The failure of the [White] Left on racism is not to be mocked. It is a tragedy and the main problem holding back world revolution.This, my response to a comment left on Louis Proyect's Marxism mailing list on 3 July 2016, four months before he banned me, may be the first time I used the phrase. I had been grappling for a descriptive term that would adequately describe the dominant section of what most people in the United States think of as the Left. This segment of the Left, which some refer to as "anti-imperialists" or "tankies," is actually so dominant as to be thought of by most people as representing the entire Left. I have never found those terms quite adequate, and I also think the "problem area" is much broader and includes many on the Left that conveniently "don't know" right from wrong on some of the stickier international questions, even after a half-million deaths. I also don't think those terms, and others, that reference their international positions, speak to the betrayal of Left leadership when a white supremacist cabal was mounting a successful campaign to capture executive power in the top imperialist country. But before I explain why I think the adjective white is the best one-word description of this dominant Left grouping, by a longshot, I want to lay some groundwork by looking at the dictionary definition of the word white.
Ask Google for a definition of white you get this:
1. of the color of milk or fresh snow, due to the reflection of most wavelengths of visible light; the opposite of black.Quite naturally, the first definition of white has been around as long as the English language has, longer actually, since it was handed down from the Old English "hwit," which was described as "a highly luminous color devoid of chroma." The second usage is much newer, less than 400 years old actually, so I want to begin by examining this first meaning of white, in some detail, before looking at the etymology of the application of that adjective to a selected group of people.
synonyms: colorless, unpigmented, bleached, natural; snowy, milky, chalky, ivory
2. belonging to or denoting a human group having light-colored skin (chiefly used of peoples of European extraction).
synonyms: Caucasian, European
Look up white on Dictionary.com you will find these additional definitions:
- lacking color; transparent.
- Older Use: Offensive. decent, honorable, or dependable
- auspicious or fortunate.
- morally pure; innocent.
- without malice; harmless (white magic, white lie)
We could can also add white knight, white wedding, whitewash, a white paper and white collar to the list of phrases where white is used to express positive values such as courage, innocence, cleanliness, authority, position or safety, or even to turn the negative around, as in white lie. On the other hand, black is used to convey negative values which are, often related to death or bad things; phrases like black death, black plague, black comedy, and black day. Antonyms for white from thesaurus.com start with black, obviously, but also include dirty, prejudiced, gloomy, darkened, biased, obscure and dim.
Malcolm X looks up black & white in the dictionary in the Spike Lee film.
There was a time, quite a long time actually, when I saw racial undertones in these associations, but not anymore!
For example, I have worked in IT for more than a half-century, and even now, in my day job as a Linux Systems Administrator, hardly a shift goes by that I'm not asked to whitelist or blacklist a group of IP addresses. Even though I know perfectly well that they are terms-of-art, until recently, I harbored a resentment in using them because I thought them examples of how racism had smuggled itself in the very core of the English language. Indeed, it has, but not in the way I originally thought.
The importance of symbols
As intelligent beings that organizes our mental world largely through the use of symbols, it is entirely right and proper that white has come to symbolize a host of positive characteristics, while its opposite, black, has come to symbolize negative ones.
What is more important is that these associations are 1.) immutable, 2.) primordial, and 3.) supra-cultural.
achromatic colors, because what we call white light is actually a combination of all the visible light of different colors, representing different wavelengths of electromagnetic energy, as they shine on Earth from our Sun. In that light are all the colors of the rainbow, but there is no white light save that which is produced by the combination of all of them. There are no white LEDs on your screen, just red, green, and blue ones. The white you see is an illusion.
Because color vision, as we know it, developed on this planet, it is what you might call "white-balanced" to these Earthly conditions. If we had developed on another planet, where the ratio of primary colors that reached us from the Sun made a different combination, say the "Red Planet," we might see things differently, and pink might be the new white!
Black, on the other hand, is no light at all, meaning also no colors; the absence of color or light. Although for the painter, the roles are reverse. She starts with a white base and leaves it blank to represent white and adds pigments of different colors to represent them. If she combines all the colors, she gets black. She is making an image to reflect light. Where it reflects red, we see red; where it reflects yellow, we see yellow; where it reflects all, we see white; where it reflects none, we see black.
Certain symbolic associations with white such as "neutrality" and "transparency" follow naturally from its role in human vision, just as other symbolic associations, such as "shadowy" and "gloomy," are made with black.
Here are some basic facts about light, and how it is perceived by the human eye. Visible light is electromagnetic radiation within a certain portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is detectable by the human eye. The wavelength, which is the inverse of frequency, determines the color we see the light as. Here are some familiar colors and their specs:
~ 700–635 nm
~ 430–480 THz
~ 635–590 nm
~ 480–510 THz
~ 590–560 nm
~ 510–540 THz
~ 560–520 nm
~ 540–580 THz
The seven colors of the rainbow are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet and their wavelengths range from 780 nanometers to 390 nanometers. What we call white isn't one of the colors of the rainbow, in fact white is not a primary color at all.
Both white and black as well as the grey areas between them are called achromatic colors, literally, colors without color. What Wikipedia says about white is useful to our discussion:
An incoming light to the human eye that stimulates all its three types of color sensitive cone cells in nearly equal amounts results in white. White is one of the most common colors in nature, the color of sunlight, snow, milk, chalk, limestone and other common minerals. In many cultures white represents or signifies purity, innocence, and light, and is the symbolic opposite of black, or darkness. According to surveys in Europe and the United States, white is the color most often associated with perfection, the good, honesty, cleanliness, the beginning, the new, neutrality, and exactitude.Another feature that flows exclusively from this physics of light, and the chemistry of our planet, is that many things appear white. Wherever all the Sun's rays are scattered and diffused, we see white. The Earth is abundant with clear substances, meaning they transmit light of all wavelengths equally, like water. Whenever the water molecules are arranged in a way that diffuses sunlight, whether in snow, clouds, or seafoam, we see white. Except if the seafoam is a little too off-white, we may have second thoughts about going for a swim.
This brings us to another category of positive symbols that white intrinsically represents, those having to do with purity, innocence, cleanliness, and harmlessness. One reason for that is that when clear substances form crystals the whiteness of the result can be taken as a useful measure of its purity. We know that when something that is supposed to be white isn't we have a problem. The whiteness of the sugar, salt, milk, or snow, may not be absolute proof of its purity, but it's a pretty good clue, and a way to use our color vision to increase our chances of survival.
A third category of symbolic associations with white is probably the most important for our discussion, and includes such varied concepts as safety, innocence, virginal, fresh, clean, dazzling, fortunate, enlighten, illuminate, and brighten. All this is owing largely to our species-wide adherence to the Circadian rhythm. We are creatures most active in daylight. While many other animals rely much more on the daylight-agnostic senses of hearing and smell, we are somewhat deficient there. With color vision and range-finding ability, it is our seeing ability that makes what Karl Marx called "the natural day" the period of greatest activity.
|Native American wisdom|
As you can see, these synonyms, or symbiotic relationships, between the polar opposites of white and black are intrinsic, primeval, immutable, and supra-cultural. That is why white has come to symbolize "good" and black has come to symbolize "bad;" it's why we "whitelist" the Internet addresses we want to let in, and "blacklist" those that we want to block. It would be ludicrous to expect the language to have developed differently. That's not the problem.
White's second meaning
We are now ready to look at the etymology of the second dictionary definition of the word white, the one that has come to be applied to a certain group of humans, not because the color of their skin matches the white of everyone's eyeballs, but, ostensibly, because they are a lighter shade of brown, as in "white people." This is what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say about this meaning of white:
Meaning "white man, person of a race distinguished by light complexion" is from 1670s; white man in this sense is from 1690s.As you can see, as compared to the first prehistoric meaning of white, this second one is of a relatively recent vintage. In point of fact, it was "coined" during that period of rising capitalism and colonization in the soon-to-become United States, as part of a larger effort to break the solidarity that was being created so long as English and African labored together under the common bondage of indentured servitude. It was invented in the thirteen colonies and then exported back to Europe.
There was an economic crisis in young America in the last half of the 17th century that brought to the fore the class differences between the working poor and a handful of "grantees." African and European laborers fought together, often with arms, against the colonial powers and the landowners. In Virginia there were at least 10 popular or servile revolts between the 1663 Servants’ plot for an insurrectionary march to freedom, to the tobacco riots of 1682. In Bacon’s Rebellion, 1676, an army of European and African bond-servants and freedman recently “out of their time” captured and burned the colonial capital of Jamestown, which Governor Berkeley left in a hurry. It took 1100 British troops sent from England in 11 ships to put him back, and they took a while to get there.
|Nathaniel Bacon confronts Governor William Berkeley at the Statehouse in Jamestown|
Karl Marx pointed out in Capital, Volume 1, that importing labor from Europe wasn't working out that well for them, a cheaper and more subservient labor force had to be created by artificial means:
The supply of wage labour, he [E.G. Wakefield] complains, is neither constant, nor regular, nor sufficient. “The supply of labour is always not only small but uncertain.”  “Though the produce divided between the capitalist and the labourer be large, the labourer takes so great a share that he soon becomes a capitalist.... Few, even those whose lives are unusually long, can accumulate great masses of wealth.”  The labourers most distinctly decline to allow the capitalist to abstain from the payment of the greater part of their labour. It avails him nothing, if he is so cunning as to import from Europe, with his own capital, his own wage-workers. They soon “cease... to be labourers for hire; they... become independent landowners, if not competitors with their former masters in the labour-market.”  Think of the horror! The excellent capitalist has imported bodily from Europe, with his own good money, his own competitors! The end of the world has come! No wonder Wakefield laments the absence of all dependence and of all sentiment of dependence on the part of the wage-workers in the colonies. On account of the high wages, says his disciple, Merivale, there is in the colonies “the urgent desire for cheaper and more subservient labourers — for a class to whom the capitalist might dictate terms, instead of being dictated to by them.... In ancient civilised countries the labourer, though free, is by a law of Nature dependent on capitalists; in colonies this dependence must be created by artificial means.” This labor situation posed a serious dilemma for the new colonial masters of young America, and at the very time when they needed to greatly increase the labor available to them to exploit the vast resources of the colonies. They needed a class of workers that would be denied the independence and upward mobility made possible by so much free land. They had already been busy passing laws that facilitated extending a bond-servant's time. That was their favorite punishment for any offense, especially running away. They were toying with the idea of perpetual servitude for all, but the revolts were showing that just wasn’t going to work within the existing framework.
That is when the colonial bourgeoise hit upon the strategy of greatly elaborating the racist policies they had pioneered against the Irish, and applying them to all Africans in America, while simultaneously bringing all Europeans together under the banner of whiteness. They started using an obvious difference in a really minor physical attribute, i.e. skin color, to divide the workers between those that could work off their servitude and those that couldn’t, and they started to pass laws accordingly. There was a whole wave of legislation that followed, and they created the structure of racism and racial slavery where none had existed before. With this legal structure evolved the ideology and the practice of white supremacy.
They were replacing the earlier labor system with a system of racial slavery, in which the support of the laborers from England, Ireland and other parts of Europe was purchased by their elevation from bondsman to wage slaves. They created and carefully cultivated this new concept of all light-skinned European nationalities grouped together as a single "white people" or "white race" over the better part of a century because like greedy bosses everywhere, they are happy to forgo a real raise when a shiny new title would do.
Foreign correspondents, like Morgan Godwyn in 1680, "found it necessary to explain" to their European readers that "white people" was the new term for Englishmen or Christians over here. It could truly be said that the European colonists came to the "New World" and sent back "white people" as part of their produce.
in 1609, just four years before the term "white people" was coined; the first newspaper ad was published in the US in 1704, just one year before the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705 marked the consolidation of the slave system in the South. A lot of ad revenue would be made selling slaves in the coming centuries. In the intervening period, this new technology, the first to make mass propaganda available to the ruling class, would play an indispensable role in selling the mythology of white people. BTW, press is another word that has acquired a new meaning over time, although in this case the connection is more organic. The original printing press actually was a press, designed much like a punch press or a wine press. Its usage never had to be mandated by law.
The Slave Codes made the new definition of white a legal term, although for clarity they still couldn't use it without a synonym. They used it in doling out a first white privilege:
That all masters and owners of servants...shall not, at any time, give immoderate correction; neither shall, at any time, whip a christian white servant naked, without an order from a justice of the peace: And if any, notwithstanding this act, shall presume to whip a christian white servant naked, without such order... [shall pay] ...forty shillings sterling.While at the same time it took away their right to marry freely. You will notice it had not yet branded the African as black:
And for a further prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue, which hereafter may increase in this her majesty's colony and dominion, as well by English, and other white men and women intermarrying with negroes or mulattos, as by their unlawful coition with them, Be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted, That whatsoever English, or other white man or woman, being free, shall intermarry with a negro or mulatto man or woman, bond or free, shall, by judgment of the county court, be committed to prison, and there remain, during the space of six months, without bail or mainprize; and shall forfeit and pay ten pounds current money of Virginia, to the use of the parish, as aforesaid.
It has been said that white people have no culture. What is true is that often the rich English, Italian, Irish, Scottish, Greece, French or German culture of their ancestors was lost when the they joined the great American melting pot of white people, and they have received very little in return. Sometimes it is so lost they need a DNA test to get it back! Well, the banishment of the color line forced by the civil rights movement is seen by all as granting new freedoms to people of color. It is less well recognized that it also gives the freedom to people of European ancestry to stop calling themselves white and join the people of color [which they truly are anyway] without incurring any penalty for doing so.
Jesus Christ wasn't always portrayed as white. This image of Christ with a Lamb found in the Catacomb of Callistus is from the 3rd century, and probably truer to any historical reality than the ones produced after the church went over to white supremacy.
Since facts can't be allowed to get in the way of a good con, in spite of the fact the King Sargon, Plato, Aristotle, Caesar, Claudius, Charlemagne, the Vikings, Pope Urban II and the Christians that marched east in the Crusades never called themselves white, they were all posthumously awarded the title of "white." Accordingly, Adam and Eve were white, and since God made them in his image, God must be white too. Printing made the mass production of books to spread this new mythology possible for the first time in history. Conveniently, 1640 became the first year a book was published in British North America.
|Adam & Eve|
They made use of the relatively lighter skin color of the Europeans to label themselves “white” with all the righteous symbolism that implies, precisely to cover the perpetration of the blackest crimes ever done to humanity and the planet. White supremacy was born of this master stroke of false symbolism. The only thing white about white people are their teeth and their eyeballs, just like everyone else. The very concept of "white people" was invented as a method of social control and racial domination.
White supremacy also involves the creation of an artificial schism between humanity and nature. The racist monkey meme, and Trump's favorite, calling us animals, is grounded in the false conception that white men aren't animals. As long as they were Englishmen, Irish, Scottish, French, German and Russian, they, like all living organisms that aren't plant-like, were animals. Once they took on the mantle of sunlight, they thought of themselves as Gods, the masters of all. This doesn't make the animal meme any less demeaning and dangerous, since it opens the door to our extermination as if we were live stock or vermin.
There are many good books that cover this history in great detail. I would recommend both The Invention of the White Race by Theodore W. Allen, and The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.
In The Price of the Ticket, James Baldwin talked about how early on Africans and Europeans suffered similarly and how the "white race" was created in the United States:
They come through Ellis Island, where Giorgio became Joe, Pappavasiliu becomes Palmer, Evangelos becomes Evans, Goldsmith becomes Smith or Gold, and Avakian becomes King. So, with a painless change of name, and in the twinkling of an eye, one becomes a white American.Frantz Fanon commented on the effects of this alienation in Black Skin, White Masks:
The Irish middle passage, for but one example, was as foul as my own, and as dishonorable on the part of those responsible for it. But the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking.
The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white--; and, in the main, nothing more than that, or, as he was to insist, nothing less. This incredibly limited not to say dimwitted ambition has choked many a human being to death here: and this, I contend, is because the white American has never accepted the real reasons for his journey. I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white...
"The white man is desperately trying to achieve the rank of man...The white man is locked in his whiteness."
The 400th birthday of white people
The four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of "white people" occurred less than five years ago, 29 October 2013, and it passed silently, with no celebration, or even recognition, as far as I know. Ed Simon told us "How ‘white people’ were invented by a playwright in 1613:"
The Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton invented the concept of ‘white people’ on 29 October 1613, the date that his play The Triumphs of Truth was first performed. The phrase was first uttered by the character of an African king who looks out upon an English audience and declares: ‘I see amazement set upon the faces/Of these white people, wond’rings and strange gazes.’ As far as I, and others, have been able to tell, Middleton’s play is the earliest printed example of a European author referring to fellow Europeans as ‘white people.’This may well have been the first usage of the term "white people," although it didn't come into general usage until much later, and didn't even make it into the English Oxford Dictionary until the mid-1600's, according to James H. Dee. It's interesting that while this English playwright may have invented the term, in his fiction, he has an African introduce it to the world as a bouquet to his English audience, and while I know nothing else about this play other than what is contained in the quote above, its title "The Triumphs of Truth" might make a suitable cultural vehicle for associating the first, and at that time, only, definition of white and whiteness with a people, especially if the triumphs being referred to was the concurrent European rape of Africa, and the "truth" was a lie, attempting to wrap itself in the gowns of righteousness and enlightenment by labeling themselves as white and their victims "black."
A little research seems to confirm my suspicions. The Map of London Critical Introduction states:
Unity in The Triumphs of Truth is also achieved by using simple imagery -- light to represent good and dark to represent evil. Truth’s Angel is wearing white silk which is powdered with stars of gold and Truth is adorned in white satin, and wears a diadem of stars, while Error wears ash-colour silke.This is a revelation. Since the Moors, as Muslims, were considered Pagan, it would seem that an unhealthy dose of Islamophobia, as well as anti-African racism, was involved in the creation of the concept of white people.
Taking the conflict of the light/dark imagery a step further are the Moors. The King of the Moors makes reference to his dark face, but states that Truth in [his] soul sets up the light of grace. It seems that this King of Moors and his queen had been converted to Christianity by English merchants traveling in their land, and they rejoice in their new found religion. As well as setting up a hierarchy with Good over Evil, in this scene of The Triumphs of Truth a hierarchy is created with Christian over Pagan.
Less than a year ago, the New York Times ran an informative piece that outlined what modern science tells us about skin color:
Humans develop color much as other mammals do. Special cells in the skin contain pouches, called melanosomes, packed with pigment molecules. The more pigment, the darker the skin.This is what it said about why skin color varies so widely:
Skin color also varies with the kind of pigments: Melanosomes may contain mixtures of a brown-black called eumelanin and a yellow-red called pheomelanin.
To find the genes that help produce pigments, scientists began by studying people of European ancestry and found that mutations to a gene called SLC24A5 caused cells to make less pigment, leading to paler skin.
Living humans come packaged in a wide range of hues — from pale and freckly in Ireland to dark brown in southern India, Australia and New Guinea. Researchers have argued that these varying colors evolved partly in response to sunlight.As you can see, nothing in the science of skin colors indicates that the positive attributes we associate with white fall more on people with lighter skin or makes them more Godlike.
The idea is that people who live with intense ultraviolet light benefited from dark color, pigments that shielded important molecules in their skin. In places with less sunlight, people needed lighter skin, because they were able to absorb more sunlight to make vitamin D.
One might call it a "brilliant" move to make use of a lower level of melatonin in the skin of people adapted to the available sunlight in the northern hemisphere to grab the label white, with all its embedded positive symbolism, for a group of capitalists at a time when they are rallying forces for the imperialist subjugation of the planet, but the title is an illegitimate one. It was born of slavery, and white supremacy can never be defeated as long some people continue to insist that as compared to the rest of humanity, that they are “white.”
White supremacy is a danger to the Earth
While the skin color differences between the European colonizers, and the people of the southern hemisphere may have provided the original impetus for the white and black categorization, the adoption of the symbolism of white by Europeans at the beginning of the imperialist period has been used not only as a sign of their righteousness in dominating and raping the thereby newly created "non-white" people, it has been used as a sign of their righteousness in dominating and raping the entire planet. Therefore, we can conclude that the problems inherent in a group of people being called white is not merely a race problem. It would be a problem even if there were no other people. This attitude of whiteness has been invoked not just against the "black people of the Earth" but against the Earth itself.
The array of political forces around the climate change debate is but one example of how white supremacy isn't just an attack on the better part of humanity, but on nature itself. At first glance, the global warming question has nothing to do with race, and one would think that even the most extreme racist, that envision an earthly future free of people of color, would still be fighting to see that the Earth did have a future, if only for white people, and yet there they all are, firmly on the denial side of climate change.
White chauvinism therefore is the practice of white supremacy, not just towards the excluded peoples, but towards the entire excluded natural world. It underlines and legitimizes the operations of capitalism not just in exploiting "people of color," but in ruthlessly exploiting the resources of the Earth as well.
- White racism is inseparable from the notion that a certain people are white.
- Racism is the application of white chauvinism to people.
- White nationalism is the derivative belief that white people constitute a nation.
Racism abstracts the color of the living body into non-colors of extreme value, black and white. Within this organization black represents the shade of evil, the devil's aspect, night, separation, loneliness, sin, dirt, excrement, the inside of the body; and white represents the mark of good, the token of innocence, purity, cleanliness, spirituality, virtue, hope.p.232And.
The problem of racism is part of the problem of Western culture. And thus, its central aspect is not that blackness whose many meanings we touched upon in the previous chapter, but its cognate, whiteness. For the world is neither black nor white, but hued. A lightly-hued people, aided perhaps by fantasies derived from their skin color--came to dominate the entire world, and in the process defined themselves as white. The process that generated this white power also generated the fear and dread of black.That is what "white power" really is. It is the fraudulent application of the happy symbolism of white to a lightly-hued people for the purpose of turning an illusion of supremacy into a reality of world domination.
People of all cultures have always been afraid of darkness, Children certainly are, and doubtless they have been since Paleolithic times. What has distinguished the West from other cultures is that these elementary issues. without losing their infantile core, have taken on a fantastic elaboration: They have been employed systematically and organically in the generation of power. p 95
Kovel also wrote about how the primary symbolic references to white and black are skillfully mobilized at the deepest psychological level to perpetrate racist mythology:
Thus, for the black to fit into the into the aversive equations, he must be made into the affirmation of the excremental body. He must become the double negative of anality. the fantasy of a fantasy — not cold, pure, clean, efficient, industrious, frugal, rational (that is, not the pantheon of anal- negative ego traits which are the summum bonum of the bourgeois order) but rather warm, dirty, sloppy, feckless, lazy, improvident and irrational, all those traits that are associated with blackness, odor, and sensuality to make their bearer worthy of aversion.In this passage, James Baldwin is explaining how African Americans learn to perceive the world. You can see the power that these two labels play in seeming to give racial oppression an intrinsic and God-given power. That should surprise no one. One label was appropriated by the slave owners, who forced the other label on the slaves, for precisely that reason:
This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means that they are superior to blacks (intrinsically, that is: God decreed it so), and the world has innumerable ways of making this difference known and felt and feared.The whitening of Venice
the color of sunlight.
From this we can see that the very terms "white race" and "white people" have inherently racist content. Therefore, racism can never be completely defeated before the use of these terms is abandoned.
Now that we have explored a little of complex and multifaceted role of the adjective white, I am prepared to explain why I think it the best adjective to apply to a section of the Left that currently dominates it.
Continued in The white-Left Part 2: Why that is the best name for it
Syria is the Paris Commune of the 21st Century!