Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 21, 2020

Encountering Malcolm X

Filed under: Black nationalism,Counterpunch,Kevin Coogan,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm


Watching the six-part documentary “Who Killed Malcolm X?” on Netflix stirred up powerful memories of how important he was to my political evolution. While the documentary is focused on exploring the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) role in his murder, it also sheds light on Malcolm’s post-NOI political odyssey. By creating a rival movement to the pseudo-Islamist sect, he risked a fatal encounter with four assassins on this date fifty-five years ago at the Audubon Ballroom in New York.

Just six weeks before his death, I heard Malcolm X speak at the Palm Gardens in New York. I went with my girlfriend Dian, who was on midterm break from Bard College, just like me. I remember taking a seat about ten rows from the podium and being perplexed by the five or so leaflets on the chair that advertised rallies or meetings geared to radicals. Although I was much more of an existentialist liberal a la Camus in 1965, I was eager to hear Malcolm speak. Little did I know at the time that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a sect I would join two years later, organized the meeting. The Trotskyists placed leaflets on the chairs to draw people closer to the party, an approach that the Internet would supersede just as Facebook would supersede the mimeograph machine.

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September 30, 2019

Advice to Corey Robin: Don’t take lawyers at their word, especially Clarence Thomas

Filed under: Black nationalism — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

As I stated in a previous post, I am not sufficiently motivated  to read and review Corey Robin’s book on Clarence Thomas but I will continue to respond to his articles promoting it. In yesterday’s NY Times, he wrote an op-ed piece titled “Clarence Thomas Is Not a ‘Sellout’” that gave me a better handle on his flawed methodology. I am not sure whether he was responsible for the subhead to the article (“Whether or not you agree with his jurisprudence, it is rooted in a commitment to black people”) but it makes you wonder what the word “commitment” really means. For example, I’ve heard that Assad was committed to the Syrian people but on what basis? In politics, actions count much more than words and Thomas had a long-time record of opposing Black rights, such as terminating class-action suits against racist hiring practices when he headed the EEOC. This hurt Black workers whatever justification he gave.

The opening paragraph reflects the parameters of Robin’s interest in Clarence Thomas’s career:

Say the name “Clarence Thomas” in any liberal setting and the response is likely to be short and swift: “self-hating,” “stupid,” “sellout.”

But what about the radicals, especially Black radicals? Does Robin care what they think? In many ways, The Black Agenda Report founded by former Black Panther members is the voice of Black radicalism in the USA. In 2007, editor Glen Ford wrote an article titled “Clarence Thomas, the ‘Anti-Black’” that was likely ignored by Robin. Ford wrote:

Thomas is a perverse right-wing joke played on Blacks and, being of above average intelligence despite his mental illness, he knows it. But it is a knowledge he cannot endure, a burden that has made him a pathological liar, who blurts out contradictions so antithetical to each other that they cannot possibly coexist in the same brain without a constant roiling and crashing that puts him at flight from himself and all those who remind him of his now hopelessly entangled torments and tormentors.

Ford is right to refer to the contradictions that come out of Thomas’s mouth. That’s what you might expect from a lawyer who is trained to argue both sides of a case. Somehow, in writing a book about Thomas, Robin lost track of the fact that his subject was a lawyer, not some  kind of political philosopher. I will expand upon this momentarily.

We learn that Clarence Thomas has no illusions in the “colorblindness” that liberals uphold as a goal:

Yet Justice Thomas, who begins his 29th year on the Supreme Court in October, has always been leery of colorblindness. “Code words like ‘colorblind’ aren’t all that useful,” he declared in 1985. “I don’t think this society has ever been colorblind.”

In 1996, an African-American named Curtis Flowers was arrested for killing four people during a furniture store robbery. During six retrials in Mississippi, the prosecutors systematically kept Blacks from serving on the jury. Preemptory challenges were used to remove  41 of 42 prospective black jurors over the years. When Flowers’s defense attorney appealed to Mississippi’s Supreme Court, it might have been expected that they had no problem with a racially unbalanced jury.

Finally, the Supreme Court heard Mississippi vs. Flowers this year to decide whether this obvious refusal to be colorblind was legal or not. If Thomas was on record as stating that the USA was not colorblind, you’d think that he would have voted with the majority that declared Flowers not guilty because of irregularities in jury selection. But he did not. He agreed with the Mississippi Supreme Court that such preemptory challenges were legitimate.

Some legal analysts view Thomas siding with the white supremacists as being consistent with the Supreme Court’s 1992 precedent in Georgia v. McCollum, where it held that the Constitution forbids the defense as well as prosecutors from using peremptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner. In other words, it was based on the law existing in a colorblind society. So in opposing the majority opinion on Flowers, Thomas was drawing from a decision that went against his supposedly Black nationalist convictions that his brothers and sisters can’t get a fair shake. That’s a contradiction that a skilled lawyer would perhaps be able to resolve, even if it does not fit into Robin’s schema.

I imagine that most people reading Robin’s piece will not bother to look up his written statements on the cases referred to in the article. That’s too much to expect from the liberals who rely on the NY Times for analysis, especially the op-ed pieces that tilt leftward but not too far.

He asks us to consider the issue of eminent domain, when the government has the right to purchase private property for public use. Robin argues that “Justice Thomas opposes eminent domain not simply to protect the rights of private property, as most conservatives do. He also opposes it because he sees it as a tool of racial oppression.”

Out of curiosity, I read Thomas’s opinion in the case of Kelo vs. New London in which the majority upheld the right of New London, Connecticut to utilize eminent domain just like Columbia University did when it needed to expand into West Harlem (my office was the first one to relocate from the main campus.)

Sure enough, you can find Thomas sounding as if he still believed that stuff he read in Malcolm X 40 years ago:

Urban renewal projects have long been associated with the displacement of blacks; “[i]n cities across the country, urban renewal came to be known as ‘Negro removal.’ ” Pritchett, The “Public Menace” of Blight: Urban Renewal and the Private Uses of Eminent Domain, 21 Yale L. & Pol’y Rev. 1, 47 (2003). Over 97 percent of the individuals forcibly removed from their homes by the “slum-clearance” project upheld by this Court in Berman were black. 348 U.S., at 30. Regrettably, the predictable consequence of the Court’s decision will be to exacerbate these effects.

The minority report was consistent with this. It took the side of the poor against the rich. (It should be mentioned that Thomas also referred to Poles in Detroit getting screwed by GM in the same fashion.) In her statement on behalf of the four dissenting judges, Sandra Day O’Connor was just as eloquent:

Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.

When you put this together with Thomas’s reference to “Negro removal”, you might conclude that in addition to him and O’Connor, a Reagan appointee but a moderate, you might find a couple of bleeding-heart liberals standing up for the rights of Blacks and other poor people.

It turns out that it was Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, who along with Thomas constituted the court’s conservative wing. Does anybody think that Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas had concerns about “large corporations” imposing their will on working-class people, and in Thomas’s case African-Americans?

The biggest eminent domain case today involves Trump’s border wall. To this point, none of the landowners on the border have sued to protect their land probably because there has not been a move yet by the White House to use it. However, the Supreme Court gave Trump the green light to reallocate Pentagon funds to build the wall against a decision made by a lower court to provide such an irregular executive decision that, like the unfolding Ukraine controversy, symbolizes Trump’s authoritarianism.

My guess is that Thomas might vote against the use of eminent domain just to appear consistent. Since the conservatives have all the votes they need to move ahead with the wall, this is not a problem. Given Thomas’s vote in favor of reallocating Pentagon funds, that’s all he’ll need to show the Tucker Carlsons of the world that he intends to Make American Great Again.

September 23, 2019

Clarence Thomas’s “Black nationalism”: a reply to Corey Robin

Filed under: Black nationalism — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

I had no plans to review Corey Robin’s new book about Clarence Thomas’s supposed Black nationalism, especially since I had devoted far too much time to reading and writing this year about Max Blumenthal’s “Management of Savagery’ and Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Utopia”, two other problematic works. But when I read a review of “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas” in BookForum, I decided to offer some alternative interpretations of Thomas’s career especially since Robin has linked him to Malcolm X in a 2014 Jacobin article:

Racism is so profoundly inscribed in the white soul that you also have to dig deep in order to see its full extent. The deeper you dig, the closer you get to its beating heart. The overt bigotry of the South is merely the surface; its true depths are to be found in the North. Not among the angry white faces throwing rocks in South Boston, but in the genteel white smiles of liberal institutions like Yale Law School, which Thomas attended.

In his memoir, which came out in 2007, Thomas described the difference thus:

At least southerners were up front about their bigotry; you knew exactly where they were coming from, just like the Georgia rattlesnakes that always let you know when they were ready to strike. Not so the paternalistic big-city [northern and liberal] whites who offered you a helpful hand so long as you were careful to agree with them, but slapped you down if you started acting as if you didn’t know your place. Like the water moccasin, they struck without warning.

If you’re hearing a distant echo in that comment, you should. Think back to that famous passage in Malcolm X’s “Chickens Come Home to Roost” speech:

The white conservatives aren’t friends of the Negro either, but they at least don’t try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox.

Now I have no idea whether Robin deals with Clarence Thomas’s wife Virginia (aka, Ginnni) in his book but I wonder if any Black nationalist—reactionary or revolutionary—would be married to a staff writer for The Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson’s magazine. Among the people who have written for The Daily Caller is Jason Kessler who organized the Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. Another contributor to Carlson’s rag is Peter Brimelow, the founder of VDARE, a nativist and racist website that has published Steve Sailer. Writing for Taki’s white supremacist magazine, Sailer complained:

As the years roll on through the Obama Era and the evidence accumulates that the failure of blacks to catch up has less and less to do with white racism, the American media has become increasingly obsessed with pounding the drums over the sins of white people’s forefathers in the ever more distant past.

It turns out that this is not too far from Clarence Thomas’s brand of Black nationalism. Thomas does not blame white racism as responsible for Black oppression. Instead, it is Black people failing to become self-sufficient through old-fashioned entrepreneurialism that is the problem.

If you study the history of Black politics in the USA, you will see a tendency toward the same sort of thing the Nation of Islam was involved with in the sixties (and maybe still is, for all I know.) They sold bean pies and newspapers to help fund their mosques where denunciations of white racism were made by leaders like Malcolm X.

The difference between the Nation of Islam and Booker T. Washington self-help philosophy was paper-thin, Without the Nation’s pseudo-Islamic veneer and empty calls for separatism, Washington’s National Negro Business League—an early version of Richard Nixon’s call for Black capitalism—was based on Black people lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps. Washington operated out of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama.

In a 44-page article titled “Clarence X?: The Black Nationalist Behind Justice Thomas’s Constitutionalism”, Notre Dame law professor Stephen S. Smith covers the same ground as Robin but from a positive angle. Thomas’s opposition to affirmative action and other rightwing legal decisions demonstrated his “revolutionary” principles rather than marking him as a reactionary, like the liberal Corey Robin does. Among his “nationalist” Supreme Court rulings, according to Smith, was one that protected schools like Tuskegee from becoming integrated with other colleges in the South that had operated up until 1962 on a de jure [by law] segregation basis. The courts had concluded after the 1962 ruling, segregation had continued on a de facto basis. Thomas argued that even if this were the case, it was best to maintain the status quo in order to make sure that Tuskegee and other schools kept going. If this has something to do with Black nationalism, it escapes me.

As I stated above, I have no intention of reading Robin’s book. The goal of this article is only to alert those who do to keep a critical attitude. Let me conclude, however, with some thoughts on a long piece that Robin wrote for The New Yorker recently that encapsulates his approach.

Early on, Robin identifies his Big Idea:

On the Court, Thomas continues to believe—and to argue, in opinion after opinion—that race matters; that racism is a constant, ineradicable feature of American life; and that the only hope for black people lies within themselves, not as individuals but as a separate community with separate institutions, apart from white people.

It is not exactly clear where Robin got this notion of a “separate community” since Stephen S. Smith quotes to just the opposite effect from Thomas’s memoir My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir: “I never went along with the militant separatism of the Black Muslims, but I admired their determination to ‘do for self, brother,’ as well as their discipline and dignity….” As for “do for self” is concerned, that could apply to practically any Black millionaire, including Kanye West, a Trump fan.

We learn that when he was a student at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1971, Thomas helped organize the Black Student Union. Robin describes the program of the BSU, which stipulates that “The Black man does not want or need the white woman. The Black man’s history shows that the white woman is the cause of his failure to be the true Black man.” Evidently, this did not get in the way of him hooking up with Ginni. Robin observes, “Until 1986, when Thomas met Virginia Lamp, who is white and would become his second wife, he opposed interracial sex and marriage.” In making this decision, he must have seen her devotion to the Reagan revolution as far outweighing her white skin.

On the Malcolm X question, Robin points to his poster on Thomas’s dorm room and his collection of records of Malcolm’s speeches as proof of his early absorption of Black nationalist politics. Indeed, on the eve of his being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991, Thomas stated, “I don’t see how the civil-rights people today can claim Malcolm X as one of their own. Where does he say black people should go begging the Labor Department for jobs? He was hell on integrationists. Where does he say you should sacrifice your institutions to be next to white people?”

As head of Reagan’s Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), Thomas made sure to respect his boss’s racist opposition to any government action that would put an end to white-only hiring practices. One of Thomas’s policies that helped undermine any serious assault on racist or sexist hiring practices was no longer allowing class action suits against employers. The LA Times reported in 1991, just as his nomination to the Supreme Court was being considered:

Thomas was rebuked by 43 congressmen when he abandoned the agency’s traditional reliance on class-action lawsuits in favor of individual cases. In a clear manifestation of Thomas’ philosophy, the switch represented a move away from the notion that classes of people are affected by discrimination and an emphasis on individual cases in which discrimination has been proven.

“I continue to believe that distributing opportunities on the basis of race or gender, whoever the beneficiaries, turns the law against employment discrimination on its head,” he wrote in a 1987 Yale Law Review article. “Class preferences are an affront to the rights and dignity of individuals.”

As part of the move away from class-action suits, employers found guilty of discrimination were no longer required to establish goals and timetables for hiring more workers from the affected group, such as blacks or women.

The goals issue was debated hotly within the commission. But Thomas prevailed by arguing that workers not affected directly by discrimination should not be helped.

Something tells me that Malcolm X would have had little sympathy for a measure that put Black people at a disadvantage when it came to being eligible for jobs other than sweeping the factory floor or cleaning the toilets. Of course, by 1991 this was not exactly the sort of thing Thomas had to put up with himself even if he suffered from extreme poverty when very young.

Repeating the business about Black nationalism being based on appreciating the KKK for its candor, etc. at the beginning of this article, Robin cites Marcus Garvey to the same effect:

 In making sincerity the litmus test of American racism, Thomas took a strand of the black nationalism that influenced his early development and wove it into an entire philosophy of race. In the nineteen-twenties, at an especially acute moment of racist reaction in the United States, Marcus Garvey also found comfort in the promise of candor. “They are better friends to my race for telling us what they are, and what they mean, than all the hypocrites put together,” Garvey said, of the Ku Klux Klan. “I like honesty and fair play.”

As long as he was bringing up Marcus Garvey, you might have hoped that he’d have connected the dots between the movements founded by Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad. All of them were based on the idea of self-sufficiency. Garvey read Washington’s “Up from Slavery” and became convinced that Black-owned enterprises were needed, including an “industrial farm” modeled on the Tuskegee Institute.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, the Black Panthers were showing what Black nationalism really meant. It wasn’t about bean pies, “industrial farms” or abolishing class-action law suits against racist corporations. It was about Black control of the Black community, especially replacing the cops with armed community militias.

Returning to the BookForum review of Robin’s book that prompted this post, the question of armed self-defense crops up:

Robin’s interpretation is useful in accounting for some of Thomas’s seeming contradictions. Though not always a champion of individual rights, Thomas is attached to the Second Amendment because a right to bear arms is crucial for an embattled minority in an incorrigibly racist state.

After reading this, I decided to research Thomas and write this article since it seemed to be so unlikely that a rightwing slug like Clarence Thomas would invoke Robert F. Williams or Huey Newton when it came to justifying owning semi-automatic rifles. Everything told me that it was constitutional “originalism” of the Antonin Scalia variety that was responsible for Thomas’s rulings.

After the Parkland Massacre, the Supreme Court ruled that a 10-day waiting period for purchasing a weapon in California was legal. Thomas was the sole dissenter. You can read his opinion here. If you can find any reference to an “an embattled minority in an incorrigibly racist state”, I’ll make a fifty dollar contribution to the Bernie Sanders campaign in your name.

For that matter, a search for “Clarence Thomas and Second Amendment and racist” turned up nothing in Lexis-Nexis as well. Maybe Robin found something to back that up. If you read his book and come across it, drop me a line.

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