The killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police has sparked a surge in mobilizations against racism and police brutality. These mobilizations have spread to cities all over the world. The following is a brief overview of the main historical bases of racism in the United States and the role of the country’s bipartisan regime in our times.
The Racist Origins of American Democracy
George Novack, in discussion with journalist Matthew Josephson’s essay “The Politics,”1 wrote that there are two great myths about American democracy. The first is that the two parties are not class based; the second is that the two-party system is the natural, inevitable, and only truly American way of political struggle. Today, we might add one more myth: that either of these two parties would, if it could, put an end to racism in the United States. If we trace the history of the United States, we can see that it is riddled with struggles of the subordinate sectors, struggles that are reappearing today. But we also see how the bourgeoisie has deployed countless maneuvers to divide these subordinate sectors, making and unmaking alliances in their favor, deviating — or dynamiting — progressive movements, mounting wars, sanctioning and overturning laws and regulations. As part of the bourgeois regime, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, in their origins and subsequent consolidation, have been the tools of the bourgeoisie to maintain the status quo. In this regard, racial inequality has played a key role in dividing the proletariat and the poor masses of America and in sustaining the capitalist system.
Let us look at some background, prior before the Democratic and Republican Parties were founded (in 1824 and 1854, respectively). In his book A People’s History of the United States, the historian Howard Zinn relates different historical events that illustrate how the ruling elite, from the very beginning, fomented divisions among the subordinate classes. Addressing the colonial period before the Revolutionary War, the Zinn writes:
With the problem of Indian hostility, and the danger of slave revolts, the colonial elite had to consider the class anger of poor whites—servants, tenants, the city poor, the propertyless, the taxpayer, the soldier and sailor. As the colonies passed their hundredth year and went into the middle of the 1700s, as the gap between rich and poor widened, as violence and the threat of violence increased, the problem of control became more serious. What if these different despised groups—the Indians, the slaves, the poor whites—should combine? Even before there were so many blacks, in the seventeenth century, there was, as Abbot Smith puts it, “a lively fear that servants would join with Negroes or Indians to overcome the small number of masters.”2
Black Resistance in the Earliest Struggle against Capitalism and Colonialism
Preceded by the “servant’s conspiracy” (1661), Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) pitted poor settlers against Berkeley, the colonial governor, and left important lessons for the elites who applied divide-and-rule tactics: they would retain their place in the upper class only by declaring war on the native peoples (taking advantage of the settlers’ discontent), winning the support of poor whites, and pitting them against the Indians. In the mid-18th century, several laws were passed that banned free Black people from traveling in Indian territory, treaties were signed that required Native American tribes to capture and return runaway enslaved people, and other laws were established that granted certain concessions to white servants. Within years, the small settlers began to enjoy some tax benefits and formed a new social sector, which would serve as the elite’s support base. The elites had to ensure that their power and wealth were not challenged, much less confronted, by those who constituted a fearsome majority.
Police Sustain for Inequality
By then, the mechanisms of repression were already being deployed. In 1704, colonial South Carolina set up the first slave patrol in the country to capture and return fugitives and to deter their rebellions by beating and whipping, thereby thwarting slave rebellions. These efforts in the service of the masters were part of the various mechanisms of racial and class repression on which the modern state and its repressive institutions were formed. It was not until 1838, in Boston, that the elites founded the first formal police department, which would thenceforth intensify its repressive role, with racial segregation as a backdrop.
The historian and specialist in U.S. colonial history, Edmund Morgan, quoted by Zinn, argues that racism is “natural” but is a “realistic device” of control:
If freemen with disappointed hopes should make common cause with slaves of desperate hope, the results might be worse than anything Bacon had done. The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous black slaves by a screen of racial contempt.3
During the War of Independence, the elite faced the dual challenge of throwing off England as its colonial master and, at the same time, maintaining the power relations achieved during 150 years of colonialism. As Zinn notes, 69 percent of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence had held positions in the British colonial administration.
The 1787 Constitution, which Democrats and Republicans have talked so much about during the current protests, systematically excluded slaves, women, servants, and nonlandowners from the right to be represented in the republic. The Founding Fathers wanted to enshrine inequalities, justifying them according to people’s supposedly unequal abilities to accumulate property. The elites’ representatives — whether they were linked to industry, the slave trade, banking capital, or real estate — reached an agreement that allowed the North to develop trade and industry and to dispose of workers, and the slaver South to preserve the trade in human beings for two more decades. The division of the giant U.S. territory into states with a federal government also responded to the fear of an alliance among the exploited that could rise up against the elites. The structure of the new nation thus included mechanisms for granting certain concessions to small landowners, workers, and middle-income farmers, constituting a base of support that would act as a barrier against indigenous people, Black people, and poor whites.
The Constitution and the Bourgeois Parties as the Backbone of Racism
By 1854, the year the Republican Party was founded, the class struggle shook the foundations of the republic. According to Novack,
The Whigs and Democrats, which had, like the Republican and Democratic Parties, monopolized the political stage for decades in the service of the slave power, were pulverized by the blows delivered from within and from without by the contending forces. The turbulent times gave birth to various kinds of intermediate parties and movements: Free-soil, Know-Nothing, Liberty movements. The creators of the Republican Party collected the viable, progressive, and radical forces out of these new mass movements and out of the old parties to form a new national organization. 4
The Civil War of 1861–65 brought into play the control of a huge national territory, its market, and its resources. There were also Republican Party interests in maintaining control of the national government, for which it needed the Black voters of the South.
Rebellions were key to advancing the rights of the huge Black population, which in those years represented about 20 percent of the population. Uprisings and rebellions put the ruling elites on the ropes, according to Zinn “After the Virginian Rebellion of Bacon in 1760, there were 18 new attempts to overthrow the colonial governments. There were also eight black revolts in South Carolina and New York, and forty riots of different natures.” 5. By 1870, Congress had passed several laws for the legal equality of Black and white people: the right to vote and run for office, the right to make contracts and buy property, making their exclusion illegal in all areas. These conquests gave new impetus to Black political participation.
The Backlash to the Organization of the Oppressed
But the regime’s institutions do not guarantee the permanency of the rights achieved. After Lincoln’s death, Johnson, who was his vice president, boycotted laws enacting rights for the Black community and facilitated the return of the Confederate states to the Union without guaranteeing equal rights. During his presidency, the Southern states enacted the Black codes, which turned freed Black people into servants who continued to work on the plantations.
In 1873, the United States fell into a severe economic depression, which coincided with the beginning of the Jim Crow laws, inspired by the Black codes. Racial segregation dictated by law, under the slogan “separate but equal,” indicates the extent to which inequality was sustained by bourgeois democracy, and not only by force and repression. This inaugurated a period of decades in which nonwhite groups were systematically separated in public spaces, schools, transportation, and political participation. Key to the restrictions on the right to vote was the role of white conservative Democrats in the South through mechanisms such as taxation and literacy tests. Racial segregation once again played a key role in dividing the exploited as a whole. By 1877, the situation was beginning to convulse the working class. It was the year of the great Railroad Strike, in which more than 100,000 workers stopped the trains and the repression resulted in a hundred deaths and a thousand imprisoned. The capitalists, like those of today, did not hesitate to protect their businesses at the expense of the poor majorities, and the bourgeois parties were a tool to achieve this. In that same year, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party reached an agreement that allowed Rutherford Hayes, the Republican Party candidate, to become president, the capitalists of the South to recover their fortunes, and those of the North to maintain order in the midst of the crisis and increase their businesses. The bankers and capitalists of the North took note of the enormous potential value of iron and coal, which at that time was in the hands of Southern capitalists. They withdrew the Union troops from the South, the last military obstacle to the restoration of white supremacy. A deal was made and Hayes would be the new president.
The Northern capitalists and their parties accepted the subordination of the Black population. At the end of the war, 19 of the 24 Northern states opposed their right to vote. By 1900, all the Southern states had included in their new constitutions and statutes the legal elimination of Black rights. By 1901, the last African American member of Congress had completed his term.
The promises made by the Democratic governments of Roosevelt and Truman to the Black community, during and after World War II, did not become a reality until after the 1960s, a product of the huge anti-segregation movement that marked a before and after in the country and the world. The path of struggle was long and full of resistance from the regime to prevent progress in the conquest of rights. On the “Mississippi Summer,” remembered for the murderous killings of three civil rights activists by the Ku Klux Klan, Zinn states: “The Mississippi murders had taken place after the repeated refusal of the national government, under Kennedy or Johnson, or any other President, to defend blacks against violence.” (Zinn, p. 426). That same summer, the Democratic Party itself prevented a Black delegation from attending the Democratic Convention in Washington, Mississippi. They were demanding representation — in a state where 40 percent of the population was Black.
New Forms for Old Racism: Great Rebellions and the Policies to Sustain Modern Segregation
The rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, such as the right to free speech, the right of assembly, as well as the right to vote and run for office, and from the 1960s onward, much greater representation in the political sphere, were won for Black people through struggle. But after the defeat of the global rise of the 1960s and 1970s and with the neoliberal turn, the Democratic Party regimented the movement through organizing Black democratic caucuses. With a growing concentration of wealth, higher taxes on workers, and gentrification of the big cities, Black neighborhoods became increasingly dependent on state aid. Racial segregation ceased to be legal after 1964, but stigmatization of Black people continued to legitimize and perpetuate racism. In 1992 the LA rebellion followed the beating of Black construction worker Rodney King and the acquittal of the responsible cops by an overwhelmingly white court. This called into question the impunity with which the police tortured and marginalized Black people in poor neighborhoods. Then president George Bush appealed to the Insurrection Act to deploy the National Guard and quell the rebellion, just as Trump threatened to do in June.
The Democrats’ response had more to do with co-optation. They developed a machinery through which they gain support from the Black poor neighborhoods and pressure community and social leaders, under the promise of aid in the face of pressing basic needs.
Systemic racism involves not only police brutality but also lack of access to work, precarious employment, the worst part of the health system and greater difficulty in accessing one’s own home, along with the impossibility of accessing the best schools and their geographical distribution and allocation. This structural inequality was accompanied by punitive policies that applied the “broken window theory,” which proposed a strong attack on minor crimes and vandalism as a strategy to increase neighborhood security, along with the criminalization of drugs and the exponential growth of prisons. This deepened the stigmatization and criminalization of the Black community and continued for decades, even today, justifying the massive police budgets against which the anti-racist movement is now rising. In this stigmatization we can also find the structural basis on which the dog whistle policies applied by the most conservative sectors, strengthened under the Trump government, are now based. They have been perpetuated for political and ideological as well as economic reasons.
Politically, the need for party consensus limited the Black caucuses and made them dependent on agreements with the establishment. For example, in his book Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,6 Ian Haney Lopez explains how Barack Obama avoided explicitly anti-racist policies during his election campaign, in order to gain the support of the most conservative wing of the party. Even white-supremacist groups grew in reaction to the fact that for the first time in history an African American had arrived at the White House. The author of Racismo y brutalidad policial en Estados Unidos (Racism and Police Brutality in the United States), Esther Pineda,7 points out how supremacist movements tend to grow more under Democratic governments, particularly and for obvious reasons under Obama, as a result of a reaction to what they see as a lack of control and a sense of losing their historic power. On the part of the Obama administration, there was no policy to defend Blacks from this organized hatred. This continued during his two terms, during which the Democratic Party pushed for punitive and mass-incarceration policies. The police brutality of these years, even in the most “liberal” Democratic cities, led to the first outbreak of the Black Lives Matter movement, which originated in the city of Ferguson, Missouri.
With the outbreak of the 2008 economic crisis, Obama’s decision to save the banks and the financial giants dumped the crisis onto the shoulders of the working class and worsened the living conditions of millions, mostly in the Black community. Debt, trash jobs, unemployment, and criminalization are the flip side of an unprecedented concentration of wealth.
Given the divisions of the working class and the economic decline of industrial working-class families, mostly poor whites, and with the support of the rural and conservative middle class, Donald Trump was able to take power. His profound racism did not come out of nowhere: as Ian Haney Lopez points out, under the Trump era a discourse was intensified that is not always openly racist, but that intentionally marks supposed negative characteristics in racialized groups: crime, violence, illegal immigration, and so on. This is what Lopez points out: the call to end crime, illegal immigration, or to take back America for Americans, works like a dog whistle. In response, the most reactionary groups commit to fighting any elementary right to be free from racism. This also directs the focus away from those policies that benefit the wealthier sectors of society.
By 2019, more than 940 supremacist groups were operating in the United States, mainly concentrated in the south. But this is not just about Trump: in Democrats states like Minneapolis, the police operate under these same rules, and racial inequality and segregation exacerbate attacks on Black people. Racist policies are aimed at dividing the oppressed and exploited, diverting attention from the policies of bailing out billionaires, tax benefits, and making work and life more precarious. This also directs the focus away from those policies that benefit the wealthier sectors of society.
Today, according to the report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, while representing only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans constituted 23 percent of the victims of police killings in 2017. African Americans constituted 24 percent of the victims of all police homicides in 2016 and also 26 percent of all police homicides in 2015. When unarmed civilian homicides are taken into account, the statistics are even more shocking; for example, civil society statistics indicate that in 2015 more than 34 percent of unarmed civilians killed by police officers were black. Other research indicates that black men are nearly three times more likely to be killed by the police force, and Hispanic men are nearly twice as likely as white men.8
Prospects and a Debate on Strategy: The Need to Build an Independent Third Party
The Democratic and the Republican Parties function as the administrators of the millionaires’ businesses and as guarantors of the reproduction of racial inequality. The struggle against racism must be strengthened by the organization and mobilization of the working majorities and the oppressed sectors, because every step forward against racism is a step forward against capitalism and its hitmen; the labor movement, among which Black workers are the most exploited among the exploited, must group them together, organize themselves democratically, and address the problem of racism. This fight under capitalism is to stop the harassment and violence against Black and oppressed people and to conquer the right to housing, equal pay, access to health care, education. But it is also a fight within the revolutionary movement to build a society without exploitation or oppression.
We are in a new stage for the movement against racism and the global class struggle, which has its epicenter in the imperialist countries. There was talk of an advance of the right wing internationally, but we are seeing a break in this trend. The development of the huge mobilizations against racism, of the experience of the Democratic and Republican parties’ actions, the broad legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement among the majority of the population, and the questioning that will continue to deepen in the heat of the struggle and the worsening of the crisis — all this can be the prelude to a leap in the consciousness of broad sectors of the masses, who will begin to question the regime as a whole.
The bases of racism are historical and a constituent part of the consolidation of capitalism in the United States and the political regime that administers it. Today, Trump shows his racism toward the protesters, and the Democrats present themselves as the messiahs. Presidential candidate Joe Biden said that “instead of standing there and teaching a cop when there’s an unarmed person coming at them with a knife or something, shoot them in the leg instead of in the heart,” a statement that works as a sort of metaphor for the lesser evil. Why should we resign ourselves to choosing where they will shoot? Behind every shot that takes a Black or poor life is the state and the political regime sending a message of discipline. That is why the goal of abolishing the police is not a possible perspective without questioning the regime as a whole; even more so in this context of crisis, when the bourgeoisie needs to further strengthen its armed arm to respond to uprisings that may deepen with worsening living conditions. The demand to abolish the police needs a strategy to nip the capitalist system in the bud.
Today, different sectors of the American Left claim as a strategy the gradual and peaceful transformation of capitalism, through the path of reform, which includes a possible reform of the Democratic Party. They propose as inspiration the “strategy of attrition,” occupying spaces in Congress, taking as a reference the discussions of Karl Kautsky, who in the years of the Second International believed that a socialist party needed first a majority in parliament as a mandate to fight for power.
Rosa Luxemburg, in a debate with Eduard Bernstein, said,
Those who speak out in favor of the method of legislative reform instead of the conquest of political power and social revolution in opposition to these, in reality do not opt for a calmer, slower and more peaceful path toward the same goal, but for a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society, they do so for the superficial modification of the old society.9
In this case, the strategy of reforming the Democratic Party (which is not even a workers’ party as German social democracy was) also contributes to the superficial modification of our society, which ultimately means another Democratic government that will continue with capitalism and racism.
In this election period, the dominant political caste is doing its best to pacify and deflect the anti-racist uprisings. They fear unity, organization, and the emergence of independent action by the masses that they will be unable to contain with the mechanisms of bourgeois democracy used historically. The capitalists count on their parties to sustain bourgeois democracy as the best shell of capital. There is no “lesser evil” when it comes to Black lives. Constructing a third party that is a tool of the working and oppressed majorities is key to the force deployed by the majorities to achieve the profound changes they propose. The political and economic independence of the bourgeois parties, with an anti-capitalist program and the perspective of a labor democracy, this time based on the direct decision-making of the working majorities and all the oppressed sectors, which fight the imperialist oppression of the oppressed peoples in the world. The change in the consciousness of millions in the U.S. and the world as a result of the present anti-racist rebellion marks exceptional conditions for the emergence of an alternative to the capitalist parties.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Novack, George. Matthew Josephson’s The Politicos. (1938). Accessed Jun 20, 2020.|
|2.||↑||Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States (1980). Harper Collins, E-book edition (pp.57-58). Accessed 20 Jun, 2020.|
|3.||↑||Zinn. A People’s History of the United States, 61|
|4.||↑||Novack, George. Matthew Josephson’s The Politicos. (1938). Accessed Jun 20, 2020.|
|6.||↑||Haney López, Ian (2014). Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press.|
|7.||↑||Pineda, E. Racismo y brutalidad policial en Estados Unidos (2017). Accessed Jun 23, 2020.|
|8.||↑||Inter-American Comission of Human Rights (2018). Report: Police Violence Against Afro-descendants in the United States. Accessed Jun 23, 2020|
|9.||↑||Luxemburg, Rosa. Reform or Revolution (1900). Accessed Jun, 10.|