Born in 1940 to working-class Jewish parents who had immigrated to the U.S. from Russia, Noel Ignatiev was raised in Philadelphia and attended the University of Pennsylvania for three years without graduating.
In January 1958, Ignatiev, under the name Noel Ignatin, joined the the Communist Party USA‘s (CPUSA’s) “ultra Left” Marxist-Leninist Caucus, making him a third-generation communist in his family. Out of that Caucus grew a faction called the Provisional Organizing Committee To Reconstitute The Marxist-Leninist Communist Party. Ignatiev remained associated with this Committee until 1966, at which point he was expelled because, by his own telling, his independence of mind vexed the leaders of “that cultish environment.”
Also in the 1960s, Ignatiev joined the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In 1967 he and fellow CPUSA member Theodore Allen co-authored The White Blindspot, a pamphlet arguing that “white supremacy and … white skin privilege” had historically blinded white workers to the importance of allying themselves with blacks in a united revolutionary force dedicated to overthrowing capitalism. As such, said the authors, the privileges that whites enjoyed were in reality a “bourgeois poison” that was “ruinous” to the “working class.”
The White Blindspot had a significant influence on activists and young radicals within the emerging New Left, most notably members of SDS, whose National Office called for a full frontal assault on “white skin privileges.” When SDS dissolved, Ignatiev joined the New Communist Movement and in 1970 helped form the Sojourner Truth Organization—the latter of which claimed that America’s “white-skin-privilege system” conferred “a favored status on the white sector of the proletariat.”
From the early 1960s through the early 1980s, Ignatiev worked at a Chicago steel mill and factories that manufactured farm equipment and electrical parts. At the mill, he helped the predominantly black workforce organize strikes and protests. In 1983 he was arrested for throwing a paint bomb at a strike-breaker’s car, and the following year he was laid off from his job at the mill. Also during the early ’80s, Ignatiev helped lead Marxist discussion groups. Though he held no undergraduate degree, in 1985 he was accepted to the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he went on to earn a master’s degree.
From 1988-92, Ignatiev served as a full-time tutor/academic advisor for residents of Harvard University’s Dunster House dormitory. In early 1992 he objected to the University’s purchase, for the Dunster House dining hall, of a toaster oven that would be designated for kosher use only. Ignatiev maintained that cooking utensils with restricted use should be paid for by private funds. According to Dunster co-master Hetty Liem, Ignatiev, in his effort to “impress his own beliefs on others” and to “single-handedly and unilaterally demand reversal of a house policy,” had failed “to foster a sense of community and tolerance and to serve as a role model for the students.” Consequently, Dunster House elected not to renew Ignatiev’s contract for 1993.
Ignatiev thereafter became a lecturer at Harvard and in 1994 earned a doctorate in U.S. history. He also became a Fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute, a leading Black Studies department. His dissertation, titled How the Irish Became White, told how Irish immigrants came to the United States and gradually morphed into “oppressors” by emulating American whites. “Every group within white America,” Ignatiev said in 2002, has at one time or another “advanced its particular and narrowly defined interests at the expense of black people as a race.”
In 1992 Ignatiev founded the (now-defunct) periodical Race Traitor: Journal of the New Abolitionism, to promote the idea that “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” Defining the white race as “a historically constructed social formation” consisting of “all those who partake of the privileges” associated with being white, Race Traitor held that “the key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race, which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the white skin.” This does “not mean we want to exterminate people with fair skin,” the journal emphasized, but rather “that we want to do away with the social meaning of skin color, thereby abolishing the white race as a social category.”
Further clarifying the long-term goals of Race Traitor, Ignatiev — in an April 1997 speech at a UC Berkeley conference titled “The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness” — explained that white skin privilege derives from the fact that “the United States, like every capitalist society, is composed of masters and slaves.” The latter were not only blacks, he said, but poor people of all colors exploited by wealthy whites. His goal, therefore, was to promote “not racial harmony but class war,” so as to “undermine the main pillar of capitalist rule in this country.”
Viewing the white race as morally defective and in need of wholesale transformation, Ignatiev in the same speech maintained that “white people must commit suicide as whites in order to come alive as workers, or youth, or women, or whatever other identity can induce them to change from the miserable, petulant, subordinated creatures they now are into freely associated, fully developed human subjects.” “The white race is a club,” he said. “Certain people are enrolled in it at birth, without their consent, and brought up according to its rules. For the most part they go through life accepting the privileges of membership, without reflecting on the costs.”
Some additional key excerpts from Ignatiev’s 1997 speech:
Charging also that “the police and courts … define black people as a criminal class,” Ignatiev said in the same 1997 speech: “[T]he cops look at a person and then decide on the basis of color whether that person is loyal to the system they are sworn to serve and protect. They don’t stop to think if the black person whose head they are whipping is an enemy; they assume it…. On the other hand, the cops don’t know for sure if the white person to whom they give a break is loyal to them; they assume it.”
A New York Times interviewer asked Ignatiev in 1997: “You’re white. Do you hate your own hide?” Ignatiev replied; “No, but I want to abolish the privileges of the white skin. The white race is like a private club based on one huge assumption: that all those who look white are, whatever their complaints or reservations, fundamentally loyal to the race. We want to dissolve the club, to explode it.” The same interviewer then asked Ignatiev, “What can a white person do to explode the club?” Ignatiev answered: “Be reverse Oreos. Defy the rules of whiteness — flagrantly, publicly. When someone makes a racial slur in your presence, say, ‘You probably think I’m white because I look white.’ Challenge behaviors that reproduce race distinctions.”
In 2002 Ignatiev vowed to “keep bashing the dead white males, and the live ones, and the females, too, until the social construct known as ‘the white race’ is destroyed—not ‘deconstructed’, but destroyed.”
“Abolishing the white race” is “so desirable,” Ignatiev emphasizes, that he finds it “hard to believe” that anyone other than “committed white supremacists” would oppose such an undertaking.
But in Ignatiev’s calculus, “white” signifies not a color, but a political and ideological orientation. “’White’ does not mean white,” he argues. “’White’ in radical parlance means anyone of any race, creed, nationality, color, sex, or sexual preference who embraces capitalism, free markets, limited government, and American traditional culture and values.” As Gary Gindler once put it in the American Thinker: “According to Ignatiev, ‘black’ is not the level of pigment in the skin, but the level of adherence to the Marxist doctrine.”
In 2004 Ignatiev depicted Israel as a “racial state, where rights are assigned on the basis of ascribed descent or the approval of the superior race”; he likened it to Nazi Germany, the pre-civil-rights American South, and apartheid South Africa.
In 2008 the American Jewish Committee objected to an article on Zionism that Ignatiev had written for The Encyclopedia of Race and Racism. Therein—contrary to the most reliable scholarship on the subject—Ignatiev accused Israel of having perpetrated a 1948 “massacre” against Palestinian civilians in Deir Yassin. He also charged that the Jewish state had: (a) sanctioned “the destruction by the Zionists of nearly 400 Arab villages” that same year; (b) caused “more than 750,000 Arabs [to be] driven from their homes” after the creation of Israel; (c) unjustifiably “refused” to abide by UN demands that Palestinian refugees “be allowed to return”; and (d) consistently discriminated against Palestinians in every facet of life including housing, education, employment, politics, and criminal justice. Ultimately the Encyclopedia’s publisher, on the advice of an independent committee which it had assigned to investigate “the factual accuracy” of Ignatiev’s article, decided to eliminate the piece.
Ignatiev died of an intestinal infarction on November 9, 2019, in Tucson, Arizona.