Since the historic civil rights and black power movements, the African American community has faced an unrelenting attack by big business and the two-party system to overturn every gain made by the black revolt of the ’50s and ’60s. Today, economic depression, political disenfranchisement, and cynicism about political change are the key features of the state of black America. The past year has also highlighted the true nature of America’s racist capitalist system.
A Lost Generation
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ended the separate and unequal doctrine of Jim Crow within America’s educational system. However, as Jonathan Kozol, author of Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, indicates, we have returned to pre-civil rights conditions for African Americans in education.
Kozol visited 60 schools in 11 states and points out: “Statistics, as stark as they are, cannot begin to convey how deeply isolated children in the poorest and most segregated sections of these communities have become. In the typically colossal high schools of the Bronx, for instance, more than 90% of students (in most cases, more than 95 %) are black or Hispanic.”
Bush’s neo-liberal offensive to gut educational programs and attack teachers’ unions under the No Child Left Behind Act has led to an explosive crisis in education, which affects poor, black, and Latino young people the most.
Bush’s proposed 2006 budget reduces funding for education by 5.5%, or $3 billion. The budget calls for the deepest cuts in social programs since the Reagan era, with 150 programs eliminated or drastically scaled back, one third of them education-related. At the same time, the Pentagon gets a $28 billion (6.9%) increase for a total of $439 billion, which doesn’t even include the cost of the Iraq war.
Workers and young people are facing the Wal-Martization of the U.S. economy: low wages, no health benefits, and vicious opposition to union organizing. But black workers and youth face particularly terrible conditions.
The real unemployment rate for blacks aged 16-19 is 32.9%, which includes the unemployed, underemployed, and those deterred from the job market. The unemployment rate for black workers stood at 10.9% in mid-2004, double the national rate (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
There are 2.2 million prisoners in the U.S. penal system, the highest number in any country in the world. 12% of African American men ages 20-34 are incarcerated, with an ever increasing number of African American women comprising 46% of the female prison population.
The increasing number of new AIDS cases in the black community, particularly for African American women, is alarming. And of course there is the brutal death penalty, which is used disproportionately against blacks and Latinos. The execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams (former gang leader, author, and anti-gang organizer) is only the most recent graphic illustration of why it must be abolished.
The choices American democracy affords to African American young people to end the brutal cycle of racism and poverty are nonexistent. That the ruling class is well aware of this and prepared to exploit it can be seen in the ever-increasing presence of military recruiters in America’s urban centers. The military attempts to recruit black, brown, working-class, and poor youth to die in Bush’s war in Iraq by selling dreams of a promising education and life-long skills for a future career.
Despite this, the unpopularity of Bush, a greater antiwar sentiment among African Americans, and a militant response to recruiters on our campuses and communities has led to an important development: a decrease of African American enlistments in the army. “The percentage of African Americans among all those who signed up for active-duty army service fell from 24% in 2000 to 14% in 2005, according to Army statistics. That’s the lowest percentage since 1973…” (Knight Ridder Newspapers, 12/20/05)
New Orleans: Vegas By the Shore
The unnatural disaster of Hurricane Katrina was testament to the historical relationship between African Americans and the institutions of U.S. capitalism. It is one of criminal neglect and physical, economic, and psychological abuse. The epicenter of Katrina was the city of New Orleans, with great devastation inflicted upon the predominantly African American working-class and poor communities like the 9th Ward.
The battle now in New Orleans is about who will benefit from the reconstruction of the Big Easy and the question of the right of return for African Americans. As Congressman Mike Pence, leading member of the Republican Study Group that helped draft Bush’s Gulf Coast reconstruction policy, stated clearly, “we want to turn the Gulf Coast into a magnet for free enterprise. The last thing we want is a federal city where New Orleans once was.”
From the first black mayor of New Orleans, Ernest “Dutch” Morial, elected in 1977, to the present day Mayor Ray Nagin, the city administration has sought to serve two masters: the African Americans that make up 75% of the city, and the corporate elite. In the ’90s and ’00s under Mayor Marc Morial, currently president of the National Urban League, attacks on public housing, the labor movement, and union organizing within the hotel industry escalated, while the police force increased and the prison population exploded.
Mayor Ray Nagin, Democrat, cable executive, millionaire, former Republican, and a supporter of Bush’s 2000 campaign, is preparing to fulfill the land-grab and casino dreams of the New Orleans ruling elite and Corporate America. His city commission, mandated to “Bring New Orleans Back,” is filled with corporate representatives and led by real estate mogul Joe Canizaro.
The reconstruction of New Orleans typifies the political corruption and undemocratic character of the system. The $62 billion already allocated to New Orleans and an estimated $250 billion available for rebuilding will go overwhelmingly to the corporate elite. The early contract bids have gone to major corporations such as the Shaw Group, Bechtel National, and Halliburton, fresh off their plunder of Iraq’s resources and with close ties to the Bush administration.
Big business and both political parties want to turn New Orleans into a Vegas by the shore, stripping it of its unique and historical importance to the African American experience in the region.
Where is the Resistance?
“Joe Canizaro, I don’t know you, but I hate you. I’m going to suit up like I’m going to Iraq and fight this…”, said New Orleans East resident Harvey Bender, referring to the author of the city commission’s rebuilding plan.
Thousands of Katrina families are still displaced. On February 13, FEMA cut hotel payments for 12,000 displaced families across the country including 4,400 in New Orleans, effectively putting them out on the street.
Unfortunately, however, there hasn’t been a clear independent grassroots movement and program to fight back against big business in the region. The response to the corporate takeover of New Orleans has been confused, with a multitude of southern-based grassroots organizations, non-governmental organizations, activist networks, and black churches with various agendas.
Katrina poses a number of questions to the working class, in particular black workers and youth, about building their own independent organization and movement to demand not only the right of return but a program for jobs, education, and healthcare to reverse the pre-Katrina conditions for New Orleans’ working class and poor. Katrina sheds light on the character of black leaders today; whose interest do they serve?
The December strike by New York’s 34,000 transit workers of overwhelmingly African American, Afro-Caribbean, Latino, and South Asian background demonstrated the social power of the black working class and other workers of color. They shut down the center of U.S. finance capital for three days, demanding respect from the notorious and ruthless Metropolitan Transit Authority management and an end to attacks on their health and pension benefits.
On October 15, this power was also evident when an attempted march by neo-Nazis in a North Toledo black community was met with a militant response by black youth and activists.
The events of Katrina and the deteriorating social and economic conditions African Americans face poses the question of how to end the barbarism of U.S. capitalism. In part two of The State of Black America, we will examine the crisis of black leadership and the need to build a mass movement of the working class to end the cycle of poverty, racism, and war.