I often receive inquiries from white and non-black folks about how they can get involved in anti-racist organizing, especially after high-profile police shootings of African Americans. The requests for advice increased after Donald Trump’s election. I usually oblige because I always want to help, and I consider answering such questions to be part of political organizing.
Sometimes I share articles about how white folks can help. These types of articles — “This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter,” “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People,” “11 Things White People Can Do to Be Real Anti-Racist Allies,” — have become a genre unto themselves over the last several years.
Though they contain useful information, many of their suggestions are too focused on individual action. I am guilty of this too. I often tell white Americans about what they can do to individually address racism — educating oneself, using one’s privilege, donating to a particular organization, putting one’s body in harm’s way, and talking to others about racism and other forms of oppression. At best, I will push whites to involve themselves in anti-racist struggles in a support capacity, as long as they do not try to center themselves.
Reflecting on the anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the passing of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) co-founder and radical activist Tom Hayden, and Trump’s election pushed me to recall my misgivings about these types of blog posts, my advice, as well as the concept of white allyhood. One of the lessons of the Panthers, Hayden, and the 1960s radicals was that white folks must do what they can to help build a collective radical politics grounded in the interests of people of color that is anti-white supremacist and that ultimately seeks to overturn settler colonialism, structural racism, hetero-patriarchy, and other forms of oppression. At times, I have failed to deliver that message clearly, especially since building an alternative politics is not a novel idea.
Tom Hayden’s advocacy for the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program, “What We Want, What We Believe,” at a February 1969 rally in Berkeley was an example of pushing whites to practice a collective politics with a black program at the center of it. In “At Huey’s Birthday Party: Lesson for the White Left,” Hayden amplified the Panthers’ program and used it as a potential source for radical white political organizing. He reiterated Huey Newton’s advice to white radicals: “I would like to underline tonight three of Huey’s major suggestions to white radicals,” Hayden declared, “that we need a program, we need an organization, we need to pick up the gun in self-defense.” Arguing that white leftists needed to take Newton’s “words, ideology, and example seriously,” he reminded the audience about the shortcomings of individualism, “First, Huey has argued that individualism is not in the long run a substitute for program, for machinery which can carry out a strategy for the liberation of this country.”1
As I wrote in a previous post, the Party’s Ten Point Program contained a mix of radical, liberal, and black nationalist elements.2 The Panthers called for freedom, releasing all black prisoners, and an end to police brutality. The Panthers’ document was anti-capitalist and socialist, calling for the “end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black community” and calling for full employment, land, bread, housing, clothing, and education. The platform’s call to excuse black men from military service was pro-black and anti-imperialist. But the document also drew upon American liberal traditions. It pointed to the U.S. Constitution as the legal basis to protect African Americans’ civil liberties and adopted the language of the Declaration of Independence to argue for a black revolution.
While the Panthers’ program served as the foundation and inspiration, Hayden tweaked a few of the points. The first point reflected Hayden’s commitment to SDS’s vision of participatory democracy, which emphasized direct grassroots decision making in politics.3 Points two and three explicitly appealed to members of the white working class.
In a point that is relevant in this contemporary moment, Hayden highlighted how technological advancements in production displaced white and, presumably, black Americans from the industrial economy. Automation did not represent the only problem for workers as Hayden sought to advance a progressive critique of taxes, arguing that corporations and the wealthy should shoulder more of the tax burden.4
Hayden’s revision of the Panthers’ program was far from perfect. Similar to the Panthers, there was little mention of the women’s liberation movement that was in full swing. Hayden’s call for sexual liberation for men and women only recalls the feminist critique that this type of freedom applied to men most exclusively. Also, black radical feminists such as the Third World Women’s Alliance’s Frances Beal sought to highlight the sexism within and outside of the movement and also produced new valuable understandings of the relationships between patriarchy, race, and class.5
Hayden’s rearticulation of the Party’s “What We Want, What We Believe” underscored the argument that a pro-black and anti-racist platform could serve as the basis for solidarity and a multiracial left. This proposition challenges arguments that some white leftists like Todd Gitlin articulated, suggesting that the black power movement and other nationalist formations disrupted the universalism of leftist politics after 1965.6
It is true that telling white folks to participate in the building of a collective radical politics is, one, stating the obvious for some; two, daunting; and three, may garner skepticism from some activists and organizers of color. I agree with all of these points. Also, many on the left have been doing this work already. I am also weary of white activists centering themselves. Yet, it may be important for white American and non-black folks to organize around The Movement for Black Lives’ Platform. Their platform follows in the tradition of organizations such as the Panthers and the radical, queer, and feminist of color organization, the Combahee River Collective, two groups that devised and articulated influential black radical politics.
It is still important for white and non-black folks to continue to try to address structural racism individually. However, after reading some of these posts, sometimes one can forget about the importance of participating in a mass politics to undermine, if not eradicate, oppressive structures. This huge task necessitates big thinking, collective democratic action, individual acts of educating oneself and others, as well as the collective acts of protests. Also, building a mass politics with black and POC radicalism at the center forces white and non-black folks to have entirely different conversations with others. And, no, pursing this type of mass politics isn’t about abandoning the “white working class,” either. It is about pushing everyone to reimagine “universal” concepts of social justice and freedom for all.
Bambara, Toni Cade. The Black Woman: An Anthology. New York: Washington Square Press, 1970.
Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall. New York: The New Press, 1995.
Hayden, Tom. Reunion: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1988.
Murch, Donna. Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Polletta, Francesca. Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.
- Tom Hayden, “At Huey’s Birthday Party: Lesson for the White Left,” Liberation News Service, February 15, 1969. Tom Hayden Papers, Box 7, Folder 12, Joseph A. Labadie Collection, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. Return to text.
- Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam’s platform, “What the Muslims Want,” inspired the Panther’s platform. See Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 70. Return to text.
- The Party’s program was more concise and direct than some of the other leftist manifestos that appeared during the 1960s. Tom Hayden and SDS produced the comprehensive, yet sprawling, Port Huron Statement in 1962. While the “agenda for a generation” covered much ground including the economy, the Cold War, racism, and anti-colonial movements abroad, the Port Huron Statement reintroduced the concept of “participatory democracy” into leftist political culture. Participatory democracy referred to the establishment of a direct democracy stemming from the grassroots. Hayden and the SDS drew from democratic theorists such as Arnold Kaufmann and John Dewey as well as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who relied upon collective decision making in political organizing. Tom Hayden, The Port Huron Statement: The Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), 45. Return to text.
- Hayden, “At Huey’s Birthday Party.” Return to text.
- Frances Beal, “Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female,” in The Black Woman: An Anthology, ed. Toni Cade Bambara (New York: Washington Square Press, 1970). Return to text.
- See Todd Gitlin, Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked By the Culture Wars (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995). Return to text.