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International Socialist Review Issue 32, November–December 2003

Civil rights and civil wrongs: Racism in America today


IN THE summer of 2003, President George W. Bush made a five-day whirlwind trip across the African continent. His first stop was Goree Island in Senegal, through which many thousands of Africans once passed before being herded onto slave ships. In a speech he delivered on July 8, Bush denounced slavery and lauded the struggles of slaves and their supporters in their fight to end the system of slavery. He went on to comment that the slavery and racism that was its result continue to shape American society:

My nation’s journey toward justice has not been easy and it is not over. The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times.1

Speeches like this one have become the modus operandi of the Bush administration on the question of racism. The formula is familiar: Acknowledge that the problem exists, while actively undermining any effort to deal with the problem. For example, when earlier this year the Bush administration filed a brief with the Supreme Court in favor of dismantling affirmative action, Bush made this statement defending his administration’s position:

Our Constitution makes it clear that people of all races must be treated equally under the law. Yet we know that our society has not fully achieved that ideal. Racial prejudice is a reality in America. It hurts many of our citizens. As a nation, as a government, as individuals, we must be vigilant in responding to prejudice wherever we find it…[w]e should not be satisfied with the current numbers of minorities on American college campuses. Much progress has been made; much more is needed…and because we’re committed to racial justice, we must make sure that America’s public schools offer a quality education to every child from every background…. America’s long experience with the segregation we have put behind us and the racial discrimination we still struggle to overcome requires a special effort to make real the promise of equal opportunity for all.2

Here Bush makes the case for affirmative action–pointing out the persistence of racial inequality–yet concludes, as evidenced by actually filing the brief, that affirmative action programs aimed at redressing racial discrimination should be dismantled by the federal courts.

Candidate Bush ran as a "uniter, not divider" and coined the phrase "compassionate conservative" as a way of describing his approach to politics and policy decisions. Yet, from Bush’s days in the governor’s mansion in Texas, to the campaign trail for the presidency, to the White House itself, he has used race both to build his political career and to shore up and solidify his right-wing, Christian fundamentalist base.

In Texas, Bush oversaw the execution of over 150 death row inmates–a disproportionate number of whom were Black and Latino. Bush stopped on the campaign trail, returned to Texas and oversaw the execution of Gary Graham (also known as Shaka Sankofa), an African American man sentenced to death at age 17.3

Bush’s campaign stop in South Carolina was also illuminating on issues related to race. He refused to condemn South Carolina’s continued insistence on flying the Confederate flag–a symbol of slavery and white supremacy. Moreover, he accepted an invitation to speak at the controversial Bob Jones University–which maintains a policy against interracial dating. Bush decided to say nothing about the policy as he accepted an honorary award from the school.4

In 2000, Bush won less than 10 percent of the Black vote–a low even for Republicans. To make matters worse, as the 2000 election debacle unfolded in Florida, it became clear that the election shenanigans–which included wiping 57,000 names, mostly Blacks, from the list of eligible voters–were not unintentional errors, but instead involved orchestrated and systematic efforts at disenfranchising African American and immigrant voters.5

Rather than a break from the past, however, the Bush administration represents an acceleration of more than two decades of attacks on the gains of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is no coincidence that Bill Clinton also made a 1992 campaign stop in Arkansas to oversee the execution of a retarded Black man. These accumulated attacks have resulted in a lack of access to well paying jobs, good schools, affordable housing, affirmative action and government-sponsored entitlement programs that are aimed at blunting the effects of racism for African Americans.

The Bush administration also represents the changing class nature of racism and its impact on Blacks as a whole. On his staff are the two highest-ranked African Americans ever appointed to a presidential cabinet–National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell. One would be hard-pressed to argue that these two key figures of Bush’s inner circle are just puppets or "Uncle Toms" within the Bush administration. In Bush’s campaign for war against Iraq, both Rice and Powell were central to sell the war at home and abroad.

These two are not the only African Americans on top of the heap. Currently, the CEOs of American Express, Merrill Lynch and the AOL division of Time Warner are African American. These are just a few examples of a greater phenomenon of some Blacks who now benefit from the system.6

That both of these realities co-exist–conditions of deprivation for the vast majority and increasing wealth and power for a tiny minority–raises questions about fighting racism today. What are the conditions under which this fight will unfold? Who are the allies in this fight? What is the possibility of building a movement that can actually take on the Bush agenda and the broader challenges of fighting for racial justice in the U.S. today? This article will attempt to address these questions.

The state of Black America

The statistics, which are the clearest barometers for determining and measuring the quality of life in American society, show that African Americans continue to lag behind whites in every possible category. Not only does this point to the depth of racial inequality in this society, but it clearly undermines the idea that racism is simply a matter of prejudice, existing only on an ideological level.

As the booming economy of the 1990s drew to a close, Black poverty rates dropped to a record low of 23 percent. Black unemployment fell to a record low of 7.2 percent in September of 1999. But this did little to close the gap of economic inequality that continues to separate Blacks from whites.7

In 1999, median income for African Americans was $31,778, compared to $51,244, for the median income of white families. According to one report, in 1995, average white households had $18,000 in financial wealth, while Black households possessed a total of only $200. In 2001, 30 percent of both Black and Latino children lived in poverty.8

Even at its historic low of 7.2 percent, Black unemployment still was twice the unemployment level for whites.9 These numbers did not take into account the nearly one million Black men locked up in prison and jail, which, by some estimates would increase the overall unemployment level by two percentage points.10 Moreover, since 2001, when the economy officially went into recession, official Black unemployment has drifted between 10 and 11 percent. An added result of the recession is that the drop in Black poverty rates, a result of the economic expansion of the 1990s, has been reversed and Black poverty is again on the rise. According to the Census Bureau, 24 percent of Blacks now live in poverty–up from 22 percent in 2001.11 Additionally, there was a 3 percent decrease in the Black median income.12

"African Americans tend to be the last to be hired when the economy is booming. That means that they also tend to be the first to lose their jobs when a downturn hits," according to Stephanie Armour writing in USA Today in December 2002. She goes on to say, "job losses have been deep in manufacturing and construction, they have also hit retailers, which lost 39,000 jobs in November. Jobs in those industries tend to be disproportionately held by African Americans…department store hiring was down by 17,000, the worst November for store hiring since 1982."13 In July 2003, the New York Times reported:

Unemployment among Blacks is rising at a faster pace than in any similar period since the mid-1970s…nearly 2.6 million jobs have disappeared overall during the last 28 months… nearly 90 percent of those jobs were in manufacturing…with Blacks hit disproportionately harder than whites.14

The disproportionate impact of layoffs on African Americans in the recession of the early 1990s further illustrates how racism compounds an already bad situation when the economy begins to contract. The Wall Street Journal reported during the recession of 1990—1991, a significant number of major corporations cut Blacks’ jobs at a much higher rate than for white workers. J.P. Morgan, where Blacks represented 16 percent of the workforce in 1990, responded to the recession by relocating its clerical and data processing operations from New York City to Delaware. Black employees suffered almost 30 percent of total job losses. At Coca-Cola in 1990, Blacks made up almost 18 percent of the labor force. When the company decided to cut its workforce in response to the economic downturn, over 42 percent of Black workers absorbed job cuts. Sears, which had a Black workforce of 15.9 percent, closed its distribution centers concentrated in central cities and reduced its clerical staff. More than 54 percent of all Sears employees who lost their jobs in the recession of 1990—1991 were African American, which was three and a half times the rate of job loss for whites in the company.15

Two recent studies show, on a base level, the racist obstacles African American applicants face. The University of Chicago found that job applicants with "Black sounding" names–such as LaKisha or Jamal–were twice as likely not to be called back for an interview as applicants with "white sounding" names.16 Another study found that even white applicants with prison records were called back more frequently about jobs than African Americans with no prison record at all.17

Unemployment today for young Black men aged 16 to 19 tops out at more than 30 percent, double that of young white men in the same age category.18 In spite of that appalling statistic, Bush announced that he will cut funds for urban job training programs by 70 percent, from $225 million to $45 million.19

A study recently conducted by Cornell University found that "nine out of 10 Black Americans, or 91 percent, who reach the age of 75 spend at least one of their adult years in poverty," compared to 52 percent of whites. The study goes on to say, "that by age 28, the Black population will have reached the cumulative level of lifetime poverty that the white population arrives at by age 75."20

Access to health care is a major problem for African Americans. Twenty-three percent of African Americans have no health coverage at all.21 Poverty and a lack of health insurance mean that Blacks die on average six years younger than the rest of the population. It means that Black infant mortality rates are more than twice that for white babies. The same deadly mix has helped to produce an AIDS epidemic among African Americans. Today, Black women–only slightly more than 6 percent of the population–make up 68 percent of all new AIDS cases for women, and 63 percent of all new pediatric AIDS cases are of Black children.22

The toll the criminal justice system has had on the lives of African Americans has been well documented in this journal and elsewhere. Blacks make up 13 percent of the population but represent 50 percent of the nation’s prison population. In Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., more than 50 percent of the Black male population is under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system. Black men are 6 percent of the population but are more than 40 percent of those on death row.23

Black youngsters are dealt with no more sympathetically. A report compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice showed that Black and Latino youth are treated much more harshly in the juvenile justice system than their white peers. Among first-time youth offenders, African Americans are six times more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison by juvenile courts. For drug offenses, Black youth are 48 times more likely than whites to be sent to prison.24 Currently, while there are 603,000 Blacks enrolled in institutions of higher education, there are 757,000 who are locked up in federal and state prisons. Moreover, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics projects that 30 percent of Black boys who turn 12 this year will spend time in jail in their lifetime, if current incarceration rates stay constant.25

Even those vestiges of racism that were supposed to have been wiped out by the civil rights struggle of the 1960s–namely segregation–have reappeared in America’s public school systems. Ironically though, the five most segregated cities in the U.S. today are in the North: Detroit, Milwaukee, New York City, Newark and Chicago.26

The day before the national Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in January 2003, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University released a study showing that American schools are re-segregating. According to researchers at Harvard University, "The South went from being the most segregated region in the country to being the most integrated…. Now the reverse is happening." But the study went on to point out that although re-segregation in the South was happening most rapidly, schools in the Northeast and on the West Coast are still more segregated. In fact, according to the study, the country’s most segregated schools are in New York City. This trend in schools was precipitated by court decisions weakening desegregation orders from the 1960s.27

All of these terrible numbers are underscored by the fact that, when it comes to making the laws that have an impact on the lives of African Americans, there is a woeful lack of representation. In the history of the U.S. Senate, one of the most powerful decision making bodies in the country, there have only been four Black senators. Today, there are none. There have been two African American governors in the history of the U.S. Today, there are none. There is just one African American on the Supreme Court–right-winger Clarence Thomas.

This picture of racial injustice in the U.S. points to the systemic nature of racism. The degree of racial disparity and inequality are not just the result of ignorance or a lack of tolerance. The greatest proof of this is not just the conditions that exist today, but the deterioration of conditions for African Americans in the aftermath of the social justice struggles of the 1960s, which points to the institutionalization of racism.

The social movements of the 1960s pressured the U.S. government to devote more resources into fighting poverty and creating opportunities for African Americans’ access to higher education, and, as a result, Black poverty decreased. The Americans for Democratic Action explains in detail:

In 1960, before the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, there were 39.9 million poor persons in the nation. During the mid-1960s the president and Congress adopted a series of programs directly geared to helping those caught in poverty. Those programs (plus a strong economy) succeeded in reducing the poverty ranks by 15.8 million–a reduction of 40 percent–to 24.1 million. As a result, the poverty rate (the percentage of poor in the total population) dropped dramatically from 22.2 percent to 12.1 percent.28

If racism was caused just by ignorance and prejudice, then economic disparity between races should have ended in the sixties. The civil rights and Black power struggles exposed racist injustice, the administration of Lyndon Johnson reacted and implemented the "war on poverty," and that should have been the end of the story. Instead, the disparity never disappeared, and began to grow again shortly thereafter. According to the Washington Post:

Basically, by the mid-1970s young college educated Blacks were earning the same amount as their white counterparts. There was no racial disparity…. Income growth of college-educated African Americans, after surging in the 1960s and into the mid-1970s, slowed nearly to a halt, while incomes of similarly well-educated whites increased substantially. The result, economists said, has been a widening earnings gap between the best and the brightest Blacks and whites, a fact of economic life in the 1990s that stands in stark contradiction to many popular assumptions about Black success. The survey reflected these disparities in relative Black and white earnings over the past 20 years. Nearly half–45 percent–of all Black college graduates interviewed said their income had not kept up with the cost of living over the past five years. In contrast, 29 percent of all college-educated whites said their income hadn’t kept pace with inflation.29

According to one report on income disparity between Blacks and whites, "In the late 1960s, median household income for Blacks was about $19,000 (in 2001 dollars); for whites, the figure was about $34,000. There’s still a $15,000 spread, with those figures at about $29,000 for blacks and $44,000 for whites."30

By the 21st century the economic gap, as measured by median income, has returned to the same level as at the end of the sixties. The economic advances of the civil rights and Black power movements have been virtually erased.

Has anything changed?

It would be wrong, nevertheless, to conclude that things are just as bad as they were before the civil rights movement. Many of the legislative gains from that period–from affirmative action to ending segregation–are under attack. But the impact of the movement has been longstanding, fundamentally changing the attitudes and perceptions of millions of people about African Americans.

In 2001, the Kaiser Family Foundation, in conjunction with the Washington Post, conducted a survey called, "Race and Ethnicity in 2001: Attitudes, Perceptions and Experiences." The study found that, on a whole range of issues, whites are more sympathetic to the realities of African Americans in U.S. society–and they also have closer contact and relationships with Blacks–than 35 or 40 years ago.

The survey found that 65 percent of whites thought the federal government should be responsible for ensuring that minorities have access to schools that are equal in quality to whites. It found that 55 percent of whites felt the federal government was responsible for ensuring that minorities receive equal access to health care. Sixty-nine percent of whites felt it was the government’s responsibility to make sure minorities received "treatment by the courts and police equal to whites." Sixty-three percent of whites thought that "there are still major problems facing minorities in this country." On social issues, the findings were equally telling. When asked if it were better to marry someone of their own race or a different race, 53 percent said it didn’t matter. Eighty percent of whites said "race should not be a factor" when it comes to adopting children. When asked if "you live in a racially integrated neighborhood," 61 percent of Blacks responded yes and 44 percent of whites said yes.31

These all should be contrasted to the dominant ideas prior to or at the beginning of the civil rights movement. In 1958, 44 percent of whites said they might or definitely would move if a Black person became their next door neighbor; in 1997 that figure was 1 percent. In 1961, 50 percent of respondents said they would vote for a well-qualified Black person for president; by 1987 that figure had risen to 79 percent. In 1963, 63 percent of whites said whites and Blacks should attend the same schools; by 1985 that number had risen to 92 percent. Also in 1963, 60 percent of whites agreed that whites have a right to keep Blacks out of their neighborhood; by 1988 that figure dropped to 24 percent.32 According to authors of The Forgotten Majority, Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers:

The list goes on and on, but all the changes tend to be large and all are in the same direction: more tolerance, less racism. Moreover, where available the data indicate that the [white working class] moved even more heavily in this direction than did other whites. These are impressive changes. Indeed, comprehensive analyses of public opinion change establish that racial attitudes are the area of public opinion where the largest and most consistently liberal attitude changes have taken place.33

None of this is offered up as evidence that racism ceases to exist, merely that ideas within the population at large have changed considerably, thanks to the struggles fought by the civil rights and Black power movements. In contrast, the previous statistics outlining the conditions of Black America point to the depths of institutional racism in U.S. society. While racism can still manifest itself in ideas, its most significant expression is systemic: how it affects Blacks’ ability to obtain and keep jobs–thereby decreasing poverty levels, accessing quality education and health care and avoiding the disproportionately harsh impact of the American criminal justice system.

Who benefits from racism?

While statistics may show that attitudes of the majority of whites have shifted over the last 35 years, there remains the common perception–particularly among the left–that all whites benefit from the racial oppression of African Americans. There is little argument that whites who run the boardrooms in corporate America, control the courtrooms in the judicial system and exert the most influence in the government benefit not only from the oppression of African Americans but also from the oppression of all workers.

Nevertheless, many left-wing intellectuals argue that all whites derive some benefit from being white. Indeed, many academics, notably historian David Roediger, call these so-called benefits "white privilege." Roediger’s book, The Wages of Whiteness, as its title implies, confirms the idea that there is a benefit or a "wage" for simply being white in the U.S., regardless of class or consciousness.34 Manning Marable spells out the "benefits" of whiteness in his book, The Great Wells of Democracy:

Whites…have an important material asset that allows them to escape the greatest liabilities and disadvantages of poverty–their whiteness. White Americans who are homeless, unemployed and/or uneducated for the most part still believe in the great American master narrative of opportunity and upward mobility. If they scrape together enough money to buy a new suit, they will find it relatively easy to obtain employment, albeit at subsistence wages. They know with the same set of skills and level of educational attainment as the Black householders across the street, they stand a superior chance of being hired. Whiteness creates a comfortable social and psychological safety net for the white poor. Everyday may not be a lucky day, but nobody has to sing the blues for long.35

Here, Marable conflates the issues. There is the issue of consciousness: whether or not whites think that they have an advantage because of their race. This is really no great revelation, the idea that many whites buy into and can accept racist ideas. But this doesn’t explain why many non-whites do the same. After all, Karl Marx wrote that the ruling ideas of any society were the ideas of the ruling class. They own the airwaves, write the schoolbooks, determine the curricula, and so on.

For example, in 1994, 50 percent of Black voters in California voted in favor of a racist anti-immigrant referendum that was to deny undocumented workers access to basic services like emergency medical care and welfare entitlements. While most of the African Americans probably thought that voting yes on Proposition 187 would improve their own economic status–operating from the assumption that Latino immigrants were taking limited resources away from poor and working-class Blacks. Instead, Proposition 187 helped to foster an environment of racism and scapegoating that no doubt contributed to the passing of an anti-affirmative action referendum two years later in California. Buying into scapegoating doesn’t mean that it actually helps in the short- or long-run.

Moreover, there is a crucial difference between ideas and reality. Just because many white workers may think they have it better (though Marable offers no evidence that this claim is actually true) the reality that white workers and the white poor face is something entirely different. As Marable himself pointed out in an earlier book, the real economic picture for millions of white workers is dire:

In unprecedented numbers, millions of white people are confronting…unemployment, poverty, and hunger. A recent study…documents the growing crisis of non-Hispanic whites. Half of all Americans living in poverty, nearly 18 million are white. For white female-headed households, more than one in three are poor. From 1979 to 1991, the poverty rate nearly double for white families headed by an individual aged 25 to 34. Whites comprise nearly half of all Americans on AFDC and are the majority of those who receive food stamps. In 1991 12.6 million whites received Medicaid…to many of them, the American Dream has become a nightmare.36

This assessment is far from the "comfortable social and psychological safety net for the white poor," that Marable more recently describes. In reality, the white population is divided by class. In fact, Black median household income growth actually outpaced the growth rate of white median household income between 1967 and 2001, according to Census Bureau figures. In this 34-year period, Black median household income rose by 51.7 percent compared to an increase of 33.2 percent for white median household income.37 This is not a statement on the great financial gains or future of the vast majority of African Americans. Rather, this statistic speaks to the declining economic situation of millions of white working-class people in the U.S. over the last two decades. This situation is exacerbated by the growing concentration of wealth in the uppermost echelons of U.S. society. According to the latest reports, the gap between rich and poor more than doubled from 1979 to 2000.38 Moreover, "the bottom 60 percent…range from very modest gains to actual income losses over the same period of time."39

Workers with college degrees received an income increase of 6 percent from 1979 to 1997. Wages for those with some college dropped by 9 percent. But wages for those with only a high school diploma dropped by 12 percent, and for high school dropouts, the decline was 26 percent. Authors Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers explain the increasing divide among whites:

On one side of the Great Divide, lacking a four-year college degree, are the vast majority–three-quarters–of white adults who have not fared well over the last quarter century. On the other side are the quarter of white adults who have a four-year degree or more for whom the last 25 years have been a time of substantial economic progress. The fact is three-quarters of white workers don’t have college degrees, which basically means over a 20 year period 75 percent of workers saw their wages decline.40

Over the last 25 years, attacks on wages and living standards have fallen not only on white workers, but all workers, as part of an employers’ offensive that aimed to shift the balance of class forces in favor of the wealthy, at the expense of the entire working class. The 1980s became known as "the looting decade"–during which all workers–Black, Latino and white–lost ground economically, while the rich grew much richer. As political commentator Kevin Phillips described the eighties, "no parallel upsurges of riches had been seen since the late 19th century, the era of the Vanderbilts, Morgans and Rockefellers." And yet even Phillips asserted that the 1990s produced an even greater concentration of wealth in fewer hands: "by 2000, the United States could be said to have a plutocracy, when back in 1990 the resemblance to the previous plutocracy of the Gilded Age had not yet fully matured."41 It is no coincidence that attacks on workers’ living standards during this period coincided with a concerted attack on the gains of the anti-racist struggles of the 1960s.

In fact, the attacks on Black rights and the gains of the civil rights movement didn’t begin in the 1980s but got their start when Democratic President Jimmy Carter was in office. Under the Carter administration, a 1978 Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action unofficially began the concerted rollback on civil rights.

In 1978 the U.S. Supreme Court made its landmark Bakke decision, which set in motion a decade of attacks on affirmative action programs. The Court ruled that Allan Bakke, a white male, had been denied a place at the University of California at Davis medical school due to "reverse discrimination" policies which victimized white males. The medical school’s policy of setting aside 16 of its 100 annual openings for non-white students was found to be discriminatory against "better qualified" whites. But several important facts about the Bakke case never surfaced in the mass media. The first is that the medical school at Davis also set aside a certain number of places each year for the sons and daughters of wealthy (white) alumni. Secondly, 36 of the 84 white students admitted the year Bakke applied had lower test scores than Bakke. Bakke, moreover, had been turned down by 10 other medical schools.42

If Jimmy Carter allowed the door to be opened, however, Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush kicked it completely in. As Sharon Smith wrote:

Reaganism as practiced by both political parties aimed to deepen the wedge between white workers and those of all other races, Blacks in particular. The degree of racism emanating from the White House was frequently staggering…. Nearly every social spending cutback was justified with a racist stereotype. "Welfare," "drugs," and "crime" have been the racist code words scapegoating Blacks for over a decade.43

But it was up to Democratic President Bill Clinton, whom writer Toni Morrison famously described as "America’s first Black president," to complete–and make more acceptable–attacks that Reagan and Bush I launched. As one observer noted in 2000, a few months before the "New Democratic" Clinton-Gore administration left office:

Abandoning any notion of government action to correct racial injustice has been central to New Democrat politics from the start. In fact, the conservative Democrats who launched the [Democratic Leadership Council, the faction that catapulted Clinton and Gore to the top of the Democratic Party] saw it largely as a vehicle to counter Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. At best, the Clinton-Gore administration…promoted a "race-neutral" approach to social policy that simply tried to avoid issues of racial discrimination. At worst, it pandered to racism by scapegoating Black welfare recipients or Latino immigrants. On several occasions, it took actions it knew to be discriminatory.44

While perfecting the symbolism of "inclusion" by promoting a "national dialogue" on race and appointing a cabinet that "looked like America," the Clinton administration ordered the end to dozens of affirmative action set-aside programs. It maintained–and actually defended against critics–the racist criminal sentencing guidelines that overwhelmingly discriminate against Black crack cocaine users. It pressed the Congressional Black Caucus to drop provisions from the 1994 Crime Bill aimed to safeguard against discriminatory application of the vastly expanded federal death penalty. The Clinton administration’s greatest social policy innovation was "welfare reform," the elimination of a six-decade old guarantee of a minimum standard of assistance for poor people.

While a great number of white workers throughout this time bought into the racist scapegoating of Blacks, this didn’t actually make their lives better–materially, socially or psychologically. Instead, it allowed the complete "looting" of the wages and income of all workers–Black and white. As Black radical writer and activist Ron Daniels has put it:

The fact of the matter is, both Blacks and whites were being exploited by the big man. The big white boss was exploiting Blacks and whites…. The real deal is, these cats [bosses] were getting off like bandits all the way to the bank with the loot they were expropriating…from the labor of both Black and white. The point is that this wedge was driven. Racism was and is a strategy of dividing and exploiting working people.45

In 1984, Manning Marable wrote against those who contend that white workers benefit from racism:

[They are] basically idealist and not materialists. They say that the fundamental force that drives the motor of Black oppression…is race alone. They argue that all whites benefit materially and ideologically from racism which, in my view, looking at the data, looking at the facts and experiences of white people, is a disastrous misinterpretation of American and Black social history."46

Former Black slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass made the point most succinctly when he wrote in the late 19th century, under conditions far more violent and racially polarized than today: "The hostility between the whites and the Blacks of the South is easily explained...both are plundered by the same plunderers...and it [hostility] was incited on both sides by the poor whites and the Blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each."47

The ongoing debate over the true beneficiaries of racism is important for leftists and liberals. If white workers benefit from racism–then what hope is there to ever build a majority fightback against racism? It is doubtful that an entire group of the population would ever fight against something that put more food on the table, more money in the paycheck and provided more health care. Also, given the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few–and the austerity it means for the majority on the bottom–the question for both Black and white workers becomes: How can we fight back and take what is rightfully ours? Can white and Black workers unite on a class basis?

The issue is not whether white workers buy into racist ideas–that is a question of consciousness. The issue is whether backward ideas can be broken down and ultimately changed. The evidence shows overwhelmingly that through the course of struggle racist–and other backward ideas–can shift. The statistics outlined earlier, detailing the change in attitudes and perceptions of most whites since the 1960s, is a case in point. Whether or not those changes remain intact is a political question tied to the level of struggle and resistance to racism in the society.

What happened to the movement?

A Black political convention, indeed all truly Black politics, must begin from this truth: The American system does not work for the masses of our people, and it cannot be made to work without radical, fundamental changes. The challenge is thrown to us here in Gary. It is the challenge to consolidate and organize our own Black role as the vanguard in the struggle for a new society. To accept the challenge is to move to independent Black politics. There can be no equivocation on that issue. History leaves us no other choice. White politics has not and cannot bring the changes we need.48

This statement comes from the Gary Declaration, a mission statement produced out of a political conference on Black politics in 1972. Nearly 8,000 African American activists, professional politicians, businessmen and revolutionaries met in Gary, Indiana to discuss the future of Black politics.

The convention in Gary eventually came undone under the weight of its own political contradictions. On one side were cultural nationalists such as Amiri Baraka and the Democratic mayor of Gary, Richard Hatcher, arguing to break with both the Democrat and Republican Parties. On the other side of the debate were people like Jesse Jackson and officials from the NAACP arguing to support the Democratic Party. The convention could not resolve or overcome these divisions, but its significance is that it represented a real debate about the direction of the Black liberation movement.49

This, unfortunately, is a long way from where Black politics are at the beginning of the 21st century. Today, two African Americans hold powerful positions in the administration of a white, right-wing, Republican administration. But these powerful African Americans do nothing to improve the lives or lessen discrimination against the vast majority of Blacks in the U.S.–on the contrary, they uphold the policies of an administration that has increased the level of racism.

Today, the only formal debate within Black politics is which Democrat to support in the next election. At its 2003 Congressional Black Caucus Week, the Caucus courted most of the Democratic candidates running for president. Charles Rangel, who has been a Harlem representative in the Caucus since 1970, has taken a particular liking to former NATO Supreme Commander, Gen. Wesley Clark. Rangel left no question about who he was endorsing, "Our patriotism is on the line when we see our great country in trouble and we’re silent…. I decided as a former soldier we need a warrior [in the White House]."50 It should be noted that this appears to be the sum total of Rangel’s support for Clark. He offered his support without even knowing–or seemingly caring–about where Clark stood on issues important to Rangel’s Harlem constituents.

There is a huge political gap between the militancy of the debates of the Gary Conference and the politics on offer today. This is the result of two main factors. The first is the opportunities both economically and socially that opened up for the Black middle class after the civil rights and Black power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The second is the result of the absorption of Black political operatives and organizations within the folds of the Democratic Party.

Before the civil rights movement there were few Black politicians, business owners and college graduates who could make the most from their opportunities, due to racism and segregation. The movement helped to break the legal fetters that limited Black upward mobility. The percentage of Black families making more than $25,000 (in 1982 dollars) increased from 10 percent in 1960 to 25 percent in 1982. By the mid-1990s, before the full extent of the economic expansion had been realized, fully one-seventh of Black families made more than $50,000 a year, more than at any other period in history. The percentage of Blacks occupying managerial and professional positions went from 13 percent in the early 1980s to 22 percent by 1999. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study on African American progress in the professions indicates gains up to 470 percent from 1972 to 1991 in areas such as accounting, engineering, computer programming, law, medicine, journalism and management.51

These changes among Blacks were not just financial. They were political as well. As Black commentator Henry Louis Gates wrote, "...we don’t have to pretend any longer that 35 million people can ever possibly be members of the same economic class.... Nor do they speak with one single voice, united behind one single leader. As each of us knows, we have never been members of one social or economic class and never will be."52 Sharon Smith explained this transformation in 1992:

Although middle-class Blacks experience racism in their daily lives, as a group they have chosen to make a deal with the system rather than fight against it. So while the Black middle class has been the main beneficiary of the civil rights movement, it has moved far to the right since then. This includes even veterans of the…movement. In part, the growing conservatism of the Black middle class simply mirrors the trend of the entire U.S. middle class–regardless of race–during the 1970s and 1980s. But it is also a reflection of the profound changes that have taken place since the days of the civil rights movement. Prior to the 1960s, the small Black middle class that did exist had an interest in joining the fight for civil rights. So while the vast majority of participants in the civil rights and Black power movements were Black workers, its leadership was middle class–and the aims of the movement reflected this. The Black middle class joined with Black workers to demand the right to vote and an end to legal segregation in the 1960s, but they sought to remove the barriers to their advance within the system, not to transform it.53

This dynamic was even clearer when it came to the transformation of electoral Black politics. The number of Black elected officials has increased from fewer than 200 in 1964 to over 8,000 today. Today, there more than 47 Black mayors in cities of 50,000 or more–including Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

The permanence of the Black political establishment within the Democratic Party today is a given. This was not always the case. The absorption of key activists within the Democrats in some cases was part of a conscious effort to draw activists into the party. In 1972, Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern adopted a "Black Bill of Rights" into his platform. But more often than not, African Americans had to kick in the door to the Democratic Party, often waging campaigns against racist party machines in cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago.54 As Lee Sustar writes:

In reality, Black activists had to fight to get into the party–not just in challenging the Dixiecrats in the South, but the racist big-city machines in the North. The huge shift of the Black population to the Northern cities during and after the Second World War wasn’t reflected in the local officeholders. Electing Black officials could appear to be a radical step, especially in the face of [white racist] opposition…. "Black Power" could be used to justify…Black elected officials.55

As the movements began to recede so did the pressure Black elected officials may have initially felt to produce real change. Instead, Black political figures settled into their governing positions–managing austerity on a city, state and federal level. Throughout the 1980s, Black mayors were in control of some of the largest cities in the U.S., yet did little or nothing to alleviate the hardship of Black workers living in those cities.

Black Mayor David Dinkins, who was elected mayor of New York in 1989, oversaw backbreaking austerity and a racist police force that made its reputation through terrorizing and then extorting the Black and Latino population in the city. In his attempt to hold onto office when challenged by Rudolph Giuliani in 1993, Dinkins led a crackdown on the city’s homeless population. Black Mayor Tom Bradley was at the reigns when his racist police force became the focal point of the riots that swept Los Angeles in 1992.

The list of betrayals by African American mayors goes on and on: Washington, D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, in 1993 suggested the National Guard take over patrolling the city streets to stop drug dealing56; Wilson Goode, former mayor of Philadelphia, ordered the bombing of a street in a Black neighborhood that housed the radical MOVE organization.57

The Congressional Black Caucus, with 13 Black congressmen when it formed in 1969, has referred to itself ever since as the "conscience of the Congress." But it has dramatically moved away from its grassroots- and movement-influenced origins. As one report put it:

The Congressional Black Caucus says that it has been "the conscience of the Congress since 1969." If that is the case, why then is the Caucus not taking a leadership role on major progressive issues of the day? Because like the vast majority of members of Congress, the caucus has been bought off by commercial corporate interests…like BP Amoco, Chevron, Exxon Mobile, Shell Oil, Texaco, General Motors, Ford, Nissan and DaimlerChrysler, Anheuser Busch, Heineken USA, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and Coca-Cola give big bucks to the CBC.58

Ahmed Shawki sums up the evolution of the relationship between the Black middle class and Black workers:

…in the 1970s and 1980s, it has been the Black mayors and the Black middle classes who have opposed the aspirations of Black workers. But because of the relatively weak position of this class of Blacks, they will also attempt to increase their influence within the system. The integration of the Black middle class within the Democratic Party and capitalism itself is unlikely to be reversed, despite the racism within the Democratic Party and society at large. This however does not represent a victory for the mass of Blacks, but a retreat from the politics of the 1960s.59

Understanding Black politics today

Any strategy for confronting racism today has to start from an understanding of the nature of racism and the role it plays in society. Equally, it is important to understand the crucial institutions that help to shape the political environment in which challenges to racism unfold. This article has attempted to outline some of these points:

• Contrary to the assertions of conservatives and their New Democratic imitators, racism continues to exist, blunting the life chances of African Americans and other racial minorities;

• This reality coincides with the undeniable and positive liberalization of attitudes on racial issues that has taken root throughout American society since the heyday of the civil rights movement;

• Although all Blacks gained from the triumphs of 1960s and 1970s, the disproportionate beneficiaries have been a section of the Black middle class, who have become well-integrated into the economic and political system and its principle institutions, especially the Democratic Party;

• Because a significant segment of the Black population has a stake in the existing arrangements of society, struggles against racism characteristic of the 1960s and 1970s have receded. For this reason, the Bush II and Clinton administrations’ attacks on the gains of the 1960s and 1970s have met with little organized resistance;

• The most significant gains for racial minorities have come from mass struggles that affected society as a whole, including large sections of the white population.

Understanding the nature of racism in the 21st century is the first step to devising a strategy for confronting–and building a movement that not only stops racist attacks, but that begins to win real gains for the future.

Author’s note:This article focuses exclusively on the struggle against racism as it pertains to African Americans. Clearly, there is a need to further discuss the conditions of Latinos in the U.S. and given the ongoing "war on terror" and its impact on Arab and Muslims in the U.S., the scope of the discussion as it relates to racism can and should be broader. However, the historical fetter on the struggle of workers in this country has been anti-Black racism which began with slavery and continues to this day, and thus is the focus of this article.

Keeanga Taylor is active in the International Socialist Organization in Chicago.
1 See the White House news releases for July 2003, available online at
2 "President Bush discusses Michigan affirmative action case," available online at
3 Carl Villarreal, "Stop this legal lynching! Don’t let Bush execute Gary Graham/Shaka Sankofa," New Abolitionist, February 2000.
4 Derrick Jackson, "At Bob Jones U., a disturbing lesson about the real George W.," Boston Globe, February 9, 2000.
5 Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: The Truth About Corporate Cons, Globalization, and High Finance Fraudsters (New York: Plume Publishers, 2001).
6 Ellis Cose, Johnnies L. Roberts, and Lynette Clemetson, "The new Black power," Newsweek, January 2003.
7 U.S. Census, "Poverty: 1999 Highlights," available online at
8 Manning Marable, "The politics of inequality," The Black World Today, column, February 22, 2000.
9 Carl Bloice, "Black youth feel brunt of nation’s job loss," Left Margin, May 2001.
10 Paul Street, "Color bind: Prisons and the new American racism," Dissent, September 3, 2002.
11 In addition, the Census Bureau has created a new category for mixed-race people. The mixed-race respondents were found to have a 23 percent poverty rate.
12 Lynnley Browning, "U.S. income gap widening, study says," New York Times, September 25, 2003.
13 Stephanie Armour, "Job hunt gets harder for African Americans," USA Today, December 9, 2002.
14 Louis Uchitelle, "Blacks lose better jobs faster and middle class work drops," New York Times, July 12, 2003.
15 Manning Marable, The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of Race in American Life (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002) pp. 59—61.
16 Justin Pope, "What’s in a name? For Blacks, a job," Associated Press, September 28, 2003.
17 Salim Muwakkil, "Racial bias persists," Los Angeles Times, September 26, 2003.
18 "Economic recovery on hold," North Star News Staff, September 8, 2003, available online at
19 Julianne Malveaux, "Still at the Periphery: The Economic Status of African Americans," in Race and Resistance: African Americans in the 21st Century (Boston: South End Press, 2002).
20 Blaine P. Friedlander Jr., "Poverty touches 91 percent of African Americans during adult years," Cornell Chronicle, April 8, 1999.
21 "California’s ethnic and racial communities still lack health insurance coverage," La Prensa San Diego, March 9, 2001.
22 Lynette Clemetson, "AIDS at 20: Our house is on fire!" Newsweek, June 11, 2001.
23 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, "Racism and the criminal injustice system," ISR Summer 1999, pp. 33—36.
24 Frances M. Beal "Criminal justice racism verified in recent studies," San Francisco Bay View, April 23, 2001.
25 Muwakkil.
26 Duncan Campbell, "U.S. schools returning to segregation," Guardian (UK), August 10, 2002.
27 Erica Frankenberg, Chungmei Lee and Gary Orfield, "A multiracial society with segregated schools: Are we losing the dream?" available online at
28 Americans for Democratic Action, "Income and inequality: Eight years of prosperity, millions left behind," January 1999, available online at
29 Richard Morin, "Education Black-white gap confounds economists," Washington Post, October 14, 1996.
30 "Post-King age sees progress, stubborn gaps," Dayton Daily News editorial, August 28, 2003.
31 "Race and ethnicity in 2001: Attitudes, perceptions and experiences," Kaiser Family Foundation and Washington Post, September 21, 2001.
32 Rudy Teixiera and Joel Rogers, America’s Forgotten Majority: Why the White Working Class Still Matters (New York: Basic Books, 2000) p. 40.
33 Ibid.
34 David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1999). This is the quintessential book on so-called theories of whiteness.
35 Marable, The Wells of Democracy, p. 219.
36 Manning Marable, Black Liberation in Conservative America (Boston: South End Press, 1997) p. 48.
37 U.S. census Bureau, "Historical Income Tables–Households," available online at
38 Browning.
39 Teixeira and Rogers, p. 11.
40 Ibid, p.13.
41 Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy (New York: Broadway Books, 2002), p. xv.
42 Sharon Smith, "Twilight of the American Dream," International Socialism Journal 54, Spring 1992. This is the best article to read to get a background on the transition from the upsurge of the 1960s into the downturn of the 1980s.
43 Ibid.
44 Lance Selfa, "The price of lesser-evilism," International Socialist Review 13, August-September, 2000, p. 12.
45 Ron Daniels, "Racism: Looking forward, looking back," Race and Resistance, p. 12.
46 Manning Marable, "Which way forward for the Black movement?" Against the Current, May 1984.
47 Ahmed Shawki, "Black liberation and socialism in the United States," International Socialism Journal 47, June 1990.
48 "The first national Black political convention," The African American Registry, available online at
49 Most of the information obtained on the Gary Convention came from an unpublished national committee document circulated within the International Socialist Organization, written by Lee Sustar, "The Democrats and the left."
50 Wil Haygood, "Fanning the flames of antiwar: At the Black caucus gala, two veterans take aim at White House policy on Iraq," Washington Post, September 28, 2003.
51 William Reed, "We shop, therefore we are–Material pursuits leave Blacks with negative balance," SF Bay View, available online at
52 Amitai Etzioni, "The monochrome society," Policy Review No. 105, February—March 2001, pp. 53—70.
53 Smith, pp. 20—21.
54 Sustar.
55 Ibid.
56 Joseph D. McNamara, "The National Guard is not a police force," San Jose Mercury News, November 5, 1993.
57 Sustar.
58 Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, "Corporate Black caucus,", January 13, 2003.
59 Shawki, p. 95.
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