US: The state of Black America

Working class leadership needed against racism and poverty

Since the historic civil rights and black power movements, the African American in community in the US 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 [Jim Crow laws or government practises were used in US Southern states to preserve racially segregated schools, transport and housing. Jim Crow was declared unconstitutional in 1954]. 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 programmes, and to attack teachers’ unions, under the ‘No Child Left Behind Act’, led to an explosive crisis in education, which mostly affects poor, black, and Latino young people.

Bush’s proposed 2006 budget reduces funding for education by 5.5%, or $3 billion. The budget calls for the deepest cuts in social programmes since the Reagan era, with 150 programmes 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 non-existent. 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 centres. 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 anti-war 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, 20/12/05)

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 epicentre 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, “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 escalated against public housing, the labor movement, and union organizing within the hotel industry, 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 carry out 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 from their plunder of Iraq’s resources, and which have 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 13 February, the government agency responsible, 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 programme 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. It raises questions about building their own independent organization and movement, to demand the right of return and a programme 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?

Last December’s strike by New York’s 34,000 transit workers, who come overwhelmingly from African American, Afro-Caribbean, Latino, and South Asian backgrounds, demonstrated the social power of the black working class and other workers of color. They shut down the centre 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 15 October, 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. 

The crisis of Black leadership

The post-civil rights era can be best described as a massive political vacuum in the black community. Much of the militant black leadership was bought off, killed by police violence, demoralised or imprisoned. However, the Black middle-class has grown tremendously since the end of the black revolt and the end of Jim Crow afforded them the space to capitalize socially, economically and politically, leaving the black working class and poor to face the onslaught of the neo-liberal agenda.

Norman Kelly, in his book, ‘The Dead End of Black Politics’ (2004), described what he terms the “Head Negro in Charge (HNIC) Syndrome”: “This is a condition in which self-appointed leaders hijack the political process by somehow appealing to blacks’ sense of collectivity, while having an agenda that is mostly about themselves, making themselves the leaders.”

The ‘HNIC’ is best exemplified by multi-media ‘personality’, Tavis Smiley. Smiley’s well known radio talk show is sponsored by the infamous Walmart corporation, as well as by Armstrong Williams, a former right-wing commentator on America’s ‘Black Forum’. Williams is also on the payroll of the Bush administration and one of its main cheerleaders.

We are witnessing the enrichment of these false leaders, who carry out the corporate agenda, while posing as ‘spokespeople’ for the various political strains of thought in the black community. The most strident example of the syndrome is Andrew Young, a former aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, the 1960s Civil Rights leader. Young cashed in on his civil rights movement credentials to become a corporate shill for Walmart and Nike.

Even those on the so called ‘left’ are under the spell of the HNIC Syndrome. The ascendancy of Al Sharpton, founder and leader of the National Action Network, has led him from being an isolated political ‘enigma’ in the mid 1980’s to becoming New York City’s Democratic Party powerbroker and superstar political free agent. What distinguishes Sharpton from others in the black leadership is his consistent opposition and organizing against police violence in the black community, taking up justice cases like those of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo.

Sharpton’s failed Democratic Party Presidential primary campaign, in 2004, gave him a national spotlight. His rhetorical showmanship, left-populist message, opposition to the war in Iraq, and mobilization against the electoral coup of 2000, in Florida, gained Sharpton a multitude of fans and admirers.

But Wayne Barret of the ‘Village Voice’ journal exposed Sharpton’s link to Roger Stone, a Bush ally (“Sleeping with the GOP”, February 5, 2004). This posed serious questions over who financed Sharpton’s campaign and organization. As a political free-agent, not accountable to the black community, Sharpton can be bought and sold. Last year, Sharpton came out in support of the failed bid to build a new sports facility, on the west side of Manhattan, for the National Football League’s ‘New York Jets’. His campaign was backed by New York billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg in an attempt to secure the 2008 Olympics in New York. The project would have displaced hundreds of residents in the area and provided corporate welfare for New York Jets. During the week of the Hurricane Katrina events, in which Sharpton correctly blasted the government’s slow response, the National Action Network was slated to give awards to Walmart and Tyson Foods, both companies which are being sued for civil rights violations.

We need a political movement

In recent years we have seen electoral shifts in the black community. The total political disenfranchisement of the Black working class and poor, highlighted by the 2000 and 2004 presidential election, and the decades of abuse under US capitalism and “democracy”, leads to a correct distrust in the political process and its elected officials. It has also led to a greater sense of cynicism about political change within the black community, a sentiment that must be overcome in the struggle to eradicate racial and class oppression and illuminate a new vision of society based on human need.

Given the lack of a viable political alternative to the Democratic Party, which is a corporate party and the right wing agenda of the Republican Party, the black community continues to give tacit support to the party of the southern slave master. The past few elections have seen part of the black middle class joining and voting for the Republican Party. In 2000, 8% of the black vote went for Bush, and in 2004 this rose to 11%, far smaller than the black vote for the Democratic Party, but nonetheless significant. The swing has been led by the conservative leadership in Black churches and clergy like T.D. Jakes.

There are a number of black clergy like old stalwarts Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton representing the liberal wing of the Black clergy leadership who have spoken and organized around issues like the right of return and democratic voting rights for Katrina survivors in New Orleans. They also verbally defend gay rights. But the conservative black clergy leadership are now the dominant trend within the black church. T.D. Jakes, and other conservative black clergy, received federal grants under Bush’s “faith-based” initiative that looks to religious organizations to provide social services instead of the government. Jakes and other clergy were selected by Bush to operate a post-Katrina fund worth $20 million in privately-raised funds that would be distributed through their faith-based institutions. This is part of $110 million raised by George Bush Sr and Bill Clinton after Katrina.

The church has been a historic pillar in the black community, socially, politically and spiritually. But with the lack of a sustaining political mass movement that would demand accountability of its leadership, the Black church leadership has enriched themselves with multi-media production companies and stadium sized churches. The church has become a money making operation, devoid of any real social justice component. Their conservative agenda is a conduit to the right-wing Christian Coalition’s agenda, with which they agree on a number of issues such as opposition to gay marriage. In contrast, Dr. King was influenced by events and social struggle on the streets. He was basically penniless at the time of his assassination when he launched the multi-racial ‘Poor Peoples Campaign,’ to combat racism and poverty in the north and throughout the nation. At the time of his death, he was speaking out against US militarism, Vietnam and the ideals of capitalism.

The lack of militant leadership in the Black community has created an extreme vacuum. Nation of Islam (NOI) leader, Louis Farrakhan, is attempting to fill that position. NOI organized last years’ ‘Million More Movement’ march, where Farrakhan’s new left-populist rhetoric was on display. He also participated in the 1 April protest rally, this year, for residents’ rights to vote and reconstruct in New Orleans. This turn to the left, however, cannot overshadow the NOI’s top-down, undemocratic structure, its ultra-conservative position on social questions, its cult of personality, and pro-black capitalist position. Recent comments by the NOI and Farrakhan reflects the anger within the Black community, but it speaks more to the crisis facing the NOI. Their membership numbers are dwindling, with an estimated 20,000 people now remaining in the Nation of Islam. The vast majority of African-American Muslims have embraced orthodox Sunni Islam, joining organizations and mosques like the Islamic Society of North America. Along with African Americans returning back to the traditional Black Churches, the NOI is in danger of being irrelevant.

We need a party of the working class

The need for a political alternative to the two-party system is paramount. The “lesser of two evils” argument that besieged the last two presidential campaigns – effectively used by the black leadership to justify a vote for the Democratic Party – has no support when we study the history of the black experience through slavery and Jim Crow to today.

The Democratic Party defended and profited from chattel slavery and white supremacy in the south, for 350 years. The gains made during the civil rights movement came out of the blood, sweat and tears of the working class, particularly the black working class and poor. Under the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic Party sought to hijack and derail the Civil Rights movement. The exhibition of the social power of the black working class and youth in the south brought huge pressure to bear on the establishment. However, the denial of basic democratic rights for US citizens in the south was also an embarrassment for US imperialism during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. African heads of state spoke out against US racism in the United Nations. The fact that a sector of US big business found Jim Crow counter productive for US imperialism contributed to Jim Crow’s defeat.

The Democratic Party sought to lead social movements to win incremental reforms instead of a radical political alternative to racism and capitalism. The agenda of the Republican Party under Bush, the tax breaks for the rich, and war in Iraq, could not be carried out without the compliance of the Democratic Party. The “friends” of “black America”, like former presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, introduced austerity measures when in power, such as cuts in social spending. At the same time, they increased corporate welfare, undercutting the gains of the civil rights and black power movements. This set the stage for the right wing backlash of Reagan-Bush I and Bush II presidencies.

It will be through social struggle by the working class, people of color and the poor, that genuine political candidates and a party of the working class will emerge. The South Carolina Labor Party is currently engaged in a campaign to collect signatures for state wide ballot access. South Carolina’s conditions are stark. It has the second lowest union density in the country. In the past five years, 76,000 manufacturing and textiles jobs were lost. It is also the home of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 which has a black leadership. The longshoremen conducted a successful campaign against the scab outfit ‘Stevedor’, on the docks, and fought back against police violence during the campaign.

If successful, this campaign would be an important example of a local independent workers’ electoral campaign. It could be an important stepping stone to politicising the various issues facing the working class, particularly the black working class. For such a campaign to be successful, it must organise in the communities, workplaces and campuses, around the need for union rights, defence of health and pension benefits, a national healthcare system, affordable housing, free education and for decent jobs with a living wage. Representatives elected on the labor ticket should receive the wage of an average worker. These are the political points that a movement and campaign can be built on, with the vision of building a national workers’ party.

A programme against racism and poverty

In recent years, there has been a debate among activists, intellectuals and commentators, as to who will lead a struggle against racism and poverty in the black community. Two years ago, the black actor Bill Cosby made reactionary comments, blaming the black working class and poor for its perpetual plight and advocating that the black middle class lead the uplift of black workers and youth. This is not a new discussion; the social position of the black middle class, with its desire to assimilate into the established political order, defending the values of capitalism, makes it incapable of leading a sustained movement against racial and class oppression.

To change the state of Black America will require a movement of the working class and youth, particularly the black workers and youth, because of their potential social and political power. We need a mass movement that is multi-ethnic, gender balanced, democratic, accountable and politicised, learning the valuable lessons from the civil rights and black power movements. As we have witnessed, big business and its two parties will always seek to take back what they were forced to give up because of militant social struggle by workers and youth. To permanently uproot racism, poverty and war, we need a system change. As Dr. King stated in 1966 “We are dealing with class issues. Something is wrong with Capitalism…Maybe America must move towards Democratic Socialism.”

Against racism and poverty:

  • Break with the two parties of big business. Build a workers’ party
  • Free national healthcare, childcare system
  • Abolish tuition fees; create free high quality public education for all, from pre-school through college
  • Full employment with a living wage
  • Shut down all military recruitment centres on our campuses and communities; build training, employment, education and cultural centres
  • Cancel the national debt with no payment to big investors. Use money to rebuild the inner cities and the infrastructure under union conditions and wages. Build schools, hospitals and affordable, decent housing
  • Defend immigrant rights; papers for all
  • End police brutality and harassment through labor-community committees to control all aspects of public safety
  • Abolish the death penalty

Programme for Hurricane Katrina:

  • The right of return for Katrina survivors
  • Full care and compensation for Katrina victims
  • Initiate a massive public works programme to rebuild and re-employ the Gulf
  • Stop racial and class discrimination in relief, compensation, rebuilding and policing
  • Stop profiteering from tragedy!
  • Pay for rebuilding by ending the war in Iraq and taxing big business
  • Full democratic voting rights for Katrina survivors in New Orleans

This article is made up of two articles written for ‘Justice’, the newspaper of Socialist Alternative (CWI) in the US. Part 1 was published in the March-May issue. The second will appear in the July-August Justice

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.