Anti-Black Racism: An Insidious Poison Against the Class Struggle

As the central obstacle to the unity of workers in the USA, racism is no new invention of capitalism. It is as old as slavery, and therefore predates even the current configuration of the exploitation of labor by capital in North America.

The kind of racism Americans are accustomed to has its roots in the beginnings of the cultivation of Virginia tobacco and the early period of the British-American colonies. What was happening in the colonies at the time? Class conflict. Periodic battles between white and black laborers on one side, and the forerunners of the bourgeoisie on the other were mounting in the 16th and 17th centuries. Consequently, racism à l’anglais was written into the law.

In 1676, white indentured servants and African slaves rebelled together against the British administration in Virginia. In order to avoid future incidents and divide white laborers from slaves, the following racial code was created: black skin = ‘branded’ labor, white skin = ‘free’ labor.

In the 19th century, the interests of Southern elites—whose fortunes were based on the exploitation of slaves—collided with the interests of an adolescent bourgeoisie in the North, whose fortunes were based on the exploitation of a new class of wage-laborers: the proletariat. In the face of a changing social system subject to capitalist economic laws and the outcome of the Civil War, the Southern elite’s social and political position became precarious. Capitalism in the South had already been dependent on linking property to white supremacy and in dispossessing non-white property owners.

After the Civil War, this distinction between white and black was emphasized even more. To defend their place within the social system after the Civil War, Southern plutocrats attacked and repressed emancipated slaves. The more than ten thousand lynchings between 1865-1877, the de facto disenfranchisement of Black people, the reign of terror of the Ku Klux Klan, etc., culminated in the notorious Jim Crow laws.

Fast-forwarding to 1919, the US became a hotbed of class struggle as the Russian Revolution inspired workers internationally. The newly formed Communist Party of America played a leading role in some struggles, such as the Great Steel Strike of 1919. Due to a combination of factors, the strike was defeated by January 1920, but one of the bourgeoisie’s most potent venoms, which the steel companies generously dispensed to the workers, was racist and chauvinist sentiment. To break the strike, the bosses ordered their spies amongst the workers to “stir up as much bad feeling as you possibly can” by pitting white workers against the 30,000-40,000 Black and Mexican workers (excluded from the main trade unions like the AFL) employed as strikebreakers.

White workers were duped into anti-Black racist hysteria by their bosses, and engaged in anti-Black riots and lynchings. The workers’ defeat was paved with the corpses of Black proletarians, assassinated in the most infuriating way imaginable, at the hands of their white class siblings who were used as nothing more than as pawns by the bosses to deliver a devastating gut-punch to the proletariat’s strength at a critical historical period for our class.

Present-day examples of how the bourgeoisie directly employs racist divisions to fragment our class are plenty. Take 2020, for example. The working class is hit with a double-whammy of a deadly pandemic, of which workers were the first and frontline victims (“we have to keep working to save the economy!”), and an economic crisis involving 14% official unemployment and which threatens to make millions (if not more) homeless. Strikes are outlawed by the state under the guise of an emergency situation. George Floyd is suffocated by one pig while three others watch on. The video makes its rounds on the news and social media. A powder-keg situation is set alight, as unemployed workers that have been confined at home for months, duke it out with the police in the streets for two weeks in fits of rage at a recurring, historic injustice committed against Black proletarians.

Here we get two responses from the bourgeoisie. On the one hand, the Democratic Party NGO-complex sweeps in to gain control of the street demonstrations, transforming them into an appendage of Biden’s 2020 campaign and amplifying the calls to root out white “outside agitators” (cleave off any potential unity between white and Black workers against the state’s forces of order). A multiracial Democratic Party Congressional congregation dons Ghanaian kente cloth in June 2020 to show how sincere they are. Now it becomes about “amplifying Black voices”, that is, those Black voices with the capital to be heard, and slowly erasing the initial, elementary response against the proletariat’s physical enemy, the police. On the other hand, the GOP brings out the most putrid white identity politics, appealing to long tried-and-tested capitalist stereotypes of Black people as criminals, to complete the racialist divide between white and Black workers. The end result? Dismemberment of workers along racial lines.

We see then that the function of racial separation of white and Black, whether this is enforced through law (Jim Crow), overt violence (lynchings, police murders), or covert violence (the enormously disproportionate poverty among Black workers) has been, and remains, to divide the class of toilers from uniting against the property-owning capitalist class. The division of white workers from their class siblings has been a reliable instrument in the class-war toolbelt of the bourgeoisie both North and South, past and present.

In contrast, the working class response against racism requires bringing its fight against racism onto its own terrain. The struggle against police brutality, the prison-industrial complex, housing segregation, workplace discrimination, wage theft, and all other aspects of racism must be carried out through working class organs, with the ultimate aim of the abolition of the capitalist system.

This abolition of capitalism and class society can only be done by the working class through its revolutionary seizure of power. By its own strength, the working class must self-organize to eradicate the roots of racial oppression. This entails the creation and presence of the centralized, revolutionary party with solid roots in the working class, necessary to guide our global class towards its historical task. The role of the party is to provide the links between these struggles to the communist program, to make it concrete and relevant for those fighting against racism that communism is the only viable alternative.

The above article is taken from the latest issue of Internationalist Notes (#7 Winter 2024), bulletin of the Internationalist Workers’ Group.

Thursday, February 22, 2024