Malcolm X on US Postage Stamp

Malcolm and Mandela: Black Nationalism or Non-racialism?

By Grisso*

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, is assimilation. 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).