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Abolishing whiteness has never been more urgent

11 14 0
17.11.2019

Noel Ignatiev never set out to be a hero. His goal was quite the opposite: to be a "traitor" to a race that for much of his life would not accept him and whose inherent toxicity, he believed, would permanently impede the possibility of the United States living up to its ideals.

On November 9, the historian died, leaving behind a body of work explaining why and how Americans ought to abolish "whiteness". As the country faces a surge in white supremacist violence and rhetoric, there may be no better time to engage with - and embrace - his ideas.

Ignatiev was born and raised in the same progressive - and for some, radical - American Jewish tradition that moulded Bernie Sanders (who was born less than a year before him). He grew up in a mixed-race area of Philadelphia where he witnessed the extent and depth of anti-black racism. In the late 1950s, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out after three years and focused on leftist activism.

He took up a job in a steel mill, becoming a labour organiser among the mostly African American workforce before completing a PhD at Harvard (where he was accepted despite his lack of a college degree) in 1995.

Ignatiev was a member of the last generation of Jews who experienced what it meant to be considered less than white in the US - at least until the present generation experienced a sharp rise in anti-Semitic attacks after the election of Donald Trump. He understood the malleability of race and its reality as a social, ideological and political, rather than biological, construct.

The majority of Jews embraced whiteness as it became more readily available to them from the 1960s onwards, believing it offered unprecedented protection against any possible resurgent anti-Semitism. Ignatiev, however, saw the solution to Jews' problems, and those of the US at large, in abolishing it.

Abolishing whiteness is different to merely challenging "white supremacy" or "white privilege". What Ignatiev understood was that for most self-identified "white" people there is, a normally invisible, boundary to how far they will go in working for true racial equality. Unsurprisingly, those boundaries become apparent around issues - such as equal access to education and jobs - that might threaten or merely inconvenience the advantages and privileges of whiteness.

A recent example is the controversy surrounding a school desegregation plan in the city of Columbia, Maryland - a town established in the 1960s as an integrated community symbolising the "Next America". The opposition to the plan reveals how those who enjoy privilege will behave in ways they would otherwise consider racist when they are called upon........

© Al Jazeera