[Marxism] NY Times: Noel Ignatiev, 78, Persistent Voice Against White Privilege, Dies

Alan Ginsberg ginsberg.alan1 at gmail.com
Thu Nov 14 19:59:49 MST 2019

In the journal Race Traitor and in a provocative book, Dr. Ignatiev argued
that the white race should, in a sense, be abolished.

By Neil Genzlinger

Nov. 14, 2019

Noel Ignatiev, a provocative scholar who argued that the idea of a white
race is a false construct that society would be better off without, died on
Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., where he was visiting a family member. He was 78.

His son, John, said the cause was complications of a chronic illness.

Dr. Ignatiev — who came to the academic world after two decades as a
factory worker — made a splash in 1995 with his book “How the Irish Became
White,” which looked at the assimilation of the Irish Catholics who
emigrated to the United States in the 1800s. Ill treated in their home
country, they started out at the bottom of the economic ladder in the
United States as well, competing with free black laborers for the worst
jobs in the North and, in the South, being relegated to work deemed too
dangerous to risk the life of a valuable slave.

“This book looks at how one group of people became white,” Dr. Ignatiev
wrote in the introduction. “Put another way, it asks how the Catholic
Irish, an oppressed race in Ireland, became part of an oppressing race in

Beneath the case study was an idea that Dr. Ignatiev had long been
exploring, including in Race Traitor, a journal that he and John Garvey
founded in 1992. The publication’s aim, Dr. Ignatiev once put it, was “to
explore how people who had been brought up as white might become unwhite” —
that is, renounce the privileges that came with the label “white,” like
favored access to good jobs and neighborhoods.

“How the Irish Became White” is among a group of books that have been
to what became known as whiteness studies, a field that examines the
structures that produce white privilege.

“Many academics today study whiteness,” Adam Sabra, a history professor at
the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a longtime friend, said by
email. “Noel Ignatiev wanted to abolish it.”

But, as Dr. Ignatiev always felt compelled to point out, he was not
advocating some sort of mass extermination, just a change in presumptions.

“There is youth culture and drug culture and queer culture; but there is no
such thing as white culture,” Dr. Ignatiev said at a 1997 conference at the
University of California, Berkeley. “Without the privileges attached to it,
the white race would not exist, and white skin would have no more social
significance than big feet.”

When interviewers would ask why he, a white man, was seeming to argue for
canceling his own race, he would rebel at the very label.

“That’s not a term I like to have applied to myself,” he told CNN in 2002.
“I want to get rid of it, because I think that the price that it extracts
from us is greater than the benefit it brings.”

Noel Saul Ignatin was born on Dec. 27, 1940, in Philadelphia. (John
Ignatiev said the family had changed its last name before his father was
born; his father, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia, changed
it back to something closer to the original name when he reached
adulthood.) His father, Irv, delivered newspapers, and his mother, Carrie,
was a homemaker; later they ran a housewares store together.

His parents, intellectuals despite their humble circumstances and
Communists, were committed to bridging the racial divide, something Noel
saw in practice when helping his father with his newspaper deliveries
before he went off to school.

“The route was in a mostly black neighborhood,” he said last month on the
podcast “It’s Going Down,” “My father used to say there was not another
white man in the city who could have handled it. Many of the customers
would stop and tell me what a fine man my father was.”

Dr. Ignatiev graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia and
attended the University of Pennsylvania, but after his third year there he
dropped out because, as he told The Boston Globe in 2000, the student life
felt sterile. He worked in steel mills and other factories, mostly in
Chicago, “while trying to promote a proletarian revolution,” his son said.
He rejected any opportunity to become a supervisor.

“I wanted to be a worker because I thought they had something to teach me,”
he told The Globe. “I gained an appreciation for their knowledge, sense of
realism and capabilities.”

He was involved in various leftist and revolutionary groups in this period,
including Students for a Democratic Society and the Sojourner Truth
Organization, which was focused on workplace issues and their relation to
race. In 1967 he and Ted Allen wrote an influential, much-reproduced paper,
“The White Blindspot,” which laid out many of the ideas that Dr. Ignatiev
would explore more fully in the 1990s.

After he was laid off from his mill job in 1984, Dr. Ignatiev applied to
the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University and, despite his
lack of an undergraduate degree, was accepted. He earned his master’s
degree there in 1985. He became a lecturer at Harvard while working toward
his Ph.D. in American studies, which he received in 1994.

He taught at several institutions over the years, including the
Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Dr. Ignatiev and Mr. Garvey continued to publish Race Traitor until 2005.
In 1996 they edited a book of essays from the journal, also called “Race
Traitor.” They called their approach “race treason” and on the journal used
the motto “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.”

“The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those
assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender or any
other interests they hold,” they wrote in the book. “The defection of
enough of its members to make it unreliable as a determinant of behavior
will set off tremors that will lead to its collapse.”

Dr. Ignatiev was probably not surprised that this had not yet happened.

“He would always say that all our efforts are failures until they’re not,”
Geert Dhondt, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal
Justice in New York, said in a telephone interview. He had worked with Dr.
Ignatiev on Hard Crackers, a journal that Dr. Ignatiev started in 2016.

Dr. Ignatiev lived in Connecticut at his death. In addition to his son, his
survivors include a brother, Wendell Ignatin; a sister, Amy Sanders; a
daughter, Rachel Edwards; and three grandchildren.

Just a month ago, Dr. Ignatiev began the “It’s Going Down” podcast by
introducing himself.

“I worked for 23 years in industry and for 33 years in the academy,” he
said, “while pursuing my real career as a revolutionary.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries Desk. Previously he was a
television, film and theater critic.


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