Fighting and defeating racist oppression
2014 is a significant year for civil rights anniversaries: The 60th for Brown v. Board of Education, and 50th for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Anniversaries like these are bound to inspire significant discussion on how to carry through the unfulfilled goals of the civil rights era.
Despite the fall of legal segregation, the United States remains a highly segregated society. For example, in 2009 41 percent of all Black Americans lived in “racially isolated” neighborhoods. While this has dropped from 47 percent in 1990, this is due primarily to Black, Latino and Asian people moving closer together. Three out of every four white people live in virtually all-white neighborhoods. A similar proportion of Black and Latino students attend schools where at least half the student body is only one “minority.”
The “re-segregation” of the school system has been facilitated by many local and state governments dropping their previous desegregation plans. While today’s levels are not quite the same as before the civil rights revolution, they do at least bear a resemblance.
Jim Crow was not fundamentally about “separation” in the abstract. In fact, Black people and white people interacted daily in a thousand ways. Jim Crow was a social system of white supremacy, a way of ordering society, managing class conflict, distributing services and resources, and holding power. Today’s “re-segregation” likewise should not be looked at in terms of separation in the abstract, but what role it plays in the current class and social system.
Above all, this segregation is a reflection of the racist inequality at the heart of the U.S. capitalist system. It is an indictment of a government and ruling class that likes to celebrate civil rights icons, but never wanted to truly tear down the walls of white supremacy.
Beyond ‘integration versus separation’
Many history textbooks deal with the debate between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X in the simplistic terms: “the integrationist” versus “the separatist.”
Whatever elements of truth exists in these labels, calling King and the Southern Freedom Movement “integrationist” gives a false impression that these civil rights activists’ chief goal was to live amongst and be absorbed into white society. But the slogan of the movement was not “Integration Now”—it was “Freedom Now!”
In other words, the movement wanted equality before the law, equal services, equal housing and access to the best schools around. The Black children who braved insults and attacks to enter previously all-white schools, or the youth who endured mob violence at lunch counters, did so to end second-class citizenship. Integration was the strategy towards this end.
For his part, Malcolm X opposed all segregationist and discriminatory laws but pointed to the reality that the country and its racist power structure had no intention of treating Black people as truly equal. Just as colonial subjects the world over had to win national independence to assert their equality, Black people should build their own institutions, schools, economic life and eventually form their own nation-state.
While their strategies and ideologies differed, both expressed the same striving of the Black nation for equality, dignity and respect. In the actual lived experiences and struggles of the Black nation, the struggles for “integration” and “separation” were not so neatly separated.
For instance, when the Voting Rights Act was won in 1965, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee turned their voter registration drive towards the organization of virtually all-Black electoral parties in the Deep South (the first to use the Black Panther symbol.) This was not principally an act of “integration” or “separation.” It was an act of self-determination.
In the face of racist opposition, Black people insisted on their right to freely enter and access the same stores, services and schools as white people, to go about their lives just as they pleased. At other times, Black communities demanded, as part and parcel of the struggle for political empowerment, for white institutions to turn decision-making over to the community. These strategies were not in contradiction, as they all expressed at different moments Black people’s desire to go where they pleased, to be treated equally and have control over the institutions that governed their lives. All these approaches directed the main blow of the struggle against manifestations of racist disenfranchisement.
Still a struggle for equal resources and self-determination
When most people speak about “racial integration” today, they really use it as a synonym for class integration because the class stratification in the United States is so heavily entangled with racial categories. Urban school districts try to attract white students because doing so is synonymous with “middle-class” resources, tax revenue and political attention. Likewise, many Black and Latino parents struggle to enroll their children in suburban white schools not for the abstract virtues of integration but for access to resources and economic opportunities.
The communist view is in sharp distinction from the patronizing liberalism that suggests integration in itself will cure inequality. There is no reason a predominately Black school or neighborhood has to be “bad” or infused with white students to be saved. The problem is one of resources, and how schools and neighborhoods are incorporated into the capitalist economy.
The persistent racist disparities are in fact a consequence of national oppression. The Party for Socialism and Liberation has always insisted that Black people in the United States were forged into a distinct nation by the shared experience of oppression and resistance between 1619 and 1896. Socialists understand a nation as distinct from a country, which is defined by a central government and internationally-recognized borders. A nation, on the other hand, is a distinct people with a common language, culture, geographic territory and economic life (which is not to say all play the same economic roles). The United States is one country, but multi-national, developing historically out of the subjugation of entire peoples—Black, Mexican, Native and others.
The question of how to achieve racial equality is wrapped up in the question of how to undo national oppression.
Towards social revolution
The main victory of the civil rights movement was to destroy the legal and political edifice of blatant white supremacy. This was a political revolution, but not a full-scale social revolution (the overturning of social classes.) The heroic sacrifices of the people involved forced the ruling class to extend democratic rights but did not liberate the vast wealth of society and the legal-state apparatus remained firmly in the hands of the capitalist class.
To carry out the vision of equality, a social revolution is needed to liberate the resources and means of production, which would drive the corporations, banks and racists from power and create a new power to radically reorganize society. This necessarily includes full reparations to the Black nation for centuries of the worst crimes imaginable.
We believe this sort of revolution can only be achieved by uniting broad sections of the multi-national working class and the oppressed.
Building trust and unity in this sort of racist society is not easy. It requires fighting any and all forms of national oppression as a top priority. In the education struggle, it means fighting the white suburban school districts that block urban students’ enrollment, the under-funding and school closings in Black neighborhoods and the top-down educational reforms that have undermined community input and control.
It is critical, in the context of these struggles, to support the right of self-determination of the oppressed in their current struggles, however it presents itself. As before, the main thrust of these struggles is over control, resources and equality, not “integration” in the abstract.
Under capitalism, which is based on competition and, in the United States, white supremacy, people of different backgrounds are often interacting in conditions that reinforce racism. As the experience of gentrification shows, unity and equality cannot be achieved by simply putting people closer together.
The integration of schools, workplaces and neighborhoods can facilitate multi-national unity when there are class struggle and anti-racist organizations consciously trying to fight for it.
Ultimately, to undo racist inequality and national oppression requires taking down the capitalist system in which it is embedded. This is why we continue the great slogan of the global socialist movement: Lenin’s clarion call, “Workers and the oppressed people of the world, unite!” Our enemy is the same, and in unity lies our victory.