On a recent trip to the South I found myself in Memphis, the city where Martin Luther King Jr. was struck down by an assassin’s bullet just over thirty years ago. Memphis, I discovered, is home to a “National Civil Rights Museum,” established by a local trust of African-Americans active in civil rights causes. Tucked out of the way on a side street, the museum is housed in the building that was once the Lorraine Motel, the very site where Dr. King was murdered. I decided to go.
Except for two white 1960s Cadillac convertibles parked under the motel balcony, the lot outside was empty when I arrived. It is part of the museum’s plan to preserve the memories of that somber day in April three decades ago. The cars belonged to King and his entourage, and have been left as they were the morning he was killed. Above them, a wreath hangs from a balcony railing to mark the spot where Dr. King fell. Beyond is the room where he had slept the night before. It, too, has been preserved exactly as it was, the covers pulled back, the bed unmade, the breakfast tray laid out as though someone would be coming to pick it up.
Inside the building, the first floor of the motel has vanished completely, hollowed out for the museum’s exhibits. The cavernous room has become a silent stage for the dramas of the movement King once led. These narratives are recounted in documents and photographs, some the length of wall frescoes, bearing images as inspirational today as then. In the center of the hall, the burned shell of a school bus recalls the freedom rides and the perils the passengers once endured. Scattered about are small television screens whose tapes recapture the moments and acts that once moved a nation. On one screen a crowd of well-dressed young men and women braves police dogs and water hoses vainly attempting to turn them back. It is a powerful tribute to a movement and leader able to win battles against overwhelming odds by exerting moral force over an entire nation.
As a visitor reaches the end of the hall, however, he turns a corner to a jarring, discordant sight. Two familiar faces stare out from a wall-size monument that seems strangely out of place—the faces of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, leaders of the Nation of lslam. Aside from a portrait of King himself, there are no others of similar dimension in the museum. It is clear that its creators tended to establish these men along with King as spiritual avatars of the civil rights cause.
For one old enough to have supported King, such a view seems incomprehensible, even bizarre. At the time of these struggles, Malcolm X was King’s great antagonist in the black community leading the resistance to the civil rights hope. The black Muslim publicly scorned King’s March on Washington as “ridiculous” and predicted the failure of the civil rights movement King led because the white man would never willingly give black Americans such rights. He rejected King’s call for non-violence and his goal of an integrated society, and in so doing earned the disapproval of American majority that King had wooed and was about to win. Malcolm X even denied King’s racial authenticity, redefining the term “Negro,” which King and his movement used to describe themselves, to mean “Uncle Tom.”
King was unyielding before these attacks. To clarify his opposition to Malcolm X’s separatist vision, King refused to appear on any platform with him, effectively banning Malcolm from the community of respect. The other heads of the principal civil rights organizations, the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins and the Urban League’s Whitney Young joined King in enforcing this ban. It was only in the last year of Malcolm’s life, when the civil rights cause was all but won, and when Malcolm had left the Nation of Islam and rejected its racism, that King finally relented and agreed to appear in the now famous photograph of the two that became iconic after their deaths.
Yet this very reconciliation—more a concession on Malcolm’s part than King’s—could argue for the appropriateness of Malcolm’s place in a “civil rights” museum. Malcolm certainly earned an important place in any historical tribute to the struggle of the descendants of Africans to secure dignity, equality, and respect in a society that had brought them to its shores as slaves. Malcolm’s understanding of the psychology of oppression, his courage in asserting the self-confidence and pride of black Americans might even make him worthy of inclusion in the temple of a man who was never a racist and whose movement he scorned.
But what of Elijah Muhammad? What is a racist and religious cultist doing in a monument to Martin Luther King? This is a truly perverse intrusion. The teachings of Elijah Muhammad mirror the white supremacist doctrines of the Southern racists whose rule King fought. According to Muhammad’s teachings, white people were invented six thousand years ago by a mad scientist named Yacub in a failed experiment to dilute the blood of the original human beings, who were black. The result was a morally tainted strain of humanity, “white devils,” who went on to devastate the world and oppress all other human beings, and whom God would one day destroy in a liberating Armageddon. Why is the image of this bizarre fringe racist blown up several times life-size to form the iconography of a National Civil Rights Museum? It is as though someone had placed a portrait of the leader of the Hale-Bopp Comet cult in the Jefferson Memorial.
After I left the museum, it occurred to me that this image reflected a truth about the afterlife of the movement King created, the moral legacy of which was in large part squandered by those who inherited it after his death. The moral decline of the civil rights leadership is reflected in many episodes of the last quarter century: the embrace of racist demagogues like Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton, as well as indefensible causes like those of Tawana Brawley, O. J. Simpson, the Los Angeles riot, and the Million Man March on Washington, organized by the Nation of Islam and cynically designed to appropriate the moral mantle of King’s historic event.
The impact of such episodes was compounded by the silence of black civil rights leaders over racial outrages committed by African-Americans—the anti-Korean incitements of black activists in New York, the mob attacks by black gangs on Asian and white storeowners during the Los Angeles race riot, the lynching of a Hasidic Jew by a black mob in Crown Heights, and a black jury’s acquittal of his murderer. The failure of current civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson, Kwesi Mfume, and Julian Bond to condemn black racists and black outrages committed against other ethnic communities has been striking in its contrast to the demands these same leaders make on the consciences of whites, not to mention the moral example set by King when he dissociated his movement from the racist preachings of Malcolm X.
This moral abdication of black civil rights leaders is integrally related to, if not fully explained by, their close association with a radical left whose anti-white hatred is a by-product of its anti-Americanism. The attitudes of this left toward blacks are so patronizing that one disillusioned activist was inspired to write a book about them entitled Liberal Racism. As a result of this alliance, ideological hatred of whites is now an expanding industry not only in the African-American community, but among white “liberals” in elite educational institutions as well. Harvard’s prestigious W.E.B. DuBois African-American Studies Institute, for example, provided an academic platform for lecturer Noel Ignatiev to launch “Whiteness Studies,” an academic field promoting the idea that “whiteness” is a “social construct” that is oppressive and must be “abolished.”
The magazine Race Traitor is the theoretical organ of this academic cult, emblazoned with the motto: “Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity.” This is hardly a new theme on the left, echoing, as it does, Susan Sontag’s perverse claim that “the white race is the cancer of history.” (Sontag eventually expressed regrets about her remark, not because it was a racial smear, but out of deference to cancer patients who might feel unjustly slurred.) According to Race Traitor intellectuals, “whiteness” is the principal scourge of mankind, an idea that Louis Farrakhan promoted at the Million Man March when he declared that the world’s “number one problem … is white supremacy.” “Whiteness,” in this view, is a category imposed on American society by its ruling class to organize the social order into a system of marxist-type oppression. Consequently, “the key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race.” This new racism expresses itself in slogans lifted right out of the radical 1960s. According to the Whiteness Studies revolutionaries, “the abolition of whiteness” must be accomplished “by any means necessary.” To underscore that this slogan means exactly what it says, the editors of Race Traitor have explicitly embraced the military strategy of American neo-Nazis and the militia movement in calling for a John Brown-style insurrection that would trigger a second American civil war and destroy the symbolic (and oppressive) order of whiteness.
Such language is incendiary and fuels a widespread denigration of Americans—including Jews, Arabs, Central Europeans, Mediterranean Europeans, East Indians, Armenians—who are multi-ethnic and often dark-skinned, but who for official purposes (and under pressure from civil rights groups like the NAACP) are designated “white.” Unlike anti-black attitudes, which are universally decried and would trigger the expulsion of their purveyors from any liberal institution in America, this racism is not only permitted but encouraged, especially in the academic culture responsible for the moral and intellectual education of tomorrow’s elites.
An anthology of the first five years of Race Traitor, for example, has been published by a prestigious, academic-oriented publishing house (Routledge) and was the winner of the 1997 American Book Award. Its jacket features praise by a prestigious Harvard professor, Cornel West, who writes: “Race Traitor is the most visionary, courageous journal in America.” West’s coziness with the racist Louis Farrakhan (he was a speaker at the Million Man March) has done nothing to tarnish his own academic reputation, his popularity with students, or his standing in the “civil rights” community. Afrocentrist racists like Leonard Jeffries, the late John Henrik Clarke, Derrick Bell, and Tony Martin—to name just a few—have also been integral parts of the academic culture for decades, often running entire academic departments. By contrast, a distinguished Harvard scholar, Stephan Thernstrom, who is white, was driven out of his classroom by black student leftists who decided that his lectures on slavery were politically incorrect because they did not reflect prevailing leftist views.
In recent decades, anti-white racism has, in fact, become a common currency of the “progressive” intelligentsia. Examples range from communist Professor Angela Davis, whose ideological rants are routinely laced with racial animosity (and who recently told an audience of undergraduates at Michigan State that the number one problem in the world was white people), to Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, whose boundless suspicions of white America amount to a demonization almost as intense as Elijah Muhammad’s. In her introduction to an anthology about the O. J. Simpson case, Birth of A Nation ‘Hood, for example, Morrison compared the symbolic meanings of the O. J. Simpson case to D.W. Griffith’s epic celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, in order to imply that white America acted as the KKK in pursuing Simpson for the murder of Ron Goldman and Simpson’s ex-wife.
With university support, Race Traitor intellectuals in the field of Whiteness Studies have produced an entire library of “scholarship” whose sole purpose is to incite hatred against white America, against “Euro-American” culture, and against American institutions in general. According to the editors of Race Traitor, “just as the capitalist system is not a capitalist plot, race is not the work of racists. On the contrary, it is reproduced by the principal institutions of society, among which are the schools (which define ‘excellence’), the labor market (which defines ’employment’), the law (which defines ‘crime’), the welfare system (which defines ‘poverty’), and the family (which defines ‘kinship’).” The editors of Race Traitor characterize the presence of whites on this continent as an unmitigated catastrophe for “peoples of color” and an offense to everything that is decent and humane. In the perspective of these race radicals, white America is the “Great Satan.” In academic cant, they replicate the poisonous message of the black racists of the Nation of Islam.
Some of the manifestations of this anti-white racism are explored in this volume, the purpose of which is to open a frank discussion of a subject that is almost never directly discussed. Almost all the chapters first appeared as columns in the Internet magazine Salon, a left-of-center publication with sufficient editorial independence to include a dissident writer like myself. This, in itself, may be a hopeful sign of what may be possible if a dialogue is encouraged. The tolerance of Salon‘s editors for the views in this book should not be surprising, since they are the same views once advanced by the civil rights movement King led. Unfortunately, if experience is any judge, that will not make their author immune from charges of racism.
As those familiar with my autobiography, Radical Son, know, I once occupied the other side of the political divide. My views on race, however, have remained entirely consistent with my previous commitments and beliefs. I opposed racial preferences in the 1960s, and I oppose them now. Then, I believed that only government neutrality towards racial groups was compatible with the survival of a multi-ethnic society that is also democratic. I still believe that today.
What has changed is my appreciation for America’s constitutional framework and the commitment of the American people to those ideals. America’s unique political culture was indeed created by white European males, primarily English and Christian. It should be obvious to anyone with even a modest historical understanding that these antecedents are not incidental to the fact that America and England are the nations that led the world in abolishing slavery and establishing the principles of ethnic and racial inclusion—or that we are a nation besieged by peoples “of color” trying to immigrate to our shores to take advantage of the unparalleled opportunities and rights our society offers them.
The establishment of America by Protestant Christians within the framework of the British Empire was historically essential to the development of institutions that today afford greater privileges and protections to all minorities than those of any society extant. White European-American culture is a culture in which the citizens of this nation can take enormous pride, precisely because its principles—revolutionary in their conception and unique in their provenance—provide for the inclusion of cultures that are non-white and non-Christian (and which are not so tolerant in their lands of origin). That is why America’s democratic and pluralistic framework remains an inspiring beacon to people of all colors all over the world, from Tiananmen Square to Haiti and Havana, who have not yet won their freedom, but who aspire to do so. This was once the common self-understanding of all Americans and is still the understanding of those who have been able to resist the discredited and oppressive worldview of the “progressive” left.
The left’s war against “whiteness” and against America’s democratic culture is integrally connected to the Cold War that America fought against the marxist empire after World War II. It is in many respects the Cold War come home. The agendas of contemporary leftists are merely updated versions of the ideas and agendas of the marxist left that once supported the communist empire. The same radicals who caused the social and political eruptions of the 1960s have now become the politically correct administrators and faculty of American universities. With suitable cosmetic adjustments, the theories, texts, and even leaders of this left display a striking continuity with the radicalism of thirty and sixty years ago. Their goal remains the destruction of America’s national identity and, in particular, of the moral, political, and economic institutions that form its social foundation.
The left’s response to the observations contained in this volume is not difficult to predict. Impugning the motives of opponents remains the left’s most durable weapon, and there is no reason to suppose that it will be mothballed soon. In the heyday of Stalinism, the accusation of “class bias” was used by communists to undermine and attack individuals and institutions with whom they were at war. This accusation magically turned well-meaning citizens into “enemies of the people,” a phrase handed down through radical generations from the Jacobin Terror through the Stalinist purges and the blood-soaked cultural revolutions of Chairman Mao. The identical strategy is alive and well today in the left’s self-righteous imputation of sexism, racism, and homophobia to anyone who dissents from its party line. Always weak in intellectual argument, the left habitually relies on intimidation and smear to enforce its increasingly incoherent point of view.
It is not that no one else in politics uses such tactics; it is just that the left uses them so reflexively, so recklessly, and so well. In the battle over California’s Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) to outlaw racial preferences, for example, the left’s opposition took the form of a scorched-earth strategy, whose purpose was to strip its proponents of any shred of respectability. The chief spokesman for the anti-discrimination initiative, Ward Connerly, though he himself is black, was accused of anti-black racism, of wanting to be white, and of being a bedfellow of the Ku Klux Klan. (The left invited former Klan member David Duke to California to forge the nonexistent connection, even paying his expenses for the trip.)
During the campaign, NAACP and ACLU lawyers who debated the Initiative with its proponents relied almost exclusively on charges of racism and alarmist visions of a future in which African-Americans and women would be deprived of their rights should the dreaded legislation pass. To make their case, the anti-CCRI groups sponsored television spots that actually featured hooded Klan figures burning crosses. A fearful voice-over by actress Candace Bergen explicitly linked Ward Connerly, California Governor Pete Wilson, and Speaker Newt Gingrich with the KKK, claiming that, if CCRI’s proponents succeeded, women would lose all the rights they had won, and blacks would be thrown back to a time before the Civil Rights Acts.
In the years since the passage of the California Civil Rights Initiative, not a single one of the left’s dire predictions has been realized. Women have not lost their rights and segregation has not returned. Even the enrollment of blacks in California’s system of higher education has not significantly dropped, although demagogues of the left—including the president of the United States— have used a shortfall in admissions at the very highest levels of the system (Berkeley and UCLA) to lead the public to believe that an overall decline has taken place. One year after the Initiative passed, enrollment had significantly fallen only at six elite graduate, law, and medical school programs in a higher-education system that consists of more than seventy-four programs. Yet there has been no apology (or acknowledgment of these facts) from Candace Bergen, the NAACP, the ACLU, People for the American Way, or the other leftist groups responsible for the anti-Civil Rights Initiative campaign and for the inflammatory rhetoric and public fear-mongering that accompanied it.
When an earlier version of a chapter in this book, “Why Democrats Need Blacks,” was published in Salon magazine, the editors printed several long responses from black readers, including the award-winning Berkeley novelist Ishmael Reed. Reed suggested that I did not really care what happens to blacks and that I am insensitive to injustice when it is inflicted on blacks—a not-so-subtle imputation of racism. In a futile attempt to forestall such attacks, I had cited the opinions of black conservatives in the article itself. The critics’ response was to dismiss these conservatives as “inauthentically black,” “Sambos,” “Neo-Cons,” and “black comedians.” From the point of view of leftists, the only good black is one who parrots their party line.
There is no real answer to such patronizing attitudes and nasty attacks. Nonetheless, in closing this introduction, I will repeat the response I made to Ishmael Reed in the pages of Salon:
I have three black granddaughters for whom I want the absolute best that this life and this society have to offer. My extended black family, which is large and from humble origins in the Deep South, contains members who agree and who disagree with my views on these matters. But all of them understand that whatever I write on the subject of race derives from a profound desire for justice and opportunity for everyone in this country, including my extended black family. It springs from the hope that we can move towards a society where individuals are what matters and race is not a factor at all.
Jim Sleeper, Liberal Racism (New York: Penguin, 1997); see also Shelby Steele, A Dream Deferred (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).
See Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey, “Abolish the White Race By Any Means Necessary,” in Race Traitor (New York: Routledge, 1996), 90-114.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 5, 1999, reported that enrollment of blacks on all the University of California campuses was only twenty-seven fewer students than in 1997.