Death to Slavery: Ending the Myth of Race in the United States
Today, African Americans as a group are overrepresented in almost every social and health problem facing the American people. At the same time, the growing equality of unemployment and poverty is making possible a new class unity across racial or ethnic lines, that can create the change needed for all of humanity and the earth to thrive. For revolutionaries to play their role in this process, it’s important to understand how the ruling class uses race to attempt to divide the American people to prevent class consciousness and to justify poverty, oppression, and State violence against the working class. Today’s advanced technology makes it possible to organize a society where all of our needs are met. But the promise of a cooperative society will only be achieved when the American people become conscious of the cause of our problems and the solution.
In 1864, one hundred years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act that outlawed major forms of discrimination in the U.S., Karl Marx and the International Workingmen’s Association sent a letter to President Abraham Lincoln with the following opening sentence, “We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.”
Later in the letter Marx noted that the working people of the U.S. had “allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.” What remains of “this barrier to progress” is the lingering myth of race and the racism, racial divisions and the confusion it brings with it.
Contrary to common usage, race is not a valid biological reality, but rather a social and political construction formed by the ruling class as part of the capitalist system. Most scientists today agree that human beings cannot be separated into clearly demarcated separate “races”. The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, determined that all humans are genetically 99.9% alike. Although variation in skin color and other physical features can be observed, all humans derive from the same origin, the earliest fossils of which have been found in Ethiopia. What we today think of as different “races” are in fact just part of natural human diversity.
Origins of Racism
In the earliest days of the colonization of what would become the U.S., slavery was not yet solidified and clearly distinguished from other forms of forced labor, such as indentured servitude. Before then, African and European indentured servants and slaves made love, married, lived as neighbors and liked or disliked each other according to personality not skin color. They also rebelled and ran away together, something that needed to be crushed for the ruling class to maintain its power.
The concept of “race” as a biological division within humanity was created and reinforced by the ruling class to justify chattel slavery and divide people who have the same class interests under capitalism. It is clear that before “capitalism” Brooke Heagerty and Nelson Peery write in their book Moving Onward: From Racial Division to Class Division, “enslavement could be the fate of any person, no matter his or her color. Whites enslaved whites by the millions. Divisions in society were not related to color. Who ruled society and who was considered a part of society had nothing to do with race. Such status was instead defined by wealth or by force.”
The agricultural economy of the British colonies in America required toiling in the hot sun 12-18 hours a day. Slavery was a way to solve the wealthy planters’ need for the backbreaking labor made necessary by the agricultural base and the scarcity of labor. The construction of race and the accompanying concepts of white supremacy and Black inferiority were required to justify brutal chattel slavery in a developing country where Christianity and democracy would otherwise appear to contradict legalized inequality among humans.
The U.S. Civil War was one of the great revolutions in history, even though it was a war between two different sections of the capitalist class (industrial capitalists of the North and agrarian capitalists of the South). Why? Because it ended with the greatest redistribution of wealth that had taken place up to that time by expropriating $4 billion in property in the form of slaves. However, following the Civil War, the industrial economy of the North still needed the raw materials provided by the agricultural economy of the South. Therefore, African Americans were unable to free themselves from slave-like conditions perpetuated by sharecropping (which was also done by poor whites) and maintained by Black Codes, Jim Crow, and the violent terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, until the invention of the mechanical cotton picker after WWII and the accompanying Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
Our country has a contradictory history of freedom and slavery, hope and genocide. Today’s advanced technology could be utilized to provide high quality living standards for all. Yet, under capitalism, the “rights” of the capitalist class to the accumulation of private property, and the power of the current State to enforce these rights, stands in the way. Understanding the legacy of racism in the United States will enable the American people to move forward together to contribute to the revolutionary process that is already underway.
The technological revolution that is leading to laborless production has been particularly devastating to African Americans because those who migrated to cities of the North and South during the Civil Rights era were often the lowest skilled and the last hired. When automobile and other factories were automated and/or moved to other countries, these Black workers were the first fired. This process has escalated since the 1970s and continues today, with 27% of African Americans living below the poverty line (as do 27% of Latinos).
In each state, the Black unemployment rate is higher than the overall unemployment rate for that state. Due to the poverty of their parents, Black children are more likely to attend underfunded schools where textbooks are damaged or outdated, school facilities are not well kept, and the teachers have less training. African Americans have the highest rate of infant mortality, HIV infection, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. The imprisonment of African American youth and adults has reached epidemic proportions, as clearly presented in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.
Today, the continued myths of race, including stereotypes of Blacks as violent and lazy and of whites as wealthy and privileged, lead to blaming the Black victims of society and ignoring the white ones. Racial ideology is used to justify inequality and poverty in society and repression and brutality by the State. It is used to attack all those who are forced out of the economy, and who are forming the dispossessed of our country.
The common popular message is that “they” are poor because they are lazy and not very intelligent. “They” are stopped by the police and incarcerated at a high rate because they are naturally violent. “They” don’t do well in school because they are unintelligent and their parents have a ghetto culture that devalues education. These racist myths are used to justify inequality and poverty in the wealthiest country in the world.
These myths can then be applied to anyone who is suffering from the injustice of the capitalist system (e.g., unemployed, homeless, without health care): it’s their fault and they deserve what they get. This justifies state violence, harassment and repression, especially in Black and Brown communities, and increasingly in all working class communities.
These ideas camouflage the effects of the dying capitalist system on the millions of Americans being destroyed by it. Many people in the U.S. don’t realize that the majority of poor people in our country are actually white, not Black.
By characterizing the major social and health problems of Americans as “Black problems,” the ruling class attempts to divide the working class along racial lines. The main target of this effort are the white workers. The ruling class is attempting to convince working class whites to unite with the ruling class rather than uniting with their class brothers and sisters. This racial division also prevents many African Americans from seeing their common interests with working class people of all colors. All of this is done to prevent class unity, dissent and revolution.
End Slavery of all Humankind
In reality, it is the decreasing “value” of humans under capitalism that is the problem, and that problem is increasingly affecting Americans of all colors. When the American working class understands this, they will be able to fulfill their historic role, to construct a society based on “to each according to her or his need and from each according to her or his ability.”
The role of revolutionaries is to spread consciousness of our common interests to the members of our class so that, together, we can move forward along the path to a society that provides for all. We recognize the diversity of humanity and we proceed from this recognition in the efforts to unite our class. We also understand that the solution for all people, across race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation, is a new cooperative society organized in the interests of humanity and based on the public ownership of the necessary means of production and distribution. Let us move forward so “death to the slavery of humankind” can be a reality.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011