YOU KNOW something’s up when the Daily Mail invokes support for an argument from the Commission for Racial Equality, which it has been campaigning to abolish. The Mail did just that last week when it attacked a high court ruling overturning a 15-year ban on US black separatist Louis Farrakhan entering Britain.
The hypocrisy of the Mail (which in the 1930s ran the headline ‘Hurrah For The Blackshirts’, praising Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists) and of the government (which is considering appealing against the decision) is monumental. No socialist or anti-racist can have any truck with Farrakhan, who has railed against women, gays and Jews. But we should also have no truck with those calling for a ban.
While he has been banned from Britain, scores of out and out Nazis have been allowed here by Tory and New Labour governments. Jean-Marie Le Pen, who describes the Holocaust as ‘a mere detail of history’, came in the early 1990s. Austrian fascist Jšrg Haider, who praises the SS as ‘men of decency’, was here last year.
Farrakhan differs from them not only through being banned, but also because he is not a fascist. He represents an ultra-conservative, dead end reaction to racism in the US. That racism is not simply bigoted ideas held by one group against another. In the US today it means that one third of black men are at any one time in prison, on probation or on parole.
There is segregation in housing and schooling far more severe than anything experienced in Britain-and it is getting worse. Life expectancy in some US black ghettos compares with parts of the Third World. There is an inspiring tradition in the US of fighting this intense racism. Socialists organised trade unions uniting black and white workers during the First World War. That happened again in the 1930s.
Martin Luther King led a mass movement against apartheid-style segregation in the South of the country from the late 1950s. A decade later it inspired a militant fight for black liberation, centred on the working class black ghettos in the North.
The US state responded by assassinating, jailing or driving into exile many key leaders of the movement. But there is another tradition as well. That is to conclude that it is not possible to fight racism, and to seek instead to separate off from whites, setting up a parallel black state and institutions.
The Nation of Islam, which Farrakhan now leads, embodies that tradition. It attracted significant support in the 1950s from black people who suffered brutal racism from the police, and grinding poverty, with its denunciations of the racism of ‘white society’. The Nation turned on its head the racist pseudo-science that said black people were genetically inferior to whites.
It claimed whites are a genetically backward offshoot from blacks. A bizarre theory certainly, but one that could exist only because it reacted to pervasive anti-black racism and chimed in with the refusal of growing numbers of black people to put up with it.
The Nation of Islam, however, could do no more than reflect black anger at racism in a distorted form. It refused to engage in the rising movement against racism. Malcolm X was one of the Nation of Islam’s leading members. He was forced out of the organisation in 1963 for engaging with the movement.
He began to see that the way forward did not lie in the Nation’s idea of creating a separate black capitalism, complete with the bigoted ideas about other ethnic minorities, women and gay people that go with it. Malcolm X looked to broadening the struggle. He expressed solidarity with other groups fighting back and famously declared, ‘You can’t have capitalism without racism’.
Farrakhan has led the Nation of Islam for the last 26 years. Despite fiery speeches about ‘white devils’, many of his ideas are found on the Republican right. He talks in Thatcherite terms about black people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps rather than ‘relying on welfare payments’. His ‘Million Man March’ six years ago tapped the anger among large numbers of black people at racism, poverty and the indifference of mainstream politicians (including the few black ones).
But he offered only demands for them to take ‘responsibility’ and to ‘live morally’. Instead of confronting the power structure, he has adapted to it and hurled abuse at others oppressed by that structure. Socialists have a different answer.
It is an uncompromising struggle against racism and the capitalist system that breeds it. We take sides, as Malcolm X put it, in ‘the global struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter’.
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