Race über alles?
Daniel Lazare looks beneath the skin of Black Lives Matter and reveals the links with big business
It goes without saying that any Marxist worth his or her salt will give full-throated support to the vast multiracial protests that have shaken the United States since the police murder of George Floyd on May 25. But it also goes without saying that any Marxist will use the dialectical method in an effort to ‘peer around the corner’ and determine what the movement’s equally vast contradictions bode for the anti-racist movement - and to do so ruthlessly and unsparingly without fear of stepping on anyone’s toes.
Any such inquiry must focus on three related questions: race, class and political organisation. If there is a sense of déjà vu about Black Lives Matter, for instance, it is because we have seen all too many movements burst into life in recent years, burn bright for a few weeks or months, and then fade just as rapidly. The Arab Spring is one example, Occupy Wall Street another and the Yellow Vests movement a third. The last threw France into turmoil and inspired imitators from Russia to Australia. But, despite assurances by groups like Socialist Resistance that “the Gilets Jaunes are not going away” and “they are in no mood to give up”, within six months the movement was kaput.1
Such movements are characterised by spontaneity, a weak to non-existent organisational structure and an extreme lack of staying power. So too with Black Lives Matter, which Alicia Garza, one of its founders, describes as “leaderful” and others describe as “horizontal” - meaning that decision-making is loose, non-hierarchical and decentralised. This means that activists are free to do what they want when proper circumstances arise. But it leaves them high and dry, once circumstances change.
But what BLM lacks in political staying power, it more than makes up for in terms of business hustle. In 2016, it was the recipient, along with other black-oriented groups, of a $100 million grant from the Ford Foundation and other philanthropic organisations, whose purpose was “to nurture bold experiments and help the movement build the solid infrastructure that will enable it to flourish”.2 If BLM could not marshal staying power on its own, then Ford would help it. BLM also announced that it would partner with the New York ad agency, J Walter Thompson. to create “the biggest and most easily accessible black business database in the country” and that it would team up with a black-owned, Boston-based bank known as OneUnited to issue a debit card aimed at black consumers.3
“The Amir visa debit card symbolises the continued fight for justice and the power of our dollars,” OneUnited Bank proclaimed in a press release. “Yes … #BlackMoneyMatters #BlackLivesMatter.”4
Never mind that OneUnited is a corrupt capitalist enterprise that provided its chairman, Kevin L Cohee, with a $26,500-a-month mansion in Santa Monica, California, free of charge; that provided him with a free Porsche with which to motor about town, and which benefited from a $12 million federal bailout that Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, whose husband sits on OneUnited’s board, helped arrange in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.5 But none of this matters, as far as BLM is concerned. What matters is that its aspirations are distinctly higher than those of the scruffy, lower-middle class Yellow Vests and that the ruling class is doing what it can to help it achieve its goals.
Needless to say, a decentralised power structure not only rewards spontaneity, but tends to obscure what a few well-placed insiders are doing in the movement’s name.
As for race, no anti-racist could possibly disagree with a slogan like ‘Black lives matter’. For years, cops assumed that they could whale away at people like George Floyd with abandon - so insisting now that such lives are no longer expendable amounts to a powerful demand for human dignity.
Except for one thing: BLM has raised eyebrows by preventing other groups from using the same slogan. As Alicia Garza wrote in 2014, just as the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was beginning to trend,
Not just all lives: black lives. Please do not change the conversation by talking about how your life matters too. It does, but we need less watered-down unity and more active solidarities with us, black people, unwaveringly, in defence of our humanity. Our collective futures depend on it.6
Thus - all lives matter, brown lives matter, migrant lives matter, women’s lives matter, and on and on - all such violations of the BLM trademark somehow “erase our existence”. It is as if Zionists objected to gays or Romani crying out, ‘Never again’, on the grounds that it detracts from the only holocaust that counts: that of the Jews.
Sophisticated Marxists and earnest activists will thus explain with a perfectly straight face why BLM is not the least bit sectarian and why the counter-slogan, ‘All lives matter’, is racist and rightwing. But upside-down logic like this is hardly surprising in a country in which Democratic politicians - not unlike rightwing Labourites in the UK - argue that Israel must be free to be as repressive as it likes and that only an anti-Semite would argue that all lives matter when it comes to Jews and Palestinians.
But this is not the only way in which BLM is sectarian - it is also in its analysis of the problem of police violence. Anyone who attends a George Floyd protest can be forgiven for assuming that all victims of the police are black, since they are the only ones BLM mentions. But in fact only about 25% are black, according to various databases, while 40% are white, 16% Hispanic and the rest are either another race or unknown.7 To be sure, 25% is double the black share of the US population as a whole, which suggests that race is still a primary factor. But, once class is factored into the equation, its role ends up much diminished.
David North’s Socialist Equality Party has certainly seen its share of craziness since the Healyite implosion of the mid-1980s. But a detailed analysis that the SEP’s World Socialist Web Site published in December 2018 is a major contribution to socialist literature. By zeroing in on the economically blighted towns, cities and rural communities in which police killings occur, WSWS was able to demonstrate that economics plays a far larger role than BLM would like us to believe.8
America is a land of spatial segregation, in which those with the means purchase homes in leafy neighbourhoods where education and other municipal services are top-notch and violence is rare. But 28% live in districts in which police killings have occurred and where the black and Hispanic presence is significantly higher than average and the poverty rate is higher as well - 19.5% versus a national average of 12.3%. While the police death rate for blacks in such “police killing zones”, as WSWS calls them, was two and a half times the average for black Americans generally as of 2017, the rate for whites was nearly five times the national norm. While police were still more likely to murder blacks in such areas, therefore, they were only 17% more likely than they are to murder whites. Simultaneously, they were 25% less likely to kill Hispanics.
This does not mean that cops do not have a special animus toward blacks; given the role of black slavery in US history, it is more than possible that they do. But if that is the case, does it mean they have a special fondness for Hispanics, since they kill them significantly less often? Or is the answer, rather, that economics are the chief determinant and that race is secondary? WSWS also broke down the figures for St Louis, Missouri, alone - a city devastated by deindustrialisation and racial discord. Blacks were still 22% more likely to be killed than the city average. But the deaths took place in neighbourhoods in which poverty rates were well above average even for hard-hit St Louis. So, once again, poverty turns out to be the chief factor.
Meanwhile, WSWS’s most dramatic finding concerned rural “killing zones”, in which the total death rate at the hands of the police is more than 10 times the national average and racial differences are again far less than BLM would suggest.
So what does it all mean? The most obvious is that BLM grossly distorts reality by elevating race über alles and ‘disappearing’ class. The more working class conditions plummet and economic polarisation goes shooting through the roof, the more poor people in general will wind up victims of police violence - and the more BLM will wind up closing its eyes to the full dimensions of the problem.
A second conclusion is that the hostility to ‘All lives matter’ is not only morally twisted, but politically self-defeating, since the effect is to shut out Hispanics, whites and others who are essential, if an interracial working class movement against racism - the only effective anti-racist force possible under capitalism - is ever to be built. If poverty is exploding in rural America along with police violence, then BLM, by ignoring and even denigrating poor whites, all but forces them into the arms of Trump. Since urban liberals do not care about such people, they figure that they may as well flip them the bird by voting for the person they most despise.
A third conclusion concerns the specific nature of US policing. Eighty-six percent of police funding comes from municipal governments dependent on highly inequitable property taxes, with the rest provided by the 50 state governments and only a tiny admixture from federal authorities on high.9 Middle and upper class communities thus hire cops to serve as a kind of border patrol, while urban police forces, which usually draw more in the way of state support, are specifically charged with pacifying high-crime zones. Rural areas, beyond the sight of the urban media ‘panopticon’, are meanwhile no man’s lands, in which anything goes and no-one cares - least of all anti-racist campaigners in the big cities.
Until recently, no-one cared about the consequences, as long as they got the job done. But now they are shocked - shocked - to discover that there is gambling at Rick’s Café and are calling for reform.
Finally, there is the nature of racism in a class society like the US. While race is not an immediate factor in police shootings, it, of course, permeates the American class structure as a whole. The US political condominium rests on a vast and amorphous middle class dependent on good schools, nice homes, safe streets and an ever-rising standard of living. But it also requires a reserve army of the unemployed in the form of a vast and unruly underclass, consisting of poor blacks and Hispanics, and a growing number of poor whites as well. While it is certainly racist that blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately consigned to the lower ranks, the fact is that racism did not cause the underclass: US capitalism caused it, rather, and then used whatever human material was at hand to fill its ranks.
An increasingly undemocratic constitutional structure meanwhile reinforces racism and inequality by steering power to white rural states, while short-changing multiracial giants like New York and California. However, if BLM is not inclined to talk about structural reform, it is no doubt because the Ford Foundation would not like it - and in America, it is money that talks. So it is better to cover up the problem of an increasingly class-stratified society, while enjoying whatever fruits capitalism has to offer.
Socialist Resistance May 2 2019: socialistresistance.org/gilets-jaunes-still-fighting/16877.↩︎
B Kelly-Green and L Yasui, ‘Why black lives matter to philanthropy’, Ford Foundation, July 19 2016: fordfoundation.org/ideas/equals-change-blog/posts/why-black-lives-matter-to-philanthropy.↩︎
L Porter and N Hanover, ‘Black Lives Matter cashes in on black capitalism’ World Socialist Web Site April 4 2017: wsws.org/en/articles/2017/04/04/blm-a04.html; B Simons, ‘Yes, black liberals commodify Black Lives Matter too and it’s a major problem, May 12 2017: blackyouthproject.com/yes-black-people-commodify-black-lives-matter-too-and-its-a-major-problem.↩︎
R Jeffrey Smith, ‘Cohee at OneUnited, bank in Maxine Waters case, has checkered record’ Washington Post August 12 2010: washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/11/AR2010081105561.html.↩︎
A Garza, ‘A herstory of the Black Lives Matter movement Feminist Wire October 7 2014: thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2.↩︎
‘1,003 people were shot and killed by police in 2019’ Washington Post June 1 2020: washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/police-shootings-2019.↩︎
B Mateus, ‘Behind the epidemic of police killings in America: class, poverty and race’ WSWS December 20 2018: wsws.org/en/articles/2018/12/20/kil1-d20.html.↩︎
‘Police and corrections expenditures’, The Urban Institute: urban.org/policy-centers/cross-center-initiatives/state-and-local-finance-initiative/state-and-local-backgrounders/police-and-corrections-expenditures#Question2Police.↩︎