Angela Davis’s Racism: A Glance at Morality and History

by | 25 Nov 2013

Erich Honecker and Angela Davis

Erich Honecker and Angela Davis

What might we have thought about high-profile personalities flying into Alabama or Mississippi in the 1950s—white figures meeting with white governors, white mayors, white police chiefs, to openly cheer those states’ ‘equitable solutions’ to social problems?  Such visits certainly took place. Surely we would have to call those visitors overtly racist, or else wilfully ignorant, hence full-blown racists by default.

In the 1970s, Angela Davis travelled in—seemingly—the opposite direction.  Her critics have harped on the point ever since.  They condemn Davis’s chummy delight for East block dictatorships. ‘What does Angela Davis know about freedom?’, runs the title of Alan Johnson’s Telegraph piece, published the day of Davis’s celebrated October 2013 speech at Birkbeck College in London.

Echoing criticisms already made in Davis’s heyday, Johnson’s article leads with a snapshot of Davis tenderly clasping the hand of one of the last century’s overlords of terror, East Germany’s Erich Honecker. ‘Tonight’, laments Johnson, ‘a woman who supported the imprisonment of Soviet political dissidents (calling them common criminals) [and who] cheered on the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia . . . will give the Birkbeck-University of London Annual Law Lecture.  Her title?  “Freedom is a Constant Struggle.”’

Johnson also lashes out at the ‘academics and students at Birkbeck’ who would ‘cheer her to the rafters’, but would ‘ask no awkward “anti-communist” (sin of sins, still) questions’.  In defence of that audience, it is worth noting that Davis renounced her membership of the US Communist Party many years ago. Since few of that audience’s leftists would, by 2013, entertain much doubt about Soviet abuses, it might have seemed pointless to rehash old Cold War polemics.

Right or Wrong

US oppression of blacks by the immediate post-World War II era had long been so heinous that, by the 1970s, doubt remained as to whether mainline liberalism, however comforting for whites, held out much promise for blacks.  One way to provoke the white American establishment was, if not wholly to discredit, then certainly to challenge racist America’s post-war claim to moral superiority over the USSR.

            Whether Davis’s pro-Soviet politics were ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ seems not so much a bad question as a moot one.  It can scarcely be posed without our having to revisit the whole litany of Cold War political philosophies. Was it, for example, principled, following Khrushchev, to acknowledge Stalinist horrors, while hoping for a progressive humanising of the Soviet system?  Even if such hope was naïve, was it any more so than liberals hoping for a better America, after its own histories of slavery and segregation, of abuse of America’s indigenous nations, of the atomic bomb, of the Vietnam war?

We cannot pose the raw question ‘Angela Davis—right or wrong?’ (at any rate, my concern is not with Davis per se, but with a powerful political attitude which she embodied back then, and which, in new guises, lives today) in those Cold War terms because, in historical perspective, they collapse into a vicious circle between morality and history. How shall we compare, in moral terms, the respective post-Stalinist and 1960s American politics? It all depends on our comparative moral judgments on those two societies’ historical emergence and political imperatives. But how shall we, in moral terms, compare those two societies’ historical emergence and political imperatives?  It all depends on how we compare, in moral terms, the respective post-Stalinist and 1960s American politics!

Johnson and others condemn Davis’s seeming hypocrisy. Hypocrisy arises from inconsistent application of a fixed standard.  Moral standards during the Cold War were, however, never so easily agreed. Was the US, in different but compelling ways, ‘just as bad’ as the USSR?  Once Johnson opts merely to recapitulate the conventional Cold War framework, he can charge Davis with hypocrisy only by pitching his moral benchmark at the highest, most amorphous level of moral abstraction, which, taking Davis at her word, he calls ‘freedom’. Our problem is that the whole history of Western political philosophy is about ‘freedom’; and we had scarcely strayed closer to agreeing on it during the Cold War than Greeks could manage in the age of Thucydides.

Immanent Critique

Moral judgments on Angela Davis seem, then, to become an ethically relative affair. By ‘freedom’, Davis never meant what Johnson and other Western liberals mean by it. There may be good grounds to fault Davis’s notion of ‘freedom’ in the 1970s (again, she herself now appears to have abandoned it). It is harder, however, to accuse Davis of a hypocritical concept of ‘freedom’. Who can claim to pass such momentous moral pronouncements, to assign an absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, not merely to one particular activist, but to a vast tranche of modern history? Perhaps we just have to accept that one lady’s hypocrite is another lady’s freedom fighter.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps an assessment of Davis’s politics is not as relative, not as tethered to Cold War politics, as would appear. The Cold War schisms, like their current incarnations, far from offering a handy jump-off point for scrutinising Davis’s stance, instead guarantees her success through their sheer intractability, through their sheer aporias. That moral fog, in turn, misleadingly shrouds Davis with a poignant, even heroic, moral complexity.

If we wish to test Davis for hypocrisy, surely it makes more sense (and is also easier) to start not with a set of contrary assumptions based on questions as enormous as ‘What is freedom?’, but instead with her own assumptions—to offer Davis an ‘immanent critique’.

Davis’s starting point is easy enough to spot. Legal theorists have, for years, employed its vocabulary. Critical legal theories, in all their forms, including critical race theories, are nothing if not—and they draw their greatest impetus from—critiques of legal formalism. For American critical race theorists, that means evaluating the dominant, liberal ideologies of American law, such as equal citizenship, equal civil rights and liberties, or equality before the law, not as abstractly philosophised goods, but rather in terms of a devastating history, almost the entire history, of the US; a history in which those various equalities were not merely denied to African Americans, but were studiously, relentlessly distorted to construct those citizens’ systemic inferiority in law and in life.

The next question is whether that starting point allowed reformist solutions or could support only revolutionary ones. Like most African Americans, most American critical race theorists long ago rejected violent responses to discrimination. Many CRT scholars apply theory to sketch programmatic improvements to law ‘within the system’.

The attack on formalism nonetheless remains weighty. It has long casting doubt (and for some, continues to cast doubt) on dreams of liberation through piecemeal reform. Marx emerges at his most scintillating when he proclaims that liberal, formally egalitarian legal systems mobilise power and wealth in ways that systemically preclude reform. Reform becomes not the agent but the dupe of liberation, as liberal ideals serve not to secure equal citizenship, but to provide only ad hoc justifications for its failures to do so. Critics may dismiss Marxism, and Davis’s Marxism, out of hand; but to tackle head on that anti-formalist challenge to liberalism is no easy task. At best, it drags us straight back into the Cold War-style aporia.

The Imperial Race

Let’s instead accept arguendo Davis’s loosely Marxist scepticism, in the 1970s, towards conciliatorily, progressive change. From that starting point, how are we to interpret her public pro- Soviet stances? The best starting point is her own: absolute moral condemnation of systemic, state-directed ethnic discrimination.

The Sovietologists Barghoorn & Remington recall that, throughout its existence, the Soviet Union alone had included ‘well over one hundred indigenous nationalities, of which twenty-two contain[ed] at least one million people.’1Frederick C. Barghoorn & Thomas F. Remington (1986), Politics in the USSR, 3rd ed., pp 71–72 The Soviet bloc had, by the 1950s, vanquished and crushed vast numbers of minority ethnic and outsider groups. Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Baltic peoples, Roma, Jews, Muslims, represent only a very few of the many groups that were harshly, often murderously repressed, both preceding and during the period in which Davis was embracing some of human history’s most horrendous despots. Far from downplaying the repression of ethnic identities, Soviet policy proudly pursued those groups’ cultural annihilation. Soviet authorities openly aimed at ‘the elimination of national customs and culture in the creation of a homogeneous Soviet nation’.2Barghoorn & Remington, op cit., p 74.

Central to critiques of US racism had been a rejection of the hegemony of white domination. As the Sovietologist Henry Huttenbach nevertheless notes, the story of national and ethnic diversity in the Soviet Union was little more than the continuation of outright conquests during the Tsarist periods,3Henry R. Huttenbach (1990), ‘Towards a Unitary Soviet State: Managing a Multinational Society, 1917 – 1985’, in Soviet Nationality Policies:  Ruling Ethnic Groups in the USSR, pp. 3 – 4.

Though Stalin initially promoted the Leninist policy of sblizhenie [‘merging’ or ‘drawing together’– EH] by relying mostly on cadres drawn from the indigenous minority populations (a policy known as korenizatsiia), by the late 1930s he embarked on an open course of blatant Russification as a way to Sovietization and denationalisation, thereby running counter to Lenin’s original course, which sought to steer clear of the shoals of overt Russification, a danger [that Lenin] had condemned with one of his more famous aphorisms: “Scratch a Russian Communist and you will find a Russian chauvinist.”4Huttenbach, op. cit., p. 5.

Unlike Johnson, I am asking not about an anti-discrimination activist who, by openly supporting Soviet politics, flagrantly embraced attacks on other people’s civil and political rights. Let the world judge that as it may. Rather, I am asking about the anti-discrimination activist who cheerfully embraced other people’s discrimination. Suddenly the charge of hypocrisy seems nowhere near as welded to Davis’s Cold War context as the broad-brush discussion of ‘freedom’ seemed to suggest. When we apply Davis’s own moral standard, it becomes difficult to find any ‘historical context’, and certainly not the Cold War one, in which such hypocrisy might magically disappear. Some controversies, e.g., about ‘freedom’, may certainly become tied to a complex Cold War context. Others, however, remain straightforward: either certain gross practices were racist or they were not, regardless of the Cold War.

It might be argued that Davis, busy with a crisis at home, could not have been expected to command detailed familiarity with the USSR. That defence, however, far from helping Davis, digs her hole deeper. By the 1960s and 1970s, information about age-old ethnic Russian domination of the USSR and suppression of minorities was hardly difficult to come by, except through, to repeat my aforementioned phrase, wilful ignorance. Either one opposes systemic, state-directed ethnic domination or one does not. To oppose it in the US but not in the East bloc could only represent a discrimination about discrimination which would turn one’s purported anti-discrimination into a bleak parody.

Nor was the East bloc a Ruritanian hinterland.  Leaving aside any belief in communism, what is striking about Davis’s stance is her unqualified enthusiasm for Soviet imperialism—unobjectionable as long as it continued to perform its anti-capitalist masquerades. Ethnic minority citizens certainly held mid-level and local positions (a familiar imperial formula), but were scarcely spotted directing the empire’s central power. For Davis, there was no contradiction in applauding one of history’s most imperial, most trans-continental, most crudely modernist machines of ethnic and national discrimination (whose dire effects have impoverished those erstwhile subjugated peoples to this day), and cheerleading for it in the name of anti-discrimination! How racist should we deem any number of scholars who gladly spent the Cold War branding, for example, Israel an apartheid state, yet never once thought to use that epithet for an empire spanning a colossal Euro-Asian landmass!—and who, to this day, still ‘forget’ to call China an apartheid state?  What kind of a brain discriminates in such a way, justifying its own racism simply (as we see in the USSR or China) by parading it in the Orwellian newspeak of ‘anti-racism’?

Davis’s fondness for the Honecker tyranny arose from her view that the East German regime dealt better than West Germany with its fascist (read: discriminatory) past. That is quite a stance from a supposed anti-discrimination activist. Davis surely cannot have known the first thing about the official East German history of the war without having noticed that, from that state’s founding, its officials had always suppressed any emphasis on the Holocaust—anything like serious Holocaust theory being taboo, indeed positively dangerous—not least to facilitate the USSR’s rampant persecution of Jews, well underway since the 1950s, and certainly highly publicised by the time of Davis’s travels. Just after Davis’s 1974 visit, the sheer size of the Soviet sphere of influence made it a numerical deal-breaker for the UN General Assembly’s ‘Zionism is Racism’ resolution, one of that organisation’s decades-old devices (still routine today)5Cf. generally, Rosa Freedman (2013). The United Nations Human Rights Council: A critique and early assessment. Oxford: Routledge., whereby scores of dictatorial states committing abuses on a breathtaking scale, including massively racist ones, suddenly find themselves ‘shocked’ at the racism which they conveniently find occurring in the Jewish State.

Applying Davis’s moral criterion to public figures who would visit the American South in the 1950s, and would congratulate its mono-ethnic leadership, we must conclude that such figures could only be deemed arrant racists. Applying Davis’s moral criterion to a public figure who applauded the blindingly mono-ethnic leadership of a pervasively discriminatory Soviet bloc, must we equally conclude that such a figure, Angela Davis, can only be deemed an arrant racist?

Nothing at all

After escaping the USSR, Alexander Solzhenitsyn claimed in 1975, ‘In our country, literally for an entire year, we heard nothing at all except Angela Davis. We had our ears stuffed with Angela Davis. Little children in school were told to sign petitions in defence of Angela Davis.’  Throughout the Soviet bloc Davis could bask in that iconic status.  And surely, ideology aside, and with Davis’s help, there could be no harm in teaching society, and children, a few things about racism?

Yet what does that mean: ‘ideology aside’? Davis was used not to teach about racism, but to suffocate all critical, internal discussion about it. For the populations of the East bloc in the 1970s ‘education’ about racism became nothing but education about racism in the US. Yes, Martin Luther King faced real hell in the US; but can Davis and her acolytes really have been so fatuous as never even to have asked why there was not even the possibility of King’s counterpart emerging in the Soviet sphere—let alone gaining, as King did, global recognition—for the glaringly obvious reason that any figure who dared to speak out against ethnic divisions would be exterminated in short order?  By the 1970s, university-level African American studies programmes, whose very premise is rigorous and pervasive criticism of the country’s foundations, were proliferating in the US. Exactly how many counterparts did Davis notice anywhere in the East bloc? How many ‘Critical Roma Studies’ programmes? Did it ever occur to Davis, or to her supporters, even to look?  Solzhenitsyn continues, ‘Although she didn’t have too difficult a time in this country’s jails, she came to recuperate in Soviet resorts.’  How shall we name this wonder? What title shall we give her? The Honorary Queen of Soviet Imperial Apartheid?

In the aforementioned vein of progressive reform, most American critical race theorists have declined either to take sweepingly anti-US positions, or to draw sweeping comparisons between the US and other states. They have surely avoided such comparisons for the same reason that most other legal scholars avoid them, namely, because comparative law is difficult. One cannot just pluck out facially desirable maxims from a foreign legal system, while lacking some knowledge of that system’s broader character.

A small number of American critical race theorists have nonetheless sought to challenge US racism from the standpoint of foreign regimes about which, as their own writings show, they know nothing. In a 2008 article in the US-based National Black Law Journal,6Eric Heinze, ‘Truth and Myth in Critical Race Theory and LatCrit: Human Rights and the Ethnocentrism of Anti-Ethnocentrism’, 20 National Black Law Journal (Columbia Law School) (2008), pp. 107 – 62. I argued, for example, that Mari Matsuda, in what is unquestionably her most famous essay, adopts a stunningly similar sympathy for Soviet regulation of hate speech. Matsuda, while insisting on a supposedly legal-realist method (i.e., examining real inequalities below surface formulas of equal rights), in fact wholly abandons legal realism, exhibiting Davis’s style of callousness to questions of how the USSR had actually been implementing its purported ‘anti-discrimination’ policies. While striking an internationalist-cosmopolitan pose that purports to challenge ethnocentrism, she, like Davis, develops her own ethnocentrism, indeed of an all-too-familiarly American kind.

Precisely because Matsuda’s views are a virtual carbon copy of Davis’s in that respect, it becomes obvious that Davis had, all along, been doing the same, with that same peculiarly American parochialism. Both scholars were drawing otherwise wholly legitimate attention to a grievous American social problem, yet even to the point of blinding themselves—and, it seems, their audiences—to countless millions of non-American victims of racism, simply for the cheap-and-easy gain of claiming a supposed intellectual ally in the form of the pervasively racist Soviet empire, and for no other apparent reason, except that the USSR had managed to puppet transparently bogus (and yet all-too-effective) anti-racist platitudes at its ‘philosophical’ core.

Eric Heinze is Professor of Law & Humanities at Queen Mary, University of London. His most recent book is The Concept of Injustice. 

  • 1
    Frederick C. Barghoorn & Thomas F. Remington (1986), Politics in the USSR, 3rd ed., pp 71–72
  • 2
    Barghoorn & Remington, op cit., p 74.
  • 3
    Henry R. Huttenbach (1990), ‘Towards a Unitary Soviet State: Managing a Multinational Society, 1917 – 1985’, in Soviet Nationality Policies:  Ruling Ethnic Groups in the USSR, pp. 3 – 4.
  • 4
    Huttenbach, op. cit., p. 5.
  • 5
    Cf. generally, Rosa Freedman (2013). The United Nations Human Rights Council: A critique and early assessment. Oxford: Routledge.
  • 6
    Eric Heinze, ‘Truth and Myth in Critical Race Theory and LatCrit: Human Rights and the Ethnocentrism of Anti-Ethnocentrism’, 20 National Black Law Journal (Columbia Law School) (2008), pp. 107 – 62.


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