It will take a revolution
In August 2006, an African American student in Jena, La., asked his school principal for permission to sit under what had been known as a “whites only” tree in the center of the school’s courtyard. The following day, three nooses in the school’s colors were found hanging from the tree.
School administrators tried to diffuse the situation by saying that the noose hangings were a prank directed at members of the school’s rodeo team, but police were called in several times in the aftermath because of racially charged confrontations between Black and white students. The white students who hung the nooses were let off with three-day suspensions.
Jena is a small town in Louisiana with a population of 2,971, of which 85 percent is white. One out of eight students at Jena High School is Black.
On Dec. 1, 2006, 16-year-old Robert Bailey, a Black student at Jena High School, was invited to a barn party. When he arrived, white students refused to allow him in. A crowd outside the barn attacked and beat Bailey.
Three days later, Justin Baker—one of Bailey’s attackers—publicly defended the white students who had hung the nooses a few months prior. In response, several Black students confronted Baker. A fight followed; Baker was taken to the hospital for minor injuries. He was released a few hours later to attend a ceremony at the school.
The Jena police arrested the six students who had confronted Baker. The students were expelled from Jena High School. Prosecutors charged five of the youth with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, while a sixth was charged in juvenile court.
The case of the “Jena Six”—Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Jesse Ray Beard and Mychal Bell—provoked mass marches and rallies across the country. On Sept. 20, 2007, tens of thousands poured into Jena to demand that the prosecutors drop the charges. The outpouring forced the prosecutors to drop the most serious criminal charges, although all still faced juvenile charges.
Not just Jena
How is it that 145 years after the Emancipation Proclamation that ended slavery in the United States, African Americans are still subject to threats and violence if they do not “stay in their place?” How is it that 40 years after the civil rights movement smashed Jim Crow segregation in the South, there is still a racist judicial system specifically designed to railroad and corral young Black men in particular?
The case of the Jena Six struck such a chord with African Americans because their situation, and that of the small Black community in overwhelmingly white Jena, La., are typical of what African Americans experience every day in the United States. Racism is part of the fabric of U.S. society and is the biggest single obstacle to working-class unity and revolution in the United States.
The Jena Six case was not really about a school brawl or aggravated battery. It is about whether racist prosecutors and courts can continue to enforce a reign of terror against Black communities. It is about whether racist terrorists can flout their symbol, the noose, with impunity. It is about whether African Americans will be able to push back the racists—and whether white workers and progressives from all nationalities will stand at their side in that fight.
After all, the noose embodies the violent, terrorizing legacy of slavery, lynchings and racism in the United States. To Black America and all descendants of slaves, a noose represents systematic political terrorism. Thousands of African Americans fell victim to lynching after the Civil War, during Reconstruction and the terror that followed, and during the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
Racism and capitalism
Living in the United States, it would be tempting to think that racism is part of human nature. Every ruling class tries to claim that its particular form of exploitation is “human nature.”
In fact, history is filled with examples of Black people and people of African descent earning the respect of whites. The Roman general Lusius Quietus, described as a “man of Moorish race,” was designated by the emperor Trajan as his successor before the emperor was killed in 117. In ancient Europe, the term “Moor” referred to anyone of African descent or with dark skin. A number of Roman emperors were Moors, including Septimius Severus (193-211).
In European Christian tradition, the Three Magi represent the great civilizations of the world. Throughout the Medieval era, Balthazar is generally depicted in paintings as a Black king.
However, with the emergence of the slave trade associated with the conquest of the Americas, that respect had to be shattered. How could millions of people be subjected to subhuman conditions, packed into ships like cargo, and abused in ways worse than animals, if they were human beings on an equal footing with all others?
Racism emerged as the ideological justification of slavery. For 350 years, it shaped the relations between Blacks and whites in the United States. Racism and slavery were the foundation of the development of capitalism in the United States and in Europe.
The combination of slavery with the dynamics of capitalism and its quest for profit made the system of slavery in the Americas far more brutal than anything seen before in history. It was of a completely different nature than the slavery practiced in ancient Greece, in barbarian Europe or in pre-colonial Africa. This was oppression on a massive scale, accompanied by a brutality unparalleled in world history to that point.
Africans stolen and sold in the slave trade came from a very settled culture with strong communal relations and tribal customs. Once in United States, however, African slaves were subject to whites with guns, whips and courts to uphold their profit-driven brutality.
In North America, African slaves were stripped of their identity‑language, dress, customs, family and spiritual practices. It was this isolation of African slaves that allowed American capitalism the competitive edge in imperialist conquest.
In his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” Douglass, a slave who taught himself to read and write, asked the question:
Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves, and others masters? Was there ever a time when this was not so? How did the relation commence? … I was not very long in finding out the true solution of the matter. It was not color, but crime, not God, but man, that afforded the true explanation of the existence of slavery; nor was I long in finding out another important truth, viz: what man can make, man can unmake.
Rebellion and revolution
The history of the United States cannot be told without the constant struggles of slaves for freedom and of African Americans for liberation after slavery was abolished in 1863. Hundreds of slave rebellions took place in the centuries leading up to the Civil War.
The Civil War was initiated by the slave-owning ruling class in the southern states after concluding that the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln meant that their plans to dominate the entire United States were failing. Confronted with this reality, they seceded from the union to form a new country based entirely on slave-owning production in an agriculturally dominant economy.
The northern industrial capitalists, in need of a flexible labor pool that could expand or contract according to the needs of the capitalist market, depended on “free labor” as opposed to slave labor. Deriving their profits from hired wage labor, the northern capitalists considered the southern system to be an impediment to the expansion of capitalism in North America. Their opposition to the slave owners had nothing to do with a principled opposition to a social system that justified its existence based on white supremacy.
But in the course of waging that war, the northern capitalists were driven by the imperative needs to secure a military victory to emancipate the slaves—and, in turn, unleash the revolutionary social force of an armed African American population. That became a major factor in breaking the back of the Confederacy. It also laid the basis for the demands of racial and social equality after the war.
Between 1865 and 1877, Reconstruction governments grew up in the South. The former slave owners and secessionists were barred from participating in the political process. The northern army occupied the South and imposed a military dictatorship allowing for the first blossoming of democracy for freed slaves who formed coalitions with poor whites.
The Reconstruction period ebbed as the northern capitalists and their political operatives in the Republican Party defeated the radical abolitionists inside the party and in Congress. The Ku Klux Klan unleashed a wave of terror throughout the South. Lynchings by the hooded thugs of the defeated slavocracy became the symbol of counterrevolution and a historic defeat of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the South. The KKK victory became secure when the federal government agreed to remove all northern troops from the South in 1877.
The result was a de facto alliance between the victorious capitalist class and the old slavocracy to force the newly emancipated Black population into subordination through Klan terror and a century of apartheid, which became known as Jim Crow segregation. This apartheid system was not just in the South. The U.S. armed forces, drawing units from all over the country, only desegregated in 1948.
The noose was the principal symbol of the state-sponsored or permitted terrorism against a whole people.
It would take the mass civil rights movement and the Black liberation struggle of the 1950s and 1960s to formally end legal apartheid and official white supremacy.
Yet to this day, police departments in cities across the country, from New York to Los Angeles, patrol Black and Latino communities as an occupying army. Courts in cities and towns alike have in effect two justice systems: one for whites and one for Black and Latino people. Every statistic of social well-being shows the impact of racism on the African American nation.
Racism is firmly entrenched in the system of capitalist exploitation. Eliminating one will require eliminating the other.
What difference does a revolution make?
Cuba, too, experienced the enslavement of Africans under Spanish colonialism. It, too, was plagued by institutionalized racism and inequality for centuries. Afro-Cubans had the highest unemployment and poverty rates.
After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Cuban leader Fidel Castro delivered a proclamation against racism, declaring, “We shouldn’t have to pass a law to establish a right that should belong to every human being and member of society. … Nobody can consider themselves to be of pure race, much less a superior race. Virtue, personal merit, heroism, generosity, should be the measure of people, not skin color.”
This proclamation was backed by new revolutionary laws and courts. The new constitution outlawed racism and sexism, making them crimes punishable by law. Moreover, the constitution committed the state “to create all the conditions that will make the principle of equality real.”
Revolutionary Cuba tied its fate to the people of the world struggling against racism and exploitation. It has sent troops dozens of times to struggles for national liberation in Africa. From its first expedition of soldiers, led by Ernesto Che Guevara, to aid the Congo after its independence from Belgium between 1960 and 1965, to its militant solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, Angola, and Namibia, Cuban internationalists have faced off against the forces of racism and imperialism. That support was recognized during Nelson Mandela’s visit to the island in 1991, shortly after his release from an apartheid prison.
While Cuba defended national liberation abroad, it also advanced the Afro-Cuban population in Cuba. Before 1959, Afro-Cubans mostly lived in the poorest and most dilapidated housing in Cuba. Today, there are more Black-owned homes in Cuba than any country in the world, because rents were reduced post-revolution and tenants were later granted ownership.
When the African American actor, civil rights activist and communist Paul Robeson visited the Soviet Union in 1934, he found that the country was virtually free of racial prejudice. He stated, “Here, for the first time in my life I walk in full human dignity.” That historic achievement was rolled back by the counterrevolution that ended the Soviet system in 1991, which unleashed a wave of racism, great-nation chauvinism and conflicts between the Soviet’s vast myriad of nationalities and ethnic groups.
Challenges for U.S. communists
Uprooting racism will not happen automatically by expropriating the capitalists’ property. The centuries of super-oppression against the African American people and other oppressed nationalities will require special attention based on a Leninist understanding of the right of oppressed peoples to self-determination.
First and foremost, the legacy of slavery must be recognized and addressed. Harper’s Magazine estimated a total of over $97 trillion owed for over 222,505,049 hours of unpaid forced labor between 1619 and 1865 at 6 percent interest. A socialist revolution in the United States would fulfill the essence of the promise made by the federal government to former slaves in 1865 of “40 acres and a mule.” That promise of reparations was immediately repealed by Andrew Johnson who assumed the presidency after Lincoln was assassinated.
Providing real reparations to the African American people based on the expropriated wealth of the super-rich bankers who profited from the system of slavery would be among the first acts of a socialist government in the United States.
Racism and hate crimes, like that which took place in Jena, would be punishable crimes. A massive education campaign would address white workers, emphasizing the need for solidarity, internationalism and working-class unity.
African Americans and other oppressed nationalities would be guaranteed representation at every level of the new revolutionary government. The model of the Soviet Union’s Council of Nationalities provides a useful example of how to increase and equalize power for oppressed nations inside of a multi-national state.
Many more measures would be implemented as millions of African Americans enter the revolutionary movement with the energy and creativity that they have contributed to so many movements in the past.
The main obstacle to these measures is the capitalist class, which benefits from the social stratification and division of workers by race and gender. Bosses will always exploit social inequalities and special oppression to divide the working class and get higher profits from these disenfranchised communities.
That is why none of these measures can be carried out except in the struggle to eliminate capitalism.