avatar
Life After Racism?


[This essay is part of the ZNet Classics series. Three times a week we will re-post an article that we think is of timeless importance. This one was first published Jan, 2003.]

Talk prepared for Life After Capitalism Conference at World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, January 2003
 

 
The Weight of History
 
The Americas were built by murdering the indigenous inhabitants of the land and bringing slaves from Africa to work that land.  That history is 510 years old.  The reason we have racism in the Americas, and what we call ‘white supremacy’ in North America, is because the weight of that history has never been lifted from those who have been forced to bear it. 
 
Today the indigenous in North America are some of the poorest people, under constant attack and pressure by states and corporations who crave what little land and resources they have left, and by racism itself that says that any redress of the history of genocide against them is ‘special treatment’.
 
Today African Americans in the United States are more than 50% of the prison population when they are 13% of the population.  They are also disproportionately represented among the poor, the unemployed, those without health insurance, those killed by police.
 
Afro-Colombians are 70% of that country’s 2 million internally displaced, when they are only 25% of the population.   Mexicans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Brazilians—all know the travails and murderous campaigns against their indigenous populations.
 
This is a 510-year long history, and it is not just a history of the Americas.  We could start our history in 1492, but we have to note that 1492 isn’t just the year that Columbus reached the Americas.  It’s also the year that Europe conquered the kingdom of Granada, the last outpost of Muslim Spain.  In Muslim Spain Christians, Muslims, and Jews had coexisted.  The conquest of Spain by Christian Europe changed that.  Jews and Muslims were forced to convert or be expelled.  Then the Inquisition was created to root out false converts, burn them at the stake, take their lands. 
 
Slavery and the massive theft of land and resources from the Americas was the foundation on which modern capitalism was built.  In order to build that capitalism, it was necessary to destroy whole peoples in the most gruesome ways.  In order to destroy peoples in this way, it was necessary to create a myth that these people Europe was doing these things to were not quite human—that the indigenous were not quite human; the blacks were not quite human.  When it developed these myths Europe was not working from a vacuum: dehumanization was practiced first on the Jews and Muslims (Moors) in Europe itself or in the Middle East.  And I think the roots of modern racist mythology can be found in these medieval notions of blood and purity, of infidels and outsiders, while the roots of modern institutional racism can be found in the construction of capitalism itself, in the genocide, slavery, and colonialism that were a necessary part of capitalism’s construction.
 
Capitalism and racism are still about theft, and plunder.  They are still about dehumanization, war, massacre of helpless people who are treated as less than human. Today’s War on Terror was almost called a ‘Crusade against Evil’.  Several times now, thousands of Muslims have been rounded up and arrested in the US.  The historical parallels are there. 
 
So if we want to go out on a limb and ask ourselves what it would mean for there to be a life after racism, we’d have to take it together with life after capitalism.  Life after racism implies life after capitalism since so much of racism works through the unequal sharing of resources, the starving of many millions for the benefit of the few, and all the mythology and historical baggage designed to justify that distribution. 
 
But there is more to racism than just economics, and more to anti-racism than anti-capitalism.  I would say that the necessary components for a life after racism are four: polyculturalism, autonomy, solidarity, restitution.  My idea for life after racism could be summed up as ‘integration without assimilation, and autonomy without separation’.  I’ll go into detail on these points, but first a note about nationalism.
 
Nationalism is not the answer
 
With all the links between global capitalism, imperialism, and racism, one might be tempted to think that nationalism is the solution.  A liberatory nationalism of third world peoples, to free them from the global capitalist system.  In particular contexts such national struggles can be liberatory.  Of that there is no question.  But caution is necessary. 
 
As Arundhati Roy says
 
"It’s disturbing to see how neatly nationalism dovetails into fascism. While we must not allow the fascists to define what the nation is, or who it belongs to, it’s worth keeping in mind that nationalism, in all its many avatars—socialist, capitalist and fascist—has been at the root of almost all the genocides of the twentieth century. On the issue of nationalism, it’s wise to proceed with caution." 
Arundhati Roy, April 2002
 
While a national liberation movement is based on fighting colonial oppression and a community that comes together to fight that oppression, that shared history has often proven to be insufficient to build on.  When nation-states arise, the nationalism they practice is based on something—territory, or language, or history, or shared cultural practices, or some combination.  Nationalism says that a group that shares some of these things belongs naturally together.  It belongs naturally together so much so that it is the primary community that a person belongs to.  It’s sovereign, meaning that it has the final say.  You might take other things into account, but the nation has the final say. 
 
Today, in spite of all the control that corporations have, the final say over land, over people, over law—belongs to nation states and these nation states have used their power to empower capital.  Who passes the laws enforcing private property?  Who uses the police to break labour or community organizations?  Who attacks and destroys indigenous populations or ethnic minorities?  Nation-states, and nation-states who do all these things, very often, in the name of the nation.  I don’t want to gloss over the role of imperialism here.  Foreign attacks and interventions always play a key role in undermining people’s freedom– but so do local elites and national chauvinism.
 
Again I want to repeat that nations have also been a basis for resistance.  Cultures have been a basis for resistance, against oppression by capital or imperialism. —resistance needs a basis in a community.  The networks of relationships, the shared language and history that make a culture are such a community.  But there are many kinds of communities.  And there is no reason to privilege one kind of community and say it has the final say.  There are linguistic links, religious links, links of interest or friendship.  Should one have to choose between them?  Should one have to choose between being Tzotzil and Mexican, or Quebecois and Canadian, or Malayali, Christian, and Indian, or Muslim, Punjabi, and Pakistani? The formula of nationalism that reduces individuals to a single identity, denying the fact that we have multiple, overlapping identities and belong to multiple communities, is not compatible with a decent world. 
 
 
Polyculturalism
 
So nationalism isn’t the answer. The idea that there are ‘pure’ nations or ‘pure’ cultures to which we owe our allegiance is a problem.  It is not the solution to imperialism, nor is it a healthy reaction to racism.  But neither is the idea, held by some, often Marxists, that all culture is ‘bourgeois’, and that after capitalism, cultural differences will disappear and we’ll have good socialist culture.  That is just the flip side of national purity—this time it’s ‘socialist purity’, forced assimilation, which is equally a nightmare for most people.  Instead of the purity of separate cultures that don’t interact, or the purity of assimilating all into one culture, I would suggest polyculturalism.
 
Vijay Prashad asks:
 
Are cultures discrete and bounded?  Do cultures have a history or are they static?  Who defines the boundaries of culture or allows for change?  Do cultures leak into each other?  … To respect the fetish of culture assumes that one wants to enshrine it in the museum of humankind rather than find within it the potential for liberation or for change.  We’d have to accept homophobia and sexism, class cruelty and racism, all in the service of being respectful to someone’s perverse definition of culture.[1]
Against ‘multiculturalism’, Prashad argues for ‘polyculturalism.’ 
 
A polyculturalist sees the world constituted by the interchange of cultural forms, while multiculturalism (in most incarnations) sees the world as already constituted by different (and discrete) cultures that we can place into categories and study with respect.  What would history look like from a polycultural perspective?  Well, rather than see Hong Kong business exclusively as a hybrid of an ancient Confucianism and a modern capitalism, as in the work of Tu-Wei Ming, we might take heed of the Jesuit role in the making of early modern "Confucianism", as in the fine work of Lionel Jensen… Rather than treat Indian students at Yale as aliens, we might consider that the university received seed money from Elihu Yale, one time governor of Madras, whose wealth came from the expropriated labor of Indian peasants.[2]
 
We can see seeds of these ideas in various places.
 
Autonomy and Solidarity in Chiapas
 
In Mexico City in March 2001, Comandanta Esther of the Zapatistas argued for a Law on Indigenous Rights and Culture.  Esther’s response to the accusation that having a law for indigenous rights and culture, explicitly respecting the autonomy of Mexican indigenous peoples, would result in separation and conflict and ‘balkanization’ was:
 
"This proposal was accused of balkanizing the country, ignoring that the country is already divided.  One Mexico which produces wealth, another which appropriates that wealth, and another which is the one which has to stretch out its hand for charity.  We, the indigenous, live in this fragmented country, condemned to shame for being the color we are, for the language we speak, the clothes which cover us, the music and the dance which speak our sadness and joy, our history.

This proposal is accused of created Indian reservations, ignoring that we indigenous are already in fact living apart, separated from the rest of the Mexicans, and, in addition, in danger of extinction.

This proposal is accused of promoting a backward legal system, ignoring that the current one only promotes confrontation, punishes the poor and gives impunity to the rich.  It condemns our color and turns our language into crime.

This proposal is accused of creating exceptions in political life, ignoring that in the current one the one who governs does not govern, rather he turns his public position into a source of his own wealth, and he knows himself to be beyond punishment and untouchable as long as term in office does not end."[3]

 
The Zapatista proposal was, instead, for a country where "without losing what makes each individual different, unity is maintained, and, with it, the possibility of advancing by mutual agreement.  That is the country we zapatistas want. A country where difference is recognized and respected. Where being and thinking differently is no reason for going to jail, for being persecuted, or for dying."
 
The Law on Indigenous Rights and Culture is something the Zapatistas have been building all along in any case, with their autonomous municipalities.  The idea is not to create tiny islands that do not interact with the wider community—to the extent that they are islands it is because they are surrounded and besieged by the Mexican Army and paramilitary auxiliaries.  Instead the communities are autonomous, self-governing municipalities that seek to relate to the larger community on their own terms.  The ‘balkanization’ feared by opponents of this kind of autonomy comes about not because of self-determination but because of attempts at forced assimilation or worse, expulsion and destruction. 
 
The Zapatistas’ practice shows that autonomy does not mean exclusion.  Far from it.  Indeed, in a Zapatista community and you will meet the indigenous from Chiapas, but you are also very likely to meet Mexicans from anywhere in the country, Latin Americans from anywhere on the continent, North Americans and Europeans, all of whom were invited not to give charity to the Zapatistas but to work with them on a basis of equality and solidarity.  The main spokesperson and military commander, Subcomandante Marcos, is not indigenous from Chiapas but a mestizo from urban Mexico.  When he talked about his first experiences in Chiapas, he said:
 
"It was a nightmare… you have to understand someone who comes from a city, with a university education, coming to a place where everyone is saying to you, ‘leave.  This is not the place for you.’  The earth says this to you, the weather says it, the ground when it turns into mud, the rain… all of it says ‘this is not your place’, and it says so in a language you don’t even understand."[4]
 
By joining the indigenous, struggling with them, suffering what they suffer and establishing trust over years, Marcos is example of how impure lines of ‘difference’ and ‘culture’ can be when  is real, sustained encounter between people on the basis of solidarity and equity.
 
Autonomy and Solidarity in the Andes
 
In Colombia, the afro-Colombians and the indigenous organize for territorial autonomy.  The Colombian constitution recognizes rights of territorial autonomy to the afro-Colombians and the indigenous—but on the ground, the people get massacred. They struggle in spite of this.  The conception of organizations like the PCN, (Black People’s Processes) and the ONIC (National Indigenous Congress)[5], territory and culture are key to the defense of their people and livelihoods from the onslaught of war and global capitalism.  War and capital seek to remove these peoples from their lands, whether for the minerals underneath them or for the rent that can be extracted from them. 
 
Like the Zapatistas, and unlike movements of the religious Right, these Colombian movements are not retreating to some fundamental ‘culture’ after they have given up on the struggle for social justice.  Culture to them is a part of their struggle, a part of their resistance, and a key to their survival. Like the Zapatistas their goal is not to seal off their cultures from outsiders and preserve them, but to live them and even to share their wealth. 
 
This brings them into conflict not only with US and multinational capital and the Colombian authorities and paramilitaries, but also at times with Colombia’s guerrilla insurgency who views ‘ethnic’ demands and claims as counterrevolutionary tools of the counterinsurgency.  While these movements share the insurgency’s desire for social justice, their demand for autonomy is offensive to the insurgency because it has no exceptions: the afro-colombians and indigenous want autonomy from the Colombian government and the guerrillas.  They resist polarization and refuse to be used as tools of the counterinsurgency.  They reach out to the people of Colombia and the world as they try to balance autonomy, solidarity, and social justice against the forces of economic plunder and racist exclusion on the one hand and forced assimilation on the other.
 
Ecuador and Bolivia have also seen movements led by the indigenous, against both capitalist exploitation and forced assimilation and racism.
 
Autonomy and Solidarity in Palestine
 
In midst of conflict like the one in Colombia, it is remarkable to think that there are the seeds of autonomy and solidarity that undermine racism.  The same is true in Palestine: here is an outright communal conflict between a powerful settler state and a dispossessed population like that between Israel and the Palestinians.  How could a movement for national liberation, that seeks to create a new nation-state, have anything but a communal, nationalist focus? 
 
There are movements that bring Israelis to Palestine to protect Palestinians from attacks from Israeli settlers and soldiers.  A movement that brings more and more ordinary people from all over the world to watch, to be on the ground, and use their presence as a human shield to protect Palestinians from the violence of a state that is trying to ‘transfer’ them. There are peace movements in Israel, dissident journalists like Amira Hass or academics like Tanya Reinhart, soldiers like the 500 seruvniks who refuse to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories, Israelis and Palestinians who, after facing soldiers together, after the mere presence of Israelis and internationals reduced the violence that the army unleashed on Palestinians tremendously, would sit together and joke about how ‘Arabs and Jews… we’re cousins’[6]
 
Neta Golan and George Rishmawi are co-founders of the International Solidarity Movement.
 
In Toronto in 2002, Rishmawi, a Palestinian, gave an example of how solidarity could disarm a colonizer when he talked of a siege of Beit Sahour in 1989:
 
"There were Israelis coming in to break the siege and be with the Palestinians.  That was part of an effort against Prime Minister Rabin’s policy of ‘breaking the bones of the Palestinians’.  Our initiative was called ‘Break bread not bones’.  One day the military ordered the evacuation of all the Israelis in the town on the grounds that it was ‘dangerous’ for them.  Luckily some of the Israelis visiting us were rabbis, and they argued.  It was Shabbat, they said—was the Israeli government going to be the only government in the world that impinged on the religious freedom of Jews by forcing them to travel on Shabbat?"
 
Neta Golan, an Israeli peace activist who lives in occupied Nablus, talked about what she had to overcome in order to work in solidarity:
 
"the conditioning runs very deep.  So deep that when I first went to the West Bank, during Oslo, I would have anxiety attacks.  Once a week I would go, and every trip I would be filled with anxiety, filled with fear, thinking: "they all want to kill me!"  And it took at least fifteen minutes of seeing people going about their business, talking to each other, working, doing almost anything other than thinking about how much they wanted to kill me, before I calmed down.  Seeing their openness, their willingness to accept me, their generosity, that has been the greatest gift of overcoming my fear—the chance to discover the wisdom, the beauty of the Palestinian people.  Israelis who can’t overcome their fear are much poorer for not having the chance to do that."
 
This is almost a paradox: internationals trying to assist a national liberation movement; the privileged using the privileged treatment they get as a benefit of racism in order to protect its victims.  But the paradox disappears with the recognition that autonomy and solidarity are friends, not enemies.
 
Autonomy in North America
 
North Americans need not look far away for ideas on how to bring autonomy and solidarity together. 
 
Winona LaDuke said:
 
"On a worldwide scale, it is said there are 5,000 nations of indigenous people; 500,000,000 indigenous people in the world; 5,000 nations. These nations have existed for thousands of years as nations. We share under international law the recognition as nations in that we have common language, common territory; governing institutions, economic institutions and history, all indicators under international law of nations of people. Yet the reality is that on an international scale most decisions are not made by nations and people. Instead they are made by states. There are about 170 states that are members of the United Nations. Most of those states have existed only since World War II."[7]
 
The proposed solution of the indigenous is not to create thousands of additional states, but instead that everyone on the continent must change their conception of land, economics, culture. 
 
Taiaiake Alfred, in his book ‘Peace, Power, Righteousness: an Indigenous Manifesto’, argues not for indigenous ‘sovereignty’, but that the whole concept of ‘sovereignty’ is flawed: not only for indigenous but for everyone.  If idea of ‘sovereignty’ means that one state, acting in the name of one ‘nation’, claims priority over some piece of territory, it is analogous to ideas of a ‘pure culture’ to which a person should have primary loyalty.  The antidote to sovereignty and to purity of culture is the same: to recognize multiple allegiances, overlapping uses and rights without rigid boundaries. 
 
Ward Churchill’s proposal for North America, described in his ‘I am Indigenist’[8] is more traditionally nationalist in outlook.  He argues, citing Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, that
 
"Indian thinking affirms the existence of one—a unique and different—Indian civilization, from which extend as particular expressions the cultures of diverse peoples. Thus, the identification and solidarity among Indians. Their "Indianness" is not a simple tactic postulated, but rather the necessary expression of an historical unity, based in common civilization, which the colonizer has wanted to hide." 
 
Churchill is making an argument similar to Jawarhalal Nehru’s in his ‘The Discovery of India’[9].  That book was written from a jail cell in British India which he was placed in for his nationalist activities.  Nehru surveyed India’s vast, diverse history and concluded that there was a unity of civilization there.  By writing about it, he was seeking to strengthen that unity in the face of a colonial oppressor, and  Churchill’s intentions are similar.  But like LaDuke and Alfred, not arguing for creation of more states on the old model, nor for a return to the past:
 
"I mean, what are people worried about here? Do all of you really foresee Indians standing out on the piers of Boston and New York City, issuing sets of waterwings to long lines of non-Indians so they can all swim back to the Old World? Gimme a break."[10] 
 
Churchill is for territorial autonomy, which does not necessarily mean separation:
 
"My own inclination… tends to run toward complete sovereign independence, but… I have no more right to impose my preferences on indigenous nations than do the colonizing powers; each indigenous nation will choose for itself the exact manner and extent to which it expresses its autonomy, its sovereignty."[11]
 
It’s worth emphasizing Churchill’s point that the ‘exact manner and extent of autonomy’ can be negotiated, but it is the oppressed community that gets to decide. 
 
Restitution
 
The indigenist proposals highlight the nature of a re-negotiated political relationship between peoples.  But for such a relationship to begin on an equal basis, restitution has to be made to reverse the inequalities that a history of racism has left us with. 
 
Manning Marable says:
 
"One-third of all African-American households today has a negative net wealth. The average black household’s wealth is less than 15 percent of the typical white household’s. Most of our people are trapped in an almost bottomless economic pit from which there will be no escape-unless we change our political demands and strategy from liberal integrationism to a restructuring of economic resources, and the elimination of structural deficits that separate blacks and whites into unequal racial universes."[12]
 
This assessment is as valid globally as it is in the US.  The demand for Black Reparations, like the demand for reparations for the 3rd world, is a demand to unmake the plunder that the poor have suffered over centuries and bring about equality.  In order to win restitution, it will be necessary to build solidarity across lines of nation, culture, or colour. 
 
Conclusion
 
These four ideas are instrumental in trying to reach a world without racism.
 
Restitution in order to un-do the unequal distribution of wealth and power that is the legacy of genocide, slavery, capitalist and imperialist exploitation;
 
Solidarity to overcome the color, race, and culture lines that are part of that legacy and have kept people from finding one another or struggling together;
Autonomy because there can be no equal relationship between people or peoples that is not voluntary, and the option and the exercise of autonomy is necessary for there to be solidarity across cultures;
 
Polyculturalism because there is no such thing as ‘pure culture’.  H.L. Mencken wrote in the 19th century that ‘purity of race does not exist.  We are a race of energetic mongrels’.  The same goes for culture—humans are all ‘energetic mongrels’, and trying to force us into some ‘pure’ notion of the nation—or of the religion—or of the race, is a nightmare worthy of fundamentalists like George W. Bush or Osama bin Laden. 
 


 


[1] Prashad, ‘Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting’.
[2] Prashad, ‘Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting’.
[3] Comandanta Esther’s address to Congress, translated by irlandesa.  Znet March 28, 2001 http://www.zmag.org/chiapas1/estmar28.htm
[4] Interview with Nettie Wild, in ‘A Place Called Chiapas’, NFB Films, 1997.
[5] Some sources treating the indigenous and afro-colombian struggles in Colombia are by Justin Podur and Manuel Rozental, ‘A Snapshot of Colombia’ and ‘Against Fear and Invisibility’, Znet http://www.zmag.org/content/Colombia/podur-rozental.cfm and http://www.zmag.org/content/Colombia/podur-rozental3.cfm
[6] See ‘Solidarity with Palestinians’, Diana Valentine, Znet October 28, 2002 http://zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=22&ItemID=2548
[7] Winona Laduke, ‘Islands in a Continent’, LiP Magazine, April 1997 http://www.lipmagazine.org/articles/featladuke_68.htm
[8]Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, ‘Utopia y Revolucion: El pensamiento politico contemporaneo de los Indios de America Latina.  Cited in Ward Churchill, ‘I am Indigenist: Notes on an ideology of the fourth world’ http://www.zmag.org/chiapas1/wardindig.htm
[9] Jawarlahal Nehru, ‘The Discovery of India’.
[10] Churchill, ‘I am Indigenist’
[11] Churchill, ‘I am indigenist’
[12] Manning Marable, ‘In Defense of Black Reparations’, Znet Commentary November 9, 2002
 

Leave a comment