Against the Current, No. 188, May/June 2017
“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” —Malcolm X
WE LIVE IN strange times. A white, nationalist, billionaire businessman has been elected president. His 24-member cabinet is made up primarily of wealthy white men, many former Goldman Sacks executives, that Trump’s most extreme nationalist ideologues call “New York liberals.” Trump has appointed the fewest number of women and minorities to his cabinet since Ronald Reagan. (Obama’s first cabinet had eight white men compared to Trump’s 18.)
Angry whites are happy with the change, although his proposed policies and budgets will hit them hard. A majority believe that Trump will “drain the swamp.” Trump’s family nepotism at the White House is no problem. His electoral base agrees that the news media are “the enemy of the people.”
What does this mean if you’re an African American — a descendant of slaves owned by whites in the 19th Century? Black lives don’t matter to Trump. Blacks fear that we are heading backwards in time. Some better-off African Americans think this is only a brief setback from having the first Black president, Barack Hussein Obama. Others who know U.S. history believe we are in a new period of reaction against Black rights that hasn’t been seen for decades.
“Truth is on the side of the oppressed”
Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. He was assassinated on February 21, 1965 in New York City. His short life had a profound impact on African Americans and U.S. society.
His determination to lift Black people from national oppression and win genuine freedom was a shining example to the community and the oppressed around the world. Malcolm was a Muslim from 1952 until his death, but in his final year he was first and foremost a revolutionary internationalist.
Some 53 years later his views and ideas are still very relevant to African Americans. The election of Donald J. Trump as U.S. president highlights a troubled racial history that began with the first colonists and British rule.
Blacks were never seen by the Founders as citizens of the new country. Freed Blacks, those so fortunate, had to carry papers and lived in fear, hoping not to be picked up by white bounty hunters working for slave owners. (The 2013 movie “Twelve Years a Slave” showed that didn’t always happen.)
Black people are still regarded as the “other” with less than first-class American status. Whites are assumed to be full citizens, not foreigners (unless they have an accent) and are rarely asked the question that many dark-skin people are asked, “Where are you from?”
Although significant progress was made for the Black elite and middle classes (including working-class Blacks with union jobs), which led to the first African-American president, there has been a steady erosion of gains and hopes for a better future.
Trumpism is an extension of white supremacist ideology. It draws in whites who want to make the “white race” great again while proclaiming “I’m not a racist.” When Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King declared that whites need to have more babies to protect European civilization, he was not roundly denounced by Trump or other leading administration figures.
Open bigotry is more acceptable under the Trump-led Republican Party. For African Americans, it is not new. Black men and boys have always been seen as a threat by white society. The Black Lives Matters movement is based on an understanding that racial dynamics is the basis for police violence and mass incarceration of African Americans. As Malcolm explained, the role of mainstream media is to convince Blacks and white working people to see the oppressors and exploiters as on their side even if the facts show otherwise.
Slavery and Human Beings
“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
Slaves brought to England’s American colonies were the creators of massive wealth for slave owners as well as merchants in the North. The Founders understood the evils of slavery, but the money was too good to give up. President Thomas Jefferson is one example. He was morally opposed to slavery but his personal wealth was tied to owning slaves. He never freed Sally Hemings even though she gave birth to six of his children. Hemings had no rights as Jefferson’s personal property.
It is noteworthy that the British abolished the slave trade in 1808 and later slavery itself in the 1830s. The American independence leaders struck a deal to keep slavery after the Independence war was won. The issue for both sides was political and economic power. Slaves and abolition were pawns in that struggle. During the Civil War, the unity of the country was Lincoln’s main objective, which is why the Emancipation Proclamation was limited to only freeing slaves in the rebelling states. Both free Blacks and slaves fought in the War for Independence and, of course, the Civil War, but with no certainty of freedom. Others fled to Canada.
“We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.”
Blacks see American history, from British rule to the Civil War to the Civil Rights Revolution in the 1960s, differently than whites. Whites fought to expand their citizen rights under the Constitution; Blacks, as an oppressed people, sought to be recognized as equal human beings. Blacks were not included in the flowery words of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights.
National oppression dictates tactics and alliances. During the 20th century’s anti-colonial revolutions in Asia and Africa many nationalists sided with the enemies of their oppressors (for example, in India and Indonesia). Similarly, in the U.S. many former slaves fought with the British in the War of 1812 and with Native peoples in the Indian wars.
After the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments former slaves finally won legal recognition as citizens. Until then former slaves were not Americans.
Malcolm said, “To me, the thing that is worse than death is betrayal. You see, I could conceive death, but I could not conceive betrayal.”
Betrayal. That’s the history of Blacks. After the Civil War, a bloody counterrevolution was organized by the defeated supporters of the Confederacy and their allies in the North.
For about a decade (until 1876), Blacks in the South could vote and be elected to office. Soon, however, the extra-legal terror organized by the white supremacists gutted the real meaning of the citizenship amendments to the Constitution. This betrayal was legally codified in Jim Crow segregation laws in the South.
Racial politics is rooted in this history of “two nations” that remains unresolved. Malcolm X brought the issue of Black oppression to the United Nations to identify with other colonial peoples.
White Left and Unions
“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think it will be based on the color of the skin….”
Historically, the white left and early unionists who spoke against capitalism refused to take up fighting racism as a central labor issue. Many socialists framed labor issues as “bread and butter” to avoid taking on segregationists. This undermined racial solidarity. For example, in the infamous 1892 Homestead steel strike near Pittsburgh, a race war broke out between nonunion Black workers and union white workers. Blacks had been brought in as scabs to help break the strike.
In the 1930s, the New Deal was created under Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt as pro working class (and anti-communist). The new progressive laws, however, did not erase color lines. FDR rejected taking on his racist base in the South. During WWII, civil rights groups had to fight to even get jobs in the war industries and fight for better treatment in segregated military units under white officers.
When most Blacks hear complaints by liberals, including Black pundits, that people must vote, they ignore the fact that the real issue is how to compel the government to use any means necessary to enforce the promise of equality. The only way to begin to educate against white supremacist ideology is by using state power.
Legal Equality, Full Citizenship
“We declare our right on this earth…to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
The key lesson of American history, as Malcolm taught, is that formal rights are not the same as genuine equality. They are a step forward, yet a political counterrevolution can reverse many historic gains as it did in the late 1800s.
The modern-day battle is against the real meaning of the slogan “Make America Great Again.” It is a code phrase of the anti-Black right. Trump has been effective as a demagogue and user of his own media. But what Malcolm explained remains valid:
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
The end of legal segregation was a big advance. It led to a Martin Luther King national holiday, hundreds of Black elected officials, the first Black president and a National African American Museum in Washington, DC.
Today, class divisions among African Americans are sharper than ever. The Black upper class lives outside of poor communities. At the same time, racism has made it easier for white supremacists and their allies to weaken the rights of Blacks to vote and exercise civil rights.
While African Americans of all classes are uniting against Trump, many whites, particularly working people, are under the illusion that the billionaire Trump serves their cultural and economic interests. Many don’t care how it hurts other workers who are not white. The hostility to undocumented immigrants lets the bosses and rulers off the hook for class exploitation and oppression.
The racist climate extends to U.S.-born, nonwhite residents. The challenge is to recognize this racial dynamic — otherwise, the solidarity needed to win and make progress will not happen.
I’ve read every speech given by Malcolm X, whom I consider the greatest African American of the 20th century. He never compromised his principles. It’s time to re-learn lessons from Malcolm in the Black community — nationalism and pride, solidarity and militancy, and a worldview that African Americans are part of a global community in struggle against the injustices of capitalism.
“If you’re not ready to die for it, take the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.”
“The only way we’ll get freedom for ourselves is to identify ourselves with every oppressed people in the world. We are blood brothers to the people of Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba — yes Cuba too.”
May-June 2017, ATC 188