Malcolm X in the Modern Age

Malcolm X described John F. Kennedy’s assassination as “the chickens coming home to roost”. During his presidency, Kennedy had failed to effect meaningful change to advance the civil rights of African Americans and his death, Malcolm X posited, was retribution for this. Malcolm X was assassinated less than two years later. His contemporaneous detractors similarly…

malcolm x

Malcolm X described John F. Kennedy’s assassination as “the chickens coming home to roost”. During his presidency, Kennedy had failed to effect meaningful change to advance the civil rights of African Americans and his death, Malcolm X posited, was retribution for this. Malcolm X was assassinated less than two years later. His contemporaneous detractors similarly described his murder as the chickens coming home to roost, a consequence of his polarising views and outspoken nature.

2015 marks 50 years since Malcolm X’s assassination, but his words and actions haven’t remained confined to his context; they still endow thousands worldwide with empowerment and solace. This milestone begs the question: have we made proud strides towards equality and justice for people of colour, or are we disoriented and apathetic, meandering lazily towards the intangible ideal of a post-racial society?

There was a false dichotomy established between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King: the former was considered “violent” and the latter “peaceful”. While the reality of the situation was much more nuanced, the two giants of the civil rights movement pursued starkly different methods to achieve the same objective. Malcolm X’s belief that “white people are devils” and his partiality for segregation were views he abandoned in the final year of his life. One idea, however, remained constant: Malcolm X believed that African Americans should aim to achieve and defend justice and equality “by any means necessary”. Of course, because of his socio-historical context, much of Malcolm X’s activism pertained predominantly to African Americans, but the frustrating universality of racism provides his views with broader relevance to people of colour internationally.

The death of US teenager Michael Brown just over a year ago elucidates how communities (in this case the Missouri city of Ferguson) can unite to achieve justice by any means necessary. After Brown’s death, the African American community protested to express their disapproval of an unashamedly racist police force and the inescapability of systemic racism.

I vividly recall arguing with somebody on Facebook shortly after the riots began. They commented on a post a less articulate version of “this is why black people are getting killed; it’s because they act like this”. I replied with something to the effect of “it’s their way of being heard. People of colour often don’t have the systemic privilege to create change in other ways” (admittedly, though, I was a little less civil—was I channelling my inner Malcolm X, who insisted “when people get angry, they bring about a change”?).

Both Ferguson’s riots and my subsequent Facebook argument illustrate a broader issue: as people of colour, we are inherently perceived through a lens obscured by whiteness. Accordingly, any attempts at resisting racism in a manner that isn’t underpinned by pacifism and harmony run the risk of our vilification. Sadly, this vilification can run counter to the change desired. This was emphasised in Ferguson, where inevitably, ‘angry’ people of colour were presented as primitive, uncivilised, and wild.

The issue is not unique to the US, though. The recent Reclaim Australia rallies were (rightfully and thankfully) answered with counter rallies more abundant in number and void of discriminatory hatred. However, while both rallies were violent, various media outlets depicted only the counter rallies as such. Malcolm X implied the possibility of this by arguing that the media “have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent”. It is in the best interests of the white supremacist system to vilify and silence people of colour to maintain the status quo. If this is how a broad coalition of anti-racist protesters are treated and presented, it’s harrowing to imagine the treatment of an autonomous group of people of colour acting in similar ways. The treatment of Ferguson’s protesters and anti-Reclaim Australia protesters both indicate the difficulty of striving to achieve justice by any means necessary while still being heard and not simply being written off as aggressive, primitive racial “others”.

Contemporarily, metaracism (or systemic racism) is the most potent type of racism. This is punctuated with occasional examples of dominative (or blatant) racism, including Ferguson’s protests and the Reclaim Australia rallies. The decline in dominative racism parallels the decline in the perceived necessity of figures like Malcolm X and, by extension, his ideologies.

This decline doesn’t necessarily translate into the notion that Malcolm X’s views have no place in modern Australia. Importantly, the capacity for peaceful and harmonious collaboration to create change (while inarguably legitimate) is limited. In the words of Malcolm X, “if you want something, you had better make some noise”. By the same token, this decline may be indicative of ineffectiveness. Malcolm X’s claim that “non-violence is the philosophy of a fool” does not carry unfettered weight.

It is fundamentally important to avoid dismissing Malcolm X as an angry, hypermasculine black man with a predilection for violence and aggression. Not only is it a vastly inaccurate representation, but it neglects other salient aspects of his activism. He was almost prophetic in his assessment of governments. He reminded the American public that “America preache[d] freedom and practice[d] slavery” in the same way that Australia now preaches multiculturalism and racial acceptance, but practises exclusionism, xenophobia, and toys with the repeal of a section of the Racial Discrimination Act.

He was supremely intelligent; he repositioned the fight for the rights of minority groups from a domestic context to an international one, arguing that black rights equalled human rights. His influence has not evaporated.

There will always remain numerous responses to racism. Peace and violence are purportedly opposite approaches, but equality and justice are the shared goals. Malcolm X’s most resonant avowal was perhaps that “a man who stands for nothing will fall for anything”. In 2015 Australia, it’s important that we heed this advice: shackled to a system necessarily characterised by white supremacy and in the face of a draconian government, people of colour need to stand for something. We need to stand for justice and equality. We need to be able to do this by any means necessary.