Minneapolis, MN — United Nations human rights investigators visited six U.S. cities that have been in the spotlight in recent years for police-involved killings of African Americans. The Minnesota visit comes after Twin Cities based activists organized petitions and letters to get the human rights panel to include Minneapolis in its tour.
On May 2, the Urban League in North Minneapolis hosted two United Nations’ (UN) panelists and a room full of members of the Twin Cities Black American and African communities, along with the press, for a community listening session. At least 80 people were in attendance.
Around 80 people attend UN visit at the Minneapolis Urban League on May 2, 2023. Photo contributed by Chris Juhn.
The UN panel is investigating the root causes behind law enforcement murders of Black people in America and how the “legacies of colonialism and the Transatlantic slave trade” still impact American society today. The panel is also looking into government responses to peaceful Black Lives Matter protests in recent years and possible violations to international human rights laws.
Tracie Keesee and Juan Méndez, from the International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the Context of Law Enforcement (EMLER), a special panel appointed by the UN human rights council after the murder of George Floyd, came to listen to Black community members speak about their experiences with state violence, including police killings – experiences widely considered to be human rights violations. The same day, the fourth killer of George Floyd, Tou Thao, was found guilty of aiding in his murder.
Tracie Keesee and Juan Méndez, from the International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the Context of Law Enforcement (EMLER), listen to testimonies during a meeting at the Minneapolis Urban League on May 2, 2023. Photo contributed by Chris Juhn.
Deborah Watts, a cousin of Emmett Till, also testified at the Minneapolis listening session. Till was the 14 year-old Black boy whose 1955 murder in Mississippi by two white men became the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. Watts described white supremacy as being embedded in America’s DNA.
In a defiant tone, she said her cousin Emmett, “At age 14, was so brutalized, no one could recognize him. … Thank you, America.”
Deborah Watts, the cousin of Emmett Till who was lynched in 1955 in Mississippi, speaks during a meeting with the UN at the Minneapolis Urban League on May 2, 2023. Photo contributed by Chris Juhn.
Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, gave a fiery testimony. Philando Castille was killed in 2016 by officer Jeronimo Yanez in front of his girlfriend and her child during a routine traffic stop. Castile’s mother told the UN that her son was frequently the target of racialized policing, and that “He had been pulled over 50-plus documented times, prior.”
Although charged with manslaughter, Yanez was found not guilty in a jury trial the next year. Castile said President Obama’s Department of Justice investigated her son’s murder but quietly shut it down without explanation. “We deserve to have a complete, honest, accurate, open results from that investigation. I feel like … my human rights and constitutional rights are being violated.”
Castile spoke on the deep trauma that her and other mothers have experienced. She called on listeners to show up for the victims of extrajudicial police killings. “For the Black mothers like myself, whose children do not return home, you can never understand the depths of our pain.”
Myon Burrell, who was incarcerated at the age of 16 by now-U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, freed in 2020 after spending 18 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, spoke on the horrors of youth incarceration. He said prisons were created to “break human beings.”
Myon Burrell who was incarcerated for 18 years for a murder is didn’t commit, speaks during a meeting with the UN at the Minneapolis Urban League on May 2, 2023. Photo contributed by Chris Juhn.
Another speaker, Lucina Kayee compared her experiences in solitary confinement at a refugee camp to her time at Catholic Charities’ notorious St. Joseph’s Home for Children in South Minneapolis that serves kids who have survived abuse and abandonment. Kayee described escaping civil war in Liberia and surviving refugee camps only to have a staff at St. Joseph’s put her in a chokehold at the age of 13.
Marvina Haynes’ testimony about her brother, who she said has been wrongfully incarcerated for more than half his life, brought many in the room to tears, including her fellow panelists. Her brother Marvin Haynes was convicted for the 2004 killing of Randy Sherer when he was 16 years old and sentenced to life in prison, a sentence which he is serving at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater. Haynes, also prosecuted by Klobuchar, has maintained his innocence from the moment he was accused by Minneapolis Police investigators.
“MPD stole my brother from my family. They wouldn’t let my mom have any rights to him. We thought the system would eventually do the right thing,” she said about her family holding onto hope, as she fought back tears. “But they have not done that yet.”
Marvina Haynes, sister of Marvin Haynes who’s been incarcerated since 2004 for a murder he is innocent of, speaks during a meeting with the UN at the Minneapolis Urban League on May 2, 2023. Photo contributed by Chris Juhn.
Burrell, Kayee, Haynes and several others who testified called on the UN to condemn juvenile solitary confinement in American jails and prisons and to ban the practice internationally.
The UN panel heard testimony in five other cities including in Chicago, Atlanta, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New York City.
Mendez told the Minneapolis audience that the testimony collected will be included in their upcoming Geneva report which will be widely distributed.
Minneapolis wasn’t originally included in the panel’s 2023 schedule, former Minneapolis NAACP President Angela Rose Myers told Unicorn Riot. However, she and her research colleagues from the University of Minnesota created a petition and gathered over 2,000 signatures calling for EMLER to investigate law enforcement practices in Minnesota. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Minneapolis City Councilor Robin Wonsley, and more than 30 community-based organizations wrote letters also calling on EMLER to add Minneapolis to its tour, which it did.
Toshira Garraway, founder of the advocacy group Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence, one of the organizers of the forum, also testified for the UN panel. Garraway is the fiancé of Justin Tiegen who was found dead in a recycling center after being pulled over by the St. Paul Police in 2009. Garraway says that interaction led to Tiegen’s death. She spoke about a coverup to hide what happened to her fiance and how so many other cases that aren’t considered “high profile” get “swept under the rug.”
She said, “Here in the state of Minnesota there has been over 500 bodies that have been lynched by law enforcement since the year 2000.” Adding, “And when we try to speak out, our families are harassed. I get death threats all the time. Our families are followed. And all kinds of stuff happens.”
While Garraway spoke, Deborah Watts, the cousin of Emmett Till, held up a list (pdf) of the more than 500 names of people in the State of Minnesota who’ve lost their lives from police interactions since 2000.
Watts said, “I’m born in America…a country that I believe has committed some crimes on humanity, but has not been held accountable.”
Garraway told Unicorn Riot that she wants the UN to put pressure on the United States through diplomatic means and through official channels to hold police accountable for extrajudicial killings of Black people.
Toshira Garraway speaks about her fiancé Justin Teigen being found dead after a police encounter in 2009, as she stands next to Justin’s sister Noelle during a march for march for Teigen and all stolen lives on August 21, 2021. Photo by Niko Georgiades for Unicorn Riot.
The UN concluded its tour on Friday in Washington D.C. and held a press conference and put out a press release with their preliminary findings. Méndez said that “Existing local and national standards on the ‘use of force’ by law enforcement officials do not meet international standards.”
The delegation said they felt an urgent, “moral responsibility, to echo the harrowing pain of victims and their families, and the resounding calls for accountability” that they heard in each city. Adding, “We support those calls for accountability.”
Keesee said that calls for change are not enough, that a “whole government approach” is needed to make a difference. “This needs to be more than a slogan and calls for reform.”
“Slavery has left a deep and long-lasting entrenched legacy on the country, which can be perceived through generational trauma. Racial discrimination permeates all contacts with law enforcement, from the first contact – at times already in school – by means of racial profiling, arrest, detention, sentencing and disenfranchisement in some States. In each of those aspects, available data points to a clear disproportional impact upon people of African descent.
Addressing and unpacking the impact of the circle of poverty on people of African descent, including operating an urgent shift from a criminal justice response to a human rights-centred response to poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness, is seen by the Mechanism as an imperative priority.
There should be a State-wide response, to lead to federal standards of policing, and engage whole of government reforms, which redefine the mission and scope of the police.”
But many are expecting things to continue with no impediment, citing the UN’s lack of authority to take any real action.
The UN was initiated by the United States under President Woodrow Wilson following World War I and originally known as The League of Nations. Today the UN is largely funded by Washington, with its headquarters in New York City.
In 1951, the Civil Rights Congress, led by Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson, petitioned the UN to take similar actions to curb white supremacist violence against Black Americans. The petition, We Charge Genocide, claimed that the killings of Black people at the hands of American law enforcement had become official policy during the Jim Crow era. “Once the classic method of lynching was the rope. Now it is the policeman’s bullet. To many [Americans] the police are the government, certainly its most visible representative. We submit that the evidence suggests that the killing of Negroes has become police policy in the United States and that police policy is the most practical expression of government policy.”
However, more than seven decades after this petition was first presented to the UN, the policy remains unchanged and no significant actions have been taken against the United States for its treatment of Black Americans. Yet, impacted families are still speaking out.
At the Minneapolis Urban League an unapologetic Valerie Castile declared, “This country prides itself on democracy, but it looks more like hypocrisy. … There has always been a silent war on Black people.” Adding, “But it aint silent no more.”
Karen Wells, the mother of Amir Locke who was killed by Minneapolis Police in 2022 speaks during a meeting with the UN at the Minneapolis Urban League on May 2, 2023.
Amity Dimock, mother of Kobe Heisler-Dimock who was killed by Brooklyn Center police in 2019, speaks during a meeting with the UN at the Minneapolis Urban League on May 2, 2023.
The black population in the United States is roughly the size of the population of Spain. Yet too many ignore class differences and political complexities among millions of African Americans.
People participate in a march in Brooklyn for Black Lives Matter and to commemorate the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth on June 19, 2020 in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
At forty-seven million, the African American population in the United States is roughly equivalent to that of Spain. Despite the size of one of America’s largest minorities, discussions of black politics tend to be reductive and ahistorical. In cavalier fashion, critics of racism chart a long line of oppression that has its origin in the United States’ earliest days. Similarly, the forces that have, according to the dominant view of American racism, sought to oppose this monolithic racial tyranny have all fought under the single banner of “the black liberation struggle.”
Admittedly, these attempts to examine the history of discrimination offer correctives to right-wing defenses of forms of ascriptive hierarchy. However, they do so at the cost of flattening the complexities of actually existing black politics. This approach ignores, the political theorist Adolph Reed Jr tells Jacobin, that black politics is not immune from the economic and class forces which have and continue to shape American politics more broadly.
Jennifer C. Pan
You’ve been a longtime critic of the notion of a cohesive or transhistorical “black freedom movement,” or the idea that one can trace an unbroken line from the fight to abolish slavery to the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter. Why isn’t this framework helpful for understanding black politics either now or in the past?
When people talk about something called the “black freedom movement” or the “black liberation struggle” or the “long civil rights movement,” they’re rehashing an old trope that goes back to the beginnings of the study of black American political history and black American political thought. At that time, that construct was called something like the “Negro’s struggle for freedom” or “Negro’s quest for equality.” Both then and now, the construct presumes, first of all, that black people are a singular collective entity. It also presumes an overarching struggle where black people have always unanimously wanted the same thing, and that whatever disagreements you might encounter if you go through the archives of black politics are just disagreements within a fundamentally shared commitment.
Any interpretation of black politics that doesn’t account for political conflict among black people — as opposed to politics between black people and everyone else — is intrinsically a class politics because it obscures class differentiation among black Americans.
So the main problem with the idea of a timeless black freedom movement is that it’s a single-thread narrative and a reduction of a much more complex reality. The narrative posits racial unity as the essential foundation for understanding black people and constructs and imposes an anti-historical understanding of black people’s experiences in American political life. It defines black people as being somehow outside of history and collapses differences in historical moments by presuming that people are fighting for the same things in 2020 that they were fighting for in 1860 — or 1619, for God’s sake — which is absurd.
Jennifer C. Pan
Why do you think people find this idea of a singular and cohesive black freedom movement so compelling?
I think there are several reasons. One is simply that people have heard it over and over, so it seems to comport with commonsense knowledge. It’s a framework that gives you the familiar dyads of Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B. Du Bois, Du Bois versus Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X versus Martin Luther King Jr. That’s convenient for people who don’t think there’s anything complex that goes on among black people.
Then there are people who have an interest in propagating the narrative. The black freedom movement construct has always functioned to obscure real distinctions among black people. Fundamentally, the most aggressive and insistent proponents of this view have been people who are pushing a class program: any interpretation of black politics that doesn’t account for political conflict among black people — as opposed to politics between black people and everyone else — is intrinsically a class politics because it’s part of a discourse of what Barbara Fields and Karen Fields call racecraft, which obscures class differentiation among black Americans, with or without conscious intent. If the black freedom movement narrative were even a reasonably accurate account of black American political history, then you could say, okay, well, it doesn’t hurt to talk about it. But it’s not. It’s false and it works for the other side.
The alternative to this kind of simplistic approach is to recognize that black people, like all people, live within historical circumstances. They’re diverse and have different interests and perceptions, not only at different points in time, but also at the same point. That was true in the nineteenth century and even true to some extent in the eighteenth century. It’s certainly true after Emancipation and once black people were able to claim some kind of civic participation, however badly the deck may have been stacked against them. Eric Foner has compiled a list of black people who held elected office in the South by the end of Reconstruction, and there were hundreds of people who had been elected to all kinds of offices. And that suggests that there was a lively culture of political debate and struggle, and that blacks engaged with nonblacks, as they always have and continue to do today.
It really comes down to following an injunction from Ralph Ellison: he cautioned observers of American life against the tendency to believe things about black people that they would not believe about any other human beings.
Jennifer C. Pan
How, then, should we think about black politics now, particularly after the 2020 racial reckoning?
I’m probably getting more crotchety by the day, but I would almost argue at this point that the most crucial racial reckoning in US history was at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1864.
Anyway, to answer your question, at the beginning of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign, Touré [Reed] was talking to a mutual friend and colleague who was part of the campaign’s inner circle and encouraged the campaign not to concentrate on pursuing something called the “black vote” as much as they could possibly avoid it. His argument was that what we think of as “black politics” today is a class-specific interest-group politics that’s rooted entirely in the black professional and managerial strata, whose approach to political life is race reductionist. It’s an elite-driven activity that really has no base at all. And the reality is that once you start catering to the idea of a coherent “black vote” or “black community,” it’s going to drag you down and lead to demise.
Once you start catering to the idea of a coherent ‘black vote’ or ‘black community,’ it’s going to drag you down and lead to demise.
And then there’s the Potemkin thing that happens whenever there’s a police atrocity or some other outrage: people respond to the outrage with protest actions, and then somebody who’s articulate and MSNBC-ready jumps out in front of the protest and talks to the media and is declared the new voice of the black youth or the rising wave of the future.
The dynamic of outrage and protests as a response is at least a half-century old. In fact, when Touré was an infant and we lived in Atlanta, I got to see that role acted out firsthand in the local political scene by Hosea Williams, a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr whose political persona was all about being true to the activist roots of the [Southern Christian Leadership Conference]. Whenever there was something like a police shooting, Hosea would march it off — he’d jump out and lead a protest march someplace. And then he’d go inside and essentially negotiate payoffs with the people who were in charge. And I’d already seen the same thing happen when I lived in North Carolina before I went to graduate school. So it’s not anything new, but it’s hegemonic at this point.
There’s another tendency in this type of politics that I trace back to the buildup to the anti-WTO demos in Seattle in 1999. There were activists during that moment who complained that the movement was too white and wasn’t doing enough to reach out to affected “communities.” And I’d say to people, look, if there’s some constituency that isn’t involved that you think ought to be — and you purport to have connections to that constituency — then the thing to do is for you to go out and organize them and bring them into the movement.
Well, of course nobody who was complaining actually wanted that; what they wanted was just the opposite. They wanted to represent or embody the amorphous, voiceless masses. And that’s really the only context — that and nineteenth-century race theory — within which it makes sense to assume that the black American population, which is bigger than the entire population of Canada, can be spoken for in the first person plural.
Jennifer C. Pan
You and Walter Benn Michaels have a new book out, No Politics But Class Politics. Over the years you’ve both been sharply critical of the tendency to focus on racial disparities. While there do exist plenty of liberals whose idea of justice is a diverse ruling class, what would you tell leftists who oppose the capitalist order but also want to take racism seriously? What does it mean to fight racism today?
Of course we should do what we can to protect and buttress the antidiscrimination apparatus, which includes an affirmative dimension. But this might also be of interest to readers:
In 1945, when the Full Employment Bill was still in play in Congress, the civil rights activist and legal scholar Pauli Murray wrote an article in the California Law Review on employment discrimination. In the article, she addresses the argument that you have to fight racism or discrimination before you can win social democracy. She points out that the reality is that racism becomes most politically viable in conditions of scarcity: when jobs are scarce, that’s when people get anxious, and that’s when employers and right-wingers can mobilize the anxiety. And so Murray argues that because of that, the only way to move forward as black workers is to win the social democratic reforms — in particular, at that moment, the struggle for a real political commitment to ground national economic policy on the pursuit and maintenance of a full employment economy — and that those are ultimately even more important than the antidiscrimination measures themselves.
Most people in this country who work for a living need the same things, right? And we don’t necessarily need to have a fight over what happened in 1860, or a fight over what happened in 1890, or even 1920, or even 1960 to recognize that we all need economic security, health care, jobs, and education. And the way for us to get to those things is to articulate our needs and to come together around the things we have in common.
When the anti-racist sensibility now is that making a reference to the working class is somehow conceding to white racism, it’s pretty clear what the class character of this politics is. And this is even before you start counting up all the billions of corporate and investor-class dollars that have gone to Black Lives Matter and other nominal antiracist activist groups since the murder of George Floyd.
So it’s time for us to stop playing around and to be serious and hardheaded about this. Especially for those of us who are professors, part of our job is trying to get the story straight, to demystify the mystifications. That’s what we do for a living, right? Otherwise, we should all just go to church.
Review of Radical Political Economics, Ahead of Print. Combining Black political economy and solidarity economy theories and practices provides alternative models for group development based on recognizing and developing internal (to the individual and to the community) capacities and creating mechanisms that equitably produce, distribute, recycle, and multiply local expertise and capital within communities of color, especially Black, communities—creating a solidarity economy of caring community for survival (successful social reproduction), sustainability, and liberation. The history of mutual aid, cooperative ownership, and economic democracy among African Americans demonstrates how economic cooperation and solidarity economics have enabled Blacks to address human needs, generate income, and at the same time be family and community friendly, in reaction to anti-Blackness and racial economic inequality. Cooperatives enable low-income residents, women, immigrants, and people of color (who often are without any avenue to gain income or assets) to provide affordable, quality goods and services in ecologically sustainable ways and generate jobs, stabilize their communities, and accumulate some assets. The history of African American cooperative ownership demonstrates that Black Americans have been successful in creating and maintaining collective and cooperatively owned enterprises that often provided not only economic stability for members and their communities but also developed many types of human and social capital and developed community-wide well-being. I discuss how this helps us to define an economics of abundance and explore possibilities for achieving economic liberation in the twenty-first century.JEL Classification: J15, B54, P13
As thousands of workers went on strike this week, evidence continues to build that the labor movement is back on an upswing in America. But how we engage with the details of this development will determine whether the swing remains a momentary uptick, or becomes part of something larger.
Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the number of unionized workers in the United States increased by 200,000 from 2021 to 2022. And that growth came entirely from workers of color. There was an increase in 231,000 unionized workers of color last year, while white unionized workers actually decreased by 31,000. Further, of all racial and ethnic groups, Black workers have continued leading unionization rates, at 12.8 percent, higher than the figure of total unionized workers.
While the total share of workers represented by a union still floats at just above 11 percent—much less than where things stood decades ago—union election petitions last year increased by 53 percent, the highest amount since 2016.
According to BLS data, industries that saw the largest increases in unionization were state government; durable goods manufacturing; arts, entertainment, and recreation; and transportation and warehousing. And states with the largest increases in unionization? California, Texas, Ohio, Maryland, and Alabama.
All this to say, monolithic conventions on who constitutes the “working class” need a final upending.
Indeed, the diversity in the movement can be seen in the nature of labor action these past few months. This week, workers at over 100 Starbucks locations nationwide went on strike to protest the company’s alleged union-busting schemes. Another union representing 30,000 Los Angeles school staff workers—including custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, special education assistants, and more—conducted a three-day strike, and the 35,000-strong United Teachers Los Angeles union joined in solidarity. At the beginning of the year, 7,000 nurses went on strike in New York City, protesting poor pay and working conditions brought on by chronic understaffing. All this does not include the some 100,000 rail workers nationwide who almost went on strike last year, until the government itself imposed a contract upon them.
Conservatives—both Republican and Democrat alike—often opine on the need to focus on “kitchen table issues” instead of getting wrapped up in “social” ones. The latter, of course, being another way to say issues surrounding identity and race (much like the term “woke,” but perhaps less likely to incite outrage). But the union data reveals once more that issues of identity and workers’ rights are deeply intertwined. After all, unionization and labor struggles are direct mechanisms to better accomplish racial and social equality; the ability for people to afford to live happy and dignified lives is inherently tied to their ability to enjoy fundamental social and civil rights within those lives, too.
On moral grounds, every politician and journalist should recognize these facts. And for any politico concerned solely with electability, the good news is the results follow the morals anyhow.
In November, several Democrats who refused to pin the economic against the social, even in battleground states, went on to win. That includes people like Governor Josh Shapiro and Senator John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, Senator Raphael Warnock in Georgia, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan. And for examples of how these political successes turn to policy successes, look no further than the sacred and often pontificated on Midwest.
In 2018, Governor Whitmer promised to repeal the anti-worker “right-to-work” law. And after voters re-elected her with wide margins—and delivered her majorities in both state chambers for the first time in decades—she delivered on Friday, signing a bill to repeal the anti-union legislation. Just a week earlier, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed a bill that guaranteed free breakfast and lunch for all public school students, geared especially for food insecure families, many of whom are marginalized and people of color (perhaps a more direct connection between social and so-called “kitchen table” issues).
As more people become better acquainted with the contradictions of capitalism—from noxious train derailments, to immediately aided collapsing financial institutions (all of which is borne from corporate-bought deregulation)—we may be at another moment in the long history of labor for which a resurgence is possible. But such a moment will not be helped by a media and political apparatus that seeks to flatten the labor movement, rather than embrace it for the vast and diverse coalition it actually is.
This month, Regions Bank, a financial institution with branches in the U.S. South and Midwest, notified the Black nonprofit, African People’s Education and Defense Fund (APEDF), that the bank was “exiting” its 20-year relationship, closing accounts, withdrawing lines of credit and canceling mortgage loans. This comes on the heels of the FBI’s raid in July of the African People’s Socialist Party in Saint Louis, Missouri, as well as reported pending indictments against members of the party and its global network, the Uhuru Movement.
The fundamental right to vote has been a core value of Black politics since the colonial era — and so has the effort to suppress that vote right up to the present moment. In fact, the history of the suppression of Black voters is a first-rate horror story that as yet shows no sign of ending.
While Democrats and progressives justifiably celebrated the humbling defeat of some of the most notorious election-denying Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms, the GOP campaign to quell and marginalize Black voters has only continued with an all-too-striking vigor. In 2023, attacks on voting rights are melding with the increasingly authoritarian thrust of a Republican Party ever more aligned with far-right extremists and outright white supremacists.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the insurrection of January 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington was also an assault on minority voters. In the post-election weeks of 2020, insurrection-loving and disgraced President Donald Trump and his allies sought to discard votes in swing-state cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Phoenix. Those were all places with large Black, Latino, or Native American populations. It was no accident then that the overwhelmingly white mob at the Capitol didn’t hesitate to hurl racist language, including the “N” word, at Black police officers as that mob invaded the building.
For years, Republican lawmakers at the state level had proposed — and where possible implemented — voter suppression laws and policies whose impacts were sharply felt in communities of color nationwide. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “At least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting,” laws invariably generated by Republican legislators. These included bills to limit early voting, restrict voting by mail, and even deny the provision of water to voters waiting for hours in long lines, something almost universally experienced in Black and poor communities.
While normally pretending that such laws were not raced-based but focused on — the phrases sound so positive and sensible — “voter integrity” or “election security,” on occasion GOP leaders and officials have revealed their real purpose. A recent example was Republican Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Robert Spindell, one of three GOP appointees on the six-person commission that oversees that state’s elections. He openly bragged that the “well thought out multi-faceted plan” of the Republicans had resulted in a dramatic drop in Black voters in the 2022 midterm elections, including in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, which is about 40% African American. He wrote: “We can be especially proud of the City of Milwaukee (80.2% Dem Vote) casting 37,000 less votes than cast in the 2018 election with the major reduction happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas.”
How Far Might Voter Suppression Go?
You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that, rather than develop policies attractive to voters of color, the GOP and conservatives generally have chosen the path of voter suppression, intimidation, and gaming the system. And if anything, those attempts are still on the rise. In 2023, less than a month into the new year, according to the Guardian, Republicans across the country have proposed dozens of voter-suppression and election-administration-interference bills in multiple states.
Republican state legislators in Texas alone filed 14 bills on January 10th, including ones that would raise penalties for “illegal” voting, whether committed knowingly or not. More ominously, one Texas proposal would fund the creation of an election police force exclusively dedicated to catching those who violate voting or election laws. That unit would be similar to the draconian election-police unit created in Governor Ron DeSantis’s Florida as part of what is functionally becoming a regime dedicated to a version of right-wing terror. Symbolically enough, for instance, Black ex-felons were disproportionately targeted by DeSantis. Although the campaign was launched with great fanfare, only a few generally confused ex-felons were arrested and most of them had been given misinformation by state officials about their eligibility to vote and were convinced that they had the right to do so.
But DeSantis never really wanted to stop the virtually nonexistent crime of voter impersonation or fraud. His goal, and that of the GOP nationally, has been to strike fear into the hearts of potential non-Republican voters to ensure election victories for his party.
In states like Alabama, Mississippi, and 20 others where the GOP controls both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion, intimidating voter-tracking police squads could be the next play in an ongoing effort to undemocratically control elections. Such policing efforts would without question disproportionately target communities of color.
While the expected midterm “red wave” of Republican victories didn’t occur nationally in 2022, the same can’t be said for the South. As documented by the Institute for Southern Studies’ Facing South, the GOP actually outperformed expectations, expanding its hold on multiple state legislatures in the region. Prior to the election, analysts had predicted that the Republicans might gain 40 seats across the South; in fact, they gained at least 55. Not only did they take control of at least 25 state legislative chambers — the lone exception, Virginia’s state senate where Democrats retained a two-seat majority — but they also built or maintained supermajorities in legislative chambers in Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. This means that even if a Democratic governor is in office, Republican legislators can pass extremist bills into law despite a gubernatorial veto.
None of this is spontaneous, nor is it random. Tens of millions of dollars or more from super-rich conservative donors and right-wing foundations have poured into voter-suppression and election-manipulation efforts. Heritage Action for America, a conservative legislative-writing group linked to the Heritage Foundation, spent upwards of $24 million in 2021 and 2022 in key swing states to help Republicans write bills that would restrict voting, targeting Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, and Texas. Consider it anything but a coincidence that the language in voter-suppression bills in those states and elsewhere sounded eerily familiar. As the Guardian reported, at least 11 voter suppression bills in at least eight states were due, in part or whole, to advocacy and organizing by Heritage Action. A New York Times investigation found that in Georgia, “Of the 68 bills pertaining to voting, at least 23 had similar language or were firmly rooted in the principles laid out in the Heritage group’s letter” that offered outlines and details for how to limit voting access.
Contemporary voter suppression efforts, however, go significantly beyond just trying to prevent people from voting or making it harder for them to do so. Credit that, at least in part, to the determination of so many Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans to vote despite restrictions imposed by the states. Consequently, Republican legislators now seek to control — that is, manipulate — election administration, too. Their tactics include the harassment of election workers, far-right activists seeking positions as election officials, and various other potentially far-reaching legal maneuvers.
In fact, in recent voting, attacks on election workers, officials, and volunteers have become so prevalent that a new national organization, the Election Officials Legal Defense Network (EOLDN), was formed to protect them. EOLDN provides attorneys and other kinds of assistance to such officials when they find themselves under attack.
Meanwhile, a flood of far-right activists has applied for positions or volunteered to work on elections. Neo-fascist Steven Bannon and other extremist influencers have typically called for such activists to take over local election boards with the express purpose of helping Republicans and conservatives win power.
Finally, GOP leaders in multiple states have been pushing an “independent state legislature” doctrine that argues such bodies have the ultimate power to determine election outcomes. They contend that governors, state supreme courts, and even the U.S. Supreme Court have no jurisdiction over non-federal elections. Their fanciful and erroneous reading of Article 1, Section 4 and Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution suggests that state legislatures can not only overturn the will of voters in a given election but select electors of their choice in a presidential contest, no matter the will of the voters.
In past decisions, Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and the late Antonin Scalia indicated that they were at least open to such a reading. A firm decision on this matter may occur in that court’s current session in the case of Moore v. Harper. Court watchers are split on whether the court’s conservative majority might indeed embrace that “doctrine” in full, in part, or at all in ruling on that case later this year.
Much of this dynamic of voter suppression is the result of the failure of congressional Democrats to carry two voting rights bills across the finish line. Black activists are all too aware that the Democrats blew the opportunity to pass such legislation during the last two years when they controlled both chambers of Congress, even if by the slimmest of margins in the Senate. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (JLVRAA) and the For the People Act (FtPA) were each game-changing bills that would, in many ways, have blunted the massive efforts of Republicans at the state level to institute voter restrictions and other policies that result in the disproportionate disenfranchisement of African Americans, Latinos, young people, and working-class voters generally, all of whom tend to vote Democratic.
The JLVRAA would have restored the power of the Voting Rights Act to prevent the very passage of voter suppression laws taken away by the Supreme Court in 2013 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. The FtPA would have banned partisan gerrymandering, expanded voting rights, and even supported statehood for Washington, D.C. Those bills were aimed specifically at countering the hundreds of voter-suppression proposals in Republican-controlled state legislatures.
In its final report, the January 6th committee actually blew a chance to highlight the attacks on Black voting rights. That report’s full-scale focus on the role of Donald Trump, who certainly was the key instigator of the insurrectionary events at the Capitol and its chief potential beneficiary, ended up obscuring the role of racism and white nationalism in the stop-the-steal movement that accompanied it and was so crucial to Republican election deniers. It should be remembered, though, that Trump’s central argument and the biggest lie of all was that Black, Latino, and Native American votes should be thrown out in Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other urban areas in states like Arizona and Nevada where he was rejected by overwhelming numbers.
Unfortunately, the January 6th report didn’t sufficiently identify white supremacy as a driver of the “stop the steal” movement. Despite the prominence of certain Black faces among the Trump camp, including conservative organizer Ali Alexander, Trump campaign aid Katrina Pierson, and former Georgia legislator Vernon Jones, January 6th, in fact, represented the culmination of months of attacks on Black campaign workers, especially in Atlanta and Detroit. President Trump explicitly fired up white nationalists by name-checking and endangering individual African American election workers as spoilers of his alleged victory.
The movement in some democratic states to follow Trump’s autocratic playbook is now also metastasizing globally. In Brazil, on January 8th, thousands of followers of the defeated far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro attacked government buildings in Brasilia. Newly elected President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has had to confront a surging wave of election deniers in the early days of his administration. And it’s important to note that Lula’s voters were disproportionately from the north and northeastern regions of Brazil, areas with deep concentrations of Black and indigenous communities.
In the United Kingdom, in 2022, the Conservative Party pushed through legislation that requires photo identification to vote in future elections beginning in May 2023. As with Republican legislation in Texas, student IDs will not suffice, creating a new obstacle for a constituency that tends to vote for the Labour Party. In a country where many working-class people don’t have drivers’ licenses and the state does not easily provide acceptable IDs, voter suppression is operative.
A democracy agenda that recognizes the racial elements of voter suppression and election denial is sorely needed. At the federal level, President Biden and Congressional Democrats should prioritize keeping the issue alive, while forcing Republicans to divulge their undemocratic hand, until the Democrats (hopefully) fully take back Congress in 2024.
At the state level, Democrats who have momentum from their victories in 2022 need to consolidate and strengthen voting-access laws and policies. In Michigan, for example, where the GOP had for years used its control of the state legislature to pass outlandish, racist laws that generated significant harm for Black communities, the recent Democratic sweep should mean a new voting day.
Former President Trump and the rest of his crew, as well as state versions of the same, are sadly enough in a significant, if grim, American tradition. Isn’t it time to focus more energy on how to stop their urge to suppress the Black vote?
The crisis of identity reductionism has led to the overwhelming placement of Africans in positions to serve empire and double down on patriotism. Most recently, Howard University President Wayne A. I. Frederick, M.D., MBA, hosted U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, and U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall who awarded the university with a $90 million contract to serve as the 15th University Affiliated Research Center (UARC). The cultural and social significance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) dominates almost all aspects of conversations centered on Black schools. The UARC award will enable Howard to lead . . .
As I was reading Norman Finkelstein’s new book, I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It!: Heretical Thoughts on Identity Politics, Cancel Culture, and Academic Freedom, I thought early on of Obama’s joke at the expense of Rahm Emanuel: “he’s one of a kind, and thank god he’s one of a kind.” Finkelstein, too, is very much one of a kind. But the analogy with Emanuel fails, because in fact one Rahm Emanuel is far too many whereas one Finkelstein is not nearly enough. We need hundreds of him. That is to say, we need hundreds of left intellectuals with the courage and intelligence to think for themselves and never sell out, to refuse to compromise—even to risk alienating fellow leftists by publicly repudiating woke culture and the more vacuous forms of identity politics in favor of an unstinting adherence to class politics. Nor would it hurt to have more writers who are as eloquent and hilarious as him.
It is widely known on the left that Finkelstein is, as it were, a martyr to truth and justice, having been subject to outrageous calumniation and denied an academic career because of his relentless advocacy of the Palestinian cause. With I’ll Burn That Bridge, he shows his willingness to burn bridges not only with the establishment but also with the “left” of today, for which he shows scarcely mitigated contempt. He considers it, or dominant tendencies within it, to have degenerated from soaring moral and intellectual heights with Rosa Luxemburg, W. E. B. DuBois, and Paul Robeson into a censorious, narcissistic, morbidly navel-gazing culture preoccupied with subjectivist trivialities like personal pronouns at the expense of solidaristic struggle for a better world. “Whenever I see he/him or she/her, I think fuck/you.” (“You must be living an awfully precious life,” he goes on, “if, amid the pervasive despair of an economy in free fall, your uppermost concern is clinging to your pronouns.”) If the book is not simply ignored, one can expect that it will elicit a flood of vituperation from leftists and liberals: “racist, misogynistic, transphobic, white supremacist, juvenile, incoherent, petty!” The intelligent reader will not be tempted by such facile judgments but instead will engage with the book’s substance, because it has important things to say.
It consists of two parts: in the first, Finkelstein “deconstructs” identity politics and the cancel culture it has given rise to, focusing on five figures whom he eviscerates: Kimberlé Crenshaw, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, and Barack Obama. In the second part, he considers a related subject with which he is intimately familiar: academic freedom. To what extent should a regime of free speech reign on the university campus, and under what circumstances should an academic’s “offensive” speech in the public square result in disciplinary action? Is it wrong for universities to grant Holocaust deniers a platform? When teaching, should professors strive for “balance”—presenting with equal force all sides of an issue so that students can make up their own minds—or should they teach only their own perspective? What should we think of campus speech codes? Finkelstein addresses all such questions at length and in a spirit of uncommon seriousness.
The intelligent reader will not be tempted by … facile judgments but instead will engage with the book’s substance, because it has important things to say.
One difficulty with the book is that it has a sprawling and meandering character, consisting variously of memoir, brutal polemic, dense argumentation, forensic dissection of texts, scores of long quotations, innumerable long footnotes, and very funny ridicule of everything and everyone from Michelle Obama to Bari Weiss, from the New York Times to woke terms like Latinx (“why would an ethnic group want to sound like a porn site?”). At its core, however, beneath the variegated surface, the book is an anguished cri de coeur against pervasive cultural, political, and intellectual rot—an unapologetic defense and exegesis of the heavily maligned “Western canon” (John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Kant, DuBois, Frederick Douglass, and the like), a sustained lamentation over how far the left has fallen, a furious denunciation of rampant philistinism and pusillanimous groupthink (quoting Mill: “That so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time”), and a proudly unfashionable celebration of such quaint notions as Truth, Reason, and Justice (which Finkelstein capitalizes, in a consciously anti-postmodernist flourish). The book’s kaleidoscopic nature and intimidating length might bewilder the reader, so in this review I propose to summarize and comment on several of its main arguments, to facilitate their diffusion.
Before doing so, however, I can’t resist quoting a few Finkelsteinian zingers, to preface the following heavy discussion with a bit of levity. On MSNBC’s Joy Reid: “living proof that not all yentas are Jewish and not all bovines are cows.” On Angela Davis: “Once upon a time she was on the F.B.I.’s Ten Most Wanted List. Now she’s on Martha’s Vineyard’s Five Most Coveted List.” On Henry Louis Gates: “a virtuoso at crawling on the ground while typing on his keyboard.” On Amy Goodman (whom he doesn’t name): “Goddess of Wokeness…a woke machine, churning out insipid clichés as her mental faculty degenerates to mush.” On Ibram X. Kendi: “mallet-wielding grifter…preposterous poseur…[whose] ‘definitive history of racist ideas in America’ reduces to a compendium of prepubescent binary name-calling.” On Robin DiAngelo’s morbid obsession with diagnosing “racism”: “She is the monomaniacal Captain Ahab in pursuit of the White Whale. She is little Jackie Paper out to slay Puff the Racist Dragon. Her palette comprises two colors—white and black… What an unremitting, remorseless, insufferable bore!” On the widespread fascination with transgender people: “the first day of a graduate seminar, students used to describe their intellectual interests. Nowadays, it’s de rigueur to declare your sexual orientation. It’s only a matter of time before a student announces, ‘I’m she/her and I’m packing a thick, juicy nine-incher.'”
In an adaptation of Emma Goldman’s “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your Revolution,” Finkelstein declares: “If I can’t laugh, I don’t want your Revolution.” Political conservatives, too, have complained about the humorlessness of the woke crowd, but if you’re alienating even die-hard leftists, maybe it’s time to rethink your messaging.
Debates on the left over identity politics go back decades, and it is easy to be sick of them. Unfortunately, there is no prospect of their ending as long as identity politics and woke culture remain dominant on the left and in the Democratic Party—as they surely do today, at the expense of a class politics. Finkelstein is aware that the identity politics of the left isn’t quite the same as the identity politics of the Democrats, but he is right that they overlap, and that such a politics is more conducive to being neutered into empty symbolism (statues, token representation in the corporate class, electing a vapid con artist like Obama) than a Bernie Sanders-style—or more radical—class politics is.
Serious leftists, like Robin D. G. Kelley, have written competent defenses of identity politics, and Finkelstein certainly isn’t arguing against the necessity of incorporating anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, and other such “woke” agendas into popular movements. What he objects to are the forms that identity politics often takes, and its tendency to devolve into celebration of an insular tribal identity. The binary, balkanizing drawing of lines between groups and near-contempt for the “oppressing” group—white vs. black, cis vs. trans, straight vs. gay, man vs. woman—is, in its parochialism and vitiating of solidarity against capitalism, not what a real left politics looks like. He quotes at great length some words of Frederick Douglass in 1894 that might well have gotten him “cancelled” today:
We hear, since emancipation, much said by our modern colored leaders in commendation of race pride, race love, race effort, race superiority, race men, and the like… [But] I recognize and adopt no narrow basis for my thoughts, feelings, or modes of action. I would place myself, and I would place you, my young friends, upon grounds vastly higher and broader than any founded upon race or color… We should never forget that the ablest and most eloquent voices ever raised in behalf of the black man’s cause, were the voices of white men. Not for the race; not for color, but for man and manhood alone, they labored, fought and died… It is better to be a member of the great human family, than a member of any particular variety of the human family… I put my foot upon the effort to draw lines between the white and the black…or to draw race lines anywhere in the domain of liberty.
Moreover, the very idea of being “proud” of what group one happens to belong to—proud of being black or a woman or gay or trans—is puzzling. “[I]t perplexes why one should feel proud of one’s zoological difference,” Finkelstein writes. “[W]hat sense is there in making a ‘cult’ of that over which one has no choice…? Shouldn’t one aspire to transcend the ‘inevitable’ part—the color of one’s skin—so as to be judged by the ‘free part’—the content of one’s character?” Similarly, the idea of “loving one’s people” is odd, first in that it amounts to “loving one’s self writ large,” which, in its narcissism, hardly seems like a noble thing. It easily becomes chauvinism. Second, one would certainly not love all the individuals who are alleged to constitute “one’s people.” Many or most of them one would likely personally despise—just as, on the other hand, one would “love” many people belonging to a “different group.” Too much identification with some imposed identity such as race is exactly what leads to irrational racial hostility (including against whites), sexist hostility (also against men), and other divisive social forces. Identity politics can be dangerous and destructive, not only on the right but even the left. “In their goodness and badness, there exist only persons, not peoples.”
The vacuousness of contemporary identity politics is best exposed by considering its “great minds,” the Crenshaws, Coateses, Kendis, and DiAngelos. For a really thorough demolition, Finkelstein would have had to review the record of various feminist and queer theorists too, but it’s a big enough task to critique the writers on race. Or, more precisely, that isn’t a difficult task—it’s so easy that Finkelstein is able to devote huge chunks of these chapters to sheer mockery—but it does require patience and a willingness to wade through endless intellectual muck. Take Crenshaw. Unsurprisingly, in her seminal 1989 article on intersectionality “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” “she conspicuously omits class in her dissection of oppression.” It disturbs her that white feminists are presumptuous enough to speak for black women, but she “seems less concerned or, for that matter, even conscious that a high-achieving Black woman speaking for Black working-class women might also be problematic.”
The vacuousness of contemporary identity politics is best exposed by considering its “great minds,” the Crenshaws, Coateses, Kendis, and DiAngelos.
Or take DiAngelo. She has a pathological obsession with racism and an utterly Manichean, paranoid view of the world. If you’re white, you’re a racist—whether you’re John Brown or Jefferson Davis, a fascist or an anti-fascist. Racism is ubiquitous, “immovably entrenched in our psyches and structures” (as Finkelstein paraphrases), “the air we breathe and the water we drink,” all-encompassing and constantly reproduced, she says, “automatically”—and therefore, evidently, ineradicable. At best, it can occasionally be “interrupted”—through the “diversity training” at which DiAngelo excels and for which she charges a hefty fee. Meanwhile, her book White Fragility has sold almost a million copies and has had quite an influence on woke culture, helping to instill a collective fixation on—incidentally—the same idée fixe of Ta-Nehisi Coates (according to Cornel West): the almighty, unremovable nature of white supremacy. “Whites,” says DiAngelo, “control all major institutions of society and set the policies and practices that others must live by.” Yes, whites are a homogeneous master-class: the billionaires and the working class, they’re all equally guilty, they’re all oppressors. And to blacks she says, as Finkelstein summarizes, “Beware! Don’t trust white people! They’re all racists, racists to the core! Every last one of them! They’re hard-wired for racism; it’s in their DNA.” This is a message perfectly calculated to pit workers against each other. No wonder the business class has so enthusiastically promoted her book!
What about Ibram X. Kendi? Finkelstein seems to take particular pleasure in disemboweling this (as he says) non-scholar and non-activist, for his critique/massacre is a full 110 pages long and features withering juxtapositions with a titan, DuBois. It’s sad that a book review can’t communicate the verve or the slicing humor of this chapter (and others). Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, for example, whose “only novelty is to shoehorn the epithets racist or antiracist, segregationist or assimilationist into every other sentence…[is] less a definitive history than an exhaustive, and exhausting, taxonomy that’s as supple as a calcified femur and as subtle as an oversized mallet. It proceeds from the fatuous, almost juvenile, conceit that fastening binary, wooden labels on the actors and ideas incident to Black history will shed light on it.” One problem with Kendi’s and our culture’s promiscuous, indiscriminate use of the label “racist” is that the concept becomes diluted: “to be a racist ceases to be what it ought to be: a scarlet badge of shame… [W]hat information is conveyed by a label that collapses the distinction between Frederick Douglass [whom Kendi considers a racist] and the Grand Wizard of the K.K.K.?” The abolitionists were all racists, as were DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Wright, E. Franklin Frasier, etc. etc.—while Kendi singles out for praise Harry Truman, Michelle Obama, Eldridge Cleaver, Pam Grier, Bo Derek, Kanye West, etc. “[T]he rigor of his taxonomy recalls not the Periodic Table but, on the contrary, Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”
As Finkelstein says, Kendi embraces the woke conceit that, over four hundred years, “African-Americans haven’t registered any progress in the struggle against racism. Each seeming stride forward has been attended by a step backward.” If anything, he implies, things have only gotten worse! Such an “analysis” recalls the flagrantly ahistorical, unabashedly gloomy academic school of Afro-pessimism, and, by reifying differences between “whites” and “blacks” and valorizing anti-white resentment among the latter, serves the same function of hindering the class solidarity necessary to achieve real progress in struggles over the distribution of wealth, working conditions, affordable housing, high levels of unemployment, expansion of public resources, abysmal healthcare, environmental destruction, hypertrophying militarism, and the like. (No wonder, again, Kendi has been fêted by the establishment and can charge $45,000 for his talks. It helps, too, that his only real policy proposal is…affirmative action.)
After Finkelstein’s devastating exposure of Kendi’s countless inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and idiocies—his woke dismissal of the Civil Rights Movement in favor of the macho Black Panthers (who, by comparison, achieved almost nothing); his (in Kendi’s words) “striving to accept and equate and empower racial difference” even as he argues that the idea of race is a “mirage” that was invented to rationalize exploitation; his insistence that all racial disparities in society are purely a result of racism; his valorizing of racial differences (e.g., he praises the “irrepressible Blackness” of his friend) at the same time as he says anti-racists see only individuals and not racial behavior (“there is no such thing as Black behavior”); his positing of a deep separation between so-called white culture and black culture; his arguing against the racist “assimilationist” urge to value white culture over black even as he manifestly values white culture over black (lecturing before white audiences, accepting a fellowship at Harvard University, presiding over a research center at Boston University, being proud of publishing in white journals like The Atlantic)—nothing remains but the empty husk of a social-climbing charlatan. That such a person can be widely considered to be more or less on the left is a crushing indictment of the state of the left.
For charlatanry, though, few can beat the next entry on Finkelstein’s shit list: Obama. “Barack Obama is the perfected and perfect instrument of identity politics, its summa summarum. He represents the cynical triumph of form over substance, color over character. He is the cool Black dude who is also the reliable—in Professor Cornel West’s words—’mascot of Wall Street.'” Most leftists are hardly enamored of Obama, so I need not summarize the case against him. Nor would I even try, because I couldn’t possibly reproduce the distinctive Finkelsteinian humor—and most of this very long chapter consists of (factually grounded) ridicule, directed at nearly everyone in Obama’s presidential coterie, a “revolting retinue of bootlickers.” Aside from Obama himself, the most satisfying skewering, I found, was of Samantha Power, the “Battleaxe from Hell…downright evil…[whose] conscience only bestirs at the suffering of victims of official U.S. enemies.” One might argue that in this chapter Finkelstein’s profound contempt for the “Elmer Gantry in blackface” at the head of this gaggle of amoral mediocrities gets the best of his prodigious literary gifts, since the ruthless mockery goes on and on and becomes somewhat tiresome, but it can’t be gainsaid that it’s all well-deserved.
After six chapters and almost 400 pages on the subject, Finkelstein’s summary of identity politics is worth quoting:
Identity politics has distracted from and, when need be, outright sabotaged a class-based movement [viz., Bernie Sanders’] that promised profound social change. It counsels Black people not to trust whites, as their racism is so entrenched and so omnipresent as to poison their every thought and action. It conveys to poor whites that they, no less than the white billionaire class, are beneficiaries of racism, so that it would be foolhardy of them to ally with Black people… Then, identity politics puts forth demands that either appear radical but are in fact politically inert—Defund the police, Abolition of prisons—as they have no practical possibility of achievement; or that leave the overall system intact while still enabling a handful, who purport to represent marginalized groups, to access—on a “parity” basis—the exclusive club of the “haves.” This, in effect, performance politics has spawned a disgusting den of thieves who brand themselves with radical-sounding hashtags, churn out radical-sounding tweets, and insinuate themselves into positions of prominence, as they rake in corporate donations, cash corporate paychecks, hang out at the watering holes of the rich and famous, and thence can be safely relied upon not to bite the hand that feeds them…
One might object that he’s painting with too broad a brush here, that advocacy of the interests of minorities and women can, depending on the context and the cause, indeed be an essential political program, but he wouldn’t deny this. He has the highest regard for the Civil Rights Movement, after all—although he would deny that that was identity politics. “The human rights of a victimized group must, of course, be uncompromisingly defended.” More problematic than such defense is to make a cult of group differences (group “pride”) in the way of the woke, and to place class issues at the bottom of the heap rather than the top, where they belong. “Human dignity is not possible without the ability to pay for a roof over one’s head, clothes on one’s back, and food on one’s table.”
Just consider how the woke mob reacted to the Sanders campaign, the most serious challenge to the establishment in more than a generation…
Whatever genuinely emancipatory political impulses exist in identity politics have long been, on the whole, coopted and buried under an avalanche of left-liberal virtue-signaling, preening and posing, careerism, and sabotage of a substantive left. Just consider how the woke mob reacted to the Sanders campaign, the most serious challenge to the establishment in more than a generation: they tried to “cancel” Sanders for his being a “privileged white male” with a supposed blind-spot on race. His “economic reductionism,” according to Angela Davis, prevented him from “developing a vocabulary that allows him to speak…about the persistence of racism, racist violence, state violence.” As Finkelstein says, “When the ‘hour of serious danger’ to the status quo struck during Bernie Sanders’ class-struggle insurgency, the ‘true nature’ of woke radicalism—not just its opportunism but, even more, its rancid, reactionary core—was exposed as each and all of these erstwhile ‘radicals’ enlisted under the banner to stop him.” Woke cancel culture cooperated with the establishment media’s cancel culture to stop the Sanders juggernaut.
Cancel culture and academic freedom
“Cancel culture might be defined as the turning of a person into a non-person.” By that definition, it has been around for a very long time. Arguably, it is as old as civilization. The first and second Red Scares in the U.S. were instances of cancel culture; so is the corporate media’s treatment of virtually everyone on the left; so is the woke treatment of anyone who publicly strays from the party line. Even if such victims of woke defamation campaigns usually find their footing again or don’t always suffer career consequences in the first place, the mob’s impulse to censor and silence remains operative and ever-vigilant. Finkelstein knows cancel culture from the inside, and it is unsurprising that he resolutely opposes it.
His defense of a regime of nearly untrammeled free speech is rooted, first and foremost, in his conviction that this is the surest way to Truth. He quotes DuBois: when free speech is stifled, “the nation…becomes morally emasculated and mentally hog-tied, and cannot evolve that healthy difference of opinion which leads to the discovery of truth under changing conditions.” But John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is the text he primarily grounds his argument in, and he quotes from it liberally in his chapter on the right of even Holocaust deniers to make their case in public forums such as a college campus. “Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion,” Mill writes, “is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth… The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.” As Finkelstein translates, “if you want to rationally hug your certainty, you must first meet the challenge of every naysayer.” Your opponents can even be useful for prodding you to rethink weak points in your reasoning or evidentiary basis, exposing little errors in your arguments, giving you something to think about that you had overlooked, in general giving you the opportunity to more rationally ground your beliefs.
The mob’s desire to silence, attack, and destroy comes from feeling threatened, not from being rationally certain and confident. The latter attitudes are more likely to yield calm composure and willingness to give opponents a hearing because you know you’re able to refute them. When a mob tries to prevent someone from talking because it feels threatened by his speech, it’s quite possible, often, that his speech has some truth in it. Suppressing it—unless it’s merely emotive speech like “fuck you!”—possibly allows his opponents to persist in having false or partially false views.
But someone might reply, “What if his speech is socially harmful? Isn’t that a legitimate reason to suppress it?” Well, the definition of “harmful” is, of course, contested, and it evolves over time. Eugenics and forced sterilization were once considered a very enlightened movement, being supported by progressives like Bertrand Russell, Helen Keller, Jane Addams, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Now eugenics is considered downright evil. Who is to say your definition of “socially harmful” is, in all cases, the right one, or that your application of it is always right? “When it comes to curbing speech,” Finkelstein says, “experience thus confirms the general rule in human affairs: humility is to be preferred over arrogance.”
The mob’s desire to silence, attack, and destroy comes from feeling threatened, not from being rationally certain and confident.
Moreover, if the “harmful” speech is socially marginal such that hardly anyone believes it, what’s the great danger in letting someone say it now and then? If, on the other hand, it’s not marginal but holds the assent of millions, letting someone express it presents an opportunity to argue against it and thus inoculate people. The strategy of pure suppression is apt to lead many to think there might be something “dangerously truthful” to it—”the establishment doesn’t want us to hear this because it’s threatened by its truth!”—and thus might contribute to its diffusion across the population. People might think they’re being “rebellious” or anti-establishmentarian by believing it, and furthermore that they’re upholding noble values of free speech against authoritarian censoring leftists (as the reactionary right thinks today). I might also note that giving authorities the right to suppress or punish certain kinds of speech, and even encouraging them to do so, will soon lead to their suppressing speech you like.
The left has historically been in the vanguard of fights for free speech, from the abolitionists to the IWW (and most other unions, in fact) to the Socialists during World War I to the Civil Rights Movement. Its departure today from these honorable traditions is yet more evidence that it’s become a pseudo-left, a reactionary left—for the empowering of authorities to regulate speech is ultimately reactionary. It’s ironic that many self-styled anarchists advocate increasing the power of unaccountable bureaucrats to control what is said and what isn’t.
Admittedly, it might have strengthened Finkelstein’s discussion to consider in more depth possible counterarguments. It is, after all, very unfortunate that media operatives like Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, and the whole stable of Fox News social arsonists have brainwashed millions of people. It is likely they couldn’t have had such a destructive impact had the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine not been repealed in 1987. Maybe it was right to repeal it, but a case can at least be made that it was wrong. Issues of online content moderation, too, come into play in any debate over censorship, and Finkelstein doesn’t say much about these. The reason, it seems, is that he doesn’t think the internet has raised significantly new questions about free speech, and in any case there is already an extensive literature on web censorship.
Wokeness is what happens when the destruction of the labor movement proceeds so far, and social atomization becomes so all-consuming, that even the “left” adopts an individualistic, moralistic, psychologistic, censorious, self-righteous, performative approach to making social change.
Among the many excellent points he makes is one that cuts to the heart of wokeness: the collective obsession with pinning a label—racist or not, sexist or not, transphobic or not—on every thought passing through one’s head and every utterance one makes, and then cancelling all the thoughts that (and all the people who) stray an inch past what’s deemed “acceptable,” is ridiculous and paranoid. It’s also reactionary, because it makes solidarity vastly more difficult. One of the more memorable passages in the book is when he imagines, in some alternate universe, a Robin DiAngelo who actually does care about fighting oppression of blacks and not only grifting off a culture’s pathologies. Were she to speak before a group of workers, she might say something like this (italics in the original):
Although racism is real and you should always be at the ready to fight it whenever it rears its ugly head, you all, Black and white, have a helluva lot more in common. You’re all, Black and white, trapped in dead-end jobs. You all earn poverty wages… [You have to] organize together, as one because you are one, to overthrow this wretched, corrupt, god-forsaken system. You can’t eliminate every fleeting, non-p.c. thought passing through your head… You can’t wait until everyone’s thoughts are simon-pure. You don’t have the time, and they never will be. You cannot police your thoughts, and it’s probably better that way. Were it otherwise, you wouldn’t be human. You’re fallible, you’re imperfect vessels… If you unite to change the system, then your psyches will fall into place. It’s common struggle, common sacrifice, that produces mutual respect, even mutual love. A connection that binds will be forged by you, united in the heat of battle facing a common enemy, each marching beside the other, each lifting the other, each protecting the other. You don’t become better persons by each of you, singly, struggling with your racist demons. You become better persons by all of you, together, struggling against an antihuman system…
Wokeness is what happens when the destruction of the labor movement proceeds so far, and social atomization becomes so all-consuming, that even the “left” adopts an individualistic, moralistic, psychologistic, censorious, self-righteous, performative approach to making social change.
“The fight against racism must focus…not on the intangible, impalpable, unchangeable, invisible, or unprovable, but, instead, on what’s substantive, meaningful, and corrigible. In the first place, securing economic opportunity and legal equality.” The Sanders program was far more substantively “anti-racist” than the puny liberal programs of most of his woke critics. (As for Sanders’ being constantly hounded to support “reparations” for blacks, I’ve explained elsewhere why that demand is anti-solidaristic, politically impossible, and ultimately a diversion from radical social transformation.)
The last chapter of I’ll Burn That Bridge delves into a specific dimension of cancel culture: when is it appropriate for a professor to be disciplined for his public behavior and statements, whether on social media or in some other context? This issue bears, of course, on Finkelstein’s own career, but he is hardly the only academic to have been disciplined in recent decades for alleged “incivility” or taking unpopular political stands. The chapter is tightly argued and has a more disciplined structure than others, consisting of analyses of four academic freedom cases (Bertrand Russell in 1940, Leo Koch in 1960, Angela Davis in 1969, and Steven Salaita in 2014) and then general reflections that conclude in a discussion of his own case. He endorses the American Association of University Professors’ standard that “a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness to serve [i.e., to teach]”—which was surely not the case in the four instances he examines. But he goes much further and questions whether it should even be seen as a professional obligation that one always use civil language in one’s scholarship (which Finkelstein didn’t when writing about the Holocaust industry and Alan Dershowitz’s lies). Given all the invective in Marx’s Capital, for example, the book would never have been published by a university press today and Marx wouldn’t get a position at a top university. “But if the likes of Marx wouldn’t qualify for a tenured appointment at a first-rank university, isn’t that a reductio ad absurdum? Doesn’t it conclusively demonstrate the inanity of a standard commanding restrained and temperate language?”
It can at least be said for Finkelstein that he practices what he preaches: his book, to put it mildly, does not shrink from uncivil words.
One might connect Finkelstein’s lengthy discussion of academic civility with his book’s focus on woke politics by pointing to something his targets have in common: a preoccupation with policing language and thought at the expense of more substantive concerns. Academia insists on politeness, decorum, “neutral” language, which often serves to enforce conventions, emasculate dissent, and uphold power structures; wokeness insists on ceaselessly monitoring your own and others’ language, in fact making that a priority, allowing people to feel “radical” by doing nothing that remotely challenges real power structures. (No surprise that woke culture has largely emerged from the academy.) To do justice to Truth and Justice, though, requires more than this. In the case of scholarly writing and speaking,
There are moments that might positively require breaking free of the constraints imposed by polite public discourse in order to sound the tocsin that, as we indifferently carry on in a privileged sanctuary of peace and prosperity, innocent people are being butchered by our own state. The uncivil reality, not uncivil words, should be cause for reproach and excoriation, while uncivil words might be called for to bring home the uncivil reality.
It can at least be said for Finkelstein that he practices what he preaches: his book, to put it mildly, does not shrink from uncivil words.
It should be clear from what has been said here that I’ll Burn That Bridge When I Get to It is an unusual book. It requires a lot of patience to read, but I think the effort is worth it. It’s not a “polished” work, but in an academic and literary environment that sometimes seems to value polish above all else, including moral and intellectual substance, one appreciates something a little more raw. And someone with the courage to tear down—in order to build up.
Finkelstein is in the tradition of the great incorruptible truth-tellers. He relates an anecdote from when he was a graduate student at Princeton in 1984: his work exposing a bestselling scholarly hoax on the Israel-Palestine conflict had gotten the favorable attention of the editor of the New York Review of Books and his friend (Arthur Hertzberg) at Columbia University, and he sensed that career possibilities were opening up for him. But then, in a meeting with Hertzberg, he was bluntly asked, “Are you in Chomsky’s stable?” Despite knowing the probable consequences of giving the wrong answer, he unhesitatingly said he deeply admired Chomsky and was grateful for his support—which, of course, was the wrong answer. He never heard from the men again. Even so, “I was proud of myself,” he writes, “not to be tempted, at all, by the lure of fame and fortune, and I was grateful for this test of my fidelity to Truth (and Chomsky), so that I could prove in my own person dead wrong the cynics who imagine, or console themselves, that everyone has a price.”
That unshakeable commitment, that willingness not to conform, combined with intellectual power, is chiefly what has set Finkelstein apart from most of his peers. One hopes that his book and his example will inspire young idealists to follow in his path.