Racism Inside White Radical Social Change Groups by Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin, self published in October 2011
It’s hard to write a review of a book I agree with so much. Usually when I’m taking notes on a book I can start to just write a few sentences summarizing what any given chapter is about. This one on the other hand, I mostly took quotes, because it’s exactly what many people in the U$ need to be reading, so it’s hard to paraphrase to just give you an idea. Ex-Black Panther, ex-political prisoner and author of Anarchism and the Black Revolution, one of my favorite theoretical tracts, Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin has put together a concise work for action to build an actual progressive mass Left movement in the U$.
In the Introduction: Contradictions of Race and Class in the Struggle, Lorenzo writes “Activists must recognize the damage of internal racism, the politics which support it, and how to deal with it, and then act swiftly and forcefully, sometimes even ruthlessly.” I agree. One of my only fundamental problems with the work over all would be a concern I have of white radicals who have a tendency to take things to extremes to compensate for their own past mistakes, going on some sort of witch hunt using this book, with no accountability to people of color (POC) in their own communities, quoting Ervin like some quote Malcolm X and/or Huey P. Newton, etc. now.
In Chapter I. Internal Racism: the example of Anarchism, Ervin critiques the contemporary anarchist movement in the U$, but doesn’t let the rest of white left off the hook. In fact, he wrote it’s only an example of the racism the rest of the white Left suffers from to varying degrees, “so it serves as a perfect example.” He denounces the political conformity whites demand of POC, while allowing Feminists and LGBT folks to hold on to their political autonomy. Characterizing this as “a political literacy test”, he shows how this discrimination fits into the over arching history of POC exclusion from the political process in the U$. Ervin wrote he believes in the need for unity between white, Black and other POC to overthrow capitalism, but emphasizes the history of white workers selling out workers of color.
In Chapter II. Plantation Politics and the Left, starts with Ervin’s analysis of white supremacy as a form of national oppression, not just ideas. He writes “there will be no revolution if white supremacy is not attacked and defeated first.” I agree, but I think this point falls out of focus as Ervin goes on to largely focus on internal racism. I’m not doing this to split hairs over words; I do think that most white Leftists in the U$ aren’t racist in the sense that they don’t discriminate against POC for being POC, but I do think all the political literacy tests they make people take are a form of white supremacy. That we are only good in so far as we meet whatever fantasies whites have about us. I don’t think this is something unique to Leftists. I think this is one of the reasons why churches and the rest of society is so segregated. Therefore I think we live in a white supremacist society, a critique I picked up from bell hooks.
Ervin describes how historically white workers have been largely bought off by the capitalist class, and Anarchists and Socialists have largely failed to even bring up race politics, much less confront the racialized aspects of labor. He goes on to describe the construction of the concept of whiteness that has been part of this process in the U$, rather than Europeans identifying with their respective homelands such as they do in Europe, or as immigrants to the U$. But Ervin offers his perspective on how we can start to work through this.
Ervin writes “Blacks (or Africans in America) are colonized.” He goes on to describe this concept of America as a mother country with internal colonies. I think this is a very important concept, and one white people need to understand. Without a doubt he believes Blacks most liberate themselves and articulates how whites can relate to that. He also writes how the Black Revolution in the U$ is just part of an overall social revolution. I think this is really important, as I have long believed what he writes is relevant to all other POC, and should be studied by whites and POC need to understand and support each other’s struggles. He closes out the chapter writing about how calling out white Leftists for their chauvinism is because whites do have a role in this struggle, we just need to figure out how we can work together, even writing “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.”
In Chapter III. Who Said You Were an Anti-Racist Ally? Ervin describes the concept of a white led anti-racist movement as “total nonsense.” He describes his attempts to work with groups such as Anti-Racist Action (ARA) and Love and Rage to explain why. He does give mad props to Michael Novick and Los Angeles ARA. I similarly have a really good impression of Chicago’s South Side ARA. Ervin emphasizes how “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” before going in-depth into that history and why it’s still relevant.
In this chapter there is a sub-section, Fascist Paramilitary movements. Recognizing they aren’t the biggest threat to POC, Ervin goes on to explain who they are, and why they need to be confronted.
In Ch. IV. Illusions of the Left and Liberals: But I’m an Anarchist, Communist, Socialist, or Liberal Progressive, and cannot possibly be a racist. The title really lays it all out here. It’s short and to the point. One thing that’s sort of unclear, it looks like maybe a Ch. V from an earlier draft, Pacifism as Defeatism got subsumed in this printing’s Ch. IV and VI. This subject is also touched on as he moves on to the next chapter, It’s hell for POC to Work at Peace and Justice Centers.
In Ch. VI Ervin describes his degrading work experience as the Administrative Coordinator of the Nashville Peace and Justice Center which I frist read about in comments he posted on People of Color Organize! in an article about Tim Wise. unfortunately Wise’s role is absent from this section. I personally still think Tim Wise is a great speaker and writer, and was gravely disappointed with this information and would like to know if he has addressed it yet. To a certain degree, what I appreciate about Wise’s work is having the chance to reference white people to a white person so hopefully they’ll take him seriously, and have a feeling I’m not the only one. So possibly at least to a certain degree, Wise’s movement rock stardom is part of the problem of white supremacy. For this reason, the absence of Wise’s role in the story as recorded here is strange.
In the next chapter, Ervin writes about tokenism on the Left, comparing tokenized POC to the house negroes in the days of chattel slavery. He characterizes it as an example of ideological imperialism, which needs to be smashed. Again to me I think this is an important point to talk about this sort of white chauvinism as white supremacy. What Ervin’s analysis boils down to is a need for POC to try to either transform white progressive groups or shut them down. This is the second fundamental disagreement I have with this work. I’ve had a great deal of experience with the so-called Catholic Worker Movement, a pseudo-Left wing, Starvation Army type outfit. Though I have very little good to write about it, I feel like they have little or no relevance to POC, and though they largely live off of donations they gather for the poor, they do sometimes distribute a great deal of resources to the poor, so though I know groups like these do a great deal of harm, almost no POC take them seriously anyways. Plus my first and last experiences with this Movement, in Ohio City, Cleveland and Joliet, IL, were good, and to a certain degree, the tokenization I experienced at one of the main Houses I lived and worked at in Uptown, Chicago was light years ahead of the usual racism one comes to expect in the U$ work place, especially one so white.
Of course sometimes places like this should be taken over or shut down, and I had a great deal of fun taking part in an Anarchist/Autonomist/Anti-Authoritarian POC (APOC) coup of sorts at an Infoshop in Pilsen, Chicago in late 2009, which in a lot of ways was sort of a slow motion Smack A White Boy Round 4. It was an important move on our part, and cut a lot of hot air out of the usual political debates that are the real reason that’s the Windy City. When we had the people and the resources, it made sense to take over. If we didn’t? I doubt shutting it down would have really achieved anything. There are bigger fish to fry. White Fronteir Collectives and what not are rarely worth our time and energy in any sense.
In Ch. VII, Ervin critiques the lack of work white radicals do in their own communities. He emphasizes how he doesn’t oppose whites living in communities of color, but makes it clear they are not needed to organize POC, and also critiques the focus on white drop out culture of many white radicals. I think this last idea cuts both ways, since I’ve seen too many white radicals trying so hard to act as white or working class as possible and end up being irrelevant, almost laughable caricatures. Like how many people, POC or white, are really comfortable with the whole white anti-racist skinhead thing? It’s almost funny to hear white radicals trying to out working class each other, or lording it over me because I have my Associate of the Arts and cooked or washed dishes through most of college in stead of only working in a factory or printshop which I also did for whatever that’s worth.
Frankly, white working class youth, kids whose fathers worked in auto or auto related industries, steel, etc. were the people I grew up with calling me the n-word and a chink and not one of them ever stuck up for me when race was the issue. Ever. And the arrogance has never toned down, though it has largely become for different reasons, it’s still the same thing to me. So I came to identify with white drop out culture in my youth and still Love hardcore, punk and some metal. Pretending to like professional sports and all the other posturing some white radicals do, I even know one who took up smoking cigarettes to bond with our co-workers during breaks! is just so much that: posturing. Especially in cities like Chicago and Tucson where there are sizable Latin Punk and Hardcore scenes, I think dropout culture can be part of an entire culture of resistance that coincides with demonstrations, sharing food, educational film screenings and reading radical literature.
Ervin shares some of these insights and concerns in a sub-section, The Anarchist and Progressive Movements: Still Too White, Middle Class and Self-Absorbed. He also writes more about his attempts to work with the old Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
In the next sub-section, Class Unity and POC Autonomy is the only real solidarity, Ervin puts forward a program for POC to work in principled coalition with whites. There is no compromise on the question of shared leadership and risks, and radical whites getting their own houses in order before joining an anti-racist movement.
In the next sub-section, Building an Anti-Racist Liberation Support Movement, Ervin articulates what that anti-racist movement would look like; a mass, class-conscious movement looking to unite all workers against white supremacy and capitalism, in conjunction with the ongoing struggles of POC. He points to the early radical labor, Civil Rights, Black Power and the Welfare Rights movements as examples, along with more recent urban rebellions such as in LA in 1992 and Cincinnati in 2001. He continues to emphasize that this would be a coalition of POC and white allies, and warns against why this coalition would have to remain out of the democratic wing of the Democratic Party’s sphere of influence.
In the next sub-section, Ervin stresses some of the steps he thinks that can help diversify the white conceptions of struggle in the U$. Firstly he looks at the white radical, especially Anarchist, identification with Punk Rock, though acknowledging how cuts both ways, and the growing Latin Punk Scene and its Anarchist element. He goes on to write about more programmatic steps that can be taken, which I think is far more important. I’d be called a platformist in certain circles. There are already great political hip hop, film, poetry readings and what not. And when white Leftists come to dominate these kinds of cultural events, it’s just bad.
The next sub-section is Ervin’s brief Critique of the Anti-Globalization Movement, which segues into the next chapter, Occupy Wall Street: internal racism run amok!
In Ch. IX Ervin writes about his hope and disappointment with the Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS) through his work with Occupy Memphis. One of the most critical points being, “The tyranny of a movement without structure claiming that there is no leadership is a common scam known to Anarchism, where hidden ‘shot callers’ perpetrate the farce of equality,” concluding “if we cannot trust OWS and these solidarity groups in the movement to even include all those locked out and oppressed by this capitalist system, in favor of a ‘white rights’ middle class agenda, how could we ever trust that after a social revolution, we would not have yet another racist society?”
Ch. X. The Total Uselessness of Anti-Racist consciousness raising programs is a scathing critique for which the title of the chapter says it all. It’s brief, and lead well to the final chapter, What should I do about internal racism in my organization?
There is a series of questions to answer when thinking about dismantling internal racism in a white progressive group such as “how is the group governed?” and “How many peoples of color belong to the group?”
Afterwards, Ervin offers 10 transformative tips. Some of them may seem obvious, but any POC who have been active in Left politics in the U$ will know how hard it would be to actually “Never tolerate racism in any form.” He even makes a point of warning about “covering up racist incidents [no matter how miniscule].” This would be a great deal harder than it seems and if you are honest at all you know it.
Brief sub-sections, Is Opportunism really the issue? No condescending Saviors. and Declaring War on internal Racism inside white social justice movements. reiterate some important ideas in the tract and lead to the Conclusion: The Struggles of Peoples of Color and their hostile relationship with the state is the Revolution, not white radicalism. Again, the title here says it all. Ervin writes again about the history of white workers selling POC out again and again through out U$ history.
Ervin acknowledges how this started to change with the Civil Rights Movement, but goes on to blast the New Left for its lack of support for Black Radicals in Detroit and other cities involved with the labor movement and the Black Panthers when they were basically destroyed by the FBI’s CounterIntelligence Program (COINTELPRO). Here I wonder what he thinks about the Motor City Labor League, which from what I understand was a white auxiliary to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Weather Underground’s attempts to take heat off the Panthers, even retaliating for some assassinations of Panthers.
Though over all, the basic idea “that the historical and political contradiction between North American Black/POC/Indigenous is what is propelling the conflict between them and the government today.” and what flows from this is solid analysis that needs to be studied, discussed and acted upon promptly.
A brief biography follows, along with the contact info for the Memphis Black Autonomy Federation, which he and his wife, JoNina Abron-Ervin, who is also an amazing writer and longtime activist are a part of.
To purchase The Progressive Plantation: https://www.wepay.com/stores/829693/item/the-progressive-plantation-660773
For more of Ervin’s writings: http://libcom.org/search/apachesolr_search/Lorenzo%20Ervin