Fit and frictions of the American dream:
black liberation beyond ‘Black Lives Matter’

Maya John

The public outrage and massive demonstrations post the killing of the 46-year old African American, George Floyd, by Minneapolis (Minnesota, USA) police officers, have been closely watched around the world. The protests have galvanized spontaneous active support of individuals from various racial communities as well from the cadre of a wide range of Left and community organizations around the most visible slogan “Black Lives Matter”. The demonstrations are far more than a mere reaction to racist police brutalities. They are symptomatic of the widespread discontent resulting from the current as well as inherited economic deprivation of African Americans. Evidently, the current deprivation is closely linked to the fact that America’s poor; the majority of whom are ‘blacks’, native Americans, Hispanic and Asian-origin migrants, have been bearing the disproportionate brunt of the racial discrimination, stigmatization and economic vulnerability reproduced by the pandemic-cum-lockdown.   

African Americans and native Americans constitute the largest component of the country’s poor. The majority of African Americans are condemned to substandard housing in areas neglected by local authorities. Public housing projects in Chicago, Baltimore and South Bronx, for instance, have reported alarming conditions of water supply shortage during the epidemic – a bitter irony, considering the vigilante hand-washing demanded by the Covid-19 pandemic. Moreover, African Americans have undergone massive job losses during the lockdown, given their concentration in the badly-hit services industry. It is no coincidence that George Floyd lost his job as a bouncer to join the ranks of the 40 million and more unemployed since March 2020.

African Americans are also the community from which the highest numbers of Covid-19 cases are being reported. Indeed, several government and news reports go to show that in comparison to their actual proportion in the overall population of many states, a disproportionate number of African Americans are contracting and dying of the disease. In Michigan, for instance, African Americans make up 14% of the state’s population, but they account for 33% of its reported infections and 40% of its deaths. In Minnesota where African Americans represent only 7% of the population, nearly 16% Covid-19 cases are attributed to them. Similarly, the virus has shaken African Americans in Chicago, who account for 52% of the city’s confirmed cases and a startling 72% of deaths, which is way above their proportion of the city’s population. This disproportionate share in Covid-19 deaths is due to the concentration of African Americans in essential public-dealing industries such as retail, mass transit and food preparation, and because many African  Americans do not have access to adequate sick leave in their workplaces, health insurance, and therefore, equitable access to healthcare.

The mass anger and pent up frustration within the community has yet again reached a breaking point, and the subsequent agitations in response to persistent, violent policing embody the long-standing opposition to the neglect of welfare measures. While it is true that compared to western European countries the American government’s spending on welfare schemes has been less, when compared to other countries the American state’s welfare programs are more expansive. However, recent years have seen the growth of austerity measures and a corresponding cut-back in welfare expenditure by the federal, state and local governments in America. Despite these cut-backs in welfare programs, the state continues to spend huge amounts on repressive community policing which has been used to contain the rampant problems associated with unemployment, poverty and homelessness to specific geographical areas, and is geared towards massive incarceration for petty crimes. Figures from Jordon Camp and Christina Heatherton’s book, Policing the Planet, show that in Los Angeles, expenditure on policing is $3 billion of the $10 billion-dollar general budget. In New York, the $5 billion channelized for policing is more than the funds devoted to housing, youth, homelessness, and health services combined. Expectedly, such skewed resource allocation, has created an explosive situation in the context of hardships borne due to the lockdown. It is not uncommon to find protesters arguing that harsh community policing and consolidation of the carceral state are aimed at defending the property, privilege and power of the wealthy.

Stolen land, stolen labour: the myth of the American dream
The immediate context of economic deprivation, stigmatization, and resulting discontent has a longer history. Racism in America today stands firmly on the inherited inequalities that have been traced back to the heydays of slavery. America was built on land stolen from native communities and using slave labour of people stolen from their lands in Africa. After the genocidal clearing of the land of its native population, European settlers used slavery to keep plantation cultivation and businesses profitable. Racism was a direct by-product of the settler and plantation economy.

With the formal abolition of slavery in America and the corresponding assertion of rights by the black community, alternative mechanisms of segregation, low wages and exploitative work relations were evolved by white supremacists who had influence on local governance. Thus, from the 1870s and 1880s a set of local and state-level laws, known as the ‘Jim Crow laws’, were enacted. The Jim Crow laws and constitutional provisions disenfranchised blacks, criminalized inter-racial marriages/sexual relations, and mandated racial segregation of public (state-funded) schools, public places and public transportation. The laws also mandated the racial segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains. There was similar segregation in the military and in 1913 racial segregation was also introduced in federal workplaces. These officially persisted till 1965. 

In spite of the eventual roll-back of ‘Jim Crow laws’ and removal of restrictions on the voting rights of African Americans in 1965, the majority of African Americans remain trapped by poverty. Their poverty is an outcome of inherited inequalities and these inequalities have been consistently reproduced in the process of the transformation of the already anaemic American welfare state to a post-welfare punitive state that has vigorously pushed through ‘neoliberal’ structural adjustment policies. Consequently, in this devoutly capitalist country, African Americans remain disproportionately poor with more than 20% living in poverty, which is twice the rate of white Americans. Even after the repeal of the ‘Jim Crow laws’ and the rise of a section of blacks within the ranks of the ruling elite, the median black household wealth, nationwide, is barely one-tenth that of white households, just as it was in the 1960s.

The persistently high levels of destitution among African Americans and other racial minorities is constant proof of the hollowness of the ‘great’ American dream. The ‘great’ American dream is the projection of American society as being based on the ethos centered on the supposed ideals of democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality. This dream perpetuates the image of America as a land of social upward mobility for those who are willing to work hard and innovate. The basic premise of the American dream stands in sharp contrast to entrenched class and racial inequalities that cripple the chances of upward mobility. As aptly put by the stand-up comedian, George Carlin, “…it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it.”

Abstracted from the class and racially-divided structure of capitalist America, and divested of its history of racial inequality, plunder and genocide that can be traced back to the formative period of European settlement, the ‘great’ American dream continues to lure and co-opt many from within the oppressed community of African Americans. Materially distanced from economic hardships, the African American elite and the upward-mobile middle class have induced a deep sleep of the kind that Carlin hints at. These upper segments of the black community perpetuate the American dream, and as a result, consciously evade the question of how the pervasive inequality is a product of the capitalist economic system itself. Correspondingly, they project racism merely as a regressive mentality that acts as an obstacle to the realization of an otherwise achievable dream. Abstracted of its economic embeddedness or the materiality of oppression that is embodied in the rampant poverty and criminalization of the poor, racism is reduced to something merely cultural. Made out to be an ideological, cultural hangover, it is easy to showcase racism as a problem in itself rather than a symptom of the systemic inequality nurtured by capitalism.

The blunting of the critique of the American capitalist system within the anti-racism movement, and essentially, the distancing of the race question from the fundamental question of creating a new social and economic order, has been a major fault-line around which schisms have surfaced within the anti-racism movement since the very beginning of the 20th century up to our recent times. While a strong left-wing tendency amongst blacks can continuously be seen from the early 20th century there emerged a section of black elites and a middle class that advocated support for the capitalist economic order. One can draw attention to the early 20th century when anti-racism was visibly divided along the lines of the radical black working-class movement which espoused the cause of international socialism and the nascent forms of so-called black capitalism and emerging support for it among intellectuals-cum-entrepreneurs like Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Oscar Micheaux, etc. The black entrepreneur and community leader, Marcus Garvey, argued that black Americans should be self-reliant and proactively establish infrastructure, institutions and local economies rather than expect these to be provided by the post-reconstruction American government. His views on black racial pride even allowed him to collaborate with white racists in the Ku Klux Klan in order to advance their shared interest in racial separatism. As one of the key proponents of African-American businesses, and a founding member of the National Negro Business League, Booker T. Washington advocated the progress of the black community not by directly challenging the ‘Jim Crow’ segregation and disenfranchisement of black voters in the South, but by prioritizing education and entrepreneurship, which were ultimately avenues of upward mobility open only to some African Americans. Likewise, the uncritical reproduction of the American dream is well reflected in the writings and films of the first African American film producer, Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux’s work emphasized the need for blacks to look beyond the victimization and hopelessness that confronted them, and to inculcate the culture of doers who seek to be pioneers and fearlessly accomplish what they are denied. Essentially, Micheaux used his art to assert that blacks could transcend racial inequalities and earn economic success through their individual diligence and perseverance.

Likewise, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was also splintered along the lines of those who worked within the logic of individualism engrained in the American dream and those who strove to move beyond it while envisaging a new socio-economic system. Importantly, the 1960s witnessed the ‘take off’ of so-called black capitalism in America with the Nixon administration winning over many black leaders to the cause of black entrepreneurship, ‘independence’ in place of the alleged habit of dependence on welfare, and last but not the least, ‘personal responsibility’. Black politics in support of such maneuverings ultimately reinforced the basic premise of the sterile American dream  that success or failure is essentially a matter of individual responsibility. The demand for welfare measures was increasingly categorized as ‘dependency’, while “black enterprise” built on no such assistance from the state was categorized and celebrated as the assertion of ‘black pride’ and ‘independence’. Expectedly, the political dividends of ‘black capitalism’ were significant in terms of sustaining the support of white voters, and in terms of curbing the radical demands of the black community for land, reparations, as well as the demand for political sovereignty put forth by African American separatists. Of course, these political dividends came at little cost to Nixonian and successive governments, and these in fact easily fitted into the logic of free-market capitalism.

The emergence of so-called black capitalism has seen distinct class stratification within the African American community. The process led to the rise of a small upward-mobile middle class and opportunistic politicians from within the ranks of the black community. These segments have tended to showcase the black community’s grievances, particularly those of the impoverished working-class component, to negotiate and wrest concessions to the comparative advantage of their own segments within the community. These upper segments of the black community have perpetuated notions of self-reliance, personal responsibility, individual effort, and merit so integral to the class and race-sanitized American dream. The politics of winning concessions within the given capitalist system has rarely transformed the plight of the African American masses, has failed to resolve the pressing issues of working-class African Americans, and has simply propelled opportunistic politicians and an articulate middle class to a position of dominance by which they can easily capture the political imagination of the entire African American community.

The elites and upward-mobile middle class within African Americans have sought to translate their economic status into political dividends. In place of membership-based mass organizations, they resort to funding networks of social work, community projects, research and advocacy, and narrow single issue-based campaigns. This politics of funding for community work is a form of intervention that provides the upper strata of African Americans a firm foothold in the community to sustain their hegemony, and to use this as leverage for entry into the higher echelons of politics. The aspirations of these upper segments of the black community fuel the tendency within the anti-racism movement which typically preoccupies itself with the politics of representation of the community within the ranks of the ruling elite. It is assumed that representation of racial diversity in the corridors of power is the solution to the engrained inequality that is part of an average black (wo)man’s life. Riding the wave of this tendency, African American mayors, senators, and finally even a President have become an intrinsic part of the American polity.

False promises: the myth of black representation
Barack Hussein Obama, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, took charge as the 44th President of America in 2009 and held the position till 2017. Before becoming the first African American President of the country, Obama enjoyed an illustrious political career as a senator from Illinois. He has and continues to imbibe the principles of the American dream in no uncertain terms as is evident from his book, titled The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. The book was a part of his run up to the presidential election, being released barely three months before his official announcement of contesting for the position. The book essentially captured many of the issues that became part of his election campaign, and interestingly gained the endorsement of the black billionaire and media mogul, Oprah Winfrey. Selling dreams to the black community, Obama chose his words and tread ground carefully by raising issues in a form that would not antagonize corporate interests. As President, Obama while repackaging the tenets of ‘black capitalism’ in a racially neutralized language of “community capitalism”, “niche banks”, “enterprise zones”, etc., to avoid opposition from white racists, also consistently perpetuated the class eliding ethos of ‘personal responsibility’ which emphasized the need for the African American community to look within so as to improve their lot. In his speeches and public addresses, Obama has many times spoken of the responsibilities of parents in the bringing up of children, and has consequently often used the trope of the missing black father who should have done more. Ironcially, in a context where many black fathers are languishing in jail, such gestures easily smacks of victim blaming.

The opportunistic status-quoist politics of former President Barack Obama has also been revealed in the disturbing collective amnesia he has inculcated when in office. In his speech in the Indian Parliament on 8 November 2010, President Obama’s opening statement was: “I bring the greetings and friendship of the world's oldest democracy-the USA…” [Emphasis added]. One wonders how the former President, who traces his origins to the African American community and proclaims to be a representative of its interests, could lie to the world publicly about America’s history and conceal the fact that it was only in the mid-1960s that restrictions on the voting rights of African Americans and segregation laws were done away with. Needless to say, the rampant social and economic inequalities within America continue to expose the hollowness of American democracy.

It has been easy for the former President Barack Obama and his creed to harp on the failures of preceding and successor governments. This is not to discount the fact that with the coming to power of the racist bigot Donald Trump, organizations of white supremacists have, indeed, been emboldened and racial conflicts have markedly intensified. Nevertheless, the track record of governmental policies and the pervasive discrimination of the African American community during Obama’s eight-year presidential tenure point to an uncomfortable truth. For one, racism did not ebb with an African American as Head of State, and the approach of the presidency towards persistent killings of unarmed African Americans and other oppressed minorities marked no distinct departure from tokenism. Obama abided by the established principles of the office of the American presidency and continued to portray the supposed infallibility of American ‘democracy’ whilst maintaining status quo. After the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, it took President Obama a month to formally address the issue. Playing on emotions and the analogy of family, his carefully chosen words, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon", translated into precious little as police brutalities and stigmatization of African Americans persisted unabated. Because of the lopsided juridical system justice was denied to Trayvon’s family, and when people grew agitated and demanded proper reforms in the police and juridical system, Obama responded using his oft-repeated expression, “We are a nation of laws.” Needless to say, as a person heading the system he could not have posed the question of whose law was it anyway. Given this background, the emotional address of Barack Obama on 3 June 2020 in response to the radical anti-racism agitations post George Floyd’s killing almost amounted to him saying racism is bad if he is not the president!

It is important to remember that the campaign rallying around the slogan “Black Lives Matter” actually emerged during the tenure of Obama, representing brimming frustration with the persistence of a carceral state tolerant of racism, despite there being a ‘coloured’ President. In 2014 the unfortunate killing of Michael Brown in the town of Ferguson led to spirited protests, which Obama sought to placate with the constitution of a task force to examine police practices. The task force’s recommendations were a mixed bag of progressive and status quo measures that were centered on the concept of enhancing ‘trust’ between citizens and law enforcement agencies. The overall mild thrust of the measures and their relatively half-hearted implementation by state governments elicited disappointment and criticism from activists. One of the major recommendations drew on the provisions of the 1994 Law Enforcement Misconduct Act which allows the federal government to sue local police agencies for indulging in patterns and practices of unconstitutional policing. Using this statute, fourteen consent decrees or court-enforced agreements were forged between the Justice Department and local police to implement reforms. Implementation remained weak at the local level and the recommendations quickly lost their significance with the Trump administration drastically curtailing the enforcement of the consent decrees and refusing to introduce new ones.

Disappointed by the political top brass of the Democratic Party, one of the important activists of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaigns, Alicia Garza, is known to have observed that the Party uses blacks for votes, doing precious little for them once in power. Garza forgot to add that apart from opportunistic politicians like the Clintons, Obamas, etc., African American capitalists are also complicit in the exploitation and oppression of the black community through their stake in keeping the capitalist system intact.

The often-celebrated Obama presidency has represented amongst the most militaristic, imperial presidencies of the country; indicating the enhanced oppression of vulnerable communities in other parts of the world. Ironically, the era of an African American as head of state was one in which American imperialist warfare was extended from Afghanistan and Iraq to many more countries. These included Syria, Libya, Somalia, as well as proxy interventions in Yemen and Pakistan. Shockingly, in comparison to the 70,000 bombs and missiles sanctioned by his war-mongering predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama sanctioned the use of nearly 100,000 bombs and missiles against defenseless targets in seven countries, in addition to hundreds of drone attacks in the Middle-East, and unabashed regime-change operations in the post-war context, in Libya (2011) and Ukraine (2014).

Clearly, within the ranks of the elite and the affluent, upward-mobile section of the African American community there exists an entire brand of status quo politics which intertwines with imperialist interests. The co-option is part of a longer tenuous history behind the construction of America’s hegemony over worldwide capitalist accumulation. Turning the pages of American history, an uncomfortable truth resonates about the investment of the more affluent African Americans in imperialist expansion. It is a fact that their claims to equality have often been mediated through patriotic projections of blacks ‘defending’ America, enlisting in the armed forces and fighting shoulder to shoulder with the whites. Such co-option within the politics of ‘respectability’ and the prevailing notion of proving one’s worth through loyalty to the empire became first clearly evident in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The war led to America’s acquisition of Spain’s Pacific possessions, and eventually, to the emergence of American predominance in the Caribbean region as well as the consolidation of American monopoly business interests in Cuba’s sugar market. At the time, a section of the black press, representing the voice of the newly emerging elites within the black community, celebrated America’s intervention in the freedom struggle waged by the Cubans against imperial Spain. While questioning the discrimination in the armed forces that disallowed blacks from rising to positions of military officers, such newspapers spoke eloquently of black loyalty to America. Note for example the following report in the Washington Bee, a weekly newspaper read mostly by African Americans and published by the African American lawyer-journalist, William Calvin Chase:

“The thousands of patriotic Americans of Caucasian blood who are willing to go to war will be supplemented by thousands of colored men who will vie with them in patriotism and bravery on the field of battle. If he is given but a fair show, the colored volunteer will put up as bold and solid a front and capture as many flags and men as a given number of his white compatriots will dare do.” (26 February, 1898) [Emphasis added]

A similar espousal of the politics of respectability, and the assertion from within upper segments of the African American community that blacks were no less patriotic than white Americans can be traced to different 20th century imperialist wars waged by America in the bid to assert her hegemony on the world. There hence remained a long-standing trend to promote black conscription in the army. During the Cold War period of military conflicts like the Vietnam War and Korean War, as well as in recent years, conscription patterns in the armed forces reveal the disproportionate representation of African Americans. Recent data points to the fact that even though blacks represent roughly 13% of the American population they constitute roughly 17% to 18% of the armed forces.     

Beyond empire: the black movement at a crossroad
It is an uncontested fact that majority of African Americans have and continue to face the brunt of racism, and that the majority of the community is part of America’s working class. Due to the inequality they have inherited – which is repeatedly reproduced by the anti-poor policies of successive governments – the black labouring poor represent the overexploited segment of America’s working class. Having said this, the American working class is comparatively better paid and better placed in terms of social security in contrast to the working class in several other parts of the world. Thus, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and native-American segments of the American working class, though overexploited within the American labour market, are relatively better positioned than the overexploited segments of the working class in Africa, Bangladesh, India, the Middle-East, etc. It is therefore important to factor in the relative prosperity of America on a world scale, for it is within the larger dynamics of America’s privileged position in the circuit of worldwide accumulation that we can better comprehend the long-term outcomes of the anti-racism movement.

America’s dominance in the world economy is evident in her disproportionate access to the world’s resources in spite of her small population. Constituting anywhere between a mere 4% to 5% of the overall world population, America consumes up to one-third of the world’s paper, one-fourth of the world’s crude oil, 23% of the world’s coal, 27% of the world’s aluminum, and so forth. American economic dominance is also reflected in the fact that despite the slowing down of her economy and the continuous fall in her share of the global GDP from roughly 37% in 1969 to 21.4% in 2019, she continues to dominate many of the key sectors of international economic activity. According to an insightful study by Sean K. Starrs on recent trends within the globalized capitalist production, with a share of 22% in the global GDP in 2015, the proportion of American millionaires and total household wealth was approximately 42% and 41%, respectively, of world totals. The study pointed to the fact that American corporates continue to dominate key sectors like aerospace and defense, chemicals, electronics, financial services, heavy machinery, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals and personal care, and computer hardware and software. A share of America’s corporate profits is accrued by black capitalists and also by the upward-mobile black middle class in the form of high salaries, returns on share market investments, etc. 

Furthermore, it is important to reckon with the fact that almost all the oil sales worldwide are transacted in the US dollar (USD), which makes USD the most dominant reserve currency, allowing it to de facto acquire a status of an international currency. Since the 1970s there has been an agreement with the oil-rich Saudi Arabia for oil sales exclusively in USD, in return for military protection. By 1975 all countries which were part of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had reached similar agreements to price oil exclusively in USD and to invest surplus oil proceeds in the American government’s debt securities. In exchange, America extended military protection to these OPEC countries. Such developments have expectedly culminated in the consistent international demand for the USD, irrespective of the economic health of America. The American government gains huge revenues through seigniorage. Issuing treasury bonds at lower rates allows the American government to maintain a higher budgetary deficit. Further, a stronger USD has also meant that commodities imported into America are relatively cheaper while those exported from America are more expensive for purchasing countries. Taken together, the hegemony of the dollar–treasury nexus has contributed in a major way towards America’s dominance in several international financial institutions.

America’s military and economic capabilities remain formidable, and these in turn have provided the country an unusual capacity to maintain and control the value of the dollar as an international currency. As a result, the American government has been able to avoid the severest of austerity policies at home. This is precisely the template through which the American domestic economy is linked to the rhythms of international accumulation and dominance. Due to these interconnections, successive American governments have maintained a comparatively higher level of social security measures without encroaching upon capitalist profit even in conditions of increasing public deficit and mounting public debt. 

However, America’s worldwide hegemony stands increasingly contested. For one, the decades post the Cold War have not produced a unipolar world in which America can effortlessly exercise a hegemonic position and continue demanding the lion’s share in worldwide capitalist accumulation. The collapse of the Soviet bloc has been followed by the emergence of different competing regional blocs that seek to bypass American supremacy in international agencies that have been used to control finance and governance at the world level. American capital has consequently had to increasingly compete and share the spoils of worldwide capitalist accumulation. Secondly, restructuring of capitalist production within ‘First world’ countries, including the continuous relocation of capitalist production from the heart of America to other parts of the world, and the resulting emergence of long, globalized supply chains in recent years, have meant that the profits of capitalist accumulation can no longer be transferred to the metropole (America) in the same quantum since these profits are increasingly to be shared with layers of local magnates positioned within globalized capitalist production system.

The mounting contestation of American hegemony on worldwide accumulation is clearly reflected in the expensive battles it has been waging since the early 2000s to keep its hegemony intact. In order to maintain the dollar’s hegemony in the oil trade, America has been drawn more and more into expensive military operations. In fact, sagging production, inflation, etc. have plagued the American economy acutely since the beginning of the 21st century, propelling America to maintain its financial and military dominance by furiously intervening in several regions of the world. Under the cover of ‘war against terrorism’, America launched military operations against Afghanistan in 2001. In 2003, accusing Iraq of allegedly stockpiling ‘weapons of mass destruction’, America invaded the country and displaced the then Saddam Hussein government. There have been numerous other overt and lengthy military interventions, as well as covert regime change operations; all of which have been costly affairs. As per a 2015 estimate the total cost to simply maintain military bases outside America was approximately $100 billion a year. The country remains embroiled in the local turmoil of many countries where it has intervened, and is unable to disentangle itself without further loss of its hegemony. To meet the rising expenses, America has increasingly been asking its ‘allies’ to cough up more financial assistance for maintaining military bases across the world. It has also been demanding that they contribute a greater share towards military interventions. The current Trump administration’s aggressive demands from America’s military allies are part and parcel of this unfolding situation. The fact that America’s allies are not so forthcoming in meeting such demands is further proof of the steady erosion of America’s world hegemony.

Intertwined with the growing contestation of America’s hegemony, on the domestic front there has been a general rise of inequality within the American population. In fact, inequality is at a record high according to the 2018 data of the US Census Bureau. The inequality in income levels and purchasing power is mitigated to a certain extent by state taxes and the expenditure on welfare provisions. However, the possibility of consistent cut-backs in state welfare programs and the resulting growth in inequality looms large in a scenario where America’s hegemony on worldwide capitalist accumulation is increasingly contested. It is also worth noting the marked increase in inequality within the African American community. Recent research has reported growing disparities between the top fifth and the bottom fifth segments of African Americans. The inequality between the upper most strata and the working-class segment of the black community is not only with respect to income levels and occupational status, but is also quantifiable in terms of educational opportunities and victimhood by violence.

Undeniably, as part of the overexploited segment of the American working class, the black labouring poor stand in stark contrast to the affluent upper-class segment of the black community. Importantly, such intra-community intensification of class stratification is reported to be much higher within the black community than within the white community. We must also reckon with the fact that in the ensuing slowing down of the American economy and the regular flight of capital to offshore locations, sections of white workers are increasingly finding it difficult to defend their premium (higher) wages. Considering these conditions, there emerges a greater possibility of inter-racial working-class solidarity in the near future.  

The overall unfolding situation highlights a crucial fact, which is that the ability of the oppressed black community to wrest opportunities for better education, employment, housing, etc. depends on either the capacity of America to maintain its world hegemony and thus avoid further austerity measures, or on the American state’s encroachment on corporate profits in order to provide for expansive welfare programs. Given that America’s dominance in the world will be further contested, it is the state’s encroachment on corporate profits which becomes a necessity. Without being forced into such action, the propensity for enhanced austerity measures will simply grow. For the oppressed African American community this would be catastrophic, to say the least. The labouring poor within the African American community are already trapped within conditions of economic deprivation that keep reproducing racial inequality. Their poverty and the consequent exposure to racism are linked to the existing labour market and to marked educational and housing inequalities. The majority within the black community is either falling prey to unemployment or is concentrated in stigmatized and racially branded occupations.

Their disadvantaged position within the labour market is itself a product of poor schooling imparted in neighbourhood schools. Tied down to ghettoized neighbourhoods characterized by poor housing facilities, and reeling under financial difficulties, black students are dependent on a skewed public (government) schooling system which is grossly under-funded. Public (government) schools are dependent on local taxes, mostly property taxes, which constitute half of the funds extended to the school boards for further disbursal. Considering this fact, the public schooling system creates large funding differences between schools in wealthier districts and those located in impoverished black neighbourhoods. Divested of adequate funds, better teachers, as well as other resources, public schools in black neighbourhoods struggle to provide quality education. High drop-out rates are not uncommon in these schools, and many black youth fall prey to crimes from which there is often no point of return. For the section of youth who manage to complete schooling, the poor quality of education imparted fails to equip them for better employment opportunities, leading to their entrapment in low paying, stigmatized occupations that simply boosts the racial stereotyping of the community. Together, the lack of access to quality education, housing, and better employment opportunities has been breeding a vicious cycle of poverty within the black community. A byproduct of this poverty is drug abuse, drug peddling, rising crime, etc., which have been used to justify harsh forms of community policing, and have paved the extensive criminalization of African Americans by the police and judicial system.

Unwilling to break with the status quo by encroaching on corporate profits, the American state has and will continue to prioritize severe policing and incarceration as a ‘solution’. Picking on this skewed focus on policing practices, the anti-racism movement has come to be centered on issues like the criminalization of poverty, enhanced citizen–police conflicts, de-carceration, police reforms, etc. These issues, though important, are the mere symptoms of the larger malaise. To win over the actual disease and to break away from the vicious cycle of their oppression, the African American community requires nothing short of greater access to education, proper housing, and gainful employment. These require the American state to roll-back austerity measures, and for this the movement against racism has to compel the state to encroach upon corporate profits. However, the movement needs to address the question of inequality not only through the lens of skewed state welfare.

It is a fact that the low wages accrued by black workers in the labour market has been mitigated by state welfare provisions, which facilitate a higher spending capacity than what one’s low wages would actually allow. However, with the steady cut-backs in state welfare expenditure such shock-absorbing provisions are reducing; propelling the current unrest and trenchant criticism of the state’s funding policy by the popular movement. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that the income disparity and corresponding reproduction of racial discrimination is simply mitigated, not eliminated by state welfare measures. Neither can we overlook the fact that the source of economic deprivation lies not only in the recent austerity measures but is alsolinked to rampant exploitation in the existing labour market. For the mitigation and eventual elimination of income disparity that reproduces racism it is then important to bring to the forefront the contradiction of interests between black workers and their employers. The question  of low wages and other contradictions informing the relations of waged work is crucial for black workers.  The raising of such issues have the propensity to reveal the proximity of interests that often cut across community lines and are embodied in a shared working-class position. Without raising the economic issues of the majority of the black community the ultimate annihilation of racism is impossible. Further, the economic struggle of the racially oppressed labouring poor cannot be raised in isolation, as a part apart, from the rest of the workers. Their economic struggle can only be waged successfully with widest possible unity with other exploited workers. For a sustainable anti-systemic movement to materialize it is then imperative for struggling African American workers to forge multi-racial working-class solidarities. The struggle against corporate profits and for redistribution of wealth requires that the oppressed black community, particularly its working-class component, brings conscious class struggle back into the American polity. 

In the current conjuncture of contested American hegemony, the slowing down of the American economy, growing threat of an even larger number of austerity measures, and widening disparities within racial communities, it is in the objective interest of the majority in the black community to launch a conscious class struggle. This struggle requires that the black labouring poor combine forces with all economically exploited and racially oppressed workers who together constitute the American working class, and with oppressed masses beyond American shores. The words of the German revolutionary thinker, Karl Marx, come to mind. Addressing the question of race and working-class struggle, he claimed that, “Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded” (Capital, Vol. I). In the current conditions of the 21st century, it would not be inappropriate to argue that labour in black skin cannot emancipate itself from racial and other inequalities as long as labour in other skins continue to be exploited.

Dr. Maya John, Teaches in the University of Delhi and has been associated with the Left movement in India for the past two decades. She can be contacted on

Back to Home Page

Jun 16, 2020

Dr. Maya John 

Your Comment if any