Given my past writings on this blog, it should as no surprise that I’m a proponent of multi-racial progressive political coalitions. It’s pretty simple really: I believe in greater social equality, and I think coalition building is an important mechanism for amassing the political power necessary to enact progressive policy. I’m just idealistic like that.
Most high school level history texts don’t exactly portray Malcolm X as sharing these sentiments. And that’s probably because most high school level history texts aren’t very good. For as much as we learn about Malcolm’s intellectual engagement with blackness, so too was he absolutely obsessed with whiteness. I mean, every few pages or so he’s referencing “the white man” in some capacity. But what’s left out of far too many textbooks is an open and honest discussion of Malcolm’s intellectual growth over time—particularly in regards to race, whiteness, and multi-racial coalition building.
When Malcolm made his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1963, he encountered a colorful cadre of Muslims, all expressing their collective allegiance to Allah. He specifically notes how he developed “true brotherhood” with white-skinned Muslims, an experience that forced him to re-think many of his previously held assumptions about whiteness. For the first time in his adult life, he acknowledged the existence of “well-meaning” white folks.
Malcolm internalized these experiences from his pilgrimage, and altered his message and teachings in subsequent speeches:
Malcolm also outlines a specific task for whites that believe in racial equality:
“We had to approach the black man’s struggle against the white man’s racism as a human problem…[B]oth races, as human beings, had the obligation, the responsibility of helping to correct America’s human problem. The well-meaning white people, I said, had to combat, actively and directly, the racism in other white people."
“The first thing I tell [sincere white people] is that at least where my own particular Black Nationalist organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, is concerned, they can’t join us. I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are “proving” that they are “with us.” But the hard truth is this isn’t helping to solve America’s racist problem. The Negroes aren’t the racists. Where the really sincere white people have got to do their “proving” of themselves is not among the black victims, but out in the battle lines where America’s racism really is—and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is within their own fellow whites. That’s where the sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have to work.” [emphasis added, p. 383-384]Malcolm—with the underlying logic of this passage—offers a few interesting thoughts on the future of progressive political action. First, he suggests that racial equality in America should be framed under the more inclusive rhetoric of human equality. His use of the words “obligation” and “responsibility” is also telling; he frames the issue of equality as both a civic responsibility and a democratic obligation. In other words, it’s our duty as Americans, living in a democracy, to strive for equality.
There’s also an emphasis on localized, “safe” spaces for oppressed or otherwise marginalized peoples. I think this is where the label of “Black Separatist” is wrongly applied to Malcolm; indeed, he argues that racially homogenous spaces are necessary to hash out certain issues, but only as part of a larger structure—a larger multi-racial structure—focused on battling racism. It’s not like he wanted his organization to go at it alone; he needed whites and other racial groups to complement his efforts, just in their own communities.
Ideally, we can imagine these different groups working both separately and in tandem. I’m not willing to give up on my vision of multi-racial coalitions, but I can understand where Malcolm is coming from. See, Malcolm recognized that starting with interracial coalitions often leads to white co-option. This happens more frequently than we’d like to admit in progressive circles. You know, like when some well-meaning white parents join a PTA in a “majority-minority” public school, and within a couple years the white parents are calling all the shots. Still, there’s a danger in trying to push for social change with disjointed groups: How do we develop a cohesive message and agenda? How do we balance working together, while we work apart?
Had Malcolm lived just a little bit longer we might have a few answers to these questions and concerns. I guess we’ll just have to do the best we can, with the lessons we have. Or, better yet, maybe someone else can pick up where Malcolm left off—someone with charisma, someone that likes to think, someone willing to grow intellectually—and help move our nation toward great racial equality.