By: Dayvon Love
Lately, there have been several national conversations about the presence of white people in the demonstrations that have emerged in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The mainstream media has referred to the presence of white people in these demonstrations as the cause for the property destruction and confrontational posture toward police. There is so much to unpack in addressing this dynamic. Of immediate importance is to ensure that this narrative is not overstated in a way that justifies extreme uses of force by the state against Black people.
While it is true that there are some white people who are using the demonstrations as an opportunity to live out their desire for revolutionary adventure, there are also many Black people that are righteously angry and may be engaged in an activity that goes beyond protesting. While some of us may object to that activity, we don’t want to give the state the cover of this narrative of white people instigating violence to be used as the rationale for Trump and the government to use military force against our people. This is the immediate issue before us.
However, there are other elements to the presence of white people in these demonstrations and an overall increased presence of white people in conversations about white supremacy that are equally important to address.
American capitalism has mastered the ability to commodify radical political figures, histories, and movements. Most relevant to this discussion are two particular ways that this happens. The first way involves selected histories that are popularized in order to encourage a certain line of political thought. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s position on non-violence is a great example of this.
We are taught a version of Dr. King’s work that elevates his non-violent approach and minimizes his eventual condemnation of capitalism and his opposition to the imperialist war against Vietnam. Subsequently, we have a distorted perspective of King’s confrontation with the white supremacist status quo that frames his effectiveness on his ability to appeal to the moral sensibilities of white people. In other words, we are taught that getting white people to recognize our pain and suffering is how to empower our community. This discourages us from disrupting the system and building independent Black institutions.
The second way that this commodification happens is by advancing the notion that any activity that is understood to be generally disruptive, controversial, or evoking radical rhetoric is itself radical. The best example of this is the so-called “resistance” that has emerged since the election of Donald Trump. The resistance is described as fighting white supremacy and patriarchy, and challenging the status quo, merely because of a particular set of espoused statements of radicalism. Standing in solidarity with dreamers, or protesting the Muslim ban, or wearing a pink hat are gestures that are often associated with “the resistance.”
This is a form of incorporated resistance where activists, professors, non-profit professionals, etc are allowed to make grand statements of resistance or even revolution, but ultimately their ability to confront and change the actual structures of power is inhibited. This fact will be further explained later. The point here is that commodification is carried out when an activity or rhetoric that is generally understood to be disruptive is characterized as radical, regardless of whether or not it actually challenges the existing power arrangement. The term radical simply becomes a brand that is used to compete for attention and recognition as a warrior of social justice without any accountability for producing material results.
(I want to note that I am using the term radical in relationship to how white people have colonized the activity of confronting the white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist, hetero-patriarchial power structure that dominates the lives of all Black people in civil society. The dynamics of things like radical love for each other as Black people, affirming the humanity of all Black people regardless of class, sexuality, religion, gender etc pertain to an entirely different set of issues that is not the focus of this piece. Confrontation with global white supremacy is about warfare and should be treated as such. How we treat each other should not be about warfare, and again is its own set of issues that go beyond the scope of the argument made in this essay).
White progressive, leftist and liberal political and social formations have a parasitic relationship to Black people and our suffering. Harold Cruse describes in his work “Crisis of the Negro Intellectual” the way in which white liberals (which in the context of Cruse’s work includes socialists and communists) position themselves, institutionally, as the arbiters of Black political thought. He writes:
The Negro intellectuals of today are the victims of the intellectual default of yesterday. The intellectual, theoretical, and cultural methods of self-orientation and self-leadership have been taken out of their hands. The Negro intellectual has been bereft of the means of solving his own problems because his class has traditionally been maneuvered into the position where his problems are solved by others. Instead of being able to essay his own solutions, the Negro intellectual has been transformed into a problem by the white liberal, who prefers to keep him in that position. The white liberal problem solver has been institutionalized as an organic part of the entire civil rights movement and is the emasculator of the creative and intellectual potential of the Negro intelligentsia. Negro intellectuals cannot effectively interpret themselves in the arts, in social criticism, in the social sciences, in research fields, etc; nor can they make objective interpretations of their own relation to the American scene that have any impact on American affairs.
Harold Cruse,'Crisis of the Negro Intellectual'
Baked into the political and intellectual ethos of white liberals, progressives, and leftists are the belief that their fight for social justice is about solving Black people’s problems, which implies that we are not capable of doing that ourselves. This obsession on the part of white people with trying to solve Black people’s suffering distracts from the more legitimate political and intellectual endeavor of dealing with the pathology of white people’s collective proclivity toward oppression. Toni Morrison does this beautifully in her 1993 interview with Charlie Rose when she says:
The people who practice racism are bereft, that there is something distorted about the psyche, its a huge waste… its a profound neurosis nobody examines. It is crazy, it feels crazy… I am not a victim, I refuse to be one.
Even though there is discussion in white liberal spaces about issues like white privilege, there is often too much attention paid to Black suffering and not enough attention paid to the “profound neurosis” that characterizes the social and political behavior of white people that control white liberal/progressive institutions.
Given the fact that white people control many of the mainstream institutions that curate which Black people are given legitimacy in particular political and social circles (i.e., Universities, non-profits, philanthropy, mainstream labor organizations, mainstream, and progressive media), Black people often find ourselves navigating a political economy where our livelihoods and our political and social viability is dependent on seeking approval from white liberals and the institutions that they control. Rarely are there authentic public conversations among Black people who identify as radicals about this dynamic because it would expose uncomfortable truths and, quite frankly, ineptitudes that would discredit their claims that they are radical.
White liberals are not accountable to Black people. White people often construct and advocate for their ideas of the course of action that Black people should take without having to deliver any significant material change to the lives of Black people. Particularly in the academy, and in activist spaces, ideas like the socialist revolution, armed struggle, and ending civil society can be advocated without any expectation that you can/will accomplish these objectives or that you are accountable for the consequences for advocating these positions.
In other words, one can claim to be radical because they advocate the abolition of prisons, make commentary on social media about it, and participate in panel discussions. Yet this self-proclaimed ‘radical’ prison abolitionist may not have a comprehensive vision of what an alternative social arrangement would look like, have an ability to effectively influence politics/policy in that direction or have a relationship with organized groups of people who are incarcerated. I am not saying that only people with these conditions should advocate for prison abolition.
Rather, that without those conditions, any activity or advocacy to this end is simply an expression of a strong opinion and not radical political activity. Only people with tremendous privilege can speak publicly about empowering Black people while maintaining a livelihood disconnected from the condition of Black people and relatively insulated from the consequences of advocating radical political positions. I want to be clear that the use of the prison abolition example is not a critique of the national conversation about prison abolition. I use this example to characterize the way that folks in the Baltimore-Metro area have taken a legitimate radical political perspective and have participated in its commodification. Given my level of involvement with political activity in Baltimore, I can speak on this phenomena with a high degree of credibility. I will provide specific examples later on in the piece.
The privilege of being able to make radical sounding political pronouncements or gestures without any expectation that you will have to bring those demands to fruition is the basis for the revolutionary fantasies that are most prominent in the academy, social media, and amongst professional organizers. The calls to burn the system down and start a revolution are only possible when you don’t actually have the expectation that you will have to make good on these declarations. It trivializes the level of sacrifice it took for those in the Black Radical Tradition who actually did take up arms and paid the ultimate price. It is an insult to the Black Liberation Army, The Deacons of Defense, the Mau Mau, and many others when folk claim the radicalism of violent confrontations with the state without having to actually make the level of sacrifice that our ancestors made.
There are many political prisoners who have spent their entire lives in jail because of their sacrifice and others that are now dead. I am not saying that we should not put these ideas on the table for political conversation, but to claim these radical politics without any real ability to carry out these ideas is an act of commodifying radical politics that is inauthentic and politically dishonest.
This doesn’t just apply to some of the more revolutionary kinds of activity that I mentioned earlier, this also applies to issues like politics and public policy. In the academy, someone can advocate a militant political position on criminal justice without having to be accountable for making it happen or being accountable for the actual consequences of that policy. In some ways, this is good if it serves the purpose of testing ideas to be used politically. It becomes a problem when an organization advocates a position that they don’t have the ability to execute.
Organizations of this nature are like mannequins wearing the garments of revolutionary discourse, in the shopping mall of the non-profit industrial complex. Additionally, political advocacy that is authentically radical requires a base, and as it relates to Black Liberation, a Black base that is substantially working-class and diverse. The ideas alone are not enough to be truly radical. There must be a majority Black base that is composed of real Black bodies, not symbols of interaction in cyberspace. And the base should not be composed primarily of white people.
A good example of this in Baltimore is the People’s Power Assembly (PPA). The organization’s stated goal is “to empower workers and oppressed people to demand jobs, education & healthcare while fighting against racist police terror, sexism, LGBTQ and ableist oppression.” The organization is best known for leading demonstrations in Baltimore, particularly during times of major unrest. Their most visible leader is a white woman and many of the organizations in Baltimore that advocate for policies that would benefit the masses of Black people barely know that PPA exist.
They have no major policy or organizing victories that they can legitimately claim and have not demonstrated an ability to influence local policy. However, they receive some coverage in local media because of their ability to draw attention to themselves by making radical political proclamations. In fact, on Monday June 8th 2020 at a rally that they convened outside of city hall, their leader, Sharon Black, made the claim that defunding police means “not a penny goes to the police department” and described this as her organization’s political objective. She goes on to say their goal is to accomplish that policy objective within a year. This is a radical proclamation, but PPA has very little ability to actually bring this into fruition. The policy work that it would take to accomplish this goal and the alternative community safety infrastructure that would need to be developed to make this happen in a year is just fantasy.
This does not make PPA bad people, but this is not radical political activity, it is revolutionary fantasy. When you look them up online there is no clear sense of who to hold accountable, which tells me that they are more of a brand than an organized political organization. There are many so-called radical organizations like PPA that claim radical political objectives but do not have a way to execute on these objectives and also don’t have a majority Black base that consistently supports their work. They are mere brands of revolutionary posturing that contribute to an echo chamber of leftists political impotence.
I have observed in Baltimore some Black people who have some level of familiarity with Black radical political literature (and in many cases, just the buzzwords that are commonly recited on social media) and start organizations or develop platforms based on Black radical ideas and expect to recruit Black people to their efforts. What ends up happening is that most of their base ends up being comprised of white liberals and progressives that frequent places like Red Emmas, Station North, Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), or Impact Hub.
Additionally, the Black people that are typically in those formations are non-profit professionals or other Black people who have social, professional and political networks that are very white (this is not a moral judgement on these Black folks, it is a statement of the nature and culture of their networks). What is buried under the radical rhetoric is deeply anti-Black approaches to community organizing that ultimately drive Black people away. In radical political literature, there is often a call for “educating the masses” as it relates to efforts at community organizing. The nexus between the call for educating the masses and the general notion of Black inferiority that is ubiquitous in American Civil society creates a dynamic where Black people who are politically and intellectually uninitiated in the canon of radical politics are understood to be people that need to be lectured to about their perceived un-enlightenment.
Black people are often lectured to by activists and community organizers about all the stuff that they need to learn, all the stuff that is wrong with the world, and are told what they need to do to address our issues. Embedded in this is the assumption that there aren’t Black people who already know our current reality, or who are already working to address these issues, or who just disagree. This does not mean that political education is not important, but it is a notion that is often abused by people who use it as an opportunity to demonstrate their perceived intellectual or moral superiority over “the masses.” Additionally, Black people have been subjected to the advocacy of activists and community organizers who call themselves radical yet have not demonstrated an ability to deliver any material results to them. For these reasons, Black people are not inclined to support people like that.
Black people who are not predisposed to social justice and activist culture are a tough crowd and for good reason. You don’t get to be credible with any substantial population of Black people without demonstrating an ability to both build relationships beyond an advocacy campaign and an ability to impact their lives. The masses of Black people do not have the luxury of making radical political declarations without being held accountable for it. White people are a much easier crowd. They don’t have to actually be accountable to Black people for who they support or the consequences of their advocacy; as long as their board of directors or shareholders are satisfied they can mostly do what they want. They often promote Black people who espouse ideas that reflect the centrality of European intellectual traditions. They elevate Black people who feed their negrophillic, sadomasochistic fetishes for the consumption of Black images of spectacle and suffering. Mary Helen Washington in her compilation of Zora Neale Hurston’s writings called “I Love Myself When I am Smiling and Then Again When I Look Mean” says:
Lippincott, rejected her proposal for a book on the lives of upper-class blacks. In the essay “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” written in 1950 for Negro Digest, Hurston indicates her belief that the racist American publishing industry was uninterested in the “average struggling non-morbid Negro,” because there was more money to be made exploiting the race problem with stereotyped stories of simple, oppressed sharecroppers.
Mary Helen Washington,“I Love Myself When I am Smiling and Then Again When I Look Mean”
The dynamic that Hurston is describing is fundamental to the way that white people engage the lives of Black people. Black people who build institutions that can actually confront the white supremacist power arrangement of the state and corporate sector are not typically the kind of people who are esteemed by white liberals. This would threaten the self-serving paternalism that structures the relationship between Black people and white liberals. An organization or effort that is reliant on, and whose most consistent support comes from non-Black people and white adjacent Black people, is not radical. It is a caricature of Black Liberation.
The psychological, cultural, and spiritual impacts of Enslavement remains very present in the collective existence of Black people in America. It manifests in the way that Black people have adopted the societal belief of our worthlessness. One of the things that I learned from an excellent training with the AYA Institute and its Warrior Healer Builder Collective is that we often use the things that we do to affirm our worth as human beings, instead of acknowledging our inherent worth as people.
This is not something that is exclusive to Black people, but with us, it is exacerbated by the societal propaganda regarding the belief in our inherent inferiority. The result of this dynamic is widespread insecurity. Many of us are terrified at confronting our weaknesses because it would inflame fears of our own inadequacies. Given the toxicity of our collective experiences of Enslavement, we are prone to exert violence against other Black people as a function of our struggle with self-worth. Organizing amongst Black people is hard because we often have to endure these toxic conditions that are not financially lucrative.
This is why investing in our collective healing is so important, because it has real implications on our ability to organize in a self determined way. As a person who has organized primarily amongst Black people, doing the work to move through the toxicity that are the residues of Enslavement in a healthy way is essential to truly build Black Power. It is much easier to organize amongst white people who are prone to a paternalistic attitude that prioritizes a Black person’s passion and feelings over an actual willingness to be accountable to Black people and secure material improvements in our collective of quality of life. Also, it is more financially lucrative to spend a lot of time proximate to white people and their institutions.
White people also have the ability to create platforms for Black people that can elevate them to leadership without having been immersed in Black life. Being truly radical means valuing Black formations that are not highly esteemed by white institutions, and seeing them as a source of power. This means that those afterschool programs led by Black people, football coaches, small business owners, local artists, etc are more important than the credibility that comes from being affiliated with philanthropy, or celebrities, or academics. This is truly a sacrifice because this approach does not lend itself to making money to sustain a quality livelihood.
Additionally, it forces an organizer to test their ability to bring along people who may not agree with them. For instance, one of the issues that many so-called radical activists and organizers fail to address is the issue of gun violence and homicide in places like Baltimore. The lack of concern about this issue among people who call themselves radicals is a shortcoming in their political analysis. Black elders that live in communities plagued by violence don’t have the luxury of waiting for the end of capitalism to live in a safe environment.
As a person who believes in the goal of abolishing prisons and the police state, I am also clear that this won’t happen overnight, and requires a tremendous amount of infrastructure development to make this happen. In light of that, it becomes important to advocate for reforms that can address some of the immediate issues like the ability for people to be safe in their neighborhoods, which are also steps in the direction of police and prison abolition.
For example, LBS has advocated for a decrease in the police budget, and an increase in investments in grassroots, community-based anti-violence programs. The more that the police budget decreases, and the more effective community-based anti-violence programs are at demonstrating their ability to address violence, the closer we can get to police abolition. The point here is that being radical is not just about advocating a radical position. It is about being able to organize around the concrete issues that Black people face, delivering results that impact people’s lives, and building a base of Black people that allows for true Black autonomy and confrontation of white corporate power. This also helps to move our community in the direction of police abolition because they are able to see the benefits of that perspective in their lives.
The true metric for an organization or individual being radical is their ability to make powerful institutions make substantive concessions that meaningfully undermine their power and as a result, puts more power in the hands of the masses of Black people. Being disruptive in rhetoric or actions does not constitute being radical. White people have an interest in the latter as a metric for radicalism because it allows them the appearance of anti-racism, without giving up any power. They can elevate Black people who are superficial disruptors, sell them to the public as an advocate for social justice, and marginalize those who are interested in actually shifting power into the hands of Black people. This is how white liberals have colonized the term “radical.” They have striped the term of having a meaning that is directly connected to concrete transformation of the global system of white supremacy and oppression. Being radical is fundamentally about confronting and shifting power. Any definition of radical where that is not central, ill-serves our community. Being radical should mean things like one or more of the following:
These are examples of what it really means to be radical. There are some figures that mainstream white historiography have distorted our ability to truly understand the substance of their radicalism. Earlier I gave the example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X is also a good example of a figure that has been mis-represented in a way that obscures his true radicalism. Many people describe him as radical because of his fiery speeches, verbal confrontations with white people and his Pan African political methodology. While these contribute to his radicalism, what makes him truly radical was his ability to confront the power of global white supremacy.
More specifically, Malcolm X has a base that he built for several years as he was responsible for going around the country and establishing Nation of Islam mosque. During the course of this work of building institutions, not only did his base consist of the followers of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, but his base included many other Black people who he interacted with while trying recruit people to the mosque. Many of the people who eventually became members of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, that he formed after being expelled from the Nation of Islam, expressed that they admired Malcolm from afar, but were not interested in the religion of Islam. This following contributed to Malcolm being treated as a foriegn dignitary when he spent several weeks in Africa and Asia right before he was assassinated. He spent time with the leaders of African nations who had recently gotten their independence (ie Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Nasser, Ahmed Sekou Toure).
What many people do not realize about the Civil Rights Movement is that a major reason why the government made many of the concessions that it did was the pressure from the newly independent African nations and the Cold War. America could not continue to blatantly brutalize Black people while maintaining the notion of their moral legitimacy around the world that was necessary to advance the expansion of American imperialism. Malcolm X contributed to foriegn policy debates that put pressure on the US. He did this in three particular ways that can be best described as radical political activity. The first is that in 1964 he attended the convening of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) as an observer. He had been lobbying African leaders to publicly take up the call to denounce the oppression of people of African descent in America. During this convening the OAU passed a resolution condemning racist treatment of Black people in South Africa, Rhodesia and the United States. Secondly, he used the fact that he had developed these relationships with African heads of state, and the platform he developed from years of cultivating a base to put public pressure on the UN to put America on trial for its violation of the human rights of Black people. Third, and quite frankly my favorite example is described in A. Peter Bailey’s book “Witnessing Brother Malcolm X: The Master Teacher.” Bailey writes:
Just as disturbing to the FBI, CIA and the State Department were other concrete results of Brother Malcom’s foreign policy agenda. For instance…. statements delivered by two African diplomats during the 1964 United Nations debate on military intervention of the United States and Belgium in the Congo. In a Dec. 10, 1964 article, At UN-Angry Racist Africans, published in the New York Herald Tribune, then one of New York City’s most influential newspapers the reporter wrote: “As Western delegates listened in shocked disbelief, three African Diplomats yesterday denounce the Belgian-American rescue mission in the Congo with the most vituperative language ever heard in the UN Security Council, hurling charges of racialism, imperialism and murder.”…. Kojo Botsio, Foriegn Minister of Ghana, according to one reporter, argued that the United States was no more entitled to intervention in the Congo “than Ghana would be entitled to intervene in the southern state of the United States to protect the lives of Afro-Americans who were from time to time tortured and murdered for asserting their legitimate rights.” Continued the reporter, “Other Western and Afro-Asian delegates, including U.S. Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson, heard the debate in stunned astonishment and made no use of the right to reply to the charges.” The unprecedented connection by the African diplomats of what was happening in the Congo and what was happening in the United States was directly due to the groundwork laid by Brother Malcolm.
A. Peter Bailey,“Witnessing Brother Malcolm X: The Master Teacher.”
Malcolm X was able to operationalize Pan African political power because he was able to animate his ideas with a base of Black people that gave him the leverage to move policy that directly confronted American imperial interest. The ability to get an African diplomat to infer military intervention against the most powerful country in the world is as radical as anything that can be imagined. Again, this was not a revolutionary fantasy, he exerted actual radical political power.
Decolonizing the term radical will require people to be grounded in and re-socialized by traditions of Pan African and self-determined political and cultural formations that have not been absorbed in the white liberal academic mainstream. This does not mean to never associate with white people/institutions or interact with their ideas. Rather it means having a rigorous immersion in bodies of work that are not popular in mainstream spaces. If you are in Baltimore, it means to go to spaces like Everyone’s Place African Cultural Center and build your intellectual war-chest there. Also, decolonizing the term radical requires having the experience of building and operating institutions that impact the livelihood of the community. It is easy to talk and tell people what they should do, it is very different when you have to build something that actually has other people’s life in your hands. Dr. John Henrik Clarke once said in “Notes on World African Revolution”:
We are now beginning to feel the effects of being excluded from power for so long. If a people are out of power for a long period of time, they long desperately for power; and when they come close to power, they panic. Being out of power so long makes you hungry for power, and when you come close enough to touch it, it frightens the hell out of you. The presence of power eliminates all of your excuses. Figuratively speaking, if you are steering the car you can’t blame whitey because you are in charge now. The one thing oppression does to a people is to kill in them the mind and the will to assume responsibility. When you get on the edge of power you experience a critical moment of self-discovery and that is the tragic separation from having lost power, and this is what the conflict is about…. Many times people want power, but they do not want the responsibility. Too many times we have looked outside of ourselves for leadership and political development…
Dr. John Henry Clarke,'Notes on World African Revolution'
We must shake off the vestiges of injected oppression, that cause us to look to other people to define the instruments of our political struggle and begin to look within. The presence of white people at the demonstrations that emerged after the death of George Floyd to many seems like a sign that white people have reached greater levels of enlightenment and a willingness to act on issues of racial justice. And some of that may be true. It should also concern us because we don’t want to capitulate to what their prevailing notions of radicalism are; a perspective that favors disruption without respect to the less glorious work of building institutions and infrastructure that can shift the white corporate power arrangement. Some will say that the disruption has led to major concessions that would not have happened otherwise, and there is certainly truth to that, but as Frederick Douglass once said, “power concedes nothing without a demand.” The source of those demands is the work of Black institutions and formations doing the work that many of us don’t see, that white people don’t find exciting, that makes the disruptions lead to the concessions that have been publicly stated.
The true test of white people’s actual commitment to Black Liberation is the extent to which they will organize on a consistent basis with other white people against the racism of their own people. Showing up where Black people are is easy. Showing up at a protest about police brutality gives white people street credibility that can be leveraged into social status and opportunity. Being a white person that is consistently challenging white people when Black people are not around is much harder. Unfortunately, white people like that remain significantly in the minority.