Socialist Alternative

The State of Black America Today: Reparations, Capitalist Crisis, and the Path to Black Freedom

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Eljeer Hawkins and Eric Jenkins are Socialist Alternative members and members of the Democratic Socialists of America.

The year 2020 will be placed in the annals of U.S. and world history as a watershed moment for working people.

The COVID-19 pandemic rocked the world with millions dying from the virus. On top of this, an economic crisis has highlighted the daily precariousness of life under capitalist oppression and exploitation.

The George Floyd rebellion erupted around the country and world, following the law enforcement killing of George Floyd, as well as Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor, not to mention Ahmaud Arbery’s death at the hands of racist vigilantes. Although Trump is no longer President, the danger of right-wing populism, white nationalism, and racist right-wing vigilante violence are still with us. They have the potential to even grow stronger under a Biden presidency as a reaction to pro-corporate policies and the lack of a clear left alternative.

As we turn the calendar on 2020, there are several meaningful discussions and debates happening in the socialist movement, specifically among DSA members and chapters, about how we organize and fight back against capitalist exploitation and racial oppression.

The demands from the movement for abolishing police, prisons, defunding police, and reparations reflect attempts to grapple with how to dismantle systemic racism and oppression. To redress the historical and contemporary denial of the humanity of Black people in the U.S. and reimagine the world anew, while fighting for immediate material gains for Black workers and youth, this has to be connected to working-class social struggle and the ideas of socialism and internationalism. This is the only pathway to Black liberation. At the same time, there will be no end to capitalist rule in the U.S. without building a mighty, multi-racial struggle against racism.

We Can’t Breathe

The Black working class, poor, and youth face an alarming crisis. The loss of wealth, jobs, housing, mass unemployment, lack of access to healthcare and education has brought us to a state of emergency. The COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis, and law enforcement violence have only exacerbated those pre-existing conditions. As the annual report from the National Urban League, State of Black America 2020: Unmasked, correctly states, “The latest findings tell a chilling tale of a nation divided along racial fault lines that first erupted upon the arrival of enslaved Africans in 1619. It recounts the birth of a nation whose institutions and laws were built on top of racist ideologies that continue to oppress, terrorize and disenfranchise the descendants of the enslaved today.”

The ascendancy of Black Lives Matter (BLM) since 2013 punctuates the struggle of Black workers and youth to address the crisis and declare our humanity to the world. On May 25, the George Floyd rebellion brought multiple protests in all 50 states totaling twenty million representatives of the multi-racial working-class and youth. The rebellion represented important steps forward, though it also showed some of the movement’s current limits. The demands for defunding the police, abolishing the police, and community control over police reflected a higher understanding of the police’s role in society. It pointed to how the budgetary priority of the political establishment in cities and states is to protect and defend the interests of the billionaire class, two-party system, and capitalist order.

However, the political immaturity and decentralization of the rebellion showed itself as well. The movement’s demands were generally left in the hands of the Democratic Party-dominated city councils across the country, and far too much faith was placed by movement leaders in these pro-capitalist politicians. The uprising’s epicenter took place in Minneapolis, where a brilliant example of trade union solidarity was shown with bus drivers refusing to transport protestors to jail. But, a negative feature of the rebellion in Minneapolis is that the City Council in particular was able to demobilize the movement with hollow promises to “abolish the police.” The City Council and Democratic Party Mayor Jacob Frey betrayed the movement’s demands and interests, particularly the Black working class and youth, with an austerity budget that not only doesn’t address the root causes of the rebellion but further devastates the black community and working class.

The Limits of Black Lives Matter Exposed

We don’t want or need y’all parading in the streets accumulating donations, platforms, movie deals, etc. off the deaths of our loved ones, while the families and communities are left broken.”- Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, and Lisa Simpson, mother of Richard Risher

A crisis has emerged within the Black Lives Matter Global Network under the leadership of original BLM hashtag co-founder Patrisse Cullors. Ten BLM chapters (the #BLM10) exposed the lack of financial transparency, democracy, and leadership accountability, and they have called out BLM Global Network’s political proximity to the Democratic Party and Joe Biden.

The revelations by the #BLM10 forced the BLM Global Network to reveal their financial records showing 90 million dollars fundraised, but without an indication of who their donors are. The #BLM10 has been attacked by the BLM Global Network leadership using the weapon of questioning who is a “legitimate” BLM chapter.

In recent days the families of victims of law enforcement violence have highlighted the limits of Black Lives Matter’s politics, including NGO-centered organizing and toxic celebrity culture. Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice and Lisa Simpson, mother of Richard Risher, released a joint statement calling out – among others – Tamika Mallory, founder of the racial justice NGO Until Freedom, 2017 Women’s March national organizer, and former associate of Reverend Al Sharpton. The statement was released following Mallory’s role in popular rapper Lil Baby’s anti-law enforcement violence Grammy performance, which many saw as an attempt to build their names, brands, and activist clout off of those killed by police, as their families try to heal from losing their loved ones, deal with economic hardships, and fight for justice all at the same time.

The statement correctly and bravely called out civil rights attorneys Ben Crump and S. Lee Merritt, writer Shaun King, BLM Los Angeles co-founder Melina Abdullah, and Patrisse Cullors for their role in profiting off of the movement. The replies by Shaun King and Mellina Abdullah to the criticism was totally insensitive, condescending, and shocking to hear and read. 

At the heart of Samaria Rice, Michael Brown Sr., and Lisa Simpson’s criticism is the lack of accountable and democratic leadership and organization by self-appointed leaders in our communities which is a historical question in our struggle against capitalism and racism. We must be clear about the role of such figures and entities, that not all skin folk are kinfolk, and that they are often playing into the agenda of Wall Street and the corporate two-party system rather than reflecting the interests of the majority of Black workers and youth.

Since the George Floyd rebellion, the ruling elite and its institutions have gone on the offensive to co-opt and nullify this moment. Wall Street donated two billion dollars to racial justice NGO organizations, and advanced diversity approaches through the ascendancy of Black and Brown faces in high places in corporate America and the two-party system. The Black misleadership class played a dastardly role by directing the justified rage of millions into safe channels like advocating for Black capitalism and entrepreneurship. This effort was led by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, like Black South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn, who outright attacked demands like defunding the police. Another terrible example comes from Barack Obama and Michael Jordan who fought to end the righteous work stoppage by NBA players and athletes broadly standing in solidarity with BLM.

The lack of a cohesive leadership, democratic structures, and organization was a missing element in last year’s rebellion. It was not just the failures of BLM to lead in a moment of social struggle but the inadequate role of key forces in the socialist movement.

The absence of a national approach and real organized presence of DSA was alarming for many, both inside and outside DSA. The largest socialist organization today and second-largest in U.S. history (behind the Socialist Party of the 1910s) has a duty to critically engage in one of the most significant events in recent memory. DSA as a whole was disoriented about how to engage with the Black working class, poor, and youth and putting forward demands that speak to their mixed consciousness and mood around issues that matter to them. At protest after protest around the country, DSA members were present as individuals, but our banners, materials, and political program were missing in action.

Recent conversations and resolutions have been presented in several DSA chapters as members attempt to grapple with the post-George Floyd rebellion and map out the best approach to dismantle the edifice of capitalism and racism. Among these, the Seattle DSA AfroSocialist resolution on Reparations in the Seattle DSA deserves widespread democratic discussion and debate.

Reparations, the Black Working Class and DSA

On November 25, 2020 several members of the Seattle AfroSocialists caucus presented a resolution to the Seattle DSA chapter on committing the organization to create a “Black Reparations Fund.” This meant that a portion of resources from dues and donation drives would be reallocated to a bank account controlled by AfroSocialists Caucus in conjunction with the Seattle DSA chapter treasurer. AfroSocialist members don’t have to be members of DSA to access these funds for organizing purposes. What followed sparked an essential debate on the role of reparations in the fight for Black liberation. Ultimately, the chapter voted in favor of the resolution. 

This is part of a renewal of discussion on reparations, from House Resolution 40, which would create a commission to study possible roads to reparations; to a newly published book by William Darity and Kirsten Mullen that advocates for reparations in the 21st century. In Evanston, Illinois the city will begin distribution of up to $25,000 per person in reparations to Black residents as part of a $10 million reparations program over the next ten years. This is a concession by the political and economic establishment in one fairly affluent small city following the aftermath of the George Floyd rebellion. However, this program alleviates housing costs for only a brief time. It doesn’t address Black working-class households that are saddled with personal debt, low paying jobs, or inadequate access to health care.Socialists will need to develop a further analysis on reparations and their relation to the struggle for Black liberation. 

The authors of the Seattle Afrosocialist’s Black Reparations Fund raise essential points on the need for resources to build organizations in Black working-class communities. The George Floyd rebellion showed the necessity of long-term sustained organizing based on straightforward militant tactics and programmatic demands that could launch the broader working class, including unions, into action. The Communist Party of the 1930s is in many ways a historic model with a focus on fighting racism linked to building fighting multiracial unions exemplified by the famous Scottsboro Boys case.

The resolution’s political motivations brought up the historical failings of predominantly white socialist organizations to respond to the hyper-exploitation and oppression of Black people. One frequently cited example is the Socialist Party of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, dominated by the right-wing of their organization, who wavered in the face of Jim/Jane Crow. But from the time of Marx there has been a continuous tradition of genuine anti-racist socialism, including the Industrial Workers of the World, the early CP and others. A decisive and positive influence on the American socialist movement was the Russian Revolution and the Communist International which insisted that American revolutionaries had to see fighting racism as a central, strategic task.

The authors suggest that white workers, including predominantly white socialist organizations, benefit from white supremacy in disproportionate access to good housing, living-wage union jobs, and healthcare. These white workers and activists then must “repair the harm” done to Black people. The document preamble claims that Seattle DSA members are supposedly still replicating these harms. 

The resolution, at its core, brings forward two assumptions which we believe need to be seriously examined: Do white socialists and workers benefit from white supremacy? If so, should they pay back their “benefits” via “Black reparations”? And how can socialists best build a multi-racial movement with roots in Black working-class communities? 

The Foundations of Capitalism and Racism 

The effects of racism and white supremacist ideologies are the main barriers to forming a multi-racial working-class movement. But the history of class struggle in the United States that the authors present is only a small portion of that revolutionary legacy. 

Ever since the arrival of the first indentured African servants to arrive in colonial America to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, the class struggle was present. European indentured servants, many forcibly shipped to these colonial outposts via repressive vagrancy laws and kidnappings, struggled alongside their African comrades. European and African servants fought, bled, and ran away together, sometimes to Indigenous tribes or established maroon societies that rejected racism and slavery.

In order to consolidate and increase their profits, the ruling colonial capitalist classes saw it as strategically necessary to crush this multi-racial solidarity. They created “white supremacy” to establish social control of a small landowning clique over the vast laboring masses. Members of this newly formed “white race” would be granted privileges in terms of better sustenance and, the biggest perk of all, avoiding the possibility of becoming a chattel slave, like millions of Black people. In turn, the ruling class used white supremacy to try to manipulate white working people into supporting the subjugation of the enslaved Black masses. 

It was the ruling class that was the key beneficiary of white supremacy, not white workers. Failure to understand this plays into the logic of white supremacy historically espoused by the capitalist class — that the subjugation of Black and Brown people leads to higher living standards for the white working class who ultimately would be better off with white supremacy than without it. In fact white workers were paid far less in the Jim/Jane Crow South than in the highly unionized North. The Southern ruling class doubled down on Jim/Jane Crow in the early 20th century with the clear aim of keeping the unions and “the Reds” out of the South as it could not only lead to better wages and working conditions for all workers but even to their domination being threatened.

The modern-day benefactors of the hyper-exploitation and violent subjugation of Black people to chattel slavery are Wall Street giants like JP Morgan, Aetna, and countless others. Reparations would require a massive redistribution of wealth and a wholesale takeover of these companies by the working class. Accomplishing this would put the entire capitalist system into jeopardy. 

As George Jackson once remarked in Soledad Brother

“The slaver was and is the factory owner, the businessman of capitalist Amerika, the man responsible for employment, wages, prices, control of the nation’s institutions and culture… Capitalism murdered the 30 million in the Congo. Believe me, the European and Anglo-Amerikan capitalist would never have wasted the ball and powder were it not for the profit motive.” 

The ruling class historically used white supremacy to pay Black workers less, not to pay the white workers more, with a goal always to divide the working class. Before the advent of the multiracial mass industrial unions of the 1930s which won real gains, the American Federation of Labor was dominated by craft unions of “skilled workers” which frequently excluded Black workers or had segregated locals. But the AFL was weak, characterized by business unionism and did not address the bulk of the white working class which was “unskilled” and “semi-skilled.” Contrast the approach of the AFL to the 1892 New Orleans General Strike, where Black and white workers remained united despite the white supremacist appeals of the capitalist class and won the bulk of their demands on the principle of multi-racial, working-class solidarity. 

In the words of Theodore W. Allen, author of the Invention of the White Race:

White privilege to the white worker is rat poison to the rat.”

With all of its failures, even the early Socialist Party was a home of many socialist organizers, both white and Black, who seriously grappled with how to win the Black working class to the forces of socialism. These activists would be ultimately expelled or pushed out of the party for their efforts. It would be the socialists among this grouping, in fact the majority of the Socialist Party base, that would form the core of the Communist Party USA in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which stood for international solidarity with all working and oppressed people of the world. Without this connection between Black and white socialists who debated over the necessary programs, methods, and tactics to fight against racism and capitalism, the Communist Party wouldn’t have been on the minds of 100,000s of Black working people with thousands joining its ranks in the 30s.

“Black Reparations” cannot be remotely achieved by the sharing of funds of a socialist organization. It only leads to the circulation of small amounts of money among a group of activists. The challenges of recruiting Black people to socialist organizations isn’t solely a material barrier but primarily a political one. There needs to be a serious recognition that what is most needed is a political program that speaks to the needs of the Black working class. That is imperative in this current phase of the Black Liberation struggle. This would mean socialist organizations, like DSA, should support full-time Black socialist organizers to build roots in the Black working class. However, this must go hand-in-hand with discussions and debates on how to make socialism and social struggle real for Black workers and youth and a strategy to win concrete gains such as community control of the police, Medicare-for-All, and ending environmental racism. 

Building the Socialist Movement Against Capitalism and Racial Oppression

The road to Black liberation must also be a road to socialist revolution. But what strategy is required, keeping in mind the special history of American society, and the convergence of racism, sexism, and economic exploitation which comprises the material terrain of this nation?”- Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America

We are living in challenging times for the working class and poor. President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion dollar stimulus package passed by Congress, despite including a number of concessions to Wall Street like the elimination of a federal $15/hr minimum wage proposal, is an important development. The stimulus package will be a shot in the arm for millions of working people and the poor in the short term in facing the pandemic, economic hardship, and mass unemployment. For the Black working class, poor, and youth, there is little doubt about the unbearable conditions in our communities, workplaces, and universities. However, these stimulus measures are only kicking the can of a much larger crisis down the road. They include no long term gains for working people, something our movement will have to reckon with soon.

The time is ripe for our organization and the broader socialist movement to map out a comprehensive strategy and independent working-class approach to build among Black workers, poor, and youth. In order to build an effective independent grassroots working-class mass movement against capitalism and racial oppression we will have to challenge the dominant ideas and organizing approach of the BLM Global Network, and the narrow racial identity politics of the current Seattle DSA’s Afrosocialist caucus leadership.

Too often DSA’s approach is limited to building among existing racial justice NGO community organizations, Democratic Party appendage formations, or the known activist layer. There are many genuine activists and organizers within these formations who want to challenge the capitalist system. Yet these formations’ proximity to the Democratic Party and wealthy philanthropic foundations like the Ford Foundation, and individuals like George Soros, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Jeff Bezos stymies the possibilities of the struggle needed in this period of capitalist crisis and racial oppression. Since the open assault by big business against the radical wing of the Black Freedom movement over 50 years ago under the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and the co-option of the reformist wing of the Black Freedom movement to the agenda of Wall Street and the two-party system, the NGO model has become the dominant model of grassroots organizing and mobilizing.

For our movement to maintain its vibrancy and challenge the system that oppresses us, it will have to cut the purse strings and links with big money grants that keep afloat a number of groups and individuals that are organizing against law enforcement terror and racial oppression. The key and historical role of these capitalist entities is to choke and control the movement’s message and to focus it into safe channels that don’t ideologically and organizationally challenge the system of capitalism and racism.

The building of a working-class socialist movement that is ideologically and organizationally independent is vital to effectively dismantle the root causes of racial oppression and exploitation under the capitalist order. The work and leadership of independent Seattle socialist city councillor and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant, during the course of the George Floyd rebellion was paramount. Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant’s office played a leading role in fighting for the defunding of the police demand, the ban on the use of chemical weapons on protesters by the Seattle police department and especially the Tax Amazon campaign for affordable housing. Through those demands and campaigns our movement was able to articulate the interconnected nature of Wall Street and law enforcement as well as organizing working people to win material gains like the Amazon Tax and bans on the usage of chemical and other “crowd control” weapons by Seattle law enforcement.

If our movement was tied solely to the Democratic Party corporate establishment agenda we would have never won. Now that protests have died down, the Democratic Party in the state legislature in Olympia, Washington State are trying to repeal the Amazon Tax in Seattle and the progressive Democrats on the Seattle City Council have attacked the ban on the use of “crowd control” weapons. Kshama Sawant’s socialist council office fought tooth-and-nail  against the gutting of the ban and was the sole vote in defense of it. 

It is unfortunate that the current leaders of Seattle DSA’s AfroSocialist caucus in Seattle neither fought to win this ban during the height of the BLM protests, nor did they come out in defense of it as it was being gutted in February this year. It appears this would have required a clash with the progressive Democrats in Seattle who they weren’t prepared to take on. 

It is also unfortunate that the current leaders of Seattle DSA’s AfroSocialist caucus never campaigned actively to win the Amazon Tax last summer, and did not speak in favor of it at any of the BLM protests at that crucial time during the struggle. A section of BLM leaders in Seattle argued that it was “not a Black issue” – starkly untrue in a city where affordable housing is a massive issue for the Black community. Notably, the Tax Amazon movement was also not popular with the Democratic Party leaders.

To bring the Black workers and youth into the socialist movement we must clearly fight for their class interests independent of the Democratic establishment. We must draw out political perspectives based on our conversations with Black workers and youth to find out what they want and need, and are willing to fight for. That conversation is the foundation for our organization to produce demands that interconnect with Black workers and youth’s consciousness and interests. DSA’s membership, led by our People of Color/AfroSocialist members, should advance a program of social struggle and organizing that is taken to every community, workplace, trade union, and university to win Black workers and youth to our organization and program. As neoliberal capitalism reaches a dead end, the historic failure of liberalism and reformism to address the historical plight of Black workers and youth is in stark relief. DSA and the broader socialist movement will have to win their political trust and confidence through showing how social struggle can win concrete material gains for the Black working class, poor, and youth.

Suppose the predominantly Black workers and women at the Bessemer, Alabama Amazon warehouse win their unionization drive. In that case, it could spark union drives in other Amazon warehouses and revitalize the labor movement across the country. There are members of Black Lives Matter Birmingham, DSA, labor unions and Socialist Alternative working on the ground and standing in solidarity with the workers. A victory will be a powerful example of workers standing together fighting racism, and socialist organizers fighting back against the wealthiest corporation on the planet. During the George Floyd rebellion, Amazon declared its “support” for Black Lives Matter with a ten million dollar pledge to “fight” racial injustice. Meanwhile, Amazon fired Black workers in their warehouses who fought for PPE, hazard pay and unionization to combat the ravages of COVID-19 on the workforce and horrendous working conditions.

Our struggle for Black freedom is a central question for the socialist movement, and how we get there will not be in a straight line or easy path. We can learn from our forebears, the first articulators of genuine Black Marxism and socialism dating back to the post-Civil War era with figures like Peter Clark, George Washington Woodbey, Hubert Harrison and Claudia Jones. Their work as ours today is to organize among the Black working class, poor, and youth to struggle with them and raise the banner of socialism and workers’ democracy as the only pathway to full Black liberation from capitalist exploitation and racial oppression.

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