“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.