Is there a role for white people in the movement against racism? And what should it be?
These questions are raised by the global wave of explosive protests that followed the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
The demonstrations have been brilliantly militant and multiracial.
Images of black and white people defiant in the face of rubber bullets and pepper spray gives a glimpse of our potential power.
And they show how unity can be forged in struggle.
Many white protesters carry signs that attack white supremacy, complicity and ignorance.
Perhaps the most famous simply says, “White silence=violence.”
Slogans such as these reflect a popular common sense that “white society” is responsible for racism. It isn’t hard to see how so many arrive at this conclusion.
We live in a society soaked in racism, and the vast majority of the faces at the top of the system are white.
The politicians who lie about black lives, the cop arresting, the judge sentencing and the boss hiring and firing are all usually white.
The anger at “complicity” doesn’t stop there.
Among those liberals who declare themselves “colour blind” there is a less open racism that seeks to set limits on expressions of anger at racism.
It’s right to be angry at the slave trade and its legacy, they say, but it’s wrong to go around pulling down statues.
These people too are rightly targets of protesters’ ire.
Some concepts of white supremacy argue that all white people are to some degree racist—either consciously or unconsciously.
And “white privilege” means they all have a common interest in perpetuating prejudice.
There are, apparently, no exceptions, save for perhaps an enlightened few in the academic field of “whiteness studies”.
Robin DiAngelo, diversity trainer at the University of Washington and author of White Fragility, says, “The problem with white people is that they just don’t listen.
“In my experience, day in and day out, most white people are absolutely not receptive to finding out their impact on other people.
“There is a refusal to know or see, or to listen or hear, or to validate.”
DiAngelo argues that white people fear discussing racism because of the way they are implicated in it. She seems oblivious to the fact that on hundreds of demonstrations black and white people are doing precisely that.
And it is good that protests are pushing people to deeply examine the society they live in, their role in it, and so on.
Black voices that are often suppressed are now rightly to the fore.
But there are three important problems with thinking that all whites hold racist ideas.
First, it blurs any distinction between types of racism. So the racism that drove the cop who killed George Floyd is the same as that of the white anti-racist protester with “inner prejudices”.
To link the murdering cop to the white protesters on the streets against them is a terrible slur upon anti-racism.
What is more, the vision of racism that it conjures up is so all encompassing that no force in society could ever defeat it.
Of course, within the anti-racist movement there are important arguments about how we understand racism and who has the right to speak about it.
And people come into activity often with a mass of ideas, some brilliant and inclusive, others more tainted by prejudice.
It’s right to challenge racist ideas wherever they are found.
Struggle is the best arena to tease out these differences and overcome some of the contradictions we carry in our heads.
We can use these periods to try and win a wider change in the way people think about race and racism.
The second problem is the unrelenting way anti-racism becomes centred on relationships between individuals, rather than between people and the system.
We are asked to focus on our interactions with others, and observe the myriad of ways in which power is manifested.
It is here, we are told, that we see racial prejudice at work.
We are asked to focus on our interactions with others. But this quite deliberately misses out the way that racism is structured into capitalism.
But this quite deliberately misses out the way that racism is structured into capitalism.
Rather than blame the state for police racism, immigration controls and poverty, we are encouraged instead to look at white people and their individual biases.
This obscures the divide and rule strategy of society’s elite and swerves the question of institutional racism.
And instead of pointing to the origins of racism as a justification for the slave trade, it rests on an ahistorical notion of prejudice being “natural”.
That’s why the head of the Metropolitan Police was keen to embrace theories of “unwitting and implicit bias” to explain her force’s racism.
It was a desperate attempt to throw out the accusations of “institutional racism” that followed the 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
Pioneering director of the Institute of Race Relations, Ambalavaner Sivanandan, long ago argued that theories about “individualised” racism were a planned diversion from the fight against state racism.
“People’s attitudes don’t mean a damn to me,” he said.
“The acting out of prejudice is discrimination, and when it becomes institutionalised in the power structure of society, then we are dealing not with attitudes but with power.
“Racism is about power, not prejudice.”
And that power is not equally distributed. Power in a capitalist society rests in the hands of its elite—the ruling class—and those, such as the police, that do its bidding.
The purpose of racism in this context is to divide workers by casting one group as superior to others. Of course black workers suffer the most from this tactic. But the impact on the working class as a whole is catastrophic.
By dividing workers, racism acts as a brake on self-activity. It damages the interests of the entire class—including those of white workers.
A third problem is that, despite its radical sounding rhetoric, declaring all whites to be to some degree racist is disarming.
Treating prejudice as so deeply engrained in the subconscious mind offers no route out of oppression. Instead the best we can hope for is that white people become aware of their prejudices, admit to them, and help expose them in others.
According to this philosophy, there is no way to truly break the circle of racist ideas that simply travel from one generation to the next. We can only hope for good laws to regulate our interactions.
Whites can, we are told, be “allies” in the struggle in certain circumstances. But their inability to feel racism means they lack an instinctual response.
This month we’ve seen cops throw an older white anti-racist to the ground—he suffered a bleed from the brain.
Several white protesters have lost an eye to police rubber bullets.
The idea that whites can only offer limited solidarity just doesn’t stand up.
US intellectual Cornell West last week talked about how president Donald Trump may be fantasising about a coming “race war” there.
He said, “The good news is that if there was a race war, we’ve got lot of white brothers and sisters on our side now.
“And that makes a big difference.”
The protest movement has created a space in which millions of people feel that they can speak out against racism.
The once silenced voices of black working class people are now at the forefront.
And they find a ready echo among millions of white people for whom racism is an utter abhorrence.
The result of this combination is that, finally, the state has been pushed onto the defensive.
Murdering police officers who would normally have walked, will be tried.
Forces that acted with impunity have had stations burnt to the ground and now, suddenly, are eager to look humble.
Politicians who spouted platitudes while refusing to tackle racism now find their actions in an uncomfortable spotlight.
And in workplaces, on social media feeds, and at thousands of street corners people are discussing how to break the hold of prejudice.
That is the power of militant protest—black, white and brown.
- Say It Loud—Marxism and the fight against racism, edited by Brian Richardson
- Are we all divided by privilege? Socialist Worker article by Esme Choonara bit.ly/privilegetheory
- A Rebel’s Guide to Malcolm X, by Anthony Hamilton
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk