I listened to Angela Davis’s recent speech commemorating the 98th birthday of Malcolm X. It was basically a paean to woke politics. Looking back at the past couple of decades, an epidemiologist might say that a milestone was the COVID pandemic; an anthropologist might say the ubiquitous iPhone; a socialist might say the Bernie Sanders campaign; a historian might say the new Cold War verging on a hot, nuclear war in Ukraine. But for woke icon Dr. Davis, it’s being “attentive to pronouns.” The past few years I’ve been teaching in the City University of New York. The student body comprises first-generation immigrants and working-class whites hustling from one “gig” to the next to pay the bills. Of the roughly 300 students I’ve taught to date, exactly two conveyed concern about their pronouns. Albeit, the pronoun revolution is no doubt a world-historic event on Martha’s Vineyard.
The gravamen of Dr. Davis’s discourse was the “new collective awareness” of the “structural, the systematic, the institutional character of racism,” “the deep structures of racism in all of our institutions.” The problem is that Dr. Davis never gets beyond woke sloganeering. If she’s saying that “the system”—housing and hospitals, police and prisons….—shafts Black people not just because they’re poor but also because they’re black; if she’s saying that Black people suffer not only from class exploitation but also from racial super-exploitation, that’s of course all true, but hardly a novel idea. Still, it’s an open question which oppression—class or racial—is more salient nowadays; and it’s always been a thorny question how to build a class movement in which white workers recognize their common interests with Black workers, let alone acknowledge that the special oppression of Black people warrants special remediation. The Bernie Sanders campaign was premised on the overarching common oppression of the multinational 99%, but it also held out the programmatic promise that the super-exploited—i.e., African-Americans, among others—would benefit most. How did the woke elite fighting “structural racism” and calling for “structural transformation”—Davis, Kimberle Crenshaw, Ta-Nehisi Coates—react to this class-based movement? By deploring that it was insufficiently woke. Unsurprisingly, the liberal establishment representing the 1% excoriated Bernie while simultaneously heaping encomia on the likes of Davis.
Whereas she is most attentive to the pronouns revolution, and whereas she rails against structural racism, Dr. Davis is curiously blind to the structural revolution in the Democratic Party. Once anchored in the trade unions, the Party has now become the haven of woke politics, in which every conceivable (and inconceivable) identity gets to be represented, the quid pro quo being that, in exchange for the handsome perquisites that attend such representation, these sleazy woke mascots corral their assigned identity to support the Party. What could be more perfect than that Rev. Al Sharpton should be featured in President Biden’s roll-out video announcing his new presidential bid? In a recent New York Times article on Black reparations, Sharpton is thus quoted: “I think once we get mainstream America to say… ‘Yes, we owe,’ then you can have a better discussion on how we pay.” Forgive me this heretical thought, but I don’t owe and I won’t pay this FBI-informing, ambulance-chasing, race-hustling, shyster sack of shit a wooden nickel. Meanwhile, Dr. Davis mocks and ridicules Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis in her address, but has nary a word to say about President Biden’s numberless betrayals of Black and working people, and—although praising Malcolm X’s internationalist vision—she keeps mum about Biden’s criminal prosecution of the Ukraine war. Who was it that said “He who pays the piper calls the tune”?
Still, it would be wrong to accuse Dr. Davis of using this occasion just to espouse woke inanities and irrelevancies. At the tail end of her address, Davis focuses on the critical lessons that can be gleaned from a hitherto unknown struggle:
But I think that [if] we look at simple creatures like ants that are able to entirely transform a place and build these edifices, these architectural edifices, without at all harming the environment, I think we have much to learn from them.
Adroitly parlaying her radical youth to wow woke audiences, Dr. Davis is a cover feature in liberal white media; charges many tens of thousands of dollars when she speaks on college campuses “in solidarity with the oppressed”; and markets a Los Angeles-based “radical” fashion line. Woke drivel pays. If only she “transitioned,” Amy Goodman would feature Davis on Democracy Now! every morning. Proving that a broken clock is right twice a day, Alan Dershowitz recalls in his memoir that
I ran into an older Angela Davis on the porch of the Chilmark Store on Martha’s Vineyard. She was wearing a bicycle outfit and was cycling around the island with some mutual friends, including her trial lawyer in [Davis’s] murder case, who had become a judge. It was a strange scene in this bastion of bourgeois affluence to see these former radicals enjoying the comforts of capitalism.
Structural racism, indeed.