“Speaking Truth to Power”: John Legend

Musician John Legend getting interviewed by the Toronto Media at the ONExONE Benefit Gala held at Maple Leaf Gardens the week of TIFF '08

Words of wisdom are commonplace, yet we seldom actually listen to them (Creative Commons License photo credit: christopherharte).  I have just read the probing and wise commencement address given by Grammy-winning songwriter and singer, John Legend, to University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts & Sciences graduates on May 17th. (h/t: Huffingtonpost).

He first talks about the impact some books and some people at the university, his alma mater, had on him:

That comforting dichotomy of right and wrong was replaced by what professors here would call inquiry, methodology, and praxis. Or in layperson’s terms, a never-ending series of questions, discussions, analyses, and options. There was James Joyce telling me “a man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” Toni Morrison telling me that “”If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” Or even my sociology professor repeating his mantra that “correlation does not always equal causation.” With each course I took, my mind was challenged to be more critical, more flexible, more fluid, more supple.

This later passage really caught my eye:

As a nation — and as a world — we need more truth. Let me repeat that. We need more truth. When you look at the list of crises we face, there is a common thread that ties many of them together. The people who created these crises or allowed them to happen either didn’t look hard enough for the truth, or didn’t listen to those voices that could tell them where the truth lived.

We lost thousands of lives and spent billions (possibly trillions) of dollars fighting in and rebuilding Iraq, all based on the false premise that there were weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Al Qaeda and caused 9/11. . .

We’ve spent trillions of dollars bailing out banks with phantom profits that were selling financial products whose values had no grounding in reality. . . .

From the war in Iraq to credit-default swaps to the internet bubble to the real estate bubble, too often we got caught up in the hype and failed to see the real truth.

Too often we become apathetic. We see the lies, we see the obfuscation, the deception. But we fail to point it out. We’re afraid to rain on the parade. Afraid to rock the boat. Afraid to pursue the truth.

He might well have added that it is also way past time for our whitewashed mass media, our leading academics at schools like Penn, and our leading politicians (of all backgrounds) to speak the hard truth about our still-systemic racism, whose everyday exploitation and discrimination in employment, banking, housing, health, and educational institutions are still quite pervasive. Very few people anywhere are now willing to speak the truth about everyday racism. To talk about the dozens of research studies demonstrating it. That truth seems much harder to speak even than speaking the truths from this list above. Why is it nearly impossible to get anywhere in our mass media, including most of the “liberal” and “left” media, a serious sustained discussion of systemic racism–like the research-based discussions of many on this blog? Denial of that racism will get a pundit or academic an op-ed piece in major media most any day.

Like every good commencement speaker, Legend last calls the Penn students to take personal and collective action:

To be witnesses of today and for tomorrow. To speak truth to power. And to speak the truth on behalf of the powerless. Sometimes there isn’t a single answer. But there is always the truth. Now, I don’t assume that the word “truth” is commonly found. Like its bedfellows of “democracy” and “justice,” I believe it is quite rare to find. It is born through process. It is gained through questioning. It is found in listening. It’s about accepting that complex problems often require complicated solutions. A commitment to truth also requires what Patricia Hill-Collins calls a “politics of empathy.” I would say that a commitment to truth requires a commitment to social justice.

He goes yet deeper:

Searching for truth is in many ways the same as searching for your soul. Since I am touted as a soul singer, I’m often asked to define what soul is. Well, it’s hard to define, but I’m sure that soulfulness and truth are very closely related. . . . Soul is about authenticity. Soul is about finding the things in your life that are real and pure.

A powerful address putting to shame the typical commencement speakers–and it is nice to see the current president of the American Sociological Association, the brilliant critical-racism analyst Patricia Hill Collins, was thus influential in this young man’s life.

Racism Link Roundup

Every once in awhile, I spend the morning surfing around the web, like you do, and read a bunch of juicy blogs about racism and think to myself, “Gee, I wish I’d written that.”  Rather than succumb to blog-related despair, I collect the best links about racism from around the web and post them here, for you dear reader.   This is the latest juicy-blog-link roundup:

Enjoy the roundup!   Feel free to add links in the comments of anything I missed.

The Malcolm X Project

457260253_ac225c7983Today is Malcolm X’s birthday and he would have been 84 years old had he lived (h/t @james3neal via Twitter, image from here ).    The lack of national attention accorded to Malcolm Shabazz is a rather shocking given his historical significance, though I suppose not that surprising given the white racial frame which predominates the agenda-setting in the U.S.

Malcolm’s significance has grown since his assassination in 1965, and today his “by any means necessary” stance has in many ways eclipsed the philosophy of non-violence of Martin Luther King, Jr. as the touchstone figure for black culture and political life.     Yet, it would be a mistake to place too much emphasis on the distance between Malcolm and Martin.    For a thorough analysis of the intricacies of that relationship, see James Cone’s book, Martin & Malcolm & America.  Both Martin and Malcolm were far more radical and had far more in common, especially toward the end of their lives, that most people realize.    Both Malcolm  and Martin were highly critical of the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. And, where Martin was organizing sanitation workers recognizing the importance of class oppression to the struggle for racial equality, Malcolm  emphasized the parallels between the African-American struggle for equality and the Asian, Latino, and African campaigns against European colonialism.

For those unfamiliar with his early days, consider the following:

If one had to select one historical personality within the period 1940 to 1975 who best represented and reflected black urban life, politics, and culture in the United States, it would be extremely difficult to find someone more central than the charismatic figure of Malcolm X/El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, and growing up in the Midwest, young Malcolm Little was the child of political activists who supported the militant black nationalist movement of Marcus Garvey. After his father’s violent death and his mother’s subsequent institutionalization due to mental illness, Little was placed in foster care and for a time in a youth detention facility. “

This short excerpt speaks I think to the reality of life for so many young, black and brown men in today’s United States.  For those that know the rest of the story, of course, Malcolm Little became Malcolm X in prison where he was radicalized through reading.   He converted to Islam and after his pilgrimage to Mecca came back as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

The excerpt above comes from “The Malcolm X Project” at Columbia University, which is a rich,  online, treasure trove of information about Malcolm.    The Project includes an extensive multimedia collection with archival audio and video of Malcolm and scholarly experts.     On this, Malcolm’s birthday, go explore this amazing resource and share it with someone else!

MALDEF Combats Racist Attacks on Immigrants

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)–created in Texas in 1960s and now a leading Latino civil rights and educational organization–operates a “Truth in Immigration” website with useful information and research data on how the media are portraying Latino immigrants, with an accent on errors. One of their productions is this short video (2:29) (see here) , which does a good job of highlighting some recent media distortions:

Media Matters has also challenged the conservative blaming of undocumented immigrants for our current (Bush) economic depression as having no solid evidence for their claims. Conservative

media figures have baselessly claimed that according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), 5 million mortgages taken out by undocumented immigrants are in default, or close to it. In fact, according to an October 9, 2008, Phoenix Business Journal article, HUD “says there is no basis to news reports that more than 5 million bad mortgages are held by illegal immigrants. A HUD spokesman said … his agency has no data showing the number of illegal immigrants holding foreclosed or bad mortgages.” Nevertheless, conservative media figures continued to baselessly attribute the financial crisis in part to excessive lending to illegal immigrants, including:
* San Diego radio host Roger Hedgcock and radio host Joe Madison, during the October 9, 2008, edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight; * Phoenix radio station KFYI, in an article on its website; * The Drudge Report in an October 9, 2008, link to the KFYI article; * Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin in a September 24, 2008, column; * Limbaugh, during the October 10, 2008, broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show* Radio host Lee Rodgers, during the October, 10, 2008, broadcast of KSFO’s The Lee Rodgers Show; * Radio host Jim Quinn, during the October 10, 2008, broadcast of Clear Channel’s The War Room with Quinn & Rose

As we have discussed here numerous times, this type of fear-mongering accounts for some/much of the rise in hate crimes against US Latinos, including many attacks on undocumented and other immigrants. Recent FBI data indicate that “hate crimes” against Latinos increased in the most recent data year; some 4,956 people were reported as victims of racially motivated crimes. About seven in ten of those victimized (3,434) were targeted because of an anti-black bias, and 830 Latinos were also victims of racial hate crimes. These numbers are very serious underestimates, because most (nearly 15,500) of the 17,500 police jurisdicitions do not report their hate crimes or report zero hate crimes.

Indeed, a 2009 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center calculated from various data that at least “210,000 people a year are victimized by hate crimes, the vast majority of them motivated by race or ethnicity.” According to this report much of the recent increase in hate crimes has involved immigrants from Latin America. In addition, they report that the number of racist hate groups, such as Klan and neo-Nazi groups, has grown by nearly 50 percent over the last decade (up to 926 groups now!). They suggest that much of that growth is connected to nativistic agitation against Latino immigrants in the media and by white politicians.

Black & Poor: Bill Wilson’s Theoretical Muddle

As with his previous books, trouble with William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race begins with its title: Is there anybody on the planet, in academic or popular discourses, who believes that black disadvantage is “just race”? Is Wilson merely shadow boxing? Has he set up a straw argument, making a caricature of his opponent, all the better to demonstrate the rectitude of his position? Is the book an answer to critics who assailed him for undercutting the black protest movement by proclaiming that race was of “declining significance”?

The fierce debate that followed the 1978 publication of  The Declining Significance of Race was a reiteration of a longstanding debate on the Left. On the one hand, there are those in the Marxist tradition who subsume race to class and contend that the problem of race is primarily one of economic inequality. On the other hand, there are those in the black radical tradition who insist that it is not “just class,” not only because we are left with the legacy of slavery, but also because racial discrimination, especially in the world of work, is still systemic and widespread. On this view, the problems of African Americans are fundamentally different from those of other exploited workers, requiring different policy remedies. But neither side of the race/class debate is so simplistic or obtuse as to assert that either race or class operates to the exclusion of the other. Indeed, over the past twenty years a consensus has emerged concerning the “intersectionality” of race and class (a problematic that W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with throughout his long life). Hence, Wilson’s epiphany, that race and class are “entwined,” has long been accepted as axiomatic by both sides of the race/class debate, and one wonders whether his book, with its dubious title, was even necessary.

Another problem with Wilson’s title is that it doesn’t quite match the thrust of his book, which is preoccupied with another academic squabble: the structure/culture debate. On the one hand, there are those who emphasize the role that major societal institutions play in throwing blacks into poverty and limiting their avenues of escape. Others, however, locate the sources of black disadvantage in an aberrant ghetto culture that, or so they claim, perpetuates poverty from one generation to the next. Wilson steps into this breach, methodically reviews the knowledge claims of both sides, and alas concludes that structure and culture are “entwined.” Had he been faithful to his argument, Wilson would have titled his book, More Than Just Structure.

morethanjustraceIn his laudatory review of More Than Just Race in the New York Times Book Review, Richard Thompson Ford echoes Wilson’s claim that “the vitriolic condemnation of the Moynihan Report effectively closed off a serious academic focus on the culture of poverty for decades, robbing policy makers of a complete and nuanced account of the causes of ghetto poverty.” Now, it is undeniable that Moynihan was pummeled, but not for bringing to light compromising details concerning black families. Rather Moynihan came under fire for inverting cause and effect. Instead of blaming joblessness and poverty for the fracture of black families, Moynihan blamed the “weak black family,” going back to slavery, for the litany of problems that beset the black poor.

Moreover, it is preposterous for Wilson and Ford to suggest that reaction to the Moynihan Report short-circuited a full vetting of the culture of poverty thesis since this has been the reigning precept behind public policy over several decades, culminating in the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act that abolished entitlements for poor people that had been in place since the Depression. Indeed, Wilson should reflect on what the obsession with ghetto culture has wrought. Continue reading…

Racism Flourshing Online

The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has released its annual report on “digital1936541974_e6e7ba6c9f terrorism and hate” which finds that racism and antisemitism are flourishing online.  Their report asserts that there has been a 25 percent rise in the past year in the number of “problematic” social networking groups on the Internet (Creative Commons License photo credit: rosefirerising).

In assessing the extent of hate online, the SWC casts a wider net than other monitoring organization (such as the Southern Poverty Law Center or the Anti-Defamation League) to include sites that promote “racial violence, anti-semitism, homophobia, hate music and terrorism.”  And, the report encompasses a variety of forms of online communicatio such as  Web sites, social networking groups, portals, blogs, chat rooms, videos and games that promote hate.

While it’s hard to measure such phenomena with any precision, there are other indications that racism, and other forms of hatred, are flouring online.   For example, there’s been growing attention on the rise of racist groups on social networking sites such as Facebook, where roups with names such as ‘get all the Paki’s out of England’ with hundreds of members, are common.   People in the U.S. take racism online (and off) much less seriously than people in Europe and other industrialized Western nations for a variety of reasons that I discuss at length in Cyber Racism.  Typical of the European attitudes is indicated by a British MP (Labour) Denis MacShane, who told The Daily Telegraph recently:

“The way you defeat extremism, intolerance, prejudice and racism is to atomise it and make people feel that even if they think racist thoughts they can’t say it openly. But websites like Facebook have unfortunately allowed people to come together in one space and say, ‘there are people out there like me’. That is something that worries me greatly. For all the good social networking sites do, they also allow people to express prejudice that in a civilised society should be kept under lock and key.”

Although I certainly agree that racism online is flourishing, I take issue with the way that this typically gets reported.   For instance, this Reuters story about the SWC report that’s being widely quoted in a variety of other news sources, starts this way:

“Militants and hate groups increasingly use social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube as propaganda tools to recruit new members….” [emphasis added]

Calling what happens with the growth of hate online “recruiting” is to misunderstand the way the Internet works.   People are not recruited into hate groups online any more than paying customers are recruited by sex workers (aka, prostitutes) on Craigslist.    This sort of discourse (“recruit”) is often used alongside words like “lure,” and this is often used when describing the oddly coupled threat of white supremacists and child pornography online.    When reporters and others talk about using the Internet to “recruit” or “lure” unsuspecting innocents online, they misperceive a fundamental feature of the Internet: the search engine.   People go online and search for information.  The reason online racism (and other forms of hate) are flourishing is because lots of people are searching for that sort of content, and a smaller group of people is creating racist content.

If we really want to do something collectively to address the growth of racism online, then we need to address the underlying appeal of racist content by those who create it and those who seek it out.

White Supremacy, Racism, and the Obama Administration, Pt.2

These are the final two provocative theses from Clarence J. Munford. He is Professor Emeritus, Department of History, University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. Among his books are Race and Civilization: Rebirth of Black Centrality (Africa World Press 2001) and American Crucible: Black Enslavement, White Capitalism and Imperial Globalization (Africa World Press forthcoming, June 2009).


At this moment antiracists and other progressives need be circumspect in our criticism of the agenda and policies of the Obama administration (Creative Commons License photo credit: couturiere7 ). First, because it is figuratively the only game in play. Second, because bad-tempered faultfinding would alienate nearly the entire African American community, still enthralled as it is in the historic symbolism and adulation of a black presidency in the “world’s most powerful country.” Third, because the only likely alternative to Barack Obama to emerge from the 2012 election will be the neo-Nazi, closet-KKK types and religious fundamentalists nesting under the Republican Party “tent.”

Yet we would be remiss in our duty if we failed to offer constructive critique that fosters progressive social reform. For instance, was the decision to boycott the United Nations antiracism conference in April 2009 indicative of the administration’s true stripes? Was the shunning – to paraphrase Shakespeare – a whiff of something rotten in Washington, DC’s Denmark? Must U.S. foreign policy remain forever hostage to Israeli hawks? America’s absence from the Geneva conference had even the Congressional Black Caucus – Obama’s most rock-solid legislative ally – wondering. The concept of modernization of the oppression of African Americans aids comprehension. It suggests that second class citizenship resists cosmetic changes regardless of the personnel in the White House.

During his “First Hundred Days” Obama’s “crisis management” aimed to reduce unemployment through job creation. His stimulus program included funds and measures to lessen mortgage foreclosures. Threatened homeowners were promised mortgage renegotiation along more favorable terms. At least as talking points, the government put environmental improvement, alternative energy and strategic raw materials savings on the table. Cooperation between the federal government, organized labor and the private sector is seen as a kind of magic wand. Sought is equilibrium between the national economy and the basic components of civil society.

Meanwhile corporate capital continues to manipulate the organs of state to distribute the national income in ways favorable to itself. Obama has set sights on reviving the stock market and talks in populist terms of affordable health care (but only in the dubious insurance scheme, not in the universal, single-payer form) in order to maintain political capital. The challenge is to speed the capitalist periodical cycle into a recovery phase while juggling big bonuses at firms that have swallowed billions of bailout dollars, auto industry meltdown, the AIG fiasco and growing demands for nationalization of the country’s most dysfunctional banks.

The depression has exposed widespread immiseration that can no longer be “spin”-glossed away by the mouthpieces of U.S.-dominated raciated global supremacy. More than merely turning the country around economically, progressives want Obama to face up to the system’s all-round failure to meet human needs. Job opportunities are unfilled due to unskilled or untrained applicants, while growing millions are being laid off. And what spooks the powers-that-be is the fact that now the jobless are not just blacks and Hispanics, but so-called mainstream whites as well. Grappling with neglected human needs, progressive forces demand from Obama more than just swift, but temporary, stimuli. They call for staunch and permanent government intervention. Only the state can harmonize mass employment, the need for trained workers and social needs. Barack Obama’s program looks to quicken the job market through health insurance spending, home mortgage assistance and infrastructure repairs and initiatives.

Yet it is a matter of debate whether the reformers in Obama’s corner realize that in contemporary racist capitalism mass unemployment (twice as heavy among blacks than among whites) is at once conjunctural and structural. It is a product of the periodical cycle and of deindustrialization in favor of service industries, of “off-shoring,” and of swelling social emphasis on communications-electronics. At issue are fundamental processes of capital accumulation. The Obama administration has grounds to expect jobs to be created through new investments, thus justifying all the talks of a “New New Deal.” But large-scale devalorization of much black male labor power has been long underway before the present economic bubble burst. That devalorization demonstrates that capital accumulation never has as its goal the protection or creation of jobs.

Capitalists accumulate, expand, rationalize and modernize enterprises in order to garner high profits. This generates schizophrenia for the Obama stimulus. On one hand, to mollify his electorate and pay political IOUs, the president must save homes and put people to work through health, energy, regulatory and infrastructure measures. On the other hand, as the administrator of state capitalism, he must protect and revivify the existing system of white supremacist capitalism. Once troubled enterprises are “stress-tested,” trimmed, modernized and regulated, once they are ready to yield stable high profits, they must be returned to the private sector free of federal government sway. On behalf of private capitalists the administration is mandated to manage, invest taxpayer dollars, partially nationalize and break UAW labor contracts. Such is the real meaning of rationalization, efficiency and higher productivity under racist capitalism. Success for this agenda would be long-term elimination of work places, not more jobs. As currently projected, the Obama stimulus and regulation of financial institutions down the road will shrink the demand for living labor power.

To keep this from happening, progressives and antiracists must inject radical elixir in the Obama White House. That is the only way to expand well-paid, secure employment, particularly for the sorely-tried African American community. Programming, projections, French-style dirigiste planning for express rail links, energy independence and other “leftist” concepts not heard in Washington, DC since the 1930s and the New Deal, have now become common currency inside the Beltway. These are manifestations of capitalist reformist jitters. Short of an impact by a strong radical public, they most definitely are not the “transformative” harbingers of an equitable, antiracist society designed to meet the needs of all of its citizens that many first-time voters thought they heard in the Obama campaign rhetoric. The president wants to intensify the role of the federal government merely enough to enliven the economy. But why must the affair stop there? What if a broad neo-Abolitionist coalition of blacks, browns and antiracist whites can be forged in time to intervene? Its pressure could induce Americans to realize that it is not necessary to bribe the corporate and financial moguls with bailouts, bonuses, interest and profits to obtain the necessities of life.


Global white supremacy would lose what remains of its integral character without the seemingly limitless malleability of second class citizenship in the USA coupled with ongoing modernization of oppression of the black world as a whole. Though nearly five hundred years old, the African Diaspora in the Americas has yet to experience true liberation. What has been endured in the last two hundred years is a series of refurbishments of bondage, disguised as “emancipations.” Each modernization has occurred at a critical turning point in history when the system of black servitude was in crisis and seemed threatened with collapse. The Obama administration appears to be one such turning point.

Hitherto each revamp has involved some great confrontation like the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Each regeneration has saved the day for white supremacy by discarding the unnecessary frills of white domination (i.e., the “petty apartheids”), while rescuing the essentials of black subjugation. Each update has revealed the bitter truth that social equality and racially proportionate economic parity can never be accomplished without breaking the back of white supremacy. The staged incremental progress African Americans are alleged to have benefited from in the course of the twentieth century, culminating in the election of Barack Obama, is, in fact, contingency-rooted, episodic streamlining of the forms of second-class citizenship. The kernel of black oppression has remained stable, regardless of the election of black officials, and regardless of leeway for civil rights, intermarriage, integrated housing, voting rights and limited job opportunities. The notion of modernization of second-class citizenship for African Americans is an elaboration and articulation of the fundamental thesis of a series of modernizations of enslavement experienced in all parts of the black world during the last half-millennium.

Nonetheless, there is a serious alternative to white supremacist capitalist society. That vision postulates an end to global white supremacy, the heart of global capitalism. It requires a concerted political effort by progressive forces to build an economy that binds government control of the commanding heights of the economy with small private enterprises and community firms in an organic fashion. In order to qualify as truly post-racist, America would have to install a human and constitutional rights system in place of the travesty we now endure. It would have to impose social equality, evenhanded justice and socioeconomic parity. Black political empowerment proportionate to population percentage would have to be enshrined in the Constitution. Policy would have to ensure “equality of results” for the black community and other racialized minorities.

White Supremacy, Racism and the Obama Administration, Pt.1

These are the first two theses of four from the distinguished international scholar of racial matters, Clarence J. Munford. The next two will be posted tomorrow.


The original (so-called primitive) capital accumulation – the wealth that enabled Western civilization to erect its global domination – was actually an accumulation of enslaved African human beings. Having decimated the indigenous Amerindians in the Caribbean, Brazil and other parts of Central and South America, the white conquerors turned to Africa for the means to establish sway over the Western Hemisphere.

Nowadays the “free world’s” lighthouse sits in Washington, DC, an acknowledged fact internationally. Less avowed is the brute fact that the chief agency by which European civilization appropriated and incorporated the vast territory north of the Rio Grande, and established the United States of America, was the forced labor of enslaved Africans. Modern capitalism in the Western Hemisphere is the child of racialized black enslavement. Centuries of chattel bondage conditioned the formation of the African American race, reinforced by post-slavery discrimination, segregation and second-class citizenship. These are social relations, rules dictated to persons and communities. Social relations, mediated in history, outweighed biological reproduction in creating America’s black “minority race.”

Despite a rather common heritage of material culture, black folks’ enslaved ancestors came from many different ethnic groups and spoke many different tongues. The boundaries of the plantations ignored these ethnic divisions. When the time came for procreation, the will of the slaveholder and the limits of the plantation regulated sexual intercourse. Plantation endogamy smashed pristine ethnicity. Most couplings were within the same plantation or neighboring ones – no matter that Mbundu had to mate with Ewe, Wolof with Ibo, Yoruba with Fon… Meanwhile the sexual rampages of slaveholders and overseers injected a Caucasian strain in all but a fifth of African Americans. For a long time slaveholders were not minded to balance the gender ratio among slaves. Enslaved Africans first arrived in Virginia in 1619. Not until the 1840s were there as many black women as there were black men in the United States. America’s truest “melting pot” was stirred of transplanted Africans, a unique new people smelted in slavery’s crucible.

The social composition and profile of black America changed radically in the first half of the twentieth century. From the Great Migration (ca. 1915-1919) to the deindustrializing 1970s, the prominent new stratum was urban industrial workers. Black folk became predominately city folk. Nevertheless, the black community remained subservient to the white citizenry. The autoworker as much as the sleeping car porter, the preacher as much as the entertainer, each one of the now ghettoized African Americans was slotted somehow or other in the social hierarchy in a way compatible with the white man’s interests. Transformed by waves of migration and metropolitan overcrowding, black America was prescribed a role to play that was really the same old role in new costume. Its function in the social division of labor was unambiguous. There is nothing equivocal about that black “underclass” which serves as an elastic pool of cheap reserve labor, portions of which are destined for lifelong joblessness.

Over the last thirty years or so, large numbers of African Americans have moved to the suburbs. Decaying city cores have been abandoned to growing concentrations of black and Latino paupers, the “underclass” and the homeless. Many city cores are being gentrified, exiling even these desperate unfortunates. Ironically, even latter-day suburbanization is compelled to fit the national mold of black-white residential apartheid. Black suburbanization proceeds on the basis of black resegregation. Chunks of the inner city ghetto are dispersed as all-black pockets around the wider area. The ghetto does not evaporate; it multiplies with smaller offshoots hiving off. Residential apartheid is alive and well, now also living in the suburbs.

Even more insidious is the bond between the prison industrial system and economic revalorization. In so far as black “underclass” job seekers find no employers, they are excluded from the national market for commodity labor power. This particular phenomenon long predates the current employment crash precipitated by the capitalist recession of 2007-2009, and will long post-date it. Economically, anything that for whatever reason has no purchaser, has no price. Price is the money form of value. Without a price, an object, or in this case a human capacity, becomes in effect valueless. During the last forty years, thousands of black males’ ability to work has been stripped of a price, unsellable on the labor market and thus value-less in a strict economic sense. In the eyes of white supremacist capital, these men, and increasingly some black women too, become revalored (value restored) only when they are put to work in jail. This is revalorization through mass incarceration and the prison economy. What takes place in the prison industrial complex has been termed mystifyingly “intra-systemal commoditization of unfree labor.” The terms mean merely that in our prisons today labor power, which in the outside world appears on the market as a commodity and is sold for a price (wages), is being extracted from inmates – often involuntarily – at or well below the minimum wage standard. From shore to shore America’s cellblock inmates are disproportionately black. This practice is a giant step towards reviving the convict lease-labor system of Jim Crow vintage. The United States sports the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Continue reading…

Race and the Republican Party: The Elephant in the Room

The GOP - It's a party, alright.Recent political news has focused extensively on whether modern times are sounding a death-knell for the Republican party (Creative Commons License photo credit: makelessnoise). After bruising losses in the mid-term elections of 2006 and in the presidential election of 2008, near record-low numbers of individuals who identify as Republicans, and an extraordinarily popular Democratic president, many commentators and pundits have questioned whether the Republican party is facing a crisis of being. Even some Republican leaders have acknowledged the peril they face as a party, giving rise to debates over whether they should become more moderate and create a “bigger tent” that includes a broader coalition of supporters, or stick to their principles and align themselves even more strongly with their remaining conservative base.

In my mind, these debates reveal a major problem for the Republican party and highlight the ways in which narrow racial framing is limiting their future opportunities and success. When Republicans debate whether to “stick to their guns” (pun intended) or establish a “bigger tent,” they are thinking short term and avoiding some very real racialized realities that have an impact for their future and ultimately their continued existence. This is perhaps unsurprising for a party whose only engagement with racial issues over the last half century has been creating coded language to justify their opposition to civil rights advancements (“states’ rights,” “urban crime,” “welfare queens,”), or appealing to racialized fears (Willie Horton, fabricating links between immigrants and swine flu, blaming “unqualified minorities” for the housing crisis) as a way of maintaining and consolidating reliable votes. So it’s not especially shocking that Republicans would be oblivious of what—and who–they are ignoring when they think only in terms of going more moderate or staying conservative.

The racial issue that I refer to is this. All demographic data indicates that within a mere 30 to 40 years, this country will no longer have a clear white majority. What we are headed towards, whether Republican elites like it or not, is a nation that is mostly multiracial and where whites are irrevocably becoming a numerical minority. I don’t think many Republicans have really taken that fact in, perhaps because it is hard to imagine in a nation that has been run by a white majority for centuries. But it’s happening, and evidence of the implications of this were even present in the last election. While some commentators like to pretend that Obama’s election is indicative of the fact that we’re past “all the racial stuff”, the reality is that most whites did not vote for Obama. It took a multiracial coalition of African Americans, Latino/as, Asian Americans, and a small but important minority of whites to get Obama into the White House. Ultimately, however, he won without the support of most whites, because there are finally enough Americans of color to have a significant, determining impact on electoral outcomes. Had Obama not had the foresight to appeal to a broad variety of racial groups, we would be dealing with President McCain and Vice President “I Can See Russia From My House” right now. Republicans would do well to think about how this dynamic plays into their “more moderate or more conservative” dilemma.

What I think it means is that if they want to “stick to their roots,” that in itself needs to involve a fundamental paradigm shift. Of late, the Republican roots haven’t just been small government and tax cuts, those roots have also included appealing to white racism and demonizing groups of color. Even though he broke with his party to champion immigration reform, McCain paid the price for his party’s thinly veiled anti-Latino/a sentiment when they went decisively for Obama. If Republicans want to stay relevant in an America that looks less and less like their base, they need to consider strategies that will endear them to the voters they’ve been excluding from that base. Suggesting that these voters carry swine flu or are responsible for the housing crisis is not the way to do this.

This does mean Republicans will have to make some changes that will probably be painful for them. They can’t just do what has been comfortable in the past, like appealing to those charming folks who show up at their rallies with sock puppets that suggest Obama looks like a monkey. If Republicans want to stay a viable political party, it is time to drop the racist ideology, language, and imagery that has too often been a part of their “core values.” This alienates voters of color that they will need if they want to win at a national level. If Republicans really believe in small government, they should think about how they can make that commitment appealing to growing, important sectors of the population whose primary concerns may be to immigrate safely and easily, find work, go to good schools, and get affordable health care. If they really want low taxes, they should consider how that can win them votes from the many black women who work in low-paying jobs and struggle to find affordable child care. Instead of working themselves into a frenzy over the president’s preference for Dijon mustard (I’m talking to you, Sean Hannity!), Republicans would be better served putting serious thought into how those core principles they tout can be put to use to attract segments of the electorate that they have derided, but now need to reach, if they want to remain relevant. This may well lose them the base they have cultivated, but it might buy them a newer, more expansive base that can actually get them elected. In an America that is growing increasingly multiracial, there is no other way to win at a national level. Unless Republicans acknowledge this (other) elephant in the room, they will continue having the wrong discussion and missing the big picture.

John Brown’s 209th Birthday: Whites against Systemic Racism

225px-john_brown_abo(Source: Wikipedia)

John Brown, the fiery white abolitionist and anti-racist was born on this day, in 1800. Virtually all historians and analysts who have dealt seriously with Brown have accented his militant actions against U.S. slavery. Yet Brown was also a man of ideas–in the long tradition of thinkers who have articulated the great ideals of freedom, justice, equality, and human rights.

In the West one of the first major thinkers in this freedom-loving tradition was the English figure, John Locke, who had an influence on the thought of North America’s influential philosopher of freedom, Thomas Jefferson. Yet both Locke and Jefferson were heavilyg involved in and supportive of the anti-freedom slavery system. While white Europeans like Jean-Jacques Rousseau articulated strong critiques of slavery, before Brown no other white Americans had lent their pens, in a major way, to the effort for the destruction of slavery. Brown presented his ideas in letters, circulars, agreements, and interviews. There he often uses phrases like “struggle for liberty,” “friends of freedom,” and “lovers of liberty and human rights,” placing himself squarely in the tradition of radical theorists of democracy. Brown goes well beyond the ideas of virtually all the white thinkers of his day by extending the ideas of freedom and human rights to enslaved African Americans.

Brown drew in part on the European and American tradition of freedom and equality. Mostly self-taught, he was an avid reader and visited many northern and border state areas and traveled to Europe to study revolutionary movements. In his “Words of Advice, Branch of the United States League of Gileadites” (1851), a statement in support of an underground self-defense organization of African Americans in Massachusetts, he shows his knowledge of struggles of the Greeks against the Turks, the Poles against the Russians, and the Hungarians against Russia. Some years later, while waiting to attack Harper’s Ferry, Brown and his men would discuss philosophy and religion, including the works of Tom Paine. (For details, documents, and photos, see this important book edited and prepared by Jean Libby.)

Brown was not a loner isolated in his thoughts and actions. He was very much in contact with other white and black abolitionists. He did not act in private. He contributed articles and letters to newspapers, wrote constitutions and declarations on freedom and liberty, and gave many articulate speeches on these topics. In the late 1840s Brown even funded the republication of free African American David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, as well as the formerly enslaved African American Henry H. Garnet’s “Call to Rebellion.”

These were likely the first two U.S. manifestos systematically and in detail articulating the extreme oppression of slavery and calling for the liberation of enslaved African Americans. Unlike other white abolitionists, Brown had close social interactions with numerous African Americans, inviting them to his home and going to theirs. In his pioneering biography of Brown, the great scholar W. E. B. Du Bois gave him this epitaph: “John Brown worked not simply for Black Men – he worked with them; he was a companion of their daily life, knew their faults and virtues, and felt, as few white Americans have felt, the bitter tragedy of their lot. . . . the man who of all Americans has perhaps come the nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.”

In May 1858, Brown and some black and white allies convened in Chatham, Canada, to adopt a new constitution to govern the revolutionaries fighting against slavery. The preamble to the Constitution, drafted by Brown, read as follows: “Whereas slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked and unjustifiable War of one portion of its citizens upon another portion; the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination; in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence; Therefore, we, citizens of the United States, and the oppressed people . . . do, for the time being, ordain and establish ourselves the following provisional constitution and ordinances, the better to protect our persons, property, lives, and liberties, and to govern our actions.”

Human rights are central to Brown’s thinking. In his writings he often mentions the “natural and inalienable rights” necessary for all Americans. In 1858 he seems to have drafted, possibly with the help of an associate, a “Declaration of Liberty by the Representatives of the Slave Population of the United States of America,” on behalf of enslaved African Americans. He had this Declaration and his Constitution on his person when he was captured at Harper’s Ferry. It was intended to be distributed to the white South. (See here on the Chatham convention)

Brown saw beyond the moral and political strategies of the abolitionists to the need for more aggressive, armed actions against the brutal system of slavery and the governments that upheld it. Thus, he organized a major raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, with the goal of arming enslaved African Americans to pursue guerilla warfare against the totalitarian slavery system on which this country was founded. Once caught, he continued to assert his ideas on freedom and liberty.

At his November 2, 1859 address to the court that sentenced him to death for the Harper’s Ferry raid, Brown spoke of the golden rule guiding him to speak and work for the “despised poor” and of his commitment to “forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice” and to mingle his blood with “the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments.” Does this sound like the “wild” and “crazy” man that we are taught about in school?

And where is his big monument in DC? Where is that monument to all those, black and white, who fought bravely against the 246-year-old slavery system?