Posted on 29 March 2016 Return
Noam Chomsky is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading intellectuals, dissidents, and social commentators. He is a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of over 100 books, including Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, and 9-11. In this interview, the 86-year-old Chomsky offers his thoughts on black activism and racism in America.
What is your experience with fighting for black rights?
Well, my own direct involvement started around the early 60s with the Civil Rights Movement. I wasn’t intensively involved, but I was involved. I went to demonstrations in the South and got to know people. I was involved mainly in the anti-Vietnam War resistance, but we had links with SNCC [pronounced “snick”], the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that actually spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement in the South. They had a member who was kind of like a contact with the anti-war resistance. I got to know him along with other SNCC members by the late 60s. I was involved more intensively with RESIST, the group I helped organize, but also began to work with the Black Panthers. And I got to know a number of the activists – I guess I must have been one of the few white faces at the memorial in Chicago for [prominent Black Panther] Fred Hampton – he was murdered by the FBI. I kept contact with the families of the activists, and others, the lawyers – until the end, in fact. And it went on from there.
In your lifetime, what progress have you seen that black activists have made as a force at the community level?
Well it’s a mixed story. In the South there were substantial changes. For example, I’ll give a personal experience. I was in the South in the early 60s, in Mississippi, for demonstrations that were just practically war zones – demonstrators being beaten bloody in the streets by the State police, extreme violence, and federal marshals taking notes but not doing anything. You kind of felt you were in a war zone. I went back a couple of years later to the University of Southern Mississippi, it was pretty harsh before, and it was more peaceful. I stopped at a motel where the manager was a young black woman and the people working were white. Probably students – they were young people. And it was kind of normal. I don’t want to overdo it, but there were levels of integration in the South that didn’t exist in the North, and made it somewhat easier to overcome some of the worst elements of racism. If you look at it at the political level, say, or you look at the level of violence, it’s pretty bad. Nevertheless there were changes – significant changes. I think they’re reflected in the fact that there’s something of a black migration back to the South. In the North, the racism is sort of more subdued but quite significant.
To give a personal example, I lived, up until recently, in a suburb of Boston. Boston is a liberal city that doesn’t have a huge black population. But I lived in a suburb that is pretty much lily white – professional, academic, progressive and so on. There was a proposal back in the early 70s to extend the subway system. Boston’s subway system at that time went part of the way through Cambridge. The proposal was to extend it to the western suburbs, which would have been extremely convenient for people living there. I could have gotten to my office at MIT in 10 minutes without fighting a traffic jam for an hour. But it was turned down. The reason it was turned down was pretty obvious: People in the suburbs just didn’t want the prospect of having a black kid from downtown Boston walking around the center of town. Nobody said it, but it was pretty obvious.
That kind of racism is pretty extreme – that same suburb is still almost lily white. There are some black professionals who live there and there’s no overt discrimination against them. But in more subtle ways it remains highly racist. You can see it by what happened to Martin Luther King. You listen to the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Day, it ends with his speech at the Washington March – the “I Have a Dream” speech. Of course, King went on from there. He went on, first of all, to protest the Vietnam War. He went on to try to organize a poor people’s movement. He was assassinated when he was supporting a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis, on his way to lead a march to Washington to try to establish a general poor people’s movement – the march actually took place after his death. They did set up a tent city in Washington, but were kicked out – police were sent in in the middle of the night to drive them out of the city. King was moving towards class issues. And those are intolerable [for the Establishment].
It’s okay to get those racist Alabama sheriffs, but it’s a different story when you start approach class issues. And class and race issues are intertwined – not precisely – but with a good deal of overlap. The same was true with busing. The busing system was set up in Boston in such a way as to virtually call for race riots. For example, a section of Boston that was mostly, say, Irish – working class Irish. They had to send their kids to a section of Boston that was mostly black. And conversely, the affluent suburbs were left out of it – no busing into the city or back.
It was basically a setting for working people who were at each other’s throats. And it had the expected impact.
It’s interesting that you bring up Dr. King. I can recall you saying on more than one occasion that major social change – and black progress – isn’t due solely to major identities like Dr. King, but hinges on an army of anonymous people doing the grunt work. Can you just elaborate on that?
Well, take the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. The history goes way back, of course. But it really took off as a movement in the early 60s. At the forefront were a couple of black students sitting in at a lunch counter in Greenboro, North Carolina.
Getting arrested. Others came. Finally, it took off. SNCC was right at the forefront. They were the ones riding the freedom buses, facing violent attacks and threats of murder, sometimes murder, burning buses. Right on the front line. Does anybody even know their names? I mean, there are one or two names that became famous later for other things, but not the people who were doing it. And it’s the same with the Mississippi Freedom Party and Fanny Lou Hamer, and there were others. These are the people who are doing it. There were spokespersons. I don’t want to understate Martin Luther King’s contribution, it was quite important. But I think he would be the first to say that he was riding a wave that had been created by others.
In terms of the existing power structures, do you think black activists should try to work within the existing power structures, or do you think it may be to their advantage to not do that and to strike at the existing power structures?
I don’t think these are alternatives, you should really do both to the extent that you can do them.
Do you think you can do both without diluting your credibility?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, there are black activists – say John Lewis – who’ve moved into the power system and have had effects. They’ve maintained their integrity, maintained their connections to the black community, and have a mutually supportive relationship with the community and other activists on the ground who are highly critical of the system and they want to dismantle it. There are dangers of cooptation and so on, but they’re resistible and some resist them.
Do you think black activists at the community level should ally themselves with white activists or do you think that might undermine the sense of unity or have other counterproductive effects?
Well, personally, I don’t think there’s a general answer to that question. It depends on the circumstances. For example, take the Black Panthers. They were kind of a mixed group with all kinds of elements, but the significant, serious organizers – the effective ones – among the Black Panthers worked in the black communities. That’s where their work was entirely. But they were perfectly willing – in fact eager – to have connections and interaction with white activists. Even people like me who were mostly involved in the anti-war movement, they were very useful and friendly and constructive interactions. But their work was totally within the black community, except for things like fundraising.
In your view, have African-American activists achieved a sort of activism equality, or do you think there’s still some patronization in play?
There are some who react that way, there are others who don’t. There are those who really respect them.
Would you have any practical advice for black activists who are setting out on their journey in activism?
Well I wouldn’t feel I have any right to give advice to people who know the circumstances of what they face way better than I do. There are no general rules about activism. Or if there are any, they’re very shallow. Everything depends on an evaluation of existing circumstances, and choice of tactics reflecting the existing realities and whatever longer-term strategic vision you have. And those can vary.
Would you say that training is important? It’s almost invariable that if you’re involved in activism that gains any sort of momentum, you’re going to need certain skills to deal with the media, deal with the cops, and develop tactics and so on.
Yes. I think it’s obviously significant to gain from the experience of those who have come before and have struggled for these problems and achieved some results helping others.
Those who have learned the kind of skills that, as you say, are necessary. One of the weaknesses of activism in the United States, particularly, is there are so few lasting institutional structures that almost everything starts from scratch?
Like Occupy: It started from scratch. In the past it was different. Whatever you may think about the Communist Party, they were a continuing organization.. There was always somebody around who was willing to use the mimeograph machine to get out the next pamphlet and knew how to do it. And how to do other things. As long as the unions existed in a significant form – they’re there but very weak now – they were continuing institutional structures.
In many countries, even countries very nearby like Canada, or similar countries like England or Australia, I do give talks in union halls. . Very very rarely in the United States – because they barely exist. I mean the Labour Party in England may not be much of a radical force, but they have an institutional structure which is continuing. And it gives ways of carrying on with the transmission of skills and tradition and understanding that you’re talking about.
Do you think that black activists face additional barriers to winning progress because of their race?
Oh, undoubtedly. Racism is very deep.
How do you see the future for minorities in this country?
Well the notion “minority” in the United States is kind of a funny one. I mean we’re now in a situation where – most of this stuff is kind of mystical – but what’s called the “white population,” or people who regard themselves that way, are becoming a minority. . And that’s a lot of the passion and anger and fury that lies behind the antiimmigrant racism, the anti-Hispanic racism, the Tea Party-style racism; a lot of what lies behind it is, I think, just that fact.
Take for example Obama. He’s really half white – in other countries he might not even be called black. Here he’s black. But the anger and hatred of Obama goes way beyond anything that could be accounted for in terms of opposition to his policies. I remember reading a poll recently in which 25 percent of Republicans thought he was the antichrist. That’s not a reaction to his policies. There are some scholarly studies of white supremacy – the most important one was done by George Frederickson, a very good sociologist, who did a comparative study of white supremacy across cultures. And he found that the United States was the most extreme – even worse than South Africa.