Finding Black Liberation in the Politics of Being Left Alone

Days after a 21-year old white gunman walked into two Atlanta massage parlors and fatally shot eight people –six of them Asian –the writer Zaid Jilani appeared on the internet news program, Rising to aver:

“There is not a white supremacist wave of terrorism or hate crimes or anything like that.”

That is, in fact, exactly what is happening according to FBI Director Christopher Wray, who told Congress in February that domestic terrorism investigations have doubled over the past four years to nearly 2,000, while the number of arrests of white supremacists over that same span has nearly tripled. Those figures are consistent with a study published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2020, which described a strong correlation between right-wing terrorism and white supremacy and went on to predict a likely increase in terrorist attacks. It read:

“Right-wing attacks and plots account for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years. Right-wing extremists perpetrated two-thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020.”

Similarly, the Southern Poverty Law Center described the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol as an “insurrection to maintain white supremacy” which is in keeping with both historical trends and testimony given this week by an African American police officer who recalled a white mob of 20 people hurling racial epithets at him when he told them had voted for Joe Biden and that his ballot should count.

“One woman in a pink ‘MAGA’ (Make American Great Again) shirt yelled, ‘You hear that, guys, this n—— voted for Joe Biden!’’ Officer Harry Dunn of the U.S. Capitol Police told lawmakers in his testimony.

In a white paper, researchers at the Center wrote:

“Typically, new hate groups are formed and membership grows in reaction to changes in society, especially changes that challenge white hegemony. A historical example of this is the Ku Klux Klan, which was virtually nonexistent in the 1930s and 1940s after its membership reached record levels in the 1920s, and came roaring back in the 1950s. White nationalist beliefs had not declined in the 1930s and 1940s alongside group membership, a fact that became clear when organized hate activities erupted after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education made segregation illegal. In the modern era, we tracked a gradual rise of hate groups during the George W. Bush administration, when numbers peaked in the 800s. After Barack Obama became the nation’s first Black president, the number jumped to more than 1,000.”

Additionally, the FBI reports a spike in hate crimes, with the number of racially motivated murders rising to a record, 51, in 2019. Of 7, 314 hate crimes reported to federal authorities in 2019, nearly half targeted African Americans, far more than any other demographic group.

Despite the abundance of empirical and anecdotal evidence, Rising’s co-host, Krystal Ball, didn’t just help Jilani absolve whites of any culpability in domestic terrorism, but put the onus on African Americans, whom she claimed are jealous of Asians’ success, saying:

“There is a history of tension sometimes between minority groups and that’s a very uncomfortable conversation to have . . .  you’ve got people who are poor in largely black communities who see people coming in and doing somewhat better than they are.”

In a report published in March of 2021, Columbia University sociologists, Jennifer Lee and Tiffany Luang pushed back against the “(t)rope of Black-Asian conflict,” writing that “Christian nationalism is the strongest predictor of xenophobic views of COVID-19, and the effect of Christian nationalism is greater among white respondents, compared to Black respondents.”

Moreover, the sociologists wrote, both Asians and African Americans across the country have worked to mend fences since a Korean merchant was sentenced to probation for fatally shooting a 15-year-old African American girl, Latasha Harlins, in 1991, helping trigger the Rodney King riots a year later. As a result, Asian-Americans are among the country’s most stalwart supporters of reparations for blacks, and blacks are among the most eager volunteers to accompany elderly Asians on their errands.

“Hence, not only does the frame of two minoritized groups in conflict ignore the role of white national populism, but it also absolves the history and systems of inequality that positioned them there.”

The Black Panthers were fond of saying that before you can address a problem you must first be able to describe it. Between the surge in white terrorism on the one hand, and Ball and Jilani’s punditry on the other, the primary obstacle confronting African Americans’ freedom struggle begins to come into sharp focus. From the right, whites are engaged in a campaign to assassinate the black body; from the left, whites are engaged in a campaign to assassinate the black character or reputation. Either way, the vast majority of people who should be our allies in America’s class struggle want us dead.

In the popular white imagination, physical death and social death are linked, as explained by the historian David Brion Davis in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery In The New World.  What defines enslavement, historically, is not “ownership” per se, but the vassal’s “perpetual condition of dishonor,” which provides the “master class with a resource for parasitic and psychological exploitation.” This, Davis argues, imposes on the slave a type of “social death” leaving him “wholly excommunicated from civic life,” not unlike livestock (the etymology for the word “chattel” is derived from the Latin word for both “capital” and “cattle”).

Both Ball, who is white, and Jilani, who is of South Asian descent, identify as political leftists and both have strong ties to the Democratic Socialists and the left-leaning Jacobin magazine. But the deep ruptures in the global economy since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 have produced a mass hysteria among whites, few of whom, it must be pointed out, are operating in good faith as the class war ratchets up. Needing to pick a side, today’s generation of workers is doubling down on a white identity rather than cede their racial privileges, no matter how tenuous.

Whiteness is no longer just an advantage but in racial capitalism’s zero-sum game, has become a kind of property in and of itself, and in an effort to maintain its value, most whites engage, reflexively, in what I can only describe as white respectability politics.  Much like segments of the white left urging African Americans to support the January 6th rioters against a Democratic Party that is pro-war and itself deeply racist, Hill and Jilani’s top-down journalism makes no pretense of having its finger on the pulse of the community; it merely asserts its “whiteness,” and therefore its “rightness,” and instructs everyone else to fall in line.

This is the very predictable result of a white liberalism born in the 1960s as a response to Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and racial grievances that could no longer be ignored. While large swaths of the white working-class saw integration as a threat to the social hierarchy, the liberal elites saw it as the only means to save racial capitalism. In other words, liberalism’s raison d’etre was not to support the radical black polity that was democratizing the country but to domesticate it.

I say all of that to say that if African Americans are to survive a kleptocracy that essentially stole everything we had following the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, if we are ever to address whites like Ball who have the audacity to tell us who we are, what we should teach our children, and what we should dream of being, we must find a political system that will enable us to be left the fuck alone.

Or as the late historian John Henrik Clarke warned us:

“We have no friends nowhere.”

From Emancipation to now, African Americans have always embraced universal reforms, from public education to collective bargaining rights to a universal basic income to a jobs guarantee for every able-bodied adult. Look what it’s gotten us.

While every black person in the U.S. likely knows white people of goodwill, our differences with whites are sadly irreconcilable, and maybe even immutable. Make no mistake about it, we can’t do it all on our own; I would suggest that when the crisis reaches its nadir, and whites are slightly more serious about fixing what’s broken, African Americans might consider collaborating with the white working class to snatch the low-hanging fruits of single-payer health care, a progressive tax system, a basic income grant, and removing obstacles to unionization as a starter.

But our real objective needs to be reparations in the form of sovereignty, or black power, over our communities, just as whites have over theirs.  Beginning next month, Black August, I will explore in great detail what that might look like but suffice it to say, blacks need control over our communities, on Chicago’s South Side, North Philly, South Dallas, Houston’s 5th Ward, New Orleans 9th, Miami’s Overtown and Liberty City neighborhoods, Southeast DC, Detroit, Prince George’s County, and all other communities where we make up the majority. We need to decide what books our children read in class and who teaches them, who polices our neighborhoods and who sits in judgement of our defendants, how much consumers should pay for rent, food, and medicine. We need to grow our own food, distill our own alcohol, bottle our own water, assemble our own bicycles, umbrellas, televisions, and maybe our automobiles, airplanes, cell phones, and laptops too. We should manufacture every stitch of underwear that we wear.

We were, ironically, closer to achieving this 50 years ago than we are today. It was, in the final analysis, Malcolm X’s blunt rebuke of integration that made him such a danger to the status quo, and one of the most celebrated intellectuals of the 20th century worldwide. In a 1969 interview, Malcolm’s friend and disciple, James Baldwin, explained the worldview thusly:

I don’t think this Republic is the summit of human civilization. . . Perhaps I don’t want to become like Ronald Reagan or the president of General Motors. . . Perhaps I have another sense of life. . .Perhaps I don’t want what you think I want .  .  . They want me to become an accomplice to my own murder; that is what you really mean by ‘integration . . .

“I just want you to leave me alone . . .”