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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Against the Equality of Inequality

“You don’t have to live next to me, just give me my equality…” Nina Simone

Paul Heideman’s recent article posted on MLToday and originally appearing in Jacobin could not be more timely, more useful to an energized anti-racist movement in need of a compass. 

For many of us, the multi-racial marches and demonstrations in cities, towns, and even rural areas, their persistence, and their earnest expression of a commitment to racial justice are phenomena unseen since the heyday of the civil rights movement. 

At the same time, many wonder if they will leave a lasting impact. It is impossible not to recall the insurgencies of the 1960s that completed the democratic revolution started with the US Civil War, but which, nonetheless, left African Americans as a people largely impoverished, de facto segregated, and crippled by the socio-economic scars left them by cruel centuries of chattel and wage slavery, and depravation of opportunity.

As in the 1960s, a similar ritualistic, officious outburst of indignation and righteous pledges of reform from politicians, celebrities, and other of our “betters” are now following the murders of African Americans. Certainly much of this energy is dissipated in sloganeering, gesturing, and targeting the symbols of racial injustice while failing to attack the root causes of racism-- taking a knee and modeling a Kente cloth over demanding changes that affect the material conditions of Black people. It is a victory of form over content. Posturing supersedes the need for a concrete, doable, and winnable set of demands.

And that returns us to the contribution of Paul Heideman. He reminds us of a promising, long tradition of antiracism cut short and effectively buried by the post-war anti-Communist crusade in the US (McCarthyism). He recalls a now-suppressed history when the left, led by the Communist Party, fought racism on many fronts, most significantly in Labor. For much of this history, the Communist Party and the left-led unions were the only significantly integrated organizations in the US. They were the only organizations with significant Black leadership (Communist Oliver Law, a battalion commander killed in the defense of the Spanish Republic during the 1930s, was the first African American officer to lead mainly white US troops in battle).

At the same time, Heideman documents the rise in size and militancy of the Black working class, a development that itself helped propel the left-led fight for job equality, equal access to housing, and against Jim Crow.

It was the successes of the Communist Party-led effort to drive racism from the workplace and forge class unity that no doubt played a role in provoking the post-war crusade against Communism. As that ruthless crusade gained steam in the late 1940s, the Communist-initiated campaign to present the cause of African Americans before the United Nations proved particularly galling to both the Red-baiters and the race-baiters. In December of 1951, Paul Robeson and William Patterson, executive director of the Civil Rights Congress, simultaneously presented the petition, We Charge Genocide, to representatives of the UN in New York and Paris. WEB Dubois, who planned to join Patterson in Paris, saw his passport revoked.

The petition and accompanying campaign became a profound embarrassment to the US and its heavily promoted image as a bastion of democracy. US authorities made the petition’s disavowal a condition of political safe passage for any domestic human rights organization. No doubt the international impact of the petition, especially within the colonial and formerly colonial nations, contributed to the first tentative moves to dismantle segregation, including the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

But the anti-Communist witch hunt devastated the Black freedom struggle. As Heideman notes: 

This wide net of repression had a chilling effect on black activism. Liberal organizations like the NAACP raced to distance themselves from anyone tainted by communism, which in local branches often meant expelling some of the most dedicated activists. Though liberal black intellectuals and activists had been a vital part of the anticolonial push before and during World War II, they now retreated from anything that could be construed as opposing American geopolitical aims.

The legacy of anti-Communist purges harmed both the labor movement and the African American equality movement. On the latter, Heideman makes the profound point:

The nature of racial oppression itself had been redefined at the height of the Cold War. While even many liberals in the 1930s and ‘40s had agreed that racial inequality was intimately bound up with the structure of economic power in American life, the anticommunist crusade had made these sorts of critiques politically radioactive.

The redefinition removed Black people from their place in the working class. Civil rights replaced objective, material gains as the goal of the movement. Procedural justice replaced the redistributive justice championed by the Old Left. Anti-Communism foreclosed any connection between domestic liberation and the liberation of the majority darker peoples of the world. And any suggestion that Black people might benefit from a more just economic system was cause for expulsion from the mainstream of liberalism.

Throughout the Cold War, this restricted mode of struggle forced itself on the Civil Rights movement. In his Riverside Church speech, and even more so in a later Freedomways oration honoring WEB Dubois, Martin Luther King daringly revisited the Old Left internationalism and the class politics of economic equality. His actions immediately before his assassination coincided with his new thinking. The same road that led Dubois to link the struggles of African peoples to the struggles of the most militant sectors of the working class was leading King towards the same destination.

But it was not to be. In Heideman’s words: “Racial equality and class equality had been divorced as political visions. The repression of class radicalism during McCarthyism created a void that has defined American politics since.”

Heindeman astutely concludes:

The ambition of civil-rights unionism is precisely what is needed to give substance to antiracist politics today. For all the lip service paid to intersectionality in contemporary discourse, too many visions of black advance are all too happy to see that advance occur within a society whose fundamental structure remains unchanged. Often, it seems that antiracism is defined simply as the equal distribution of inequality. An earlier generation of civil rights struggle saw things differently. They, and their opponents, understood that black equality required a fundamental transformation of American society.

“[T]he equal distribution of inequality” is an apt description of the liberal vision of procedural justice, the idea that establishing fair rules will somehow make up for playing a “game” without equipment, experience, training, or encouragement. It hasn’t worked well for Black people; it has left African Americans below their white counterparts in every objective measure of well-being. Sure, many have broken through former barriers and some can enjoy a status and life-style on a par with the white petty-bourgeoisie; but most Black people are still living in segregated neighborhoods, living in substandard housing, receiving substandard educations and substandard medical care with, predictably, substandard life outcomes. 

It is time to recognize that capitalism has not and does not offer a different fate. As Heideman argues, it is time to revisit the program of the so-called Old Left and take the fight to the ultimate enemy of racial equality-- capitalism. 

Greg Godels

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Racism, Police Violence, and Capitalism

Donald Trump chastising governors and mayors over their response to the aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd was perversely appropriate. While Trump is invoking the “law and order” mantra of racist politicians in his rant, the complicity of local and state authorities in police criminality cannot be denied. Police violence against African Americans is as old and persistent as the history of the first Africans brought to the New World as slaves.

Since nothing has changed in centuries, certainly mayors and governors have blood on their hands. Either they have acquiesced in police murders and lynchings or else they are powerless or too frightened to prevent them-- they only pretend to govern the police.

The lesson is further driven home when the police are not unleashed by governors and mayors upon the gun-toting, venom-spewing, right-wing rabble recently invading state and city seats of government.

How is this failure explained?

Under capitalism, the police, like the military and the security services, are direct agents of the ruling class, unmediated by popular control. All three, in their areas of responsibility, are the “legitimate” purveyors of violence and aim to own a monopoly on violence. As much as governments aspire to maintain and promote an image of consent, the three institutions are the coercive backstop to threats to elite rule. As governors and mayors come and go, they remain as watchdogs to unrest, messengers of the folly of resistance.

Historically, the nationally oppressed African American people have offered the greatest collective resistance to the US ruling class. Their former enslavement, their very limited enjoyment of basic bourgeois democratic norms, and their continued physical and economic segregation has given them every reason to struggle against, often leading in the struggle against, the injustices of the capitalist system. That tradition has placed African Americans in the cross-hairs of wealth and power and their trusted security apparatuses. It is, therefore, no surprise that the police wield their repressive powers so violently against Black people.

Of course that perspective-- the class-based understanding of racism-- never gets a hearing in the monopoly media. Instead, police murders are attributed to “bad apples,” poor training, misleadership, lack of Black police, lack of oversight, and the catch-all of “racism,” as though racism can be explained by simply invoking the charge of “racism.”

Yet all the well-intentioned reforms-- training, civilian review boards, screening, etc.-- have failed to stop police violence against Blacks.

Liberals are fond of studying police violence, especially when the reaction to police misconduct brings masses of people into action. The classic example of liberal response to Black rebellion was the 1968 Kerner Commission. While the Commission’s findings were among the first (and probably last) candid, official exposures of the economic base of Black disadvantage, little or nothing was done to rectify that disadvantage. The promising affirmative action programs offered at the time were effectively killed by 1976, disappearing from the Democratic Party program.

When the US ruling class refuses to address the plight of the disadvantaged majority of Blacks, the police also get the message of official neglect, of contempt. Blacks die from poverty, bad health care, inadequate infrastructure and poor services, pandemics, and, of course, police violence. The message sent by the police is: don’t resist wealth and power.

Sadly, most mainstream commentators opportunistically force the discussion of police violence into the two-party box, to frame it in the context of the forthcoming elections. Trump’s response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery is as crudely racist as his earlier full page New York Times ads condemning the five Black youths falsely convicted as the Central Park Five. One senses the same fear and hatred of Blacks as that of an unreconstructed, Southern segregationist like Orville Faubus or Strom Thurmond.

Biden, on the other hand, mouths the liberal platitudes that have been typical of Democratic Party politicians since Otto Kerner’s famous report: a robust denouncement, a call for change, and inaction. His supporters are either ignorant of or willfully ignoring his own role in fanning racist violence: attacking busing, supporting the militarization of the police, boosting mass incarceration.

One candidate represents the moonlight-and-magnolia racism of the segregated South and the other the more sophisticated Northern racism of malign “benign neglect.” Both are irrelevant to stemming police violence.

To see the ineffectiveness of corporate Democrats, one need only be reminded of Barack Obama’s response to police violence when a racist cop accosted a Black Ivy League academic on his own porch: have a beer with both of them.

Or, as Cornel West passionately insisted in a CNN interview: "We've tried black faces in high places... Too often our black politicians, professional class, middle class become too accommodated to the capitalist economy, too accommodated to a militarized nation-state, too accommodated to the market-driven culture of celebrities, status, power, fame, all that superficial stuff that means so much to so many fellow citizens."

West went on to describe the inadequate response of the Democratic Party to police violence: "You've got a neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party that is now in the driver's seat... because all they want to do is show more Black faces—show more Black faces. But oftentimes those Black faces are losing legitimacy, too—because the Black Lives Matter movement emerged under a Black president, a Black attorney general, and a Black director of Homeland Security, and they couldn't deliver. So when you talk about the masses of Black people—the precious poor and working-class black people, brown, red, yellow, whatever color—they're the ones left out and they feel so thoroughly powerless, helpless, hopeless—then you get rebellion."

On The Hill.TV’s Rising, Nina Turner, a national co-chair of the Sanders campaign, astutely endorsed West’s comments as “poignant, right on time, as usual, an indictment of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party.”

“Dr. West is making people very uncomfortable, especially the Democrats, and they should be uncomfortable... For me right now, this is not about your political affiliation, this is about right or wrong. Whether you have the commitment, the character, the clarity, the vision and the leadership to sacrifice something and to do the right thing on behalf of Black people in the United States of America.”

Leave it to Susan Rice, Obama confidant and former National Security Advisor, to take the ruling-class spin on the uprisings to laughable, ludicrous levels. In a CNN interview with the readily agreeable Wolf Blitzer, she finds Russia lurking behind the scenes to promote violence in the nationwide protests.

Alarmed by the unfettered power accumulated by the military and its affiliates, President Eisenhower, himself a participant at the highest levels, warned of the attendant dangers:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.

Similarly, the “misplaced power” of the police threatens the lives and well-being of African Americans, the poor, and working people. Like the military and the security agencies, the role of the police cannot be separated from its central function of protecting wealth and privilege. It cannot be detached from the capitalist system.

The insurrections that are rising throughout the US are a remarkable sign of both the breadth and depth of anti-racist sentiment. They are inclusive in the best possible way. And they have frightened the Trumps, Cuomos, DeBlasios and the others charged with maintaining compliance with the system. The capitalist media is doing its best to shatter the hard-won unity against racism and against the police.

Insofar as the police are central to maintaining the legitimacy of capital, the rebellion is a rebellion against capitalism, whether its participants recognize it or not.

We must do everything to safeguard that unity and expose the source of racism and police violence: capitalism.

Greek Communist youth protesting racist US police murder outside the US embassy

Greg Godels