Noel Ignatiev, 78, Persistent Voice Against White Privilege, Dies


“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 Dr. Ignatiev would explore more fully in the 1990s.

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