By Eric Mann (Click here to view the entire P&R issue)
The Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown book could easily be renamed The Illusions of Liberalism. It argues that there never was a honeymoon period in which a white majority supported civil rights, and it advocates renewed government intervention to protect black civil rights, an analysis and proposals that any civil rights moderate could embrace. But, in its refusal to engage the structural relationship between capitalism and black oppression, its evasion of the historical struggle within the civil rights movement between the pro-imperialist civil rights establishment and the anti-imperialist black liberation movement, and in its counterposing of demands for black liberation against those of Latino and Asian immigrants, their book is calculated and dangerous. It directs our attention to the racism of white voters while it deflects our attention from the racist policies of Clinton/Gore.
In the 1960s, the antiracist organizers of the New Left came to understand liberalism as the governing strategy of a wing of the capitalist class. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and his obsession with forcing Martin Luther King to purge his communist advisor Stanley Levinson; the suppression by Bayard Rustin, Walter Reuther and Hubert Humphrey and many black elected officials of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge; and Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats’ war crimes in Vietnam radicalized an entire generation. Today, growing and overt racism and xenophobia demands a newly constituted antiracist united front. But because today’s civil rights establishment is even more corporate and pro-imperialist than its predecessors, the struggle to rebuild a militant and radical antiracist movement will require a re-examination of the programmatic contributions of the anti-imperialist Black Liberation Movement (BLM) — reflected in many organizations, including the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Congress of Racial Equality, Black Panther Party, League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Black Workers Congress.
1) The struggle for full democratic rights. The BLM demanded the most stringent enforcement of the 14th amendment, reflected in the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, open housing and a full network of effective anti-discrimination laws. While these demands were aimed at dismantling Jim Crow and Northern de facto segregation, the black Left never believed that, after centuries of the most degrading and brutal slavery, “equality of opportunity” could possibly lead to equality of outcomes. Rather, these “constitutional” and “reform” demands set the legal stage for far more structural ones.
2) The radical expansion of the social welfare state. The BLM demanded social welfare programs at a level never considered by U.S. capitalism, to address the specific conditions of black national oppression. Demands to redress capitalism’s structural poverty, unemployment and women’s oppression included permanent AFDC payments and unemployment insurance, Head Start and day care centers, massive funding for inner-city education, and first class public housing, and were qualitative breaks with the “emergency” welfare measures that the New Deal had designed with the white worker in mind.
3) The radical dismantling of the police and prison system. The Black Panthers in particular argued that the prisons and police were colonial instruments, and thus bourgeois concepts of “crime” or “innocence and guilt” could not be used to justify the military occupation of an oppressed community. The demands to free all political prisoners including all black men and women were based on the assumption that the greatest danger to the black community was not black-on-black crime, but police-on-black crime. Armed self-defense groups, community patrols to monitor police behavior and the demands for the most stringent police review boards were efforts to structurally reduce police brutality by placing the police under black civilian authority.
4) The radical definition of self-determination. While the black Left sought to extricate itself from white-dominated racist institutions, it also viewed the black bourgeoisie, especially pro-capitalist Democratic party operatives, as the primary internal obstacle to any real possibility of self-determination. Radical black student groups demanded black studies programs based on the needs of the entire black community, especially the poor and working class, and tried to construct curricula to challenge the imperialism of the universities in which they were located. In New York, black parents at IS 201 in Harlem and Ocean Hill Brownsville in Brooklyn fought for community control of schools, including great attention to curriculum development and theories of pedagogy. The concept of a radical black community was an expansive one; self-determination was a mechanism by which an oppressed black community could develop its own independent institutions, creating a liberated zone from which to impact and revolutionize the broader society. Discussions of a black homeland in the South and an all-black people’s plebiscite as to their relationship to the United States addressed the independence of black people as an oppressed people within the U.S.
5) Transformative attitudes towards anti-racist whites. Whether arguing for multi-racial forms of organization or “national in form” black organizations, the black Left recruited, trained and inspired thousands of anti-racist white organizers and worked with them in close organizational proximity and leadership. For the first time in U.S. history there was a massive and qualitative break within the white majority between the racists and antiracists. From 1964, the leadership of the black liberation movement passed from the civil rights establishment to its most militant and radical organizational forces for almost a decade. The BLM, bolstered by powerful international allies in the socialist, communist and Third World nations, and in large sectors of Western capitalist nations as well, was able to create a political and moral challenge to U.S. imperialism. Through militant confrontations with small shop owners and multinational corporations, trade unions, universities and the U.S. Army, the BLM created historical events in which whites were forced to take a stand and often make sacrifices in order to advance the struggle and confront racist forces themselves. During this period, the BLM enjoyed enormous political influence — its radical internationalism and its structural demands that benefited blacks but also every oppressed group provided leadership to the U.S. Left.
6) An anti-colonial, anti-imperialist black liberation movement. SNCC, black and white draft resisters groups, and the Black Panthers encouraged and effectively mobilized black men to refuse to serve or mutiny in the U.S. armed forces. It took the U.S. Left a full decade, and the Vietnamese people most of the 20th century, but the defeat of the U.S. military and the successful national liberation struggle in Vietnam was one of the greatest achievements of the anti-war movement and the black liberation movement in all of U.S. history. In those struggles, black radicals worked with Puerto Rican, Chicano, Asian Pacific Islander and Native American activists who talked about bringing the war home — from the Chicano Moratorium to Wounded Knee.
Today, many of the most heroic leaders of black radicalism are unable to shape the present debate. Many were murdered, executed, others have died, others are still in prison for acts of resistance. Others are here in body but no longer embody their past contributions — alone, dispirited or even rejecting their former views. Walk the streets of any black community in the U.S. today: Regardless of the acknowledged weak state of the existing movement, a structural revolution of the most profound nature is clearly required. In this context, the crimes of the Clinton/Gore administration require the most fundamental challenge — as the president calls for a national dialogue on race but not racism while ending welfare as we know it and bombing civilians in Kosovo, while whitewashing white racist violence with the carefully crafted, race-neutral slogan, “hate crimes.” Meanwhile, the civil rights establishment and the Congressional Black Caucus stand mute — content with presidential appointments and entry into the riches of the new world order.
Fortunately, in Chicago last June, more than 2,000 participants at the newly constituted Black Radical Congress asserted that the revolutionary legacy of the black Left is alive. Learning from the achievements and complex social practice of the Black Liberation Movement in its life-and-death struggle with corporate liberalism will be critical to reconstructing an effective antiracist united front.
Eric Mann (firstname.lastname@example.org) has served as organizer with CORE, the Newark Community Union Project, SDS and United Auto Workers Local 645 in Los Angeles. He is presently the director of he Labor/Community Strategy Center and a member of the Planning Committee of the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union.