The following is based on a speech given on November 12, 2011, by Noel Ignaitev, a Professor of History at the Massachusetts College of Art and author of the book “How The Irish Became White”.
The United States, like every country in the world, is divided into masters and slaves. For a long time the problem here has been that many of the slaves think they are masters because they think they are white. By white, I am not referring to skin color, but to some people’s belief that they are represented in the society. They may not get everything they want, but at least they are heard.
That belief persisted for a reason. During most of U.S. history the white skin represented a badge of citizenship and social advantage. It brought with it the right to vote and serve on juries, to work in all spheres of the economy, to live wherever its owners could afford, and to spend freely whatever money they had managed to acquire. Even if all overt discrimination had ceased with the passage of the Civil Rights bills—which is not the case—the effects of past inequalities would still be felt. The past is never dead, it’s not even past. The person whose parents and grandparents had a college degree or a skilled job has an advantage in a competitive society over the person whose parents or grandparents walked behind a mule or a mop.
Of course the white skin never guaranteed freedom and dignity; it was the consolation some people got for the absence of freedom and dignity. Now the consolation is not working as well as it once did, and the tremendous turnout for the Occupy Movement on the part of people who are nominally classified as white is testimony to the erosion of their confidence in the value of the white skin.
Yet problems remain. The Occupy Movement here and in other places is not fully representative of those who suffer the most. It is whiter than the population as a whole, and especially of the downtrodden. That is a problem, but it should not lead persons of good will to oppose the Movement or to turn their backs on it. It does need to be discussed, and that is what I propose to do here.
So far the state has been able to deal with all-white movements by selective concessions and repression. Examples of this are old-time craft unionism, the official “peace” movement, and middle class feminism and gay rights. It finds it easy to isolate and repress an all-black movement. For reasons rooted in American history, a movement that brings together black and white is the most dangerous to the existing order. The question that faces the Occupy Movement is how to transform itself into a solid movement embracing both the racially privileged and the racially oppressed.
Contrary to what you may have heard, when the Civil War broke out, the slaves watched and waited. They were waiting to see if the dispute was merely a family quarrel among whites, or whether it was serious. Once they were convinced that the north was determined not to allow things to go back to the old way, they intervened, by withdrawing their labor power from the plantation and enlisting in the Union Army. We know this from W.E.B. Du Bois’s great book, Black Reconstruction in America, especially chapter 4. Their intervention decided the outcome.
A number of black observers have pointed out that the Occupy Movement is fighting against conditions from which black America has been suffering for decades, if not centuries, and that the repression the Movement faces is far less than what black Americans have faced. While I have not been sent here to speak on behalf of black America, I feel safe in saying that the majority of black Americans are in sympathy with the goals of the Occupy Movement, and are watching it, waiting to see where it goes.
The way to enlist more black folk in the Movement is not by adding specific demands aimed at them in particular, but by demonstrating seriousness and radical vision. Part of that demonstration will be by showing persistence and creativity in resisting repression. The famous words of Malcolm X—By Any Means Necessary—must become our motto. Another part of the demonstration will be by projecting a vision of a new society so different from what exists that it will overturn all existing social categories, including race.
Can we project a vision that ties together the issue of race with the general potential of this movement?
As a partial response to my question, I direct your attention to the prison. The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by looking at its prisons. Every thoughtful person knows that prison is a bad institution. In addition to the two-and-one-half million people held in cages, there are probably an equal number directly or indirectly involved in putting and keeping them there. They, too, are imprisoned. Moreover, there is no evidence that prisons in any way reduce what is called “crime” (a term I dislike because it ignores the reality that “crime” is merely the retail department of what in wholesale is called business). In fact, prisons are universities of rape, prostitution, robbery, extortion and slavery.
The prison is probably the most important institution in the lives of black Americans. You know the statistics—black folk going to prison at five-to-ten times the rate for whites, one of every four black men between the ages of 16 and 50 in prison, awaiting trial, on parole, etc. More black men are caught up in the penal system now than were enslaved in 1850.
I am sure that some of you regard immediate abolition as an unrealistic demand. Even if it is agreed that most people in prison are there as a result of accidental and unfortunate circumstances, the largest number being held for a five-dollar high, nevertheless, it may be pointed out that there are some bad people in those places, and who would want them walking around or living next door?
It is precisely because prison abolition seems so unrealistic that I propose a campaign to achieve it. One of the most harmful effects of whiteness is that it cripples the imagination. The Occupy movement seeks to expand the power of the imagination. Part of its task will be to put forward a new concept of realism. Can it embrace a vision of a world without prisons?
Prisons cannot be abolished without restructuring the entire society. To make the commitment to a world without prisons is to invite people to think about alternate ways of living together. You have posted a sign declaring this encampment to be a drug- and alcohol-free zone. You adopted that policy after full discussion, and you enforce it directly, without the state’s courts, judges, police or prisons. I ask you to think about that example, and imagine how you might extend it throughout the entire society.
Before the Civil War most people—at least most people in the north—knew that slavery was wrong. Nevertheless, few could envision the country without it: How could four million people who had been made dependent suddenly be turned loose in a modern society? What about the problem of labor competition?
The Abolitionists refused to engage in those discussions, which always turned into excuses for the continued existence of slavery. They insisted on immediate, total, unconditional emancipation of the slaves in the land where they lived. They turned out to be the most realistic of all.
I am asking the Occupy Movement to adopt their stance: Be Realistic! Demand the Impossible!