As previously noted, the latest issue (#63) of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed contains an essay on ‘Anarchy 101: Race’ by Leona Benten. And here’s a few thoughts in response:
To began with, I live in (Melbourne) Australia, not the US, so I’m not sure I’m all that well qualified to comment on some of Benten’s observations, or to assess the accuracy of her claims regarding what is either the general understanding of ‘race’ in the US context, or what, in particular, have been the views advanced by US-based anarchists in addressing this subject. Further, the question of race in Australia — especially in terms of black and white — is usually addressed in terms of indigenous (black) and non-indigenous (white); a subject which deserves another post, in particular in relation to the question of Aboriginal genocide, sovereignty, and treaty (see The Black GST), and the implications this has for anarchism in Australia.
The distinction between scientific and historic understandings of ‘race’ — which are reckoned to be the two main schools of thought on the subject — would seem to boil down to an argument concerning race as a function of biology — or not. In other words, the acceptance or rejection of the proposition that an individual’s race may be discovered through a careful examination of their biology; in contemporary science, through analysis of their genetic inheritance or DNA. And, of course, that a person’s race, once established, has particular political and social ramifications for that individual.
A second and related proposition is that determining an individual’s race holds the key to understanding an individual’s ‘culture’. That is, an individual’s culture (and social standing) may be ‘explained’ through reference to their genetic inheritance.
‘Liberal’ scientists, according to Benten (one presumes in opposition to ‘radical’ scientists, perhaps), maintain that humans “are all the same”. Further, that ‘racism’, having no scientific basis, is an irrational disposition; one which may, presumably, be successfully countered through some form of educational program based on revealing this scientific truth to those who, for whatever reason, remain ignorant of it.
(At least, that’s my understanding of her argument, which may be inaccurate, especially as the following passages seem to depart somewhat from a critical examination of what it purports to be the scientific consensus on race, in order to examine instead what are presumed to be its political implications.)
The historic understanding of race, on the other hand, claims “that differences in culture (whether from non-European origins or from oppression once arriving here) and in social standing create a distinct group of people with identifiable and predictable characteristics”.
Benten then proceeds to delineate what are claimed to be the two archetypal positions adopted by anarchists in relation to the concept of race: activist and atomist.
The activist perspective is claimed to be the most common, and understands ‘race’ as being a fundamental category of social reality and existence; one modified, perhaps, by other factors such as class and gender. According to this perspective, ‘skin colour’ is synonymous with race, and knowledge of an individual’s skin colour is largely sufficient to describe the most important aspects of their existence (presumably as either oppressor or oppressed). This approach, apparently, is one adopted by such groups as Bring the Ruckus, and is also reproduced via workshops titled Challenging White Supremacy.
The atomist perspective, on the other hand, appears to acknowledge that ‘race’ exists — on some level, in some way — but only “barely”. In essence, “Race determines neither how a person will respond to the status quo, nor how the system will respond to them”.
As for Benten’s critique of these perspectives — again, as far as I can make sense of it — the main ‘drawback’ associated with the ‘activist’ approach seems to be its insensitivity to what are in fact complex political realities. In other words, being crude, it is inaccurate. Thus, while it may be useful in some respects — it enables marginalised or oppressed groups to organise and to obtain political reforms — it also tends to reproduce faulty modes of thinking, and thus help perpetuate the social divisions which it claims to want to overcome or to dismantle. It’s noteworthy that Benten claims that this approach once had more purchase because the racial stratification of US society it describes was once more real, but that subsequent historical developments have tended to place class, rather than race, at the centre of (radical) social analyses.
The atomist perspective, on the other hand, is flawed because it fails to take into account commonalities of experience and identity, whether contemporary or historical. In summary, the problem — which might be described as being the problem of ‘identity politics’ more generally (one which often, interestingly, fails to include class as being one form of ‘identity’) — concerns “what is best emphasized — our membership in (externally and internally defined) groups, or our individuality“. This is a result, Benten argues, of “living with the consequences of [US] culture’s successful perceptual split of individuality from membership”. Further, “how we negotiate and understand the relationship between the two is a continual question”, not easily given to resolution, on either a personal or public level, and despite attempts by individuals to ‘valorize’ one aspect of their (social) being over another.
Benten concludes her brief sketch by referring to various groups, writers and theories (see below). One theory of particular importance is ‘critical race theory’. According to Benten, the premises fundamental to critical race theory may be summarised as follows:
a) racism is a normal part of US society (i.e., that it is not a matter of a few bad apples);
b) the principle of interest convergence, which is that elites will only change when it is in their interest to change, and even then change only in ways that serve them;
c) context is essential to understanding specific events and;
d) race is socially constructed.
So… I should probably re-read Benten’s essay, but wtf, the top of my head says — in a manner vaguely resembling Henry Rollins impersonating Sylvester Stallone — ‘Go for it’.
I think that the issue of race qua biology is boring and stupid, as are most attempts to explain human society through reference to our bits and pieces. The fact that there’s been a vast array of cultures over a long period of time with very little or no variation in our basic physiology suggests that the ‘explanations’ for such facts reside elsewhere than in our jeans. That’s pretty obvious, and the starting-point for most any attempt to address a social question (and in fact may be considered what distinguishes the ‘natural’ sciences from the social). One objection to the failure to link ‘race’ to biology, however, is the need to determine the means by which races are constructed — in the above example, through ‘skin colour’. Which is fair enough, on one level, but the idea that ‘race’ may be the product of otherwise arbitrary characteristics must necessarily be understood in context. In the US — but not just in the US — black and white skin is important for reasons which may be traced back to the beginnings of the colonialist expansions into Africa and South America of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries — Portuguese and Spanish in particular, as well as the somewhat later Belgian, Dutch, English, French, German and Italian experiments in bringing the blessings of civilization to the benighted savages.
As for ‘culture’, one aspect of this argument I think is worth drawing further attention to is the widespread, almost ubiquitous use of this term as though it were synonymous with ‘the nation’: that ‘culture’ expresses, in some way, the underlying essence of ‘the nation’. Which is bollocks: insofar as ‘culture’ — meaning: way of life — transcends the nation; to the extent that no individual may be reduced to a simple expression of this cultural essence (no matter how ‘charming’); and in the sense that accounting for culture does not account for race / does not account for racial hierarchies or racial politics, oppression(s) and resistance(s).
- “As in many other countries, assimilation was seen as necessary to full acceptance into [Australian] society. This society was, itself, always changing in character in response to new arrivals and it was not always clear what ‘assimilation’ might mean. To [Henry] Parkes it meant acceptance of British Protestant dominance, which was scarcely acceptable to the large Irish Catholic minority. But even this minority favoured White Australia, seeing assimilation in racial rather than cultural terms…
‘Assimilation’ is a disputed term. To many it meant the disappearance of any characteristics which marked off individuals from each other. On this definition colour or facial features, which were inherited, made non-Europeans and their children unassimilable. This view was officially maintained well into the late 1960s as the basis for admission to Australia. This term also implied the adoption of majority culture, which was assumed to be uniform and self-evident. This attitude still surfaces in debate today. Most important was the adoption of the English language. Religious divisions are less important than a century ago, but non-Christian religions are looked on with suspicion by many. Clothing has become very varied, but some manifestly ‘ethnic’ dress may be criticised, from the long ‘reffo’ trench coats of the 1940s to the Muslim headscarves of today.” ~ James Jupp, From White Australia to Woomera: The Story of Australian Immigration, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, pp.21–22
And as for science and history, I reckon it’s mistaken to assign ‘science’ the role of assigning racial determinations by way of the test tube or the microscope. It’s certainly the case that science has a history, even if the (academic) discipline of history’s status as science is questionable. It’s also the case that some scientists, whatever flavour their politics, have far more nuanced views on the matter of the relationship between our selves and our bodies, whether considered in terms of race or gender or by way of some other social category.
In reference to Benten’s references to dualism and “perceptual splits”, Knabb writes:
Avoiding false choices and elucidating real ones
We have to face the fact that there are no foolproof gimmicks, that no radical tactic is invariably appropriate. Something that is collectively possible during a revolt may not be a sensible option for an isolated individual. In certain urgent situations it may be necessary to urge people to take some specific action; but in most cases it is best simply to elucidate relevant factors that people should take into account when making their own decisions. (If I occasionally presume to offer direct advice here, this is for convenience of expression. “Do this” should be understood as “In some circumstances it may be a good idea to do this.”)
A social analysis need not be long or detailed. Simply “dividing one into two” (pointing out contradictory tendencies within a given phenomenon or group or ideology) or “combining two into one” (revealing a commonality between two apparently distinct entities) may be useful, especially if communicated to those most directly involved. More than enough information is already available on most issues; what is needed is to cut through the glut in order to reveal the essential. Once this is done, other people, including knowledgeable insiders, will be spurred to more thorough investigations if these are necessary.
When confronted with a given topic, the first thing is to determine whether it is indeed a single topic. It’s impossible to have any meaningful discussion of “Marxism” or “violence” or “technology” without distinguishing the diverse senses that are lumped under such labels.
On the other hand, it can also be useful to take some broad, abstract category and show its predominant tendencies, even though such a pure type does not actually exist. The situationists’ Student Poverty pamphlet, for example, scathingly enumerates all sorts of stupidities and pretensions of “the student.” Obviously not every student is guilty of all these faults, but the stereotype serves as a focus around which to organize a systematic critique of general tendencies. By stressing qualities most students have in common, the pamphlet also implicitly challenges those who claim to be exceptions to prove it. The same applies to the critique of “the pro-situ” in Debord and Sanguinetti’s The Real Split in the International — a challenging rebuff of followers perhaps unique in the history of radical movements.
“Everyone is asked their opinion about every detail in order to prevent them from forming one about the totality” (Vaneigem). Many issues are such emotionally loaded tar-babies that anyone who reacts to them becomes entangled in false choices. The fact that two sides are in conflict, for example, does not mean that you must support one or the other. If you cannot do anything about a particular problem, it is best to clearly acknowledge this fact and move on to something that does present practical possibilities.
If you do decide to choose a lesser evil, admit it; don’t add to the confusion by whitewashing your choice or demonizing the enemy. If anything, it’s better to do the opposite: to play devil’s advocate and neutralize compulsive polemical delirium by calmly examining the strong points of the opposing position and the weaknesses in your own. “A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; the point is to have the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!” (Nietzsche).
Combine modesty with audacity. Remember that if you happen to accomplish anything it is on the foundation of the efforts of countless others, many of whom have faced horrors that would make you or me crumple into submission. But don’t forget that what you say can make a difference: within a world of pacified spectators even a little autonomous expression will stand out.
Since there are no longer any material obstacles to inaugurating a classless society, the problem has been essentially reduced to a question of consciousness: the only thing that really stands in the way is people’s unawareness of their own collective power. (Physical repression is effective against radical minorities only so long as social conditioning keeps the rest of the population docile.) Hence a large element of radical practice is negative: attacking the various forms of false consciousness that prevent people from realizing their positive potentialities.
To be continued… (April 20) with more extracts from Jupp:
…It has been argued by Mark Lopez, in his detailed study of the origins of multiculturalism [The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics 1945-1975, Melbourne University Publishing, 2000], that little attention was paid to the Canadian model [developed in the early ’70s] even while the terminology was accepted. Policy development was seen as concerned with the immigrant generation. Indigenous Australians were not regarded as relevant until 1989. Religious minorities were not taken into consideration either. Language was seen as the core of ethnic diversity. The basic question asked in Australia was, therefore, how to ensure that non-British immigrants were integrated into Australian society. The term ‘non-English-speaking-background’ (NESB) was coined to describe the target group. While policy development by 1982 argued that ‘multiculturalism is for all Australians’, this was never effectively implemented or understood.
The term ‘multiculturalism’ has been defined in different countries in accordance with the local situation. It was reluctantly adopted in the United States where it is has also endured the most consistent atacks. In the United States, human rights and ethnic relations have been defined and determined to a large extent in the courts, acting on the wording of the American Constitution and in response to political agitation. This has led to such innovations as school bussing, ethnic quotas in public appointments, and the drawing of electoral boundaries to take account of ethnic distribution. None of these has been the case in Australia. Yet much of the conservative attack on multiculturalism from the early 1980s was simply transferred from the United States as though the two situations were the same. A central claim of American critics is that multiculturalism endorses cultural relativism and thus denies the basic liberal principles upon which society and its institutions depend. This has never been the case in Australia. All official proclamations have stressed the supremacy of existing institutions and values as well as of the English language…
Other sources recommended by Benten:
Anarchist People of Color [APOC]: Lorenzo Komboa Ervin; Ashanti Alston; Aragorn! and Ernesto Aguilar. Some non-anarchist writers on race: Richard Delgado, Lisa Ikemoto and Ian Haney-Lopez. Also, Charles W. Mills, Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race, in particular ‘But What Are You Really?: The Metaphysics of Race’.
- See also : Gary Foley, ‘The Power of Whiteness’ (1998); Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, University of Minnesota, 1993; Ghassan Hage, White Nation: Fantasies of White supremacy in a multicultural society, Pluto Press, 1998 (Review by Paul McCormack).
Is Benten a person of colour, and what’s her experience with anarchism in terms of race?
From the way the article is written, I get the impression that Benten is white (both because she doesn’t talk from her own standpoint and because whiteness is a taken-for-granted universal), and she doesn’t take responsibility for that.
As for her assertion that the “activist” take on race is too simplistic — what kind of evidence does she have for that? (None. And I really don’t think she gets what she’s talking about with this point.) The essay falls prey to the same fallacies she’s critiquing, because it’s so general it has the effect of making the qualities she talks about seem essential.
Hey Fire Fly,
No idea if B’s a person of colour — i don’t think so — or what’s her exp w/- @ in terms of race. All’s i knows is that — assuming it’s the same ‘Leona Benten’ — she appears to have generated some controversy in the US inre RU-486 back in ’92, even being the subject of a doco:
— &, fyi, she’s written on the subject of @ & feminism here:–
Inre B’s criticisms of what she describes as being the ‘activist’ approach to race by anarchists — in her defence, & maybe i shoulda reiterated this point myself — she does claim to be attempting to paint a picture of current thinkin’ with broad strokes, so evidence of particular transgressions in this respect may be asking too much. That said, while acknowledging its positive aspects, she writes that the weaknesses in the activist approach may be seen as being a result of:
“…this perspective [being] based on a dualistic model (us vs. them, powerful vs. weak, people of color vs. white people, etc.) that does not reflect the complexities of a world in which (for example) mixed race people exist. This perspective has a view of power as static, and a history of drawing hard lines between people, lines that deny people’s complications. There was a time when the US was more stratified around race, when this perspective might have made more sense, but in the current society that increasingly emphasizes class, in which there are people of color on every possible side of every argument, it becomes more and more invisibilizing to ignore differences existing within a single racial group, much less ones existing between different racial groups. The dualistic model makes decreasing sense.”
I’m still to conclude my own thoughts, so maybe i’ll try address this particular aspect of the subject then.
That statement is, frankly, stupid. American people of colour have been taking a variety of social divisions into account in their work for a long time now. Only someone who had no clue about history or politics could articulate a viewpoint that a “dualistic model” underpins activism around race.
However, that cluelessness may be present amongst the anarchists she’s talking about, so who knows!? She doesn’t specify, so she cleverly dodges the issue.
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