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Malcolm's X-Rated Wisdom
Malcolm X's vision of American race relations is one everyone should ponder.
Martin Luther King Jr. has essentially become a human deity in America. We often hear people argue over what political party or ideology Jesus would’ve supported if he were alive today. Same with MLK—every party wants to claim him and his words for themselves. Republicans and Democrats trip over each other trying to argue that he is one of them. A few weeks after every Christmas, we celebrate MLK day, cementing his hagiographic status in American history.
I learned about the Civil Rights Movement in elementary school. During Black History Month, teachers would show a selection of various figures that paved the way for civil rights: MLK Jr., Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton. I learned that they all sought racial integration and equality, and that this was the only correct view of race in America.
Later on, I learned about a man named Malcolm X. If MLK was framed as God, Malcolm was the devil. In fact, Malcolm earned the nickname “Satan” while in prison for his fierce temperament.
I learned that MLK preached nonviolence and Malcolm preached violence, and that ultimately peace prevailed. I learned that MLK preached integration and Malcolm preached segregation, and that ultimately integration prevailed.
Later on in life, I ended up learning more about the man named Malcolm. I’ve always been an inquisitive person, the type to question everything and look past the brainwashing. If life was a law school, I’d be the gunner that everyone else groans and rolls their eyes at every time I’d raise my hand. If I had grown up under Mao’s Cultural Revolution like my parents did, I’d be the first in line to be publicly denounced at a struggle session.
And I was shocked to see what I discovered about a man much mistaken. What I found about Malcolm X showed him as a man of conviction: a man who told it like it is, not how it should be. A man with ideals that echoed American conservative and libertarian thought. A man who cared about his community and their way of life. A man who stood for justice and wasn’t afraid to metaphorically burn bridges in the process.
Malcolm X wasn’t always called that. He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, where he faced the KKK’s violence growing up. He wanted to be a lawyer, but his teachers said that law was "no realistic goal for a n——r." He dropped out of high school and turned to crime, eventually going to prison for robbery.
In prison, fellow convicts introduced him to the Nation of Islam. The NOI was less of a religious organization and more of a racial one, as the NOI grew separately from mainstream Islamic doctrine. Under the NOI’s influence, Malcolm became a black nationalist, changing his name to Malcolm X.1 Black nationalists, like white nationalists, opposed integration and advocated for an ethnostate. Real integration, according to Malcolm, could not be achieved via state power:
If a white man puts his arm around me voluntarily, that's brotherhood. But if you— if you hold a gun on him and make him embrace me and pretend to be friendly or brotherly toward me, then that's not brotherhood, that's hypocrisy. And what America is trying to do is pass laws to force whites to pretend that they want Negroes into their schools or into— in their places of employment.
After Malcolm left prison, he abandoned his life of crime and turned toward being a leader within the NOI. He didn’t just have black followers: one of his good friends was Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese-American woman that grew up in FDR’s internment camps. Malcolm was openly critical of MLK and the Civil Rights movement, especially their reliance on white liberals.
In one of Malcolm’s most famous speeches, he spoke of the duplicity of white liberals:
In this deceitful American game of power politics, the Negroes are nothing but tools, used by one group of whites called Liberals against another group of whites called Conservatives, either to get into power or to remain in power. Among whites here in America, the political teams are no longer divided into Democrats and Republicans. The whites who are now struggling for control of the American political throne are divided into "liberal" and "conservative" camps. The white liberals from both parties cross party lines to work together toward the same goal, and white conservatives from both parties do likewise.
The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way: the liberal is more deceitful than the conservative. The liberal is more hypocritical than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro's friend and benefactor; and by winning the friendship, allegiance, and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or tool in this political "football game" that is constantly raging between the white liberals and white conservatives.
Politically the American Negro is nothing but a football and the white liberals control this mentally dead ball through tricks of tokenism: false promises of integration and civil rights. In this profitable game of deceiving and exploiting the political politician of the American Negro, those white liberals have the willing cooperation of the Negro civil rights leaders. These "leaders" sell out our people for just a few crumbs of token recognition and token gains. These "leaders" are satisfied with token victories and token progress because they themselves are nothing but token leaders.
Let us examine briefly some of the tricky strategy used by white liberals to harness and exploit the political energies of the Negro. The crooked politicians in Washington, D.C., purposely make a big noise over the proposed civil rights legislation. By blowing up the civil rights issue they skillfully add false importance to the Negro civil rights "leaders." Once the image of these Negro civil rights "leaders" has been blown up way beyond its proper proportion, these same Negro civil rights "leaders" are then used by white liberals to influence and control the Negro voters, all for the benefit of the white politicians who pose as liberals, who pose as friends of the Negro.
The white conservatives aren't friends of the Negro either, but they at least don't try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the "smiling" fox.
His message was simple: if forced to choose between two sides that treat you the same way, might as well support the honest side, because at least you know what you're getting. Malcolm was someone who spoke his mind and wasn’t afraid to hide his feelings, so it made sense that he would favor people that also spoke their mind instead of playing empty games. And he had seen the way white liberals betrayed his community and others: after all, it was liberal Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt that had shipped Yuri Kochiyama to an internment camp during WWII.2
Malcolm’s talk of white liberals echoes the Marcus Garveys and Zora Neale Hurstons that came before him, as well as the Clarence Thomases and Candace Owenses after him. In fact, the most conservative justice on today’s Supreme Court, the man that is regularly called an Uncle Tom and a race traitor, actually grounds his worldview in a black nationalist framework.
Thomas once was a young black nationalist that worshipped Malcolm X. As Clarence Thomas scholar Corey Robin writes about him:
You can see echoes of Malcolm X here. And I should say that he read Malcolm X’s autobiography in his freshman year of college. He had posters of Malcolm X all around his dorm room. He memorized the speeches of Malcolm X by listening to recordings.
So Malcolm X was a really formative influence on him. And Malcolm X, like many Black nationalists, had this distinction between two types of white people. There’s the overt racist, “the wolf,” as Malcolm X calls him, who is completely honest and open in his or her racism and makes no pretense about his or her assumption of Black racial inferiority. That’s the kind of racist Thomas would’ve encountered in the South.
Then there’s the white liberal, who’s not overtly hateful, who’s sympathetic and wants to help. But in the act of offering help will always remind you of the help that he or she has offered, will never let you forget that there but for the grace of me go you. And Malcolm X called this person “the fox.”
Thomas has his own animal iconography that he used. He compares the copperhead to the water moccasin. But it’s the same typology. And that is the white paternalist, somebody who wants to help, but will never let you forget that he or she has helped you. And that with the helping hand that they extend with one hand, they take away with the other.
And Thomas has this very vivid moment in his memoir where he says that he got as far as he did in the South in spite of his race. And it was very clear that everything he achieved, and not only that he achieved, but that the Black community achieved, was ours because it was in spite of our race.
Let that sink in for a minute. While Thomas’s detractors regularly claim that he is a self-hating black man that sucks up to white people, Thomas himself is actually the most pro-black justice the Court has ever seen. He just simply has a view on race that rejects integration in favor of policies that lead to self-sufficient black communities.
One of those views is the need for the populace to be armed. Malcolm X famously proclaimed that it was “the ballot or the bullet”, that one must takes up arms to defend themselves against what he saw as a tyrannical government:
I must say this concerning the great controversy over rifles and shotguns. The only thing that I've ever said is that in areas where the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it's time for Negroes to defend themselves. Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.
Malcolm’s view on guns mirrors what the NRA would say about guns: that guns help civilians defend themselves from a tyrannical government; that guns promote self-sufficiency; that guns protect life, liberty, and property; that the right to bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution.3 And indeed they do.
By the time of that speech, Malcolm had already left the Nation of Islam. In 1964, he endorsed ultraconservative Barry Goldwater4 for president over Lyndon B. Johnson. Decades after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Malcolm’s predictions have come true: black voters continue to mostly vote Democrat while black households' material conditions have not improved. At the time of its signing, black and white people had the same rate of two-parent families, since then, the white rate has declined slowly while the black rate has plummeted.
Malcolm had advocated for a different economic vision of black America:
Instead of the Negro leaders having the black man begging for a chance to dine in white restaurants, the Negro leader should be showing the black man how to do something to strengthen his own economy, to give himself an independent economy or to provide job opportunities for himself, not begging for a cup of coffee in a white man’s restaurant.
Almost 60 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, one wonders if Malcolm’s vision of an independent black economy would have helped black people more than integration and its policies, especially affirmative action, ever could.
After leaving the NOI, Malcolm traveled to the Islamic holy site of Mecca, as all observant Muslims are required to do if possible. Once there, he saw people of all races worshipping one God. His pilgrimage to Mecca led him to abandon black nationalism. He addresses this in his posthumous autobiography:
Despite my firm convictions, I have been always a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.
I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being--neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being.
The redemption arc is perhaps the story of America: where one person realizes the mistakes of their past and asks for forgiveness and reconciliation to start anew. The Civil Rights movement did lead to many people changing their mind. George Wallace, the Alabama governor that once proclaimed “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”, ended up at a black church a decade later, begging for the congregants’ forgiveness. And in accordance to the Christian principles that shaped much of America’s history, they did— a sharp contrast from the morality of today’s secular cancel culture.
Malcolm called things as he saw it. Malcolm wasn’t afraid to burn bridges with both the liberal and conservative powers-that-be. Malcolm saw the value of the gun as a symbol against tyranny and a way to defend one’s community by any means necessary. Malcolm preached self-sufficiency and a rejection of handouts. Malcolm kept his mind open to new ideas and changed many of them, even his once steadfast black nationalism.
In a conversation with interviewer Gordon Parks, he said
Listening to leaders like Nasser, Ben Bella, and Nkrumah awakened me to the dangers of racism. I realized racism isn't just a Black and White problem. It's brought bloodbaths to about every nation on earth at one time or another.
Brother, remember the time that White college girls came into the restaurant—the one who wanted to help the Muslims and the Whites get together—and I told her there wasn't a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I've lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent, I saw White students helping Black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a Muslim that I'm sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man's entitled to make a fool of himself if he's ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.
That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I'm glad to be free of them.
Two days after these remarks, three men affiliated with the NOI came up to him and killed him.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a dreamer. His most famous quote is that he had a dream.
Malcolm X was a realist. He saw the struggles his community had and looked for practical ways to fix them.
Decades after their assassinations, race relations in America do not seem to have improved much. Many Americans still cling on to MLK’s dream. And I somewhat agree. King did a lot for race relations in America. I also hope for a future free of racism, where people will no longer be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
The question then becomes one of how possible it is to achieve this future. Just within the tradition of Black American thought, there are diverse viewpoints—one can see the differences between DuBois, Washington, Hurston, Baldwin, King, Crenshaw, Kendi, and, of course, the pragmatic and ever-evolving visions of the man named Malcolm.
On a side note, “antiracist” guru Ibram X. Kendi was once known as Ibram Henry Rogers. Kendi made “X” his middle name to sound like a radical when in reality he knew he could became rich by fleecing guilty white liberals.
It was not until 1988 that Ronald Reagan signed a reparations bill formally apologizing for the internment and gave $20,000 to every interned Japanese American still alive.
This view on guns also happens to be how most leftists (not liberals) view gun rights. As Orwell said, “That rifle on the wall of the labourer's cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.”
Later in life, Goldwater’s once hard-right views turned libertarian as he began supporting causes such as abortion, gay marriage, and medicinal marijuana. But in his earlier years, Goldwater earned a reputation as a hardline dyed-in-the-wool conservative.