Socialists and the struggle to end racism

September 10, 2015

Because capitalism and racism are woven together, the fight against them must be, too. Alan Maass explains why socialists believe a united anti-racist movement is necessary.

THE ISSUES of racism, and especially racist police violence, are more central to the mainstream political discussion in the U.S. than in many years. Leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties, from the presidential hopefuls to officeholders at all levels, are being forced to say what they think about the defining slogan of the last year: Black Lives Matter.

The political elite, of course, deserve no credit for their "awakening." They are reacting to a popular uprising.

That uprising entered the national spotlight a year ago last month during the daily protests of Black residents of Ferguson, Missouri, after one of their children was shot down in the street. The echoes of Ferguson were heard around the country--which gave people in other cities more confidence to raise their voices.

But as wrote on the one-year anniversary of Mike Brown's murder, "[S]o much has changed--and not nearly enough has changed."

The epidemic of police murders reached a new high of 121 killed in July, according to the Guardian's feature "The Uncounted." That's one new victim every six hours--and the percentage of African Americans among them was even more lopsided than in previous months.

A Black Lives Matter demonstration takes the streets in Seattle

Among Republicans, Donald Trump isn't alone in attacking Black Lives Matter to whip up racist fear, and he's getting a hearing to judge from his continuing popularity. Meanwhile, leading Democrats had to be pressured for every grudging statement.

So it's understandable if people central to the struggle--who have done the hard work of organizing and mobilizing to make Black Lives Matter a household name--feel some pessimism at times. It may seem as if the most they can accomplish is to bear witness to the continuing crimes committed against Black America, without much hope that the majority of people in the U.S.--in particular, whites--will do more than take notice.

Not nearly enough has changed. But to reverse Socialist Worker's earlier statement, so much has changed--and the movement shouldn't forget the path it has traveled in the past year.

Far more important than the statements of mainstream political leaders is the general shift in consciousness indicated by opinion polls. Simultaneous surveys by the Pew Research Center and Washington Post/ABC News found that nearly two-thirds of people believe more needs to be done to address racial inequality--including a majority of whites, up from just over one-third a year ago.

This broader public shift is the main reason why it's no longer unheard of for a police officer to be charged for killing an unarmed Black person. Not nearly enough has changed--but some things have, or have started to, and it's important to think about why.

THE MOST important factor has been the determination of many thousands of people to be silent no more--to take to the streets and force people to pay attention to the daily repression and violence inflicted on African Americans.

No one who hears the courageous mothers of police murder victims, like Constance Malcolm in New York City or Jeralynn Blueford in Oakland, could fail to be moved by their testimony, unless they are ideologically committed to defending racism and police power.

So there is a moral factor in the positive response to Black Lives Matter--but not only that. The experience of racist police abuse and violence is specific to African American communities in all the ways that the movement has emphasized--but the experience of injustice, inequality and arbitrary repression is not.

For the past year, in response to previous articles about awful working conditions at United Parcel Service (UPS), has been receiving a stream of contributions from former and current UPS workers, describing what it's like to face the tyranny of supervisors and management who rule over the workforce with an iron fist.

In most cases, we don't know whether the writers are white or Black or Latino or any number of other identities. But we do know that their stories depict a company that sacrifices the rights, the health, the well-being, certainly the happiness, and sometimes even the lives of its workers, all to keep profits rolling in.

This doesn't mean a white UPS worker knows what it is like to be racially profiled or to endure the particular form of discrimination that African Americans face from the injustice system. But they might understand what it's like to be the victim of unaccountable authority, wielded in the name of a faceless, biased institution.

There are any number of other connecting threads in the spider's web of oppression and injustice under capitalism.

Think about the experiences of working-class families of all races with the American health care system--they bear more and more of the cost, but at the same time are more and more subject to the arbitrary decisions of private insurance companies whose top priority is the bottom line. Wouldn't these families, whatever their race, be more likely to identify with the Black residents of Ferguson getting ripped off by a local government that cynically traps them in debt for minor traffic and other violations to increase municipal revenues?

THESE CONNECTING threads are how working class people experience an underlying reality that is central to what socialists say about the world--that capitalism and racism are woven together. One cannot exist without the other, and so the struggle against each one depends on a struggle against both together.

For Black lives to truly matter, as today's movement demands, the most basic structures of ruling class power in capitalist society--starting with the racist police and the injustice system, but not stopping there--need to be uprooted and completely transformed.

We can win steps in the direction of a more just society--this is certainly a valuable struggle. But we can't achieve the end goal of making Black lives matter under an economic system where a private corporation like UPS has unaccountable power over those who work for it. By the same token, a socialist society of equality and democracy can't be achieved if any part of the working class is less than equal and subjected to oppression.

The point is made by the old labor movement slogan: An injury to one is an injury to all. And the reverse is also true: Each victory in putting right an injury to one is a victory for all.

Again, this is not merely a moral question. The effects of systemic racism against African Americans are felt immediately and profoundly by African Americans--but racism also harms white workers in measureable ways.

The most commonly used example is that a disunited working class, divided by racism, is weaker and can be paid less all around. To this day, the Southern states where slavery and then Jim Crow segregation once reigned have lower unionization rates and lower incomes for all working-class families.

There are social and political examples as well. One of the central symbols of institutional racism today is what author Michelle Alexander calls "the New Jim Crow"--the era of mass incarceration that has spanned the turn of the 21st century. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2013, for every 100,000 Black men in the U.S. population, 2,805 were in prison or jail--nearly 3 percent.

The comparable statistic for white men was 466 out of every 100,000 in the population. That's much lower than the obscenely high incarceration rate for African Americans. But it's around five times higher than the rate of imprisonment for all races before 1975.

In other words, the era of mass incarceration has had a definite negative effect on conditions for white workers and the poor. The net that ensnared African Americans most of all has also trapped significant numbers of whites.

In general, racism has been the sharp edge of the overall attack on working class living standards throughout this period. So, for example, when Republican President Ronald Reagan began the attack on "big government" social programs, he used racist stereotypes about African American "welfare queens" living the good life off the welfare system--even though, then and now, a majority of recipients of the programs he wanted to cut is white.

So the working class as a whole would be better off today if the racism of the Republican assault--adopted by the Democrats, too, by the way--had been successfully confronted in the 1980s.

TO ACKNOWLEDGE an interrelationship of the oppression of the working class as a whole and the special oppression suffered uniquely by African Americans is not to deny or downplay the hold of racism on white workers--the extent to which working class whites buy into stereotypes and lies, rather than embracing their class interest in a united challenge against a racist system.

This isn't just a matter of ruling class propaganda. There is a material reason that such propaganda, however vile and transparently cynical, gains its hold: capitalist competition.

Workers are subjected to the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism far more than the capitalists who claim to cherish an unregulated free market. When the biggest banks and corporations teetered on the edge of collapse a few years ago, there were billions upon billions in various forms of corporate welfare to save them--the "too big to fail" banks had trillions placed at their disposal.

But when it comes to money for schools or housing, or for assistance for the jobless--even for the Social Security retirement system and the hard-earned pensions of public-sector workers--the government pleads poverty, and corporate interests demand "austerity."

Whether it's a job or promotion at work, or funding for government social programs, or an anti-racist initiative to right historic wrongs, workers are pitted against each other--and race has always been the ruling class's most effective tool for this task. As the abolitionist Frederick Douglass famously put it, "They divided both to conquer each."

So how will backward ideas that take root because of the dynamic of capitalist competition ever change?

The socialist answer to this question is that the struggles of the working class teach the opposite of competition--they teach solidarity. Exploitation and oppression push workers into conflict with the rulers of society and the institutions they control. Any successful resistance requires that workers not stand alone. So built into any economic, political and social struggle, even modest ones, is a counter-logic contrary to competition and division.

But it isn't certain that the logic of solidarity will prevail over the logic of competition. If racism or sexism or bigotry goes unchallenged, struggles or movements will be weakened, and more easily defeated. So socialists don't wait for successful struggles to illustrate the necessity of a united working-class movement. We understand that whether struggles succeed or fail often depends on a battle to achieve unity by challenging the divisions among workers.

In the early days when the Russian socialist movement was taking shape, Lenin wrote powerfully against a narrow idea that socialists needed to involve themselves in purely economic struggles. In What Is to Be Done? he wrote:

Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected--unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic point of view and no other...

When we do that (and we must and can do it), the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life. Feeling that, he himself will be filled with an irresistible desire to react, and he will know how to hoot the censors one day, on another day to demonstrate outside the house of a governor who has brutally suppressed a peasant uprising, on still another day to teach a lesson to the gendarmes in surplices who are doing the work of the Holy Inquisition, etc.

This commitment to struggle against all forms of oppression--to prove in practice that socialists want to achieve the liberation of all humanity because socialism is impossible if any instance of oppression goes unchallenged--was crucial to the success of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The high points of working class history that give a glimpse of what a future socialist society might be like are also the moments that inspire our hope for a society without racism or any other form of oppression.

And after 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks had the opportunity to shape revolutionary socialist parties and organizations around the world, they drew on their own experiences in challenging the web of oppressions under Russian Tsarism when they insisted that revolutionaries in the U.S. must put the fight against racism at the center of their activity. As Todd Chretien wrote for

There was nothing automatic about this development. It had to be fought out, but fought out it was. The revolutionizing of the American socialism movement in the 1920s changed the way that generations of Black and white revolutionaries understood the relation between socialism and Black liberation.

THERE IS a myth about Marxism that socialists think the class struggle will lead inevitably to struggles against oppression. We know very well, in fact, that history has often run in the other direction--social struggles, initiated around demands that affect specific sections of the working class, often organized at first by small numbers, detonated other struggles.

The most important political upsurge in the U.S. in the three-quarters of a century since the end of the 1930s has been the Black freedom struggle--its civil rights phase in the 1950s and early 1960s, followed by the Black Power struggle of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For historical reasons, these struggles were initiated and led by Black individuals and organizations. The multiracial socialist left that had led the struggles of the 1930s was decimated by McCarthyism and corrupted by the politics of the Stalinist counterrevolution that reversed the achievements of the Russian Revolution. So the first steps of the civil rights movement were taken by African Americans who were often influenced by these ideas, but not organizationally connected to them.

But one of the many achievements of the Black freedom struggle was to revive the socialist left and the wider working class movement. The first leaders of the anti-Vietnam War struggle on college campuses were trained by their experiences in the civil rights struggles in the South--so were those who began the women's liberation movement. Even more importantly, the working class upsurge that peaked in the early 1970s followed the example of radical Black workers, organizing against both exploitation and racial oppression in the auto factories and other workplaces.

The class struggle in the U.S., the labor movement, the American left--all were fundamentally re-formed and reshaped by the example of the struggle against racism and for Black liberation.

So the priority that a group like the International Socialist Organization places on the anti-racist movement is no surprise. Not only are ISO members involved in anti-racist organizing everywhere they can be, but they are devoted--no matter whether they are Black or not--to educating themselves about the history and politics of that struggle, in order to learn its lessons and apply them today.

History has taught us that the future of the left and the hope of attaining socialism are tied up with the Black struggle. C.L.R. James, the Trinidad-born socialist active in the U.S. in the 1930s and '40s, explained why in an 1948 speech to a group of U.S. socialists:

We say, number one, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.

We say, number two, that this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.

We say, number three, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.

It is a testament to James' understanding of Marxism and its commitment to the struggle against oppression that this speech--given as the era of McCarthyite reaction was underway--perfectly predicted the rise of the civil rights and Black Power struggles, and their extraordinary effect on the class struggle, in the U.S. and internationally.

James' words echo through to today. The eruption of Black Lives Matter has exposed for all to see the reality of racist barbarism in a supposedly "post-racial" society. And it has already helped shape a new radicalization and a new left that will fight the future struggles for justice.

Thanks to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor for sharing a draft of her soon-to-come book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.

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