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Confronting the backlash

Socialism and the anti-racist project

In this transcript of a session at Socialism 2023, Tempest’s Haley Pessin and Phil Gasper discuss how socialists should challenge the backlash against the anti-racist uprising of the 2020s and argue that it takes a combined anti-racism and anti-capitalism to mount the necessary resistance.

In 2020, some 15 to 20 million people participated in the largest anti-racist protests in history in a sustained national rebellion that inspired international solidarity. But our political leaders–both Democrat and Republican–have retrenched and pursued racist law-and-order agendas. Black people remain three times more likely to be killed in a police encounter than white people. In this conversation held at the Socialism 2023 convention, Haley Pessin and Phil Gasper think through what it will take to build a lasting and effective struggle against the racist state.

Haley Pessin: Confronting the backlash against the anti-racist uprising is what we are discussing today. From the vantage of today, it’s very difficult to remember, or put ourselves in, the time and place of what it was like to be in a context where people were openly talking about abolition.

The rebellion of 2020 was an incredible experience even for those who have been radicals for many years. Some 15 to 20 million people participated in the largest anti-racist protests in history, in a sustained national rebellion that inspired international solidarity.

The entire criminal legal system was on the defensive. In New York City alone, 47 police cars were damaged or burned. Within the first two weeks of the uprising, police had arrested more than 17 thousand people across the country, the largest such wave of arrests since the Vietnam War. In Washington D.C., protests outside the White House temporarily forced President Donald Trump to flee to his bunker–allegedly to inspect it and not in abject fear of the riots.

This all occurred in defiance of curfews and stay-in-place orders imposed by mayors and governors in every major city. The struggles were led primarily by Black youth, but the consciousness, participation, and solidarity they generated extended to non-Black people, including those in rural, majority-white regions, and even former sundown towns.

At the height of the protests an astounding 54 percent of Americans felt that the burning of a police station in Minneapolis was either justified or partially justified. And in exit polls for the November, 2020 elections, voters cited racial injustice as the second most important issue facing the country after the economy.

Yet these protests were not just about police brutality. They were also a reaction to the failure of state and federal governments to respond to the horrific death toll and economic devastation caused by a world historic pandemic and a form of resistance to the multi-pronged wave of attacks on oppressed and working-class people from the Trump administration on down.

We saw this in the evolution of the Black Lives Matter protests between 2014 and 2020. A whole layer of activists, who began with demands for more Black police officers and body cameras, came out six years later as committed abolitionists saying we needed to dismantle the whole system. The protests popularized connections between racial and economic injustice and drew attention to the social and economic priorities that require billions in funding for police at the expense of all other life-giving resources and social services.

They came to define abolition not just as the absence of police but also as the presence of a society where everyone has everything they need to thrive. The opening for connecting that struggle to the struggle for socialism— a society based on social need, not profit —should be obvious. But despite that potential, the Left by and large missed the opportunity to build mass organizations at the height of these struggles, or, in their aftermath, to push the movements as far as they could go.  There are a number of reasons for this. They include divisions on the Left around how to understand the nature of anti-racist struggle.

Fast-forward to the present, and aside from notable exceptions—like the ongoing battle to stop the building of Cop City in Atlanta—mass protests have largely receded from the streets.

Two Black people clasp hands as they hold up a Philadelphia police armband in front of a burning police cruiser. They wear white tshirts and Black protective masks. There is a church in the background behind billowing smoke.
Protesters holding up a Philadelphia Police armband in front of a burning police cruiser during a George Floyd Protest in May 2020. Photo by Joe Priette.

Instead, the widespread opposition to policing that the movement had forced into mainstream conversation has been largely replaced by a crime wave narrative. This continues a trend of the last four decades during which police budgets have skyrocketed whether crime rates were rising or falling as the flip side of imposing austerity budgets.

For example, in New York City where I am, former cop Mayor Eric Adams is waging a war on houseless and mentally ill people on the subway. And more recently he’s added scapegoating migrants to that list in tandem with massive budget cuts. Meanwhile, the NYPD’s budget grew to $11 billion, making it the largest police budget in the entire country.

But while homicides did spike during the pandemic, violent crime in New York remains at historic lows overall and has dropped by an additional 5.6 percent in recent months. Even according to the NYPD’s own statistics, the city’s murder rate was five times higher during the 1980s and 1990s than it is today. Of course, they’ll claim credit for this, but we know that’s not true.

Nationally, even in cities like Chicago, L.A., and D.C. where rates of deadly gun violence reached their highest point in a decade, other violent crimes actually decreased during the pandemic. But the new frightening atmosphere produced by the backlash was encapsulated earlier this year in New York following the murder of Jordan Neely, an unarmed, unhoused Black man who was choked to death by another passenger on the subway.

Neely’s murder reflects the extent to which the ruling class has succeeded in reinforcing public fears about crime and the idea that more police are necessary to address it. This is something that both Republicans and Democrats agree on regardless of their differences. On the right, Republican legislation from the top  comes in tandem with open white supremacists willing to intimidate and act with extralegal violence on the ground. Armed far-right groups like the Oath Keepers or the Three Percenters came to at least 100 of the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, often with the tacit or explicit support of the police.

Since May 2020, at least four states have expanded the definitions of penalties for protesting. At least eight states have created or enhanced penalties for protesters who obstruct streets, sidewalks, or gas and oil pipelines, along with bills that allow cars to run over protestors in 2021 and 2022.

Federal, state and local government officials introduced 563 anti-Critical Race Theory measures, of which 241 have been enacted. But the Democratic Party is also complicit in this backlash. The same politicians who say Black Lives Matter are actively leading the charge against the central demand of the movement to defund the police.

In fact, it has largely been Democrats at both the federal level and in major urban centers who have pursued racist law-and-order policies with police as the first line of defense, especially as ongoing economic instability has prompted city officials to embrace austerity, which in turn will require more police to control the fallout.

Arguably Biden, who was elected in the wake of the uprising, was the primary beneficiary of the movement in the absence of a truly left-wing alternative to Trump. Yet Biden not only vehemently opposed defunding the police, he called for increased funding for police departments, which at the time of his presidential campaign already received a combined annual $115 billion.

This was nothing new. Biden has a  long record of bolstering policies such as the 1994 Crime Bill, which produced the greatest expansion of policing and prisons in U.S. history. It increased contact between those living in segregated predominantly Black neighborhoods and the armed forces of the state.

Black people remain three times more likely to be killed in a police encounter than white people, regardless of whether they are unarmed, had called the police for help or were merely existing in their own homes like Breonna Taylor.

Unlike Republicans, the Democrats pay lip service to the movement while leaving the means of death and destruction of Black life full intact. Biden’s 2021 plan for criminal justice reform mimicked Obama’s 21st-century task force on policing in its focus on improving so-called community police relations.

Meanwhile, other Democrats’ proposals to address police misconduct like the 2021 George Floyd Justice and Policing Act merely recycled some of the same meager policy changes like body cameras, diversity training, and chokehold bans. These are things that had already been implemented and failed to stop police brutality in Minneapolis, meaning that the act named for George Floyd would have not even saved his own life.

Ultimately as Naomi Murakawa notes: “Unflagging Democratic support for police sharpens the blade for Republican spearheaded criminalization of dissent, reproductive autonomy, and gender-affirming healthcare.” In other words, the consequences of the backlash impact issues beyond the resistance to police racism.

They facilitate the rollback of the rights of queer and trans folks, abortion rights and reproductive justice, and are aimed at hampering our resistance. And we’ve seen this most recently in the major police apparatus that exists to survey mosques in a call to crack down on protests in solidarity with Palestine.

This points to the necessity of building an anti-racist struggle that is both independent of the two capitalist parties and clear about the challenges we’re up against. But it also matters that the Left understand what it will take to resist this multi-pronged backlash against workers and the oppressed. And that requires clarity from the beginning on the nature of racism, the struggle for socialism, and the strategies that flow from this.

Phil Gasper: To try to understand racism without class, or to analyze class oppression without race, is really to misunderstand both forms of exploitation and forms of oppression.

In the U.S, we’re very familiar with attempts to address racism without a class perspective, because that’s the approach of the liberal establishment in politics, the business world, and the mainstream media and education system. In the immediate aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, suddenly almost everyone claimed to be an anti-racist.

Amazon, Nike, and Walmart all put out statements opposing racism. Ben and Jerry’s said, ‘We must dismantle white supremacy. Silence is not an option.” But the actions that went along with these announcements amounted to very little–training programs for their employees, perhaps some money being directed towards scholarships and education, and an effort to get a few more people of color into management positions or into the boardroom.

Colleges and universities also declared themselves to be anti-racist. The Chronicle of Higher Education in the summer of 2020 declared that this may be a watershed moment in the history of higher education and race. I wish that were true; the actions that went along with statements like this amounted to very little.

If you take diversity training in higher education, the focus is almost invariably on individuals and their ideas. There will be plenty of discussion of unconscious bias, microaggressions, and white privilege, which are all certainly real. On the other hand, there will probably be no discussion, let alone distinction, of the class interests that racism serves, or how to take collective action to challenge those interests. That’s approaching racism while ignoring class.

On the US Left, we sometimes see the reverse phenomenon, a focus on class that downplays the significance of race. One person who’s taken this position is the left-wing academic Adolf Reed. Certainly, Adolf Reed is a distinguished Black political scientist. He has often had valuable things to say. He has written a lot of books and articles, and he is often celebrated as a contrarian. I think that he and a number of people who are influenced by him have gone badly off the rails in their writing about race and class.

They start from the same place that I would start from: We need a class analysis of racism. But from there, they make a series of mistaken conclusions. First, they argue that if we have a class analysis, then we can explain racial inequality mainly in terms of class inequality and pay less attention to race.

One striking example of this was an article in Catalyst (Jacobin’s theoretical journal) a few years ago by John Clegg and Adaner Usmani, which argued that mass incarceration isn’t a product of racism. Reed himself published an article in 2020 arguing that racial inequality in health outcomes is due to underlying class inequalities, and that even to draw attention to the fact that Blacks have it worse will simply open the door to racist pseudo-summits that try to explain Black-White differences in biological terms.

Reed and his co-thinkers conclude that socialists should focus on universal demands like raising the minimum wage or Medicare For All, not on specifically anti-racist demands. So Reed, for instance, was hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement and to the call for reparations. He’s even argued that anti-racism is counterproductive. According to Reed, racism is not the principle source of inequality today. Anti-racism functions more as a misdirection that justifies inequality than a strategy for eliminating it. Elsewhere he says that anti-racism gives cover to neoliberal identity politics, which elevates a few Blacks, women, and gays to prominent positions but doesn’t challenge underlying inequalities.

Now, Reed’s critics accuse him of class reductionism. He doesn’t like that term, but I think it fits. He counters by accusing his critics of being race reductionists, trying to explain everything in terms of racism. There may be some people who count as race reductionists, but that’s not the position of most of Reed’s left-wing critics.

Left-wing critics agree that we need a class perspective, but we think that race and class are intertwined in a much more complex way than Reed allows. To explain how race and class have been intertwined in the U.S. particularly, we have to discuss the history of capitalism and its relationship to racism.

My view is that capitalism created racism. That’s actually a controversial view. Not everyone on the Left, certainly not in the mainstream, agrees with that. I can’t give a detailed defense of it in a few minutes, but I’ll point to one important piece of evidence in its favor.

Race didn’t exist before the late 14th century. You don’t find it in any ancient writings. It’s not even in Marco Polo’s Diaries, which were written in the 13th century. Its emergence coincides with the wave of European colonial expansion that began in the 15th century and with the start of the modern African slave trade. It was used to justify both colonialism and the slave trade.

A yellow picket sign with black and grey printing reads Malcolm X: You can't have capitalism without racism. To the right, a white banner with red print reads Demand Justice for Ramarley.
Photo by Terence McCormack.

The Black historian Eric Williams argued in his classic study Capitalism and Slavery that racism doesn’t explain slavery. Slavery explains racism. The slave trade was vital to the development of capitalism in the 16th century. Enslaved Africans were used to extract wealth from the new world that was essential to the primitive accumulation of capital in Western Europe.

Racism was absolutely central to the regime of labor relations that allowed capitalism to develop, but it also played a variety of other key roles. Almost immediately, ruling elites recognized its value as a divide and rule strategy in capitalism where, like all class societies, a minority monopolizes most wealth and power.

How can a small minority maintain its dominance over the vast majority? It will use open repression whenever necessary, but it’s hard to run a society just on repression. So ruling classes need to find ways to stop the majority from organizing together. And racism has played this role, especially in North America since at least the 17th century, starting with Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676.

There were significant upheavals in the American colonies with poor whites and enslaved Blacks often joining forces to fight against their masters and ruling elites, who responded by passing slave codes to discipline Blacks while giving small privileges to poor whites.

According to the historian Theodore Allen, this amounted to the invention of the white race. Allen conducted a detailed survey of seventeenth-century records and concluded: “I have found no instance of the official use of the word white as a token of social status before its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691.”

Soon afterwards, the Virginia Assembly proclaimed that all white men were superior to Blacks and passed a law requiring masters to provide white servants whose indenture time was up with money, supplies, and land. Such measures kept poor whites as well as blacks subordinated to their masters. As Frederick Douglass later put it, “They divided both to conquer each.”

This is why racism survived the end of slavery and persisted both as a method of justifying continued racial inequality embedded in the labor market, housing, education, health care, and every other area of society, and as the most effective divide-and conquer-strategy available to the ruling class.

Racism also continued to play an important role in the justifications offered for colonial and imperial wars and conquest, which remain another central feature of capitalism. This raises an important question. Could capitalism exist without racism? I think that this question can be approached in two ways.

First, racism is thoroughly embedded and integrated in the capitalism we actually have. In order to end racism, we would have to dismantle the economic system that it is part of because at the very least ending racism will require an enormous redistribution of wealth and power. Second, at a more abstract level, we can ask whether in different historical circumstances, capitalism could have emerged without racism.

I’m willing to entertain that possibility. However (and this is a big “however”), I don’t believe that capitalism could have emerged without some other functionally equivalent, brutal system of oppression. Capitalism is a system of economic exploitation, but it’s a system that can’t operate without methods of dividing the mass of the population by using harsh systems of oppression. And, of course, in our society, race is not the only basis for oppression. We have sexism, homophobia, nationalism, ableism, and many other forms of oppression. So perhaps capitalism without racism is a theoretical possibility, but capitalism without oppression is not.

So what practical conclusions should we draw? Because capitalism and racism are intertwined and because of the role that racism plays in dividing the working class, if we want to fight against capitalism and class inequality, anti-racism has to be at the center of our activity.

It’s not enough, as Reed and his supporters propose, to raise universal class demands. One of the things that makes it difficult to win such demands is racism. For example, one of the reasons why social benefits are so much worse in the United States than in other developed capitalist countries is because racism is so strong here.

The standard way of opposing government programs is to portray them as handouts to undeserving people of color. Even though most whites would benefit enormously from such programs, this trick has been enormously effective. So there’s absolutely no reason to see anti-racist struggles as a diversion.

They are vital if we want to build the kind of class unity necessary to take on the whole system. But it’s worth adding that the barriers that we have to overcome are not easily overcome. Even though the argument that I’m making is that it’s really not in the material interests of workers of whatever race to hold racist ideas, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to break down those ideas.

A black and white photo of about 8 activists at night in a lit-up London's Trafalgar Square. They hold a banner that reads in capital letters Fight racism, fight imperialism, smash capitalism. There is a literature table to the left where people are talking about a leaflet.
Anti-Trump protesters gather in London’s Trafalgar Square . Photo by Alisdare Hickson.

The great Black historian W.E.B. Du Bois talked about the psychological wage that racism provides to poor whites. It makes them feel superior even if it is of no real material benefit to them. These ideas can be a very hard thing to break down. We see a lot of that in U.S. society today. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to break down these ideas. Racist ideas can be broken down, and the time that this happens is in heightened periods of struggle.

We have a kind of chicken-and-egg situation here, because racism acts as a way of dividing and making unified struggle more difficult. But if struggle can take off even in complicated and fragmented ways to begin with, it offers the possibility of fighting back against and breaking down the racial divisions.

It’s also worth adding that there’s no sharp boundary between struggles for racial justice and fights for broader class demands. The experience and victories of struggles against racism can, and often have, laid the basis for fighting class exploitation.

Many of the militants who led the upsurge in labor militancy at the end of the 1960s, like the successful postal workers’ national wildcat strike in 1970, the leadership was predominantly people of color and women. And I would bet 99 percent of them were veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Liberation Struggle, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and the Gay Liberation Movement. The experience of fighting against those forms of oppression gave them the experience to lead.

The postal strike was one of the most important labor struggles of the last half century. Fighting racism and other forms of oppression strengthened the class struggle. If that’s right then the fight against racism is not a diversion or an optional extra. It’s a vital and central part of the fight against class oppression and for socialism.

Haley Pessin: Phil has taken us through why a Marxist approach requires that socialists understand anti-racism as essential to the fight against capitalism.

While it’s true that liberals reduce racism to a problem of bad ideas and ignorant individuals, they don’t address structural racism or the class power that racism serves to perpetuate. It’s also true that the far right is gaining a hearing today by blaming the real decimation of living standards on Black people, immigrants, women, queer and trans people. This lets corporations and the politicians responsible for those conditions off the hook.

In a 2020 survey of Republicans, a slim majority agreed with statements like: “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it”; “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities”; “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country speaking English”; “English is essential for being a true American”; and “Black people need to stop using racism as an excuse.”

So any alternative the Left presents needs to be able to challenge both the ideological racism and racist institutions like the criminal legal system that create the material basis for those ideas to gain a hearing, because it’s far easier for vigilantes to feel justified in gunning down Black people, as happened this summer in Jacksonville, Florida, where three Black people were killed by a white supremacist, or in the fatal stabbing of O’Shae Sibley, a Black gay man in Brooklyn.

When this happens legally at the hands of police and the criminal system on a regular basis, uniting a working class that is structurally divided by racism requires fighting racism wherever it appears, along with every other form of oppression. And because racism is so central to maintaining class inequality, resistance to racism, particularly anti-Black racism, tends to raise bigger questions about the unequal nature of our entire society–not just for Black people, but for everyone.

The key question is what the Left can do to facilitate the process of building and rebuilding democratic, accessible institutions of resistance that are clear about the centrality of anti-racist struggle—not if, but when, the next rebellion comes—because the movement is on the defensive today.

We know that all of the conditions that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 uprising in the first place have not been resolved. Figuring out exactly what we need to do next is not an easy task. There is no easy answer, but history offers some useful guides for how radicals have successfully forged unity within the working class, not by neglecting or downplaying racism, but by actively confronting it.

There are a couple of examples I would like to emphasize. Phil gave one example when talking of the labor struggles of the 1970s. I want to talk about the Communist Party (CP), the Scottsboro Boys, and the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) during the 1930s.

In 1931 in Alabama, nine Black boys were falsely accused of raping two white women. All except the youngest (who was 13) were sentenced to death by an all-white jury. The Communist Party reached out to their families and organized their legal defense alongside a national campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys. This campaign ultimately mobilized thousands of protesters, Black and white, around the country and internationally, to stop their execution. It also exposed the broader racism of the U.S. legal system.

A black and white photo of 11 Black people in a hallway in the 1930s. They are the 9 Scottsboro Boys, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, and Laura Kellum. They are wearing or carrying tats and dressed variously in casual pants, overalls, and suits.
Scottsboro Boys and Juanita Jackson Mitchell – Ozie Powell, Olen Montgomery, William Roberson, Juanita Jackson Mitchell, Charles Weems, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Laura Kellum, Andrew Wright, Eugene Williams. Photo by Britton & Patterson.

The pressure of this mass grassroots campaign from below ultimately led the Supreme Court to overrule the Boys’ death sentences. Although the campaign was not able to win their release from prison, it did succeed in saving their lives. As a result, the CP recruited a slew of Black comrades who were leading struggles in their own communities; they gained a strong reputation as among the most committed opponents of segregation, particularly among Black working-class and agricultural workers. The families of the Boys spoke out against red-baiting and other efforts by more moderate civil rights groups like the NAACP to distance themselves from the campaigns or break it from its roots in the Communist Party.

To quote Janie Patterson, the mother of one of the boys, “I don’t care whether they are reds, greens, or blues. They’re the only ones who put up a fight to save these boys, and I am with them to the end.”

Throughout the Great Depression, the CP further solidified its anti-racist reputation when workers who were members of the Party or influenced by its organizing formed the CIO. Whereas the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had been unwilling to challenge segregated locals or racist wage differentials, the CIO made a priority of organizing Black workers within industrial unions, which ignored distinctions among unskilled and skilled workers, whether they were Black or white.

With Black organizers—some of whom were Party members leading the charge, working together with the National Negro Congress, a CP-led organization allied with civil rights organizations—the union was able to undercut reluctance or hostility among Black people toward unions given their prior experience facing exclusion or even violence when they attempted to organize themselves.

They also challenged white workers’ racism under the slogan, “Black and White, Unite and Fight.” As a result of this, and through the experience of successful strikes in which Ford Motors proved unable to play on racial divisions by using Black workers as strikebreakers, the number of Black workers in unions grew from 56,000 in 1930 to 25 million by 1945.

This strong link between the CP and anti-racist struggles was broken before the start of the Civil Rights movement. Stalin’s Popular Front policy during which the Party abruptly shifted away from criticizing the U.S. or capitalism undermined the Party’s commitment to fighting racism and left its Black allies feeling that their needs had been subordinated to Soviet foreign policy interests.

Nevertheless, Communists had become so closely associated with anti-racist activism that, during the Red Scare, McCarthyites frequently attacked anti-racists by accusing them of being Communists. The purging of Communists from the labor movement and the capitulation of some labor leaders to Cold War politics meant removing some of the most committed opponents of racism from the AFL-CIO, and its efforts to enforce desegregation declined.

Meanwhile middle-class Black organizations who cooperated with Cold War anti-communism did not actually succeed in protecting themselves from racist attacks. In fact, the NAACP’s literature was banned along with the Communists’. In a scathing indictment, Left historian Manning Marable concluded that by serving as the left-wing of McCarthyism, middle-class Black leaders retarded the black movement for a decade or more. This is a pretty strong indictment.

Another example of mass anti-racist struggle is from the 1960s. The Civil Rights movement began as a struggle for equal rights predicated on the dismantling of this country’s Jim Crow system of racial apartheid in the South. Polls throughout the 1960s did not show a ready-made, multiracial coalition behind black demands for civil rights.

A 1963 Gallup poll found that 78 percent of white people would leave if Black families moved into their neighborhood, with 60 percent having an unfavorable view of the March on Washington. However, the truly heroic and persistent struggle of Black people in the face of police dogs, water cannons, and police and Klan violence not only shifted public opinion but also changed those participating and ultimately led them to more radical demands around the limits of integration for addressing racial as well as economic inequality.

The leading organization of this period was without a doubt the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Panthers were an explicitly socialist organization with a mass following. Their newspaper had a circulation of a hundred thousand copies per issue at its height, and they saw their role as raising people’s consciousness, capturing this mass mood and organizing its vanguard.

Most importantly, they saw the overthrow of capitalism as essential to the project of anti racism. Today, there’s a lot of focus on different community projects that the Panthers engaged in, like their free breakfast program or the fact that they carried guns. But I really like this quote from Eddie Conway, a former Panther:

The state targeted the Panthers because we were socialists, not because we were armed. The most dangerous thing about the Panthers was that they had a mass audience and saw their project as linking up with different groups of oppressed peoples, whether they be Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, or even poor whites.

That is the context in which the Panthers and other wings of the movement were targeted for violent repression by the state, and even murder, as Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor argues in her book  From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.

The backlash was intended not only to discipline rebelling African-Americans but also to reestablish order in a society where demonstrations, illegal strikes, riots, and rebellions had become legitimate means of registering complaints against the state and forcing reforms from hostile political forces, including those of ordinary working-class white people.

More threatening still was the example set by movements like the anti-war and womens’ liberation struggles, which made the Black struggle in Keeanga’s words, “a conduit for questioning American democracy and capitalism.”

Ultimately, rolling back the gains of this movement—which had included an expanded welfare state–and instituting a neoliberal agenda that produced the upward transfer of wealth through privatization, austerity, and the gutting of what little social safety net we have—required attacking the most radical wing of this struggle. It required both racist attacks and attacks on explicit demands for socialism or burying that history.

This massive upward transfer of wealth required justification: Enter the racist myth of the “Black welfare queen” to justify the rollback of welfare reforms, obscuring the fact that the majority of people on welfare were white.

In addition, the expansion of the carceral system and the criminalization of Black people—questions that the Black Power Movement had begun to raise around racial and economic inequality but which are left unresolved until the present—has meant far more poor and working class people of all races and genders are caught up in its web today.

There are hundreds of white people killed annually by the police, and the fastest growing prison population is white women. That points to a basis for solidarity and fighting for abolition, but also to the importance of understanding that dismantling these systems requires fighting racism and the priorities of the ruling class in tandem.

To summarize, racism is ultimately an essential tool for maintaining inequality on a class basis. How do we get to a revolutionary consciousness? Marx says,

Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of the ages and become fitted to found society anew.

That is, struggle creates the context in which racist ideas and divisions can be broken down. But that is only a possibility if we actually fight for it. An organization is critical. Socialists should see our contribution as helping to bring coherence to the experience and lessons of militants, particularly of many Black activists who have become leaders in these struggles in lasting organizations, including our own.

In this way, we can help lay the basis for stronger, more organized struggles that are better able to fight for and win our demands in the future, especially the next time that the police kill a Black person or a city cuts social services while wasting billions of dollars on policing.

We also need to tie these struggles against racism in the here and now to the need for an entirely different society. Capitalism needs to divide our side in order to rule, and any of the reforms we win can be rolled back if and when they happen to conflict with the needs of the ruling class. We can see that in the Supreme Court’s recent rolling back and putting the final nail in the coffin of affirmative action, the attacks on critical race theory and the very teaching of Black history (or rather of American history as it actually happened), and the violence of an emboldened far right.

Progress isn’t linear. White supremacy is deeply rooted in every level of capitalist society. It’s primed and ready to be mobilized when it’s in the interest of the capitalist class. This is why our struggle needs to be for more than reforms. We need revolution, and I give the last word to Fred Hampton who was a Black Panther fighting for the unity under the Rainbow Coalition of all different groups in Chicago. He was literally murdered by this government for doing that. He said,

We’re going to fight racism, not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say, we’re not going to fight capitalism with Black capitalism, we’re going to fight it with socialism.

Featured image credit: Joe Piette; modified by Tempest.

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Haley Pessin and Phil Gasper View All

Haley Pessin is a socialist activist living in Queens, New York and is a member of the Tempest Collective. They co-edited the book Voices of a People’s History of the United States in the 21st Century: Documents of Hope published by Seven Stories Press.

Phil Gasper is a member of the Tempest Collective, a long-time activist, the editor and annotator of The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document (Second Edition, Haymarket, 2024), and the editor of Imperialism and War: Classic Writings by V.I. Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin (Haymarket, 2017). He is on the editorial board of New Politics.