Contributing to a constructive debate

December 10, 2013

Sofia Arias wrote a response to an article by Brian Kwoba titled "White Skin Privilege and Marxism" that was published at the CounterPunch.org website. Kwoba's article criticized a SocialistWorker.org article by Bill Mullen that sparked an extended debate on the analysis of white skin privilege at this website (starting here). SocialistWorker.org rejected the article Kwoba submitted to us because, as Kwoba acknowledges with a quote from an e-mail to him in his introduction at CounterPunch, of its outrageous claim that Mullen's purpose in writing his article, and Socialist Worker's in publishing it, was to defend white privilege, rather than to analyze racism in order to fight it. Here, we publish Arias' response.

THE ROLE of SocialistWorker.org is neither to censor letters nor to function as a Reddit forum. The editors always have the right to exercise editorial discretion on what they choose to publish. Theirs is a political role, too. As a revolutionary newspaper for the International Socialist Organization, the U.S. working class and the broader left, with international readers, they have to think through how to facilitate the best possible debate on pressing questions.

I personally count myself as someone who previously critiqued SW in a Readers' View, for publishing without their knowledge an interview with an anti-Semite posing as a Palestine solidarity activist. Maybe a quick private e-mail would have been better? I thought a public letter was important in that circumstance.

Either way, mistakes are always made, but the interview was immediately retracted, because it went against the integrity of our politics.

People are circulating on the Internet a letter from a reader published by SW that defended the sexist San Diego Mayor Bob Filner. That is different. No one has asked SW to censor letters it doesn't agree with. That letter condemned the San Diego ISO for taking a stand against sexism. If instead, it was an article about how we were for the mayor, that would obviously be a completely different issue, requiring a serious consideration of our politics and why we would do such a thing. So it's a red herring to bring that up.

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers debated the analysis of white skin privilege and how to organize the anti-racist struggle in a series of contributions. The article that sparked the discussion is:

Bill Mullen
Is there a white skin privilege?

Further contributions include:

Haley Swenson and John Green
What we get from privilege theory?

Aaron Petcoff and David Camfield
Privilege and anti-racist solidarity

Alan Maass, Alan Peck and Alex Schmaus
Examining the idea of privilege

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Making sense of society in order to change it

Jeffrey B. Perry, Bill Mullen and David Camfield
Roots of the white skin privilege analysis

Héctor Agredano Rivera and Ethan Young
The contribution of the concept of privilege

Jesse Phillippe
A dialectical approach to privilege theory

Dennis K.
What privilege theory doesn't provide

Gary Lapon
Racism, capitalism and contradictions

Sofia Arias
Contributing to a constructive debate

Tad Tietze
What privilege theory doesn't explain

With your letter, I see the editorial team in this debate considering whether your article challenged the integrity of an ISO comrade who is an anti-racist activist and conflated his article with the real problematic history of the socialist movement in this country and its denial of the centrality of the fight against white supremacy.

SW didn't tell you it wouldn't publish your letter "period." Its editors said they wouldn't publish it "in its current form," because you were calling Bill Mullen a defender of white privilege. If you thought they were overreacting or misunderstood, couldn't you have clarified that in your letter, made some edits? But no, instead, it seems you wanted to provoke a reaction by saying: Look at what the ISO is trying to hide from people.


DOES THAT seem like an unfair characterization? Okay, I'll ask you then. If you thought of continuing the conversation outside of SW, why publish your piece at Counterpunch? Why not on your blog, for example? You do have a blog. It's called the New Socialist Project. Why not there? Or why not, if they actually published it, someplace more relevant to the left, if you thought it would resonate with people--a place like Black Agenda Report, or literally any new publication that's popped up since Occupy?

On just a basic question of baseline leftist principles, why Counterpunch? Who is the audience you're trying to engage with? Is it an attempt at a conversation with Mullen? Is it the ISO and its readership and the wider left? Or is it pegged for a sectarian audience interested in scoring points against the ISO?

Readers’ Views

SocialistWorker.org welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

Because they have definitely found a new home at Counterpunch. Counterpunch is literally the last dwelling of anyone with principled anti-oppression politics would ever go. And I take you to be sophisticated enough to know this, which is why I'm saying it. It has a dwindling readership of the old (white) (male) left. Why? Because it continuously repeatedly uses sexism and misogyny to attract readers ("Angelina Jolie Under the Knife: Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits"), anti-Semitism (defense of Gilad Atzmon against a campaign initiated by Omar Barghouti, Ali Abunimah and other BDS activists), out-and-out transphobia (initiating a series of "debates" sympathetic to Trans Exclusionary Rad Fems).

Counterpunch was called out by Jacobin magazine this past summer for its transphobia and was subsequently threatened with a lawsuit by the vile trans-misogynist Cathy Brennan, who locks arms with the state to destroy trans leftists. Which publication, Counterpunch or SocialistWorker.org, republished Jacobin's call for solidarity? You can take a wild guess.

The publication you decide to use to disparage Bill Mullen and check his privilege is edited by none other than Jeffrey St. Clair, who, in response to news about how Rand Paul thought private businesses should be allowed to discriminate against Black customers, was quoted in a May 2010 Counterpunch article titled "The Rand and Rachel Show," as saying: "[Rachel] Maddow and [Rand] Paul agree on probably 90 percent of the BIG issues confronting us, from ending the drug and Afghan war, to ending bailouts. But because of their own peculiar prejudices, his doctrinaire libertarian, hers PC progressive, neither of them can talk about anything other than a non-issue such as the Civil Rights Act of 19--SIXTY-FOUR. It's like a Dadaist play."

This isn't just any leftist submitting an article. Not just any ordinary person writing a letter to CounterPunch. But the actual co-editor of Counterpunch. So let's talk about the white male leftists who think racism is a side issue. It definitely isn't Bill Mullen. And I challenge anyone to produce a similar quote from Socialist Worker or from any ISO member.

You somehow seem to suggest that Tim Wise is on the same plane as CLR James and bell hooks. At what point are we going to acknowledge what a total charlatan Tim Wise is? Will you write an article taking that on, since activists are actually trying to hold him accountable for defending his support for Teach for America, a total scab operation that is actually responsible for long-time Black and Latino teachers losing their jobs in the neighborhoods they live in, when schools are being shut down and consolidated, and they are replaced by white college graduates on a two-year rotation?

What do you have to say about that? About the fact that Tim Wise recently threatened a Latina teacher in Texas on Twitter on getting her fired and making her go on unemployment because she called him out as a fraud? Are Socialist Worker readers supposed to take their cue from that?

Instead, you aim your fire at Bill Mullen. This straight white male socialist over the past few weeks has been part of pushing for a successful and unprecedented endorsement of the boycott of Israel in the American Studies Association. He is a straight white male socialist who took up the call of the Palestinian people to divest and disarm an apartheid state--and along with his colleagues and comrades, is using it to shake up American academia. He's actually done something to contribute to the dismantling of the ideology and material basis of a racist settler colonial apartheid state in Palestine.

He may have critiques of the invisible knapsack that you disagree with, but he is also fighting to destroy apartheid walls. Treat us like comrades in struggle instead of caricatures, and maybe we'll actually get somewhere. If that was your intention.


THE DEBATE around white privilege theory is really important. I personally have my disagreements with Bill's piece. I thought it was a bit wooden. But he is my comrade, and I want to engage with it politically, and I haven't been able to as much as I want. The debate has proceeded in a really helpful way, on both sides of it--not for the sake of mere debate, but to move forward on actual questions facing our movement.

I still think the debate hasn't proceeded deeply enough to engage on questions about what this means in terms what people like Bruce Dixon and Michelle Alexander are trying to engage with--the specific role of the New Jim Crow, profit and the prison industrial complex, etc.). The debate on the relevance of white skin privilege theory actually matters because this is what abolitionists are trying to grapple with at the moment.

I honestly don't think your piece is contributing to moving that debate forward. Even towards the end, when you could have made some useful points about recruiting people of color into socialist organization, which is a key question. Every revolutionary in this country needs to understand and learn from the history of why people like Hubert Harrison went from being a socialist to a nationalist. This is one of the questions of the day that we have to get our heads around.

But your piece felt more like a condemnation of the ISO with your "beware of the Marxist Left" warning, instead of an actual engagement with historical questions of Black separatism and Marxism. It's insulting, to be honest.

I'm not sorry that I have to talk about all this instead of actually politically engaging with your piece. Because I actually don't think it was put forward with the best of intentions, and it's certainly not being "sold" in a way that isn't more of the usual hey-look-at-what-the-ISO-just-did-to-me.

There are no principles you stand on, if you chose Counterpunch to be the first place to make your case around anything related to oppression. Choosing a forum with a horrible track record around oppression to claim the ISO doesn't take oppression seriously? How are we expected to respect this kind of piece?

I'm personally sick of the attitude that says anything goes so long as it's an anti-ISO screed, but then doesn't ask that the radical left hold itself to a higher standard than this. I really have no respect for this.

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