Lessons for the new Black freedom struggle

February 17, 2016

Socialist Worker contributor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's book takes up questions that are being posed anew in a new era of struggle. brian bean goes over the answers.

TWO AUGUSTS ago, the Black working-class residents of a previously unknown suburb of St. Louis took to the streets to demand justice. Since then, many hundreds of people have entered into struggle--and into a political awakening that has transformed America.

This isn't so much because the people of Ferguson, Missouri, decided to start protesting for justice for Mike Brown, but because they stood their ground and refused to stop protesting.

They stood against military-grade hardware, tanks, machine guns, tear gas and more when the police declared war on protesters. They came back day after day and night after night. They rebuilt memorial after memorial. And their struggle became an international rallying cry for anti-racist resistance. The protest chant heard in many cities tells it: "Mike Brown means...you got to fight back."

Police murdering innocent people in America--and especially innocent African American people--is unfortunately not an abnormal occurrence. But something elemental shifted with the resistance of Ferguson.

Chicagoans take the streets to declare that Black Lives Matter
Chicagoans take the streets to declare that Black Lives Matter

So why Ferguson? As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in her new book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation: "It is impossible to answer, and perhaps futile to ask, the question of 'why Ferguson,' just as it's impossible ever to accurately calculate when 'enough is enough.'"

What we do know is that in Ferguson, enough was enough. A limit was crossed, and that gave rise to the vibrant and long overdue national movement for Black Lives.

So where do we go from here? What do we fight for? How do we organize? What's the connection of this struggle to the goal of achieving Black liberation? These questions are emerging in the movement--and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's book makes an unparalleled contribution to putting forward answers to them.

Using the emergence of this new movement as a jumping-off point for examining the whole history of racism and anti-racism in the U.S., Taylor makes the case that the struggle for Black lives must connect with other day-to-day struggles and with a larger vision of a different world--one in which Black liberation is bound up with the project of human liberation and social transformation.

ENVISIONING THAT different world means having a clear picture of how racism in America is constructed, reproduced and deployed. As Taylor writes:

Racism in the United States has never just been about abusing Black and Brown people for its own sake. It has always been a means by which the most powerful white men in the country have justified their rule, made their money and kept the rest of us at bay. To that end, race, capitalism and class rule have always been tangled together in such a way that it is impossible to imagine the one without the other.

A proper understanding of this tangled knot of racism and class is important. Often, the two concepts are seen as existing separately, alongside each other and among other oppressions--the muck of ages that we fight against and aim to free ourselves from. The problem with this is that while it can describe the overlapping ways that oppression is experienced and lived, it doesn't explain why and how they are constructed, and thus how they can be changed.

Racism is required by capitalism to justify the existing order and flatten the contradiction between, for example, the "American Dream" and the American reality, which is more of a nightmare for African Americans. As Taylor insists, any view of U.S. history--and in particular the conditions that Blacks have faced during that history--must reach one of two conclusions: that there is something wrong with Black people and their community or there is something wrong with America.

Those who rule over this society have a clear interest in the majority of people thinking the problem is with Black people, rather than their system. Thus, racist ideology is used to obscure reality and tell an alternate story about why, for example, poverty exists. As Taylor documents, there has been a consistent and systematic attempt to prove the existence of a "culture of poverty" endemic to Black families--so the disproportionate misery experienced by Black America is explained not as the result of structural conditions, but as a natural state, weaknesses in Black culture and traditions, and so on.

FOR AS long as there has been racism and inequality, people have struggled against them. These struggles and movements--aimed at changing material conditions--are the reason that racist ideas and their hold in U.S. society have changed over time.

In the early chapters of the book, Taylor looks at the civil rights and Black Power movements to illustrate how they challenged racist assumptions and succeeded in improving conditions for people in the U.S.

The Johnson administration, faced with the threat of Black rebellion, was pressured to pass its "Great Society" programs that made up the core of the U.S. welfare state, among other policies. African Americans were the main beneficiaries, of course, but these movements achieved changes in policies and practices that improved the lives of all working people.

This rise of the Black rebellion, however, was met by a racist reaction, engineered by the political and economic elite of the U.S.

One element of the response was the ramping up of "law and order" rhetoric in order to channel more resources into better organized, centralized and "professionalized" police forces around the country. This was the beginning of the system of mass incarceration--the "New Jim Crow," in the words of author Michelle Alexander, to replace the old Jim Crow defeated by the civil rights movement.

The ideological justification for this was the fear-mongering about crime and criminals, where coded language sometimes substituted supposedly color-blind language for overt racist slurs. Under this guise, the economic gains--welfare, public housing, affirmative action and so on--won by the movements of the 1960s and early '70s were undermined ideologically, allowing political leaders to roll them back.

Also in this period, a new Black middle class arose--the prime beneficiaries of the gains won by the movements. Probably the most visible accomplishments of this class were the result of a strategy generally embraced by the left of pressing for gains within the U.S. political system, and especially influence within the Democratic Party.

The consequences of the rise of Black political power have led to the contradictions laid bare by the Baltimore rebellion of the spring of 2015, as Taylor explains: "When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aides in the mobilization of a military unit headed by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle."

The Black political establishment has demonstrated that it "has no fundamental differences with the status quo," Taylor writes. She demonstrates her point with a description of the development of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), which came to support policies and laws that expanded mass incarceration and dismantled the welfare state. It's no coincidence that the CBC's biggest corporate donor is Walmart, which also happens to be the largest employer in the country of Black people.

This contradiction must lead us to ask whose interests Black political leaders represent--and whether they can adequately fight on behalf of Black working-class people.

This is how Taylor explains one of the most profound polarizations in early 21st century America: The election of the first African American president in a country founded on slavery on the one hand--and deteriorating conditions for the majority of the Black population, on the other.

As she writes: "Not only did the Ferguson rebellion expose the racism and brutality of American policing, it also exposed Black elected officials inability to intervene effectively on behalf of poor and working-class African Americans."

THE RIGOR with which Taylor explains the political and historical context that forged the Movement for Black Lives is important. Maps that we use to chart a route for a journey are always drawn on the basis of the experience of past voyages.

Understanding the dynamics of racism and class in U.S. history is the only way to make sense of what has taken place in these past 17 months. Ferguson did not just "happen," but the people who--as the protest song goes--have found themselves in a struggle they can't leave aren't operating in in conditions of their choosing.

Taylor looks back at the summer of 2014, describing the mass protests in Ferguson and the courageous determination of those fighting for justice for Mike Brown. But she also traces the continuity with the eruption of anger around Trayvon Martin's murder in 2012--a prologue for today's movement and an essential preparatory moment that began to move various forces into alignment.

These new forces that came to the fore were largely made up of younger people--their newly formed organizations filled a void left open by an era of defeats and the disappointments and betrayals of the Democratic Party. Many of the most visible activists have been Black women and queer folks. This has contributed to an expanded understanding of state violence and its connections to a wider web on inequality.

In many ways, as Taylor points out, this represented a return to the questions grappled with by the Black freedom struggle in the past, including the systematic nature of Black oppression and how it relates to American capitalism.

This "new guard" of radicals found themselves vying for leadership with older organizations, such as Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. This was not purely a generational contest, but a battle over different political methods--one that prioritized influence and relationships with the establishment against one that concentrated on protest and grassroots organizing to build up power.

Needless to say, the "new guard" represents a revitalization of a Black radical tradition that connects the struggle against police violence to a questioning and challenging of "the system."

Naturally, the movement faces a number of challenges, and they are explored in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.

One such challenge is staving off the influence of NGOs and the grant-based approach to building organization. Taylor outlines how this focus places new movement organizations under the influence of charitable organizations, foundations and individual donors that will--because of what these funders represent--dampen the radical politics that have been developing in this new movement.

The strength of the movement will depend on groups that can serve as an entry point for the scores of ordinary people who want to be involved and have a say and a stake in the strategy, tactics and politics of the struggle, not on the development of professional "activist/experts."

Another challenge for the movement is demands. The lack of independent movement organization on a national level has meant that discussion and debate on this this issue has been muddled. Of course, the local iterations of the movement are involved in a whole host of campaigns around various demands--this is important. But still missing is a "mechanism for acting on any of these demands" on the national level, Taylor writes.

Any movement that wants to achieve its goals must develop the infrastructure to be able to decide what we want to focus our fight around. Otherwise, as Taylor concludes, we are left in a position of fighting around demands without clarifying the steps it will take to achieve that goal. "Demanding everything is as effective as demanding nothing," she writes.

THE NEW Black freedom struggle will certainly experience both advances and setbacks. Taylor situates this process in connection to the revitalization of the Black radical tradition's focus on the ties of racism to the functioning of the capitalist system.

The book opens with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., who--in contrast to the tame and false image of King today as more committed to nonviolence and moderation than determined struggle--praises the "rebellion" he saw around him. He concludes that:

the Black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws--racism, poverty, militarism and materialism. It is exposing the evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.

In the final--and absolutely brilliant--chapter of the book, Taylor argues that this "radical reconstruction" must be a struggle against capitalism and for revolutionary socialism. Clarity on the questions of what we mean by the "system" and what kind of "revolution" we desire is absolutely necessary. How will we know how to walk if we don't know which road to take?

Here, Taylor turns the mic over to King, Malcom X, the Black Panthers, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the Combahee River Collective and the Third World Women's Alliance, as well as the Communist Party in its early years and the socialists of the Russian Revolution, to demonstrate how all the conclusions of these different generations of radicals and revolutionaries could be summed in Malcolm X's famous phrase that "You can't have capitalism without racism." Socialist conclusions--either implicit or explicit--were dominant among all of these figures.

Taylor uses this history to challenge the commonly held misconception that the left and Marxism have been "white and class reductionist." How, Taylor asks, can we square the Black Panther Party becoming the model of radicalism for millions of African Americans--and viewed as the greatest threat to the U.S. government--if the revolutionary tradition of socialism and Marxism is alien to the Black community?

The revolutionary left today is small in general, and with less of a base proportionally among African Americans than at different points in the past. But understanding why this is the case requires understanding a long history, including the mass repression carried out particularly against the Black left in the 1960s and '70s, as well as the history of political debates and decisions of the left in the changing circumstances that followed the height of the movements.

Knowing our history is paramount to avoiding generalizations that would cut us off from a proud tradition of socialist and communist anti-racism that has been an absolutely essential part of the Black freedom struggle throughout its history.

And while committed anti-racist fighters should be socialists to be most effective, it is also the case that socialists, if they deserve to be called that, must be committed anti-racist fighters.

IT IS here that Taylor returns to the importance of seeing the connection between class and race. The U.S. working class consists of Black, Brown and white people, people of different nationalities, of all genders and sexual identities. But while wage slavery is the pivot around which all oppressions turn, understanding the construction of class in this country must include the fact that anti-Black racism was an essential tool in that construction. As Taylor writes:

To claim...that racism is a product of a capitalism is not to deny or diminish its centrality to or impact on American society, it is simply to explain its origins and persistence. Nor is this reducing racism to just a function of capitalism; it is locating the dynamic relationship between class exploitation and racial oppression in the functioning of American capitalism.

Race and class cannot be thought of as twins unless they are imagined as conjoined and sharing the same bleak beating heart.

It is with this in mind that Taylor takes up the question of solidarity. In order to unite the working class on the basis of its shared class and anti-racist interests, identifying our common struggle is important.

It is uncontestable and should never be forgotten that American capitalism leaves Black workers worse off than white workers. From poverty, to rates of incarceration, to police violence, to hunger and every measurable level, Blacks face worse conditions on every point.

But a careful look at these conditions shows that white workers have more in common with Black workers than with the majority white ruling class that rules over both populations.

Black people are overrepresented beneath the poverty line, but twice as many as whites as Blacks live in poverty. While mass incarceration is one of the defining features of institutional racism today--African Americans in the U.S. are imprisoned at the absurd rate of some 2,300 out of every 100,000--it is also the case that whites in the U.S. have a higher incarceration rate than almost any other country in the world, and the imprisoned are almost entirely working class and poor.

Making sense of this requires an understanding of how racism is used to divide those whose interests converge. While never underplaying the severity of oppression suffered by African Americans, socialists need to recognize and explain how working-class whites have a material interest in fighting racism, which is the basis of the potential for a united struggle. Because one section of the U.S. working class suffers worse discrimination and inequality, the whole working class endures worse conditions.

Thus, the role of white people in the anti-racist struggle is not to passively observe and, at best, merely reject the way racism supposedly benefits them, but to be a part of that struggle, because they, too, will benefit from the destruction of racism. The liberation of each is bound up with the liberation of all.

LIKE FREEDOM struggles of the past, the movement for Black Lives is exerting such a huge influence because of the centrality of anti-Black racism to the functioning of American capitalism. The fight to make Black Lives Matter is an absolutely critical battle that all workers must rally behind.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has written a book for everyone involved in that movement and beyond. Activists, radicals, students, workers--everyone should read this book and discuss what it can teach us about the lessons of the past and the struggles of the present.

As Taylor writes:

No one knows what stage the current movement is in or where it is headed. We are very early in the most current rendering of the Black awakening. But we do know that there will be relentless efforts to subvert, redirect and unravel the movement for Black lives, because when the Black movement goes into motion, it throws the entire mythology of the United States--freedom, democracy and endless opportunity--into chaos.

The stakes in this struggle are high and the forces we are up against are immense. We need to arm ourselves with a clear vision of a radical restructuring of society. From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation is a fantastic tool for that task--a book that is truly a weapon.

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