Radical Perspectives on Race and Racism
This special issue of Socialism and Democracy marks the centennial of W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic, The Souls of Black Folk. At the same time, going beyond our coverage of the Reparations movement in S&D #31, it deepens our commitment to implementing a thoroughly multiracial vision of the goals evoked by the name of this journal. The close link that exists in principle between the struggle against racism and the struggle for socialism was well articulated by Du Bois himself. One of the most celebrated assertions of his 1903 work was, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Revisiting that prophecy fifty years later, he wrote (citing Marx’s influence):
I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance and disease of the majority of their fellowmen; that to maintain this privilege men have waged war until today war tends to become universal and continuous, and the excuse for this war continues largely to be color and race.
Today, despite another fifty-year lapse, the relevance of these observations is undiminished. In the interim, while the long-term project of socialism still nurses the wounds bequeathed by its first nation/state-level embodiments, and while the “universal and continuous” character of the war waged by the privileged becomes even more pronounced, there are nonetheless hopeful signs of a revived popular movement cutting across hitherto formidable barriers of distance, language, and culture. Some of these signs have been recorded in our pages, with articles inspired by the anti-corporate- globalization movement and the World Social Forum (both in S&D #30), and by the World Conference Against Racism (S&D #31). Despite the severe obstacles posed by post-9/11 developments (especially in the U.S.), these movements continue to grow.
With our present focus on race and racism, while still keeping the global dimension clearly in view, we focus much more sharply on racism’s roots and ramifications within the United States. The general importance of such a focus hardly needs to be underlined, but some of the specific reasons for its urgency may be worth mentioning. In the first place, despite the important achievements of the Civil Rights movement, which reached a high point during the 1960s, it is clear that institutional racism remains deeply entrenched. The articles below help give a composite picture of this situation, which is manifested not only in continuing economic and social disparities, but also in the sometimes deliberate disfranchisement of oppressed communities (a notable factor George W. Bush’s “selection” as president), and in the global projections of U.S. imperial power. More recently, with the implementation of “homeland security,” discredited practices of racial profiling have been revived, as the ruling class has opted for discriminatory and repressive measures in preference to a reconsideration of its provocative geo- political agendas.
Taken together, these circumstances have in some ways raised the stakes of anti-racist political work. While such work has always been necessary for the oppressed as a matter of survival, and while it has also had, for other sectors, both the aspect of a moral imperative (going back to anti-slavery campaigns) and that of a strategic alliance (relative to labor organizing and to progressive social legislation), it is now becoming more clearly central to the survival of humanity as a whole. With the socialist project at an ebb and with the consequent almost completely unrestrained rule of corporate capital, both the need and the space for a popular movement of unprecedented scope and cohesion have become clearly apparent. Such a movement cannot afford the weaknesses of its predecessors, among which a failure to thoroughly address the “color line” was, along with comparable shortcomings vis-à-vis gender, perhaps the most devastating.
In any effort to overcome such weaknesses, dialogue of the kind that we are promoting in these pages will have an indispensable role.
This collection had as its initial core a series of presentations at the Brecht Forum/New York Marxist School. Ward Churchill’s article is a greatly expanded version of such a talk; the articles by Eric Foner and by Gerald Horne, as well as the symposium on “Critical Black History,” are edited transcriptions that essentially retain their original format. The articles by Anthony Monteiro, Maulana Karenga, and Regina Naasirah Blackburn are revised from talks given at the symposium “The Color Line Then and Now: A Tribute to W.E.B. Du Bois,” which was the opening plenary session of the conference “Challenging the Color Line: Confronting Issues of Race and Class in the Era of Global Capital.” This conference was sponsored by the Brecht Forum and held at New York University in February 2002. We are grateful to the organizers of these events, especially Liz Mestres and Joel Washington, for facilitating our access to the materials.
Beyond these sources, we have ranged widely in our search for writings that would do justice to the immense scope of our subject. We wish to thank all those authors who responded to our special solicitations (in some cases, on rather short notice)—not only for their confidence in our project, but also for their cooperation throughout the editorial process. We trust that the importance of their contributions will inspire other writers to continue and extend, in future issues of Socialism and Democracy, the conversation that we have started here.
Winter in America
By Yusuf Nuruddin
The Constitution was a noble piece of paper
With Free Society it struggled, but they died in vain
And now Democracy is begging on the corner
Hoping for some rain/It look like it’s hoping for some rain
And I see the robins perched in barren treetops
Watching last-ditch racists marching ‘cross the floor
Just like the peace signs that vanished in our dream
Never had a chance to grow/never had a chance to grow
And now it’s winter, winter in America
And all of the healers have been killed or betrayed
Yeah but people know, people know
Lord knows it’s winter in America
And ain’t nobody fighting because nobody knows what to save
Save your soul from winter in America
– Gil Scott-Heron, “Winter in America”
Welcome to the Winter/Spring Issue of Socialism and Democracy. Two editorials are rare for this journal. They represent not disunity but diversity. There are many voices in the struggle for human rights that are rarely heard, and many constituencies, powerless and impoverished, who are often spoken about but rarely spoken to. My voice, constructed from an African American inner city experience speaks, hopefully, to all of the readers of this journal, but most of all it beckons a new readership—young, and older, people of color who come from the same apartheid urban experience as I do.
In conceiving this special issue and soliciting articles from some of the major known and not-yet-known radical scholar/activists who are writing and struggling around the issue of race and racism, my intent was not only to broaden the discourse for the dedicated readership of Socialism and Democracy, but also to reach out to my sisters and brothers from the Harlems, Bedford-Stuyvesants, Brownsvilles, and South Bronxes of America who have never read an issue of Socialism and Democracy: the black (and Latino) knowledge—and wisdom-seekers who have probably never read any socialist literature at all but who feast on knowledge—especially consciousness-raising esoteric knowledge, cultural/ Kemetic knowledge, and knowledge about conspiracies, avidly buying such books from black bookstores and street vendors, and following professors on the Afrocentric lecture circuit. My beloved college intellectuals and street intellectuals need to broaden, deepen and sharpen their analysis of the capitalist system that oppresses us all, just as my comrades-in-arms, my fellow academicians and activists who regularly read this journal, need to challenge their own understanding and analysis of a system of racism which oppresses many and demeans us all.
From where I stand, the enslavement, segregation and continued oppression of African people has been the central contradiction in the American experiment with democracy, from the days of the Founding Fathers to the current era of neo-fascism. Yet it was the conquest and genocide of Native Americans and the theft of their land by European colonial settlers which set the stage for the foundation of the white male bourgeois republic. The supreme irony of history was that this colonial settler state turned slavocracy turned apartheid state turned superpower turned empire—was born in a bloody revolution against the tyranny of a British monarch, declaring its sovereignty and independence based on the self-evident truths that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” and that it is the right and duty of the people to alter or abolish any government which would reduce them under despotism.
A passage charging the British crown with the crime of waging a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating them and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither,” was, of course, deleted from the final draft of the Declaration; a Constitution declared such people only three-fifths human; and a Supreme Court said that they had no rights that a white man was bound to respect.
Some say that this means that democracy is a work-in-progress— that the struggle for civil rights, human rights, democratic rights is the struggle to continually expand the vision of the Founding Fathers to secure the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all marginalized peoples: African Americans, Native Americans, women, poor whites, gays, lesbians, and all those falling outside of the definition of “Christian moral majority.” Perhaps. A radical interpretation of the Declaration is that the phrase “pursuit of happiness” was but a code word which meant that the white patriarchs, the Founding Fathers, had the right to the pursuit of private property—that is, the pursuit of massive accumulations of private wealth—through the capitalist exploitation of labor, the forced labor of enslaved Africans and the exploited labor of a white working class.
So the question arises as to whether these are incompatible goals: democracy for all and the exploitative pursuit of enormous private wealth by a few. The incompatibility is evident to socialists of all stripes. It is not so apparent to those whose critique of American society begins with the contradiction of race—especially in an era when “getting paid” is the byword, and the commodification (that is, the marketing and sale) of black culture by the recording and media corporations is a multi-billion dollar industry. There’s a whole generation of young black people who uncritically (and understandably) want a piece of the American Pie, after generations of racial exclusion from the prosperity and affluence of the society around them. These young people are buppy-oriented if they are college-bound or educated, and “ghetto-fabulous”-oriented if they dropped out of or only finished high school. Another group of alienated African Americans have retreated into the comfort zone of racial chauvinism and romantic quests for authentic cultural identity. That’s understandable too, given the nature of the apartheid society we live in.
A quest for national liberation and democratic rights, which was born of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power/pan-Africanist Movement of the ‘60s, crumbled under the weight of COINTELPRO, Reaganomics, the values of a “me-generation,” a genocidal crack epidemic, fratricidal narco-terrorist wars for inner city drug-dealing turf, the warehousing of black males in prison, gender inequality, the irresolution of black male-female dynamics, and indecisiveness on the question “Which way forward?” In the vacuum, romanticism and escapism of all sorts begins to flourish—the commercialization of sex and violence, the isolationist retreat into houses of worship, the lumpen-bourgeois pursuit of the illusion of happiness, and the seeking of all solutions in the resurrection of mummified culture. It’s all good… but in due proportion! Ma’at means balance in all things, and sacred traditions say the best way is the middle way.
The quest for financial security in an uncertain economy with its attendant emphasis on entrepreneurship at all levels—street vending, multi-level marketing, small business ownership—is a conservatizing force which impedes a class analysis. But labor-intensive proprietorships such as “Mom and Pop” stores are not and have never been enemy; the enemy is the global capitalism driven and perpetuated by multinational corporations. You can be an entrepreneur and a socialist too!
Which way forward? Some say nationalism, some say socialism. But it has never been an “either/or” question. The path forward is self-determination/national liberation and class-struggle. And class struggle means international solidarity with all progressive people. We began constructing that community of progressive people through the radio waves with the Pacifica network (WBAI 99.5 FM for those of you in New York), and we have to continue talking to each other not just anonymously or through call-ins on the airwaves but in person at venues such as the Brecht Forum.
It’s Winter in America: the right-wing reactionaries have taken over, last-ditch racists like Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott march across the Senate floor, the mindless fools are in control of the ship, civil liberties are being curtailed, a creeping Homelands Security police state is upon us, and the robins see no spring in sight as the world drifts perilously towards World War III. Gil says that the soul—the core of humane values—is what we have to save. And we who are most oppressed and exploited are the soul-force. Without us taking on the moral mantle of leadership, and having the vision, the determination and the knowledge of how to reconstruct this society—and this world—so that all people can live in harmony, there is no salvation from Winter in America.
Welcome to the Winter/Spring issue of Socialism and Democracy. We bear the brunt of the Winter of capitalism and racism, and we seek and struggle for the Spring of Socialism and True Democracy.
Peace and Blessings,