February 2008   

What “Post-Racial” America?

Barack Obama vs. Black Liberation

Ruling class used flag-waving inaugural for new imperialist chief Obama to claim that racism has
been overcome in U.S. But racial oppression is in DNA of American capitalism. (Photo: Lydia Bullock/Flickr

For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

Barack Obama, the new commander in chief of U.S. imperialism.
(Photo: Pablo Martínez Monsiváis/AP)

The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States was widely hailed as the culmination of the Civil Rights movement. On election night in Harlem, New York’s first (and so far only) black mayor, David Dinkins, declared, “We’re all drinking out of the same fountain now,” as if segregation were a thing of the past. But racist discrimination and oppression are woven into the fabric of American capitalism. Black equality is a dream that is far from being realized while schools around the country are as racially segregated as ever – and in New York City, more so. Racist police brutality is ever-present: witness the New Year’s cop execution of Oscar Grant in a rapid transit station in Oakland, California before scores of witnesses. Obama’s campaign was based on the illusion that the United States had moved “beyond race.” In his inaugural address, he never mentioned race, integration, civil rights, Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King. The day before, January 19, was MLK Day, a holiday that was bitterly opposed by racists. Yet the president-elect ostentatiously did nothing that recalled the struggle for civil rights, instead highlighting “service” and support for the military.

Although Washington, D.C. has had a black majority for decades (part of the reason it has no votes in Congress), the center of power stretching from Capitol Hill to the White House and State Department is the preserve of white politicians and their retinues. On January 20, however, hundreds of thousands of black people flooded into the area, joining with whites in celebrating Obama’s swearing-in as president. Veterans of the Civil Rights movement and black teenagers shared a feeling of pride and accomplishment. Many felt the last color bar had been broken. Older Washingtonians recalled the separate drinking fountains and lavatories, the “whites only” swimming pools, the segregated schools – and now there’s a black president in the White House. Along with all the Obama kitsch, there were ubiquitous photos of the First Family to be hung in homes around the country. But what was jarring was how the ruling class used the occasion to claim that this proves that racism in the United States has been overcome. Don’t believe it. It goes far deeper than legal discrimination – racial oppression is inscribed in the DNA of American capitalism. It will take a revolution to do away with this scourge.

The election of Barack Obama was proclaimed “historic” and even “transformative” by virtually the entire American political spectrum, suggesting that it would fundamentally alter the shape of U.S. politics. Liberals and conservatives, as well as self-proclaimed socialists and outright reactionaries sang from the same hymnal. The Wall Street Journal (5 November 2008) headlined: “Obama Sweeps to Historic Victory; Nation Elects Its First African-American President Amid Record Turnout.” John McCain, the defeated Republican, chimed in: “This is a historic election, and I recognize the significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight,” he said, adding that “we have come a long way from the injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation.” There were only scattered boos from unreconstructed racists in the crowd. The same tone of self-congratulation marked the inauguration. Yet the injustices are not only a matter of past history. The white racist vote was strong as ever in its redoubts, and there were a number of racist threats and attacks during and after the election, which were largely hushed up by the media.

Segregated drinking fountain outside county courthouse, Halifax, North Carolina, 1938. (Photo: Library of Congress)

There were blatant appeals to racism both in the primary and general elections. Hillary Clinton’s appeal for votes on the grounds that “Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening,” was unmistakable. At rallies of the Republican McCain/Palin ticket, Obama was called Arab, Muslim, traitor, terrorist, friend of terrorists, not a real American or more generally, “not one of us.” In the coded language of racism, when speakers labeled him “elitist,” they were saying “uppity.” In the weeks before the presidential vote, many blacks worried that their votes would not be counted. Ultimately, Obama got a higher percentage of white votes nationally than either of the previous two Democratic candidates (John Kerry and Al Gore), but the Democrats have not won a majority among whites since Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The Republicans picked up the Dixiecrats with Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” And while Obama took North Carolina and Virginia, the Bible Belt, that hard core of Southern white racism, went more heavily Republican than in 2004. In Mississippi and Alabama, 88 percent of whites voted Republican.

Then there were the racist attacks and threats. The one case that was widely reported was that of two young Nazi skinheads in Tennessee who were arrested by federal agents a week before the election. They had plans for a killing spree to single out black school children, “killing 88 people and beheading 14 African-Americans” before assassinating Obama, according to the feds’ affidavit. Following the election, authorities said Obama received more threats than any other president-elect. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported “hundreds” of racist incidents. There were graffiti at North Carolina State University calling to “shoot that ... in the head,” elementary students on a school bus in Idaho chanting “assassinate Obama,” swastikas, racial slurs and “Go back to Africa” spray-painted on sidewalks, houses and cars in the Los Angeles area, crosses burned in yards of Obama supporters in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In Maine a general store held an “Osama Obama Shotgun Pool” where customers could bet a dollar on the date he would be killed, saying “stabbing, shooting, roadside bombs, they all count,” and adding: “Let’s hope someone wins” (AP dispatch, 16 November 2008).

Nazi skinhead arrested in Tennessee last October in plot to assassinate Barack Obama and kill black school children. (Photo: Associated Press)

These incidents didn’t just take place in Southern backwaters or rural areas where “white power” fascists prowl. In the town of Mastic on Long Island, New York, two dozen cars were sprayed with messages against the president-elect, including “Kill Obama.” On the day before the election, Ku Klux Klan literature was distributed in neighborhoods in Islip, L.I. And in nearby Patchogue, three days after the election, Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant, was murdered by a lynch mob. Moreover, on Staten Island in New York City, on election night a racist gang went cruising through a black neighborhood, using a pipe and police baton to beat a black man, send a black teenager to a hospital, threaten a Hispanic man and a group of blacks celebrating Obama’s victory, and ram a white man with their car thinking he was black. This was silenced in the major media until two months later, when the police made arrests in the case. The brutal fact is that virulent racism is present all over the United States. The issue is: what will it take to put an end to it?

Black struggle in the 1950s and early ‘60s focused on demands for legal rights, and then led to upheavals in the northern ghettos where the black poor were just as oppressed as they were before the Civil Rights movement. Racist police brutality was rampant, black struggles for school integration and open housing were met with mob violence. In Chicago, where outright fascists mounted violent attacks on a 1966 march led by Martin Luther King against segregation in Cicero, it was axiomatic that “urban renewal means Negro removal.” Today, “school reform,” designed by leading Chicago corporations and administered by Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan, goes hand-in-hand with “gentrification” as whites move into formerly black neighborhoods. In New York, police murder African immigrant Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 shots in 1999; in 2006, a young black man, Sean Bell, is cut down by 50 NYPD bullets. In both cases, the killer cops walk. Now Obama tells blacks they must “respect” the verdict of the racist, capitalist court. Is this “change we can believe in”? Hardly. A “post-racial” America? No way.

Obama’s “Color-Blind” Campaign Conciliates Racists

The message of Obama and the Democratic Party political operatives who shaped his election campaign was to ignore wherever possible and downplay the issue of race, and above all to stay away from any mention of struggle against racism. Hillary Clinton and the Republicans latched onto statements by Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose cardinal sin was to say that the U.S. itself practiced and supported terrorism. In a sermon after the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Wright told his congregation:

“We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye.... We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans, and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought right back to our own front yards. America’s chickens are coming home to roost.”

What Rev. Wright said is the plain truth, and his “chickens coming home to roost” is exactly what Malcolm X said about the John F. Kennedy assassination. (Not long after, Malcolm himself was assassinated.) But under fire from the racists, Barack Obama denounced his former pastor, calling his remarks “divisive,” in a March 18 speech in Philadelphia on the issue of race that was widely hailed in the bourgeois media. Obama’s appeal for “reconciliation over rancor,” as one commentator put it, in fact conciliated the racists.

Obama repudiated Rev. Jeremiah Wright for telling it like it is. Speaking here at National Press Club, 28 April 2008. (Photo: talkradionews)

The Democratic candidate said that Rev. Wright’s statements “expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.” Obama’s statement here was nothing less than a loyalty oath to U.S. imperialism and support for its wars to terrorize the world into submission. He also showed “understanding” for the racist fears of whites “when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced....” But white opposition to school integration through busing, to affirmative action in response to centuries of exclusion, and white hysteria over “urban crime” are in fact expressions of deep-rooted prejudice that must be rooted out.

The fact that Obama would not touch issues of racial oppression with a ten-foot pole did not go unnoticed by blacks or whites. It goes so far that he is reticent to even pronounce Martin Luther King’s name on a national stage (some hoped for a mention in the inaugural address, but were disappointed). Clearly, he and his political advisors have made a decision to stay away from any hint of black struggle in order to raise the “comfort level” with white voters. Obama explains this by saying he “stands on the shoulders” of those who marched for civil rights, whom he and others have taken to calling the “Moses generation,” that stood up to the Pharoah and led their people out of bondage. Now, they say, the torch has passed to the “Joshua generation” who will lead their people into the promised land. Having supposedly arrived there, blacks are being told to be patient. Popular radio and TV talk-show host Michael Baisden has been telling his listeners to rein in their wish lists. Allison Samuels wrote in Newsweek (2 February):

“Now that President Obama is a reality, we have to confront a whole new kind of calculus.... Obama faces two international wars and the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, with job losses that soar by the week. With desperation, Americans of all races and backgrounds are counting on him to solve their problems. Depending on our expectations, African-Americans may be in for a stinging reality check.

“Though Obama never promised us anything specific, we just assumed that because he’s African-American, he will put our interests near the top of his agenda.... We all understand that Obama can’t change the world in the first day—or even the first 100. We can be patient.”

Yet patience will not bring freedom any closer, not for black people nor any other sector of the oppressed. Frederick Douglas’ saying still holds true today, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will.” Gains won through struggle can also be taken back so long as social, economic and political power remains in the hands of capital. Moreover, the democratic rights won by the Civil Rights movement never addressed the situation of black people in the Northern ghettos, whose oppression is rooted not in legal discrimination but in the capitalist economy, where they have historically been “last hired and first fired,” where housing discrimination was through “red-lining” by real estate interests, where school segregation was based on residence not legal prohibitions. “Racial profiling” and racist police brutality against blacks has not changed a bit even though over the last three decades there have been black mayors of just about every large city in the U.S. and there are tens of thousands of black and Latino cops. It is the system that produces black oppression, not the personnel.

Beginning in the late 1960s, there has been a considerable increase in the number of black elected officials: from under 1,500 in 1970, it grew to over 9,500 in 2006, with 40 members of Congress. But installing black officials won’t change the racist nature of American capitalism, any more than having Colin Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  or Powell and then Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state under Bush made the U.S. any less imperialist. As Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther and renowned radical journalist on Pennsylvania’s death row for the last quarter century, noted (“The Perils of Black Political Power,” 16 August 2008), when black Democrat Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1967, one of his first acts was to hire black general Benjamin O. Davis, just back from Vietnam, as director of public safety. Davis ordered 30,000 dum-dum (hollow point) bullets and cracked down on the Black Panther Party. Mumia’s conclusion: “Black faces in high places does not freedom make.”

NYC Mayor David Dinkins (“they’ll take it from me”), left, with Gen. Colin Powell at Yankee Stadium, 15 April 1991, shortly after Persian Gulf War. Under Powell's command, U.S. troops buried Iraqis alive. (Photo: New York City)

In fact, black mayors have often been brought in just when the rulers decided to impose anti-working class austerity measures on the poor, black and working-class population. When David Dinkins was running for NYC mayor in the fall of 1989, he told his big money backers, “it may well be that I’ll have to tell some of my friends they cannot have all the things they want. But they’ll take it from me.” A year later he ordered $1 billion in cutbacks in city services and threatened up to 15,000 layoffs. Today a big factor contributing to Obama’s victory was the economic and financial crisis. Many workers (even “Rednecks for Obama”) voted for the Democrat because they figured he would better defend their pocketbook. The crisis especially affects black workers, whose official unemployment rate is almost double that of whites (12.6 percent compared to 6.9 percent in January). In particular, some 20,000 black auto workers have lost their jobs since the beginning of the crisis, a 14 percent fall in black employment in the industry, more than three times the overall decline for manufacturing workers (New York Times, 30 December 2008). And Obama is the one who will tell them they’ll just have to take it.

Ruling Class Substitutes “Diversity” for Equality

In a country built on the myth that “any child can grow up to be president,” Barack Obama’s election is seen as an example of individual achievement. He is being promoted as a role model for black youth, to encourage teenagers that it’s “cool” to study hard – you can still shoot hoops. There is even an academic study purporting to show an “Obama effect” among black students taking standardized tests, with scores going up after his nomination and election victory. But for all his personal qualities, the future president did not go from Hawaii’s most exclusive college preparatory school to Occidental College, Columbia University and Harvard Law School on the basis of diligence and intelligence alone. Nor are decisions about who gets access to the elite private educational institutions of U.S. capitalism made by some lowly admissions officer sitting in a cubicle looking over test scores. Although political competition sometimes results in a real dud at the helm of the imperialist ship of state, the more far-sighted sections of the ruling class take care in selecting and grooming their future leaders.

The commanders-in-chief of U.S. imperialism are also supplied with a governing apparatus. True, Richard Nixon convincingly pretended to be a madman, Ronald Reagan notoriously fell asleep during cabinet meetings and George W. Bush seemed unable to utter a sentence without mangling the language. Yet their administrations carried out their reactionary programs fairly efficiently. The failed military adventures, torture, scandals (Watergate, Iran-contra, “WMD”) and economic disaster were not due to incompetence but the result of policy and the capitalist system. So after eight years of Bush, the American ruling class was ready to turn to the Democrats, who pride themselves on being the “responsible” administrators of U.S. imperialism, as opposed to the Republican “cowboys.” After Obama grabbed attention with his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, some key Democratic money men placed their bets on him in the fall of 2007 and Wall Street firms financed a well-oiled campaign machine. Once elected, the president was provided with a “team” to run the government which – surprise! – turns out to be the same as the previous Clinton administrations, plus some holdovers from the Bush regime.

Having a black president does not represent black power, or even “empowerment,” in Jesse Jackson’s ambiguous phrase. Obama in the White House, built by slave labor, will not overcome the legacy of slavery and bring about the “promise” of racial equality. Instead, in the 1970s, in response to the unrest in the northern ghettos, the ruling class embarked on a conscious policy of diverting black anger by promoting a privileged layer of black petty-bourgeois, and recruiting particular individuals from this pool into the bourgeoisie itself. By 2001, you had a number of black CEOs at the head of Fortune 500 companies (Stanley O’Neal at Merrill Lynch, Richard Parsons at Time Warner, Franklin Raines at Fannie Mae, Kenneth Chenault at American Express). But having a more diverse selection of capitalist “decision makers,” also including a few women, in no way indicates a move toward social equality. The opposite is the case: relative incomes of black families have fallen over the last three decades, from 64 percent of whites’ in 1974 to only 58 percent in 2004. The gap in wealth is considerably wider. “Diversity” is being promoted as an alternative to equality, which capitalism cannot provide.

Black workers power: Blacks are an integral and strategic part of the multiethnic working class. Transit workers struck in December 2005, tieing up New York City, center of international finance capita.
(Photo: Jason DeCrow/AP)

Developments since the end of the Civil Rights movement have made certain changes in the condition of black America. Sections of the black middle class have moved out of the ghettos and into the suburbs. There are more opportunities and often higher incomes for black university graduates. There was a surge of black home ownership in the late 1990s. Yet the workings of capitalism constantly reproduce black inequality, as we are now seeing. Unemployment in inner city neighborhoods remains at Depression levels. The numbers of black men in college have been sharply falling, foreclosures disproportionately affect middle-class black families, while layoffs are hitting black industrial workers particularly hard. Black people in capitalist America are still today a race-color caste segregated at the bottom of U.S. capitalist society.

At the same time black workers are an integral and strategic part of a multiethnic proletariat. While the rulers conspire to keep black and white divided, the experience of class struggle can unite black workers with their white, Latino and Asian brothers and sisters, immigrant and U.S.-born, against their common capitalist enemy. And although legal equality is a bourgeois-democratic demand – a watchword of the French Revolution of 1789, which proclaimed “freedom, equality, fraternity” – genuine freedom and actual social, economic and political equality for blacks in America, whose oppression has always been central to the preservation of the capitalist order, can only come about through a socialist revolution.

Lessons of the Second American Revolution

To understand why this is so, one need only consider the outcome and legacy of the first two American revolutions. The first, the War for Independence from Great Britain, was solely a political revolution to throw off colonial rule. Although the Declaration of Independence had ringing proclamations of democratic ideals, such as “all men are created equal,” the practice was far different. The Constitution was based on compromise between Southern planters and Northern merchants, manufacturers and bankers in order to preserve the interests of capitalist property and ward off the threat of social revolution. Voting was limited to men of property and human bondage was enshrined by counting three-fifths of the slave population in calculating representation in Congress. The Atlantic slave trade was legally permitted for 20 years (and continued unabated right up to the Civil War). But while plantation agriculture flourished (the number of slaves increased from 700,000 to 4 million) and the slaveholders dominated national politics, slavery increasingly divided the country. The Haitian Revolution inspired slave revolts  – notably those led by Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822) and Nat Turner (1831). The 1845 annexation of Texas and 1848 war on Mexico were fueled by a drive to extend the number of slave states, and Abolitionist agitation and border wars led to political polarization.

Recruiting poster calling on blacks to join the Union Army in the Civil War. Appeal was signed by Frederick Douglass, among others.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln declared, “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” The future Republican president made clear his intention was not to abolish slavery, only to limit its extension. However, immediately after Lincoln’s 1860 election the South began preparing secession. When fighting broke out, some Northern and British capitalists treated it as simply a war over tariffs. But the Southern planters were determined to defend the fount of their wealth, and the Confederate Constitution explicitly endorsed slavery. After the April 1861 attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina ended efforts at compromise, Frederick Douglass, the former slave and great Abolitionist, observed:

“The American people and the Government in Washington may refuse to recognize it for a time, but the ‘inexorable logic of events’ will force it upon them in the end: that the war now being waged in this land is a war for and against slavery; and that it can never be effectively put down till one or the other of these vital forces is completely destroyed.”

Douglass’ Monthly, May 1861, cited in James M. McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War (1965)

Across the sea in London, Karl Marx arrived at the same conclusion. In November 1861, the founder of modern communism wrote:

“The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.”

Today some self-proclaimed Marxists who refuse to understand that the struggle against black oppression is key to workers revolution in the U.S. say they wouldn’t take sides in the Civil War, dismissing it as a squabble between two sets of bosses. Not surprisingly, using the same rationale they also refuse to defend Iraq and Afghanistan against U.S. imperialist attack. Yet a century and a half ago, Marx, Douglass and hundreds of thousands of free blacks and slaves could see further. Black men rushed to enlist in the Union Army, understanding that its victory by the force of their arms was the only guarantee of emancipation from the bonds of servitude.

Frederick Douglass

The destruction of slavery in the Civil War, in which some 180,000 black men fought in the Union Army and 40,000 died, constituted the Second American Revolution. It ushered in the only really democratic chapter of American history: Reconstruction. It brought legal freedom for 4 million slaves, decreed in the Emancipation Proclamation and codified in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It extended citizenship to all born in the United States – except Native Americans and women! – in the 14th Amendment, and outlawed discrimination in voting rights on the basis of race or color in the 15th Amendment. Despite resistance, not only from the defeated Southern planters but also from “moderate” capitalist politicians from the victorious North and border states (including Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson), Reconstruction governments in the militarily occupied South for the first time brought black men to political office. Over 600 blacks served as state legislators, as well as 15 U.S. Representatives and two black Senators. Prior to the Civil War education for slaves was a crime, during Reconstruction networks of public schools for blacks arose across the South, although segregated.

Conditions were laid for a deeper social transformation: the first halting steps toward racial equality were made and workers began building labor unions in the fight for the eight-hour day. But from the beginning this was undercut and ultimately reversed by the failure to provide the freedmen and women with economic conditions that would enable them to exercise their formal democratic rights. The former slaves did not receive “40 acres and a mule” General William Sherman promised in his famous Field Order No. 15 to the tens of thousands of black refugees who joined his army as it marched across Georgia to Savannah. President Andrew Johnson revoked Sherman’s order and ordered confiscated lands returned to their former owners. Lacking capital and land, blacks found themselves forced by economic necessity back onto the plantation to which they were bound by the sharecropping system. From chattel slaves they had become landless peasants and tenant farmers. Almost immediately, the remnants of the Confederate Army began terrorizing blacks through the hooded nightriders of the Ku Klux Klan, seeking to intimidate the former slaves from exercising their newly won and tenuous rights.

The First Vote, from cover of Harpers Weekly, 16 November 1867. (Sketch by A.R. Waud)

But meanwhile, black workers had begun to organize. In 1865, there were an estimated 100,000 black mechanics in the South. In 1867 there was a wave of strikes, including on the levee in Mobile, Alabama and on the docks in Charleston, South Carolina where the Longshoremen’s Protective Union Association won higher wages. William Sylvis, head of the National Labor Union founded in 1866, reported from the former Confederacy that he was convinced that “a vigorous campaign will unite the whole laboring population of the South, white and black, upon our platform,” and “we will have a power in this part of the country that will shake Wall Street out of its boots.” However, although a plan to organize black workers was approved, many local unions in the North refused to admit black members. In 1870 a National Colored Labor Union was formed that affiliated with the NLU. The latter issued a call for a labor party, saying that “inasmuch as both the present political parties are dominated by the non-producing classes, the highest interest of our colored fellow-citizens is with the workingmen, who, like themselves, are slaves of capital and the politicians.”

These first steps toward working-class racial unity soon halted. The National Labor Union ignored calls for a campaign to gain full legal equality for blacks, engaged in chauvinist agitation against Chinese laborers, and was soon swallowed up in a populist crusade (the greenback movement) against the return to the gold standard. The NCLU, in turn, became effectively an appendage of the Republican Party and ignored struggles of black workers, such as the Baltimore Longshoremen’s Association strike in 1871. Then in September 1873 the failure of a leading New York banking house touched off the first Great Depression, throwing millions out of work. Unions were decimated. In the South, reaction was on the march, as pressure built to put an end to Reconstruction. This was accomplished in the infamous Compromise of 1877, following the contested election of 1876. Republican Rutherford Hayes was awarded the White House in exchange for the withdrawal to their barracks of the remaining federal troops in the former Confederate states. White supremacy was reestablished and over the next decades “Jim Crow” segregation was instituted, more rigid even than under slavery.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877: National Guard troops shoot down strikers in Baltimore. Engraving from cover of Harpers Weekly, 11 August 1877.

Once the initial shock of the 1873 panic wore off, workers’ struggles picked up again. A bitter 1875 strike over wage reductions in the northeastern Pennsylvania coalfields was crushed and the miners’ union destroyed. The mine owners with their Coal and Iron Police and Pinkerton labor spies spread terror by arresting, hanging and assassinating labor militants accused of being members of a secret “terrorist” society, the Molly Maguires. Yet only two years later, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 broke out in West Virginia, spreading to Maryland and Pennsylvania, and on to Illinois. The bosses’ press blamed “the hands of men dominated by the devilish spirit of Communism.” This strike, too, was broken by a series of massacres as federal troops and militias shot down 40 strike supporters in Pittsburgh and scores more elsewhere (see “1876,” in The Internationalist No. 9, January-February 2001). But the outcome could have been very different. The destruction of Black Reconstruction in the South emboldened the federal government in sending soldiers to slaughter Northern strikers. Indeed, Thomas Scott of the Pennsylvania Railroad, one of the original robber barons, engineered the Compromise of 1877. Hayes dispatching troops to massacre strikers was the payback. 

It was perhaps too early for a workers revolution: even in the midst of a Depression, American capitalism was in its phase of expansion. But the development of the class struggle could have been very different had the former slaves had the economic wherewithal to fight back against the plantocracy and their KKK terror squads, and if black and white workers had been able to forge real bonds of class unity. The potential for this was indicated as poor blacks and whites joined in the Populist movement in the 1880s. But the racist rulers responded with lynching and disenfranchising blacks through poll taxes, literacy tests and other subterfuges. The workers movement would have been tremendously strengthened if not divided by race and poisoned with racism. Black people could have been spared 90 years of hideous segregation, denial of basic democratic rights and outright terror. Because the destruction of slavery was not accompanied by the social and economic emancipation of the slaves, the democratic rights won in the bloodiest war in American history were largely reversed. The legacy of the defeat of the struggle for full equality and freedom following the Civil War meant that the “American dream” was a nightmare for blacks.

Accommodation, Separatism or Revolutionary Integrationism

The post-Civil War Reconstruction of the South marked the high point of the struggle for black freedom in the United States. It was also the limit to what can be achieved without going beyond democratic rights to attack the underlying economic structure of black oppression. The smashing of Reconstruction, the suppression of the black vote and the imposition of rigid race segregation, consecrated by the Compromise of 1877 between the different factions of the capitalist ruling class, North and South, ushered in a lengthy period of defeat. The Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s were largely to regain rights that had been written into the U.S. Constitution but were denied in reality. And even those gains are at risk. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been brazenly undermined by intimidating blacks from voting and simply annulling black votes. In Duval County, Florida alone, 26,000 votes from the black communities around Jacksonville were thrown out on “irregularities” in the 2000 election.

Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute.

The reestablishment of white supremacy after 1877 produced a change in black leadership. Rather than Frederick Douglass in the forefront of the Abolitionist movement, Booker T. Washington became the spokesman for an accommodationist policy that accepted Jim Crow. In his 1895 “Atlanta Compromise” speech, Washington declared, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” This speech laid the basis for accepting the 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson that established the “separate but equal” doctrine justifying segregation in public facilities. Washington’s program was self-help (“it is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top”) while pledging to be loyal, responsible citizens (“in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach”). Soothing Southern aristocrats and Northern investors, he called for “interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one.”  Waxing poetic, he said, “The laws of changeless justice bind Oppressor with oppressed ... We march to fate abreast.”

Barack Obama today is no successor to Martin Luther King, Jr. While occasionally paying lip-service to the leader of the liberal Civil Rights movement, Obama’s position is that the time for fighting for black rights is past. Or as his adviser Valerie Jarrett put it, “You do not need to have demonstrations in front of the White House” about how “there is a disparate impact in the African-American community around issues such as health care and education. He’s got that.” With his talk of personal responsibility and self-help, Obama is sounding the same themes as Booker T. Washington. In his Philadelphia speech on race, Obama declares that “working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds,” and while “continuing to insist on a full measure of justice,” this also “means taking full responsibility for own lives.” Obama embraced “this quintessentially American – and yes, conservative – notion of self-help.” Where Washington said not to “permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities,” Obama criticized the “mistake” of his former pastor Rev. Wright in his “offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative.”

Obviously, the situations are different – for all his warm and financially rewarding relations with Northern capitalists like Andrew Carnegie, Booker T. Washington would never have been elected to any office, much less the presidency – but the themes are similar. Rather than Washington’s image of the oppressed and oppressor harmoniously marching forward to face fate – or in the Obama version “working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds” – we prefer the words from Byron with which W.E.B. DuBois began his 1903 essay, “On Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others”: “Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not, Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?”

Since the abolition of slavery, there have been sharply different programs in the struggle for black freedom. In periods of defeat, the views of compromisers like Booker T. Washington gain force, along with separatists like Marcus Garvey who despair of any positive resolution in the U.S. Whether preaching submission or escape, both seek accommodation with the capitalist rulers. This is also true of currents such as the Nation of Islam under Elijah Mohammed and Louis Farrakhan. In periods of advancing social struggle, on the other hand, the fight for integration predominates. Those struggles have generally been led by bourgeois liberals such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) in its early years, or King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). When the liberal integrationists reached a dead end following the passage of the ’60s Civil Rights laws, many young black radicals turned toward the advocates of “black power” who rejected King’s turn-the-other-cheek pacifism. But the Black Panthers and other radical nationalists were destroyed by the combination of racist state repression and internal discord.

Historically, most of the left in the U.S. has supported the liberal integrationists, particularly since the mid-1930s when the Stalinists embraced the “popular front,” joining social-democratic reformists in tailing after liberal Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sometimes these leftists hold up the picture of Malcolm X as an icon, as they do with the image of Che Guevara, to give a radical allure. But politically they are solidly in the Martin Luther King camp, and today either openly or with a fig leaf of independence they want to profit from Obama’s popularity. As opposed to conservative accommodation and liberal integrationism, we Trotskyists fight for a program of revolutionary integrationism. We stress that the fight for black freedom and equality in capitalist America can only succeed by overturning the economic foundations of black oppression. We recognize the radical impulse of many black nationalists who were breaking from the liberal preachers, but emphasize that the oppressed black poor and working people can only achieve power through common struggle together with their class sisters and brothers of all races. We stand for black liberation through socialist revolution.

A Revolutionary Workers Party as a Tribune of the People

Today black liberals and reformists support Barack Obama, in line with their overall popular-front politics (many supported Democrat John Kerry as well). After an initial complaint about Obama being a no-show at a “Covenant for Black America” conference, Cornell West (honorary chairman of Democratic Socialists of America) signed up. Manning Marable (DSA, former co-chairperson of Committees of Correspondence, chairman of Movement for a Democratic Society, Inc.) likewise. The cultural nationalist and Democratic Party politician Charles Barron enlisted early on, saying Obama would not only break the white, male monopoly on the presidency but would be best placed to “put forth a black agenda,” which he has hardly done. Another right-wing nationalist, Prof. Leonard Jeffries, who made headlines in 1990 with his crackpot “ice people”/“sun people” racial theories and anti-Semitism (blaming Jews for the slave trade), bizarrely claimed that the election of Obama marked “the moment that the capitalist system collapsed.” “No matter what Obama does in office,” he added, “Mumia Abu-Jamal ... even if he goes to his reward he’s got to celebrate the fact that he was here” at Obama’s election.

Teachers union (SEPE) of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 2008, in its second state-wide work stoppage demanding "Freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal! Down with the Racist Death Penalty!"
(Photo: Vanguarda Operária)

It is characteristic of the range of those who supported Barack Obama that it went from supporters of Mumia to right-wing Philadelphia talk radio hack Michael Smerconish, who has for years been in the forefront of the cop vendetta to execute former Black Panther Jamal for a crime he didn’t commit. Smerconish, who was a master of ceremonies for Bush in 2004 and has endorsed the U.S.’ use of “waterboarding” and other forms of torture, hosted Obama on his show and came out for the Democratic candidate last October. Now he will try to cash in on that support, hoping at least for Obama’s acquiescence in the face of the legal lynch mob. Those who looked to the election of a black president to save Mumia could be cruelly awakened from their illusions. The Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International (LFI) fight to mobilize the working class to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. Our comrades of the Brazilian section of the LFI initiated the first strike action for Mumia’s, a statewide work stoppage by teachers in Rio de Janeiro, in April 1999, in conjunction with the U.S. longshore union, ILWU, which closed the West Coast ports for ten hours demanding his freedom.

While many liberals and reformists have been caught up in what’s being called “Obamania,” some left-wing black intellectuals and political activists have not fallen prey to the all-round cheering for Democrat Obama. Interestingly, former Communist Party vice-presidential candidate Angela Davis said in an interview with the London Guardian (8 November 2008) shortly after the election, “when the inclusion of black people into the machine of oppression is designed to make that machine work more efficiently, then it does not represent progress at all.” Davis added that Obama “is being consumed as the embodiment of colour blindness. It’s the notion that we have moved beyond racism by not taking race into account.” Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report was even sharper. In a December 14 Harlem debate with Obama supporters Barron, Jeffries, Viola Plummer (December 12 Movement) and Malik Shabazz (New Black Panther Party), Ford declared forthrightly:

“What we wound up with is a president-elect whose Cabinet to-date is mostly a Clinton Cabinet – and worse.

“Obama’s military portfolio is in the hands of a Reagan/Bush-1/Bush-2 war criminal, Robert Gates, whose crimes go back to Iran Contra and the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors.

“Obama’s economic mechanisms will be in the hands of the very same robber baron bankers that set the stage for catastrophic meltdown through their actions under both Bill Clinton and George Bush....

“Barack Obama has chosen of his own free will to put his face at the head of an administration whose most powerful portfolios – War and the Economy – are manned by the worst thieves and warmongers available.”

Black Agenda Report, 17 December 2008

While voicing criticisms of the Democratic candidate, the “lesser-evil” logic of American bourgeois politics is so ingrained that very few left groups, socialists and black activists would flatly call for no vote for Obama, as the Internationalist Group did. Using a sliding scale of who is the more “progressive,” they either wash their hands of the whole matter, or end up supporting to one degree or another the new commander-in-chief of U.S. imperialism. Today their candidate is laying waste to Afghanistan and Iraq, launching missiles in Pakistan, bailing out Wall Street banks, opposing caps to the multi-million-dollar salaries of all but a tiny number of bankers, bailing out the auto companies by slashing auto workers’ jobs and imposing a no-strike clause to boot. Genuine communists and fighters for black liberation instead take a class stand in political opposition to all bourgeois politicians and parties. Rather than beseeching the representative of capital to be a “friend of the people,” we seek to form a revolutionary workers party that champions the cause of, and seeks to mobilize, all those exploited and oppressed by capital.

Claude McKay addressing the Third Congress of the Communist International, Moscow, 1923.
(Photo: Beinecke Rare Book Library/Yale University)

At the turn of the last century, American socialists were at best oblivious to the oppression of blacks. Their “color-blind” policy was summed up in the expression of Eugene V. Debs, that “we have nothing special to offer the Negro.... The Socialist Party is the party of the whole working class, regardless of color.” Other socialists such as Victor Berger were open racists. It was the Communists, basing themselves on the experience of the Russian October Revolution, who insisted that blacks were doubly exploited second-class citizens, and that a program of special demands was needed to address black oppression. The early Communist International paid particular attention to this issue, with reports on the “Negro question” from John Reed, Otto Huiswoud (J. Billings) and Claude McKay at the Second and Third Congresses of the Comintern (see the Internationalist pamphlet, The Communist International and Black Liberation). Leon Trotsky asked McKay to elaborate, which he did in a report on Blacks in America. American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon later wrote:

“Everything new on the Negro question came from Moscow – after the Russian Revolution began to thunder its demand throughout the world for freedom and equality for all national minorities, all subject peoples and all races – for all the despised and rejected of the earth.”

It was the Communists’ worldwide campaign for the “Scottsboro Boys” that saved them from the hangman’s noose in the early 1930s. But Stalin, having ditched Lenin and Trotsky’s program of world social revolution, ordered the Communist Party in the U.S. to ally with liberal Democrat FDR, whose New Deal program rested on the support of Southern Dixiecrats in Congress. The CP sought to put the lid on black struggle, and thousands of black Communists drifted away in disillusionment. The Trotskyists continued to fight for black rights, and during WWII their leaders were jailed for opposing the imperialist war. In the late 1950s, as the Civil Rights movement was getting under way, Cannon wrote: “There has been a big change in the outlook and demands of the Negroes’ movement since the days of Booker T. Washington, but no fundamental change in their social condition.” He added: “An honest workers party of the new generation will recognize this revolutionary potential of the Negro struggle, and call for a fighting alliance of the Negro people and the labor movement in a common revolutionary struggle against the present social system” (James P. Cannon, The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement [1959], available as an Internationalist pamphlet).

Internationalist Group at April 2008 protest against court verdict letting killer cops who gunned down Sean Bell go free. Yellow sign lists some of many victims of racist police terror in New York City.
(Photo: The Internationalist)

We continue to fight against segregation of schools even as many liberals have abandoned the fight for school integration through busing. Today that means opposing schemes for “school choice” and selective elite schools and programs, favored by Obama and conservatives like McCain, which only increase race and class segregation. But where the liberals appealed to the capitalist state, in the form of federal troops and courts, we look to the working class, such as the black longshoremen in Norfolk, Virginia who mobilized to defend busing in the late 1970s. When the cops who murdered Sean Bell in New York went free last year, Obama told black youth to respect the verdict of the (bourgeois) courts. In protests against the recent police execution of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, some have called on Obama’s Justice Department to open an investigation, to no avail. In contrast,  we warn against illusions in the capitalist government and call to bring the working class into the streets against it.

The Trotskyists fight for basic democratic demands, such as an end to the denial of voting rights for former prisoners, which amounts to permanent disenfranchisement of a whole section of the black population. We demand cops out of the schools and an end to the brutalization of students by the uniformed enforcers of racist, capitalist “law and order.” We demand an end to “racial profiling” and random “stop and frisk” orders by police who last year searched more than 500,000 people, 82 percent of them black and Latino, without cause. We oppose the ruling-class drive to a police state and criminalization of black youth. At the same time, black people are among the hardest-hit by the capitalist crisis, and therefore will be in the forefront of class struggle against the effects of that crisis. We demand an immediate moratorium on all foreclosures and call for the workers movement to mobilize to block evictions as it did during the 1930s. And as hundreds of thousands of black workers are fired we call for plant occupations and broader strike action against layoffs, to impose a shorter workweek with no loss in pay.

But such demands are not magical words on paper. They must be taken up by militant black, white, Latino and Asian workers, by immigrants, women and youth, united in class struggle. That struggle will inevitably go up against the government of Democrat Obama. And that struggle urgently requires the leadership of a revolutionary workers party that is not afraid to tell the truth, a party that acts, as Lenin expressed it, as a tribune of the people, the champion of all the oppressed, that will achieve genuine equality for blacks and all the oppressed by the only means possible – sweeping away bankrupt, racist American capitalism through international socialist revolution.

See also:  Obama Presidency: U.S. Imperialism Tries a Makeover  (23 February 2009)
Why Marxists Oppose All Government Intervention in the Unions  (23 February 2009)
                 The “Obama Socialists” (23 February 2009)
Not a “New New Deal,” But a Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (23 February 2009)

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com