Fighting racism today
American footballer Colin Kaepernick has protested against racism (Photo Mike Morebeck/Creative Commons)
The following article was written by Hugo Pierre of the Socialist Party. Hugo is also a member of the National Executive of the UNISON trade union representing black members (writing here in a personal capacity). We believe this article raises some key issues for those wanting to fight back against racism.
Fighting racism means fighting capitalism
Solidarity with Black Lives Matter
By Hugo Pierre, Socialist Party black and Asian group
The police killing spree in the United States has unleashed a mass movement.
As in the 1950s and 1960s with the civil rights movement, a new generation of black youth has been forced into action against racism. First in the belly of the beast – the US – but also other parts of the world, particularly the UK.
This movement is not limited to the narrow confines of police brutality. It has spread its wings to tackle all the political issues facing black people and oppressed racial groups. Some are drawing the conclusion that capitalism itself is the root of the problem.
The federal investigation into Ferguson Police Department following the police murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown shines a spotlight on the real issues facing blacks in particular. In a city where 69% of the population is black, the investigation found a justice system riddled with institutionalised racism:
- 93% of all arrests were black – and in 90% of these arrests, force was used
- Black drivers made up 85% of all vehicles stopped, even though these searches revealed they were 25% less likely to be carrying anything illegal
- 95% of those jailed for more than two days were black
- Blacks were 68% less likely to have their case dismissed
But the findings also revealed a corrupt justice system that had become focused on bringing in income from fines. This income was necessary to maintain the whole justice system, as it had become commercialised through a succession of cuts and sell-offs.
Meanwhile, a system operated where white people who faced fines would be let off by friends, acquaintances, neighbours – and even themselves – working in the court system. Racist emails, even by senior staff, were a matter of course.
This profit-driven approach had lethal consequences for Michael Brown. But the picture is repeated one way or another in police forces around the US. And a black US President and countless black city mayors have failed to take action against a for-profit justice system.
Jails are full of young black men. They are typecast because of petty misdemeanours in school, fallen foul of ‘zero tolerance’ policies. They end up being statistics in privatised US jails which have to meet their quotas to get government payments.
More young black men are in US jails than on US college campuses. Black communities are blighted by poverty, unemployment and de facto segregation. Growing filming of racist incidents shows how brutal police action is, as testified recently by the killing of Philando Castile in his car in front of his girlfriend and her young child.
But black youth across the US have organised mass civil disobedience in response. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has acted as a lightning rod for the discontent and anger of the many. Demonstrations are now a feature following almost any police killing.
Protests in cities have shut down freeways, closed city centres. Some have been attacked by police. Some have led to uprisings against state forces. In Ferguson, the chief of police was forced to resign. But no officer responsible for killing unarmed black men or women has been found guilty of murder.
Rallies, demonstrations and direct action are not limited just to tackling police murders. And the outrage against police killings isn’t limited to the US.
Black Lives Matter demonstrations started in sympathy in London, Birmingham, Sheffield and other cities. Of course, black workers and youth in the UK have our own victims. The killings this year alone of Mzee Mohammed and Dalian Atkinson at the hands of British police have caused outrage.
These anti-racist campaigns have brought to the surface the often-hidden inequalities that face young black people: higher rates of unemployment, lower access to higher education, lower access to graduate jobs.
Figures released by the Trade Union Congress showed that London, often considered to be diverse and tolerant, had one of the highest gaps between black and white youth unemployment rates. This was not simply an issue of ‘skills mismatch’. When looking at workers with comparable qualifications, black youth could be two to three times more likely to be unemployed.
Studies by UK trade unions have also found that during the post-2007 ‘Great Recession’ and its mass shedding of jobs, black workers were more likely to face redundancy. Some local councils have sacked black workers five or six times as fast as their white workmates. Shamefully, there is little difference in the outcome for black workers whichever party controls the council.
The ‘Movement for Black Lives’ campaign in the US is drawing political conclusions.
This has come not long after the anti-establishment Occupy movement. It’s hot on the heels of the outline of a political campaign against the super-rich represented by self-described socialist Bernie Sanders’ presidential nomination campaign. Young people have lifted their sights.
The Movement for Black Lives has started to raise many political demands around which various campaign groups can organise political action. These include “an end to the war on black people”, “economic justice”, and investment in education and health rather than “the criminalising, caging and harming of black people”.
These are the beginnings of a programme for a political alternative. This is very welcome. But although it highlights many issues seriously, it also currently has some limitations.
The campaign’s platform recognises the fundamental right of workers to organise, and the need for collective action. There is criticism of the weakness of current US legislation which enshrines the right to organise, but then is toothless when employers refuse to allow workers to exercise that right. It notes the strength of unionised workers in raising the living standards of black people in both the public and private sectors.
Calling for tougher pro-union legislation, and the repeal of anti-union legislation, is right – but alone will not lead to a change in the situation.
The trade unions will be crucial in developing bold, campaigning organisations to bring workers of all races together to fight for rights at work, against discrimination, and against poverty pay and conditions. Especially in the US – but also in the UK – changing the rotten, pro-capitalist leadership of many of those unions, and widening union democracy, are crucial to this task.
The need to challenge the racist capitalist state will also be central to any successful programme. But simple reforms aimed at encouraging full participation in the current ‘democratic’ process will not lead to a fundamental shift in the balance of power from the super-rich 1% to the 99%. For that, we need to take economic power from the capitalists.
As in the 1960s, campaigns around voter registration could mobilise substantial numbers to engage. But voter dissatisfaction with both Clinton and Trump means these campaigns will have to break with establishment politics to make real headway.
The two successful Seattle City Council elections campaigns for Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Party’s US co-thinkers Socialist Alternative, show what achievements are possible when workers have socialist representatives to back their campaigns.
Sawant helped win a $15 an hour minimum wage in Seattle, the first major US city to adopt it. She plays a leading role in fighting poor housing conditions and anti-working class housing regulations. These are major gains, and have helped to inspire a new generation of black and white young people into political activity.
Similarly, in the UK, the campaign to keep Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party has given some political expression to the millions who want a fight against austerity. Some blacks have taken part, but many more will be wary at this stage, because of the right-wing Labour establishment blocking their participation.
Momentum, the ‘official’ Corbyn support group, must not fall into the traps Labour’s right wing has set. Blocking forces outside the Labour Party from getting involved, and backing down to establishment Labour politicians, will blunt or blot out the mobilising effect Corbynism could have.
In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the mass civil rights movement was initiated by trade unionists and socialists. They enlisted the services of the churches and the broader community to help organise mass campaigns throughout the US.
The leaders that came through this movement were forced to change their views – and ended by groping towards the ideas of genuine socialism. Figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King started their political lives with a religious fervour, but were assassinated because they took the side of the working class.
Malcolm X said “you can’t have capitalism without racism.” Martin Luther King said “There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” He was assassinated a day after marching with striking sanitation workers. The Black Panther Party correctly adopted the ideas of socialism – but unfortunately, without a thorough understanding of what it would take to achieve a socialist society.
Black youth have opened a new chapter of struggle against racism. New movements like Black Lives Matter could play a key role in bringing young people to participate in this essential struggle. The conditions they face will force them to fight to the end.
The lessons of previous movements will have to be learnt quickly. The key lesson is that the struggle to end racism is linked at every level to the struggle against the rule of an economic and political elite which relies on racism to justify exploitation and keep workers divided against each other. That means the struggle against racism must also be the struggle for a socialist society.
If you agree with us, we urge you to join the struggle