“It really doesn’t matter who gets into office it’s all going to come down to the response of the people.”
—Black Panther Aaron Dixon
Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown recently wrote that “defund the police” is an ill-advised slogan that will hurt Democrats come November, as though the ongoing mass mobilizations around police brutality weren’t fueled by popular rage at the failure of voting or anything else to offer a path to change. “[If] you take away people’s feelings of personal safety,” warned Brown, “you lose voters.” Ah, feelings! A better word would be illusions. The people for whom the police are a constant predatory menace don’t have any personal safety to lose, and they are in a position to burn the country to the ground, as recent events have shown. If they strike the match, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men will not be able to put “personal safety” together again.
Could this alarming prospect be the reason for so much bizarre behavior from those who have long enjoyed the illusion of physical security? Like white protesters in Houston kneeling and praying to black residents to be forgiven their racial sins. Like white police officers in Cary, North Carolina washing the feet of black pastors. Like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer kneeling down dressed in African kente cloth scarves. Like self-flagellating white people all over the country allegedly sickened by a legacy of slavery they know little about, expressing boundless revulsion over their skin color and earnestly demonstrating their utter unfitness to be or do anything. As convincing as their apparent uselessness is, where is the intended benefit?
On the other hand, the Black Lives Matter advice that whites become “allies” of blacks sounds good but lacks clear meaning. Which black people are whites supposed to make themselves allies of? Barack Obama, who recently helped torpedo a promising social democratic revival that could have put real $20 bills in the pockets of the George Floyds of this world, sparing them the horror of fatal police stops over petty or imaginary offenses triggered by poverty? Candace Owens, who dismisses Floyd as a common criminal and drug addict entirely unworthy of our sympathy? The Congressional Black Caucus, which recently voted unanimously to award trillions of dollars in aid to plundering corporations, thus guaranteeing increased suffering for a large majority of African Americans, who had little enough to start with and now must somehow survive with capital consolidating its already massive holdings in the midst of economic collapse and galloping pandemic?
In short, not all blacks are worthy of support, and many whites are so crippled by self-accusation that they are incapable of providing any. Dilemmas like these should make it clear that solving our racial nightmare will demand more than hashtags and sound bites.
One thing that would help everyone is broad popular understanding of the problem. African-Americans are endangered by police, not because of anything they have done, but because of slavery, which was never entirely abolished. The 13th Amendment declares slavery prohibited “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” which allows it to continue under the aegis of the criminal justice system. The state, as opposed to the individual capitalist, has the authority to perpetuate the slave codes, which criminalize black life and masquerade as impartial justice. As a result, our prisons are jammed with black prisoners, many of whom are dispatched to the chain gang, a form of exploitation that proved a boon to rapid industrial development in the late 19th century, and has been enjoying a revival in the era of the “war on drugs.”
Any mention of slavery tends to evoke defensive and dismissive responses from white people, most commonly that slavery is ancient history and hardly an American invention. But in fact slavery was only abolished a century-and-a-half ago, not long in historical time, and was succeeded by Jim Crow, which viciously perpetuated something very much like slavery for another century. And the informal apartheid that exists to this day achieves the same effect as legal segregation did under Jim Crow. Even lynching has not been entirely done away with, as the George Floyd killing attests. The only notable difference between Floyd’s murder and the ritual executions of thousands of African Americans during the Jim Crow era was the people on the sidewalk calling out for mercy: during segregation they would have been cheering the murderer on.
As for slavery in other lands, it carries with it no implications for Americans, and it is Americans we are talking about. In any case, why the constant attempt to evade moral responsibility for slavery? If your child stood accused of burning down the school cafeteria, would you really try to complain that she was being singled out unfairly, since arson has existed all over the world since forever? Probably not.
Discussions of slavery naturally raise the related topic of reparations, some form of which is definitely owed. After all, the industrial revolution was based on cotton, which was produced primarily by slave labor in the United States. Wealth accrued not just to the planter aristocracy of the old South, but also to textile manufacturers in the North and Great Britain, among other commercial and financial beneficiaries forming the core of modern capitalism. As for the slaves, they were not given their “forty acres and a mule” upon their (partial) liberation, which carried severely destructive consequences for the entire society down to the present day.
We can no longer accept refusals to discuss redistribution of the wealth from rich to poor on the grounds that we can’t “just throw money” at problems. Aren’t we doing precisely that right now to shore up capital markets? And aren’t they crashing anyway? It was always ridiculous to claim that the best way to help the poor was to throw money at the rich, but in the midst of an outright depression it’s frankly suicidal. To make a long story short, we cannot confront systemic racism without reversing the gift of trillions of dollars of unearned wealth showered on large corporations in response to the coronavirus crisis. That money should go to areas of popular need, not narrow centers of private greed. Only then can consumption rise, jobs return, and a modicum of justice reign. What are we waiting for?
Equally absurd is the racist ideology underpinning slavery, which posited that Africans needed white guidance to advance on their journey from savagery to civilization. This and other perverse notions took hold of even the most “enlightened” minds. Thomas Jefferson, for example, a child of the Enlightenment and author of the Declaration of Independence, dismissed Indians as "savages" and patronizingly saw blacks as almost equal to whites. They had tolerable memories, he thought, but lacked sufficient intellect to understand Euclid, and were entirely bereft of imagination in his view. Interestingly, brown women attracted Jefferson more than white women, but he was terrified at the prospect of losing racial purity, and looked forward to the day when blacks would be shipped to the Caribbean or returned to Africa, leaving the U.S. “without blot or mixture.”
Elite thought didn’t improve over the next century. At the turn of the 20th century anthropologists placed African Americans somewhere between the great apes and the hominids on the evolutionary scale. Biologists reported that their average brain weight was less than that of Caucasians, and substantially less than that of English-speaking Protestants. Psychologists claimed they were possessed of a primal sexuality and prone to irrationality, especially under stress or in situations of intimacy. Criminologists and eugenicists warned of their allegedly innate brutality and hyper-fertility. Race experts believed they had no mental or physical energy, lacked volition, and worked as little as possible, preferring indolence and sunshine to developing civilized artifacts like architecture or literature. One of the most important books published in 1900 was entitled, “The Mystery Solved: The Negro a Beast.”
Doctors predicted they would die out from disease and perversion.
Today, we see the persistence of such prejudicial attitudes, though now the alleged deficiencies of African Americans are believed to reside in their history or culture, rather than in their very nature. But such explanations “might as well be called genetic,” writes educator Jonathan Kozol, based as they are on presumptions of degradation “imprinted on black people.” Those who continue to disdain them “see a slipshod, deviant nature – violence, lassitude, a reckless sexuality, a feverish need to over-reproduce” as being what they unavoidably are.
But in fact this is not at all what they are, but what a racist society believes them to be. That society, now riven by tribal warfare and in a state of accelerating collapse, will not survive if racism is not rooted out once and for all.
Fortunately, there are signs of a general awakening to this fact. The popular uprising that greeted the murder of George Floyd has been of unprecedented scope and breadth. Protests more than 100,000 strong broke out in dozens of U.S. cities, with parallel solidarity demonstrations around the world. Unlike police brutality protests of the 1960s, recent demonstrations have included a large number of whites, as well as Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, and people of all ages, along with a large swath of the middle class. A coalition this broad cannot be ignored, especially its central demand: an end to the militarized American police state, which means a change in the very structure of the capitalist state in the United States.
For the first time in a long time popular forces have seized the initiative and ruling elites are forced to play defense.
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ALL CAPTIONS AND PULL QUOTES BY THE EDITORS NOT THE AUTHORS