously backward ideals about racism, which they feel are academic anyway.

Some years ago, I attended an ARA convention in Columbus, Ohio. Columbus is the home of Oho State University and at least a third of the city’s population is Black, but there were hardly any other Black people in attendance, except one guy who called himself a “Black skinhead,” a middle aged Black woman and a few other people of color, maybe 20 in all. It was clear to me that there had been no attempt to bring in folks from the Black communities in Columbus and other Ohio communities with substantial Black populations like Cleveland or Cincinnati. They did not even attempt to bring Black students off the OSU university campus.

Thus, you had this weird spectacle of hundreds of white people in a huge auditorium arguing and giving sanctimonious speeches about racism, from which most Blacks/POC were excluded. In attendance was every “alphabet soup” leftist sect you can (or can’t) think of: SWP, ISO, IWW, SL, SLP, Love and Rage and so on, under the banner of Anti-Racist Action.

At some point during the Plenary Session, to which I was hurriedly added, while an older Black woman was speaking about her experiences with racism, a white radical jumped out of the crowd, rushed up to one of the microphones and blurted out: “you shut up, we know what racism is!” This crystallized for me in instant what is wrong with such white-led “anti-racist” groups and with mother country radicals generally. They have arrogantly convinced themselves because of academic study and reflection that they know what racism is, even better than the people who experience it daily. How they know that and what it is they claim to know is really an open question.

Racism is a lived experience by peoples of color, not something easily given to textbook study. To be an outcast, an object of derision and violence merely because of pigment, race, or custom is not something that most white people can grasp. White radicals may claim to understand it intellectually, but it is not the same. Yet to me the very idea that white people profess to know more about racism than peoples of color themselves is a really a peculiar type of arrogance. It is why white radicals are so disliked and distrusted in the Black community. Many times, they disrespect you, all while claiming to be allied with you or opposed to racial chauvinism. That is unacceptable.

It is interesting that almost none of the white people in attendance in the conference contradicted the disrupters or defended the Black woman’s right to speak. I can only remember myself and the other people of color shouting them down, along with one white guy, Michael Novick, who was on stage with us. We afterwards became friends, but I recall coming away with a very bitter feeling overall. The next day, I pulled all the people of color together to issue a statement denouncing the incident, and calling for them to do the same. Because they were caught off-guard, the leaders of the conference agreed with our criticisms at the meeting, but then some weeks later they barred me from all subsequent ARA meetings for my “racial disruption.” For years, I was an outcast. In fact, it has just been recently, since the old Columbus leadership has been discredited, that any ARA people would even speak to me, and then only the folks in Los Angeles, where Michael Novick is situated. I consider Novick one of the few anti-racist whites who “gets it”, and whom I genuinely respect. While not everyone agrees with me now in ARA, at least because of Novick, they might listen and would not demonize me in his presence. Maybe we can even build a new movement in different principles and including peoples of color, instead of white radicals in command. Certainly, the L.A. ARA chapter is doing this already, with its alliance with the Black Riders Liberation Party, and other POC radicals.

For those of you reading this, please do not take these criticisms to mean that I think everyone in groups like ARA are enemies, or as “bad as the Klan,” as some of my past critics in the group claimed. Someone even tried to claim that I just did not “like” white people, which is so absurd that it does not require a response. I do not at all believe that; never have believed it for that matter. But because of such experiences that I have observed or been victimized by, I now think it is useless to believe that white-led antiracist organizations can build a mass movement of just white peoples to end racism, or even for radical social change for that matter. The whole movement must change.

If it is not accountable to peoples of color, such a anti-racist movement is a detriment. These arrogant white-led movements I have been speaking of serve as proof positive that if the victims of racism are not at the front ranks of these anti-racist movements, it will merely serve white interests and not be an ally of the Black and other oppressed peoples. Now that is as clear as I can make it.

The most effective anti-racist movement this country has ever seen, the Southern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, was led by activists from the Black community and the fact that it had deep ties to poor and working class Black peoples in the community, (in spite of its middle class leadership) allowed it to really conduct campaigns that altered the socio-economic and political face of the country and win major gains for Blacks and poor people.

It is little known by most, but true, that the Black working class community was in fact the backbone of the movement, even though the mass media has always concentrated on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the major figure in that movement. It was a movement of oppressed victims of racism, not white liberal or radicals who played a minor role.

This is contrary to today’s movement, made up of primarily white middle class activists. Because of this situation, we can say this ensures today’s anti-racist movement can only speak for white middle class people, not victims of racism, poverty, or police brutality. I feel there is definite lesson here for anyone who wants to see it. The question must be asked: is this an anti-racist movement at all, but in fact an example of a white rights movement?

Although I am clear white people cannot lead an anti-racist movement, without being accountable to peoples of color; I also feel they must confront their own racism and that of white people generally within the movement for social change, through internal seminars, study groups and other forms of political education, but mainly through serious struggle internally. This should take place in every progressive and radical organization, but especially within Anarchist and anti-racist organizations, which have serious problems with diversity and racial exclusion. The questions of whiteness, white supremacy and white privilege must be ruthlessly dealt with among white people themselves and then they must be made accountable to peoples of color, instead of posturing as “anti- racists above racism” themselves.

The truth is that I have not known many white political activists willing to deal with internal racism inside their movements, instead they prefer to posture as being without any racist ideology and practice and then allege themselves to be a serious force to organize against external racist right-wing movements. This is a gross error, which they must resolve before they really constitute a force against racism. But looking within is a hard, serious task most white male-dominated radical groups avoid like the plague, preferring to feel in their arrogance and superiority that they have the answers to all of society’s problems and that everyone else should just listen and follow them blindly. This is dishonest and opportunist.

It is important to recognize that no movement like this can be successful and truly liberating to all. But we must be honest and admit that such a movement is in line with the prevailing beliefs of this country that feels it can free white people, while leaving people of color in slavery. The first American Revolution was based on that belief, so it should be no surprise that many white radicals also believe that the coming revolution will be based on their white privileged concepts of revolutionary change.

They see themselves at the center of things and nothing can happen unless they lead it, but they refuse to challenge their own racism and privilege. Can white people be reeducated? Yes, but they must be willing to change and follow the leadership of folks who have suffered historically from racism and internal colonialism. The fact is what routinely happens to peoples of color, the murders, beatings by police, mass unemployment, community wide poverty, mass imprisonment, and record infant mortality, and so many other effects of structural racism and internal colonialism, rarely happen to white people, and that is why when it does to any degree, it is called fascism. Yet, since the 1960’s, white radicals have focused on right-wing paramilitary movements, rather the rise of the corporate state, the mass imprisonment of peoples of color, and paramilitary policing in communities of color.


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