SKIP TO MAIN CONTENT

On "Black Antisemitism" and Antiracist Solidarity

by Michael Richmond / July 30, 2020

Transmissions  }
Recent stories have seen attempts to “ethnicise” antisemitism, but the discourses and violence that make up the long history of antisemitism are far more organic to the cultures of white, Christian Europe. 8575 words / 34 min read

Last Friday and Saturday the East London rapper Wiley went on an extended rant to his half a million Twitter followers. The main focus of his tweets was the racialised figure of “the Jew,” with various claims that “Jews” controlled business, particularly the music industry, and that they were “cowards” and “slippery.” Wiley’s rant extended even to Holocaust Denial and inciting violence against Jews. He was eventually suspended from both Twitter and Instagram. As always, if you look under any viral Jewish Conspiracy tweets, done by anyone, you will invariably see replies from Nazi accounts sharing links and trying to deepen antisemitic worldviews. Wiley even liked and retweeted such replies. Some prominent Jews and Jewish organisations, along with many allies and celebrities, launched a 48-hour walkout of Twitter with the hashtag #NoSafeSpaceForJewHate in response to the slowness with which the social media firm reacted to Wiley’s tweets and the widespread toleration of antisemitism on the platform. Part of the action seems to be based on a widely held notion among participants that antisemitism is particularly tolerated by Twitter and by society, in a way that other forms of racism aren’t.

However, many of the people fronting the campaign have had high profile and well documented instances of racism themselves. Amongst the campaign’s backers are a rogues’ gallery of politicians, journalists, anti-immigrant shock jocks and celebrities supporting the boycott, many of whom have long, proud careers of upholding racism. The decision to make such a prominent display, headed up by such a coalition, in direct reaction to a single Black man’s tweets, and with the support of some of the most powerful figures in society, including government ministers, is incredibly damaging. It is harmful to Black people, to Jews (particularly Black Jews), and to antiracist solidarity.

As a Jew, I have faced antisemitism. My ancestors faced more. The emblematic, representative figure of an antisemite, both historically as well as the majority that I’ve encountered, have not tended to look like Wiley. And yet a boycott and a thousand headlines have been launched for this. Not for when the Daily Telegraph put antisemitic conspiracy theory on its front page. Not when Conservative politicians like Suella Braverman and Jacob Rees Mogg have barked and whistled about “Cultural Marxism” and George Soros. And certainly not for the countless racists, many of them with verified blue ticks, up to and including the President of the United States, who have had free rein on the platform for years to launch bigoted invectives and incite violence against Black people/trans people/Muslims/immigrants/Jews/Mexican people and more.

Ethnicising Antisemitism

Recent stories, and much longer-run patterns of discourse, have seen many people, including some Jews, attempting to “ethnicise” antisemitism. To construct it as a peculiarly “Black problem” or “Muslim Problem.” This is not a new phenomenon but it does seem to be gaining ground in the current moment - not coincidentally amidst the largest global Black liberation struggle in several generations. The thinker Adolph Reed has aptly noted in his essay “What Colour is Anti-Semitism” that,

Anti-semitism is a form of racism, and it is indefensible and dangerous wherever it occurs. What doesn’t exist is Blackantisemitism, the equivalent of a German compound word, a particular - and particularly virulent - strain of anti-Semitism. Black anti-Semites are no better or worse than white or other anti-Semites, and they are neither more nor less representative of the ‘black community’ or ‘black America’.”

Part of the specification of a particularised “Black antisemitism” seems to be connected to the seeming relish with which many white people, including some white Jews, see instances such as Wiley’s outburst as an opportunity to call Black people “racist.” There is a tendency to impose collective responsibility on Black or Muslim “communities” for instances of antisemitism (and for many things other things) in ways that Neo-Nazis like David Duke or Nick Griffin (both of whom, incidentally, not banned from Twitter) are never held to be representative of white, English or American culture. Except, of course, that is what they are. The discourses and violence that make up the long history of antisemitism are far more organic to the cultures of white, Christian Europe and its settler colonies than anywhere else. Attempts to ethnicise antisemitism today are regularly mobilised, often by non-Jews, as a means to derail and discredit justice and liberation movements and their demands. This comes with its own grim irony, given that justice and liberation movements aim at the undoing of precisely these cultures of white, Christian Europe that were formative for and continue to reproduce antisemitism.

Black and Jewish

One thing that has been constantly erased in such comparisons between racisms and by attempts to ethnicise a “Black antisemitism” is the horribly squeezed experiences of Black Jewish people. Soraya Nadia McDonald has recently written of her experience of being both Black and Jewish following widespread debate about antisemitic comments made by the television presenter and former singer Nick Cannon. McDonald writes,

When I saw anti-Semitic comments from Cannon and then Diddy’s tweets of solidarity after Viacom/CBS fired Cannon for making them, I felt a familiar pang of betrayal, disappointment and anger - the same pang I’d felt two years ago when Alice Walker, a personal hero of mine, praised an anti-Semitic author as “brave” in The New York Times.”

The positions of Black Jews and other Jews of colour are also squeezed, as much if not more so, by the anti-Blackness they experience within many Jewish communities. McDonald speaks on this, saying:

I struggle with my connection to Judaism. Entering Jewish spaces often means entering white spaces and being subjected to anti-Blackness and questions about whether I truly belong, an experience that’s common among Jews of color. I don’t live far from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in New York City, and when I see Hasidim on the street, there is a feeling of recognition, but also rejection, of knowing that to many, I don’t count or I’m not Jewish enough. Jews of color often face a burden to publicly prove their Jewishness while white counterparts can take that part of themselves for granted.”

Philosemitism, the Antisemitism of the Status Quo

Too many prominent white Jews have reacted to the rise of antisemitism not by trying to join in solidarity with a broader antiracist struggle but by clinging to the institutions of racist states and accepting the leadership of racist communal organisations. Too many Jews are not seeing antisemitism as being connected to other forms of racism, including the racist and colonial structure of Israel, nor are they seeing antisemitism and colour-coded racisms, with all their specificities, as being imbricated in the structures of racial capitalism. Too many Jews have seen antisemitism as emerging only, and in its most dangerous form, from the radical Left. Many of the arguments mobilised by Jewish (and many non-Jewish) self-styled leaders of the fight against antisemitism have, for years now, singularly failed to stop themselves from engaging in their own racism, while also relentlessly attacking and delegitimising left wing Jews. This past weekend, Wiley’s comments have been met with flurries of claims by prominent Jews and philosemites that antisemitism is somehow allowed to flourish in public life like no other form of racism. This is an extraordinary claim in the world we live in. This claim of exceptionalism has been a constant refrain during endless debates about Labour and antisemitism in recent years. Wiley’s tweets have been linked to the Black Lives Matter movement for no other reason than that he’s Black. It has been demanded that other people involved in the grime scene take responsibility for Wiley’s comments.

I hate when people try to hold me responsible for the words and acts of all Jews. Examples abound of some Jews in recent decades making alliances with reactionary governments and even far right formations. Such far right projects can work through a focus on anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, and “immigrants,” dropping traditional antisemitic frames for a philosemitic admiration for Israel and a highly limited construction of acceptable Jewish identity. Figurations of “the Jew’‘ through time are highly adaptable and offer different tropes to suit various political impulses or subject positions. Discourses of the greedy or capitalistic Jew can often be less tolerated by some Western societies, though antisemitic conspiracy theories about the spread of “Cultural Marxism” or around the figure of George Soros are increasingly mainstream on the political Right, as well as among some centrists and even some on the Left. These discourses are peddled regularly by Conservative and Republican politicians, on the front pages of national newspapers and enjoy wide global traction, especially in online spaces. The antisemitic structure and content of such discourses are often denied (or remain deniable) and can sometimes be given cover by Jewish establishment institutions. This is emblematic of the unevenness of how antisemitism is currently received or censured in the public sphere.

When Wiley tweeted: “What do you do when you realise the people moaning about anti Semetic are actually the most racist ones out here?”, in some ways it rings true. Britain’s political and media culture has, in recent years, managed to transform a genuine problem with antisemitism on the Left and in the Labour Party (not to mention in the general public and on the right) into political victories for the hard right and the far right. Boris Johnson can write antisemitic caricature in his novel (the least of his long history of public racism), Michael Gove’s wife can show off their collection of holocaust denial books and eugenic tracts, and the BBC’s Andrew Neil - chairman of the consistently antisemitic Spectator magazine - can have his own foetid history of publishing David Irving in a national newspaper, and face no political consequences for it. Nor has the mainstream’s supposedly deeply held rejection of antisemitism seemed capable of applying these standards to the legacies of rabid antisemites like Winston Churchill and Nancy Astor, both publicly lauded in recent months in the face of largely rejected counter-histories offered by racialised people. These political figures and dynamics of the centre and Right have been able to cynically wield antisemitism as a political cudgel to attack the Left and delegitimise struggles against anti-Blackness and Islamophobia.

As Alana Lentin writes in her new book, Why Race Still Matters, that “the political utility of antisemitism today is not to illuminate the operations of race, but rather to obscure them.” We must apprehend the functions of contemporary philosemitism as a primary and mainstream form of antisemitism, particularly in the West. Such philosemitism, practiced through state power and media discourses, homogenises Jews. It erases our various diversities and works to hegemonise Zionism as an inevitable outcome of Jewish life, rather than as the product of European antisemitism, racism and colonialism that it is. Philosemitism, like Zionism, often erases or deprecates Jewish diaspora and non-Zionist traditions. In recent years we have been subjected to the ugly spectacle of liberals & rightwingers cynically latching onto continuous cycles of “debate” and “controversy” over antisemitism with a gross philosemitism that objectifies the figure of “the jew,” freezes the Holocaust as a detached ahistorical event and cares little about other forms of racism. Lentin again,

publicly performing opposition to antisemitism and support for Israel - the two having been made equivalent - has also become a proxy for politicians and public figures’ commitment to antiracism. Leaning on antisemitism as the sine qua non of racism and associating it singularly with the Nazi Holocaust, reinterpreted as a unique and aberrant event rather than the manifestation of a 500-year process, silences any questioning of this professed antiracism.”

The writer James Baldwin broached these issues, with particular attention to the relation between American Jews and African Americans, in an extraordinary article in the New York Times in 1967. In it Baldwin explicated how the reception and discourses around anti-Jewish racism were fundamentally different to those experienced by Black people in American society. In many ways this is still true. The philosemitic public recognition of the unimaginable horror of the Shoah hasn’t led to the elimination of antisemitism or the discourses that sustain it, as we’ve seen. But Jewish suffering is honoured, even if instrumentally, in a way that the horror, mass death and lasting legacies of slavery and colonialism never have been. Baldwin wrote,

the Jew can be proud of his suffering, or at least not ashamed of it. His history and his suffering do not begin in America, where black men have been taught to be ashamed of everything, especially their suffering. The Jew’s suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world and the Jew is recognized as a contributor to the world’s history: this is not true for the blacks. Jewish history, whether or not one can say it is honored, is certainly known: the black history has been blasted, maligned and despised.”

Jews and the KKK

The tweet of Wiley’s that most drew my attention stated: “There are two sets of people who nobody has really wanted to challenge #Jewish and #KKK.” Wiley seemed to feel that he was bravely speaking out about Jewish power in a way that others were too afraid to. In his view this fear was comparable only to the fear people harboured for the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, the second Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s said pretty similar things about Jews to some of Wiley’s tweets. The KKK are a useful example to show us connections between antisemitism and anti-Black racism at the heart of many far right and white supremacist projects. The Klan, in this period, were able to become, for a few years, a national mass movement. They had a huge women’s division, were even more popular in Northern states than the South and were able to influence politics at the highest levels. At the height of the KKK’s second wave the organisation had as many as 5 million dues-paying members. The historian Nancy MacLean in her study, Behind the Mask of Chivalry, has called them “the most powerful movement of the far right that America has yet produced.” While the Klan’s main target remained Black people, the 1920s KKK was able to grow its movement by also expanding its targets to Catholics, Communists, Anarchists, trade unionists and Jews.

The Protestant American white supremacy of the Klan came with age old anti-Jewish prejudices linked to Christianity but also organised campaigns linked to more modern, political and economic racialisations of Jewishness. They mobilised boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses, spread conspiracy theories about Jewish control over finance and popular culture, and they also targeted Jews with violence. The KKK shared correspondences with the growing German far right of the same period, with whom they shared an antisemitic masterframe. Reflective of a wider upsurge in antisemitism in the US, the antisemitic screeds of Henry Ford would find great popularity in both the US and Germany in this tumultuous decade. These formulations survived the Second World War in more marginalised far right spaces, where some fascist street formations in Britain and the US have linked their violence targeted against people of colour, immigrants and “native-born”, to a masterframe of Jewish control. This white supremacist framing sees a global Jewry as standing behind “multiculturalism” and “coloured migration,” heaping ruin upon “white” countries. This also intersects with longue durée discourses of Black inferiority that have commonly led white supremacists to suggest that Black people could not have been capable of organising and fighting for their own liberation without being manipulated by “Jews,” or today by “white anarchists” and “outside agitators.”

Antisemitism and the Petit Bourgeoisie

Modern antisemitism emerges through its relationship to the rise of a highly racialised and colonial modernity. It is co-constituted by the advent of nationalism, the popularity of racial “science” and the development of industrial capitalist society. Modern antisemitism has traditionally taken form and been driven by political movements, above all, of the petit bourgeoisie. Though this is not to say that other classes haven’t been part of such movements. In fact, these tend to be political movements which seek class compromise, often through bonds of nation and sometimes through the pursuit of racial homogeneity. Such class compromise can be administered through labour aristocracies of national workers, and premised on exclusion of and violence towards certain racialised people. The racialised people in Britain whom Satnam Virdee has named as “racialised outsiders” have been at the forefront of autonomous worker and community struggles, as well as within existing institutions of the Left to break the hold of trade union white supremacy and to grow antiracist consciousness.

Class compromise movements of the far right, like the 1920s Klan, often racialise the causes of division. The idealised Klan vision of a capitalism that works for everyone was enabled by the racialised theory that African Americans were inescapably inferior and must be locked into lives of servitude and subjugation and that Jewish conspiracy of both capitalist finance and Communist revolution threatened the interests of regular white Americans. The historical projectability of the figure of “Jews” - that is, a rootless cosmopolitan people with no nation - has made “the Jew” endlessly adaptable into racialised figures of abstract threat. “Jews” can also be conjured as handy substitutes or human shields for the world-shaping violence wrought by white supremacy. It is the particular character of such “Jewish power” that makes it stand out in modern antisemitism. As Moishe Postone puts it, “what characterizes the power imputed to the Jews in modern anti-Semitism is that it is mysteriously intangible, abstract, and universal. It is considered to be a form of power that does not manifest itself directly.” Through this framing we can be told that “the Jews” controlled the slave trade; that Jewish financiers, lacking in national loyalties, cause economic inequality or instability; landless Jewish radicals foment revolution and seek to upend social norms; or destitute and diseased immigrant Jews threaten the livelihood of the national worker and refuse to assimilate into national life. We can see from these examples why conspiratorial antisemitism has particularly flourished in contexts of social upheaval or political, national and military defeats. This figuration of Jewishness forms part of the ideological basis for a history of racial violence, pogroms and genocidal eliminationism. This violence has been most deadly when it has come to be backed by the full machinery of the state, particularly so in the case of Tsarist Russia and, above all, Nazi Germany.

This racialisation of “the Jew”, though, is persistent and flexible, and has proven to be highly adaptable across cultures. Racialising discourses don’t require state power for participation. We can still hurt each other even from relative positions of oppression. We can’t ignore or dismiss the impact of racialising discourses in the reproduction of “race” and of racial violence. Especially when calls to violence are put on blast from large platforms. This recognition can move us beyond a limited debate about whether “Black people can be racist?”

A big part of antisemitism is a whisper game, the spread of rumour, the nod and wink that a homogenous and racialised social grouping is all-powerful and bears collective responsibility for so much calamity in the world. This is a game that started in, and has been overwhelmingly deadly in, white Christian Europe. But it is now a whisper game that, having gone on for so long, is one that anyone can take part in, including Jews and including Black people.

And again, you will often find such antisemitic discourses being expressed through a petit bourgeois subject position. A couple of years ago the Black British television presenter Reggie Yates made comments about it being “great” that the new generation of grime artists were not “managed by some random fat Jewish guy from north west London, they’re managed by their brethren.” He made a genuine, heartfelt apology for “reinforcing stereotypes” and unfortunately stepped down from Top of the Pops. Influencer and podcaster, Kelechi Okafor, in a now deleted podcast, insisted, however, that Yates’ comments were “not problematic” as he was speaking “the truth.” She believed that the reaction to the situation showed “the power of a specific community.” Okafor spoke of Black people in the entertainment industry being “so short changed by the kind of people Reggie Yates describes.” She claimed that “all sorts of ethnicities” are capable of this but added “the fact is, these [Jewish] men had dominated the industry for decades” and are “taking most of the profits.” Black artists, Okafor said, “are having to work [their] entire arse off while they’re keeping everything.” With further allusion to Jewish power, Okafor stated that “if you offend one of the more powerful sectors of the community, then off be with your head” and that “people are demanding their pound of flesh, and I am very specific about the reference I just made.”

We see in this case and we can also glean from Wiley’s reference to his Jewish manager and big players in the music industry, that an antisemitic frame emerges here, at least in part, from a specific petit bourgeois perspective. Resentment emerges from the feeling that career advancement was being blocked off and that the earnings of a creator are being strangled and siphoned off by middle men and money men. The persistence of structural racism, particularly for Black people, cannot be denied. In employment, in positions of power and in professions, Black people in Britain are discriminated against every day. Sports and music continue to be industries where some Black people are allowed to express their talent, garner high earnings, and yet still tend not to reach positions of power or autonomy within those industries. This is white supremacy and capitalism but in these two cases it has been explained through the conspiratorial paradigm of Jewish control. Greed and control in various key positions of industries and markets become personified in the figure of “the Jew.” Not by Black people any more than white people, almost certainly less in fact, but simply by people reproducing antisemitic interpretations of capitalism. This can come from people lacking accessible tools to discuss and understand race and class, from an ignorance about Jewish history and an ignorance about the harm these discourses do to Jews. The conspiracy, in such cases, has the expansive potential to open up to a wider panorama of Jewish influence but the sense of authenticity can also emerge from the telling of the particulars. Wiley spoke from long experience of the music industry, his was an exposition of truth that came from “an insider”, someone who knows the industry and has seen how “these people” work.

“Anticapitalist” and “Anti-imperialist” Antisemitism

A huge danger with conspiratorial antisemitism is that it can operate with a claim to radicalism, a claim to be part of the fight for liberation. It can be snuck in alongside genuinely liberatory political demands. Wiley himself often tweets powerfully about the daily injustices faced by Black people in British society and about the mainstream denials or celebrations of the British colonialism that forms the basis of today’s society. The problem is that conspiratorial antisemitism actually profoundly limits an antiracist, anti-imperialist and anticapitalist politics. An “anticapitalism” or “anti-imperialism” focused on conspiracies of Jewish control fails to diagnose the mechanisms and histories that have produced the subjugation of Black people and other oppressed and exploited people, as well as contributing to the legitimation of racial violence against Jews.

This has a long, deep history on the white, European Left. Since the nineteenth century countless British leftists who’ve called themselves Marxists, trade unionists, Labourists etc. have had their politics animated by antisemitic conspiracism. Particularly at the turn of the twentieth century, amidst large scale immigration of impoverished Eastern European Jews into Britain, and the intensification of European imperialism in Africa. Jews were continually blamed by Left “anti-imperialists” for standing behind European imperialism, particularly the Boer War. Jewish workers in Britain were held in suspicion as unreliable allies, sexual threats, and cheap labour competition who were unwilling or unable to assimilate. This was the period of the uprising of the “unskilled” worker. The “New Unionism” - and industrial unionism that challenged the dominance of the “skilled” craft union labour aristocracy - was composed of previously excluded sections of the working class in Britain like women and Irish Catholics. They began to form their own unions and parties as well as flooding into existing ones, becoming players in national politics. Working class socialism had arrived as a force in British society. But the rupture of New Unionism was a socialism conceived by most of its builders through an enthusiastic embrace of the nation-state. This left no room for some sections of the working class - namely Jews and workers of colour. Satnam Virdee rightly states that, “socialist nationalists’ refusal to integrate the Jewish worker into the broader class struggles of the new unionism was a profound failing.” The culmination of the spread of antisemitism among the organised working class in Britain was a cross-class alliance between a section of the working class, proto-fascist anti-immigrant movements and then political parties who eventually implemented Britain’s first systematic immigration control legislation, the 1905 Aliens Act.

Black-Jewish Relations

Some of the tropes that have characterised anti-Black racism from some Jews or antisemitism from some Black people can arise from particularised histories of encounter. It can emerge from proximities in highly racialised structures of housing, work and community. Localised representation of “the system” can become embodied in a Jewish landlord or shop owner in a majority Black neighbourhood or, as we’ve seen, a Jewish manager, songwriter or movie producer in a specific industry. These can be about how legacies of migration and social mobility (for some) interact with shifts in neighbourhoods and industries, about the places where Black and Jewish people have been able to live and the kinds of jobs they’ve been allowed to do. It’s also about white Jews benefiting from the privilege of being able to slot into a pre-existing and highly developed racial hierarchy and racial division of labour that they have benefited from in relation to African Americans, as well as colonised indigenous people.

A neighbourhood like Harlem in New York City is one example. Harlem was majority working class Jewish before it became majority Black when millions of Black people fled the South in the years leading up to World War One in search of Northern industrial jobs and to escape lynching and terror. As the racial composition of New York neighbourhoods shifted, Jewish landlords and business owners went from exploiting Jewish workers to exploiting poor Black people whom white supremacy and state power made even more vulnerable to hyper-exploitation. Discussions of relations between different racialised groups can have a tendency to de-class those “communities,” invisibilise the class struggle within them and produce “community leaders” who act symbiotically with the social control imperatives of the state.

What can be elided in constructions of “Black-Jewish relations”, as well as the erased existence of Black Jewish people, is the extent to which Black workers have been exploited by Black business owners and landlords just as Jewish workers have often been exploited by Jewish bosses and landlords. This is especially so in racialised groups who have been subjected to the kinds of ghettoisation and segregation that African Americans and Jews historically have been. Such dynamics of migrant communities and social control are a persistent feature of US, (there are different but structurally analogous processes in Britain) and, white supremacy as various migrant and racialised communities have joined the frontline of policing and exploiting racially oppressed African Americans. Whether it be nineteenth Irish-American lynch mobs and policemen, or modern depictions of Korean or Vietnamese store owners in majority Black communities.

Going back to that 1967 article by James Baldwin in New York Times, we can find Baldwin unpacking some of these relations.

I don’t know if the last taxi driver who refused to stop for me was Jewish, but I know I hoped he’d break his neck before he got home. And I don’t think that General Electric or General Motors or R.C.A. or Con Edison or Mobil Oil or Coca Cola or Pepsi-Cola or Firestone or the Board of Education or the textbook industry or Hollywood or Broadway or television–or Wall Street, Sacramento, Dallas, Atlanta, Albany or Washington–are controlled by Jews. I think they are controlled by Americans, and the American Negro situation is a direct result of this control. And anti-Semitism among Negroes, inevitable as it may be, and understandable, alas, as it is, does not operate to menace this control, but only to confirm it. It is not the Jew who controls the American drama. It is the Christian.”

How To Overthrow The Illuminati

As we have seen, the “conspiracy” is central to the structure and persistence of antisemitism. And cultures, tendencies and spaces for the infinite production and distribution of conspiracy theory are a widespread and global phenomenon in today’s world. The power of the conspiracy theory in contemporary politics has a significant impact on people’s understanding of events across the globe. This is bad for Jews because it is Jews who invariably, eventually, stand behind the curtain in most conspiracy theories. And it is bad for any revolutionary politics of social justice because conspiracy theories misconceive the roots of power, injustice, white supremacy, patriarchy or the modalities of capitalist social relations. They also offer no practical counter-actions to injustice in the world.

Conspiracism takes hold of people’s worldviews. It can operate across spectrums of class position, racialisation, age, etc. Its narrative structures can often dominated by US-centric themes which are then circulated into other contexts. While a country like Britain has its own long histories of antisemitism and of conspiracy theory, we also need to pay close attention to correspondences between racist and far right narratives that carry across borders. Becoming embroiled in the world of conspiracy theory is often an individualised and algorithmic process of foreshortened critiques of world affairs that provide simplistic causation, usually focused on malign elites, as a substitute for the more complex (or sometimes more simple) operations of capitalism and imperialism. It is a process of profound disempowerment for participants, many of whom (often white men in my experience) adopt the masculinised figure of the “brave truth-teller,” some of which we saw from Wiley’s tweets. People become enmeshed in a tangled, self-reinforcing and ultimately dangerous set of logics and argumentation that can be incredibly difficult to break out of. And seemingly anyone can become enmeshed. Even a genius like Alice Walker, with such heightened perceptiveness to the dynamics of misogynoir can fully go down that road of antisemitic conspiracism in her admiration for someone like David Icke.

A few years ago, a group of writers who describe themselves as “revolutionaries active in struggles in New York City and Seattle” produced a pamphlet called How To Overthrow The Illuminati that was specifically aimed at working class Black Americans. The writers had noticed a growth in the salience of conspiracy theory in working class Black neighbourhoods and wanted to help explain how this had come about and why it was damaging. “We’ve spent a lot of time with youth from the ‘hood, talking about life and politics, trying to come together to fight white supremacy, police brutality, the prison system, deportation, and inequality in the schools,” they write. “Over and over again, we’ve seen how these conversations and struggles get derailed when people start to say there is nothing we can do because the Illuminati controls everything. We would take a bet that this ‘Illuminati theory’ is probably the most popular political philosophy among youth in the ‘hood today.”

As they explain in their introduction to the pamphlet, there can be different receptions of conspiracy logics that correspond to the specific material conditions in which people exist. Here we find, in the specific case of oppressed and super-exploited sections of the Black working class, that conspiracy logics can, as always, help to simplify complexity and explain your world. They can also predominate in spaces in which Black Power struggles and other revolutionary movements with profound explanatory power of the world have been crushed or bought off. As the authors put it, “Illuminati theory came to the hood after the defeat of the black liberation movement of the 1970s.”

The so-called “neoliberal” era has in part been characterised by some shifts in the class structure of Black people in America. In the absence of large-scale Black liberation struggle “a political void” opened up “in poor and working class Black communities.” The writers contend that some “Black people had made it into positions of political and economic power,” with the growth of a larger Black middle class entering into previously colour-barred tiers of government, professions, policing, military and business. Meanwhile “racist oppression and exploitation continued for poor and working class black people.” In many ways it ramped up, in terms of incarceration rates, the availability of employment and the gutting of welfare, at least. “How could one explain this reality?” the writers ask. “Illuminati theory flowed in to fill this gap.”

And often it was prominent members of a new, tiny, Black elite - the likes of Jay-Z and Beyonce - whom theories began to connect to the Illuminati. The authors posit that “from the 1980s through the 2000s, Illuminati theory broke out of its traditional audience. Instead of appealing to elites threatened by mass movements, Illuminati theory now appealed to the black poor and working class, and others in the hood. People in the hood started to talk about the Illuminati, the Bilderbergs, the antichrist, and more.” They remark on the uncanny ability of conspiracy theory cultures to draw in such different political constituencies, saying “it may seem strange that the same theory would appeal to both white ultra-conservatives and poor black people.” The writers continue:

Illuminati theory helps oppressed people to explain our experiences in the hood. Society throws horrible stuff in our faces: our family members get locked up for bullshit. Our friends kill each other over beefs, money or turf. Our future is full of dead-end jobs that don’t pay shit. We struggle to pay bills while others live in luxury. On TV, we see people all over the world dying in poverty, even though we live in the most materially abundant society in history. Most people act like none of these terrible things are happening. Why does this occur? We start looking for answers, and Illuminati theory provides one. We believe Illuminati theory is wrong, and we wrote this pamphlet to offer a different answer. We wrote this pamphlet because we know people who think about the Illuminati usually want to stop oppression and exploitation. They’re some of the smartest people in the hood today. Forty years ago, Illuminati theorists would’ve been in the Black Panther Party. Today most of them sit around and talk endlessly about conspiracies. This is a waste of talent…We live in a society that blames individuals for failing to succeed. But people in the hood aren’t stupid: we know we aren’t to blame, and that there are outside forces preventing us from living with dignity. For this reason, conspiracy theories and urban legends have been a common feature of oppressed communities in the U.S, especially black communities, for decades.”

The pamphlet concludes about conspiracy theory, as we all should, that “people who try to change the world using Illuminati theory are boxing with shadows. The shadow is the shadow of capital, the real alien created by all of us, through the social relationships we participate in every day.” And they propose, in opposition to the disempowerment and antisemitism of conspiracy theory, the potential of communism, which they define as:

the destruction of capital, white supremacy, women’s oppression, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender oppression, imperialism, environmental destruction, and much more. Billions of poor and working class people will accomplish it through strikes, riots, armed battles, and mass meetings against the system. It will not be done by a small group of “enlightened” people. It will happen–like every revolution in the past–through a mass movement against oppression.”

The widespread traction of conspiracy theory is not just a technologically determined product of the internet age. It also demonstrates a deep failure of the class struggle, and a dangerous lack of antiracist literacy. It points to an absence of connection between struggles, between separated sections of the working class and between different oppressed groups. As well as being a symptom of political fatalism, perhaps a contemporary feature of the draw of conspiracy theory today relates to some of the specific restructuring processes that have taken place within many capitalist societies. Precarity and crisis dominate so many people’s relationships to work and daily life. Precarious “self-employment”, atomised individuals are told to be the entrepreneurs of their own lives and solitary paths to prospective “freedom” and social mobility are more common than participation in social movements and worker organising. In the wake of crushed organised labour movements, precarity encourages competition within the working class. The onus is on the individual to constantly hustle, to stave off structural unemployment, that is more often blamed on immigration than on automation and the logic of capital accumulation. In this hustle, as opposed to the collective bargaining and longer term employment in factories and firms idealised by many in the era of the Keynesian “Golden Age” (an age structurally privileged towards white workers as the basis of its broad class compromise), expressions of class antagonism often move away from an individual boss onto a hatred of self or a more abstracted sense of “the system”, “corporate power” and “money men.” As has often been the case, shop owners, landlords, pawn shop owners can come to personify the most immediate and recognisable capitalist class. In some neighbourhoods, in the past or now, these personifications of capital may have been Jewish people, or have been associated with other racialised figures. When conspiracy theory expands that to a world scale it is the particular historical traces left by antisemitism that make it such a salient narrative for Jews to be placed at the centre of a masterframe explanation. Moishe Postone explains that the modern antisemitic conspiracy theory’s “claim,” like conspiracy theory more broadly today, “is to explain the world—a world that had rapidly become too complex and threatening for many people.” But it is the work of capital itself that exploits workers to create profits, never the Jewishness or any other racialisation of the human beings whom the relations of capitalist production flow through.

Concurrence and Disjuncture, Histories of Racialisation

There are many concurrences as well as profound disjunctures between histories of anti-Black and anti-Jewish racism. There are particular parallels, for instance, between the African American experience and the history of Jews in Europe. Both experiences have been characterised at times by ghettoisation enforced by state authorities. Both communities also have long histories of being terrorised by pogroms or lynch mobs, structures of violence that combine popular, vigilante racism with the active or passive help of state forces. Antisemitism and anti-Black racism have for long periods helped to bring coherence to racist cross-class alliances and ideologies formed through whiteness.

The majority of Black people in colonies were enslaved and dominated by European white supremacy for centuries for their labour. Jews, before some gradual and formal processes of liberal emancipation in Europe, were segregated not for their labour but were instead denied access to most forms of work and excluded in ghettos to be kept away from Christian majorities. Under Jim Crow, Black people were similarly kept apart from whites and extremely limited in terms of what work they could do.

The formal emancipation of slaves in the United States and the formal emancipation of Jews in Western European states occurred at similar times. Yet both freed slaves (self-emancipated through mass flight, strikes, armed uprisings and military victory) and emancipated Jews would find themselves re-subordinated in different ways, almost immediately. Both continued to be racialised by white supremacist national states and by the voluntaristic white supremacy of vigilantism and racist white workers, organised or not. This mid-late nineteenth century period sees racialisation processes take on rigid forms, imbued with ideologies of “scientific” racism and ideas of “race” being an inescapable destiny.

Formal emancipation opened up “national” questions about the dangers of extending liberal rights to Black people in the US or Jews in Western Europe. Bound up with white anxieties about formal rights such as voting or holding political office were deep fears that centered around the prospect of proximity between “the races” and whether assimilation by Black or Jewish people into an established (white, Christian) national culture was even possible. This is why some racialised discourses at the time were similar. There was a common figuration of Black men and Jewish men as sexual and violent threats to white women amidst the constant fear of “interracial marriage” and “race-mixing.” Though, of course, there is no comparison in terms of how much more violence Black men faced for this. There was great fear of freed Black workers and poor immigrant Jews, seen as being nothing but labour competition to nationalised, white labour pools and their established, racially exclusive trade unions. These moral panics often took on similar structures, particularly in early twentieth century Britain where both Jewish and “colonial” labour were attacked and legislated against in the same period. Of course, states themselves acted to systematically prevent assimilation - far more so with African Americans under Jim Crow, as well as in the North where proximity and segregation were policed, and in many ways continue to be, through racialised and spatialised regimes that combine both state and popular violence.

James Baldwin here referred to one of the many disjunctures in this comparison, though, particularly in the American case, when he writes that,

The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.”

Baldwin here speaks to how paths to whiteness opened up to the vast majority of Jewish immigrants to America. No matter how hard many of their lives often were in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as immigrants, as poor people and as Jews, they were not African-American and they were not indigenous people - a huge categorical difference in the story of America’s racial regime foundationally built, as it was, upon the enslavement of people of African descent for their labour and the genocidal eliminationism of indigenous people for the colonisation of their lands. Baldwin puts this into context for us, leaving the choice open to white Jews, as well as to other whites, to be judged by their actions, that is: solidarity with the oppressed or integration into a white supremacist racial hierarchy:

The Americans are no longer Europeans, but they are still living, at least as they imagine, on that capital. That capital also belongs, however, to the slaves who created it for Europe and who created it here; and in that sense, the Jew must see that he is part of the history of Europe, and will always be so considered by the descendant of the slave. Always, that is, unless he himself is willing to prove that this judgment is inadequate and unjust. This is precisely what is demanded of all the other white men in this country, and the Jew will not find it easier than anybody else? The ultimate hope for a genuine black-white dialogue in this country lies in the recognition that the driven European serf merely created another serf here, and created him on the basis of color. No one can deny that that Jew was a party to this, but it is senseless to assert that this was because of his Jewishness. One can be disappointed in the Jew if one is romantic enough–for not having learned from history; but if people did learn from history, history would be very different.”

This reminds me of an encounter told about a maroon rebel captured in the huge slave uprising in Jamaica in 1760 led by Akan (then Coromantee) slaves from present-day Ghana. The source of this story is Edward Long, slave plantation owner in Jamaica and a significant figure in the history of British white supremacy, and is discussed by Robin Blackburn in his The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery. Blackburn notes that “Long, animated by his own hopes, fear and prejudices, may have embellished the story”, but that in itself would be revealing about the anxieties of the plantation owners. Known as Tacky’s Revolt, the insurrection involved hundreds of enslaved people and free Black maroons who captured large amounts of territory, killing dozens of white people. It took months for British colonisers to brutally put down the revolt with hundreds of executions and slaves transported to other territories. We are told that one captured rebel, talking to his guard, a Jewish militiaman, said:

You Jews, said he, and our nation (meaning the Coromantins), ought to consider ourselves as one people. You differ from the rest of the Whites and they hate you. Surely then it is best for us to join in one common interest, drive them out of the country, and hold possession of it to ourselves.”

Conclusions

I’ve returned again and again to the brilliance of James Baldwin and will do so now a final time as he ended his 1967 New York Times piece with such a knowing and resigned allusion to the fundamental dishonesty of middle class discourse and political ideology which is just as apt today. “A genuinely candid confrontation between American Negroes and American Jews would certainly prove of inestimable value,” writes Baldwin. “But the aspirations of the country are wretchedly middle-class and the middle class can never afford candor.”

We suffer today from pervasively bourgeois and legalistic discussions about and approaches to racism. In our society, the state sets itself up as the arbiter of a racism defined by speech-acts and “hate crimes” blamed on “ignorance.” Meanwhile it is the state and capital, historically and continually, that set the conditions for the most deadly effects of racism. Their police, their prisons, their borders, their killing of Black people with impunity, will destroy and prematurely end countless more lives than the hate-filled racist troll or even the street fascist. A political and cynical philosemitism and, above all, the institutional nature of anti-Black racism guarantee that Wiley will face more censure in this society than the countless white people who indulge in public racism, often for lucrative, decades-long careers.

It is the responsibility of committed antiracists and communists to build the practices, the capacity, and the reserves of trust and solidarity to make interventions into these debates and events as they continually explode into the mainstream. As things stand, we are left waiting for large capitalist firms or for the law to intervene, for the state and corporations to act as the arbiters of antiracism and moral probity. At best such arbiters reflect a liberal gesture towards “equality”, at worst they merely reproduce the existing racial regime, that is: philosemitism, a hierarchy of racism, the normalisation of state and popular violence against Muslims and the continuity of so many unchanging features of anti-Black racism. We need movements and struggles, as Black Lives Matter already is, that smash through the “frozen” notions of racism that currently prevail. A racism seen as being aberrant and individualised, a “cancer” or “virus” that strikes society from the outside rather than being symptoms of a complex of violent relations enmeshed in fundamentally colonial spaces like Britain and the United States.

The decision of a fascism-facilitating (and racism, misogyny, transphobia, etc) tech corporation like Twitter to shut down Wiley’s account or that of a management company to drop him will not defeat antisemitism. For people to involve the police and courts will do absolutely nothing to fight racism or to properly educate and politicise people’s views about this in the ways they must be. The likelihood is that these things also wouldn’t change Wiley’s mind or the minds of the worrying number of people liking his posts. For many conspiracists it will merely confirm their notions about “Jewish power.” We need spaces, mechanisms, relationships and organisers who can reach people, particularly those from other oppressed groups, so that we’re able to bring people in rather than cast them out. Of course this isn’t easy and sometimes it won’t end the way we want it to: with understanding increased and accountability being accepted for harms done. Ultimately, the wider objective must be to build on and strengthen autonomous antiracist movements which have the ability to build solidarity between different sufferers of racism. We need to broadly increase antiracist literacy and act preventatively to catch racialising discourses early and set them in their historical context.

One of the greatest figures of Black Liberation and one of the earliest and best theorists of whiteness, W.E.B. Du Bois, used racialising discourses to describe Jews in his breakthrough and rightly celebrated work, The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. He described some of the new capitalists who ventured South after Northern victory in the American Civil War to exploit newly “free” Black workers as “shrewd and unscrupulous Jews” or “an enterprising Russian Jew.” He wrote that “the Jew is the heir of the slave-baron in Dougherty.” Du Bois’ long life saw him always reflecting and sometimes changing positions. He at different points became a Communist as well as being a leading figure in the Pan-African movement. By 1953, when a 50th anniversary edition of The Souls of Black Folk was planned, Du Bois, having spoken to Jewish comrades in the intervening years, chose to amend the language he had used about Jews. He wrote:

As I re-read these words today, I see that harm might come if they are allowed to stand as they are. First of all, I am not at all sure that the foreign exploiters to whom I referred … were in fact Jews.... But even if they were, what I was condemning was the exploitation and not the race nor religion. And I did not, when writing, realize that by stressing the name of the group instead of what some members of the [group] may have done, I was unjustly maligning a people in exactly the same way my folk were then and are now falsely accused. In view of this and because of the even greater danger of injustice now than then, I want in the event of re-publication [to] change those passages.”

All people who suffer from racism should always be reflecting on how we can harm each other, as Du Bois did here. The way histories of racialisation position us is different for different people, in different times and places. Experiences are not equal nor are they the same, these differences should not be collapsed. Solidarity isn’t easy and can never be assumed. Calling for solidarity from others is crucial to the fight against racism, and antiracism has to be firm even when it’s in defence of individual sufferers who you dislike or have harmed you. Antiracist solidarity works best when it’s reciprocal. It works best when it’s based on an understanding of history and of current material conditions. It works best when it’s based on the recognition that “your liberation is bound up with mine.”