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“Learning to Read” excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X (smccd.net)
282 points by kcovia on July 26, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 154 comments



Everyone should really just read the entire Autobiography.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Autobiography-Malcolm-Told-Haley/d...

Also, they should spell "Malcolm" correctly. :)


Agreed, Malcolm X is one of the most fascinating individuals in recent history. The movie based on his autobiography is also quite good: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104797/


That's the understatement of the year! I won't spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it but I don't remember ever feeling as attached to a character except maybe in Shawshank.


This is one of my favorite movies of all time. Despite being 3+ hours, There isn't a single boring moment and Spike Lee and Denzel do a superb job at showing the transformation of Malcolm X. Now I have to go check out the autobiography.


Agreed, mainly because the period is so alien to many sub-40s Americans today. Also resonant: Islam, race, ugly American politics. It's an easy read, written by Alex Haley, who also wrote Roots. (Don't read the book (Roots) if you can find the more culturally significant mini-series. LeVar Burton was an icon in the US in the late 70s, well before he boarded the Enterprise.) The Spike Lee movie on Maclolm X is interesting, but a significantly different experience than reading the book.


I actually disagree that you shouldn't read "Roots." I just finished it myself, and it's about as close as you can get to experiencing what it would be like to be taken away from your home in chains.


Surprisingly, this book was one of the options I had for required summer reading growing up in Georgia public schools. Definitely a good read.


same here growing up in rural virginia


Also worth reading is Manning Marable's excellent biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

http://www.amazon.com/Malcolm-X-A-Life-Reinvention/dp/014312...


Is it still worth reading for somebody who despise the man? Both what he was (a robber) and what he became?


It seems to me, in many cases, hate for Malcolm X is usually centered around his view of militancy as a viable option and his connection to the Nation of Islam.

America was established through violent militancy, so I don't understand the first point. Many great conflicts have proven that as a viable solution.

The second point makes many people uncomfortable because of the NOI's vocal opinions of the white race as a whole. While the "white devil" philosophy can be supported with case studies of deplorable acts against blacks, such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynchings, to name a few, it was and is a gross exaggeration that is becoming less and less supportable. Malcolm X, later in life, experienced a different side of whites and race, that later led him to shun those negative beliefs.

I admire him for his zest for learning, and his courage to have a militant position in a time of great injustice. I was born in a much better America, and have still faced racism that made me feel worthless, defenseless, and angry -- but I still hesitate to even call out racism for fear of negative reprisal.

While I don't think you or any contemporary "non-racist" white person is responsible for those acts, denial of the past and its lingering effects, and hatred for those who fought to end it doesn't help. Without the fear of violent revolution, I question if we would have progressed as far as we have.


> While the "white devil" philosophy can be supported with case studies of deplorable acts against blacks

To be clear, the NOI teaches that "white" people are literal devils - they were created by a scientist named Yakub ~6,000 years ago for the express purpose of fighting the "original" (i.e. "black") people.

I can sympathize with mistrust, and even hostility, towards a culture which historically and presently supports systems which oppress those of ones own culture but I find such teachings undesirable and dangerous. I only bring it up because I don't think most people are aware that the NOI teaches such things (or that they have ties to Dianetics/Scientology, but I digress).

It should also be noted the NOI didn't invent this play. The Israelites used a story of a curse upon Canaan to justify their conquest of it, and later various "white" religions like some Protestant sects, Mormonism, some Baptist groups, etc used the same story or "the mark of cain" to justify their treatment of the people of African origin - another set of disturbing/dangerous teachings that I'm sure many people today are unaware of.

At any rate, I agree that someone subscribing to any of these religions, or advocating actions I don't approve of wouldn't preclude me from being able to admire certain aspects of their personality/life or learn from them.


To be clear, the old testament curses an entire race of people because Noah got drunk and his son saw him naked, so one of his grandsons and all the descendants thereof were to be cursed (and then later on exterminated as part of stealing their land).

I'm not sure why you gave the crazy details of the NOI story and the weirdly detached and vague paraphrase version of the OT one.


Thanks, for the clarification. I am aware of the aliens and recent Scientology association. I am not NOI, nor prescribe to their beliefs, but I can see why they were attractive during the "civil rights era".


It's worth reading the book just to understand in some small way the experience of Malcolm X and people like him. His father was murdered (probably by the police & because he was becoming politically active) and then his mother was cheated out of the life insurance because his death was falsely ruled as a suicide.

In turn the struggle of bringing up her family ruined his mother's health and probably her sanity.

So one can understand his being bitter and twisted. What is impressive is that he overcame this. I would put this book on any must-read list.


Also -- it took the Civil War to end slavery in this country.


It should be pointed out that he later left the NOI and became an adherent to mainstream Islam. That was another step in his transformation.


Use of violence to establish territory or control, or to attain freedom from oppression is human nature. There is absolutely nothing uniquely American or white about it.


Malcolm X was one of the very rare individuals who charted his own course through life. Most deviate only the tiniest fraction from what is dictated by their background and mentors. Not Malcolm X. At the same time, he seemed to tragically lurch from one master to the next, although always seeking a more benign one. I like to think he would have rebelled against organized religion next, if he'd had time to do so. Many would disagree with me on that last point though, with good cause.

As an agnostic "white devil", I doubt Malcolm X and I would have been able to tolerate each other, even very late in his life. However, I'm still fascinated by the story of a man who continually and successfully struggled to grow beyond his influences. He had a great mind. It's interesting to ponder what he could have done had he come from a different background.

Even if you have no patience for reading his autobiography, at least watch the Spike Lee flick based on it. It's a great watch.


That's a great point. It's fascinating to think where he would have ended up after 20 or 40 more years of study and contemplation.


Yes, it is worth reading. You hinted at change or transformation. I personally think this subject is what makes the book such a classic. The books shows his transformation from a "mascot", "Homeboy", "Harelemnite", "Minister Malcolm X" to "El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz". Those are the titles of a couple of the chapters. The voice of each chapter is almost written from that view. It's fascinating because you can see the transformation of his life and views. It's probably one of my favorite books because it shows how a man can change.


Seems to me there isn't anyone for whom it would be more worth reading.


This is one of the most insightful comments I've read in recent memory.


It's a fascinating story, and a really well-written book (co-authored by Alex Haley). I don't think you have to like the man at all to get something out of the book, although it may change your opinion of him slightly. He changed his stance on a great many things over the course of his life and popular views on him often disregard this.


Yes. And it will probably be one of the most instructive exercises you can engage in with walking a mile in another person's shoes.


Why do you despise the man?


I'm not tomjen3 or even that up on Malcolm X but note from Wikipedia that when that when with the Nation of Islam he taught that "white people are 'devils' that blacks are superior to whites, and that the demise of the white race is imminent." and that he split with the Nation of Islam over saying the Kennedy assassination was 'chickens coming home to roost' while they sent condolences to the family. All seems a bit iffy to me.


and that he split with the Nation of Islam over saying the Kennedy assassination was 'chickens coming home to roost' while they sent condolences to the family

Except... he split from the Nation after making a pilgrimage to Mecca and seeing people of all races getting along, helping each other and united in a single purpose. That fundamentally changed his views on race (and his religion -- from what the Nation taught, to more orthodox Islam). It is absolutely no coincidence that he was assassinated by members of the Nation shortly afterward.


Given that whites of the era were teaching that whites were superior to blacks (and using that belief to justify all sorts of mistreatment) I can entirely forgive someone promoting the opposite view.


> even that up on Malcolm X

Then you shouldn't comment on a subject that you know nothing about. Read his book, listen to his speeches, watch the movie, study the civil rights movements and then comment on what you feel is "iffy".


Maybe but I don't much like "<people A> are 'devils' that <people B> are superior to <people A>" bunk. Some of my family got gassed on account of that kind of stuff not long before Malcolm did his thing and it's still racist even if the speakers skin is dark in colour.


There is a big, big difference between despising a group of people because you hate and fear anyone different from yourself, and despising a group of people because every one of them you've ever met has been directly or indirectly complicit in the oppression of you and everyone you love.

Both viewpoints are wrong, of course. But one of them is rooted in selfishness and evil, and the other is rooted in compassion and justice, perverted by that same evil. One of these can be understood and, perhaps, redirected in a more healthy direction--as it seems Malcolm X may have been in the process of doing. In the real world, you can't just slot everyone into convenient "good" and "evil" cubbyholes.


But what about the fact that he later rejected the "white devils" philosophy of the NOI? Doesn't that matter?


Yes.


If you haven't read the book, how can you even begin to have formed a judgment of him?


Now, I'll admit that I personally don't know enough about Malcolm X to form an educated opinion of him, but you seem to be making the assertion that this biography is the only existing source of information on the man. That's pretty ridiculous. Perhaps tomjen learned about him from another source?


I know I will probably be sorry for asking this... but... wouldn't that be kind of the point ?

If you learn about Korean Comfort Women from Japanese text books... do you really have enough information to form an opinion ? I mean... shouldn't you ask ... say ... some of the actual Korean Women about their experiences ???


You gave an extremely narrow example. There are a multitude of resources on virtually any subject. Would I expect a textbook on African American history to cover Malcolm X with enough depth to be considered a definitive source? Of course not, but that doesn't make the textbook useless. We don't have to limit ourselves to a single source of information, so why would we? The original post I was replying to said "How could you have formed an opinion if you haven't read the book." As if reading that particular book is the only way to learn anything about the man. Malcom X's biography is probably a great book, and I hope to find the time to read it soon, but that doesn't mean the statement wasn't absurd.


You can't observe everything yourself. You have to seek out sources with minimal bias or understood bias and place some amount of trust in them, or you'll be paralyzed.

And it's not like autobiographies in general are to be trusted either.


Typical white devil.


For those who feel uncomfortable with Malcolm's former creed that white people are devils and the black race is superior to all others, please do take note of the fact that he did convert to mainstream Islam near the end of his life thus disavowing any such racism or black supremacy.

As Malcolm so eloquently stated:

"America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white - but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color."

You see, orthodox Islam, from the very beginning, espoused equality for all races. In fact, race in Islam is an inconsequential matter. Take for example, one of the greatest and most respected companions of the Prophet Muhammad was an African: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bilal_Ibn_Rabah

The fact is that the Nation of Islam could not be any further from orthodox Islam. In fact, an orthodox Muslim could never possibly even consider one who believes in the NOI's teachings to be a Muslim. It's a shame that the NOI usurped the name Islam and applied it to its organization which really has absolutely nothing to do with a religion with such an illustrious history and tradition.


> You see, orthodox Islam, from the very beginning, espoused equality for all races. In fact, race in Islam is an inconsequential matter.

Oh, is this why Muslim Arabs engaged in the enslaving, transportation, and sale of 10–18 million black Africans over the course of 13 centuries (650 AD – 1900 AD)?


I guess if there had been a market for white slaves they would have sold those too...


They did.


You seem to have misunderstood my claim. I was comparing the creed of orthodox Islam to that of the NOI. The NOI's official doctrine is clearly racist but you cannot point to a single tenet of orthodox of Islam which would indicate that Islam espouses racism.


> At one-hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the approaching footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I got back out of bed onto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read for another fifty-eight minutes—until the guard approached again. That went on until three or four every morning.

I did something similar as a child, with my guards being my parents (oh what a metaphor). Looking back, as someone who does not read a vast amount any more, I was privileged with both the means, and the inclination, to have such a habit. God knows it made me who I am.


One of my recent proud moments as a parent was catching my 7yo up at midnight reading her favourite book of Greek myths.* I can verify it's not actually possible to tell a child off for doing precisely what you both did as kids and deeply approve of. I actually convinced her she did need to sleep by pointing out how tired she'd been that morning, and she did have school in the morning ...

* http://www.amazon.com/Atticus-Storytellers-100-Greek-Myths/d... - simplified and bowdlerised versions for kids, but a really good start on cultural literacy.


Good parents will learn not to listen too closely to whether their children are asleep or reading - great parents will make sure the flashlight batteries are periodically replaced.


Not necessarily. Getting enough sleep is incredibly important.


That's true, but it's very unclear to me whether it's more important than supporting the rare and fragile passion of the childhood reader.


Managed to convince my 7yo midnight reader that she needed to get to sleep so she wouldn't be tired for school in the morning. Sweet reason! It works on kids on rare occasions!


Going hungry for a while to afford a new tool that increases you productivity is a wise investment.


Such a wonderful mind and finely tuned level of metacognition. The arc of the voicing in this passage is beautiful. It saddens me that the world has caused people like him so much pain.


If I only could read all the books I want to read. I can't count the books I bought and only read half or not at all. The stack of to-be-read-next books grows and grows. And now after reading this text I just ordered Malcolm X's biography.


"I just ordered Malcolm X's biography."

Not on a Kindle, I'm sure. I checked. Aside from the main story, this is another example of the problems of copyright. The most recent release is from the mid 80s (admittedly on the bazzilionth printing) and for political or whatever reasons it'll probably never be released again, including in electronic format. Which is too bad.

Just another 68 years until the copyright expires on the 80's version paperback, and then people will be able to read this again. Assuming they're allowed to, and the copyright laws aren't changed again (LOL)

Its a pity, its a good book.


Somewhat reminds me of Terry Pratchett's habit of attributing his education to his local public library.


My favorite book of all time.


It's amazing how empowering reading is. Benjamin Franklin used to stay up reading the books dropped off at his brother's printing press, and Warren Buffet supposedly reads 5 hours a day as part of his standard work schedule. Forget 10,000 hours, I'd like to know how many words the most successful people have read in their lifetime.


Is this also a good way to master programming? i.e Take a reference book/open source project and type out everything till you internalize it?


Copying is an excellent way to memorize, but memorization is different from learning. I suspect that learning and mastering a programming language is going to require doing more than memorizing.


"You couldn’t have gotten me out of books with a wedge...my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life."

I'll pair that quote with this, please consider giving yourself: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/readingrainbow/bring-re...


Looks like there are some better recommendations for book-related charities: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/05/...

Charities rated highly on Charity Navigator: http://www.firstbook.org/ http://www.cliontheweb.org/


Consider reading the comments on that article. A lot of good points are made about why Reading Rainbow is worthwhile.


Thank you for the links!


what a shame that his intellect ended up wasted on reactionary racism. understandable in a sense, given time and place, but still... a waste.


Would love to see a citation for what you mean by "reactionary racism" - especially from the period in Malcolm's life after he split with the NOI in favor of Sunni Islam.

It is true that there are many reactionary elements of NOI ideology and I'm sure you can find all sorts of snippets of quotes from when Malcolm was with them, but not only did he walk away from them, he ultimately gave his life in part because of his split to the NOI (and the FBI stoking tensions around that split via COINTELPRO)

Generally more troubling here is the trend of white people to think that they are victims more than perpetrators of racism[1]; you're just backporting it to history here. Something is wrong with you if you can think about the 1960s or anyone from that period, and end up blaming Malcolm X for "racism" with no mention of the racist police, Klansmen, etc. that openly proclaimed and demonstrated their racist power in that era.

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1390205/Whites-suffe...


Klansmen and corrupt police from the 60s were racist.

So was Malcolm X.

"Usually the black racist has been produced by the white racist. In most cases where you see it, it is the reaction to white racism, and if you analyze it closely, it's not really black racism... If we react to white racism with a violent reaction, to me that's not black racism. If you come to put a rope around my neck and I hang you for it, to me that's not racism. Yours is racism, but my reaction has nothing to do with racism..." - Malcolm X

I disagree with him. I believe that hatred towards a race of people is racism, regardless of origins. When one condemns a group for the actions of a few -- i'll never believe that to be correct. You'll notice that he only mentions a reaction to imminent racism; he, however, did not conduct himself in that manner.

He could be called a 'reactionary racist' because his racism was not entirely fueled by sociocultural norms, but rather as a reaction to the hatred that he experienced from living near racism which was fueled socioculturally. While I agree that the motives for that form of hatred are more pure and just, it's still hatred. The repeated perpetration of hatred only leads to more hatred, due to the non-linear growth of vendettas which require 'settling'.

Just because he was the victim of much hatred doesn't make certain things he said 'non-racist', and as a (loud) public figure, atonement for advocacy of violence and racism in the past does not undo the damage that it caused. The 'nation's teachings' were despicable; how many were affected?

I agree that nearly all of the atrocious stuff he said was during his part with the NOI, but there's no time machine. He still did it. He was never an angel, he just improved with age.

The work he did towards uniting blacks as a singular entity to stand towards oppressions was fantastic, however the inches closer towards utopia that got us were lost to incessant preaching of racial weakening (coffee and creamer allegory..) and 'Truly Africans' movement, just further alienating the country as a whole.

There are better civil leaders to look up to -- some don't even require you to skim past their evil past.


"When one condemns a group for the actions of a few -- i'll never believe that to be correct."

Racism in America is not an act, it's a caste system. It's not something you do, it's a form of social structuring. Black people are systematically disadvantaged, and white people receive privileges due to their race.

So you're wrong that racism is just "the actions of a few". This implies that you are a neutral white person, and shouldn't be blamed for hate crimes or whatever, which are done by a minority of bad white racists whom you don't even like.

In fact, the caste system of racism is maintained by all of us, in the same way the rest of the status quo is maintained. Mostly just by people being comfortable enough with the status quo that they don't try very hard to change it, and end up reinforcing it without even realizing. The caste system puts in place all the preconditions for the police brutality, the hate crimes, the denial of employment, etc. None of those things could happen without the caste system supporting and incentivizing them.

So we're all responsible for the existence of racism - the whole society. But in particular, consider the group of people who systematically benefits from said caste system, and who despite having drastically more power, are doing pathetically little to eliminate the caste system.

Were I looking at the situation from afar, it would seem completely reasonable to say "hey, fuck those people".


  In fact, the caste system of racism is maintained by all
  of us, in the same way the rest of the status quo is 
  maintained. Mostly just by people being comfortable 
  enough with the status quo that they don't try very hard 
  to change it
Thank you for posting this. This is so important for people to realize.

This finally "clicked" for me a few years ago when somebody explained it to me like this:

Murder is problem, right? And each of us knows that we have to go beyond simply not murdering people. We instinctively understand that if we witness an attempted murder in progress, we must do something: help, or call for help. We know that we need to punish murderers, maintain a police force to catch murderers, and hopefully defuse situations before they get to the point of people murdering each other.

Problems like racism are similar in one way: it's not enough for each of us to simply "not be racist."

(It's not an exact analogy, I know: racism is institutional whereas murder often isn't. However, it got me to think about racism differently...)


What if you are wrong?

You seem to think it's important to believe there is a caste system, which is moving close to Abrahamic Religion territory - you have to believe because (sometimes irrational) faith becomes the very bedrock of your belief system.

You you don't believe, you are part of the problem, right?


Well if tehblackbloc's wrong then racism in america is the action of quite a lot of people and the inaction of many more.

"fuck those people" still aint exactly unreasonable.

Though I'm not sure where you got the idea that it was "important to believe there is a caste system" from what was pretty much a cut and paste definition of racism as used in large chunks of civil rights activism/academia.


From the parent:

> In fact, the caste system of racism is maintained by all of us, in the same way the rest of the status quo is maintained. Mostly just by people being comfortable enough with the status quo that they don't try very hard to change it, and end up reinforcing it without even realising.

By implication, if you're not against there caste system, you're for it. And if you don't believe in the caste system, how can you be against it?

And I don't think it's a helpful definition. It could confuse a stupid person into thinking a dumb celebrity twitting a racial slur is one of the primary causes of inequality.

The "caste system" is entrenched poverty. Visual markers (skin colour) might make it harder to fight the poverty cycle (as it speeds up white flight, and causes some profiling and other discrimination), but the fundamental problem is no longer about race.

The poverty cycle in the US was caused by racism, and is to some extent worsened by racism. But if you want to stop it, you have to fight poverty. Free community college level education to young mothers (and young fathers), remedial literacy (for the kids who need it) in K-6. A few busses, to prevent the segregation due to white flight. That's just IMO, there's probably some things I'm missing.

Fighting the caste system is more or less orthogonal to fighting racism.


>There are better civil leaders to look up to -- some don't even require you to skim past their evil past.

>He's was never an angel, he just improved with age.

This is actually precisely what I find interesting and relevant about Malcolm X. I read his story not just as a man that people followed, but also as a man continuously undergoing a transformation. By virtue of his intellectual integrity in the face of his life experiences "El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz" manages to appear as a completely different person than "Malcolm Little". I am in agreement with you that the much of the activities of the NOI, and even things that Malcolm X was involved with on behalf of them, are absolutely not things to look up to. But again, that is why I think his story affects me, in that I see a man who has attained a degree of enlightenment by inspection of his own self. I find it easier to follow such a person than a saint.


His transformation is the most powerful part of this story and probably one of the reasons why so many readers of HN, who value continuous learning and self-improvement, can relate to it.


Your concept of hatred here is what I would describe as self defense. I draw a distinction between racial prejudice - that is, prejudging people based on their race - and racism - which I understand as a social-political-economic system of institutionalized racial oppression.

Racial prejudice is an order of magnitude less interesting to me than racial oppression. I am a person of color and I know that people see me and think all sorts of things about me because of things beyond my control; this bothers me, but it doesn't bother me as much as the fact that I've been physically attacked and harassed for walking around my own neighborhood, and it doesn't bother me as much as the fact that I know that I and many of my loved ones will, even holding all else equal, have worse outcomes with job interviews, police, and law enforcement because of our race. To me that's real racism, and it's not something that white people can experience in our society.

Stamping out racial prejudice is a worthwhile goal, but in my opinion it's an order of magnitude less important than ending racist systems. The focus on racial prejudice is likely to create lots of bad analysis (e.g. people who aspire to make the world "colorblind") from otherwise well-intentioned people, so I don't think it's tactically sound to focus on prejudice. I also do not believe there is any moral standing to criticize survivors of racism for having prejudicial feelings towards white people. It is a response. People build these walls because they're tired of getting hurt.

I have tactical objections and moral concerns with many things concerning the NOI but I do not judge people for their involvement or promotion of it, for as long as it's motivated by a desire for self-liberation. I'm not sure what the "atrocious stuff" you're worried about from his past is, but nothing I know from his past I consider as "evil" that I have to "ignore." The coffee and creamer allegory, etc. simply don't bother me, because I understand them in historical context.


White people can and do experience this. I have experienced harassment by blacks because I am white. Never a physical attack, but certainly verbal slurs and taunting. Am I therefore morally justified to have a predjudicial opinion of blacks, because a few anonymous ones have harassed me?

There isn't any institionalized discrimination in the USA any longer. There's a perception of it, but that's largely self reinforced. It's easier on my ego to tell myself I didn't get a job because of my race, rather than because another applicant was more qualified. Yes, there are individual prejudiced/racist people of all races and there always will be. But the institutionalized discrimination is gone.

You say that "people see me and think all sorts of things about me because of things beyond my control." This is just reality. People judge others based on looks, whether they are obese, skinny, muscular, how they dress, whether they have facial hair or wear glasses, whether they are naturally or deliberately bald, how they carry themselves, how they execute a handshake, and any number of other things.

Do you really give an automatic free pass to people who are involved with or support any idiology as long as it's in the cause of self-liberation? One of the other flaws of humans is that they are easily swayed by charasmatic leaders promising freedom from oppression. This often ends up badly for the supporters themselves when their leader turns out to be a tyrant, or for the people the leader set up to be the scapegoats.


White people can and do experience racial prejudice in America, but we do not experience institutional racism, which is the working definition of "racism" for the author of the comment you replied to.

> There isn't any institionalized discrimination in the USA any longer. There's a perception of it, but that's largely self reinforced.

Institutional racism is alive and well here; I'm surprised to be the first one to respond to your remarks stating otherwise. There are many, many studies that show a marked disparity between arrest rates, conviction rates, and incarceration rates for whites and blacks in America. This disparity exists virtually across the board and for crimes which we know are committed in equal amounts by both groups of people such as marijuana use (in fact, whites smoke more weed but are still arrested less frequently for it). Regarding employment, there are also plenty of studies which show that job applications with "black-sounding" names get far fewer callbacks than those with "white-sounding" names, regardless of what else is written on the application.

The difference between people judging someone based on race versus all of those other things that you mention is that in the other cases, society has not been shaped so that "haters of feature set X" are pretty exclusively the people in power, so e.g. bald people are not consistently discriminated against at every turn. This is at least in part what is meant by institutional racism: the random person on the street has little effect on anybody[1], but when people with the same attitude have the power to arrest you, to deny you a loan, to make your life difficult in any number of ways, the result is a hostile environment that is supported and maintained by the institutions that house such people and support their discriminatory behavior by tolerating its emergence in their official capacities.

Institutional racism can be difficult for members of the dominant group to acknowledge or even see. I have only started to become attuned to it myself over the past few years, and I still don't have a very sharp or complete picture of it. It is usually far more subtle than calling someone a name or making a disparaging remark: you will be treated with a veneer of politeness as your concerns are summarily dismissed. It's easy for someone from the dominant group to come up with excuses as to why a particular act is not an example of institutional racism instead of giving credence to the collected experiences of those who are on the receiving end[2]. If you are genuinely interested in investigating and understanding the phenomenon, I'd recommend looking at the statistics before talking to people about it for precisely this reason: what seems innocuous in isolation looks more sinister when you begin to understand the scale at which it is happening.

This comment is not going to change anybody's mind, and that's okay. I just didn't want to let that statement stand uncontested any longer than it already has.

[1] Though, really, when the random person on the street becomes many or most random people on the street, the effect can be pretty devastating as well. [2] Some are of the opinion that this tendency is itself an expression of racism, effectively assuming that the victims are mistaken or lying while the perpetrators are assumed to be innocent. I am not sure if it is a subtle racism or if it is simply hard to put faith in such a vastly different outcome that developed from a familiar situation. Having exhibited this behavior myself on more than one occasion, I'm sort of invested in believing that it is the latter.


We are fairly quick to erase, forget or forgive the racism of white leaders, but seem to have a harder time doing so for those who oppose the majority's cultural status quo. I fear this has been used historically as a way to marginalize certain voices.

Certainly X is a complicated, difficult and contradictory figure, but also one who, through the autobiography, is able to capture a particular time and experience amazingly well.

I haven't read the book since high school, but the segment on conking stays vividly in my mind. It is a great example of one of those seemingly small details that X manages to use as mule to talk about larger issues of identity and assimilation.


Another way to put it: Malcolm X was authentic in everything he did, and that was something this country needed.

He was able to articulate more clearly than anyone else the implications of being black in America: that the only way to succeed in any way was by trying to act white.

Thanks in large part to his activism, that is far less true today.


What does it mean to act white or to act black for that matter?


Conking is one example.


Was conking necessary to succeed, or was it done because many blacks preferred the appearance of straight hair?

Sidney Poitier played a doctor in No Way Out in 1950, and his hair doesn't appear to have been straightened.



We are fairly quick to erase, forget or forgive the racism of white leaders, but seem to have a harder time doing so for those who oppose the majority's cultural status quo. I fear this has been used historically as a way to marginalize certain voices.

Here is a very relevant and well-articulated dissection of the phenomenon you're describing: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/08/beware-...


Uh.. I would say that "well-articulated" is debatable, unless the whole article was meant as satire.


It's possible you under-appreciate the amount of nuance in the underlying theory on fascism which the author is extending. Even though the author avoids mentioning who he's extending, anyone familiar with the literature on fascism knows immediately.

That theory can be dense, and this is by far the best description I've seen which is simultaneously accessible to someone unfamiliar with the literature, and also doesn't compromise on correctness.

It comes down to whether you consider not compromising on correctness important. Unfortunately, the norm in journalism is to tell the most neutered version of the story possible, correctness be damned. You can see this in most science journalism. So when someone puts the effort into a piece like this -- which explains ideas in lay terms but does not throw out correctness to the point of rendering the description of the work meaningless -- it mostly passes unnoticed as "a bit too dense" or "not TEDy enough".


>We are fairly quick to erase, forget or forgive the racism of white leaders

You are in no position to assume what oldmanjay has forgotten and forgiven. You are basically implying that all white people think and act the same. Either that or you are simply saying that oldmanjay is personally responsible for what other people think.

Personally, I despise racism no matter who the perpetrator may be. However, even racist people are capable of having a significant and positive impact on the world. Malcolm X was a racist at one point in time. I have no idea if he actually changed his mind or if he simply chose to keep his views to himself. What I do know is that through his efforts America became a better place.


"The wicked flee when no man pursueth [...]"


You are using your intellect to convince the world that white men are oppressed. That's a waste.

Malcolm X was addressing decades of white-on-black domestic terrorism across the country. Black people were being regularly lynched, firebombed, raped and imprisoned for little more than being black and asserting basic human rights.

Segregationists controlled Congress when Malcolm was at his most influential - there was vanishingly little support from the federal government in stopping these attacks, and the state and local authorities were often complicit.

Even in the face of this, Malcolm X never advocated violence except in self-defense, which is REASONABLE under the circumstances. His threat of returned violence lended credence to the more tolerant views of MLK, and even Malcolm preached universal love in the years before he was murdered.


Malcolm X was addressing decades of white-on-black domestic terrorism across the country.

s/decades/centuries


His father was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. I would say he had justification in reacting.

His intellect allowed him to get his message out to millions of people around the world from the streets of Harlem to the lecture halls at Oxford University.

Hardly wasted. Hardly shameful. The real shame is referenced in the original article.


ah, eye for an eye. well, that philosophy has certainly never worked before but maybe this time!


It did not work this time? Ever heard of the civil rights act of 1964? Think it was a coincidence that it happened at around the same time his intellect was being wasted to use your own words?


The waste was the generations of people lost to a racist society. His work to directly address it was an attempt to cure a tragedy that had been unfolding uninterrupted for hundreds of years.


a misguided attempt that had the opposite effect. it's almost as if you are of the belief that racism can fix racism.


Rationalizing to the end of a problem does not make the conclusion feel true. The work of making something not only logical but believable is his contribution to American history. The argument that all persons are valuable is a simple one, and he allowed more people to see someone who felt it. His evolution from brutalized child, to street criminal, to inmate, to adherent, to individual enlightenment is something we would all be lucky to experience.


What is telling was how his experiences actually led him to reconsider his racism. After he returned from the Hajj he changed his viewpoints, and that change ultimately got him killed.

That ability to question your own assumptions is a powerful tool.


Actually, his views were rapidly evolving at the time of his death. Read the whole book.


I do know that, but most of his public output was spent on vitriol that damaged race relations further. hence the part where I felt it was a shame.


Damaged race relations more than centuries of slavery and systematic discrimination by our country's leaders did?


You're comparing 1960s America to colonial (and later) America. It's certainly possible that the damage done later on was greater, as there was a greater disbursement of knowledge, media, and information during a time in which the country was known as the land of opportunity, the melting pot.

A speech calling for violence in the time of newspapers and television is surely more damaging than that same speech given in an auditorium in the early 1800s to a select group..

I am not attempting to put a 'value' on the whole of slave trade, that's impossible. I'd merely like to point out the 'apples vs. oranges' nature of your comparison.


People give such speeches today in mainstream right-wing rallies and are not criticized for it at all, let alone as harshly as Malcolm X is criticized. That's apples to apples since it's still the time of newspapers and television.


Do you have examples of recent "mainstream" right-wing rallies that call for racial violence? That sounds absurd. I'd like to know more about it.


Malcolm x never called for racial violence. Ever.


In the context of the previous two comments, it was stated that present-day mainstream right-wing speeches call for violence. If so, I must have missed it. I did not intend for my statement to reflect on the actions of Malcolm X.


Damage is cumulative. Arguing over who did the most damage is not likely to bring about anything but hatred, resentment and more damage.

That is essentially what X did. King offered unity, healing and a better future.


You don't politely ask your oppressors to give you the rights they have taken away from you.


Why not?

It worked for King, it worked for Ghandi. Do you really think there could have been something like the civil rights laws -- born primarily of white people -- if the primary black person had been X and not King?


It is patently absurd to give MLK's non-violent movement 100% of the credit for civil rights reform. The political situation during that time was unbelievably complex, and the changing attitudes of a turbulent nation cannot be so simply explained.


>>it worked for Ghandi.

Yet it was Ghandi himself who, when asked if his peaceful tactics would have worked against Hitler, said, "probably not."

I'm not suggesting that white people are literally Hitler, but simply that there's a time and place for everything, including peace and violence. And I say that as someone who has never called for violence on anything ever.


That is true. However the guy I responded to said "you don't" as in a general rule.


Perhaps it worked for King because the alternative to King was X?


Race relations would have gone nowhere and would have been co-opted and neutered were it not for people like him.


I think you should have been more specific then.


Black people can't be racist in any way that really counts. Racism only matters if the attitude had some sort of negative effect on the group you're racist towards. Since blacks have no real power as a whole, they can't be racist. If blacks were in the majority in terms of power, then and only then could they be racist. The ideas of Malcolm and the NOI, the panthers, etc were a perfectly sensible response to the racism of the white power structure.


Ah, the standard bullshit apologetics of "the bad things they do don't count because they are an oppressed minority". Why do you think they can't be held up to the same ethical standards as the majority? Are you implying they are to incompetent to think?


Lol I certainly don't think I or the majority of other black people are too incompetent to think. What I am saying is that if a white person has stupid racist views, I don't care. Unless that racist person is in power, what difference does it make that they are an idiot? Of course black people can hold racist views, just as whites can but blacks aren't the majority in power, and so those stupid views have no real effect on society. Since whites have been the power holders in society, their racism is the only racism that actually matters.


A lot of this hinges on whether you believe you should be exempt from your own moral standard.

The idea of "racism" as requiring a position of power comes most directly as a reaction to the "reverse racism" bullshit from racist apologists who want to roll back affirmative action and various other programs. The reaction comes from sympathetic academics and writers who would rather focus on words and philosophy, and are better at that, than practical issues "on the ground" so to speak. And yet, AA is an example of something which is known to be imperfect, but is needed in some practical sense -- much like the tracking of race or gender ratios in various careers. I think it's a huge mistake to attempt to redefine words in terms of power, because it plays into the corrupting idea of power as the ultimate goal of human endeavor.

The reverse racism shit is really dumb, but the proper response is that there is no such thing as reverse racism, just racism, and that racism is borne from improper over-generalization and a unwillingness to examine ones own prejudices about the world. It is not borne from attempting to correct for those things in other people (e.g. AA, etc.).

Racist views may be understandable as a reaction to oppression by the oppressed, and you make allowances for human frailty -- it is still not generally acceptable. Redefining the word "racist", or any negative epithet, such that it can never be used against your particular group, whoever they are, is just an invitation to corruption.


I am not saying that racist views are acceptable. I am saying that racist views only matter if the racist is in power. You can't be racist in any meaningful way, such that your racism affects large parts of society, unless you are in power. That's all. Who cares about a powerless person's racist views? They are of no consequence. There is no redefinition of the term 'racism' involved. What does matter is if the congress, the police, the judges, etc are all white and consistently act on racist views.


Novacole is not saying violence and hatred toward white people is okay. The poster is distinguishing between prejudice and the term racism. Racism has a power component. Powerless people cannot make another race face racism as a group because they do not have the societal power to effect laws, police, institutional behavior.


>The poster is distinguishing between discrimination and the term racism.

You and the poster seem to misunderstand what racism is. Racism is a type of discrimination. The term discrimination covers a wide range of things, it doesn't only deal with race. You are free to disagree with the actual definition of racism, but you don't get to reinvent the english language. Whether or not something is racist has absolutely nothing to do with power.

Its as if you and the other poster read the definition of racism and decided that the words used to describe it weren't horrifying enough, and so you made up a definition that better represents how you feel about it.


Here is text from Wikipedia: "One view holds that racism is best understood as 'prejudice plus power' because without the support of political or economic power, prejudice would not be able to manifest as a pervasive cultural, institutional or social phenomenon." So I'm not making things up. To address issues affecting people as a group and not as individuals, anti-racist people would see the benefit of acknowledging the relevance of power to the perpetuation of racism being institutionally enforced.


Apparently its a popular idea, but both of the papers Wikipedia cited as references for the existence of that idea found that racism does not require power. Furthermore, they both found that the idea is often used as an excuse for racist behavior by those who don't hold power.


To address things scientifically you need to talk about groups not individuals in isolation. Ghettos, police profiling, stop and frisk, exonerated death sentences based on DNA testing, dog-whistle politics, voter ID laws, and U.S. media can statistically be argued to show that the U.S. is racist against racial minorities. To speak scientifically you need to address group behavior and what perpetuates that group behavior. If you want to address Black or Latino racism then show the group power which is oppressing whites.


>If you want to address Black or Latino racism then show the group power which is oppressing whites.

This doesn't really address what I was talking about. I'm not saying that whites didn't oppress blacks(because they did) or that white people are now being oppressed by minorities(because they aren't). I was simply explaining that racism is not a synonym for racial oppression. Racism is a specific word with a specific meaning. There are racist members of every ethnicity because being racist has absolutely nothing to do with a person's or a group's ability to oppress a group of people.


Focus solely on individual behavior when addressing racism will only cause institutional racism to be hidden in society. Statistics will show what institutional bias exist and then legal interventions done where required. Maybe the U.S. is not capable of fixing its racist problem. But history has shown that state force has been required in schools, the military, and the private sector to reduce racism.


>Focus solely on individual behavior when addressing racism will only cause institutional racism to be hidden in society.

I'm not focusing on individual behavior. As a matter of fact, I wasn't talking about behavior at all. I was just talking about the meaning of the word racism.


As I posted elsewhere. Racism Is any action or attitude, conscious or unconscious, that subordinates an individual or group based on skin colour or race. It can be enacted individually or institutionally.

Source: US Civil Rights Commission

How is a white person subordinated and controlled in the U.S. based on race to where that white person does not have recourse to the the law, the courts, the police, them finding another job, or just avoiding the offending person? If you have a problem with a person you avoid them or address the law. Racially oppressed people don't escape the situation so easily hence why racism is debilitating.

If you are white in the U.S. you are not going to get racially subordinated. Stop worrying, you are just going to make yourself sick.


The dictionary definition of the term "racist" refers to a systemic discrimination based on race. The problem is that the colloquial use of the term simply means that one is prejudiced against races that aren't their own. To clarify the issue one is trying to discuss, it's better to use the term "institutional racism" in order to clarify the point you're trying to make.


Your definition of racism is at odds with common dictionary definitions of the word. Leftist academics have tried to redefine the word.


There are many useful things to be talked about. Individual prejudices, individual behaviors, and self-reinforcing societal power systems all get called "racism". Quibbling over which arbitrary word is bound to which concept looks like an avoidance of actually grappling with the issues.


The issue at hand is that claiming that only white people can be racist is itself a racist statement according to the traditional definition of racism. Even with moo's definition of racism, the statement cannot be true in states where non-whites are the majority and hold power.

Again, I am not claiming that whites face racial oppression across the US. That's silly. This is whole thread only exists because of people twisting the definition of words to suit a purpose.

The same behavior is recorded in the political histories of Ancient Greece. It's nothing new. I'm just calling it out as the political trick that it is.


It's almost like you didn't read my comment at all.


As I posted above quoting from Wikipedia: "One view holds that racism is best understood as 'prejudice plus power' because without the support of political or economic power, prejudice would not be able to manifest as a pervasive cultural, institutional or social phenomenon." To scientifically address issues affecting people as a group and not as individuals, anti-racist people would see the benefit of acknowledging the relevance of power to the perpetuation of racism being institutionally enforced. To deny the power component of racism is to make racism an argument about individual behavior which will never progress beyond "he said she said" which is not how science is done. Science is not done at the individual level but at the group level.


If you call a person a racist, you're saying 1) that he has certain views about race, and you may also be saying 2) that he takes certain actions in line with those views. Saying someone can't be racist without power is saying "if criteria for definition 2 aren't met, then criteria for definition 1 are not met," which is silly.


Racism Is any action or attitude, conscious or unconscious, that subordinates an individual or group based on skin colour or race. It can be enacted individually or institutionally.

Source: US Civil Rights Commission

How does your point 1 above satisfy the "subordinates an individual" criteria for the definition of racism by the US Civil Rights Commission? It doesn't! For your point 2, to subordinate someone you need power or institutional power backing you up. If you don't have institutional power then the person you're bothering ignores you, tells others and gives you a bad reputation with people, takes you to civil court, calls the police and you are then in jail. The repercussions commensurate with your actions. I argue that your point 2 does not subordinate a white person beyond that of being attacked by an individual or small group of people because you do have recourse by law to defend yourself or have them arrested. The same with any physical assault. The significance of racism is when the person may not have recourse to defend themselves or protection by the law because of racial bias then they are put in a position of subordination and controlled.


Then you think racism can be fixed by just condemning publicly open displays of racial prejudice. So if a Michael Richards torpedoes his career by doing a public racist rant, I guess you would argue that is proof our society is not racist instead of saying that only public displays of racism is unseemly. Racism is institutionally perpetuated, that is where you fix things. Otherwise you limit condemnation of racism to public displays instead of finding the source of group behavior.


The references for that Wikipedia statement are both from the last five years. One reference is an article titled "Only white people can be racist." That's hardly an unbiased definition of a much older term.

Since 1933, the definition of racism according to Merriam-Webster has been "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

Why the more recent trend of redefining a clear term to include results of racism when institutionalized by those in power? That seems disingenuous and counterproductive.


I wouldn't look to 1933 white people to define racism. Yes, the Merriam-Webster definition stinks. Go with the US Civil Rights Commission's definition. They are more researched and sensitive to the issue. Here is the Civil Rights Commission's definition again:

"Is any action or attitude, conscious or unconscious, that subordinates an individual or group based on skin colour or race. It can be enacted individually or institutionally."

In case you think I'm making a non sequitur again, the power component comes from the word "subordinates."


What?!!! How the hell were schools in the U.S. South desegregated in the early 60's but with force of troops.


Huh? What does that have to do with changing the meaning of words?


Racism Is any action or attitude, conscious or unconscious, that subordinates an individual or group based on skin colour or race. It can be enacted individually or institutionally.

Source: US Civil Rights Commission

How is a white person subordinated and controlled in the U.S. based on race to where that white person does not have recourse to the the law, the courts, the police, them finding another job, or just avoiding the offending person? If you have a problem with a person you avoid them or address the law. Racially oppressed people don't escape the situation so easily hence why racism is debilitating.


Nobody said that white people are oppressed. There is some kind of communication breakdown going on because you keep accusing myself and other individuals of claiming that we as white men are afraid of being oppressed. No one under my comment you responded to said that, so please stop acting like we did.


Why are you not seeing the word "subordinates" in the US Civil Rights Commission definition of racism. People are subordinated when the law fails to protect them. The law can fail to protect you due to corruption, bad management, or institutional racism. If you are white and the law fails you I'm saying it is not institutional racism.


The difference here is one of degree, not kind, as institutional racism is built out of a whole lot of individual racism.

Anyone who mistreats someone because of the color of their skin or defends the practice is doing wrong and I see no value in defending that. Standing against individual racism is a necessary part of standing against institutional racism and I don't think a reasonable person can condemn one but not the other.


A difference of kind is evident when people say racism is the same whether referring to racial prejudice by a Black US person or White US person. People are using a 100 year old dictionary definition to say racism is just racial prejudice. Wikipedia's first sentence says it is racial prejudice AND discrimination. While the US Civil Rights Commission is stronger in saying you have to also subordinate someone based on race. You want to say racism is derived from everyone's individual racial prejudice but you miss the economic exploitative motives from 200 years of slavery and group behavior. So let us be clear it is not just personal racial prejudice behind racism. To subordinate someone you really are talking about racial prejudice and discrimination with power backing it based on institutional racism, hence power. Otherwise you are talking about racially based prejudice that is based on the individual and not the group or its historical circumstances. People here want to address racism by lifestyle choices and racism is not fixed by lifestyle but by law, institutional changes, and starting with the recognition of what racism actually is.

The newspapers are not going to report on a street riot if I go out by myself on the street and break windows and set fires. To report me as a street rioter there should be a street riot which makes me part of a group dynamic. Racism is a group dynamic effort to oppress another racial group. If someone is not a street rioter without a group dynamic of street rioting how can someone be racist without a group dynamic of racism to oppress another racial group. To have a group dynamic of racism to oppress another racial group you need power.


You may not intend this, but you have been implying that racial prejudice is somehow tolerable.

Your down votes are proof that it is not and that we must judge people not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character, as a wiser man than me once said.


I think we're being trolled. This moo character is a master of non sequitur.


Oppress is a synonym for subordinate as used by the US Civil Rights Commission. So why don't you people calling me a troll use the word oppress for your white condition instead of pulling out magical meanings for racism.


I'm sorry, to those accusing me of non sequitur because I'm making too large of jumps in logical reasoning. I'll try to remember, "baby steps, baby steps."


This statement is completely false and intellectually dishonest. It doesn't stand up to even cursory scrutiny.

Do you think black people only exist in the US ?

Do you think racism does not exist in other countries and regions where the affected groups are neither black nor white ?

Have you never heard of ethnic/racist conflict between groups in Africa and South/Southeast Asia ?

Are your blinders so thick and US-centric that you cannot see anything else ?


> Black people can't be racist in any way that really counts

Rolls eyes..

Tell that to this guy that it doesn't really matter:

http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2014/04/04/white-man-beaten-by-m...


I think you make a good point. Racism is prejudice and power. Power to institutionally marginalize a racial group. It is meaningless to call racist an oppressed racial group that is institutionally powerless. Some reactionary people like to confuse the issue with calls of reverse racism by oppressed nation people.


Not really his fault. If you read the book, you know that if he had his way he would have been a lawyer.




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