The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 40 (Fall 1991)
The fight against racism makes alchemy seem true. Great dreams are daily transformed into nightmares. No one can forget the scenes of the Los Angeles police bashing in the skull of an already bloodied and prone black man. The savagery was unusual only in that it was videotaped and so could not be hidden. Underlying it all is deepening racial oppression against the background of capitalist society in decay.
For blacks in America today, the nightmare of racism is obvious. The frightening problem is that none of the prominent leaderships, whether “integrationist” or “nationalist,” offers a way out. There is an alternative, but that requires reorienting the entire struggle.
As a result of the gains won in the 1960’s, by the early ’70’s there was real hope for equality and a decent life among blacks. Job opportunities began to open up, at least for some, thus giving hope to others. The right to a serious education and the chance for a decent income seemed to have been secured. After generations of slavery and then degrading wage-slavery at the bottom of the heap, at last better things seemed possible.
School integration was promoted as the way for black youth to get the same opportunities as middle-class whites. It hasn’t happened. A few months ago the Urban League issued its annual State of Black America. In it Dr. David Swinton summed up his statistical analysis of today’s American condition:
The degree of racial inequality is higher as we begin the 1990’s than at any other time in the last 20 years... . Both in absolute terms and in comparison to white Americans, Blacks have high unemployment rates, low rates of employment, inferior occupational distribution and low wages and earnings. Blacks have low incomes and high poverty rates. They own little wealth, and no significant progress is being made to improve the status of Blacks and to close the gaps... .
As for the benefits of integrated schools, other studies point out that nearly two-thirds of black youth still go to predominantly minority schools, and one-third are in out-rightly segregated schools with 90% or more of black students. And open admissions to college, given escalating tuition charges and major cutbacks, don’t exist in the real world even where it’s promised.
Just look at the black ghettoes today, the “inner cities”: public services that do not serve, schools that do not teach, workers without work. Whole neighborhoods terrorized by crime, crack, cops and filth; streets filled with young people with nothing to do and no hope.
This is not so say that no blacks gained from the years of struggle. A black “middle class” (actually, professionals, lower-rung business people and labor aristocrats) has developed. A recent study shows that one in seven black families earn $50,000 a year or more, compared with one in seventeen black families with that income, inflation adjusted, in 1967. The rise was noteworthy even though whites still are far ahead, with one out of three families in the $50,000 bracket.
As with whites, black professionals and some better-off workers are fleeing the central cities for the suburbs. The ghettoes thus lock together the less mobile, less affluent and unemployed workers – along with growing numbers of lumpenproletarians who prey on them. The latter are constantly being created and re-created by capitalism. The ghettoes are awash in rising tension and anxiety.
Foreboding is not limited to the ghettoes: it also commutes to the suburbs. The declining economy undermines all the middle strata and adds to the insecurity fostered by racism and reaction. Unemployment is rising, despite George Bush’s fatuous assurances that the recession is over; 13.5 of the total population now lives below the conservative official poverty line. Real income fell by 3 in 1990 alone, continuing its long stagnation. In this context, the relative affluence of the black middle class is tenuous at best.
Front-page headlines in the New York Times tell it all: “Unions at a Loss to Reverse Falling Fortunes of Workers.” “Part-Time Hirings Bring Deep Change in U.S. Workplaces - 40-Hour Week is Eroded - As Companies Reduce Costs, Many Workers Can’t Find Full Hours or Benefits.”
When even the white working class is getting it in the neck, the disproportionate suffering of black workers accelerates rapidly. Swinton’s report concludes:
The consistency of these results for the last decade leads to one inescapable conclusion. The disadvantaged economic status of the African-American population is a permanent feature of the American economy. The permanence of this disadvantage status implies that it is perpetuated by the normal operations of the American economy.
In a word, capitalism is inescapably racist. Not surprisingly, social explosions are occurring in U.S. cities. The wonder is that they haven’t been bigger and more violent.
Street rioting broke out in Crown Heights, a largely black neighborhood of Brooklyn in late August. The trigger was an accident in which a Hasidic Jew, driving in the police-escorted entourage of Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, ran over two black children and killed one, seven-year-old Gavin Cato. In the riot, a visiting Australian Jew, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed; he died at a city hospital after getting the negligent treatment normally reserved for blacks.
The details of the accident, the differing accounts of what the police and ambulances did are important but not decisive. The incident was a spark which set off the social dynamite built into the conflict between the desperate ghetto and the surrounding society.
Many Jewish leaders denounced the riot as anti-Semitic. Some even labeled it another Kristallnacht, the infamous orgy of anti-Jewish rioting, looting and murdering in Nazi Germany in 1938. Reverend Al Sharpton denied the charges of anti-Semitism: “This is a classical example of trying to turn the victim into the victimizer.”
But the Crown Heights rioters were anti-Semitic. Chants of “Heil Hitler” and the like have no other meaning. But Sharpton, demagogue though he is, is absolutely right in pointing out that the Jewish leaders treat the oppressed as the oppressors. Kristallnacht is a monstrously distorted analogy. In Germany the Nazis were in power; all the brute force of the state was arrayed against the Jewish victims. In Brooklyn the cops beat and arrested dozens of blacks and protected the politically influential Hasidic leaders.
The “Heil Hitlers” did not mean that blacks are Nazis; they were the screams of violently frustrated people. The rioters knew that the Nazis despised blacks as well as Jews. But they also knew that such slogans would deeply hurt their Hasidic antagonists. And the Lubavitchers are a particularly reactionary Jewish religious sect, notoriously insensitive to outsiders – including other Jews, but especially their black neighbors. Racism is rife among them in Crown Heights. Even so, it remains true that general anti-Jewish sentiment is a factor among blacks.
Denouncing this sentiment, Jewish spokesmen often retort that Jews participated in and helped finance civil rights efforts, and two Jewish youths were killed in the desegregation fight. This argument gets a mixed response, since blacks perceive a patronizing attitude and a demand for power over the movement by Jewish leaders. There are also very real feelings that Jews, who were also oppressed, should be held to their claims of a higher morality. But they do not behave that way in their everyday relations with blacks.
There are Jewish bosses who exploit black labor; there are real estate agents and landlords who operate slums. There are middle-class and petty-bourgeois Jews who live nearby and, while hardly wealthy by American bourgeois standards, look down upon impoverished blacks. It is not surprising that the black population is not immune to the anti-Semitism of capitalist society, which invokes the Jews – the “international Jewish banking conspiracy” – as a substitute and scapegoat for the capitalist class as a whole.
Attitudes among blacks toward Jews are actually very mixed. Blacks are also aware of the injustices perpetrated against Jews in the U.S. as well as Europe, as well as of the acts of solidarity to the black struggle by some Jews. A study by the Anti-Defamation League in 1967 found that blacks were the least anti-Semitic Christian group in the U.S. and, significantly, that the more “militant” a black person was, the less likely he or she was to be anti-white or anti-Jewish.
However, in the absence of deep class consciousness throughout society, the crimes and insults of local Jewish capitalists, prominent media bosses and official Jewish organizations are far more visible than the efforts of Jewish leftists and workers. The adaptation of most Jews to Zionism – before Hitler a decidedly minority view – and the unmistakable positioning of Israel on the imperialist side of the world divide among nations, have also alienated blacks who solidarize with the oppressed Palestinians.
Moreover, the Jewish bourgeoisie and the increasingly conservative leaders of the Jewish organizations act as if they were now fully established in the U.S. ruling class. As political attacks against blacks mount, they too use code words like “quotas” and “preferential hiring” to keep blacks down. As often as not they are in the forefront of the racist assault.
The charge of “black anti-Semitism” is of fairly recent vintage. Jewish leaders began pointing to it in the late 1960’s, when the black movement began moving away from legalistic civil rights and charting an independent course. Before that, the “liberal-labor coalition” which led the political drive for civil rights was headed by the labor unions, Northern Democrats, the big Jewish organizations and the mainline white churches. They were the senior partners; black groups like the NAACP, SCLC and CORE were assigned lesser parts.
Under the pressure of the ghetto uprisings that swept inner-city America, “black power” forces grew and the grand alliance segmented. While capitalism could still afford to make concessions to the black revolt in the late 1960’s, signs of the shrinking pie were already evident. The liberal labor and white ethnic leaders looked after their own and were not at all delighted to learn that blacks wanted an equal share.
Ordinary Jews had a mixed consciousness toward blacks. On the one hand, they saw blacks as another persecuted people. On the other, they feared rising crime and urban blight and associated these with blacks, swallowing the pervasive racism of U.S. society. Having mostly moved up into the white-collar working class, they also feared that their precarious acceptance on the edge of mainstream America would be endangered by the advance of “too many” blacks.
The turning point towards neo-conservatism was the New York teachers’ strike of 1968. Before then the main Jewish organizations had minimized occasional reports of black anti-Semitism, justifiably warning instead against what they called a “Jewish backlash.” Faced with a ruling-class attack against unions, the heads of the largely Jewish teachers’ union chose to lash back against black “community control” leaders rather than confront their bourgeois “friends.” And given the discriminatory practices of most unions, it was no wonder that many blacks were misled into attacks on union rights. The union heads used this to re-channel labor’s response. Albert Shanker & Co. took a handful of ugly anti-Semitic leaflets and broadcast them widely in newspaper ads and articles. Thus “black anti-Semitism” was born.
In accepting this outrageous generalization, the Jewish organizations betrayed their own followers. As the capitalist pie shrinks further, U.S. capitalism will not hesitate to learn from the Nazis and turn mass hatred and rebellion against a familiar scapegoat, the Jews. Jewish leaders toadying to the capitalists and pointing accusingly at blacks will not deflect the far more dangerous and mounting white anti-Semitism and will have done little or nothing to fight against it.
It is also true that sections of the black radical leadership discovered the utility of anti-Semitism at the same time. Rebelling against the dominant “integrationist” middle-class leaders, politically impotent junior partners in the liberal coalition, these “nationalists” echoed mass economic demands and claimed a bigger stake. Because of their own class outlook, they denied the class system was the enemy. They directed their outrage against other ethnic groups in order to congeal their “nation” – rather than fight for leadership of the working class that the vast majority of blacks belong to.
Thus both Jewish and black leaders found “black anti-Semitism” a useful weapon in trying to tie their working-class followers to their own narrow programs. They succeeded only partly. Many Jewish workers fear correctly that their “acceptance” in American society will be short-lived; keeping blacks down is no protection. And most blacks know that their problems do not derive from any particular ethnic conspiracy.
All over the world nationalist hatreds seem to be mounting at an unprecedented pace. Blood is spilling in India, South Africa, Yugoslavia, the USSR. Fascists swagger again in not only Germany but also France and Britain. There is method in the madness. World capitalism is on the edge of a new depression. The bourgeoisies cannot afford to buy off the masses they rule over, so their only hope is to divide the exploited and oppressed. Mass anger is turned away from capitalism – imperialism on the world scale – toward other nationalities or races.
This turmoil is not simply a question of national rivalries rekindled. Capitalism uses certain peoples as pawns to oppress others. In some countries this is clear: Germans in Germany are set against Turkish, Kurdish, Vietnamese and African “guest workers.” Elsewhere it is less clear but still true, as in Yugoslavia. (See the article in this issue.) In South Africa not only are whites mobilized against blacks, but so are some Zulus used as pawns against other blacks.
The uproar in the U.S. is part of this pattern of capitalist barbarism. In Bensonhurst, scene of a recent racist murder in New York, Italian working-class youth, many of them increasingly hopeless about their futures, are rallied against blacks. In Crown Heights it is the Jews, the most disposable of possible pawns.
The capitalists form a tiny class, dependent upon such pawns to do their dirty work. Since the pawns are mostly petty bourgeois and workers, they are acting against their own fundamental interests. Thus, with a class-conscious strategy, many of them can be redirected. It is vital to distinguish between leaders and led, between fascist cadres and frustrated masses. But it is equally crucial to win the misled elements not by any concession to racism but by posing the sharpest alternatives to capitalist oppression.
In the U.S. it is a question not of separate nations but of ethnicity and race. We oppose all forms of bigotry – national, racial, ethnic, religious, etc. Wherever whites are set against blacks, revolutionaries of all races side with the blacks against the pawns of capital. Our position is based on the understanding that class is the central, determinant question. We therefore oppose the integrationism of the liberal coalitionists, including the “rainbow” and “gorgeous mosaic” claptrap designed to accommodate workers to their exploiters. We can’t all live in peace and harmony while some of “us” are grabbing all of what’s left of the economic pie.
“Nationalists” are often conservative and religious, but given the capitulatory nature of liberal integrationism, they often attract far more radical adherents. Their separatism offers no alternative but demagogic attacks against other racial and ethnic groups to bind rebellious masses to opportunism.
Al Sharpton said of the Crown Heights rioters: “Nobody controls these kids but these kids do respect us. They don’t do what we say but they don’t disrespect us; they don’t throw bottles at us like they do at ... Dinkins.” (Village Voice, Oct. 8.) None of the middle-class leaders control the volatile forces of the black populace. But riots by themselves are not a way out. In the ’60’s and ’70’s the ghetto rebellions forced the capitalists to give in to some demands, to offer palliatives and sops. “Affirmative action” and “preferential hiring” provided only enough for a few to rise, and that only for a while. But there were gains.
No longer. Now capitalism is bent on taking back what it once conceded. Racial riots can only bash some of the pawns (and some innocent people) and at best deal out a little justice to the cops. But they are not strong enough to win gains. As well, they bolster popular support for the rulers’ “beef up the police” clamor, a deadly answer to demands for aid made by working people, blacks included.
The time is ripe for the working class to take the lead. The key fact in the U.S. class struggle is that blacks are not simply victims. Black workers are disproportionately employed in the industrial workforce and are critical to the economies of most cities. New York’s bourgeoisie, for example, could be stopped cold if the largely black transit, municipal and hospital unions went on strike. And blacks can reach other workers as well. The anger of the exploited, oppressed and unemployed can be mobilized either racially or as a class against their real enemy, capitalism. That is the choice.
Black workers have shown their militancy in the past. In the wildcat strike wave of the early 1970’s, white workers for the first time showed their willingness to follow black workers’ leadership in strike after strike. But they have so far not taken the leadership of the liberation struggle itself. That has been in the hands of middle-class blacks: liberals and radicals, integrationists and separatists. This must change.
The strategy of battling for crumbs – even for bigger crumbs – has failed. It is time for the alternative, to oppose capitalism as a system. In fact, that is the only way to obtain even crumbs! Black workers, together with Latinos and others who cannot gain equality under capitalism, will demand an end to givebacks, to job losses and factory closures, to cutbacks in public services, to racist inequality and injustice. Jewish workers too need to break with their pro-capitalist leaders and once again become a strong component of the revolutionary movement.
We call on revolutionary workers of all races and nationalities to join with us in the struggle to create a genuine party of the working class. Such an organization would fight in the unions not only for a defensive general strike. It would prove through the general strike that the working class has the power to transform society. The class can then fight for a decent living wage for all, for sharing the necessary work among all available workers so that unemployment disappears, for workers’ control of working conditions.
Such demands would mean a frontal attack on the capitalists’ prerogative to rule as they see fit. Hence the workers’ party must be a revolutionary, authentic communist party. It must say: if capitalism cannot provide what the working class needs, then capitalism will be ended.
Ending capitalism is the major step for abolishing racism as well. The past struggle proves that blacks will never attain job security and wage equality under capitalism. Blacks will always be the last hired and first fired. The revolutionary struggle is therefore doubly important for black workers.
In no way does this mean that black workers, in the interest of leading the whole working class, should subordinate their outrage against racism. Quite the opposite. In the past it was blacks’ proven capacity to fight against injustice that won white workers to their side in the class struggle. It is primarily whites who have to learn that racism is self-defeating and only benefits the bosses.