American capitalism always has been racist to the core. Both its superpower imperialism abroad and its stability at home rest upon the continuing oppression of Black people, as well as of Latinos and immigrants. And the capitalists have always used racism to divide and conquer the masses. If the U.S. ruling class were unable to use white people, including so much of the white working class, as its pawns against Black people, the vampire system that sucks up the wealth created by our labor would have been overthrown decades ago. Black liberation can be won only as a result of a socialist revolution that destroys capitalist rule.
From capture in Africa, through the genocidal holocaust of the Middle Passage, to centuries of enslavement on these shores – slavery was the backbone on which American capitalism was built. After slavery was ended, wage-slavery and sharecropping placed an unequal and inhuman burden upon Black laborers. Even now, when the rulers have been forced to make substantial concessions to people of color, Black workers and poor – especially Black youth – suffer disproportionately from low wages, unemployment, underemployment, police brutality, bad schools, rotten health care, miserable housing and de facto segregation.
And the rollback of past gains has not ended. Handfuls of Black faces in government and business cannot hide the worsening reality most Black working-class and poor people face today. Reforms and immediate gains are, of course, important and must be defended, but they can only be made secure through revolutionary liberation. Racism can be fought now, the question is how and with what goal.
No struggle can be more just than the fight against racism in this country. The day when justice is won for the victims of every act of racism, including slavery, will be a glorious one. But for that very reason, the present effort to obtain reparations for the years of slavery is a mistaken course. It is no accident that it has not caught on among many Black workers, particularly the angry and rebellious youth. It seems unreal. It is unreal.
The massive ghetto rebellions, which the powers-that-be couldn’t control, won the major victories of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The capitalist system then still had some fat so that it could be forced to yield concessions. Today, Enron and the many other scandals show how imaginary its hugely inflated profits are. No wonder over the years it has relentlessly sought to take back the gains won by the Black rebellions. And as the economy declines, the plight of all workers and poor – above all people of color – will inevitably worsen.
The demand for reparations under capitalism is utopian because the U.S. capitalism is inherently racist and unjust. Slavery was a root cause of present-day racism; however, anti-Black discrimination is still a necessary part of the system. The leaders of the reparations efforts are raising a demand concerning the racist past because they have no program to deal with the worsening racist present. In fact, the Democratic Party politicians who are a major force in the reparations leadership have gone along with and covered for the attack on Black workers. The Clinton administration paved the way for Bush & Co. It was Clinton and the Democrats who ended "welfare as we knew it," funded the expansion of police forces, presided over the vast increase in the Black prison population and oversaw the erosion of the already pathetic affirmative action gains.
Reparations for slavery demands that the capitalist state provide justice for past horrors. If 4 cops can get away with shooting 41 bullets at an unarmed Amadou Diallo, what chance is there that the same system will provide the justice that is being demanded?
Today, with the expansion of Black upper classes that think they have a stake in the capitalist system, Black people are divided by class as never before. The various proposals by the reparations leaders reflect their interests in capitalism: a one-time payment to each Black person, or government-funded programs run by middle-class Black administrators. In an attempt to make reparations seem reasonable so that the capitalists will buy it (a very unreasonable idea!), the actual payout to the Black community that is being demanded would be pathetic compared to the super-profits gathered from slavery. And far less would trickle down to the Black masses.
If by some fantastic miracle even this level of reparations could be won, who would pay for it? The working class. And given existing racial discrimination, the burden would disproportionately fall on workers of color. The capitalists who run the country and the government would pass on the costs, as they always do. Black and Latino workers would foot a major portion of the bill through a greater tax burden, higher prices and more intensive exploitation on the job. The capitalist system is not only racist, since the end of slavery it has discovered an infinite number of more subtle means of super-exploitation.
Directly and indirectly, the capitalist system lives off racism. The reparations leaders ignore how deep and endemic it is in order to avoid confronting the system that partially benefits them but brutalizes the mass of people of color.
The reparations leaders propose lawsuits, negotiations, voting, court decisions, Congressional acts, lobbying and Constitutional amendments as the means to accomplish their goals. But slavery was not ended by lawsuits and lobbying – it was smashed by civil war, in which former slaves played a decisive role. The ghetto uprisings – from Watts to Detroit to Newark to Harlem – not pacifist pressure tactics, forced the concessions of the ’60s and ’70s. The system can be forced by mass struggles to make serious concessions. For a time, they can even force the capitalists not to pass on the burdens of those gains. But the last thing that the reparations politicians want is the renewal of mass struggles by Black workers.
Life is a constant daily struggle. Since racial oppression and the dashing of hope for a better life confronts most Black people continually, resistance is inevitably sparked when these immediate problems become unendurable. Horrors like police brutality provoke explosions. In the ’60s, the massive ghetto rebellions shook up and terrified the system and won real gains.
One crucial gain was that key industries were forced to hire large numbers of Black workers. These workers played a key role in the militant strike wave of the early 1970s. Whatever other attitudes they may have had, many white workers came to respect the ability of Black people to fight and win. For the first time in U.S. history, white workers followed the leadership of Black workers in struggle. Important benefits were won, although the struggles were finally contained with the help of the often racist bureaucrats running the unions. And despite all the setbacks, givebacks and rollbacks that have hit since then, Black workers continue to occupy decisive positions in key sectors of industry, transit and government work.
Today, Black workers still have the power to shut down profit-making. They could bring major cities and in fact the whole country to a grinding halt with mass working-class action like a general strike. A likely spark would be another outrageous act of ever-present police brutality. And, as occurred in Los Angeles in 1992, the angry response would not be confined to Blacks. The capitalist attacks are hitting all workers. Today’s ill-paid workforce includes many Latinos and immigrants who, while they did not undergo slavery in the U.S., now also face racial and national discrimination. Many white workers are also facing economic hardship. Under the surface of the patriotic hype, there is a growing fear among working-class people about the economy, and a deep-seated hostility to the politicians and the bosses. It is a question of time before it erupts. Black workers are strategically positioned; they have the power to lead a real mass action counterattack.
The capitalist system depends heavily on Black workers. It protects itself through its age-old weapon of "divide and conquer," encouraging the racism of whites and in turn using it against Blacks. In this spirit, treacherous white labor bureaucrats and lying liberal Democratic leaders have betrayed every alliance they entered into with Black workers. For good reason, Black people have little trust in the solidarity of whites, who have allowed themselves to be used as racial pawns so often. But today, given the strategic economic position of Black workers, when they go into struggle, white workers will increasingly find themselves following the leadership of fighting Black workers.
The deepening economic crisis and mounting state repression (for which September 11 was only an opportunist excuse) guarantee that there will, sooner or later, be mass resistance actions by workers and the poor. Within these working-class actions, revolutionary workers like those of us already in the League for the Revolutionary Party will be fighting for a program of equal wages, full employment, massive public works to rebuild housing, health care and schools and an end to police brutality. Workers will be forming self-defense guards to protect their communities and their strikes from the capitalists and their police thugs. We believe that it takes a working-class revolution, creating a workers’ state on the road to socialism, to achieve these necessary and basic demands.
Some people in the "reparations movement" have admitted to us that reparations might be utopian; they counter that our goal of socialist revolution is even more utopian. But when the inevitable mass struggle explodes again, the idea of revolution again becomes real to many fighters, as it did to Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and so many more. Once the workers, the poor and the oppressed are fighting, the world will look very different. Capitalism will not last forever: its crisis is now too deep.
As the struggle itself deepens, it will adopt demands like the socialist program sketched above. If we do our ground-breaking work today instead of joining in diversions, increasing numbers of politically advanced workers will join with us in building the proletarian revolutionary party to win the leadership of the working class. Just as Black workers will provide leadership for the coming working-class struggles out of proportion to their numbers in society because of their history of struggle and strategic position, so too they must and will play the same leading role in the coming revolutionary workers’ party.