“The way [Donald Trump] deals with people based on the color of their skin, their national origin, where they’re from, is absolutely sickening.” — Joe Biden
“Joe Biden has a racism problem.” — Donald Trump
They are both right. And beyond their individual statements, the Democrat and Republican Parties are pillars of the institutional racism inherent in U.S. capitalism.
In Trump’s case, his racist rhetoric is a campaign strategy to energize an ultra-right-wing base and blame the real financial struggles that result from a capitalist system in crisis on people of color and immigrants. And these words are dangerous, emboldening a neofascist Far Right. In fact, the Republican’s choice to include the wealthy white St. Louis couple pointing their guns at BLM protesters is a clear example of who the Republicans want to speak to: the racist “all lives matter” movement. But it’s not just words. It’s his policies — from the Muslim ban to the detention of migrants and separation of children to sending federal agents to repress Black Lives Matter protesters. It’s his policies on the Covid pandemic and unemployment, which disproportionately affect and kill people of color and particularly Black people. In fact, the Brookings Institute reports that from ages 35-44, Black people die of the coronavirus 10 times the rate of white people.
Yet Trump has also cynically attempted to paint himself as a president on the side of Black people — touting low unemployment among Black communities before the pandemic. He’s also tried to run attack ads against Biden, highlighting Biden’s racism by playing the greatest hits of his racist statements. The cynicism of this campaign tactic for Trump is jaw dropping from the guy who spearheaded the racist birther campaign against Obama and started his 2016 campaign with racist myths against Latinos. But Trump isn’t lying.
Biden’s supporters will often concede that he tends to put his foot in his mouth when speaking publicly, but this isn’t about a few gaffes. He has a long history of supporting policies that discriminate against Black people and communities. This includes his past support of segregationists and opposition to school busing to achieve desegregation. It also includes his authoring of the crime bill that led to a boom in police officers and prisons. There are no doubt millions of people affected by the increase in policing and prisons, especially Black folks who are imprisoned at five times the rate of white people. In short, Biden was the architect for one of the most egregious mass incarceration initiatives in US history.
While Biden performed quite well among older Black voters in the South during the primaries, he’s clearly positioned himself against the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement — from asking that cops shoot Black people in the leg, to refusing to support the demand to defund the police, and, at the DNC convention, making sure to say that “most cops are good.”
Amid this uprising, Biden wants to win over young Black voters and get the energy of the movement into the Democratic Party without actually making any systemic changes. Enter Kamala Harris, who in her acceptance speech spoke about going to civil rights protests as a child and called on people to “work, organize and vote” — an attempt to take “power to the polls” (in the words of the second Women’s March). This is an attempt by Harris, Biden, and the Democratic Party as a whole to get the movement off the streets, stop talking about institutional racism, and focus on the symbolic electoral project of a Black and Asian woman as VP.
And already, Harris is the victim of Trump’s racism and sexism, calling her “nasty” and questioning her eligibility to run for President as the child of immigrants. And much more is to come. These attacks are unacceptable, and we should reject racist and sexist attacks against Harris — and on any woman or person of color.
But Kamala is a cop — in fact she was, according to her own words, the “top cop” of California. And she has a long record of increasing mass imprisonment, developing the prison industrial complex, and maintaining the death penalty. In fact, she increased the felony conviction rate from 52 to 67 percent in three years. In the midst of an anti-racist, anti-cop uprising, Biden’s choice is a slap in the face to the movement and a message to the capitalist class: the Democrats can once again shut down the movement, tame it, and bring it to the polls.
In other words, although this seems like a historic victory of the movement, it is a symbolic attempt to keep the movement from achieving substantive victories. Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor has it right: “Symbolic firsts are no substitute for substantive gains. We have been celebrating firsts for fifty years but the gains for the few almost never translate into a better life for the many. Check out Lightfoot in Chicago. These celebrations are old and our people are dying. Enough.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, business leaders are “generally really happy” with the Harris pick. After all, Biden and Harris have shown themselves to be on the side of Wall Street — which wants to force the working class to pay for the economic crisis and to quell the uprising in the streets.
Is this a problem of simply having spectacularly bad candidates on the issue of race? Not exactly. Both Biden and Trump have long histories of racism. But they also represent one of the United States’ two capitalist political parties, both of which are pillars of institutional racism. Racism is not just about whether you say the right words, although their racist language is unacceptable. But it’s not just about words. It’s about policies and institutions, which both these parties uphold. Racism is systemic, living in the institutions of the capitalist system, which demands the systematic oppression of people of color, especially Black people.”.
Both Parties Uphold Institutional Racism
The racism of the Republican Party is evident in words and in actions — and it isn’t just Trump. Think of George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which left the Black working class and poor in New Orleans to die, while his wife claimed that the overcrowded Astrodome was “working very well for them” because they were “underprivileged anyway.” Almost 2,000 people died in the predominantly Black city. Kanye West was right: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” The entire federal government left Black people there to die, and the Democratic governor sent in the National Guard to New Orleans with “shoot to kill” orders against survivors, vilified by the media as “looters.” And that vilification was possible only because the survivors in New Orleans were overwhelmingly Black.
And then there was the was the infamous campaign ad for his dad, George H. W. Bush. The racist Willie Horton ad showed Horton, a furloughed prisoner, attacking a white woman. The “tough on crime” tactic meant to create and capitalize on the fear of Black people. Some people need the death penalty, the ad argued. It was clear to all observers that “dangerous Black men” would be the targets. As a result, furloughs for imprisoned people all but ended. And there was Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen trope, which served to dismantle parts of the already paltry social safety net. It was no surprise when audio surfaced of Reagan, in a conversation with Nixon, calling UN ambassadors from Africa “monkeys from those African countries.”
And for decades, Republicans have been central in positioning themselves as “law and order” candidates, using racist tropes to expand the prison industrial complex, which is a billion-dollar industry and provides semi-slave labor to corporations.
Unlike the Republicans, the Democrats are sometimes less up front about their racism. They include a few token people of color in positions of power, they talk about racial justice, and kneel while wearing kente clothe to try to act as if they are on the side of the movement. Even a cursory look at their recent history makes clear that their social justice rhetoric is a mere cover for maintaining policies of institutional racism.
Just consider that it was Bill Clinton who signed the Joe Biden–authored 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — resulting in the mass imprisonment of people of color. This not only brought mass profits for the prison industrial complex but also a reign of terror of Black and brown communities. It was Obama who sent the National Guard to Ferguson to put down the first Black Lives Matter uprising.
Think about this year’s uprising, which began in Minneapolis, Minnesota — a blue state from top to bottom that supported police violence, refused to prosecute killer cops, and repressed the uprising against police violence.In fact, nearly all of the major centers of uprising were Democratic controlled cities which brutally repressed those fighting racism. Under the orders of Democrats, the cops kettled protesters and then unleashed teargas into crowds, as well as beating people and running over activists with police cars.
And think of the police unions, which donate to both parties at both the federal and the local level. The Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association (PPOA) alone has spent more than $10.4 million on political contributions in the past few years. Perhaps surprisingly, from 2010 to 2016, of the top 10 senators who received mass campaign donations from cop unions, only one was a Republican. Kamala Harris placed no. 6, receiving almost $13,000.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been a rebellion against institutionalized racism, which has been perpetuated for years by both the Democrats and the Republicans — including Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris. The Democrats and Republicans cannot and will not fight racism, since racism is etched in the very heart of the capitalist system, which was born from slavery and genocidal colonization.
Institutional racism has remained immensely profitable to capitalism. For example, think about the profits by keeping a cheap semi-slave labor force in prison who will almost certainly remain a low wage labor force when they are freed. The profits from the prison system itself are monstrous, not only including for-profit prisons, but all of the overpriced services: from specialized phone companies who can charge up to 24 dollars for a 15 minute phone call, to commissary vendors who make billions in profits from over-priced goods. Or think about the fact that undocumented people, vilified by Trump as rapists and criminals, can be paid less wages than documented people, when wages are not outright stolen by bosses. These profits are not just extra sugar on top, the sheer scale of them means that the profits earned from the imprisoned and from undocumented immigrants means they are an essential pillar of capitalism.
And in this context, Democrats and Republicans are twin parties of capital.
What about the Progressive Wing of the Party?
The Wall Street Journal boldly claimed, “By choosing Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, Joe Biden is sending a message to the progressive left base of the Democratic Party: Drop dead.”
It’s not often that the Wall Street Journal is right, but in this case it has a point. As the vice presidential candidate, Harris is a middle finger to all the Black Lives Matter protesters who have recognized the police and the prison system as the enemy of people of color and working-class people. It’s a slap in the face to people who want substantive reform or abolition of the police; instead they got symbolic representation in the form of a Black cop. And even the Wall Street Journal knows that “building an identity-politics coalition isn’t the same thing as embracing progressive policies.” It’s an attempt to placate the movement with representation devoid of content: a Black woman on the side of the racist police.
But you wouldn’t know that if you looked to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which is instead using its Twitter to pretend Harris’s candidacy is a victory for the movement and that the Harris-Biden campaign is a progressive ticket. Upon the announcement of Harris, Bernie Sanders claimed that Harris “will make history as our next vice president. She understands what it takes to stand up for working people, fight for health care for all, and take down the most corrupt administration in history.”
Elizabeth Warren said Harris and Biden would be “a powerful force for good in the fight for social, racial, and economic justice.” Ilhan Omar went so far as to calling Harris “sister.”
Not one word of criticism on the “drop dead” message in this VP pick. Not one word against Harris’s brutal record of incarcerating massive numbers of people, especially people of color. Rather, the progressive wing of the Democrats is painting the Biden-Harris ticket as left and thereby encouraging their millions of followers to support it. These progressive Democratic Party figures are gaslighting their base into believing that anti–Medicare for All candidates will fight for healthcare for all. But in the midst of the biggest wave of protests, perhaps in all of US history, these positions stand out as being to the right of so many people in the streets. The role of the progressive wing of the party is to soothe the differences between an increasingly deletimized political establishment and the millions who took the streets in the past months and want change; it is to legitimize a Democratic Party in crisis.
This should come as no surprise. Sanders has been a complete Biden advocate ever since endorsing him, giving more wholehearted support for Biden than he had for Clinton four years ago.
In this sense, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is playing a central role in upholding the institutional racism that is so central to the capitalist class. They are funneling those who rebel against the system back into it by painting these racist, capitalist candidates as champions of the movement and of justice. Of course, this is not to say that people like Ilhan Omar, AOC, or even Kamala Harris do not suffer from racism. They do. And leftists should fight all iterations of racism — as well as sexism in attacks against them. But it’s still true that they uphold institutional racism. While “the Squad” speaks out against institutional racism, these words are empty if they continue to hold up a racist capitalist party like the Democrats.
It’s Way Past Time to Break with the Dems
Some “progressive” thinkers like Michael Moore and Sean King are flocking to the Biden-Harris train. In Moore’s case, his entire podcast was dedicated to how this is the “most progressive ticket in U.S. history.” Shaun King’s flip-flop on this is almost comical.
Despite Sanders’s abhorrent response to BLM — calling for raises for cops — Jacobin magazine has chosen to center Sanders in its latest magazine, and has not yet made any substantive criticism for Sanders’s complete support for Jim Crow Joe and Kamala the Cop.
As a Left, we need to do better. We need to play a role in breaking three key myths surrounding the U.S. political system. George Novack, in discussion with journalist Matthew Josephson, puts forward two key myths: that the two parties are not class based and that the two-party system is natural and inevitable. As Ana Rivera argues, “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.”
The Democrats and Republicans are parties of capital, representing the most powerful bourgeoisie in the world, with the most powerful military to do its bidding — from organizing coups to starting wars for oil. Their racism at home is matched by the racism used to justify imperialist interventions across the globe for maximum accumulation. These parties cannot and will not end racism, an essential and profitable oppression for the capitalist project. In this sense, the most important task for us is to tell the truth about the Democrats and Republicans: they are racist parties of capital. It is to tell the truth about Trump and Pence as well as Biden and Harris. It’s to say that Sanders is wrong: they aren’t on the side of working people.
And just as importantly, we need to say that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the U.S. two-party system.
The Black Lives Matter movement, united with the movement against evictions and the labor strikes we saw during the coronavirus, cannot advance the struggle without their own political representation. Representatives from the movement who don’t serve as left cover for racist parties of capital, but build the strength of the working class to fight our oppressors.