Slaves and presidents

How deep is official anti-racism? James Turley examines the question

There can be few constituencies in America which have received the results of the November 4 presidential election as favourably as the nation’s black voters.

Always a reliably Democrat demographic, 96% of African-Americans cast their ballot for Obama, with only 3% voting for McCain. The most obvious factor here is, of course, that Obama is himself of African extraction, son to a Kenyan father and a white American mother.

That the United States could at all elect a black person as president is far bigger news than, say, Margaret Thatcher’s ascent to the premiership in Britain. She was the first female prime minister, but England at least had seen absolutist queens before; the reign of Elizabeth I remains one of the most sycophantically gloried bits of British history. Persistent patriarchy could not hold the vote from women beyond 1928, though it has hardly evaporated since.

The history of black people in America is a very different story. For the first nine decades of the country’s history (and all of its prehistory), ethnic Africans in the USA and its antecedent colonies were slaves. Although they were freed, reluctantly, by the victorious union during the civil war, ‘reconstruction’ - the period of flux in which the southern states were to be reintegrated into the union - failed to leave black Americans in the full possession of their formal rights. A long period of reaction, typified by ‘Jim Crow laws’, enforced a segregation favouring whites.

In this period, many of the freed slaves fled the south for the industrial cities of the north. The rapid proletarianisation of these layers both freed them from the most overt and politically entrenched elements of racial oppression and subjected them to the most concentrated glare of capitalist exploitation. A subaltern section of the proletariat as a whole, northern blacks found themselves the most brutally exploited.

Thus, while the main cultural expressions of black Americans (e.g. blues and jazz) continued to emerge from the south, it was the proletarianised north where the next wave of political resistance was to catch hold. In the 1920s, urban black intellectuals such as WEB DuBois and Marcus Garvey explicitly looked beyond the simple racial question in the USA to find a broader context for struggle - Garvey proposed an early pan-Africanism, while DuBois was far from the only civil rights activist to look to communism.

It was nevertheless another four decades before the American state even half-heartedly began to attack segregation, when the militancy among blacks had reached its apogee. That militancy - along with associated struggle in factories and on campus - was systematically sabotaged by the state, most infamously through political assassinations of Black Panther Party leaders and the FBI’s Cointelpro offensive.

Even today, race relations remain fraught in large swathes of the country. The most recent rupture came with hurricane Katrina, which saw the rich (largely white) population flee easily in their cars while the poor (largely black) population were not evacuated at all, and left to the mercy of a category three hurricane. He was widely derided, but egomaniacal rap star Kanye West spoke for many when, visibly shaken, he declared during a televised charity appeal that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

The balance seems so delicate that, even at the end of this election cycle, with Obama clearly on the way to a thumping victory, liberals could be found fearing that residual racism could still snatch it away from them. Much was made of the so-called ‘Bradley effect’, named after liberal black civil rights activist Tom Bradley who lost the Californian gubernatorial election in 1982 despite leading his opponent in the polls. Some psephologists concluded that white voters unwilling to vote for a black candidate had, embarrassed about their prejudice, lied to pollsters about their voting intentions.

There is good reason, therefore, for black Americans to celebrate a milestone - not because Obama will enact much meaningful change, but because it testifies to the total marginalisation of anti-black racism in open public discourse. Where once organisations like the Ku Klux Klan were powerful and open, now they are on the fringes. Obama’s skin colour, furthermore, was more of an issue for worrying liberals than for the hard-right Republican voters, whose loopier elements concentrated on his ‘Muslim’ background (his father was brought up a Muslim, but had abandoned it for atheism by the time his son was born).

How deep does this go? That is the subject of a short article in Socialist Worker (November 15). “Certainly the election delivered racism a tremendous blow,” Yuri Prasad begins, noting that the first 16 presidents could have “owned Barack Obama as a piece of their personal property”. However, overblown interpretations of the event abound. Australian premier Kevin Rudd claimed this was the “realisation” of Martin Luther King’s “dream” - but would Dr King really be satisfied with more black people going to prison for longer than any other ethnic group in America, having a lower life expectancy than whites, higher unemployment, etc?

To underline the point, political rap legend Chuck D is wheeled out: “People will say, ‘You guys have got a black president so it’s cool. It’s straight.’ But it does not erase the discussion [about race] that you need to have.”

It is certainly worth noting Socialist Worker’s laundry list of problems with the black experience in the United States. In particular, the disproportionate appearance of black men in the criminal justice system is infamous worldwide, and a serious difficulty for those who claim that real, rather than formal, equality has been achieved.

As usual, however, the political content is cast explicitly in a bourgeois/petty bourgeois vein. The only explicit reference to the working class is incidental to the line of thought. The citation of Chuck D is uncritical, and fails to take note of his black-nationalist political framework. This separation from the class question is subtle, but dangerous.

Yes, there is still more work to be done in the pursuit of social equality for black people, in America and elsewhere. But what do we do? What political framework is necessary to lead that fight? This article leaves all that open, but we well know that the SWP’s ‘anti-racist’ work is focused on its Unite Against Fascism front, an alliance with bourgeois anti-fascists from all the main political parties, together with the unions and labour bureaucracy. For the SWP the political priority is clear: the ‘maximum broadness’ entails political subordination to the ‘anti-fascist’ bourgeoisie.

The effect of UAF politics is to reinforce faith in the ‘legitimate’ political parties over the ‘Nazi filth’ of the BNP, which needs to be driven “back to the gutter where they belong” (Socialist Worker May 3). But, of course, it is everywhere these same ‘legitimate’ bourgeois parties who are presiding over the immiseration of the working class, and thus increasing support for the BNP and other far-right groups. The SWP, despite its hope of appealing to the ‘millions out there’, has nothing to offer rebels to the bourgeois consensus apart from finger-wagging about not voting for ‘scum’.

This inability to draw the class line is a broad failing of the SWP, which has seen it repeatedly endorse anti-racist efforts at state level with almost no criticisms raised. It enthusiastically tailed the British state’s Macpherson report, which discovered ‘institutional racism’ in the Metropolitan police force, distinguishing itself from contemporary government policy only by calling for the sacking of then-Met commissioner Paul Condon (by whom?) and an ‘accountable’ police force (to whom?).

CPGB polemics of the time made these points clear - but in my opinion at the cost of downplaying the significance of racism at all. “National chauvinism, not racism, is today the bourgeoisie’s main ideological weapon,” declared Danny Hammill (Weekly Worker February 25 1999). The bourgeois state simply has no use for racism; it is better to have an integrated national community including ethnic minorities, against whose cohesion chauvinists can pose the intruders and interlopers from foreign lands.

The idea that a rigid separation can be enforced between national chauvinism and racism flies in the face of all historical evidence - and the evidence of historical materialism. The most obvious problem with this view is that, even in periods where racism incontrovertibly was endemic to state apparatuses (e.g. the 1960s-70s), national chauvinism remained the official ideology of the state. Not since the days of slavery and the three-fifths law has the American state even formally discriminated against black people - they were ‘separate but equal’ citizens of the Land of the Free. In both our named periods, the main non-state sources of racism - the Ku Klux Klan and the National Front - were also explicitly opposed to immigrants, and propagated racism through anti-immigration.

National chauvinism does not, in and of itself, imply racism proper. It is, however, one of the main necessities for racism to sustain itself. Racism feeds off nationalist sentiment (far-right parties invariably label themselves nationalist). The official advocacy of anti-racist ideology is an important development, but we should be clear about what its implications are - merely a shift from overt advocacy of racial segregation (‘separate but equal’, anti-miscegenation and other forms) to ‘multiculturalism’, appealing to petty power structures in order to buy off troublesome minorities, while reinforcing ethnic divisions. Just as all other strategies for dividing the working class, this policy has a tendency to sustain racist ideology. Declassed ‘anti-racism’ begets only racism.

Obama is, in one sense, the ultimate example of tokenism. He displays in microcosm the strategy for capital in demobilising the black movement in the United States, and ensuring it stayed away in the main from its more militant elements - the creation of a black middle class, whose aims were integration into the system rather than action against it. In the same way, however, he stands as a distorted reflection of the power of those struggles at their height. Ultimately, the victims of racism and chauvinism must follow DuBois and look to communism for the resolution of these problems.