COLTON — Noel Ignatiev is not a name familiar to most Americans. Yet the concept he created and promulgated, that of white privilege, has become part of the racial narrative of the Democratic Party and consequently of the mainstream media.
Ignatiev, who passed away in November, was a communist who taught at Harvard and at the Massachusetts College of Art. He famously called for the abolition of whiteness, writing that “so-called whites must cease to exist as whites in order to realize themselves as something else; to put it another way: white people must commit suicide as whites in order to come alive. … We want to do away with the white race as a social category. ... Without the privileges attached to it, the white race would not exist.”
Of course, the notion of a privileged racial or ethnic group existed before Ignatiev. As Adolf Hitler explained in a 1919 letter: “An anti-semitism based on reason ... must lead to systematic legal combating and elimination of the privileges of the Jews. ... The ultimate objective must ... be the irrevocable removal of the Jews in general.”
But the National Socialists had no monopoly on such ideas. In a 1929 speech, Joseph Stalin declared that the Communist Party had “passed from the policy of restricting the exploiting tendencies of the kulaks to the policy of eliminating the kulaks as a class.” It did not take long to pass from the policy of eliminating the kulaks as a class to eliminating them physically.
The Democratic Party’s identity politics, its “race matters” ideology and its specific targeting of whites for demonization and aggression, has had some perhaps unforeseen consequences. One is the targeting of Jews.
As reported by the Jewish News Syndicate, Rabbi Yaacov Behrman, a leader in Crown Heights, has critiqued the Anti-Defamation League’s politically correct characterization of attacks on Jews in Brooklyn, saying: “I think they’re blaming everything on the alt-right, when in truth in Brooklyn the anti-Semitism is coming from the left.”
And the new wave of progressive, anti-white Democratic legislators includes the well-known U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar. Besides saying that “our country should be more fearful of white men” then of jihadists, she lamented that “Israel has hypnotized the world” and asked that “Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” Under political pressure, she was forced to apologize for the former remark.
The black critique of Jewish influence, however, predates the arrival of Omar. In one of the iconic works of black studies programs, “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” Harold Cruse accuses Jewish members of the American Communist Party of exploiting American blacks “to promote Jewish ethnic group interests while they limited the struggle for Black demands,” as Sid Resnick, who saw Cruse as “an obsessive anti-Semite,” wrote in his review of the book.
One of the risks to a political alliance that stresses the importance of various racial, ethnic and religious identities (as opposed to a common American identity) is that such alliances can and do shift. Today, the target is white privilege (into which, through intersectionality, post-colonial and whiteness studies subsume Jewish privilege); tomorrow, the target might be Asian privilege. Indeed, the battle between Asians and other minorities has already been joined in New York City, where blacks and Latinos complain they are underrepresented in prestigious public schools because of the overrepresentation of Asians.
But any racial group might someday find itself targeted as privileged or supremacist. Even variations in skin tone between members of the same racial group can be a cause for rivalry, as is the case in Haiti, whose history is that of the power struggle between majority noirs and minority mulattres; and as is the case today in the United States, where colorism or shadeism results in fierce conflicts between members of the same group. The worldwide phenomenon of colorism has been analyzed by various writers in “Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters,” an anthology edited by Evelyn Nakano Glenn, and documented in the film “Dark Girls.”
Ignatiev’s strategy of replacing the idea of class struggle with that of race struggle has been enormously successful in the United States. For decades relegated to the fringes of the Democratic Party, it has in the last few years become the party’s dominant ideology. But even in an America in which whites have been eliminated, race struggle based on skin tone would continue.
“We intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans,” President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1919. It is unfortunate that such a sentiment is anathema to today’s Democratic Party.
Kevin Beary is a Colton resident. He is a retired English professor who taught at the University of Florence in Italy.