Tag Archives: Troy Davis

The Paralysis of “White Privilege”

Note: The piece below was written as a quick response to several folks who’d asked my opinion of the YouTube video in question. I was somewhat flabbergasted that 16,000 people read it within hours and treated it as though it were a treatise on Marx and race, which is why I have posted Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s article on Marx, Race and Class above, an excellent exposition of the question.-Sherry

There’s a troubling YouTube video, “I AM NOT TRAYVON MARTIN,” making the rounds on Facebook that was posted by a young white woman attacking white antiracists who wear “I am Trayvon Martin” t-shirts. Because the 3-minute video expresses so much of what’s paralyzing and wrong-headed about the “white privilege” argument popular among some left activists, it’s worth a comment.

Essentially, her argument amounts to this: 1) social-justice minded white people (all described as middle class) should not and cannot identify with victims of racism like Trayvon; 2) white people, including antiracists, can only identify with homicidal racist maniacs like George Zimmerman; 3) people of color are multifaceted individuals capable of independent thought and action; white people are an undifferentiated mass of privileged racists who must constantly resist the urge to oppress racial minorities — no matter what they do, say or think they think, all whites are racists and benefit from racism.

This is a rather bleak picture of race and class in America. It is also a completely inaccurate description of and response to a rising tide of multiracial unity in the face of Trayvon Martin’s killing, and Troy Davis’s execution before it.

I haven’t the time here to flesh out all my disagreements, but here are my big three.

One, wearing an “I am Trayvon Martin” t-shirt, or chanting it, is an act of solidarity with victims of racism, not an assertion that everyone faces the same oppression because obviously we don’t. Trayvon’s own mother  has called for multiracial crowds of protesters to identify with Trayvon and the fact that thousands have done so is a testament to a growing disgust with racist police, courts and actions.

Wearing these t-shirts and chanting that you are anybody other than who you actually are is a collective means of expressing outrage at the system, sympathy with victims of injustice and unity with others who feel the same way. It’s why it became so popular among abolitionists to wear “I am Troy Davis” t-shirts in the run-up to that innocent Black man’s execution in September 2011, and why his sister Martina Correia insisted everyone wear one. Visual solidarity is powerful.

The video woman argues that white people wearing these t’s must think that they are making Trayvon into a white, middle class person — presumably like themselves — in order to render him sympathetic in the eyes of racists.

Isn’t it possible, even likely, that people protesting racism wearing these t-shirts actually oppose racism and don’t seek to justify it? If not, then everything we do is called into question as possibly its opposite; nothing we do matters, nothing we say or argue has any validity, but must be suspect as meaning its complete opposite. This is possible, I suppose, but it’s a also a recipe for doing nothing, saying nothing, challenging nothing — paralysis.

Two, arguing, as the video woman does, that white people could only wear “I am George Zimmerman” t-shirts exposes the essentially reactionary core of this argument. Like Zimmerman, who is Latino, white people have been indoctrinated in racism and though video woman, according to her account, has managed to escape the worst of its clutches through great parenting, education and critical thinking, she along with all other whites are condemned to only identify with oppressors, never the oppressed. In fact, to identify with the oppressed, she argues, is an act of immaturity. Au contraire!

Racism, according to this thinking, is not the result of a ruling class’s need to structure oppression in order to gain profits and spread crappy ideas that divide the working class majority from itself. The social construction of racism by those in power centuries ago in order to justify slavery is absent in this analysis.

Instead, racism is conceived as a sort of ideological cancer of no clear origin that metastasizes in all white people, regardless of what they do, think or say. And like a dystopic nightmare, there’s no way out.

Third, according to her “white privilege” argument, there are no distinctions between whites in positions of power and the majority without. In fact, there’s no accounting for how a Black president could preside over a racist system in which a Latino man has killed a Black man and was let off by a mostly white police force led by a Black police chief.

She refers to “the system,” but has no class outlook in which to analyze how the system works and in whose interests. Because if all white people benefit— which includes the majority of people on food stamps, on unemployment and living in poverty in the United States — then these benefits are rather illusory, aren’t they?

Of course, on nearly every economic and social gauge, white people on average in this society have it better than Blacks on average. There are clear advantages to being white in a racist society, but that is not the same as arguing that an injury to Blacks is to the benefit of all whites. To assert, as this argument does, that all white people benefit from racism because they don’t experience the same kind of oppression is false and actually lets the real architects and beneficiaries of racism off the hook.

Employers, politicians, landlords, mortgage lenders and others in positions of power have set up these structures and keep them alive to benefit themselves and their class. Most working class people have no say in these matters and the persistence of a racial divide in the U.S. continues to be one of the greatest obstacles to unified resistance to austerity and joblessness to this day. The fact that many whites accept racist ideas is hardly a privilege or to their own advantage.

The Black historian and NAACP founder WEB DuBois captured this dynamic perfectly:

The race element was emphasized in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible.

The video ends with an argument for whites — again, all conceived of as middle class in the midst of the worst depression since the worst depression — to jettison racist ideas and use their “privilege” to fight the system. While I certainly agree with challenging racism, the video ideologically disarms any antiracist white person from actually joining the struggle — whites better not show up to Trayvon marches wearing “I am George Zimmerman” t-shirts!

This video reflects a politically confused way of talking about race as if it were simply about bad ideas in people’s heads and not conscious structures of oppression kept in place by the 1% in the interests of the 1%.

Worse, it’s often counter-productive because by reducing racism to bad ideas and telling all whites they’re beneficiaries, the privilege argument demands ordinary white people relinquish privileges that they do not have, rather than unite to win what’s been stolen from all of us.

Perhaps the most telling thing about this “white privilege” argument is that many radicals have had their sights for justice set so low that it has come to be thought of as a privilege not to be gunned down in the night on a snack errand while wearing a hoodie because of the color of your skin. Isn’t that simply a human right?


Dilbert to Occupy Wall Street: See you Oct. 5!

If the NYPD — likely on the orders of New York City’s second richest man, Mayor Bloomberg — was trying to promote the occupy movement by violently attacking it, they’ve succeeded magnificently.

Their brutal crackdowns on peaceful protesters on two successive Saturdays have managed to help amplify at least one message of the movement: the system is profoundly fucked up and must be changed.

Thousands of ordinary working people have gone down to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Liberty Plaza encampment in the last week to show solidarity with this diverse movement, find out more about it or just imbibe the spirit of resistance.

In a nation that has been crassly homogenized with box stores and strip malls that have obliterated most community spaces, the spreading occupy movement has provided the first commons most of us have experienced in decades, if not ever. That alone seems part of the appeal.

Dozens of teachers showed up at the square Sunday to stage a grade-in. What a creative idea for a group of demonized workers under constant assault to literally work together within the encampment and share what they do and think with each other and the thousands who streamed past yesterday.

If my own white-collar workplace of several hundred cubicle-dwelling Dilberts in Manhattan is any indication, OWS is gaining ground — and not just among self-identified leftists and trade unionists.

As an organized socialist with comrades who have participated in the occupation since the planning stages, I was aware that during the occupation’s first days it went largely ignored by my coworkers. Most of them are under 35 and scrambling to hold onto their precarious employment, as am I, at 46. Even coworkers active on Facebook and Twitter, were largely out of the loop.

But after the initial attack, Sept. 24, captured on video and broadcast on YouTube around the world, the shift at work was palpable. The chatter in the elevators, hallways and coffee stations was about the senseless brutality of the police toward young people just trying to get a hearing. A week after the state of Georgia lynched Troy Davis on Sept. 21, few could avoid making the easy connection between a state that ignored the pleas of an innocent man and the police pepper-spraying, slamming and arresting innocent marchers.

The empire, with a foreign policy of killing and brutalizing to secure its markets abroad, is domesticating its tactics — quite literally in this case — to protect its markets at home.

What was a vague, but widespread sympathy for OWS protesters, is now coming into focus. Coworkers are starting to filter downtown to the occupation and join the free market of ideas on offer at Liberty Plaza. I came back from an early morning spent at OWS last Thursday and reported to a huddled group of coworkers on my debate there with, of all people, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. You know you’re in NYC when…

He and I and an older Black woman community organizer, Queenie, agreed that we need to press for some concrete demands to push things forward. Some occupiers are resistant to any demands. Simmons is for electoral reforms, whereas Queenie and I argued for demands that we feel could help galvanize and channel the discontent, such as a moratorium on all foreclosures and a genuine mass jobs program using the trillions the banks are sitting on.

I also suggested putting a figure on the hugely popular tax the rich sentiment. Given the recent pop culture romanticism with the early 1960s, how about returning to the Camelot-era tax rate for the highest earners: 91 percent. Simmons, whose reported wealth is $350 million, sort of stared back at me wondering if I was serious. The anti-demands occupier nodded in approval.

Why not? If you’ve ever haggled at a flea market or a souk, you know that you stake your claim at the extremes of possibility. If we’re going to fight, let’s demand what we really want. If OWS has pushed one thing to the fore, it’s the sentiment that it’s time to dream big.

This week poses a new possibility. Trade unionists are getting on board, and not just the unions with leftish credentials. The United Federation of Teachers, 32BJ SEIU, 1199 SEIU, Workers United, the Transport Workers Union Local 100 and others are mobilizing for this Wednesday’s mass march, gathering at 4:30 PM at Foley Square (it has changed from City Hall) and marching to OWS at Liberty Plaza.

This will bring the organized working class onto the stage in a very concrete way — with the power to nationalize a debate on a level impossible to dismiss and with the forces to back up a demand. Their sheer involvement, and the unanimous endorsement they have given already, raises the stakes and opens the way to new possibilities  in this movement.

I aim to encourage as many of my coworkers as possible to join me down there. We are among the nearly 90 percent of American workers who are not (yet) in unions. And life is getting much, much grimmer inside what Fortune once nicknamed “the Fidel Castro of office furniture” — though, in all truth, Fidel has had greater longevity than the cubicle, which was invented nearly a decade after he came to power in 1959.

We Dilberts must join our unionized, unemployed, student and retired brothers and sisters on Wednesday, Oct. 5. We may inhabit 3-walled cells by day, but marching in solidarity with thousands to the square will make for a liberating evening. Let’s go Dilberts!

After the march, come join a discussion I’ll be leading on:

The Case for Socialism, Oct. 5, 7PM, Walker Stage, 56 Walker St., north of OWS, south of Canal.

Will Obama Let Georgia Lynch Troy Davis?

I am not an attorney, but I have read the Constitution. Troy Davis is scheduled to be executed Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 7PM, for a state crime, not a federal one, and so we are told the president cannot commute his sentence. Bullshit.

In the last decade alone, presidents have declared multiple wars without Congressional approval, they have defied international law through special renditions, they have run a gulag at Guantánamo Bay, they have ripped up civil liberties to read our e-mails and riffle through our trash and Obama  has just waged a months-long extra-legal war on Libya.

It defies all logic and experience to assert that the leader of the most powerful military and economic empire in the history of the world cannot intervene to stop the state of Georgia from murdering an innocent man.

I don’t know exactly how these things work. An executive order? The tweaking of rules? At the very least, a full-court press of phone calls followed by an emergency press conference to demand justice could be made by Obama and his team to end this nightmare scenario of a 21st-century legal lynching.

I don’t believe he’ll do it. His handlers will scoff and repeat the popular wisdom that they themselves have popularized: this country is too reactionary and racist for a Black president to stand before the country and state legislators and plead for justice for a Black man.

Well, if we we weren’t a nation of crackers in 2008 when Obama swept into office, then why do they insist we are now? And if racist ideas have reasserted themselves in some quarters, the insistence of Obama and Co. on ignoring race all these years is at least partly to blame.

I will not waste time here in repeating the arguments for Troy’s innocence, which have compelled even Ronald Reagan’s FBI director, William Sessions, to call for a halt to his execution. The lack of evidence, no weapon, seven recantations of forced testimonies, even jurors in his trial have come forward to say that they would have voted to acquit if they knew all the facts. The man is clearly innocent.

Yet the silence from the White House is deafening. Even Forbes magazine—which calls itself “the capitalist tool”— has not only asserted Troy’s innocence, but has posed the question, “Should Obama speak out in the Troy Davis case?”

My jaw dropped this afternoon and a flush of hope came over me when I read that Georgia Senate Democratic Whip Vincent Fort joined forces with the Southern Center for Human Rights to call for a strike of execution workers: “We call on the members of the Injection Team:  Strike!  Do not follow your orders!  Do not start the flow of the lethal injection chemicals.  If you refuse to participate, you make it that much harder for this immoral execution to be carried out.” What a magnificent idea!

But once again, Obama is showing himself to be thoroughly beholden to the class of small-minded bigots whose greed, arrogance and indifference shape their every action. Obama is nobody’s dupe. Through his silence on this, like so much else throughout our Not-So-Great Depression, Obama shows himself to be one of them.

If they do execute Troy Davis tomorrow night, at least some of Troy’s blood will be on Obama’s hands.

What you can do now

Given the urgency and the potential we still have to stop Troy’s execution, do what you can.  According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, one person who can actually withdraw the death warrant is Judge Penny Freesemann. Call her at 912-652-7252. If you haven’t signed petitions or made calls to the DA’s office, please click here and do so now.

Though I was scheduled to speak up in Harlem Wednesday evening, it has been postponed a week, and instead the International Socialist Organization is joining forces with Amnesty International and the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and turning over the night to a rally, vigil and march for Troy. We will meet at 6:30 at the State Building on 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and will then march to St. Mary’s Church at 521 W. 126th St. for an indoor rally at 7PM. See you there!

Georgia: Don’t Lynch Troy Davis!

It’s not often when Angela Davis, former prosecutors and the Pope all agree. Along with Amnesty International and the NAACP, they all say that Troy Davis is innocent and should not be executed by the state of Georgia.

Please watch the brief CNN video clip below, read and take action here. The clock is ticking and Troy has less than two weeks to live.