Malcolm X on US Postage Stamp
Malcolm and Mandela: Black Nationalism or Non-racialism?
The occasion of the birthday of Malcolm X (May 19) causes me to reflect on
the philosophy of Black Nationalism that he preached. I also reflect
on the irony in the fact that the Government which, when he were
alive, treated Malcolm as a Public Enemy, now honors him by placing
his image on a postage stamp. Surely they do not approve of Black Nationalism,
and those who espouse it certainly expect, like Malcolm, possibly
to pay the ultimate price. Even more lionized by the powers-that-be
is Mandela. He who was jailed by the brutal, racist system of
Apartheid in South Africa has emerged from his cell to become President
of the Republic, to pardon his former captors, and to espouse the
ideal of a "non-racial" democracy.
Like most, I have great admiration for both men. But is there a
contradiction between their respective social and political philosophies,
and if so, on whose side, as a people, is it best for us to come down?
I do not think that the two views cannot be reconciled, although on the
surface they appear far apart. If one espouses a Black nationalist
position, then, by definition, one is espousing race as a factor that
should condition one's economic, political, and/or social behaviors.
In contrast, to espouse a "non-racial" approach to these things is
presumably to embrace the opposite.
How to reconcile the two?
Fundamentally, the reconciliation rests in recognizing the difference
between a racist view, and a racialist view. Malcolm was racialist,
but he was not racist. And I submit that the African National Congress
(ANC) of which Mandela was head is a racialist organization -- it is
right there in the name. So what is the difference? Racism is the
practice or espousal of a behavior which consists in the oppression
or subjugation of the "other" based on race. I say behavior, rather
than feelings, beliefs, or attitudes, because it is behavior that
matters, not whether somebody likes or dislikes another based on race.
Since Malcolm never practiced nor espoused behavior
calculated to oppress or subjugate others based on race, he cannot be counted
a racist. A racialist though he was, clearly. Ditto Marcus Garvey,
and ditto Louis Farrakhan, and ditto anybody who calls herself a
Black nationalist. Because the "race first" doctrine of a Black
Nationalist is predicated on race, they may correctly be called
racialist, but not racist. While Mandela, like the others, is
clearly not racist, he also must be counted as racialist, because
his struggle against apartheid was predicated on the race-based
solidarity of those who were enslaved, based on race, under
the system of apartheid:
you cannot fight racism without introducing race as a predicate
of your action.
So Malcolm and Mandela, both, have to be counted racialist.
I say that knowing as I do so that Mandela has called
for a "non-racial" South Africa. But the sense in which he means that,
I believe, is the same sense in which Malcolm
would call for an end to racism: the call is for an end to
race-based oppression, rather than for an end to "race first"
solidarity. Otherwise, one presumes, Mandela would be calling on the ANC
to change its name.
In espousing Black nationalism
for American Africans, Malcolm was merely pointing
what should be obvious. Race-based oppression, or even merely race-based
exploitation, can only effectively be countered by race-based solidarity
among the racially oppressed group. It is the same with violence, since
he who relies on violence to achieve his aims will also yield to
superior violence. That is why we arm the police and have a military.
But in saying so, I hasten to add, as Malcolm would,
that there is not a moral
equivalence between, say, the robber who uses violence, and
the victim who deploys violence in his own defense. In this
analogy, the racist is
like the robber; the racialist is like his victim.
The alternative to race-based solidarity as a counter to racism,
No doubt assimilation can benefit the few, but
it cannot change the condition of the majority of the oppressed
as long as racist behaviors remain entrenched in the broader society.
In the context of South Africa, I suspect Mandela feels that,
with democratically elected African government, it is only a matter
of short time before the oppressed African majority would change
their condition. But that task is more difficult than
might be supposed.
I say that as a Trinidad African.
Trinidad, and indeed all the countries of the
Caribbean, had its own form of apartheid prior to independence.
I was 11 years old when Trinidad became independent, and I
remember the famous expression of independent Trinidad's
first Prime Minister, Dr. Eric Williams, "Massa day done!"
Not so fast, it has turned out. Here we are, almost 40 years
later, and the same elites that controlled the economy
prior to independence continue to do the same today, and the
Trinidad African is little further ahead in terms of
securing control of his own economics. Ten years after
independence, having lost patience, people took to the
streets in what became known as the "Black Power" riots.
The white and light elites hunkered down, set up
vigilante committees, and declared they were not going anywhere.
"After the last Black has emigrated to Brooklyn, we
will still be here," they said. Today, there are
probably more Trinidad Africans living outside of Trinidad
than within, many in the U.S and Canada. And
the white and light elites are for the most part still in
control of the economy, a "parasitic oligarchy," as they have been
called. Meanwhile, the national
anthem proclaims "Here ev'ry creed and race / find an equal place."
No reparations were ever sought from, nor paid by, the white and light
elites whose wealth grew from the original theft of land and
labor perpetrated by the colonizers,
rather there was deceptive talk of "all o' we is one,"
especially every year at carnival time.
Today, petty apartheid has once again reared its ugly head, as
we see once again, brazen racial discrimination being practiced by
such white-owned establishments as Club Coconuts, an "upscale" nightspot.
If Trinidad is any example, South Africa might be well advised
to focus less on reconciliation and more on justice, including
reparations. And if the "non-racial" doctrine of Mandela has
the effect of leaving white elites firmly in charge
economically, it might
be more advisable for them to heed instead Malcolm's version of
the path to a "non-racial" society, namely one based on
Black nationalism, and race-based self-help.
The racist powers-that-be would clearly prefer that we play
the assimilationist game, staying divided and weak thereby. That
may be why they seek to pull the wool over our eyes, yet again,
by taking Malcolm mainstream on a postage stamp. Meantime, in
South Africa, Mandela's talk of reconciliation, and non-racialism,
is loudly applauded by the white elites, for that way lies the
retention by them of all their ill-gotten riches.
*(Grisso is a 48 year old African of the diaspora. He has
an engineering PhD, and is the author of a mathematical treatise on decision analysis under uncertainty. His email address is grisso@TheAfrican.Com).