Mistaking Identity Politics: A Conversation with Asad Haider (Part II)

Detail from the cover of Mistaken Identity.

This is the second of a two-part interview adapted from Asad Haider's appearance on The Dig: Discussing the Politics of American Class Warfare. Read Part I here.

Daniel Denvir: Let's talk a little about one key term in the individualist lexicon, which is "white privilege." It's used all the time and I think in my case, it was Tim Wise, God help me, who first introduced me to it long ago in my innocent naive youth.

What is this invisible knapsack of privilege that a white individual or an individual with XYZ characteristics carries around with them, according to this notion of white privilege? And how does that notion differ from what people like W. E. B. Du Bois have argued in terms of "the wages of whiteness"? These seem like the two extremely distinct ways to try to get at something similar.

Asad Haider: Using the metaphor of a knapsack is to me a very misleading or a confusing way to talk about what white privilege. If you want to talk about race as an aspect of people's bodies or something like that, you're just going totally down the wrong track. You have to talk about race as relations between people who get categorized in a particular way because of a particular historical process. It's not just something that's in people; that's false on the scientific level, and it's false on the historical level.

Talking about white privilege as though it's like a knapsack; I think about it like some kind of weird video game that you have an inventory of different tools that the white person uses, and you go around, you encounter some difficult situation, you think, oh yeah, well, here's this tool that I'll use, like this like magic amulet I'll use to get into college.

That's misleading because when we talk about the emergence of privileges for white people, we are talking specifically about the way that populations that are not initially included in the category of the white race, like the Irish and all the other immigrant populations from Europe, which were part of racial hierarchies in Europe when they came to the United States: how do they get invited to join the club of whiteness? This is the language of Noel Ignatiev from How the Irish Became White.

The extension of particular privileges to white people, to people who opted to join the club of whiteness, that's the mechanism by which they are taken away from a situation in which they might recognize their solidarity with black workers and other workers of color. That's fundamentally what white privilege does. And Noel Ignatiev, along with Theodore Allen, they sort of advanced the concept first in the 1960s and they called it "white skin privilege."

But the point of their argument was to say white skin privilege is bad for white people. Obviously, yes, it's good for them in the short term that they have access to particular things, they are safe in certain places and so on, but it's a poisoned bait because they are still subjected to exploitation, poverty, deprivation, and so on. The fact of racial division is what is preventing them from joining with the people who are more exploited and more oppressed than them, but who need to band together in order to attack the common enemy, which is the bosses.

That's just something that's not even considered today when you talk about white privilege, that white privilege might actually ultimately be a bad thing for white people.

This was a core argument, even before that, for Du Bois. The "wages of whiteness" is to highlight the fact that the wages of whiteness are these various symbolic or maybe meagerly economic advantages accorded to white people, just as you just said, precisely to create a division within the working class that maintains the overall status quo. 

Yeah, here's the quote [from Du Bois' 1935 Black Reconstruction in America]: 

The theory of race was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests, who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart, that neither sees anything of common interest.

So that's an elaboration on the psychological wage of whiteness.

I also wanted to quote from, you mentioned Ignatiev —who I believe went under the pen-name Noel Ignatin as well — on this subject, because there's this very pernicious idea that we've been discussing: it's taken for granted that most white people benefit from white supremacy. This is an uncontroversial idea from the center to much of the left. And Ignatin, when he was a member of the Chicago Revolutionary League, wrote this essay entitled "Without a Science of Navigation We Cannot Sail in Stormy Seas." You quote from it:

White supremacy is the real secret of the rule of the bourgeoisie and the hidden cause behind the failure of the labor movement in this country. White skin privileges serve only the bourgeoisie and precisely for that reason, they will not let us escape them. But instead, pursue us with them through every hour of our life, no matter where we go. They are poisoned bait. To suggest that the acceptance of white skin privilege is in the interests of white workers is equivalent to suggesting that swallowing the worm with the hook in it is in the interests of the fish. To argue that repudiating these privileges is a sacrifice is to argue that the fish is making a sacrifice when it leaps from the water, flips its tail, shakes its head furiously in every direction and throws the barbed offering.

I love that passage because not only is it just false that most white people benefit from white supremacy, but the practical upshot of that incorrect analysis is incredibly dangerous. Because if you tell most white Americans that white supremacy is in their interests, their response will be to vehemently defend it. It's precisely what the white supremacist right says to white people, is that it's in your interests.

Also in the end, it really doesn't help us explain very much. People, I'm sure in the comments or on Twitter or whatever will say that we were ignoring that white privileges are real and that the people of color don't have access to these privileges. Actually, the explanation for that is racism, the explanation for that is racial oppression. You don't explain racial oppression but saying that white individuals have these knapsacks in which they've got these little privileges in them.

We have to come back to the straightforward explanation that this is a society which is structured by racial oppression and has been for its entire history. And that white privilege is a way of recruiting a portion of the exploited and oppressed population into facilitating the super exploitation of another portion. That's what white privilege is, and it's real, and it's not in the interests of the people who experience it. Because then, they are unable to see or to join in a movement which can actually overcome the forms of oppression and exploitation that they are also subject to.

A big part of your book that we haven't really gotten into the meat of yet is the fact that this is not a new debate, this is not a new line of criticism that you're advancing. Black radicals have been attacking this form of identity politics for a long time.

This criticism was central to the radical wing of the Black Freedom Movement. You note that it was precisely what the Black Panther Party was critiquing about the Nation of Islam's cultural nationalism, which they dubbed "pork chop nationalism." You also quote from Malcolm X, who moved from separatism toward revolutionary solidarity over time, as saying:

It's impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can't have capitalism without racism. And if you find one and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don't have this racism in their outlook, usually they're socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.

Explain this critique of cultural nationalism from the black revolutionary socialist left, that you're drawing on heavily in this book.

One early moment of this is precisely the response of African American communists like Cyril Briggs and Harry Haywood to Marcus Garvey. Marcus Garvey had the Back-to-Africa movement, but what Haywood pointed out was that the homeland of black Americans was not Africa, it was the US South, where they had been for centuries and had established a culture and a society.

So that idea that there was some kind of mythical origin at which the essence of the race could be rediscovered or found once again, that was very severely criticized by black communists. And as I said before, the response was to say that we can't let the nationalists monopolize the demand for self-determination. We have to take it up as a multinational communist party.

Then of course, the Nation of Islam was another mass movement and Malcolm X's evolution is very complicated because even in the [later] period he's still a separatist, basically; he's taking his lead from the global revolutionary situation. He's pointing to China and Vietnam and even refers to the Russian Revolution as an example of the kind of program that he wants for black people in the United States.

Of course, the Black Panther Party had a very hostile relationship to cultural nationalists. In their case, it was primarily with Ron Karenga's US Organization. You can read a lot of people's accounts of this, for example, I was looking recently at the account of Elaine Brown in her memoirs. She was a major leadership figure in the Black Panthers and she talked about going to one of the meetings of the US Organization and the women had to eat in a separate room. And [the BPP] said no, we're not going to do that. There was some idea that that corresponded to African culture and that's how they had to behave.

Of course, I have a chapter in the book about Amiri Baraka who was very inspired at first by Ron Karenga and was a cultural nationalist for a period and until he finally rejected that for Marxism. He rejected it for Marxism when he realized that the first black mayor of Newark, Kenneth Gibson, who had been put in his position in no small part by the black nationalist organizations of Newark, was just joining in with the existing status quo of municipal politics, and that it was necessary to attack the whole system. At that point, he became a Marxist.

He pointed out [that] this [cultural nationalism] is an invention. It's cobbling together hippie culture with Islam, with kind of racist mythology about what Africa is. This was his reflection when he was in his Marxist period, back on what kind of culture these cultural nationalists were advocating. It was something that was fundamentally not only sexist and oppressive internally in its own various ways — it also didn't have an effective politics. It was based on a mythology, it wasn't responding to the American power structure. It was mainly about building a kind of counterculture.

You brought me to the next thing I wanted to talk about, in terms of Baraka's disaffection with Newark Mayor Gibson, which is part of this broader push in the 70s to win black power in City Halls all over the country. You write:

Desegregation had made it possible for black businessmen and politicians to enter into the American power structure on a scale that had not been possible before, and these elites were able to use racial solidarity as a means of covering up their class positions. If they claimed to represent a unitary racial community with a unified interest, they could suppress the demands of black working people, whose interests were in reality, entirely different from theirs.

This notion of black faces in high places, which Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, another excellent book of hers, calls the most significant transformation in all of black life over the last 50 years.

Explain the significance [this] has had for the Black Freedom Movement and also the left as a whole.

This takes me back to what I wanted to say is the real opposition of my book, which is not an opposition between race and class, but an opposition between mass organization and elite politics. That's fundamentally what this is about. The Black Freedom Movement was targeting the entire social structure and was targeting the whole stratum of politicians, and businessmen, and entrepreneurs, and so on, that existed in a society in which black people were excluded from those positions, for the most part, with exceptions that proved of the rule.

But when it became possible to integrate the power structure, that fundamentally changed the terms of the politics. So that in many cases, at the level of cities, when the city had to deal with a fiscal crisis and impose austerity on the working population, in many cases, it was a black mayor who did this in a majority-black city and used the idea of racial unity to say that this was the right policy move.

It meant that then mass movements, if they were to introduce a challenge to what was going on, they had to use a different language from talking about a white power structure which was excluding black people on purely racial terms. Because now you had a power structure which did have black people in it and you had an attack on basically, the black working population that was advanced in the name of racial unity.

That's kind of a crisis of political language. And I think that's also the context for why a term like identity politics gets taken up in such contradictory ways.

You cite a passage from Nikhil Pal Singh's book Black Is A Country, where he writes that the dominant narrative of the civil rights movement "fails to recognize the historical depth and heterogeneity of black struggles against racism, narrowing the political scope of black agency and reinforcing a formal, legalistic view of black equality."

To what extent does this reigning view of identity politics that we've been talking about rest upon this other thing, which is the sanitization of the history of the Black Freedom Movement, the same thing that made Dodge Ram think it was a great idea to put an MLK speech in their Superbowl ad?

That's an interesting question, because the mainstream appropriation of Martin Luther King was introduced by Ronald Reagan. He signed Martin Luther King Day into law. So it's something that actually stretches beyond — if we're talking about the civil rights movement — it certainly stretches beyond the kinds of populations who now speak about identity politics.

Do you think that a lot of people who are now in the discourse of identity politics are specifically citing the civil rights movement?

No, I don't think they're specifically citing it, but I think that this extremely narrow linguistic emphasis of many so-called identitarians today requires an ignorance and sanitization of the Black Freedom Movement history.

Certainly one of the important things to study and recognize is that the civil rights movement, which made the major achievements that it did and pulled off these massive mobilizations, it was based in a radical tradition. And there was never any conception that the politics of race and the politics of class were separate.

Rosa Parks, for example, was radicalized by some Communist Party anti-racist campaigns. There was the connection to the Socialist Party and the labor movement with A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Certainly Martin Luther King came out of the black church, though apparently as a young man in graduate school he was extremely interested in Marx, according to some biographers.

But he also — I think this is something that is underappreciated, at least I don't see too many people commenting on it, [when] we talk a lot about how Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party connected the black freedom struggle in the United States to the global anti-colonial struggle — we know for example that Martin Luther King in the last year of his life, exactly one year before he was assassinated, gave the speech against the Vietnam War in which he seems to express a lot of sympathy with the Vietnamese struggle for self-determination, though he doesn't come out right and say it.

But actually already at the beginning, in the early–mid 50s, he was connecting the black freedom struggle in Montgomery to the Indian independence struggle. That's what non-violence meant, a connection to Gandhi and the struggle against colonialism in India. That kind of internationalism was always a part of the civil rights movement.

In his commentary on his time in Calcutta, he very much makes it clear that his interest in economic justice is a universal one as well.

He's absolutely explicit about the connection with economic justice. If you read the 1964 Why We Can't Wait, you can see how clearly — and that's years before the Vietnam moment, it's before the turn to black power, he didn't need to be pressured from outside by Black Power to say these things about economic justice. And of course, in 1957, he went to Ghana for the Declaration of Independence and he stopped in London to meet with CLR James. These networks and connections were always there. They were part of the Black Freedom Movement throughout.

I think another thing that should be understood is that in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, many people who came out of the New Left made a turn towards communism and Marxism and they formed, not necessarily parties, but organizations which they hoped would turn into communist parties. And it didn't go that well, they didn't succeed in that and there's a book that I think any American leftist should read, which is Max Elbaum's Revolution in the Air, which talks about this moment, about the New Communist Movement.

What you have to understand about those movements is that they developed their interest in Marxism because of the Black Panther Party. Because of these other organizations that were revolutionary nationalist organizations that saw their own struggle in the United States as part of the global anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist struggle.

I talked about how on a global scale, Marxism is important. It matters. It's something that we talk about today, regardless of our views, because it was taken up in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and so on. But that also holds true within the United States. Marxism was crushed by McCarthyism and the bureaucratization of the Communist Party and it came back to life within the Black Freedom Movement. People need to understand that.

That's very important. I want to ask you about another line of school of criticism of identity politics that unlike yours, is very stupid and dangerous, which is the one put forward infamously by Mark Lilla and company. When he's arguing against identity politics, what I think he's arguing is that any real concern about race and sexuality, and about racism and homophobia and sexism, has led to some sort of like liberal coalitional unity being undermined. Unity around what? Because he's by no means a socialist.

You make an argument that's entirely to the contrary. What are these anti-identity liberals exemplified by Lilla arguing?

For Lilla, there is a clear thing that he wants to converge around and that is citizenship. He makes a universalist claim and he wants to defend his universalism against these forms of difference, these fixations on difference. I have a slight philological problem with saying that identity politics is fixated on difference because identity is the opposite of difference, but let's leave that to the side. That's for the philosophy seminar room.

His universalism is one which is a contradictory universalism, because it is a universalism which is restricted to the nation-state. He has an American universalism and he believes that citizenship, and we can criticize him for taking up a category which is so contested right now —

Of all things.

Of all things, yes, it's not like that solves any problems. Of course, he will respond that he thinks that people who are currently undocumented immigrants should have access to citizenship. But the problem is still there, that this kind of universalist category of citizenship is based on the existence of a nation-state and it's based on the attachment to the identity of this nation-state to American values, to American culture. He wants everybody to be welcomed into that.

But actually Lilla still has an identitarian conception. He just has one which he considers to be universalist. But like so many universalisms, it's false universalism. Because it's based on the identity of the American nation-state.

One thing that I wanted to talk about that we haven't gotten to yet is Afro-pessimism. I'd like you to explain Frank Wilderson's argument. You write: "the 'antiblackness problematic' radicalizes and ontologizes a separatist, black exceptionalist perspective rejecting even the minimal gesture towards coalitions implied by the term 'people of color.'"

Explain Afro-pessimism and how the term antiblackness has come to be a substitute for the concept of racism and what the implications of that move are.

Frank Wilderson bases his understanding of slavery, first of all, on the argument of the sociologist Orlando Patterson, who defines slavery in terms of natal alienation — the fact that the slave was transferred away from the mother at birth — and social death. These categories for Patterson are about defining slavery in a comparative perspective, from ancient slavery up through modern plantation slavery. So they had no specific attachment to racial slavery. There were many practices of slavery which were not based on any kind of racial division or racial ideology, but had other ideologies attached to them.

Wilderson takes these terms and concepts and attaches them specifically to the African slave trade and understands blackness as the kind of core void of what he calls white civil society. It becomes a kind of axis around which the entirety of the existing society is built, on the negation and destruction and annihilation of blackness.

This is not just white [people]. I quote him in the book, in this very kind of surprising anti-Palestinian statement, I quoted him saying that Arabs and Jews have both equally participated in this kind of anti-blackness. That kind of argument is based on not only something which is politically completely contrary to the kinds of solidarities that were central to the Black Freedom Movement, but it's also a highly metaphysical way of speaking, which doesn't allow us to understand the specificity or contradictions and complications of the history of slavery.

Another sort of key term in Afro-pessimism that went into wide circulation was "black bodies." That's a way to say that black people, through slavery, were excluded from the category of the human and excluded from the category of the subject. And that's a little complicated, because Saidiya Hartman, who Wilderson and other Afro-pessimists claim as a source, even though to my knowledge she has never claimed to be a participant in this tendency — she points out how there were ways in which slaves performed a particular kind of subjectivity and so on. It was a contradictory thing, it's not a simple in-or-out. Anyway, we're getting sort of technical.

To me, what that kind of language does today is it takes all of the agency away and when people describe the Black Lives Matter movement in terms of black bodies, they suppress the fact that there were all of these people on the streets who had never read Frank Wilderson or even Coates, who were out there resisting death, who were saying they refuse to die, they refuse to be killed by the police. So for me, this was a serious misunderstanding and misrepresentation. It did a disservice to the mass movement that was emerging at that point.

You quote Robin D.G. Kelley on this question of bodies and violence against black bodies. He writes: "In the argot of our day, 'bodies' — vulnerable and threatening bodies — increasingly stand in for actual people with names, experiences, dreams and desires." To me, this lack of particularity seems like it also serves to obscure the particular sorts of black people who are most often getting murdered by the police and incarcerated and suffering all sorts of other obscenities.

It's obscuring the struggles — and the struggles to survive — that people are engaged in every day. And the resistance that people engage in every day, even if it's not recognized as such. This is something else that Robin D.G. Kelley has written very well about. Dragging your feet and taking extra time on your breaks at work — these are forms of resistance that are always at play. This rhetoric, this metaphysical rhetoric of victimhood as I was referring to earlier, takes that agency, that possibility of resistance away.

The last thing I want to talk about is that this discussion: this debate that you're writing about is not just academic, to invoke an anti-intellectual colloquialism. These politics can concretely be quite destructive in organizing campaigns, for people doing political work. You write about your own experience organizing to fight tuition hikes at UC Santa Cruz. Explain what happened.

We had the occupation of a building and successfully ejected the administration and had held that building for a couple days. The trajectory was not clear at that point, where things were going to go. But somehow the idea began to circulate that this was a movement of white anarchists or white Marxists. And that it was not a safe space for people of color. The primary organizers were just completely taken by surprise by this. I wasn't one of them, by the way. I was a supporter and participant, but it had been mainly undergraduate students who had organized it.

Most of these primary organizers were people of color and they were just completely taken aback by this. There were attempts to respond, but what ultimately happened is that a group called itself The People of Color Caucus, it was a group of some people of color who had showed up, had not been involved in the previous organizing but had showed up to participate, and I went to one of their meetings; white people were not allowed. They basically planned out a split and they took about half of the remaining people at the occupation with them and sort of destroyed the reputation of the occupation.

That's pretty much the experience that got me to start writing the materials that led to this book. Just by seeing just how destructive it was and how these particular languages circulated and were used in such de-politicizing ways. 

Before I let you go, I want to ask, in this current moment what path the left might have to break out of this ideological trap.

There are a couple things. One is that people who consider themselves socialist should stop allowing there to be a division between problems of race and problems of class. They should stop making it possible for people to represent socialism as a white project and the same goes, by the way, for gender. It should not be possible to say that socialism is a male project. It should be fundamentally feminist. That means not only the issues of representation, who is in the leadership, who publishes in your magazines, and so on, but also the kinds of demands that you take up, the kinds of communities you decide to work in, the kinds of coalitions you decide to enter into. That is one fundamental thing.

The second thing is that there should be a turn away from the endless cycle of debate, denunciation, and so on. The worst sort of manifestation of this is social media, in which you get the most attention for attacking someone else. That doesn't help build any kind of movement. The usefulness of social media for movement building is severely exaggerated.

But it's not just social media: these kinds of things also happen, as I described in my own experience, in general assemblies and political meetings. The important thing to recognize is that the end goal is not to have a victorious discussion and it's not to win an argument. The arguments can last for seven hours. I have been in that seven-hour general assembly.

The important thing is to move away from endless conversation towards practical activity and to work on concrete projects. When you work on concrete projects, you have to find a way to work with other people. You have to find a way to work with people who are different from you and whose views you may not share. And this is one of the fundamental lessons of the Black Freedom Movement, of the civil rights movement, just in terms of going and making coalitions to actually work on a project. You need to make a poster, you need to plan a rally, you need to whatever your project may be, you need to organize people to go canvassing for something.

That's the way that people can bridge ideological divisions and it's also the way that, if you have understood the necessity of this, it's also the way that people can be politically educated. It's the way that white people can learn to question their own assumptions and prejudices. It is the way that men can learn to listen when women speak.

Which is something we've learned recently from the teacher strikes and I spoke out with Eric Blanc, in terms of people who might have conservative ideas in their heads, their ideas are changing through engaging in struggle.

Exactly. Somebody once asked where correct ideas come from and the answer is they come from practice. And I'll leave it to the listener to figure out who said that.